Spending Time in Nature to Understand Death
On a recent visit with my 90-year-old grandfather, he told me that he receives two newspapers to the house daily. The first, because the contrast of the type is easier for his failing vision. The second has an extensive obituary section and he doesn’t want to miss the death of any of his friends and the opportunity to say his farewells.
When I went out for my first deer hunt this past season, I was hunting with the same family member, on the same property, and sitting in the same spot as last year when I killed one of the most memorable deer of my life. It hadn’t fully occurred to me in the midst of the morning’s preparations that when I sat down in my spot, I might be unexpectedly struck by the memory of that strangely unique combination of emotions associated with killing an animal and witnessing its death.
On February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and wife. To deal with his intense grief, Roosevelt left New York for the largely unsettled Dakotas. There, he immersed himself in cattle ranching, hunting, and studying nature. The wilds of the Dakotas became Roosevelt’s therapy, the immensity of the landscape perhaps teaching him about perspective, life, and death.
As if time remained frozen…
While Roosevelt’s experience might be one that land-use changes over the past 100 years and the patterns of modern life preclude from being a realistic option for us today, its symbolism is something that I imagine many of us can relate to. In the face of grief and loss, we seek understanding in nature. How many of us have sat by a lakeside, walked in a forest, stared at the sky to deal with the confusion, anger, or sadness of losing a loved one? Probably many of us.
“I hunted with him 35 of those years, one week each year without fail…Thirty-five weeks—shy of a full year—of deer hunting with him, though always at the same time of year so that in some ways it would, and did, seem as if time remained frozen, until it wasn’t, and didn’t.” – Rick Bass, The Old Ones
To anyone who has spent time alone in nature, the suggestion that these experiences present a distinct opportunity to confront personal loss will not be groundbreaking. Being in nature affords us time, generally in solitude, to think and reflect. By its nature, hunting nearly forces this upon us. I suspect that many hunters follow some similar patterns in the trajectory of our thoughts as we settle in for a hunt: was I quiet enough; did I sit in the right spot; I’m hungry; is that a deer or a tree stump; I have to pee; how will I die and what will I think about my experiences and the meaning of my life when that time comes?
Hunting is defined in large measure by the pursuit to actively and directly engage with death: it is and always has been at its most base level about killing. It is about far more, of course, but it is also about death. So it is natural that as our minds wander while out in the field, we almost invariably find ourselves confronting our feelings and understandings about death. In other cases, we might deliberately seek the solitude and reflective nature of hunting as a way to deliberately confront our feelings around some personal experience. In offering us time spent in quiet calmness, as well as the contributions that nature is uniquely qualified to make to our overall well-being, the hunting woods are an important, and appropriate, place to seek understanding about death.
…until it wasn’t, and didn’t.
A couple years ago, I found myself again reflecting on my own experiences with death and loss. Taken individually, the events of that year would not seem connected; cumulatively, however, they manifested into a peculiar and alternating combination of dark grief, regret, intense love, admiration, and an introspection about mortality. Among other things, our family felt the loss of my Grandmother, a tough woman with a quick sense of humour who graduated from law school in 1952 as the only woman in her graduating class. I also dealt with a difficult hunting experience that forced me to confront one of hunting’s unfortunate realities, during which I lost a wounded bear. I hope that this does not seem trivial in comparison to other human suffering and loss but hunters speak often about the relationship that is formed with an animal in the instant a shot is taken. I discovered that year that when that relationship is subsequently lost, there is a feeling of grief that accompanies the guilt.
Our ability – perhaps our curse – to emotionally and intellectually understand death is deeply ingrained in our genetics. For one reason or another, this quality has been selected for throughout the course of our evolution. Bonds of loyalty, love, and friendship have been a part of our evolution for many thousands of years. These qualities have allowed humans to survive hardship and thrive in new environments. In fact, without an emotional attachment to one another and feelings of grief when bonds are broken, human history would likely have looked very different.
It might seem obvious that any species that has survived this long on the planet has had to evolve the ability to avoid death; however, in modern human civilizations, we have devised quite clever strategies to separate ourselves from this evolutionary need. Our survival as individuals does not depend in any immediate sense on a daily avoidance of death and we insulate ourselves from the need to confront it emotionally. Nevertheless, it is also obvious that we cannot escape death. Our survival as families, communities, and a species causes the death of wildlife every day. Personally, we lose family, friends, and eventually face our own mortality. But we reflect on these things to varying degrees: some of us avoid these truths; some of us choose to face them head-on.
I have attended more funerals than I can count. I have lost people from my life due to old age, young age, sickness, and a range of untimely tragedies. So I have experienced the range of emotions that accompany dealing with death. At some point, I came to realize that hunting, and my time in the woods more generally, were ways for me to think about these larger themes of the human experience, to understand them better, and in some case, to learn how to move on from them.
Walk Into the Woods
Nature and wilderness settings offer something unique in our efforts to untangle our thoughts and emotions around death. The outdoors provides us with the opportunity to disconnect from the daily pressures of our lives and the constant demands of social media (during our waking hours, we will each check our phones roughly 150 times each day). There is no escaping the slowness of pace in the outdoors, the greater perspective on time that comes from the vastness of landscapes and the ability to watch them unfold in front of us.
Something that hunting and other forms of gathering food from the land specifically provide is the opportunity to reflect on our own role in the death of other living creatures. Death is an inevitable part of our participation in the process of producing or gathering food, whether meat, fruit, or vegetable. It is, of course, a serious thing to kill an animal and I am under no illusions about the death that is involved in successful hunts. I’m not ashamed when I kill an animal. It is by no means an emotionless act, but it’s not one I feel morally wrong doing. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in processes so innate to the natural world. I don’t shy away from the gravity of the historical and moral responsibilities that this participation entails. The way in which we conceptualize the ethics involved in killing is an important consideration as we engage in food gathering. The unique way these activities both force and allow us to confront our own humanity and mortality is one of their gifts.
Whether hunting, hiking, canoeing, birdwatching, or sitting on an urban park bench, nature has healing effects. It is by now well-known that nature experiences have positive benefits for human well-being, including factors such as disease, obesity, and mental illness. Through the course of our evolution, humans have been shaped physically, spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively through our connections with our environments. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that nature connectedness still has benefits that reach into the core of our DNA. Studies have also found that solitude can have positive benefits in reducing feelings of anger or anxiety. Other research has shown that simply seeing pictures of nature can help calm us and restore our emotional energy. Hunting provides us with these experiences and benefits.
What this all means to me then, is that time spent in nature can help us deal with the feelings we experience when we deal with the death of someone we love. I’m not so presumptuous as to claim that our grief will evaporate with a simple walk through the woods. Of course, it is not that simple and grief is deeply individual and complicated. However, it is true that spending some time in the woods offers unique benefits that are not provided elsewhere and in other settings. It offers perspective, solitude, time for reflection, and observation of ancient life and death processes. For me personally, I now seek out and long for my time in nature, particularly during hunting seasons. I use that time to its fullest extent and it has brought me comfort and understanding.
Who knows when the last hunt is? Rarely does anyone know.
Whether this is a blessing or not, I cannot say: only that we were in no way ready for him to leave without coming back, and that we will be talking about him, telling stories about him, for a long time yet to come, as he told stories about those, the Old Ones, who had been here before us.
– Rick Bass, The Old Ones