Searching for Connection: Learning to Hunt with Erin Kiley

erin skinning an animal hanging from rafters in outside pavilion

Erin Kiley is a grazier and grassland manager. For years she has found her connection to land and food through her work with cattle.

While that work is her passion, she wanted to deepen her connection with nature and wild places. She has chosen to become a hunter. Here, in her own words, she explains that decision and tells us of her first experiences along her path of learning to hunt.

I believe our connection to land is what defines us as humans. For most of us, the connection has been broken, or at least diluted, as we have become further removed from our hunter-gatherer heritage and surrendered the role we once played in growing our food. It leaves us seeking something, searching for a way to restore a sense of place that has been lost. That act of seeking manifests itself in different ways for everyone. For me, it is ranching. As a grazier and grassland manager, my personal connection to the land is made through careful grazing of livestock. By meticulously planning where and for what purpose to move stock, the cattle mimic a crucial role once filled by natural herds migrating across grasslands, acting to regenerate whole ecosystems, sequester carbon, cycle vegetation into our soils to improve fertility, reduce erosion across watersheds and restore healthy, wild habitat.

My work creates a deeply personal relationship with nature. To graze holistically, requires an intimate understanding of the land, of where it has been mistreated in the past, when to apply pressure, how the season affects growth, where the animals naturally gather. Over time, as I built a relationship with land, soil, animals, I began to learn about myself and I wanted to continue to learn more. I yearned to grow my relationship with the land and with nature beyond simply understanding and to become a participant. I don’t know what in my body or genes or subconscious called me to reconnect, but I chose to listen. I chose to learn to hunt.

whitetail deer antlers and jaw bones on table

I found an opportunity to deepen my connection at Human Nature Hunting School in Kettle Falls, Washington, a space of practice to hone skills and awareness around conscious hunting and to reawaken our innate human senses. I signed up for a spring course offering a holistic approach to learning how to hunt.

After spending an afternoon traveling northbound from Spokane on the Gold Line bus, I arrive at a log cabin situated in a wide meadow surrounded by fir-mottled hills and wilderness. The course founder, Bruce McGlenn, greets me; he has a casual posture about him, an easy laugh, and speaks in thoughtful cadence, intentional in choosing each word. He’s dressed in a subtle palette of natural canvas, dark wool and suspenders, which seems to offer a physical testimony on his sentiments toward hunting tradition. We’re joined by a dozen other course participants and instructors and a petite black labrador, Emma, in all her wiggling splendor.

Our first lesson is shooting a rifle. I straddle the bench of a picnic table, rest my elbow and forearm on a sandbag crafted from a cut-off Levi’s pant leg and smash my cheek hard up against the cool polished wood of the rifle stock. Looking through the scope with crosshairs centered on a paper target across the meadow, I feel anxiety creeping up from my belly. I uneasily readjust my fingers more times than I can count, trying to force the position to feel natural. I suck in air, push out half the breath, close one eye and squeeze the trigger with even pressure, imagining that my fingertip is a sweeping second hand on a wristwatch. The rifle fires; I hit paper, a couple inches right and high, but I feel relief and contentment instantly fill the space where nervousness had lived.

The next morning, Bruce offers to let me come along on a turkey hunt in the woods and pastures around his cabin. At our 4 a.m. wake-up call, I find Bruce standing at the kitchen sink holding a gallon of vanilla ice cream, forking out small bites and chasing them down with cold rhubarb crumble left over from last night’s supper. He silently passes me a fork and I muscle out a few frozen scoops from the carton. Breakfast of champions. We head outside to the back porch overlooking the shadowed meadow and pull on camouflaged ghillie suits. “That’s a good look on you,” he jokes. The sky is already filling with light and the forest is alive with warm sounds of grouse drumming, summoning dawn. As we walk through the trees, I marvel at Bruce’s silent steps as he misses sticks and snags on the forest floor that I inevitably snap as I follow. We stop where the edge of the firs meets a grass pasture demarcated by a rusty barbed-wire fence sagging slightly between cedar fence posts, and sit in the damp grass, protected from view in the overgrowth. Looking out across the field, the heat of the arriving day transforms the dew into a steamy dreamscape.

erin on a turkey hunt in grass field with camouflage on

Bruce asks me where I think my shooting range extends into the grass, and I start mentally framing the area for a good shot. I identify a rise in the pasture 30 yards out and trace an invisible line across to where the meadow gives way to the far treeline. I settle into the leaves, and Bruce hands me the Beretta 12-gauge. I attempt to bring the shotgun silently up to find the hollow in my shoulder. Every action, thought, decision in this moment feels unnatural and awkward; there is a constant imperceptible strain on my body and mind that comes with new experience. I like the discomfort of being in places I don’t really belong. I thrive on it. I think we become our best human selves through strife and struggle. There is timelessness in the struggle, in pushing ourselves mentally and physically to the threshold of suffering. I know the awkwardness is temporary and will dissipate as I practice these motions time and time again, until repetition and muscle memory provide the sweet relief of reflex. But until there is habit, until these motions become second nature, there is choice. And I’ve learned choice is my most powerful weapon. With every cell in my body, I choose this, I choose to hunt.

food prep with gathered herbs and mushrooms and meat being cut

To my utter disbelief, as we sit there in the sweet smell of pine needles hot from the sun, a hen turkey presents herself and timorously walks the imaginary line I’ve drawn in the field, her head softly jolting about and on high alert. The most meaningful connection I’ve made with an animal, and with myself, has been when working cattle; the energy held between us, the shared understanding when I use my body in the correct way to create movement in a cow is when I feel most alive. Through the new perspective of watching the turkey as a hunter, I discover the piece I’ve missed in relating to animals and to land. To more deeply connect, I needed nature to become something for me to breathe in, to put on, something to suffer and bleed for. Up until this moment I’ve fallen short in giving of my senses, my intuition, my energy, my fortitude, as offerings needed to fully engage with the land. What I’ve missed is the chase, the ancient desire for the pursuit. Watching the turkey out in the field, I feel what it is like to be wild. It took me a really long time, nearly three decades of life, but in the hunt, I finally recognize myself. In the hunt, I finally feel human.