There was a time not so long ago when a young woman like Kelly Maynard would participate in the annual protest of the deer hunt on Madison's Capitol Square.
For a decade or more on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, which is the opening of the nine-day gun deer season in Wisconsin, protestors would tie pillows wrapped in blaze orange jackets and pants onto their bumpers and parade around the Square. It was intended to mock the hunters of the time who would, in the days before SUVs, tie their prey to the front bumpers of their cars for transport to the butcher.
Maynard, who is 31, fits the mold of the hip, young east sider. She did a stint in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and now works for the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, an immigrant farmer coop, made up of mostly Hmong and Latino farmers. She came here to earn a master's degree in agroecology.
She also wants to kill a deer.
"Food production is pretty much my life," Maynard says. "Sustainable agriculture is what I live and breathe."
Maynard was part of a group of 20 aspiring hunters, half of them women, who participated in a "Hunting for Sustainability" class at Madison College earlier this fall. This was a four-week session culminating in a special deer hunt on the Aldo Leopold preserve in Sauk County. (Watch a video segment about the class in the DNR's Deer Hunt Wisconsin 2012 show.)
Keith Warnke, who used to run the state's deer program, now leads a new Department of Natural Resources program to get aspiring hunters like Maynard out into the field.
The problem, Warnke explains, is that far fewer people today grow up in hunting families. The average age of a deer hunter is almost 50. The art and ethics of hunting, the ability to track a deer, gut it and butcher it are fast fading. Warnke's program is about teaching adults these things, much like teaching them to swim or ride a bike if they missed the opportunity as a kid. He says only about 9% of hunters are women, but that number is rapidly increasing.
New hunter Maynard describes the hunt in almost Zen terms. She talks about how Warnke explained the four stages of being a hunter: First, you're excited just to shoot an animal. Next, you focus on getting your bag limit. Third, it's all about the trophy. And then, as Maynard describes it, you "transcend into this magical fourth stage, which isn't about killing at all, but just being out in the woods."
She says that Warnke has taught her that "there is hunting and there is killing the animal, and they're two distinct acts. Hunting is not inherently about killing. Being in the woods at dawn is magical. When else do you get to be completely still and just aware of what's going on around you?"
Maynard, who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., never hunted, but her father, who was raised in rural Vermont, did. Her dad is sending her one of her grandfather's rifles for the hunt.
And that's just a small part of the community effort that is deer hunting. She explains the complex process that demands that it be a social activity. You can bowl alone, but you really can't deer hunt alone. You need someone to help you drag the deer from the woods, butcher it, share a freezer, and take some of the meat. And you need someone to listen to your stories.
And there is something more. From scouting the land, to helping with the gutting, to dragging the deer to the butchering, to sharing of meals, hunting is about knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it got from the field to your table.
But is Maynard concerned about sharing these stories with fellow east siders?
She seems surprised by the very question. After a pause she says, "I can imagine my neighbors being surprised that I hunt, but not offended."
The DNR program for new hunters is so popular that more mentors are needed, Warnke says. But it's a relationship, not just a one-day deer stand.
"We need mentors who are willing to take a new adult hunter into their community or camp or family for a number of years and develop a true hunter as the outcome," Warnke says.
If you are interested in becoming a hunting mentor, contact Keith Warnke, Hunting and Shooting Sport Coordinator, at 608-576-5243 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.