“No man is angry that feels not himself hurt.” – Sir Francis Bacon
I can remember when I had just begun my teenage years. Back in those days, and earlier, I had an affinity for animals. I revered them with marvel and wonder, amazed at how different they seemed from humans and yet inspired by the similarities between us all.
One day, one of my brothers came into the house and announced that he had shot a bird. I was sitting on the couch, watching cartoons most likely, and initially I didn’t think much of it. I had killed things before too and it wasn’t that big of a deal, but for some reason the machine that is my brain began to turn its wheels. I started thinking about what might be the consequences of that bird’s death. I began to analyze the situation, the effects of my brother’s choice to kill the bird.
“Was this bird part of a breeding pair?” I asked myself. “Was its mate out there alone now, having to struggle to raise the next generation?” I continued to ponder. “What if they don’t survive without one of their parents?” With those thoughts, I concluded that my brother didn’t just kill one bird, but may very well have killed several. And I asked myself for what reason? Fun, entertainment, amusement, out of sheer boredom?
At any rate, I became upset, got mad and emotional, threw a fit and shouted out in anger at what I deemed a meaningless loss of life.
I was still young and innocent, naive and perhaps better off because I was unaware of the cruelty of the human heart. A naivety and innocence that in the near future I would lose.
As I became a teenager, I became increasingly angry, short fused and bitter. Unwilling to participate in things, unwilling to communicate more than what needed to be done. There was a battle beginning inside of me that would eventually become a full-blown war. Like any conflict there would be innocent victims, bystanders to my emotional torment. I would commit acts that earlier in my childhood I would have never anticipated.
There is one act in particular that I can remember as though it happened yesterday. So cruel and sickening that it has been etched into my memory permanently. I was somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years old. I was out on one of my many walks in the woods and across our family farmland. I used to take these walks to escape my life and in many ways in an attempt to escape myself. It was in vain of course, but I needed to get away and be alone with my thoughts and walking for me was the best way to clear my head.
Sometimes I would take these walks when I was angry and sometimes I would take them because I felt adventurous. I’m not really sure which of the two sparked this voyage into nature, but all the same I was taking it. I would often walk for hours at a time, just walking, looking around, picking up things I thought were interesting to inspect, watching wildlife as it passed before me, touch the trunks of trees as I passed; it all made me feel alive, connected and somehow safe, it became my sanctuary.
However, where man travels, so too does anger and violence follow. And in our youth these things can all be one in the same, unwise in our dealings with life and its obstacles, inexperienced in dealing with our problems. We often take these frustrations out on the things and the people closest to us. The flames of our anger lash out against that which we hold close.
I had come across a small pond on our property, like an ant hill filled with water, one had to walk up the banks to get to the water which was cupped by red clay. As I approached the pond, my eye caught something moving in the grass. Not but a few yards to my right was a turtle making its way through the green blades, tall enough to nearly hide his dark round shell. Out of curiosity I approached him and as I got closer I heard a hiss and he retreated into his shell, offended by my interest in him.
I bent down and picked him up for closer inspection. As I did so, he peed and I lurched my lower body back and extended my arm out so that he wouldn’t pee on me. Without thought, I let out a cuss word or two at his unfriendly act of disdain. I stood there a moment looking at just the turtle’s shell and its intricate pattern, as he was still hidden tightly within, unwilling to come out. I looked up at the pond and wondered to myself if box turtles could swim?
I made my way up the bank of the pond with turtle in hand, when I reached the top of the bank I gently tossed him into the water. He entered the water with a small splash and to my surprise he did not sink, he emerged from his shell and began swimming to shore. Amused by his efforts and swimming ability, I eagerly awaited his return to the bank.
When he made it to shore, I quickly scooped him up again and this time he didn’t retreat into his shell. Clearly he was aware I wasn’t interested in eating him, but certainly he was annoyed by me and desperately just wished to get away and about his daily business. But I had much harsher interests in mind. I was not done with him just yet.
Once again, I had the turtle in hand and this time I chucked him high into the air, straight up over the pond so that he would come flying down right into the middle. And so he did with a large crash, sending waves across the pond. With resilience, he swam back to the shore, away from me and to the other side. I ran around the bank to the other side and again anxiously awaited his coming ashore, I had more plans for this tough turtle.
Many times on my walks, I would take a pocket knife or a slingshot with me. The knife for practicality and the slingshot with the intention to kill something. Birds and squirrels were my usual targets.
This time I had my slingshot with me and with practice I had become a decent shot. Again, I picked up the turtle and he hissed at me and went inside his shell, clearly pissed off at me and my relentless torture. At this point I’m sure he was getting tired of swimming and probably dizzy from being thrown up in the air and into the water.
This time I decided to throw him into the water like a football, fully intent to get him to spin through the air. I placed my fingers in the right places so that I could get a decent grip so that when I launched my hand forwards my fingertips would make him spiral towards the water. As he hurdled through the air, I leaned down to pick up a few small pebbles from the bank at my feet. I was going to shoot at him as he desperately swam to shore.
As the turtle slowly swam to the shore, clearly exhausted and weakened, my slingshot let out a SNAP, then another SNAP, as the elastic band holding the pebble was released from my fingers, over and over. The rocks went striking through the air and breaking the water’s surface all around the turtle, like a ship under fire, he struggled to make it through my barrage of pebbles. One rock hit his shell and a piece of it flaked off. This hit encouraged me to continue, but eventually the turtle made it ashore.
I became infuriated that I had missed so many times. Hell bent on striking this turtle with my slingshot, I ran up to him on his way out of the water and up the bank and grabbed him tightly in my hand and with all my strength sent him crashing into the water with a huge splash. He returned to the surface and just sat their floating, likely in complete shock. He regained his bearing and began swimming to shore. Slow enough this time that I was confident he would never make it to shore.
I began pelting him with pebbles from my slingshot, aiming for his head. Finally, POP, one of the shots nailed him right in the head. I heard a sharp whistle and his head went down into the water, he was spinning in a circle and I could see tiny bubbles rise up from where his head was submerged. The bubbles continued and he sank beneath the surface.
I stood there in shock. Strangely, as if I didn’t expect that to happen. The turtle was dead. I had just killed him. The turtle that had fought so hard to survive my teenage antics, now drifted to the bottom of the pond, lifeless.
This feeling came over me, first from my stomach and then up into my throat. Guilt, shame and regret came over me like someone had just injected me with something. It spread over me and the horror of what I had just done, sank in. I let out a few cuss words and started to cry with remorse. What the hell did I just do and more importantly why?
I was different after that experience. Forever in the back of my mind, I became consciously aware of the danger of my anger and the consequences of losing control of myself. A voice remained there to remind me that for every action there would always be a reaction, an effect to every cause I created. That within me lay the power to alter the lives of everything around me. The realization that we are all connected and that we have the power to impact each other, regardless of species.
In the years to follow I would take life again. A much larger life. This time, I was deer hunting during rifle season. I had never killed a deer before, but I was motivated to do so. Hunting was a big part of my family’s tradition, passed down from my mother’s side and involved my extended family on my father’s side. I had witnessed many fallen deer over the years, but seeing something that is already dead and witnessing something die are very different things.
In my youth, I caused death in anger, a release of frustration. But deer hunting was a sport to me, a hobby, for food and trophy. Killing a deer was a big deal and earned you congratulations, something I wanted. I wanted someone to pat me on the back and say good job. I wanted to be a part of something larger than myself, be counted among others in a common interest. Spending time together, hunting together, talking shit and laughing, it was a good time. Getting your first deer was a big deal.
So there I was in my stand, waiting and trying to be as motionless and silent as possible. I had a 30/30 in my hands, waiting with not a whole lot of patience because I had been hunting for years and never seemed to have a decent shot or worthwhile target. Whether with a bow or rifle, I never had much luck. But this time was different, a buck came walking down the fence line, right towards me. Slow enough that I would be able to get off a shot if he would just stand still. He jumped the fence and looked away from me, so I pulled up my rifle. As though he sensed or heard my motion behind him, he stopped and turned his head to face me. I swear that in those dark eyes he was looking right at me, but couldn’t quite make out what he was looking at, so he didn’t run away. I lined up the sight tip to his heart, and fired. He dropped right on the spot, fell to his side and started kicking, he spun around in a circle and I stood there watching him die.
Despite being nervous, my knees shaking and my heart racing, I was fully aware of what was happening. I had told myself this was okay, that I wanted to be a part of this sport, I wanted to bag my first deer, but instead of joy and excitement, I couldn’t help, but think of that turtle. Who’s life I had taken so carelessly, several years before. Here again, I was watching something die, merely because I wanted it to. Perhaps not in anger, but equally thoughtless. I wasn’t starving, so I didn’t need food. He wasn’t threatening my life, so it wasn’t to defend myself.
I put the rifle back on safety, climbed down out of my stand, took it back off safety and approached the deer cautiously. I poked him with the rifle’s barrel tip to make sure he was dead. He didn’t flinch. I could smell urine and feces, and on the ground I noticed why, something that everything does when it dies. I stood there asking myself to give justification for what I had just done. I came to no acceptable conclusion.
In the hours to follow that evening, I was congratulated and the attention felt good and I tried to make myself feel proud, but inside I didn’t know what I was supposed to be proud of. It didn’t feel the way I had thought it would. I continued to hunt for a couple of years after that, thinking that those feelings and questions of morality would go away, but they never did. I never killed another deer or any other animal intentionally after that and soon quit hunting all together, unable to renew the interest. I swore to myself that I would never again take a life so thoughtlessly, that unless for survival or defense, I would never take a life that was not mine to take, for I was convinced that I had no right to do so.
This essay is available as an audio track on SoundCloud: