Photo Credit: Margaret Killljoy
The deer were delivered, freshly killed, to our driveway. They were often the gifts of people who couldn’t endorse us publicly—maybe they had a relative working on a strip mine, or feared retribution from Friends of Coal neighbors, but hated mountaintop removal and wanted to quietly show support for our tree sits and protests. Pulling up at night or during some other inconspicuous hour, they would unload tarp-wrapped deer from the back of their pickup trucks and help us carry it into the repurposed military tent that served as our winter kitchen. There, the cooks would butcher the animals, cutting them into storable pieces and frying up the tender backstrap to savor among themselves or share with anyone who wanted a bite.
A cook once stuck a deer head on the fence that separated our property from the forest. It stayed there for weeks, a macabre boundary marker indicating where the messy yard ended and the wooded mountains that spread out in every direction—except for the frequent interruption of a surface mine—began. Those hills gave us morels and ramps in the spring and trumpeting chanterelles in summer. In late autumn, if we wanted to hike up the ridge behind the four houses our anti-mountaintop removal campaign occupied, we had to wear bright colors so we wouldn’t be mistaken for game. The November woods were full of hunters waiting for white-tailed deer in tree stands or tracking them carefully through the fallen leaves, part of a long tradition of supplementing wages with cash and subsistence products culled from the Appalachian hills. Ginseng for the market, sassafrass for tea, deer and bear meat for hearty stews and steaks.
The deer bones were given to the dogs, who buried them by the river and dug them up again for months on end. Anti-mountaintop removal organizing was often in the media that fall and winter, and important people frequently stopped by. Local organizers would come for meetings or to check in on us, journalists met us at the houses to get tours of nearby strip mines, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his film crew for The Last Mountain spent a few days tromping around the place looking for interviewees. All were invariably greeted by a pair of husky pups named after Lord of the Rings characters and a bashful pitbull named Emma Gold-dog dragging bloodied bones across the snow. The dogs would drop the bones at the front doors of the houses and, to cross the thresholds, you’d have to step over sinewy vertebrae.
I was vegetarian before I moved to southern West Virginia, but once there I decided to eat hunted venison. I soon became comfortable watching the butchering and once even tried to participate in deer processing, scraping fat off a hide to tan it. I fancied myself some sort of budding survivalist, but the bucket I stored it in and promptly forgot about filled with water over weeks of rain, rotting the skin. That was me then—twenty-years-old, smart but scattered, incapable of finishing anything, but hungry to prove myself.
I slept in a different place each night—sometimes on one of the Coal River Mountain Watch bunk beds, other times on the friends’ couch next door. I dated someone on-and-off who made me want to be a different person so that he would love me, and I worked non-stop, sometimes in circles, writing press releases and fundraising letters for the direct action campaign that most of us who lived in the houses along the Coal River were part of. I panicked too much, burned bridges, and on particularly hard days went to the gas station and bought myself a Hunt Brothers personal pizza. I’d take it down to the river, sit on the mossy banks and eat-cry until my face was choked with processed mozzarella and snot.
My pizza ritual may have been a way to ameliorate anxiety, but eating venison felt like actively cultivating resilience. “We have to build ourselves up for winter,” Cheshire would say in their quiet, playful way as they forked deer stroganoff into their mouth or chewed on a cervidae steak. “It’s going to be cold.”
Their venison-eating tactic must have worked, because they spent most of that winter sleeping in a tent pitched on a pallet nestled in the snow. While I slept inside, I agreed, at least metaphorically—when I ate venison it felt like I was consuming that rich Appalachian forest and those older-than-the-Himalayas mountains, swallowing up bits of mesophytic bravery with each gamey bite.
I wore a teal hoodie with a deer skeleton patch sewn on the back and that ungulate became a sort of talisman—a symbol of persistence. Although West Virginia deer were overhunted in the 1910s, they’ve since rebounded, and it seemed like they could survive even in the coalfields—a landscape of jarring contradictions, half rainforest and half wasteland, where mining decimates fish populations, displaces salamanders, and has pushed Cerulean warblers to the brink of extinction. If I ate deer, I reasoned with my brand of caffeine-fueled magical thinking, I, too, could survive in an industrially-poisoned valley and the sometimes-toxic-social environment of an ecological campaign: we tried our best to defend a mountain range, often failing to take care of ourselves.
Several years after I moved away from the houses on Coal River, I sat shotgun in my friend Henry’s Corolla; another friend sat in the backseat. We were driving along the New River at night, in a summer rainstorm. The New, formed as far back as 320 million years ago, is considered to be at least as old as the Appalachians themselves, and the ribbon of water cutting through tightly packed hills makes for a stunning, primeval landscape. The two-lane highway that runs along it, Midland Trail, swings in hairpins through towns with names like Smithers and Gauley Bridge and ascends to run along a cliff edge overlooking the gorge.
It’s this very stretch of West Virginia about which the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote:
The simple mountains, sheer, dark-graded with pinein the sudden weather, wet outbreak of spring,crosscut by snow, wind at the hill’s shoulder.The land is fierce here, steep, braced against snow,rivers and spring. KING COAL HOTEL, Lookout,and swinging the vicious bend, New River Gorge.
—The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (Kaufman and Herzog).
Rukeyser—a New Yorker, like me—was twenty-three in 1936, the year she traveled to the New River Gorge to investigate the Hawks Nest industrial disaster, a trip that resulted in her poignant poetry sequence, “The Book of the Dead.” I was twenty-three the night that we drove along the river, and I idolized Rukeyser. Sometimes I scribbled poems and essays about the mountains into my spiral bound journal, and I dreamed of writing a book about the year and a half I lived in southern West Virginia, which would begin with my friend Mat kicking a chunk of blast-cracked concrete off of his crumbling porch, lighting a Pall Mall Red and declaring, sadly, “Houses aren’t supposed to break.”
I was probably thinking of Rukeyser that night—I was always thinking of Rukeyser while driving along the New—and about my book, which I attempted to start every few months but never got more than two or three pages into. I do know that I was tired and a little annoyed at Henry—we were sometimes sweethearts, and other times didn’t get along at all—and that, probably out of his annoyance with me, he was meeting my every attempt at conversation with a brisk silence. So instead of talking I daydreamed, and mouthed along to the folk music playing on the stereo. At a straight stretch the rain picked up and streamed in rivulets down the windshield, obscuring the deer that stepped into the middle of the road.
The force of the deer hitting the car made us jerk in our seats and, on impact, the Corolla’s right headlight went out. In the half-light, we could see the deer stumbling away, alive but badly injured.
Henry pulled onto the shoulder to check the car for damages.
“Well, guess I’ve got to fix that,” he said, pointing to the headlight, “But at least the rest is fine.” Water dripped down the hood of his hybrid-shell raincoat, and he brushed droplets out of his beard.
“We should try to help the deer,” our friend insisted. The hurt animal had fallen by the guardrail a dozen feet behind us and we walked back up the road toward her. As we approached, she stood up with a sudden start and crossed the road, limping into the woods that separated Midland Trail from the New. We followed the deer into the forest, last autumn’s leaves crunching under our feet and rhododendron and sasafrass limbs tangling our path. When we found her, she was lying across a stream, bleeding, and we noticed that her belly was swollen–she was pregnant.
“Shit,” one of us said and we all stared at her, as though our Anthropocene gazes could heal the damage the car had inflicted. But, of course, they couldn’t, so we soon called a friend who had been the head cook of our former community and asked him how to kill a deer. He explained how to find the soft spot between the deer’s jaw, and how to thrust the knife up so it struck her brain, letting her go as quickly and painlessly as possible.
“I’m the one who hit her, I have to do this.” Henry unsheathed the buck knife he had retrieved from the trunk of his car and knelt down next to her head. I climbed onto a nearby rise and switched on a flashlight, illuminating the killing ground. Henry’s hand trembled, and, while he kept repeating those words—“It was me, I have to”—he didn’t move the knife, couldn’t bring himself to pierce it through the deer’s skull. In his pause there was tenderness, a respect for the animal’s life and a reticence to take it away, even if necessary. The other friend, a vegan, urged him on. The doe was heaving—clearly in pain—and watching it bothered her.
“I’ll do it,” she said, taking the knife out of his hand. She crouched down, found the spot under the jaw, and thrust. The deer kicked her legs for a moment, panting and letting out one last shudder. Then, except for the sound of our shifting footsteps and the stream water navigating around her still body, the forest fell silent.
The three of us mumbled our apologies, would have offered up prayers if we believed in any. We crouched down one-by-one, and placed our hands on the deer’s still-warm belly. Then we walked out of the woods and along the road to the car. We called and texted everyone we knew who might have wanted to pick up the deer, who had a truck that could haul her body somewhere where it could be turned in to sustenance. But it was late, it was raining, and the road we were on was far from our friends’ houses. So the deer stayed there and we drove with one smashed headlight towards Charleston, careening through the rain and dark until we could see the golden capitol dome and the twinkling of chemical plants along the Kanawha River.