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Hunting for Mindfulness

Nov 2021

My relationship with the outdoors began young, with every winter spent on the ski slopes and my teen years filled with peak bagging and camping. In my youth, this time spent outside was really about seeing what I was capable of - it had nothing to do with mindfulness and everything to do with feeling that thrill of accomplishment against the odds. As I got older, I started to try more mind-body connection activities. Things that would root me back to the present, focused and connected to the world and not glued to my phone screen. But every yoga session I’ve tried has me counting the minutes with barely contained impatience. Meditation has me drifting off into my grocery list or to-do’s, too many things to remember stealing my focus. The closest I think I’ve come to real mindfulness is when I mountain bike, the laser focus needed to keep from getting thrown off a clear entreaty to stay focused on the here-and-now. But recently, I tried a mindfulness practice that is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. Better than the methodical rhythm of a 20 km run. Better than the serenity of a mountain summit. Better than the smooth hiss of snow beneath my skis. Recently, I went hunting. Growing up, my dad filled our freezer every season with moose, deer, goose, antelope. It wasn’t anything I thought about when he’d skin an animal in the backyard. When my husband started hunting, I’d help butcher whatever he brought home. While we stood working at the kitchen table, he would recount moments – seeing a wolf through a break in the trees, invisible until it turned sideways and he could see the unmistakable profile. He'd share a photo of lynx tracks in the snow, the perfect paw print feathered with the enormous fur around it’s feet. A story of surprising a cougar and it’s cub on a fresh deer kill – both my husband and the cougar startled, the big cat disappearing with a swish of tawny tail, the cub enormously fluffy. Days spent laying on a hill, with binoculars in hand, watching the sun rise and set. I had always loved hiking, but could never see the point of hunting. The idea of going out with no real path, no real plan, no way of knowing if you ‘got there’…. It just seemed kind of pointless. ESPECIALLY given the number of days that he came home with nothing – which is most of them! So despite hunting being a part of my life, I was never the hunter. This time though, we were all out on our quarter section in south west Alberta. Me, my husband, my kids, their cousins and my dad were all out there, with both my dad and husband holding tags for whitetail deer. Each hunter took a turn taking the kids out. My husband took my daughter and her cousin. Walking the fence line , they could see the well-worn trail the whitetail had made in the snow. The trio were struggling and post-holing through the deep snow when in front of them, the deer materialized through the trees. A stalk, a shot, and the girls were dragging the deer a mile back to the road, filled with a new appreciation for what it really means to eat meat. The two girls told their story to the absolutely enthralled and undisguisedly envious boys. And I started to feel like maybe, just maybe, I was missing out too. So when my dad was getting ready to head out for the evening hunt, I asked to tag along. We waved good-bye to my husband and the kids as they bundled themselves back into the car and headed for the warmth of our rented cabin. I put on another jacket and headed off with my dad. He passed me some earplugs with a warning that I wouldn’t have time to put them in if he was to shoot, and we headed into the woods. I was suddenly acutely aware of every one of my senses and strained them as hard as I could. Creeping through the snowpack, I tried to muffle each step. I was maddeningly aware of the limits of my vision, unable to watch for fresh tracks at my feet, check for flutters of movement in the trees ahead, and look behind me all at the same time. I could hear my inhalation and exhalation, and strained my ears (despite the earplugs) to catch any glimpse of sound at the bottom and top of the noisy work of my lungs. On my skin, I could feel the warm air at the top of the hill steadily cooling as we worked our way down into a gully. Each breeze smelled of snow and pine and a gentle damp earth. For the first time in my life – a life I have strove to live a good portion of out-of-doors – I really became a part of the woods. I could hear two birds singing suddenly take flight and swoosh overhead. A squirrel, working it’s way across the ground, scuffled across a log and up a tree. A grouse strutted on fluffy feet in the dry grass under a tree shadow, the damp earth free from the snow that laid heavy on the ground. As we walked, I saw moose tracks, coyote prints, and the delicate splayed splash that bird wings brush into the snow as they take flight. I was suddenly a predator; a part of the rhythm and cycle of life outside. And I was fully, completely, immersed and present in the cool air as the sky blazed brilliantly pink, then faded as the moon shone ever more brightly from behind the ridge. “We’re done. That’s the last of legal light.” Said my dad as we turned around to head back to the car. We didn’t get anything that evening. And yet, it was as if I suddenly got everything. I know what mindfulness is now. What it means to suddenly be here, right here, and right now, exactly where I am, stepping carefully on strong legs, drawing crisp air into strong lungs, and listening with every fibre of my being to the world as the light fades.

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