Sunday, October 2, 2011

The late-night life of a hunter: Dreaming of death

I was talking to a few of my students the other day and when I told them I dream of death as often as once a week, they all looked at me funny.

I'm not sure why it would surprise anyone: I hunt. I write about hunting in a way that deeply examines why I hunt and how I justify and/or rationalize killing. And I have always had really vivid dreams.

Hank, who rarely remembers his dreams, is often blown away when I wake up and tell him where my mind has been. I dream crazy stuff.

Now, I write about this topic with some trepidation, because I know somewhere out there is a brainwashed PETA activist who's ready to tell me that dreaming of death is my subconscious's way of expressing guilt for my crimes against animals.

And I have wondered about that myself, particularly when the dream includes seeing my beloved cat Giblet - who is, at this second, dozing on my desk to be near me - dead and skinned. No getting around it: That's a pretty unpleasant dream.

Or maybe it's just a reminder that we all die eventually, and that we're all made of meat.

Most of my death dreams involve hunting. The more I'm hunting while I'm awake, the more I hunt in my dreams. While sleeping the other day, I snatched a Eurasian collared dove out of the sky, then held it in my hands and tried to figure out what next, given that - oopsie! - dove season was over, not to mention snatching from the sky is NOT a legal method of take for doves. (I have a deep-seated fear of breaking rules.)

Sometimes my death dreams seem really random. One of my more memorable ones recently involved me simultaneously saving some rats and killing others. (I kill animals for food, but I will go to ridiculous lengths to save a spider from getting washed down the bathtub drain. Hey, I don't eat spiders; nor do I think they should die just because humans invented big enameled tubs that bugs can't easily get out of.)

Joel Shangle
The most intense death dream I've had in a long, long time happened this summer. Hank and I were on the road, up in Seattle for his book tour events there. We were exhausted, and we had to get up really early so we could go be on Joel Shangle's Northwest Wild Country radio show.

Before I go any further, I have to apologize to my mother, who might find this disturbing.

So, in this dream, I was going to be executed. I'm not sure what I'd done to deserve the death penalty, but that was irrelevant because I was going to die.

Here's the weird part: I was not remotely upset that I was going to die.

But I was absolutely freaking out because the method of execution was going to entail eight minutes of intense pain. I was shrieking for my mother. "MOM! MOM!! MOOOOMMMM!!!" That's something I probably haven't done, awake or asleep, for a good 40 years.

The last thing that happened in the dream was that Hank came to me, touched me on the shoulder and told me that the courts were intervening and that I would not be executed by the eight-minutes-of-pain method - they were going to come up with something else. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and woke up. Hank was touching my shoulder, telling me it was 5 a.m., time to get up.

So where, you might ask, does such a dream come from? As with all dreams, I can pick out bits and pieces from all over the waking world, evidence that my brain is processing lots of stuff.

Eight minutes of pain? My greatest concern when hunting. I hate it when I don't make a quick clean kill. (And like most humans, I can whip myself into a frothy mess anticipating pain.)

Not being concerned about the fact that I was going to be killed? Hunting has made me reflect on death a lot, and it has helped me understand that I probably won't be able to choose the time, method and reason for my death: I could be eaten by a mountain lion, or hit by a bus, or my heart could simply stop one day after a long and happy life.

Execution? Yeah, I've covered those. I witnessed one when I was a reporter in Virginia, and it isn't what you'd expect at all. They don't head for the lethal-injection gurney looking defiant and spitting profanities; they just look small and scared. Like they want their mommies.

The irony here? I was aware of it even in my dream: I think California's death penalty is a joke, because the appeals process is endless. Far, far more death-row inmates die of natural causes than get executed here. And there I was in my dream, appealing to the courts. Tsk tsk tsk. The hypocrisies that I loathe the most are my own.

If there are any professional dream interpreters reading this, though, you're probably wondering when I'll get to the obvious: In dreams, death is a symbol of major change that you're trying to adjust to. Like ... your boyfriend writing a book, going on book tour and appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio shows and TV shows all over the country.

Voila! Dream demystified.

I know. You're probably looking at the screen now the way Hank looked at me when I told him about that dream. It's OK. No need to call a doctor.

But, seriously. At the risk of incurring deafening silence: Am I the only hunter (or farmer) out there who dreams often of death? Or am I just the only one crazy enough to write about it?

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Pete V. said...

Twice a week, at least.

Bold post, nice work.

hodgeman said...

Not so much about death directly, but where death is a part of the dream story or chain of events- ie. a successful hunt, accidents, etc.

I think that since death is such an integral (but frequently ignored) component of life, NOT dreaming of death is abnormal rather than vice versa.

As hunters we are in a unique position to have to emotionally deal with the death of our food. That component of life is pretty removed for the bulk of our society.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Pete: Whew! And thank you.

Hodgeman: Agreed. I did dream of death before I hunted, but not nearly as much.

And your remark about emotionally dealing with the death of our food - wow, perfect timing. Just saw something on TV that brought up that very point - it'll probably be my next blog post (time permitting).

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Not really my place to pass on lectures, but I would go as far as recommending reading about the Kapala rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Where the devotee symbolically uses a bowl made from a human skull to feed their flesh to other beings in an extreme act of detaching themselves from the 'needy-ness' of existence. Powerful metaphor.


Kate said...

I'm a homesteader relatively new to dealing out death. But slaughtering poultry doesn't seem to have made the slightest dent in my dreamstate subconscious. Which is encouraging, because it was surprisingly easy for my conscious mind to deal with, and lots of dreams about it would point to an incongruency that I wouldn't like to see. On the other hand, we had to put down our cats, four and two years back. We'd had them from kittens and they were both teenagers in human years. Then I dreamed of death, quite a lot.

Rich Mellott said...

Hi Holly,
I recently have been dealing with the death of my mom, who passed away in front of my eyes. Since then, I have returned from several successful hunts feeling paradoxical, and not wanting to process or even look at the prey I've captured. However, I have then forced myself to do what's needed, out of respect for the animal, and it seems to be Ok again.
As long as we deal with life, death will be there. We dream about it because we must. I think very often about the Tool song, "Vicarious," as well. It deal with our need to see death happening, but not our own.
So many TV shows deal with us watching people getting dissected, investigated, poked and prodded, and the so-called morbid fascination is definitely part of not only our culture, but human nature.
For you to dream about death, and change, is normal, especially since you're a hunter, and you are, in essence, a demi-god, Shiva. Remember Oppenheimer's speech, right after witnessing the first atomic explosion, where he quoted from the Baghavad Ghita, "I am become death, the destroyer...?" That is what we all struggle with, and dreams are attempts at resolution.
Now, don't drop any A-Bombs, except to curse at the skybusters in the next blind! Dream on!

Phillip said...

I'm pretty sure you're not along in regards to that one, hunter or not. I just think the hunter in you has colored the dreams with some pretty specific inks. You have seen and caused death, so for you (and your subconscious) it's not simply a concept anymore. It's real.

I haven't shared mine with many folks, largely because the memory gets foggy the further away from sleep I go, but the comment about your cat dead and skinned reminds me of a similar recurrent theme. Whatever I shoot is normal at the time, but morphs into something else during the dressing process. Sometimes it's a pet (horses recur for me) and sometimes it's a human. A little weird, I guess, and occasionally unsettling. But interesting to try to remember.

Good stuff, and absolutely worth digging around for suggestions and answers.

Chas S. Clifton said...

A night or two before my first deer hunt as a teenager, I dreamt that I was shooting down my high school classmates with my rifle -- but it was OK! They were like zombies or something!!

Nonetheless, the dream rocked me back a little.

Standard Tarot reader's explanation is that the Death card equals change. You are "dying" to something, or something else is "dying." Whether that works for you, I don't know.

In Colorado, Eurasians are legal game year around, and you could probably snatch them from the air too.

Hil said...

The last period of time in which I frequently, consistently dreamed of death was seven years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter. I had months of horrible, violent, bloody dreams involving me shooting intruders in my home, terrorist attacks, bombings, etc. I can only blame the hormones.

These days it doesn't happen that often, but last night I did dream I somehow found myself holding a venomous snake by the neck and he bit my hand repeatedly til I killed him and my hand went numb and I spent the rest of the dream trying to find the emergency room. No idea what that one means.

Marian Love Phillips said...

Holly, I had a dream one time of drowning and what frightened me was when I went to work my boss told me that she had dreamed of me drowning as well. Now, that was scary and I do know how to swim. Have dreamed of my parents and my brother since that have left this earth and others as well. Have not dreamed of death since that one time years ago that I can recall.

NorCal Cazadora said...

SBW: Powerful indeed, though I would view it more as understanding that we all feed each other. (Not that it's my right to interpret their rituals.)

Kate: Funny, last time I watched a chicken slaughter, I found it a little unnerving, but never dreamed about it.

My conscious heebie jeebies, though, may have been caused by the fact that I was photographing the birds' death. Looking through the lens, much like writing, forces you to drink it in, and makes you feel like a bit of a voyeur. (And if you click on that link, you'll notice I do not show any close-ups of death there.)

Condolences re your cats.

Rich: I hope your mom's death was peaceful. A friend of mine was with her dad when he died, and it was not only peaceful, but strangely beautiful, in a spiritual way. I should be so lucky.

I actually think the TV shows really mask the reality of death - most of it is so far from reality. But I agree we have morbid fascination. Remember that "Faces of Death" video that was making the rounds a couple decades ago? People were very upset about it - but also very fascinated.

Phillip: I have that one too! I just found this interpretation of morphing, but it doesn't ring true for me like "death = change" does. For me, it seems more like an acknowledgment of our commonality. After that dream about Giblet, I was forced to think about the fact that she could just as easily be killed for food as the rabbits I hunt.

Chas: Wow, that must've been hard to shake.

The tarot meaning sounds pretty close to the dream interpretation of change. In the case of my execution dream, I was (and still am) going through enormous changes.

As for the doves, get my room ready, I'm coming right over!

Hil: Sounds textbook - can't think of a bigger life-changer than having a baby. As for shooting intruders, that sounds like serious mommy protectiveness kicking in. Must've been unnerving having those dreams as you were carrying a another life in your body.

As for the snake: Have you watched True Grit recently? :-)

Marian: That sounds unnerving!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I go through spells of remembering dreams a lot, and spells of not remembering them much. I'm in the latter right now and have been for at least a couple of years.

The few hunting-related dreams I can recall are from before I started hunting. Odd, eh?

Great post.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Tovar!

I actually count myself lucky that I remember my dreams, because they're usually interesting, and often trying to tell me something.

One of my standards is that I own a house, but somehow I've forgotten some of the rooms I have, and while they have lots of potential, they're in disrepair - lots of sagging floors and stuff. This is ALWAYS a sign that I am neglecting parts of myself. And it usually takes place in one of three or four houses that I visit pretty regularly in my dreams - none of which I've ever seen in real life.

The best one was realizing that I'd forgotten that I actually owned a mansion that was just full of riches. I kept thinking, "I've got to start using some of this stuff!"

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Ha! I like your house dreams, especially that last one. :-)

I'll need to check the journal where I jot down dreams. There are probably hunting dreams from the past several years that I'm just not recalling...

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I don't dream of death, and I think our dreams are some combination of our everyday thoughts and the random firing of neurons. How else to explain that I just dreamt I was invited to address the UN General Assembly?

Things we do show up in our dreams, so it's not surprising you're dreaming about hunting and death. But death as symbolism? I think dream symbols are going the way of Freud, debunked by cognitive neuroscience.

You worry about a painful death when you're awake, so I don't think it's surprisng that the issue raises its head when you're asleep. But I can only imagine what a horrifying, frightening dream that must have been.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I agree with most of what you've said, but not about the symbols, because whenever I've had really vivid dreams and looked up the symbols, they've been pretty dead on.

First time I did it was when I had a dream that I was carrying a severed head in a bag. I was pretty freaked out by it, and at a party later where we were all talking about dreams, I looked it up in someone's dream book and found it symbolizes a secret. And by God, I was carrying around a really big secret at the time. (Which is why i pretended that the dream symbol book was wrong, LOL.)

I think the fact that some of the illogical things we see in people's dreams are actually quite widespread does mean something - I don't think it's an accident.

It reminds me, only tangentially, of something I saw on a science program recently about evolution: Some evolutionary developments work so well that you'll see them occur repeatedly in totally unrelated species. OK, I know that's REALLY tangential, but give me a break, I haven't finished my first cup of coffee yet :-)

Brian said...

I am one of those who doesnt really remember dreams in detail (if at all). However, I too dream about hunting and killing at times, often in usual ways or uncommon contexts. They aren't wierd or deviant, just unusual.

In my opinion anyone who claims to never have 'wierd' dreams about death, sex etc is probably lying...

Douglas Kretzmann said...

I've killed chickens and pigs, hunted birds and big game, been in the army with other people hunting me, been robbed, beaten and cut with knives: yet don't recall a single dream about death. This may of course be as significant as dreaming of death often and often..

arrived at your blog via a search for eating bear meat. We (son and I) were out hunting CO elk to no effect, but did have a chance at a bear though no tag. We weren't sure what one would do with a bear once dead.. make a nice rug ? seems insufficient reason to shoot that handsome beast. I knew the old mountain men would eat bear, but then again they'd also go without bathing for years, so their tastes might have run to the rancid. These bears were eating mostly berries, to judge by the steaming evidence. Berry-fed bear, mmm. Perhaps we'll get both tags next year and try it.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Sounds like an eater to me! I really want to get a bear this year, but I don't think I'm even going to get out for deer. Wah!