Deer Hunting For Your Soul

Bon Iver Set List, State Theater, 12.22.2008

This post is in response to a request from Brendon over there on the Facebook page:

Hey Mike, where can I find a copy of that reading you read at the Eau Claire Bon Iver concert? It seems like pieces of it are in Truck, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the same … Afterall, gun deer’s right around the corner.

OK, Brendon, her goes (and yah, there are some riffs from Truck and elsewhere):

On December 22, 2008, after singing his songs all around the world, one of our own came home to the Chippewa Valley to sing for us.  I’ve told bits and pieces of my Justin Vernon/Bon Iver connection before…basically I am cast in the role of goofy-uncle-type just pleased to see the young man doing so well for himself.  It was a singular humbling honor when Justin invited me to open the show.

I don’t recall what-all I said or read that night, but in the final five minutes I wanted to ease over from goofball mode into prose that approximated something of the desolate deer-swamp feeling Justin captured in those three months he spent holed up in his Dad’s northern Wisconsin hunting shack with nothing but his music and his well-peeled heart.  There was something in the music that told me Justin knew what it was to watch the last color drain from the November sky and feel as if your last red blood cell went with it.  Justin didn’t know what I was going to say.  All I told him and the band was that when they heard me repeat the last phrase, they should begin to play in rhythm with the words…so as you reach the end of the piece, and you see that recurring phrase, imagine the sound of “Lump Sum” swelling from behind the curtain until it swept open and the band went full-on into the song, and I stepped quickly to the wings where I watched with high heart a friend in the full flower of his art.

The text:

I’m proud of Justin Vernon.  Not in a proprietary way – he did this on his own.  More in a fuddy-duddy bald uncle sorta way.  It’s kinda like let’s say I had this little nephew Justin, and I knew he built pinewood derby cars, and he kinda had a knack for it, and then a few years later he built himself a little go-kart and started racing over there at the Old Mill Center, and you know he won a couple of nice little trophies, and I figured well, great, I hope the kid has fun with that.  But man, I never dreamed…  It’s like I was proud of him when he was doing the pinewood derby.  I was proud of him when he did the go-carts.  But this here, this is like he went over to Menomonie, over there to the Red Cedar Speedway and he won the Late Model Feature at the Punky Manor Challenge of Champions…and I’m just another goofball in the grandstand, holding a half-eaten bratwurst and cheering like mad.

Every year, ‘long about the second week of November, the men of Wisconsin begin to get scruffy.  You’ll notice it everywhere – at church, at the gas station, in the Wal-Mart – even the jawline of the local banker begins to blur.  We are the men of Wisconsin, and we are growing our deer hunting beards.  The deer hunting beard protects your chin from the chill air and staves off windburn.  The deer hunting beard preserves the brotherhood even as it scratches our women.  And every now and then a man looks in the mirror the morning after the season ends, and he says, I’m gonna keep this beard.  I’m gonna let it go and let it grow.  And furthermore, I am not goin’ home.  I have got knots in my heart and tumbles in my guts, and I am gonna sit in this deer shack until I’ve got it all figured out and worried out and wrung out and hung out.  And when the man finally emerges many cold months later, that sad little beard has grown only a little and that’s all it’s gonna grow, but the man, he has grown considerably, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

You know about deer hunting, right?  Holy Week, we call it.  Schools shut down, folks miss work, and people who normally wouldn’t be trusted with a straw and a spitwad arm themselves with high-powered rifles and go bumble in the forest.  Armies of folks who never walk further than from the TV to the fridge suddenly dress up in 45 pounds worth of flannel and blaze orange snow suits, load themselves down with cartridge bandoliers, 10-pound hunting knives and assorted hunting gear, strap a rifle across their back, and charge off into the woods to have heart attacks and fall asleep in their tree stands.

It’s a goofy pursuit, deer hunting.  It makes us dress funny.  We put license plates on our backs and disguise ourselves as traffic barrels.  From the safety of your car you will see us working the bare-boned woods like fluorescent orange maggots.  We are hardly stealthy predators.  Once I fell from a tree stand and was preserved from injury only because my ankle got wedged between the iron frame and the tree trunk.  I hung there like a doofy upside-down man-pinata.  Rather than flail about, I elected to meditate.  Sadly, the reverie broke when a bottle of buck scent in my left front shirt pocket sprung a leak.  I can report: it is difficult to fully appreciate the subtler hues of nature when you are suspended fifteen feet above the ground, dangling by one bruised ankle as drops of fermented deer urine collect in your left nostril.

We know that when a man pulls a 3-month Rip Van Winkle, emerging from this milieu with his 30-06 in one hand and a musical opus in the other, you have a story on your hands.  We can tell that story in terms of blaze orange and venison, set the scene as if the man was cheffin’ up the alternative indie hipster version of “Turdy Point Buck.”  Or we can go darker, stoke the legend of a Cheddarhead Leatherstocking holed up far from friends and civilization, plucking the raw strings of his heart, which is true enough as far as it goes, but as one fine writer recently wrote, “It was Dunn County, not Siberia.”

But the deer camp was real enough, and the solitude the same, and without them, you wonder what good ghosts might have stayed in the bottle.  Because when the man walked out of the woods in the new year dawned, the songs he carried were strung on a steel string drawn straight from the narrowing days of November.

In November twilight comes early, pressing down from early afternoon onward, mercilessly reducing you to the proper size.  This is not the lover’s sunset of summer with its manic colors and promise of a tantalizing night.  The deer hunting sun sinks as if it will never rise again.  The light, already anemic, simply drains away.  Even if the sky colors up a brassy pink, it remains metallic, and you view it through bony, naked branches.  There are times right at the edge of darkness when a crow will drift by silent and swerve to disappear into the inky silhouette of a tall pine and you are certain your life is ended.  Down in the swamp, deep in the tamaracks, comes the softest sigh, the breath of a creature you cannot name.  You are reminded that the earth is ancient in its patience, and you have nowhere to hide.  If you have done any wrong, hurt any heart, hidden any bleeding, you will think of it now, your soul stripped out and hung all thorny in the blackberry canes.  You sit tight to the tree, so tight you can hear the snowflake hit the bark, and now you are thinking of the gutpile cooling, and the red blood on the white drift, and all the reckonings to come, and in your ears the terminal murmur of your own pulse grows, and the stiller you sit the harder your heart beats and so now you are up and running, the whipsticks stinging, and all you have is breath like frozen mercury spilling in and out, the fog of it warm against your face for a second then gone to nothing against Lorca’s enormous night straining its waist against the Milky Way, and what would save your life is a warm square of yellow light, and so you run and run and now the whipsticks are gone and the cold is gone and the stars are gone and you realize you are running through the airless echoing center of the universe and the footfalls are heartbeats, and the footfalls are heartbeats, and the footfalls are heartbeats, and the footfalls are heartbeats…

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