Written onFebruary 09 , 2016
In 2013, Murphy Robinson asked to buy a live lamb from our farm. It would, she explained, be used in her first Huntress Intensive, a weekend workshop for women on how to hunt, and it would be taken from live to butchered in order to teach how to properly field dress an animal. When we accepted her invitation to stay during the slaughter, the intense presence and care of Murphy and her students struck me as something from another time.
A group of women encircled the ram lamb, while one held its haunches and another put pressure on its shoulders, preparing for the kill. Another held a bowl at the ready to catch the blood that would drain from the neck. Before the knife was pulled across its throat, the lamb sniffed at a bowl of rose water, an offering from one of the women to help it stay calm. Murphy began a chant that the entire group took up: The earth the air the fire the water, return, return, return, return. As the chant rose, the woman with the knife parted the fleece along the lamb’s neck and pulled decisively.
This is how I came to know Murphy. Over the next two years, she would hold three more Huntress Intensives through her Mountainsong Expeditions, along with shorter workshops on complementary skills such as hide tanning, winter tracking, and archery. Each year, the demand for these courses continues to rise, and the Huntress Intensive has sold out for three years in a row.
“It was not my intention at all to become a hunting instructor,” Murphy tells me as we sip tea beneath a mounted six-point buck skull in her tiny house, which she moved to our farm in Worcester after we met her. When she started Mountainsong Expeditions, her intention was “to start a business for adults with many women’s options that would be based around wilderness trips and the transformative power of community and wilderness.” Those backpacking and canoeing trips didn’t sell well, though, so when she finally gave in to a friend who continually asked her to teach a hunting class, Murphy was shocked when it sold out.
Marketed as the “Huntress Intensive: Taking Aim at the Sacred Hunt,” the weekend workshop goes through the nuts and bolts of safety and hunting practices, offers a discussion on the “ancient huntress archetype” and a shamanic ceremony to connect with the deer spirit, and culminates in the slaughter and butchering of a lamb or goat.
“It became clear to me that this was a really strong need,” Murphy recalls, “that there needed to be a place where women could feel comfortable just exploring hunting in a feminist environment and a spiritual environment where ethics was emphasized and the spiritual-emotional impact for what hunting means for us personally was given a space.” Most of her students are first-time hunters, and many once maintained vegetarian or vegan diets. This isn’t surprising at all to Murphy, who herself was a vegetarian for 27 years.
Raised in a Hindu-based meditation community in Iowa, Murphy grew up surrounded by vegetarians who, not surprisingly, didn’t own guns. The seeds of her hunting journey, which took years to germinate, were planted in her early 20s when she was working at an international wolf center in Minnesota. There, she taught visitors about predator ecology and began to appreciate the role of the predator herself.
“When we extricated the wolves and cougars [in North America], we removed predators and unbalanced the ecosystem,” she explains. “Deer populations actually become unhealthy and overpopulated and will begin to starve and have disease if we don’t have a peak predator. Right now, the peak predator is mostly humans.”
Her time at the wolf center gave Murphy a more holistic view of ecology, and from there she moved on to work on a trail crew in the high Sierras, where she made her peace with the possibility of being the hunted one in cougar country. The idea of becoming a hunter finally began to sprout as she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and crossed paths with many deer. After being a backpacking guide for eight years, Murphy was hungry for a new way to connect with the forest. “To my great surprise, hunting started entering my mind,” she says. “It was appealing as a way to sort of get me out of my human perspective and get me into the woods in a different way, a more meditative way. It would force me to see the woods through a deer’s perspective.”
At the time, Murphy was also learning about Nordic hunting goddess myths and discovered strong archetypes of women hunters. These stories of strong and wild women hunters had her wondering, “Is there something in the hunting itself, and not just the stories of hunting, that could teach me something?”
Murphy found a hunting teacher in a fellow Appalachian Trail hiker named Chase, and in 2010 traveled to his North Carolina farm. “In seven days I went from never having shot a gun in my life to having shot a six-point buck,” Murphy tells me, pointing to the skull hanging above us. Although she hasn’t always had as much luck, she’s hunted every year since.
In the five years since her first hunt, Murphy has answered that initial question of Is there something in the hunting itself? She says that while backpacking and canoeing may be easier ways to become comfortable in the wilderness, “Hunting offers an intimacy with the land because you’re going off the trails. There’s so much mindfulness and attention to detail that comes in, especially when you’re tracking deer….You learn to read this whole language of the signs the deer leave.” Perhaps most important, “It’s a way of becoming native to place. Woods that you’ve hunted you’re going to know better than woods you’ve just hiked through.”
Murphy’s own dietary background and knowledge of ecology offers vegetarian and vegans a way to understand hunting. “If you do not eat meat, I think that you will appreciate that the ecosystem needs to be kept in balance,” Murphy says. Hunting keeps the deer population under control, which leads to fewer deer-car collisions and contributes to healthier deer herds. For students who are transitioning away from vegetarianism as she did, Murphy says, “I believe that eating meat that you are deeply connected to through the process of its death brings a huge amount of meaning and spiritual nourishment to your life.” Beyond that, she says, “I think we should hunt so that we will know how fully integrated we are in our environment and in nature, and we will experience those vivid moments of deep aliveness and deep connection [when we’re] making choices that truly matter in the moment in the woods. I think that when we experience that, we come into a deeper sense of ethics and responsibility within ourselves and all parts of our lives.”
While the Huntress Intensive, rooted in spirituality and myth, has a decidedly different feel than state-run hunting programs, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has been very supportive of Murphy, reaching out to help her become a hunter safety instructor. Historic information compiled by Vermont Fish & Wildlife shows that hunting license sales peaked in 1974 with 114,985 resident licenses sold. That number began to steadily decrease in the 1980s, and in 2014, there were just 61,285 resident hunting licenses sold.
The department has a vested interest in increasing the number of hunters in Vermont, as much of its funding for wildland conservation comes from hunting license sales. Information compiled in a Northern Woodlands article by Northeast Kingdom author Tovar Cerulli (who wrote “The Mindful Carnivore,” a 2012 memoir on being a vegan-turned-hunter) shows that in 2013, 32 percent of the department’s $19 million budget came from hunting and angling licenses, while only 10 percent came from the General Fund.
But when state-run hunter education classes are free (and required to pass in order to obtain a hunting license), why are people signing up for the Huntress Intensive, which runs at $225? One reason is the woman-centered approach. Marie Frohlich, a participant in the 2013 intensive, says, “I was particularly motivated by Murphy’s intensive because it was more spiritually based and for women, which made it less intimidating.” A health coach and self-described foodie, Marie was coming to the hunt for the first time at the age of 64, and had already completed the State Hunter Safety Course, but she left it feeling isolated and unsure of where to begin. At the Huntress Intensive, the balance between skill development and group discussion created a community that helped Marie find the confidence she was looking for.
“I loved sitting in the woods for hours, learning how to identify signs of the rut to track where deer hang out,” she recalls, “and then finally learning how to harvest a kill [through processing the ram], holding sacred space ceremony for the animal and being grateful for the nourishment it would give us. There was downtime around the campfire to hear stories and process our experiences, which was key for infusing the learning and sustaining our goals.”
After the intensive, Marie put her newfound skills to work on a hunting trip led by Murphy and her hunting mentor from the AT, Chase, on his farm in North Carolina. There, she successfully harvested a buck and has since bought a tree stand of her own. “I will always look forward to the hunt,” she says, “because it takes you into nature and quiet and a connection with listening, watching, and learning about wildlife. It increases one’s appreciation for the great state we live in.”
Like Marie, many of the students in the Huntress Intensive come seeking confidence. Some have husbands or fathers who hunt, while others come from non-hunting families. Most have never hunted before. Although she began her classes with a focus on getting women into the woods, Murphy sees her mission as getting all nontraditional groups hunting, and has taught many gay and transgender people in her courses, as well. In 2015, in response to a growing demand from men, Murphy taught her first co-ed intensive.
She also teaches workshops at Fall Doe Camp, a weekend backcountry retreat for women in Canaan, as well as at the Maine Primitive Gathering. Through her outreach, Murphy meets folks with varying views on hunting. She tells me, “[Many] people who are living thoughtful lives and trying to be responsible for their choices think of hunting as something that is violent and disconnecting, and my message is more that hunting is something that can bring you into deep connection with your food and the land.”
Whether it’s vegetables, livestock, or wild game, isn’t that what local food is all about? Ethics, responsibility, and the understanding that our own vitality is inseparable from the vitality of the land.
To learn more about Mountainsong Expeditions and Murphy’s courses, visit mountainsongexpeditions.com.