Deer hunting season has been over for three hours now, and we have to chalk this year up to experience. No deer, but something of an education.
We learned about how, where, and when to look for deer, and what we should smell like while we’re doing it. We learned about deer blinds and tree stands, driving and stalking, guns and ammunition. I learned that waving your hunter-orange hat is the universal sign for “Don’t shoot me.”
I also learned that I’m not cut out for long stints in the woods, standing still and doing nothing.
There’s a lot of that in deer hunting. Hours and hours of it, sometimes. You stand (or sit), keeping noise and movement to a minimum, trying to act like a tree, listening for a sign of deer. Most hunters I know, while they acknowledge the hardship of it, find good in it as well.
I can’t recall ever taking so much pleasure in simply sitting, eyes closed. My mind went still, letting go of its churning thoughts about the next chapter I would be drafting for my book, or about the research I’m doing in grad school, interviewing hunters who came to the pursuit as adults. I was hardly even thinking about deer.
And he’s not alone. There seems to be an almost universal sense among people who frequent the woods – hunters, campers, hikers – that peace, or freedom, or meaning, is to be found there.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
And I want to be encouraged but, if there’s a gene for finding peace and freedom in the great outdoors, I was born without it. Maybe it’s linked to the gene for musical ability, or negotiation skills. While I think the woods can be very nice, especially when the sun is out and the weather is warm, having to be silent and still in them is, to me, nothing but a chore.
I envy what Wendell Berry and his fellow agrarian contemplatives find in the woods, and although I don’t share their sensibility, I enjoy reading some of them. E.B. White, when he left New York City for a farm in Maine just before the advent of World War II, wrote a number of wonderful essays anthologized in One Man’s Meat. Berry himself writes engagingly about agriculture, although I part company with him on some environmental issues. Walden, for the record, I loathe.
My problem, I think, is that I am soulless. I don’t look for meaning because I don’t believe life has any beyond that with which we endow it with our words and deeds. I think the plants and animals in the woods are interesting, but I don’t find majesty or mystery. My strategy for controlling anxiety is distraction, not contemplation, and sitting quietly with nothing to do doesn’t clear my head. How can your head be clear when the bathtub needs scrubbing? Are the property taxes due? What on earth am I going to make for dinner? Is that a deer tick?
So, in the many hours I spent in the woods over the course of the last two weeks, there was no peace. There was no tranquility. And there sure as hell was no ten-point buck.
But there was a doe. A real, live doe.
I heard her as I stood, still, next to a tree about twenty yards down from a ridge. She came from my right, behind me, and as soon as I heard the leaves rustle I knew it was a deer. A deer doesn’t sound like a squirrel, or a hunter, or the wind. The noise was a set of sharp, quick hoofsteps in the dry leaves. Clip … clip … clip clip.
The sound got closer and I slowly turned around. There she was, maybe thirty yards away, crossing my field of view across the ridge. She was easily in range, but there were two problems. First, I was facing down the slope, and to turn around and get a shot without spooking her would have been difficult. Second, she was right on the ridge line, which meant I couldn’t see what was on the other side of her. One of the cardinal rules of gun safety is to know what’s beyond your target.
She went by behind me and headed down the slope and into the woods to my left. I had a shot. For someone of my minimal skill, it was a long shot, probably fifty yards. It was through trees and brambles, but I had a shot.
I pointed my gun. I saw her head and chest, looking very small above my gun sight. But it took me just a moment too long to line up the notch on the sight with the bead on the muzzle. It wasn’t quite right, and I didn’t have confidence in the shot.
I didn’t take it. She went on her way, out of range.
In eight days of hunting, that’s the only deer I saw. Kevin saw none, although he heard at least two. I am haunted by the sight of her, and how a more experienced hunter would have handled the situation differently and undoubtedly gotten a shot. But I am constrained by the idea that I am out in the woods, with a deadly weapon, inexperienced and unsupervised. While I’d very much like to bring home a deer, my first priority is handling a gun safely and responsibly.
That deer, though, will be what gets me out to brave the cold and the tedium, the ticks and the greenbriar, next year at this time. There will never be tranquility, but there will, some day, be venison.