The last weekend, the wind whipped like a banshee through the trees and the deer were not moving. But still the hunters go back out, not to give up just because of one or two mornings coming home cold, hungry and empty handed.
It had been a stormy night, as I headed out that Fall morning. I walked out, alone, Marlin with .357 pistol loads in hand, with an errant thundershower lingering, perhaps scuttling any plans I had to hunt without getting wet. The deer might well be hunkered down. Yet, as clouds broke into dawn drenched laughter, I could imagine one nice little buck poking his head out at first light, hoping for first dance with the prom queen. Some creatures just have a hard time sitting still, even if their life is half over. There's fields to prance through, endless chasms of corn rows to cross, horizons that tilt and change with a jump of a hospitable farmer's fence. Some living things just can not disregard their souls natural response to living, for they somehow sense that, though they might grow old, it would be with regret.
I think I'm the only one out here, the ground damp, the air biting cold. But I revel in it, as most hunters do. Smelling the rain on the heavens and feeling the wind on my face as I stride towards the tree stand up ahead, the horizon full of things hinted but not yet seen.
For too many years, I spent little time afield, taking care of parents, family, cattle, someone else's dreams. So what if I didn't pick up a shotgun or a rifle for 12 years, I have them now. With them, there's new adventures, the jumbled trail that is a chucker hunt, the fog shrouded lovers touch that is opening day of duck season in Arkansas. Better a belated and streaming dawn than a life lived in twilight, my old Browning would say, if that old Belgium grade steel could talk.
Hunters are unusual people, yet we are rather simple in our ways. We know, but don't always gleefully await, that alarm going off at 3 am, but we eagerly jump up from our warm bed at the call, for it is a dawn that few see, evocative and inspiring. The streaming dawn, that despite the early morning, reaches out and grabs us into an alertness coffee can't provide.
We are hunters. We know the fields of Indiana and the deep sigh of darkness that lies in the middle of swampy ground somewhere down in Arkansas. We know the mornings drenched in pine, the varied scents of a field in Northern Iowa and the up and down escalator drill that is that last minute trip to Cabelas. We've walked a grid of open dirt, or homed into a tree like a coon dog, racing the sun to our blind, hoping to get in before Mr. Buck awakes. We have politely waited for that same sun to come up, reveling in the clear sparkling crispness that is an November morning.
Hunters remember bucks. We remember the does that entice them. We remember quail and pheasant and that elusive, damnable bird called a chucker. We delight in the perfect clarity of a 12 pointer through a new scope and remember a late night waltz down an ice slicked path, retreating to a camp or a farm house with that buck only a memory.
For many of us it began with a simple Daisy Rifle, then on to a Remington or a Browning and later the latest in sight technology and scopes. But whatever we carry, be it new or old, we all understand misfeeds, that branch that got in the way, and finding yourself sodden, including your ammo, when the forecaster lied like a Senate appropriation meeting. But no matter what we carry, the latest and the greatest, or grandpa's beloved shotgun, there is still something that all of us must always comprehend and that is the nature of the wild. Wherever we are, and with whatever we have, we strive to out-hunt complacency, that one thing that can end our day on a uncorrectable note of finality.
We are hunters. We relish the cheerful warmth of that first cup of coffee and the pause of an ice cold beer in front of the fire when the day is done. My generation and my fathers speaks as if old friends of 1911's and Remington's and Colt, cap and ball, not cap and trade. We understand the vagrancies of black powder and the shoulder numbing retort of 50 cal. We recall with pride, the fierce roar that was our first double barreled shotgun. We reminisce over the vast remote landscapes of Alaska and Colorado and Wyoming, of tears and blood and swear, while the young ones have no such memory, spending their time pitting themselves against a video game.
Hunters speak a language handed down from generation to generation and only slightly understood by their non hunting partner. We banter about airwash and anchor point, quiver and quartering. We know the difference between purr and putt and can talk for hours about racks and score, conversations that have nothing to do with the opposite sex.
But when it's time to get into the woods and into the blind, there is no chatter, the concentration being almost tactile. For though we have tasted the insulation of the woods and feel comfortable within its borders, we know too well the adrenalin surge of approaching game, the feel of hairs on our arms standing up in a predators natural response. In that moment as our quarry comes into view we know more than the desire for it, we know conviction and clarity even as our brain telegraphs the movement of our hand to the trigger of our firearm, making sure we are certain, of both the target and ourselves.
For we respect the power of our firearm, and know what it means to fight for the right to carry it, to fight for what we believe in. That is the uncommon faith of man's innate need to take from our environment what we need to live and nothing more, tending the forest, being conservators of the trust God has given us.
We respect our weapon and we respect the inordinate right that we have to carry it. But just as calmly as we trust in our abilities, we also believe in the capriciousness of this world, and of predators both two and four legged. There's not one of us that hunts deep within the wild, where we are not the largest creature on the food chain, that forgets that we may tested in a face off against something unseen, of large fang and claw, that will pit our every ability against a red stroke of fate.
We are hunters. We are male and female, young and old, wealthy or poor in pocketbook but never in spirit. We have small cars and big trucks, tattooed with flags and jumping fish and the symbols of our service. We are unabashedly proud of being an American, family people at home and in the deepest part of our landscape.
We know the overwhelming beauty of a Midwest sky as the sun seeps into the deep purple horizon and the pristine beauty of the sun's reemergence after a long, cold night in a sleeping bag. We remember the sentient rows of corn guiding us to feathered warriors and the winding roads deep into a forest in which the wild turkey plays. In such places, with only a mug of coffee and a chunk of bread we've held our own Communion with God in the sanctity of the the land he created, land He trusted us with, as its stewards. It's a Pentecostal fire that turns our fingers blue, as we warm them with the blessings of this days breath.
We've seen time stop, seconds stuttering into slow motion by the sheer moment of a group of elk, one so large, and moving fast, the others following like dark ghosts, not running, but merely keeping pace with the looming might of the largest rack we've ever seen, worshipping in its shadow. Game, appearing out of no where, as if from thin air they were formed, just for this moment, from prayers unsaid.
We walked miles across Iowa cornfields, as if we didn't hurry we could lose the birds forever, tireless, eager, propelled by only the tiny little hammering of our heart, and the deep panted breathing of our bird dog, Then just as quickly, stopping, as if struck down, watching the dog point, and the sky exploding into flight, our whole world coalesced in bright sunlight. We've experienced that moment when time merges into that one spot of sun and sky and dog and hands , the sun glinting off a watch that portends a moment here, forever, then gone with the blast of our Dad's old Remington.
We've watched a deer emerge, as if summonsed by our thoughts. One minute, a blank landscape, the next minute, only hide and hair and rack and breath, his, your own, as your hands hesitate like the first rush of love. There, in that millisecond between want and need, your hands find that trigger in the windless days hot dalliance and he's gone. Gone as if he never was, as if he was only some adolescent dream of desire.
We've toasted those hunts, both successful and unsuccessful under the northern lights. We've seen horizontal rain and microbursts of leaves shaken down by a turkey coming down to do battle. We've seen quiet things no one would believe, things that only those that embrace the outdoors might see, and we're hooked on it. Not for the food, though that bounty is appreciated in a country kitchen, but as something that's hard to put name to, a reasoning beyond ego that is the freedom of the outdoors. It's pitting our skills against something as elemental as a whitetail deer, something ingrained in us, an essential element of our being.
I'm almost at my tree blind, the sun peeking out and I hope that the weather will allow for some food for my table this winter. But for now I have my Marlin. I have my solitude, as I settle into where I will hunt. It is that solitude I have found no other place but a cockpit, one that wavers slow as I lean back against a tree and close my eyes for just a moment, breathing deep. Head thrown back I stick my hand out into air the temperature of a lover's soft breath, trailing my hand in the wind, sensing it's direction and how it might give my position away. Time strolls by like a day at the seashore until the sun bursts from the horizon.
I don't have much, but I have this, the breeze, fresh air to cool me quick, to blow out of my eyes and my brain and my blood all the would make me stressed and weary. My hands rest on the stock of my rifle, I follow with my eyes, the waving branches of the forest, looking for one small movement, as sounds dissolve into dying leaves.
This wouldn't be anything that you'd see on outdoor TV, no lights or fancy equipment. I'm simply a hunter, in a circle of trees where at somber intervals tall branches shift and moan in the strained winds musings, dropping their leaves, leaving their signs. I patiently wait, waiting for game, watching for my own signs. I look out across the forest, a lonely figure, yet not alone. I look up into the sky that lies prone and subdued in the embrace of this season of life and death, a season I understand all too well.
There's no place I'd rather be.