Thursday, June 26, 2014

For the Hunters Among You - Knights of the Forest

The interior was shadowed and bare, the only furniture visible when I first walked in, a dust covered chair crouching in the corner as if afraid of the light.

The hunting cabin, closed up for almost a year. It was a long drive up here but worth it, I'd rather drive for hours then head to the nearest "Squatters Rights RV campground" where the closest thing to wildlife was the married couple in the next spot that drank too much tequila and had a fight.

When I found the light switch, I saw there was more inside, a couple of couches, covered by a tarp, a small table and 2 more chairs, a sink, though there was no running water, a small refrigerator and some cooking supplies and a supply of jugged  drinking water that had been left here for me as well as what I had packed in. I enjoy tent camping, but by myself this was much better. Putting up a tent on my own entailed cursing and usually bloodletting unless it involves a Pop Up tent (oh good, tent Viagra). I'll go with the cabin any time when I'm on my own.

For it was just going to be myself this weekend, friends off with lovers or family, doing other things. There was plenty to do as I lifted my firearm from its case, the glint of silver easing the gnawing stillness of the lonely room.

I cleaned up, swept and dusted as best I could, preparing stew and biscuits in s cast iron skillet to tide me over for the next couple of nights, some nut butter sandwiches and apple slices to have in my pack for lunches from the blind. There will time later for a table set with game, turkeys bewitched to a dark gold, venison succulent with the juice of life, the laughter of friends. Now is not the time for the feasting but for the gathering

There is no TV, there is no radio. I sit in still quiet, thinking back to the city, right now bustling, growing and dying, buildings lined with amber windows that only hint at their human secrecy to the observer in the streets. People rushing to and fro, the casual innuendo of work relationships, fleeting obligations, names forgotten quickly at tedious meetings. Above, the communal wafer of moon shines bright, surviving the directionless pull that is the city for some.

Soon I was settled in my cabin, far away from the city, the blind out far away in the woods, my footsteps back out just a memory for anyone watching. Before it was even 9 pm, I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag as comfortable as I could be. I was alone but I was not lonely, having found long ago that you can sleep next to the disinterested breath of another and feel more alone than on any night of solitary slumber.

In the morning, I could feel the chill in the air as I had a cup of coffee with my bacon and eggs, over a small campfire, my breath competing with its steam. There's a cold front coming in, and despite the forecast, I know there is a chance of not just hard rain, but thunderstorms. I could imagine the clouds gathering up like an angry crowd even as moonlight bloomed in the trees like faint blue flame. It would be light soon, time to get out in my blind and hope the storm would pass me by.
It was a long hike out. I'd not meant to head out this far away from the cabin, initially planning on setting up a blind within shouting distance of shelter, but sometimes you make that decision, one that every adventurer takes, try that new cave, explore that new trail, put up that blind out where you saw the giant scrape. Let the cowards ponder other things back in the safety of the jeep, it's time to blaze a trail that will either be heartbreak or the profoundly sublime. Acting on intuition and trusting your gut, you risk a new adventure or a 14 point rack.

And possibly a thorough, cold soaking.
The storm was not supposed to be severe. The ones that effect you deeply never are. First, there was nothing but a congealed sky, the blue turning to dark the color of cold and constant night. From the next ridge line came a rumble, or maybe that was my stomach, breakfast had been some time ago. But I didn't wish to get into the pack for the real provisions, as the sky had just spit in my face, a challenge I wasn't in the mood to take on.

The animals sensed it before I had, the forest going silent. The only whitetail I had seen all day was there and gone in a blink of an eye. In just the instant before he saw me, all the light in the sky remaining gathered on him, then he disappeared into shadow. He was there, then he was only a specter of hide and hair.  Then nothing but longing, followed by a clap of thunder that echoed somewhere deep inside.

I should have gone back, but I didn't want to. I only had two days to hunt. I didn't want to pack up the cabin and head back to the city. For a couple of weekends each year, the woods are mine, brief moments of time away from the drudgery of pavement and obligations. Time away from loss and explanations and time in a suit that doesn't allow me to breathe. Those moments in the woods are necessary moments stolen and taken back to reside in what, outside my home, is often a cold, windowless place.

It's not easy sitting still, sitting in what others would call silence, listening only to the hearts whispered confidences, conversing silently with your own regrets.

But if you are patient, and you are completely still, there in the distance you may hear it. Not the birds nor the brook, but the soft crunch of leaves, scarcely a sound yet, almost sound anticipated, yet to reach the ear. There it is again, drifting into your hearing, then ebbing away again, sound dying softly on a trail that's leading away from you. It's gone.

You tell yourself it was a three legged, one eyed, scrawny button buck not worthy of the shot, while down inside you have a mental picture of tines with a spread of two and a half feet and a form that blots out all sound that you will make.
You knew there are deer here. Creatures living shadowy in the limbo from which time began, moving around and away from time, away from you. Forms moving right around you, as your heart sounds out that beat of time, going too fast. If only you could see with the eyes that all hunters have. You know they are close, moving in and out of the sun's glare, flirting with you with grunts and snorts, hot air from soft muzzles, challenging you to the dual that only one of you will win.

They drink from quiet pools in which autumn leaves slowly die, drifting on the cold waters with the motion of sleep.  You've seen the signs, the rubs, the scrapes, those measured indentations made of testosterone and bold youth. Signs of the whitetail, rising out of the deep quiet and the sleep. Look quick, listen close, for soon the marks would be gone, disappearing with astonishing speed as leaves blew past, as if relinquishing themselves back to the earth, where you, the hunter, are but a transient.
You wonder, do they hear me? The sharp intake of breath in the cold air, the hammering of my heart that to me sounds like a cacophony. That sound that pounds in your ears and you imagine every creature in the forest can hear it. When the hunters urge comes on full, strong; legs, arms, muscle, need. Memory from the times before memory existed, wired into us, that comes from those that survive. The moment passes, the sound was but a tree limb coming down, and you are left with the clear lucidity that adrenalin brings, resting your hand, quieting your heart. Be still, so we are not heard. Be still so no one notices the trembling of your form, the tear as it forms in quiet pools. Still, as your body trembles with anticipation.

There's nothing else like it. That unforgettable sense of openness. The profound and brooding woods, that lives quietly in me in the city as I bustle around in sterile wear, the look of the hunter in my eye behind the safety glasses, not visible to those around me, the fire hidden deep inside. Then later, the hot and wet and cold and warm hands on skin, peeling off clothing, fresh flannel, hot stew, warm coffee, renewal.
 
So I stayed out longer than I should and getting caught in a cloudburst was my cover charge. It wasn't a dangerous storm, even I knew well not to head out into the tall trees during one of those. It was the short squalling tantrum of a baby cumulus that would throw its fit against a tired Mother earth, then just as quickly cry itself into sleep again, longing for something it can not articulate.
Even so, any thunderstorm out in the open is dangerous, so I found shelter as best I could, avoiding the tallest trees, with lightning cracking within a few miles. The poncho is quickly pulled out of the pack and donned, another to cover my rifle and gear. I settled down to wait, rivulets of water running down my face, thoughts retreating like tide, exposing a bare landscape of fire and blood, rock and water.

I thought of my first whitetail hunt, taught the craft by those that loved me, passing down a tradition of survival and preparedness. I field dressed the animal with coaching but no hands on assistance, there in the fading light, my bloody hands consecrating to us that which was, by God's will and man's patience, accepted as a gift. I grew up that day, in more ways the one, having learned and watched and waited, until I was ready to handle my firearm, ready to use it as a responsible steward of the land, looking at the deer on the ground, the first worthy blood I had been worthy to take. Sacrifice with grace, for which we are both thankful and repentant.
The rainfall soon snubbed that recollection, memories growing quiet in the tears of the heavens. It would be a brief outburst so I stayed still, and quiet, there under a tree whose leaves were torn fabric against the rain. I did not want to give away my position should there be any chance of a hunt once the storm passed. I simply waited, watching closely the landscape, golden leaves waving up to the clouds that gallop past, tails flicked up with the movement. I've lived long enough to know that it will pass, learning about weather from hunting, and from flying.

It's knowledge I wouldn't give up to take myself back to my youth again. For I wouldn't be twenty-something again for the world. I have no desire to relive that time when you've not gotten through all those troubles that will take you to where you can take a few weeks off from work, head outdoors and sit in a tree blind, tasting the peace and savor of freedom.
But Mother Nature is never easy, and I've camped under the open stars watching the fireflies twinkle (holy smoke! Those are BATS!), by choice and sometimes by accident. You do your best with what you have, and you hope you make the right decisions. Sometimes the decisions seem to happen by themselves, as if found at the end of an invisible chain, sometimes they are long drawn out thoughts, held in the hand and dreamt of in the night before taking human form.

In this case, the "right decision" led me to seeking shelter away from the tree stand, semi squatted on the ground on a tarp under the smallest trees I could find, as far away from the tall trees as possible. My non essential gear is wet and I think the bats carried off the horse I call "Jeep",  two days ago. The ground is cold and my food is cold and everything edible may well be soaked except that one last plastic wrapped sandwich. And you know, I wouldn't trade this for a day of meetings for anything in the world.
There I waited, as the sun slowly reappeared, waiting being my only option, watching a seasons worth of tracks blotted out by the unhurried Sunday shower. So many tracks gone but not forgotten there in the annealing lightning, the silent footprints of ghost deer, my shadow on what was once their bed, my vision on a landscape their eyes had already lost, hidden there under a tree.

From above a growing patch of blue and in the retreating army of cloud, a brief, violent crack. Was that lightning, or a blackpowder rifle there up in the hills? There was no telling, but the sound broke an awkward pause in the day, and the landscape breathed again. A bird twittered, and from below me, squirrels argued politics The dome of perfect blue settled back over the earth, the breeze gentle and uninterrupted by moisture. I smiled, and quietly got back up in my blind, slumping back against the tree with the posture of survivors at the end of a crises. The storm has passed.
I pull my firearm out from where it's been kept dry, for no amount of fire or rain can challenge what is stored in a hunters ghostly heart, and my firearm has seen me through both, with neither pity or scorn for the travails. We waited, the Winchester and I, and waited some more, hoping that with the clearing of the air, man's smell washed from the area, a few deer would roust themselves out before dark.

All things come to he who waits. And she.

For there, with the sun just starting to yawn and dip in the sky, a buck passed by. He was young, still with much life ahead of him. Not a fat doe, but a youth, a skinny forest hooligan, tempting fate by being out past his curfew. But I was beginning to shiver, a sign I needed to get back to the cabin, and soon. Yet, this is what I came out for, I told myself and I raised my weapon. The squirrels paused, and for yet another moment that day, the forest missed a breath, my hands coming up, shivering stopped, only blood and desire and life pulsing in my ear, my own breath waiting, trembling, held in as the my finger draws back.
And I gently released it, the little buck bolting off into the shadows. I'm hunting alone. If I taken the shot I'd get a little bit of additional venison to add to the freezer but there is a good chance with the location combined with onset of dark, that I won't be able to get  him dressed and out of there before all light was gone. Like the deer, I will run out of life that can be lived long before I've exhausted every possibility of that life. Especially if I get pneumonia again, this time from being stupid. It wasn't worth it for what at the most would put 40 pounds of meat in the freezer.

We all take paths that seem exciting at the time, as we travel the wilderness of a heart, of a landscape. Everything is as it seems to be, you're not mindful of the dangers. Yet sometimes, the sky clears, you look carefully at where you're at, and realize the wisest thing to do is to walk away, clean and with as little blood as possible.
As I headed back in to the cabin, I checked the fire I'd started that morning to cook my breakfast outside as I enjoyed my coffee, then put out  I'd checked before, it only takes a spark to start a forest fire, though it takes an entire box of matches to get a campfire going. But I checked again, anyway, even though it rained, moving one of the rocks that contained it away. The rock was still warm, not enough to pull my fingers away, but enough that it possessed a luminance heat, not the sort that would burn, but a slow steady warmth that the dying fire may scorn, rain would dilute, but only time could truly deplete.
 
I picked it up and held it in my hand, feeling it cool. Not everything of strength and density is cold. Watching a drip of water fall to the ground I thought, even a stone can weep.
They say that the waters of the Lord can wash away sins, that mountain water cleanses the earth. But what of weakness and regret? What of that one moment of pity for that we are about to diminish, there in that cracking moment when something ceases to live. That moment there between speed and splendor and the casting off of a shell casing. I live off of the land, and as such, by need or necessity, I've taken life to survive or protect. Yet tonight, I could not, for reasons beyond the logical ones.

The rain was letting off to thin drops that trailed like dew upon my brow, but it was almost pitch dark before the trail led me back to the cabin, with thoughts of warmth and food, refreshing tonic to my brain, the smell of kerosene and leather bringing heat to parts of me too long cold. I peel off my damp clothes, a strand of long hair plastered to my breast like warriors paint, hands gathering wood and tinder into flame, fingers still damp with glistening drops.

Another crack of thunder splits the night, and somewhere tonight, blood, hot and dense, bringing both pleasure and pain, will soak into the ground, starting the cycle of life again. From the woods a cry of an animal lingered long on the air, leaving on the breeze the thin echo of regret.  Tonight a small whitetail lives another day, as do I

I pour a glass of whisky, and raise a quiet toast to the night.
 - Brigid

14 comments:

  1. An awesome compilation of activities made so visual, I could almost see myself there. Wait I have been there! It is such a relaxing, peaceful place. Thanks for sharing this excellent story. Uncle Al

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  2. Maybe you can get out for another hunt this fall, the doe are leading the fawns around our farm and the bucks have velvet covered stalks that soon will branch into usually 4 or 6 and sometimes 8 points. Something to look forward to!

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  3. uncle al - your comment made my day. I know that many of my readers don't hunt, and these posts aren't popular (though I'd like to do a little book of them next) but it's very much a part of my past, hopefully my future again.

    Sunnybrook Farm - Farmer Frank always let Og and I hunt his place, but since his stroke, that land may well not be available. We really don't care, we just want him to get back where he can kick ass on that four wheeler like he used to. I have a coworker that has a small spot of land with a tree farm that I'm open to hunt on, and a pond that draw the whitetails in. But the last two years, it POURED on the weekends that were my turn to have a spot there.

    Anything longer than a day or two is out,for all my vacation is a dance card filled out with just my 94 year old Dad's name on it. My husband even did a one weekend honeymoon so we could go out and spend a week with Big Bro before he died and time to go out again to comfort Dad when it happened.

    I have good people in my life.

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  4. Beautifully said, and no, sometimes it's not worth taking the shot...

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  5. You took me with you again Doc, thanks.

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  6. I am not a hunter, although I respect those that do and consider it almost an art to be able to hunt successfully. As usual I see more in the post than just one topic :) so it was a great read filled with all kinds of mind candy. Sometimes it's about what you can do, more than what the end goal is suppose to be.

    Yes, you do have good people around you. And vice versa.

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  7. Always enjoy your stories - often wish I was there. Sometimes I have been.

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  8. Meanwhile I came home to a deer on the front porch and two others eating our shrubbery :D

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  9. A wise man once told the "there's a reason they call it hunting and not getting."

    I have more fond memories from the times I didn't bring my prey in than from the times I did.

    Thank you for sharing yours. Makes me look forward to the time I can get back out there.

    SteveG

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  10. I understand how busy life can get,and how there is little time to spare for 'leisure activities'.But those are the times of our lives that getting into the woods means the most-to decompress for an afternoon is sometimes more rewarding than having a week's vacation to spend.
    Every chance to get outdoors for even a few hours is so worth it.

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  11. Jeff Cooper quoted the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: "One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted."

    Very true, but there are other circumstances. On several occasions, I held an accurate and powerful firearm and watched decent, legally shootable game animals within easy range and elected not to take the shot. I didn't choose to give up hunting, only to do what anglers call "catch and release."

    Sometimes stored-up memories are fully as valuable as another set of antlers or a few meals of venison. I just wish I could express this as eloquently as you have.
    JPG

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  12. Life sometimes decides that some pleasure activities have to be postponed. For a year, for a decade, for longer. And then, sometimes, things change and you get to partake in those pleasures once again.

    I've not hunted for several years. Life decided there were more important uses for my time. I will hunt again. Or I won't. Only time can tell. My job is to be willing to ride the wave of time and enjoy the ride, no matter where it takes me.

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