Monday, April 30, 2018

The Zen of a Deer Stand

It rose above me, much higher than I remembered, certainly higher than I'd seen it in the summer. Perhaps it was the light, but I'd bet it had simply grown with the tree, the structure impervious to the laws of metallurgy, but not imagination.  I stood below, unmoving, making no sound, inert on the forest floor, out of some reserve of  the summers idleness, or simply that virtue of caution. All I remember is looking up at it, feeling the weight of what was in my hand, and wondering, for just a moment, if it was too late to go back to bed.

It was my first deer stand.  I'd hunted from the ground but never from a tree. I was surprisingly nervous, not about the cold, as I'm part polar bear, or about the firearm. It was an old Belgium Browning 20 gauge semi auto - we'd spent many mornings together and were comfortable together, hard steel against warm flesh. I was comfortable with the area. I'd walked carefully into the woods, trying to mimic a deer as much as I could in my walking, walk a few steps, listen, and then walking a few more and stopping. I didn't step onto the deer trails or walk down them, taking advantage of some shelter belts and low spots so hopefully the deer didn't see me, setting up where I would hunt prior to the rut.

I'd learned much from my friends, and a few things for myself (don't, repeat, don't breath deeply of that bottle of Tinks wondering "hey I wonder what this smells like"). Safety had been drilled into me, I was in great physical shape (i.e. I had adequate padding built into my frame in case I fell down). They all thought I was ready. I wasn't so sure. I was sure about the darkness, the solitude, the firearm and my fears.  I wasn't so sure about climbing a ladder carrying all of that with me.

Climbing it in the dark, in what would likely be continued snow squalls, holding a fairly hefty firearm, was about as settling to the spirit as riding the Raptor at Cedar Point after a chili dog. We left the house early, the two of us branching off, hunting different areas of the many acres we were on. I got to my stand alone, the moon glinting off the metal of its frame, that part that wasn't coated with shards of ice, and I felt something I hadn't felt in a while. Adrenalin fueled by fear.

If you could see adrenalin you could see it here, trickling down the rosy, soft cheek of a novice hunter.   I stood at the foot of it looking up. It's only a tree blind. I'm not afraid of heights. I'm a pilot, I've hiked high up in the back country. Why does this silly tree stand make me nervous? It has neither teeth or "easy to use instructions", how difficult can it be?

I look up again, calculate the distance. There is bounce potential here. If I fall I could break my neck. Sure I'd fallen before, a  painful spill off of a ladder before fueling  an aircraft. The tarmacs harder than the forest floor but that ladder wasn't near this high.  Get back on the horse.  Plato called it a horse, as he comprehended how blind emotion could overtake reason , and if we are going to conquer our fear we must pull in the reigns on emotion and keep that horse under control. I just never expected the horse to be so, well . . . . tall and, well, frosty.  I looked at the ground near my feet, subconsciously, not sure if I was expecting to see the tracks of a horse or the bones of those the tree stand had slain.

Here I am, the kid that jumped off a garage with a blanket parachute, stopped dead in my tracks by something as simple as a series of steps up into a tree. My Norwegian Grandmother could have climbed this.  She'd be at the top already saying "look I have coffee!" It's just a ladder. Really. It's amazing the things our mind tells us that prompts that hesitation for something we so desperately want.

It's a tree, not a mountain, impassable, and it's not my destiny to climb it, it's simply my desire, it only remains for me to follow. I looked up at it, and up and said "Lord. . ?" But He did not answer, perhaps because He gives men time; time that can be afforded to them, as He has eternity and is eternally unchanging. I took that silence from above as my call to take what was within me and just make up my own mind. For although my Faith is deep, I know as well I'm made up of equal parts of Free Will and Win.

There is a Korean martial art called Kum Do, which involves some very sharp swords and in its original form, a fight to the death. Now, in our kinder and gentler day, bamboo sticks are used, (no really, that's blood, it just looks like chocolaty fingerprints). But many of the moves that survived the ensuing centuries were developed to shake blood off the blade so that the coagulating blood didn't dull the edge. Kum Du teaches students to avoid what is known as the four poisons of the mind "fear, confusion, hesitation and surprise". The constant tendency of men to anticipate and predict an event is a disadvantage, for in Kum Do if you let your natural inclination of prediction run loose, you could get a surprise, leading to confusion and then death (or a really sharp whack with that damn bamboo pole).

So I stood there in the companionable science of the trees, with the answer that bubbled up from inside, an answer born of time and training . My heart beat faster and faster and I knew that with that first step up, when I married that unutterable vision of desire to my perishable breath and mind,  like the first time I picked up a firearm and put a hole through the target where I wanted it to go,  my fear would not  take over and I could do this.

The snow has abated, the sky, for a moment, was clear and there was a short span of calm in the trees as the wind had died down, waiting patiently for the next squall. I'd spent years learning about hunting and tracking and this old Browning. All the acts, conditions and decisions of a lifetime had brought me here to this day, this little spot in time.  It was time to simply get off my butt and climb.

I affixed a temporary orange blaze band on the trunk so others would know I was in this area, this tree, and up I went.  The tingling excitement for me that is the change of summer to fall or the anticipation of a touch, was there, but there was something beneath. Stubbornness, yes, but also a sense of that feeling you have as a kid when you ride your first bike without training wheels. Small moments in life, never forgotten. I'm glad no one was filming the ascent, but I made it.

There, settled in, I could see through breaks in the branches to two open corn fields, set among the forest. Moving shadows stalked the edges, one could well be a big buck, they like the tree lines. A hunter, I am in my element, the smell impending winter brushing my face, the scent of woodsmoke and leaves that I love so much carried on a wind that's as unpredictable as the future. I couldn't  predict how this day would end. I could only breathe deep the incredible view and hold onto this moment, this breath, the only thing I know I have for sure.

My trusty Browning lay across my lap, as my fingers clenched and unclenched, keeping the blood moving through them in the bitter morning cold.  I stayed in the blind all day, the snow coming and going in a brief tango with the sun that tried to add some heat to the dance, seeing a couple of button bucks, with years to their life I was not ready to take, and several chattering squirrels.

I knew there were some nice bucks around, I'd seen the scrapes, but with the wind, they were not to be seen.  For now I could only sit, hand firm on the Browning, to watch and listen, as I imagined unseen deer bounding their shadows into the ground, just beyond the realm of my sight, the limit of my hearing.

I looked around, across the small field.  Not more than a mile or two, a house, soon another house.  In a couple years, there'd be a subdivision, the land was pristine but its doom was its beauty and soon it will be dotted with dwellings as the deer moved further out.

But not for a while yet, the fox and the whitetail and the chattering birds, by measure tranquil and garrulous, sharing this quiet spot. From the darkness behind me, the grunt of a buck, hiding in shadows.The forest was the same as it was a hundred years ago, the scene flat and introspective under the cover of snow, set against a window background of space and November and an afternoon filled with steady search of its corners for the movement of a whitetail.

A sudden sound brought me to the present, a shot ringing out from far away, a sound that even after a hundred years, surprises the forest.   The woods grew silent, birds took to the air as if propelled by a cannon, the whitetail fled, shattering the virgin air with a leap through the brush at that first loud volley of time and doom that was another year of the hunt.

There were  no more deer seen nor heard that day.

As the sun began to drop in the horizon, I was amazed in the lapse of time, the evening approaching, seeming like a mere moment.  I'm likely not alone in thinking that time spent in the woods is not subtracted from our life, but is simply added over and above our usual allowance. The same Oriental philosophers that fueled my study of the martial arts talked about contemplation and the forsaking of work, and I realized out here, what that means.

Out in a tree stand I didn't care how the hours sway, the day advanced as light came into it' it's dawn, and now it's evening and nothing more memorable was done than taking a chance at putting dinner on the table for the winter months. My day was not a day of work, minced into deadlines of a ticking clock.   The morning was still, the afternoon passed in a slow and steady scout of the surrounding area, seeking game, seeking sustenance, and if the day was wasted, as some might say, coming home empty handed to a four legged black dog, as nature sang in my ear, what was the harm?

As the sun wept into the tree line, I walked from the woods, towards the house, waiting, humming with light out into the darkness, small footsteps into damp earth only a small noise under looming stars. Looking back, I could see the tree stand, not seeming nearly as tall as it was this morning. It waited silently, there, where tomorrow, if I was lucky, I could climb it again and breath deep the incomparable liquor of wonder that is the woods from above.

The woods began to fade into darkness.  From above the birds again erupted into song, without wind now but with Pentecostal fire, singing out the remaining moments in a short life between melting and freezing, the souls sap flowing. Breathing, desiring, as the trees of the woods and the liquid tranquility of a rushing stream speak or a mere small red-winged songbird sings. A tiny bird who truly believes that in this moment, we're eternal, and for this instant, may very well be.

I  stopped and sat under a blue spruce where shadows and dreams forever lie,  pulled my Browning close to me and silently sang along.


  1. Time in the woods is truly a Zen time... Beautifully said!

  2. Height does not bother me - but shaky things, such as ladders, are my mortal enemies......


  3. Guts..silence and listening...


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