Watching Hunters

A memory from an old journal of mine…

I am sitting uncomfortably, strapped with my back to a pine, thirty-odd feet off the ground. It’s dark and cold, not yet five a.m. A periodic wind pushes the branchless length of trunk this way and that and cuts through the layers of clothing I wear. The worst part is my feet feel like ice sculptures in my boots. I can’t feel my toes.

I’m on a deer hunt, this autumn of ’91, but just as an observer. It’s bow season and I am unarmed. The men I’ve come with are spaced in hopeful stillness across several miles of night-dark Georgia forest, participants in a ritual much older than recorded time. Hunters. Predators. There is camaraderie, even when everyone is alone, frozen, quiet. Camaraderie building to beers to be shared, observations spoken, well-meant insults inflicted. But now there’s just stillness and darkness and cold.

Uncomfortable as I am, I have a thrilling sense of connectedness, an awareness of how alive I am, and how alive the woods are around me.  This place, this rural, undeveloped parcel of land, still dreams the deep dreams of wilderness, and I, not back in my bed partitioned from the earth’s breath by walls with their own vented, heated breath, am a part of those dreams.

Of course, I’m still cold, regardless. After a time I climb stiffly to the ground and stuff dry leaves between my jacket and shirt, down my pants, into my boots. Leaves are excellent insulation, which is why squirrels make their nests out of them.  I walk in a loose orbit around the tree, a crisp living scarecrow, to work up some heat, then climb back to my perch.

I watch as a distant white touches the easterly sky, hinting of dawn. I think of hunters and the land. Of tradition. Of connectedness, and reverence, and wildness. Of the yearly rituals, considered uncivilized by some, and that is the point exactly. Civilization can leech the blood from experience. Civilization dulls the edge of vitality. And civilization poisons us all–who in their right minds, given the choice, would choose to eat store-bought meat with its steroids and sickly marbled fat, civilization’s entrée, over venison, deer meat, clean and lean and healthy and wild? Experience, too, nourishes, or not, and the clean rawness of nature is essential to full life. That is what this is all about…or should be.

But later, the pack of bearded flannel-clad men reunite, tobacco-spitting stereotypes with pulley-drawn bows of aerodynamic design, and I wonder. From a cooler in one of the pickup trucks, canned beers are passed then guzzled, and after a truck is driven hellbent through a flatland, breaking a new trail, splintering saplings, crushing shrubs, its roar rupturing the cold morning calm, the emptied cans arc to the ground, gleaming seeds of civilization’s progress, planted, to grow, until one day this land too will lose its dream and life will flee and the primal shall peer back at us with a bent back and smoggy eyes…

I watch and say nothing, shamed at my own diplomatic silence and thus accomplice, as guilty as these men, who walk a time-honored, sacred path, thinking themselves part of the earth-and-wood clockwork ticking around them but never quite hearing the music of its rhythms…or the scream of its alarm.

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