The morning came up gray and dull, with little wind. The gray squirrels, not due for perhaps another half-hour, kept to their nests, high up in the trees.
Not time to go on high alert just yet, but the eyes and ears are tuned in anyway, for the deer hunter had learned years earlier that deer can show up, unannounced, at any time, at any hour.
There is a sublime beauty in early morning, despite the chill that can ache old bones, but that will dissipate when the first visitor will almost always be a bird and often enough the gentle, playful black-capped chickadees.
Two mornings earlier, as the deer hunter kept watch, a group of a dozen or more swooped into his area. One chickadee landed on the thick limb of a bull pine, where the deer hunter had secured, from that pine to a red maple some 12 feet apart, the top of his ground blind. Older now and perhaps wiser, he had weaned himself from tree stands, arguably the greatest danger facing any deer hunter, in the deer woods.
Two more chickadees landed nearby, and they sounded off with the familiar “chickadeedeedee” call. The deer hunter cherished these moments and sometimes, he would chastise himself for focusing his eyes and senses on a little bird or some other animated distraction. But as he grew older he began to understand that, for him anyway, deer hunting was more than killing deer. The things he saw, and heard, had taught him that the woods often called to him, over the years, revealing there was more drama, played out, around him if he took the time to notice — and relish — those things.
(In his wonderful, slim book “Wild Moments,” 2004, Ted Williams writes of the sounds made by the chickadee and describes some of them. “They have at least 15 vocalizations, and each bird has a dominance rank within the flock that does not change, even with injury,” he writes. This is, by the way, a wonderful bout of writing, with Williams devoting short essays to a wide variety of subjects, animal and vegetable.)
The deer hunter realized he was reading far more these days, his focus on books now taking precedence over his writing. Why that was, the deer hunter knew not. It was just what it was and sometimes, now late in his years, the deer hunter was more inclined to go with whatever moved him. The writing, the bulk of it anyway, could wait.
And yet, as the years went by and the writing projects mounted, he wondered why he had not become one of those dedicated writers, the ones who, every day, set aside four or five hours to write what was in their heads and in their hearts. Time was running out now that he was in his eighth decade, but it was also true that no writer can make the words appear on a page by simply willing it so; the writer had to be motivated.
That motivation, for the most part, is set aside in the months of October, November and early December when the fall turkey season and the archery, rifle and muzzleloader deer seasons come and go. Deer meat was an important part of the family diet and, thanks to many hours in the woods, four decades of experience and fierce determination, the deer hunter had provided at least one, and sometimes two or three deer if he took the time to stretch his hunting to Maine or New York, every single year since 1988.
Some of these things were swirling around in the deer hunter’s head when he caught just a hint of movement out in the big swamp, perhaps 70 yards away. He brought the 30-30 from his lap and laid it on the rest nailed chest high. Nothing, then more movement, big, brown movement. A deer for certain but the thick cover of the swamp offered no confirmation: doe or buck?
The deer was again consumed by the thickness of the swamp and then the deer did what they often did. It turned and began to walk toward the open hardwoods and, at that moment, it was clear that this deer would not be his. It was a big doe, followed by twin yearlings, their summer spots long gone and their deep brown winter coats in bloom.
He brought the gun back to his knees and took in the scene. Just as the doe stepped into the clearing, she paused, for what seemed like minutes. Her big ears went twisting this way and that, trying to pick up any alien sound. Her nose was up, for a moment, as if she could detect something, but it clearly was not the deer hunter who, at that moment, glanced at the 14-inch length of dental floss, that surefire addition that always told him which way the wind was blowing. And it was blowing right to left, the doe directly out in front now, maybe 35 yards.
The three deer fed but kept on moving, almost constantly, for that is what deer do to stay alive. The deer hunter looked on as the deer turned to his right, then began the climb up the saddle of the big ridge behind him. He turned to watch them as they finally cleared the ridge for he never tired of watching deer come and go. And then they were gone.
Then the deer hunter turned his attention back to swamp and woods out in front of him, knowing, without looking at his watch that perhaps another hour or more of legal hunting time remained. Almost as if to say it is time to leave, a flock of Canada geese flew over, just above the tree tops, a sure sign that landing was near. They honked that sweet chorus only Canadas can deliver and then they were gone.
After the sun vanished behind the big hemlock ridge, off to his right, he gathered up his gear, took one more look around and began his walk back home. No deer today, the old deer hunter thought, but the day was a great success, nevertheless.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org