Greeting the first of the sun’s rays, our Hillstead comes alive with birdsong. Squirrels and chipmunks are abundant and have been taking advantage of the warmer-than usual weather by noisily grabbing the remainder of hickory nuts, acorns, and black walnuts during the day. Flocks of birds hundreds strong gather and rest in the treetops, then all at once take wing due West. Days are short and nights are long. The wind changes direction frequently, but prevails uphill in the mornings and downhill in the evenings, taking with it the fog and the scent of the neighbor’s pine trees. I was learning the ebb and flow of the natural world around me, and in some small way, becoming a part of it. I’d thought deeply regarding my ancestors- those whom for thousands of years relied on deer and other game to feed their families though the long winters. For them, the cold, the wind, the trees and the Earth were a singular part of everyday existence. The wild open places were as much of a home to them as the shelters they built. How far removed I am from them, when a cup of coffee, a warm fire, and Chinese leftovers await my return from the outdoors.
It was Saturday, December 4th. I’d been out in the woods for a week daily, usually for around 6 hours a day. I’d experienced quite mornings, cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow, and beautiful sunsets. I’ve set up in tree stands, rocky outcrops, brush blinds, and the lower pastures where deer like to bed down for the day. I’ve followed tracks, examined trails, looked for fresh sign from one edge of the property to the other. I’ve spent long hours practicing with my tools to ensure a fast, painless harvest- it was my first attempt in 23 years and calling me “rusty” would have been a kindness a year ago.
This particular Saturday was windy, with intermittent unseasonal rain. I made the not-so-very difficult choice of staying in after my chores were completed and worked on my meal list for the week. Around 4PM I was in the kitchen, stirring some rice into the duck soup I had been preparing. Through the window-box I observed two deer near the garshed. Thinking it was Bill and Ted (the twin yearlings I’d seen several times previously) come to mock me, I called Sarah over to take a look at them. She headed out the front door for a better look and to take some photos. After she had left I noticed that one of the deer wasn’t a yearling at all, but rather a large doe. Noting that the deer somehow hadn’t been roused, I ran for my .308, left through the garage, and slowly made my way over to the side of the house.
During this time, Charlie had also exited the house to watch the deer from the front porch. I passed my family as I walked, motioning for quiet, and I remember Sarah telling Charlie to be ready to cover his ears. The yearling was up the hill about 50 feet, the doe somewhere below, out of sight. In a few moments she made her appearance and starting grazing not more than 30 yards in front of me, broadside, with little regard for the humans watching her.
The wind stilled as I knelt. I swallowed, and propped my left elbow over my knee for stability. I exhaled, aimed, and took my shot. She jumped, kicking her legs out so high she almost did a tumble-sault. She ran up the hill after the yearling, but my shot was well-placed and she quickly fell after only 25 feet. I turned and walked back to my family; they had stood and watched me take the life of this deer. I saw in their eyes a kind of bewilderment- what had just happened? Did that really just happen? We all stood with the moment as it turned toward excitement and relief. After a week invested in hunting and seeing very little to bolster my belief that there would be a deer worth harvesting on our property this season, this doe had presented herself to all of us. We thanked her for feeding us and honored her wild, beautiful spirit as the sun set over the Western ridges.