Monday, September 19, 2011

Comfort and Redemption

We hunted last weekend.  Finally.

We were hunting deer on alfalfa fields.  It's a vastly different operation than our gun deer hunt in the woods up north come November.  Here in Wisconsin, farmers can apply for crop damage deer shooting permits, allowing hunters to shoot antlerless deer on their property.  And "shooting" might be a better term than "hunting" in this case.  There isn't a ton of strategy involved.  Generally speaking, the farmer knows when and where the deer tend to come out in the fields.  We simply hunker down in a blind or behind some bales, and wait.  It's a good system.  The farmer gets relief from some of the damage caused by the deer nibbling away at his livelihood, the hunters get to stock the freezer.

I enjoy being the one of the youngest men in this particular crew.  I don't think we need to go all new-age here, proclaiming the virtues of hunting with and learning from one's elders, but there is an element of that.  There are plenty of opportunities for me to shut up and listen to the older guys, but more so, to laugh along with them as they tell the stories of the camps, the decades-long narrative of that thing that brings us all together up there.  Over the past 15 years I've even managed to insert myself into a tale or two, but I enjoy the ones that occurred when I was still toddling around with my hand in my mouth more.  They have a sort of mystical quality about them.

Those old stories... nobody bullshits their friends on purpose, but we all know that the great tales have a tendency to grow a bit over time.  The feats of strength and endurance tend to take on a life of their own, while the misses and defeats fade away.  It's one part how we cope with life in general and one part plain good story telling.  And there's nothing better than sitting around the fire or table, and just listening.  These guys have lived up here.  They know the country, they know the people, and they have decades and decades of great stories.  Every once in a while I even hear a new one, and that's just gilding the lily in the best way possible.

One of the only drawbacks to being just about the only one in camp with all my hair is that most of these aging buzzards are retired.  So by the time I arrived to join them on this trip, they already had one doe in the freezer.  Fair enough, three permits to go.

They were out on one of the fields when I pulled in.  After a four hour drive, I was more than a little antsy to get started.  I was in that adrenaline spike zone -- excited, trying to remain calm, but just the smallest bit shaky.  The zone where you have to take that little moment just to be sure you aren't tying your bootlaces together.  I had to make a couple trips back to my truck after hastily changing clothes in the driveway, but finally, I got my act together and it was time.

I stopped by the bales at the end of the field to check in with Rog before I went out.  As I cut through the woods to get there, I caught a glimpse of him through the trees.  I could see he was in the zone too.  A different one.  Completely still but alert, he was leaning against the bales, eyes intent on the field in front of him, rifle laid out at the ready.  A picture of a happy guy, content to be doing something he's comfortably good at.

It was time for one of those small details I think many hunters overlook in their memories, but I adore -- the whispered skull session afield.  You stand a little too close to each other, kind of stilted over like old men.  Being careful to minimize movement and sound, you whisper the plan.  We aren't curing hunger here, but there's an intensity to the information exchange.  There are guns involved, and hopefully death.  With multiple hunters hunting together in the area, we need to be sure we know where everybody is sitting and who is shooting which way.  This hushed conference, men making a plan, is almost always the final prelude to the actual act of hunting in a group.  Basically hunting foreplay, with all the same butterflies and endorphins.  Just don't start taking your clothes off.

I slowly walked around the corner of the irregular, hilly field.  Taking care to check all the angles for deer, I eventually took a position on an edge of the field, attempting to melt into the cover of the woods.  I sat back in with the secrets of the trees, just trying to be still at first.  There is no switch you can throw, no button to push to force yourself into that quiet state after spending so much time in town, racing around with nary a care to quiet and stillness.  Sure, we are out there to gather meat.  You can't paint with a wide Rockwellian brush here.  This is a bloodsport, and we do it to kill animals and eat them.  There's no getting around that.  But I think, even more than that, most of us are hunting for that quiet.  That bit of serenity that only comes in the midst of wind and sun, trees and grass.    While your eyes and ears remain on full alert for the duration of the hunt, the back of your mind is free to wander.  It continues on at full speed for a while, tumbling through lists and goals, objectives that must be reached.  But then, as if calmed by your surroundings, it subsides.  When all goes well, you are soon simply just being.  Sitting there taking it in.  This is why I do it.  Buddhists and yogis would call it meditation, and I suppose it is.  Meditation with a loaded weapon.

I settled in, rehearsing in my mind all the probable shooting scenarios that might present themselves, to enjoy one of the other perks of the first hunt of the year -- cold.  It was a gorgeous sunny day, but tucked merely feet back into the forest, you could feel the damp chill.  Winter lying it wait for us, just as we were for the deer.  It's so deliciously life affirming, that first chill up your spine.  After a long summer of sweat in your eyes, a few goosebumps are welcome.

By Saturday morning we had lost Ted to a golf trip, but we had also harvested our deer.  Shots were made and shots were missed, but we got all that we deserved, I believe.  Rog and I had were smiling and giddy by the time the last deer was loaded.  Hunting with a long-time, competent partner has a kind of easy cadence to it.  Like walking your favorite path, you know what's coming, and slide along happily right in the groove.  It's one of the most comfortable feelings I know.  And I knew from the look on his face when we got back to my truck, right in that perfect little moment surrounded by leaves just beginning to turn, he and I were both back in the sweet spot.  Happy and comfortable, wind burned cheeks and a job well done.  As we cased up the guns, I locked that memory in the place they don't disappear from.

We went to the local watering hole to register the deer after that, a tradition when hunting this spot.  It's one of those small town places that never seems to change.  If you told me the same bartenders had been working there when Washington was crossing the Delaware, I'd probably believe you.  It's dark and solid and perfectly rough around the edges.  Hot food, cold beer, and college football added to the comfort level then.

We made the drive back to camp, and I began to prep for the evening meal.  As I posted a couple weeks ago, I'd committed the sin of overcooking venison the previous weekend.  I felt the need to wipe that one of the scorecard, so I brought along the ingredients for the exact same meal.  Different people, different place, but the chance to redeem myself.  After a long, lazy afternoon hanging around the cabin, I finally got off my butt and did it up right.  The boys enjoyed the meal with the hunger and zeal that comes from the combination of a couple days outside and a few cold drinks.  As they tore into it, I sat back in my sated, very comfortable state, and gave one little shout out to the gods of the kitchen...

... redemption is mine.

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