Last evening I was sitting hunkered down with a glass of wine in our Wisconsin winter where the wind chill and cold had the house creaking and popping. I was perusing a book on ancient art. Specifically I was looking at cave paintings. It is a signal sociological point that in our human evolution our first attempts at art and collective memory through expression inevitably have to do with hunting. So important was it in ritual and meaning, that across cultures and continents our early ancestors were consistent in their capture of hunting; it was rooted deeply in our early dark psyche.
In the scene before me, groups of ochre figures armed with bows and spears were surrounding several abstract beasties and closing in for the kill. The beasties could have been sheep-cows, deer-horses or even mastodon- pigs: (our early human friends were just getting started in art, so much like my early attempts with crayons, the horses were as likely to have six legs as four.)
Down in the lower corner of the cave wall there was a lone figure. He was facing the wrong way: the hunt was behind him. He also carried a spear that was obviously crooked. Instantly I recognized him as a distant relative of mine. I knew his genes had made it intact all these millennia to guide my hunting: for strange things do happen when Erik goes forth into the woods and fields with a gun.
It is not that I am a bad hunter, rather that circumstances seem to dictate that if I am hunting deer, all I see are squirrels, and vice versa. Take one early morning watching dawn slowly manifest while sitting in the woods at the top of a hill in the frost. It was just legal shooting time when a squirrel popped out of a hole in an oak tree. It paused to stare at me and flick its tail a few times, and then hopped into a branch of the dead tree I was sitting against. A minute later, the damn squirrel deliberately dropped an acorn on my head, and started laughing in squirrel language. Of course, I was hunting deer that day, so shooting the joker with a 7mm Mauser was quite out of the question.
That brings us to opening day of the 2020 deer season. It might be enough just to state for the record that it was indeed the year 2020. That should suffice. Corona virus, riots, protests, crazy politics, social distancing, etc.: a world turned upside down. I should have just stayed home… but that would have made no memories or stories like my little ochre stick-figure friend: facing the wrong way with a crooked spear.
‘Robin a’ Bobbin bent his bow…
He shot at a pigeon and killed a crow…
He shot at another and killed his own Mother…
Did Robin a Bobbin, who bent his bow…”
It was dawn with a hard frost: a perfect day to hunt deer. The sun was not up yet, and the darkness carried a chill lit by a near full moon. I had a beautiful sporterized Mauser from the Second World War mad by a master craftsman in Germany. It had been an idle member of my late father’s collection. He may never have shot it. I mounted a scope on it, hand crafted a leather sling for it, and sighted it in. It was as ready to hunt as I was. On my back was a canvas and leather pack containing knives and gutting kit, a thermos of hot tea, and my lunch.
It took me a full three hours by my watch to hunt the steep switchback path up the wooded hill. I took five steps, and stood listening and watching… then repeat and repeat. This is still-hunting, and the only way I would want to hunt game: putting in effort and being involved in the hunt. I would rather stay home than sit in a heated condo-blind and blast away at deer innocently trying to eat fallen corn in a field.
I got to the top of the hill at last. The whole topography here consisted of a maze of trails interspersed with apple trees and brambles. One can’t go slow enough. I hunted for an hour or so, until the sun and lack of sleep the night before combined to make me drowsy. I decided to take a wee nap and eat my lunch, thinking that in the middle of the day under clear blue skies and high sun, nothing would be moving.
I picked a tiny deer trail between the main paths through the scrub, leaned my rifle against a bush, laid down next to my pack, and pulled my hat over my eyes after taking off my glasses. I was blissfully warm and sleepy.
As I lay in a state of half-sleep, I heard a noise off to my left getting closer and moving fast. Out of one sleepy half opened eye I saw a coyote run past not fifteen feet away. That was interesting I thought… and a wee bit too close. I pulled down my hat again and continued my nap. After a few minutes, the brush around me started to make odd sounds. Dry leaves quivered and twitched, and squeaking was heard: the ground was alive with voles moving under the leaf litter. As long as I remained motionless, the voles frolicked all around me, and even under me. I finally fell asleep again…
Remember… I was lying on a tiny deer-crossing route…
I awoke slowly as the vole sounds seemed to change direction and stealthily creep foreword toward my head. What the hell? I blinked my eyes open and reached for my glasses. The second I moved something snorted, and hoofs stomped the ground now going away from me. It took a few seconds to sit up and untangle my glasses and hat, but it was obvious what had just happened. A small doe had crept through the brush on the little trail, and had paused curious or confused a few feet from where I lay. Since I was on my back and not moving, I was not a threat… until I did move.
Well… now I was awake! I thought perhaps if deer were going to almost step on me in the middle of the day, I might just actually want to get my shit in order and do some hunting. I ate my sandwich, had a cup of tea, and gathered my rifle and pack together.
When hunting a challenging piece of land like this, one never knows what may be around the next corner, and it is important to be completely silent and stealthy. The only sound I made was the absence of sound as I crept forward. I was in a narrow straight-away path bordered by the wooded hill on the right when from around a corner fifty yards away, a large dog like creature emerged, looked at me once, and turned around and disappeared back where it had come from. “What the hell?” I thought to myself as I heard its footsteps crunching through the woods. I slowly crept up to the corner, and now had that funny feeling of being watched. A face peeked out from behind a tree to my right. It had blue eyes and gray fur and looked like a husky. It had doubled back on itself and surprised me. I was lucky to see the wolf at all before it simply vanished silently.
In my part of Wisconsin, we have no wolf packs, so I was puzzled. Wolf it was for sure, for no coyotes around here get as big as an Alsatian, or have gray fur and blue eyes. This must have been a lone wolf. My hunt was getting stranger and stranger.
I decided to follow the path of the wolf to see if I could pick up any prints in the frosted woods. I took three steps toward the tree where the wolf had peeked out at me when behind me and to the right, a bedded deer exploded, stomping and crashing away. It had stayed put while the wolf passed it, but dumb humans wearing goofy hunting clothes was just too much. I looked down at my old woolen red and black check pants and realized that with my matching wool mackinaw and stormy kromer hat and gun I made a pretty good likeness of Elmer Fudd. I certainly felt like him that day. I might as well be in a zoo for all the wildlife that befuddled me.
Exiting the woods, I followed the path around the perimeter of the top of the hill. It led to a wide straightaway swooping first down and then up to a ridge in the distance; it was bordered by more scrub and small apple trees. The sun was now directly overhead as once again I let down my guard, and stood at the bottom of the path right out in the open like an idiot.
I squinted into the distance to the top of the opening in front of me. Something sort of materialized in my vision around a hundred yards away. It had antlers or sticks on top, and some sort of face, and was floating like a hallucination above some scrub. Stupidly I just stared at it confused. It had no body and no definite form. Briefly, it occurred to me that it looked like a head of a huge buck, or the top of an archery target.
I raised the rifle and looked through the scope. Yup! It was the head of a buck… or a strange illusion, for it still had not moved a hair and seemed to have no body. I have been fooled a thousand times by this kind of thing. I see a small lump of burl that looks exactly like a squirrel against a tree in the distance… and most of the time it turns out to be just a hunk of burl: the rest of the time it is a squirrel sitting motionless.
I dropped the rifle down a few feet and looked at it with naked eyes. It was then that it moved and ran off giving me no shot, its body materializing from behind the brush that hid it, its antlers held high, head back and proud. It was literally the largest buck I had ever seen. Now I really felt like Elmer Fudd. I had been fooled! In my defense, blasting away at something near a ridge top where I had no idea what lay beyond, and was uncertain of my target as well, would also have been foolhardy, but nonetheless I felt the fool.
When I got to where the buck was standing, I found a bed hollowed out of thick brush and having only a single entrance. At the very top of the wigwam he hollowed out was a spot for him to stick out his head. From the high vantage point of the ridge top, he could survey his domain. Nearby were massive scrapes and rubs. He was the alpha male of the hill. I was the zeta male.
I had a few hours left to hunt, so with the vision of that disembodied head of the buck floating in my brain, I worked the rest of the hilltop.
As silent as one can be, there is a moment where like at a symphony concert during a beautiful quiet passage one suddenly feels a cough coming on. No matter how one tries to put it out of mind, hold one’s breath, or make goofy faces and contort one’s throat, it just gets worse. As I approached a bend in the path with exceptionally thick scrub and briars, and full of deer tracks coming and going to and fro, it got too much.
“Kaloff!!!” I coughed forth.
The scrub to the left of me exploded as two does leapt to their feet and went sailing through the air. One went away from me, while the other one leapt nearly over my head. I just stood there wondering what the hell had just happened as they disappeared with crashing and crunching down the sides of the hill. I never even thought of raising my gun.
By this time, I figured my best strategy was probably to unload the rifle, and picking a likely spot to hold deer, simply throw the Mauser into the bushes. I might have an equal chance of hitting something. What I actually did was conclude the hunt a bit before closing time and make my way back down the hill.
I should have hunted my way down. Instead, I walked down, figuring that since I had carefully hunted my way up, and saw nothing, that the path and hillside would be busted for me, and hold no deer.
Halfway down the entire hillside above me just detonated with does. At least twenty deer had moved slowly off the top and resumed bedding down behind fallen trees on the side of the hill. I had made another cardinal error. All I saw were white flags bouncing through the woods.
As I got back to my car, there was a large doe leaning on the hood. She was looking at me with a sneer, and I swear to you, seemed to smoking a cigarette. She sauntered off stage left. I think she was trying to tell me something…
If I ever do manage to find a nice cave to do a little sketching in and leave a memory, it might just be a stick figure hunter bending over while a stylized deer with antlers sniffs at the hunter’s butt.
In a thousand years, culturally, it should have some significance!