Three dusky deer walking south to north at nightfall. Intuitively I had pulled my knit cap away from my ears and heard them and then perceived them, walking in a rough line about thirty yards from where I sat.
Hunting as the sun sets: time undulates, now intense, every second weighty with details, then becomes smooth and featureless, a boring unmarked expanse of cold toes and the heaviness of the bow resting on my knees.
If you saw my current hunting outfit, you might laugh. As the three dusky deer passed me, just out of range, I stood up from the $10 black plastic folding stool we bought from a pharmacy in Michigan when we lived there for six months and had neither furniture nor money to purchase it. On my head is a blue, lilac, purple and grey cap knit "handmade for you by Ron Bloom". I'm fairly sure this gentle step-great-uncle of mine didn't have bowhunting in mind as he drew together the multihued yarns.
Clashing handily with the above and below clothing articles is an olive-green 1940s army scarf (gift from my father-in-law), sporty green and grey thermal jacket, hand-me-down osh-kosh bluejean overalls, winter boots three sizes too large...
My artfully camouflaged compound bow (the fall foliage stays on it even when it comes off the trees) and I are modestly concealed by a few piles of large sticks and a practically see-through "high-tech" camo fabric which I bought because the store was out of camo burlap but I now realize is less concealing than a lacy negligee taut over smooth skin.
As the dusky shapes glide by, I stand up from my plastic folding stool, but never draw, because the deer are out of range. I imagine that it would be an easy enough shot with a shotgun.
Twice now I've gotten this close to shooting a deer. The first time, I was briefly shaking with anticipation, it was like being deeply frightened, heart pumping, except I was the predator not the prey. I took a few deep breaths and calmed my muscles but then the deer which were headed right towards me veered just out of range.
This time, I remember being calmer, but to no avail. The dusky deer eventually vanished out of range behind the meager cover of overbrowsed spicebush and invading multiflora rose.
When I first began hunting, in October, I wondered whether I'd actually shoot if a deer came into range. Or perhaps not whether, but what split-second decisions I'd make when poised to kill. Now that I've been out a dozen times or so, I think the time invested has begun numbing the moral-type questions. And the gentle anonymity of those dusky grey shapes made it seem easier... to just relax one bent finger and kill, in a way that was both disconcerting but also comforting, as if the long cold wait and the near absence of daylight delivered me to a different place. As if I had entered into an anonymous drama which has played out for thousands of years between humans and animals, not in any great portentous way, but rather like slipping into a routine familiar but slightly estranged from my warm daylight reality.
This was a few nights back. Yesterday, I went out to hunt and (foolishly) didn't bring the $10 plastic stool. Instead, I stood within my emperors-new-clothes hunting blind and slowly rotated, watching the cardinals and then white-throated sparrows foraging to one side, the still winter forest on the other.
Even as I crouched down, regretting leaving the stool at home, I saw a deer head in the distance, more symbol than reality, a particular arrangement of white and grey which seemed too deer-like to be a snow-tuft on a rock. For a while we stared at each other, both straining to interpret at great distance the sudden appearance of hunter, and hunted. But the deer must have seen me crouch, for suddenly the whole foraging group of six or seven bounded back over the ridge.
I am learning mostly by making mistakes, my style evolving as much from limitations of knowledge, gear or imagination as from what I've gleaned to be "the right way to do things".
I don't bait and I don't hunt from a stand (though I briefly tried that earlier this season). I don't have camouflage clothing or scent-blocking under-armour. If a magnificent buck passes me within range as I hunt, I will likely let it move along. I'm hunting to restore balance to the forest I love, and reducing the population means harvesting does. I'm also hunting because deer meat is free-range, organic, locally-produced and all of that, but doesn't cost $10 a pound or demand the conversion of natural land into degraded pasture.
After spooking the deer yesterday, I got up in frustration and walked back home. Over a day later, I still have the nagging energy of a task left incomplete. I keep trying to source my restlessness: do I have a big homework assignment left undone? (A fear over a decade outdated, but never to be shaken, it seems). Maybe I'm depressed? Worried? No... the hunt is not over, and I haven't brought home any meat.