I wrote this column for Central Maine Newspapers, and it was published on November 22, 2006. It brings back fond memories of hunting with my dad for 56 years.
The canoe paddle dips silently into the calm waters of Hopkins Stream, mist hiding the shoreline ahead, allowing us to sneak up to three Buffleheads that take off in surprise. A muskrat slowly meanders toward shore, in no hurry to get away. He steps up on land and gazes out at us.
We quietly exit the canoe, quickly glancing at the oak knoll in front of us where deer have been feeding heavily. Fresh deer sign is everywhere as we trudge three hundred yards to our ground blind on the top of a small ridge overlooking the oaks.
This morning Dad and I choose to sit together. He looks one way, I look the other. It’s quiet, comforting, cleansing for the mind and body. I’ve been known to nap in the woods during deer season.
We enjoy coffee and muffins, content to sit in anticipation.
Anticipation that a deer may appear at any moment is the very best part of the hunt, and we do a lot of anticipating. This particular morning, that’s all we do. No deer appear, although later in the morning I jump one in a thick fir stand, hearing the crack and commotion of an escaping Whitetail without casting my eyes on the critter.
I pause to enjoy the smell of the firs, the cushion of the mossy forest floor, the skittering of red squirrels, and the sharp taste of my fresh Maine apple. A chickadee alights two feet from my face, unafraid. I remember the time an ermine ran up my leg and arm while I sat on the ground leaning against a tree. Last year I was mesmerized by two fisher cavorting along through my woodlot. They never saw me. You see amazing things while hunting.
As I move into an open area with a parcel of standing dead trees, a magnificent Pileated woodpecker cries out, then lands thirty yards away. Wow! What a bird!
This morning, I am thinking about a letter in yesterday’s Kennebec Journal, criticizing the paper for printing photographs of young hunters with their deer.
“Children should not be taught that it is their privilege to hunt and kill. If killing a defenseless animal for ‘sport’ is your bonding time with a child, you may want to take a look at the negative impact this may have on your child. In time, it will destroy the child’s ability to show empathy for wildlife,” wrote this gentleman.
I’m sure glad Dad didn’t think this way when I was growing up. He raised me to be a Maine sportsman and my times spent hunting and fishing with Dad are my most memorable childhood experiences. Fortunately, we’re still doing that today.
I am living proof that hunting does not destroy the “ability to show empathy for wildlife.” I love the critters in the forest, all of them, and spend thousands of hours every year watching them. A few I shoot and eat, respectful of them and what they contribute to my life and my table. I am not a killer. I am a hunter. And I do understand the difference.
Regretfully, there is no way to convey this to those who believe hunting is, as this letter writer reported, “shameful.”
Yet we have so much in common. “For me,” he writes, “the sighting of a deer is a marvel of God’s existence.” Me too!
I meander into a stand of tall hemlocks, taking a seat on an old stump, pondering what specifically God would expect of me these days. What does He expect me to eat? How does He expect me to get that food?
Alas, I am not nearly wise enough to have the answers. It must be nice to have all the answers. I seek them, oftentimes in the solitude of the woods, but few are provided to me.
Later that night, about 10 pm, a doe and lamb eat grass on our front lawn, and I get within ten feet of them, only the wall and window separating us. I watch them for 20 minutes, captivated. I have no interest in shooting them. They seem to know that. They stare back at me unafraid.
Perhaps this is the answer. I know when to shoot, and when not to shoot. I do not kill indiscriminately, but only with purpose, with legal right, with respect for the animal. Perhaps this is what God would expect.
I can only hope so. Because I can no more stop hunting than I can stop breathing.