"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Deer Hunting Pas de Deux

The grand assignment in my Hunting and Wildlife Management class is for the class to photo document an outdoor (hopefully hunting  but not required) experience.  The idea is for them to take a few evocative photos, link them with some thoughtful words and voila!  a digital story that binds together the lessons of science, management, conservation ethic and self-introspection that we discussed during the lectures.  The experience might be with a rifle over a greenfield in the fading evening or maybe waiting with a four-footed, retrieving friend for the first flocks to descend to the decoys in the new light of a marsh morning.  Perhaps the weapon of choice will not shoot bullets or arrows but rather capture light to portray the scene in pixels.  Cameras work just fine from a hunting blind.  In any case, I simply want the students to think differently about what it is that we do as hunters.  I want them to think about killing and what it means and the honor and responsibility that comes with it.
And so we’ve talked about the coyote conundrum that now sits squarely in front of many southeastern hunters-to kill or not to kill? We connected the query with the science that says song dogs are taking a significant toll on fawn recruitment in some places. We then took a look at the data that also says that where coyotes abound in some areas, the numbers of nest raiding, songbird killing meso-predators like feral cats and raccoons go down while the populations of bramble loving birds increase.  So then the question is this: as one sits on a deer stand, anxious for the opportunity at a thick-necked buck or a wary doe, when a coyote pair traces the trail where the whitetails will come, do I shoulder and shoot or do I watch and wonder?  What about the quail hunter trying desperately to keep the coveys on the home place?  Certainly fewer raiding raccoons and cotton rats might mean more plaintive “Poor-Bob-White” whistles in the piney woods. If coyotes mean more coveys, then what—do I shoot or say thanks? We ultimately connected the question to Aldo’s  “ fierce green fire” and the question of what predators mean to hunters and to the herd and the flock.  Some good discussion ensued from these and like issues.  There are no definitive answers that I expect from the dozen young men I have in the class. I’m simply looking for thoughtful responses to the serious issue of taking lives.

I think though, when I asked the students to write hunting haiku for this week, that I may have lost a little bit of traction. I think many of the students would’ve rather I asked them to eat road-killed skunk. We shall see if I can truly influence a different mode of thinking in these “good ol’ boys!”  I’d like to imagine that one day in the turkey woods  or perhaps sitting around the hunt camp card table after a day in the deer stand that  one of them will be brave enough to let the verse flow as hunters always have.

Deer in graying coats
Shadows slide to nose the wind
Hermit thrushes call

 Hunting is something that I truly enjoy doing on my own.  While hunting with a buddy is fun and offers the opportunity to be in the woods with another kindred spirit, I relish the time alone with my thoughts and the wild things.  The other day, I had the opportunity to go hunting with a young man, Brian, who defines himself appropriately as an “eager student”.  I can vouch for his zeal because from day one in the hunting class, he has been conversive and even shared articles and books he’s reading with the class. He’s taken the initiative to visit my office and exchange ideas on animal rights, outdoor ethics and all the confusing and controversial  things that might fall in the philosophical chasm between those two hot button issues. A future veterinarian, Brian has a different slant on things—I’m not sure if he is right or left on the issues but I can definitely tell that he is centered in his ethic and thought about what hunting should be. He is what I hope the future of hunting looks like.
Brian is a Floridian and self-described novice hunter, even though he has been deer hunting once and on that hunt, killed a large, mature buck within an hour of sitting on the stand.  But even with the antlers of a trophy already on his wall, he yearns to learn more.  Having made the decision to become a veterinarian and dedicate himself to saving the lives of animals, I find it intriguing that this thoughtful young man has so dedicated himself to the hunt and ethical consideration of life saving --and ending  that he seeks information and inspiration with his brains tied to books with the same zeal  a rutting buck chases the ripening  on the wind.  And so as the other students found their way to familiar grounds—hunt clubs and home places—to  complete their respective assignments, Brian approached me to ask for a place to hunt and if perhaps he might accompany me on an outing.  After wrangling back and forth over a couple of weeks to get our schedules meshed, Brian and I headed out one afternoon to test the November woods for whitetails.

After a few days of warm weather that was more May than November, things were cooling a bit and I thought that maybe it was a good day to get out.  I met Brian off campus and we were off.   On the way to the hunting spot, we talked about everything from the coyote issue to conservation in the Obama administration.  Brian spoke enthusiastically about his desire to learn about where his food comes from and how his young conservation ethic has been informed more by an avaricious appetite for the written word and not so much by experience.  Just the day before he told me that in order to gain experience with how a hog becomes pork, he’d participated in the slaughter and butchering process in a “meat lab” to understand how things happened.  Brian asked lots of questions.  A few had simple  answers  but many were more difficult to respond to.  There was nothing that I said that went unchallenged or unquestioned.  There was no “just because Dr. Lanham said it was so” acceptance.  How refreshing!  Here was a college student taking full advantage of the time in his life where questioning costs very little. The conversation flowed so freely that before I knew it, we were there.  Donning the necessary garb for the day, covering ourselves in camo, securing cameras, cell phones, grunt calls and shouldering our rifles, we were off.

Hunting the day before Thanksgiving is somewhat of a tradition for me. The cooler weather that had broken behind the rain put me more into the mood of that tradition. The wind was picking up and in our faces. It felt like hunting should feel.  As Brian and I tracked down the old dirt road, I was happy to share what I knew of the place’s ecology with him.  I pointed out the small tracks of doe and young deer at a mud puddle and the faint trail they left through the woods.  We paused to look at old, dormant scrapes, disappearing from the rain and under the leaf fall.  There was fresh buck sign too and Brian smiled broadly at the sight of what he said was his first active scrape.  He was a quick study and soon began to identify the telltale lick branches hanging over the trail for himself.  We were intent on getting to the stands in bottom but took our time to whisper over the difference between squirrel acorn scramblings and wild turkey scratching. There were bird calls to be learned and Brian’s sponge of a brain soaked it all in.
Finally at the stand, I helped Brian attach his 12 gauge to the pull up rope and watched him climb up and latch in with the safety harness I’d given him.  I stressed safety first and ever the good student, he was cautious with every step and followed the directions to a tee.  I left him with a thumbs up and whispered “good hunting” to ascend to my own perch.

I climbed a lonely shortleaf pine on the bottom bluff, overlooking a thick patch of privet.  Behind and to the right of Brian by maybe 50 yards, I had assured him of our exclusive firing zones.  I’d also let him know that we could communicate with whistled quail calls if something interesting was going on.  Of course, we also had our technology with us and I had Brian program my number into his I-phone so that we could whisper to one another through the magic of the touchpad screen.

 Once up, I looked back at Brian and he seemed at home; a tree bound lump of camouflage, curiosity and confidence sitting twenty feet above the forest floor.
 It was still early afternoon when we settled in. The wind behind the front seemed intent on making things difficult to hear or see.  We spent the first hour listening to the bare-boned  trees complaining and watching squirrels go about their absent-minded- acorn- hoarding –business.  A pair of wild turkeys came emerged out of the shadows like two black, feathered ghosts.  Jakes I think, they quietly made their way between our two stands getting close enough for me to see their wariness in wattles that glowed warmly in the limited light of the river bottom.  My poor attempt at a yelp put them on alert and they walked away from me, knowing that something was just not right.  I texted Brian “turkeys—coming ur way” to let him know that the birds were in the neighborhood. He wrote back “cool I thought I heard them”.  That was the peak of excitement for a few hours as we waited for a whitetail to wind its way into our path of wanting. 
Beyond those initial adrenalin filled minutes when the hope of the hunt is all bundled up in nerves and anticipation; when the turn of a leaf might be an ear swiveling or the scamper of a squirrel might be hooves shuffling, there was little else beyond the bird watching to fill the time until dusk and the magic hour.  The birds were a reprieve —red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, ruby-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, American crows, wild turkeys, Carolina wrens, and white-throated sparrows became more active as the light shrank.  As the avian activity reached a crescendo, we both hoped for more. But whatever more is beyond the birds and being in such a beautiful place did not come. Waiting and hoping-- this is what I know hunting to be.  On the best days it is a hope that a hypothesis of place and time and dumb luck come together in a magical moment of watching and maybe a shot.  There was a moment when Brian saw a doe in the distance heading away from us.  I imagine that his heart raced at the sight of her lithe form and maybe a lump lodged in his throat as he watched her slither out of sight.   He whistled, rather dryly, to signal her presence and followed up with a text  “Female I think 300 yards she jumped before I could get a clear look”.
 As the daylight in the bottom faded beyond any ethical shot, and the river kept its appointment to be somewhere else south of us, a distant flock of turkeys yelped good night and flew noisily up to roost somewhere upstream.  Brian and I climbed down and found our way silently out of the woods. I always imagine that in those trips out at dark-thirty that the deer are watching and waiting for the intruders to leave so that they can party the night away, leaping and prancing in the moonlit shadows, laughing at the stinking, two-legged fools who think that the camouflage hides them.

My fear in the hunting pas de deux with Brian was that he would find it somehow boring or uninspiring.  I thought that perhaps all that time in the stand, almost four hours, without a parade of deer marching in front of the stand with trophy racks displayed for his choosing –like they show on all the television shows that make hunting look so simple--would disappoint the eager student to not want to do it again.  I feared that maybe the wind, colder and more biting than I thought it would be would discourage him.  In the bobbing light of my headlamp, Brian and I detached our gear, unloaded the guns and left the woods to the whitetails.

I was wrong about Brian.  His patience, calm and curiosity stretched way beyond the one hunt he’d ever experienced. If he thanked me once, he thanked me a hundred times for the opportunity to be out there. I’m not sure anyone has ever shown more appreciation for time spent in the deer woods without a kill to show for it than Brian. The absence of antlers didn’t faze him. He wanted to learn about everything.  His enthusiasm for the art and science of hunting coupled with his desire to do things the right way made the day one I will not soon forget.  In a couple of years, animals will owe their lives to Brian Lang, DVM.  Those whose lives he saves as a veterinarian as well as those he conscientiously kills on the hunt will have the respect of a healer and hunter whose head and heart are in perfect rhythm. I think we “danced” well together on that afternoon in the deer woods.  I hope to do it again someday. Thanks Brian for being such an “eager student”.
Don’t ever stop the beautiful dancing between your head and your heart.

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