Monday, November 29, 2004

I couldn't see through the thicket. I could hear the sound of the buck working a poor little shrub of a tree (a small white pine, as I found out later) to the bone. The bush was whipping back and forth, slapping against its neighbors, giving in to the merciless beating the small deer was delivering. Thinking I was not going to get a good look at that one I settled back, turning to scan the woods, and there it was...Whatever it was. My eyes aren't what they used to be but I knew this was no deer. I tried to make my eyes clear up the sight of this animal, as I squinted, it raised its nose into the air waving it around like a radar dish scanning the olfactory waves coming to it with coded messages. The animal was intent, front legs raised up and resting on one of a clump of downed pines, dealt killing blows by the combination of too many pine beetles with too much food and warm winters and a two year drought. I put the scope of my rifle on the creature and as I moved the cross hairs onto its chest, it focused its attention and we both realized what it was smelling in the air...Me!

Thomas wanted to hunt a new place and I wanted him to have the fun of being a fifteen year old kid whose dad was not explaining the finer details of one of life's little teachable moments. We could just go hunting and get out in the woods together. I have a rifle that I carry when we go off like this...I think it works and I might shoot it one day but that isn't the point of times like this.

As we drove up to our tract of land, there were two pick up trucks unloading ATV's blocking our road. We chatted and they were over acting in their mock surprise that "Anybody owns this land." The old posted signs must be fungal boles that just grow that way on trees. They seemed disappointed when I told them they could ride to the creek but had to park on the main road and walk if they wanted to go anywhere else. Walking around quietly in the forest is sooo yesterday! It doesn't disturb anyone else, or make much noise, or tear up the ground and cause erosion, or burn fossil fuels and stink up the air...How can anybody have fun just being quiet in the forest? Well I personally don't care what you do, but you are not going to do it here on an ATV. Have a nice day.

Thomas drove the truck to the edge of our property and we got out and saw the tracks of a vehicle going around the dead tree we had left to block the road. "We'll probably meet them coming out with a ten point buck strapped in the back," he said.

The vehicle tracks had made a mess churning up the mud in the road, rutting it out. We took our gear and started walking. A hundred yards in we saw the next dead tree we had left blocking the road. Sawed out of the way and tossed in the ditch...The drainage ditch that was supposed to carry rainwater off the road.

We got to the spot where Thomas wanted to set up his tree stand and saw the tire tracks going right by the huge buck rub and straight through the pawed place that he had found when we scouted things out for his hunt. "Oh, great!" he said. "This spot isn't going to work." Then we heard the truck.

Thomas went off in the woods to set up in another place while I walked after the sound of the intruder in the woods. We turned on our radios, just in case, but I really don't worry about dealing with folks, too much. My theory is that people aren't actually bad...Just "sorry".

Walking, I had no trouble catching up to what turned out to be two pickup trucks. I had heard the engines quit and the doors slam so I knew they were going to be around somewhere. I "hallowed" as I walked up to the truck but got no reply. I reached through the open window of the first truck and honked the horn.

That'll bring 'em!

As I honked the horn, a dog in the second truck went ballistic..And so did the woman sitting next to him in the seat that I had not previously noticed. I smiled large and gave her a small wave. She did not look reassured.

Two men came out of the woods with beer in one hand and rifle in the other. I smiled but looked straight at them intently, they smiled and looked straight at me but their eyes were worried, and then we chatted. I've heard all the lame excuses several times now, and frankly there are no excuses. You guys are on somebody else's land, sawing up trees to get past the posted signs, plowing ruts in the roads, getting ready to hunt illegally. Then came the punch line..."Well do you mind if we just camp out for a few days?"

"Now, boys!" I said. "You drove in here right past my telephone number on the sign, and I have to ask myself if you are responsible types who will behave themselves on my land...You could have asked permission and now you want forgiveness and permission. What would you think if you were me?"

Time to be nice and leave...Which they decided to do.

They had gotten themselves in a mess. They just drove in on my road until they couldn't go any further and were stuck. Since they were stuck they were just going to go hunting and leave the woman and the dog in the truck, I guess. Fifteen minutes later they were on their way back out, leaving me a big mess in the road, but then they were gone.

I radioed Thomas, who had him a nice spot in a tree by then, confident that his Dad would take care of everything.

As the sound of the trucks faded, the sounds of the forest took over. I walked deeper into the land on an old road looking for a nice spot to set my chair up and wait for dusk or a gun shot, whichever.

Late fall light can be harsh, and so it was. Something big was splashing in the small creek about a hundred yards away below me. Turkeys cruised the far hill making huge amounts of noise. They are capable of many different sounds but for now their scratching and clucking and croaking was dominating the woods. Some of them took to the trees and it was quiet for a bit.

I heard the deer moving in the thicket, knowing I would probably not see it. I was on the wrong trail, this one being the one that went from over there to over yonder, whereas the deer was on the trail that went from down there to up yonder. I listened and until it went away.

Then, with no sound that I heard, the other creature was there on the road, front feet up on the log to lift its head higher in the air to get a better test of the ominous scent in the woods. It waved its head in the air, "seeing" with its nose.

Deer have a simple place in the ecosystem. They eat plants and run from predators. The only other animals besides predators they need awareness of are rivals and love interests. I am a potential predator. Deer assume that everything is a predator until proven otherwise. A simple existence. Eat, Survive, Reproduce, with emphasis on "Survive".

A predator has a much more complex niche. Only one predator is at the top of the food chain and, today, that would be me! All the other predators may consider themselves down the list, somewhat, and when they cruise the forest, they have to look both ways, up and down the chain. Down for potential food, and up, for potential danger of becoming food or just simply being removed from competition for what food there is. Fear is the dominant emotion of predators. They create it and live with it. The instant my eyes met the eyes of the animal on the log, I imagined the two pronged query in its beastly mind: "Does this thing fear me or do I fear it?"

I had the scope crosshairs squarely on the chest of the coyote. My finger was not on the trigger. In the harsh light of late afternoon, it stood out, suddenly in stark color. As large as a German shepherd but much lighter in musculature, narrow, in a beautiful new fall coat, similar to a shepherd in pattern but with a much better paint job. The dark brown, almost to black, back of the Coyote was outlined in the animal red, rufous border to the dark tan of its chest. We stared at each other for seconds as it asked and answered its own primeval question and loped off, joined instantly by another that I had not seen. Not scared but purposeful in it's bounding gait, it crossed my field of view with its partner, running along the top of the rise with colors flashing in the patches of sunlight, brilliant when illuminated but invisible in shadow, vanishing.

If you walk in the woods, nothing happens beyond the occasional squirrel or bird. If you sit, motionless, for twenty minutes or so, you become aware that the woods are a happening place. Eating and surviving and reproducing, each in its own time are going down all around us. The sun faded, it got cold, and it was time to go home. The coyotes and I were together only for sixty seconds or so. I wonder what it is like to encounter a wolf in the wild, but I may never know. I wonder what it is like to encounter a predator that is a link higher on the food chain, but I may never know that either. What is it like to fear death, not from disease, or another member of our own species, but from something that wants to assimilate our tissues into its own? Is there a certain awareness, alertness, competency, that is taken from us by this absence in our civilized existence?

I think one of the problems with humanity is that we have placed ourselves at the top of the food chain for too long. When this happens, formerly magnificent beasts become like our pets... Servile and dog stupid.



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