Four million years ago on the African savanna, a few of the more adventurous primates climbed down from the trees, stood up on two legs and, at a crucial moment in evolutionary history, were eaten by giant hyenas. Sadly, the genetic material of those brave hominids (Greek for “appetizers”) is lost to us. The remaining proto-humans spent a terrorized night listening to the cracking of bones and murmuring to each other, “Let’s hang out here awhile longer.”
Every fall, in response to a primal tug in the blood that we can neither fathom nor control, millions of modern whitetail hunters go back to the trees. Some of us carry two-way radios. About 11 a.m. on opening day, whispered conversations take place in tree stands all over the United States.
“You see anything?”
“You wanna go?”
Long, thoughtful silence.
“Let’s hang out here awhile longer.”
You see how far we’ve come.
But that, of course, is the beauty of hunting. It allows us to reconnect with our primordial selves and the eons of genetic hardwiring that have enabled us to survive predators, diseases, and telemarketing. Think about it. It has only been in the past 11,000 years that humans turned to domesticating animals and planting seeds to get food. Before that, for more than 99 percent of our time as a race on earth, we hunted. That means none of us, from the members of the World Wrestling Federation to the PETA board of directors, would be here today if a few thousand generations of our forebears hadn’t been incredibly proficient at bringing home meat.
Even among hunters, however, those of us who pursue our quarry from above are a different breed. We’re not like the quail and grouse guys, who unload a dog they could have sworn was trained and watch as it takes off like a bullet through miles of briers and thickets. We’re not like turkey hunters, sprinting breathlessly through the woods with foam cushions bouncing silently against their butts as they try to head off a gobbler. We don’t lug our hearts up to 10,000 feet like elk hunters just to see whether they’ll explode in the thin mountain air.
No. Our particular madness is more finely honed. What we do, after a bit of scientific observation, a little gut feeling, and untold mental agony, is select a single tree in a place we believe the deer will show up. Then we climb that tree, set up a stand, and sit quietly until a deer comes by or the season runs out. In a world whose only quarrel with instant gratification is that it takes too long, we are practitioners of a dying art: waiting. This is both simple and immensely hard, not unlike quitting drinking.
In his apprenticeship stage, the stand hunter has trouble changing mindsets from clock time to woods time. After half an hour on stand his butt is numb, his nose itches, and his last good pee seems an early childhood memory. Further, he has a nearly uncontrollable urge to tap his fingers against his gun or bow, or his feet against the stand. He is bored. There is nothing happening. If there are squirrels crashing about in the leaves, he is sure that each is a deer. An endless squirrel-induced cycle of expectation and disappointment sets in, which, unchecked, can lead to institutionalization.
I remember my own progression vividly. At first, I really only wanted to subject myself to the misery of four straight hours of stand hunting when the odds of success were best: the rut. Even then I required a paperback and candy bars to balance against the long hours of inactivity. The next year, something had shifted. I had a mild hankering to be on stand for the opening of bow season in mid-September. My body had changed, relaxed. It was possible to sit quietly for longer periods. And there was something about the woods at that time of year that sucked me in: an air of expectation, of poibility. Even the trees were working harder now, as if they knew this was the home stretch of photosynthesis. I heard the first acorns dripping through the leaves, a hopeful sound, a rain of fat and protein. My mind had begun to sort itself out. Twenty feet up, waiting for deer to arrive, was not a bad seat in which to find oneself.
I took a big doe at 27 yards one afternoon as she bent to feed on the acorns of a white oak. The arrow passed directly through her and stuck in the ground. She ran less than 40 yards. I lay a hand on her flank, felt self-conscious asking her forgiveness for taking her life, did it anyway. It became a ritual I perform for every deer now. The next afternoon, on my way to setting up, I passed by the spot where I’d field dressed her. Everything-heart, liver, lungs, and intestines-was gone. The forest had already turned her remains into new forms of energy. Only a few bloodstained leaves marked where she’d fallen.
During the October lull, I found a strange pleasure in witnessing the leaves one by one make a break for it after seven months of indecision and take their annual joyride down. I was no longer an outsider in my woods; I had become as much a part of them as any fox, sycamore, or woodpecker. My ears wised up, learning to distinguish squirrel from deer almost subconsciously. I began to think of the hyperactive little rodents as my straight men, helping me convey to passing deer that all was well. One November morning a red fox walked beneath my stand to roll luxuriously around on a cotton ball soaked with Trail’s End #407 that had fallen off the branch I had placed it on. Two minutes later, it trotted off with its tail held a little straighter, delighted with its new and seductive cologne.
I glassed my surroundings endlessly for the flick of an ear or the shift of a haunch. I tried to imagine where I would see deer next and was almost always wrong. I’d see 10 deer for every one that came within bow range. And the ones that did come within range either wouldn’t stop, halted instinctively in places no arrow could penetrate, or stood obligingly in my shooting lanes but facing the wrong way. On those days, I was grateful there was no one waiting back at the cave for me to bring home supper.
It was the decoy that turned the tide for me just before gun season opened. Wearing rubber gloves, I set up a freshly de-scented Flambeau Commandoe 20 yards upwind and sprinkled some estrous-doe urine on the ground beneath it. At around 8 a.m., I saw a small brown piston firing in the underbrush just beyond. At first I thought it was a squirrel doing his morning jumping jacks. Then it turned into the foreleg of a small doe trying to goad the frozen deer into acknowledging her. This went on for 10 minutes before she snorted and left the area. An hour later, a good 6-pointer with no brow tines cruised boldly in, head down and sniffing. The deke wasn’t the most animated girl he’d ever been with, but she more than made up for this in availability. I had plenty of time to calm down before taking the shot. My heart rate was probably no more than 170 beats per minute. This deer went to Hunters for the Hungry. The guy at the processor was happy to saw the antlers off for me to use as rattlers.
With two down, I thought I was through with deer for the year. The deer had other ideas. They still ran through my dreams all night. I succumbed to the pull of December. Explaining to editors that I was under a mountain of work, I left for the woods at noon every day. Wearing two pairs of wool long underwear under my hunting clothes, I kept coming after the holidays. The odds of seeing a shooter buck in January are about the same as for seeing Bigfoot, but I couldn’t help myself. I was the worst kind of addict, the one who falls for the hunt itself rather than the results. I rode the sun down each evening from my stand, driving home strangely happy for a guy who’d been skunked.
Like all seasons, this one finally came to an end. I readjusted to the rhythms of working life. One morning, waiting for my computer to boot up, I idly pulled out the topos for my woods and noticed a spot I’d overlooked. It was a tiny bench above a dry streambed, perfect for the prevailing northwest winds. Suddenly I felt more focused, more alive. I knew exactly where I’d be hanging out come September. n skunked.
Like all seasons, this one finally came to an end. I readjusted to the rhythms of working life. One morning, waiting for my computer to boot up, I idly pulled out the topos for my woods and noticed a spot I’d overlooked. It was a tiny bench above a dry streambed, perfect for the prevailing northwest winds. Suddenly I felt more focused, more alive. I knew exactly where I’d be hanging out come September.