IT is a convention of popular art that animals welcome their own demise. The merry grilling pig decorates many a rib shack. Now is the time of year in my valley when bars, diners, and motels sprout orange banners, decorated with buck heads, and the message: WELCOME HUNTERS.
In The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, aging icons of the French and Indian Wars, get in trouble in the 1790s for taking a deer out of season. Their plight symbolizes the grave march of civilization. Two hundred plus years later, civilization has marched on, with a web of hunting regulations. In my county big game may be taken with bow, muzzleloader, handgun, shotgun, or rifle. Certain subspecies of these weapons are off limits–no arrow, for instance, may have barbs. Dates and bags are prescribed (hunters with bows and muzzleloaders get a head start and a late finish, to offset anachronism). Close to New York’s major cities your options diminish. In the five boroughs no hunting of any kind is permitted, though people use handguns to hunt one another.
Big game in my county is deer and bear. Deer are ubiquitous. I find their scat in the morning, I see the pressed grass where they have paused during the night; they have a favorite path, down the hill from the hemlocks, through a clump of mountain laurel, that you can just make out; it is where your feet naturally go if you are coming downhill. I have seen only one bear. My wife and I were by the stream one day when she said, “Rick, there’s a bear.” So there was, ten feet away. It was four to five feet long, perhaps 300 pounds: not the nemesis of Grizzly Man, but it could ruin your day. So we walked, with due deliberation, to the house. We never had sight or sign of it again, so it must have been passing through. A few years ago, a bear passed in front of a local woman hunting deer. It was in season, she had a permit, so she took him down.
The local paper ran a picture of hunter and quarry, with a light feminist spin. This brought an enraged letter, demanding to know how anyone could celebrate slaughtering God’s creatures. This in turn brought a snort from a lifer, of the sort who normally does not write letters, asking rude questions about the protester’s general knowledge of the world. As the valley fills up with second-homers from the city, there are more people like the first letter-writer. I can’t agree, considering how many hunters surround me. At night I hear coyotes, doing the cowboy howl or ghastly rapid yips. Like most predators, they prefer the small, the weak, and the old; deer can fill all those niches. The barred owls, shouting “Who cooks for you?” are unearthly to us; to voles they are death. There are fishers in my neighborhood, a creature related to weasels and minks, but bigger. Their specialty victim, which only they can hunt, is the porcupine. They drive it to bury its face against a tree trunk, spreading its quills behind. Then the fisher strikes down from above and eats its face. Fishers are quite handsome. When I moved in, there were deer remains in an old sheep pen in the woods–a leg bone, a skull with teeth and antlers. Something had run it to earth. As the years passed the bones wore away like Richard Eberhart’s groundhog.
Over the hill there is a gun club. Some days the barrage goes from dawn to dusk. It is a sound so familiar, like jackhammers in the city, that I hear it without acknowledgment. On the great artery of the valley, a two-lane state road, a pair of lesbians opened a gun shop. They too had their picture in the paper, pistols cocked. Their slogan is “Pray for Peace, Dress for War.” It would be easy to become a hunter here. Even Mr. Jefferson encourages me, for shooting, he wrote, “gives a moderate exercise to the body,” and “boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind…. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks.” I came closest to taking the plunge after seeing a raccoon in the early stages of rabies; he was determined, disheveled, and slightly unsteady, a drunk at a party. I went out and bought a single-shot .410, in case his friends showed up. But, although I do not disapprove, I will not take it up. There are some habits that must be acquired, and instincts that must be awakened, early in life. A friend, born and raised here, put it simply: “Cleaning a deer is a messy job.” So I let one man hunt my land. He gives us venison every year to return the favor, but it is never mine. The day the bows and muzzleloaders are free to take them, the deer vanish into thin air, returning only at the onset of winter. The pattern repeats itself throughout the valley, the county, and the country. They used to close the schools the day huntingseason opened; now hunting magazines carry ads for Viagra.
It is a shame that people like me are so common. The white-tailed deer, once a noble animal, suffers from overpopulation. In mating season (November) they are run down by cars. In winter, they browse everything, then starve. I have had them come, famished, almost to the front door; if I had had dried corn, I could have fed them by hand.
My house began as a hunter’s cabin in 1941. Up the road, there is another, a cabin still, protected by a NO TRESPASSING sign. A yard sale on Upper Cherrytown Road this summer turned out to be someone selling the contents of a store for hunters, long defunct. It stank of must, and there was very little left, except for an old game map on the wall.