Calm in the Woods – Garden & Gun

Artwork: Dawn Yang

He tells me to go where the path forks, settle down there in the corner. From here, he said, I could see both lanes: the right leading to an old food patch, the left ending in bedding. Deer, he says, are likely to come from anywhere.

So I slip in mid-afternoon two hours before the evening movement. I find the place he described and slip into a grove of glumes and green heather where I will be hidden in a chair on the ground. I can see in the right lane where the trail turns into a fallow opening. But on the left side I can only see thirty yards from a bend, and after that’s where I convince myself the deer will be.

The problem is that I don’t know anything about white-tailed deer. I have never killed any. I’ve never seen them in the woods while hunting them. I come from small game, hunting dogs with kennels of crazy rabbit beagles, old men who raised squirrel dogs and Savage 24s. For the most part I was raised by fishermen. No one hunted deer except for a great-uncle who lived across the state.

But the man who sent me to this corner, he knows the deer and knows this place, which is to say, of course, I should listen. Instead, I pick up my chair and slide around the bend. I fall back against a stocky cedar that brushes against me against a pine. Now I can see all the way to the end of the lane. About an hour before sunset, footsteps are heard behind me. The sound is way back, so I peek over my shoulder and see her. She’s a young doe, probably eighty pounds, her coat smooth and as tan as an acorn. Head down, she nibbles the grass, then raises her eyes and ears alert. She looks where she comes from, takes a few steps and continues to feed.

Artwork: Dawn Yang

I decide not to move until she passes me. The footsteps get louder and I stay still, my eyes almost closed, my heart pounding. At the last moment, I realize that I am sitting directly on a trail. Her head passes close enough to my right shoulder for me to touch her. I turn slightly as she enters my peripheral vision, and the sudden movement opens her eyes wide. The doe almost comes out of her skin, just a burst of muscle thundering off the ground and gone.

It’s the first deer I hunt and I don’t kill it. Instead, I tremble in amazement and wonder as she disappears. I realize at this point that if a man sits quietly enough, he can completely disappear.

* * *

The problem with dying is that there is no good time to do it. When the turkeys stop gobbling, the flatheads start biting. The catfish go extinct just as the doves begin to dive into the corn stubble fields. The doves disappear and the white-tailed deer rut begins. Season returns us to season, and we struggle in pursuit of the game we pursue.

I’m half kidding that it’s going to be a heart attack that gets me out of here. They’ll find me at the base of a tree with muddy gobbler marks etched into my body, or lying on a dock after being woken up by a clicker bait, the slow tick-tick-tick of a flathead taking the line until the spool is empty and the rod itself slips off the dock into oblivion. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the outdoors. They ask me to accompany them on hikes, and sometimes I go. The thing is, they walk too fast, at least for me. They tend to talk too much. When I’m with them, I keep the beat and the conversation going because I know that’s expected, but I’m embarrassed by the way the woods die down around us. We are a glowing fire against a space that will not have us. Nothing dares to enter this light.

As we stumble, the deer hide and wait, the squirrels melt into the limbs they are holding on to, and the birds cease their song. What we have become part of does not want to be part of us. Deep down I want to tell whoever I’m with to sit down and be still, that we need to be quiet and treat this place like a church. I want to tell them that if we don’t, we will surely miss the sermon. But instead, I keep these things to myself lest I ruin their good time, and we in turn see nothing. The more time passes, the more I tend to go alone in the woods.

* * *

On hot days, the heat of the day pushes me ever deeper into the night. Midnight finds me alone on the water, the mountains of North Carolina silhouetted black against the sky. I scan the beam of a searchlight on the shore and search for eyes that will shine like copper coins. When the light finds them, the bullfrogs go into a trance that won’t stop as long as the light is steady. They cling to the shadows of the driftwood until I get close enough to play them in the cattails and reeds.

As the boat passes between the shores, I shine my light into the water and see sunfish sunk in swept sand craters. The fish tilts back and forth as if sleeping with fins gently waving like lullabies. A loud crack breaks the silence, and without turning on the light, I know a beaver has slapped its tail in warning. Above, blue-green nebulae hang like smoke amid the spangle, and I’m stunned to have missed this so far. Who could care more about what brought them here? I turn off the light and lie down on the seat of the jon boat, amazed.

In the fall, when the leaves peak and the trees cast their color on the ripples of the creek like an oil fire, I watch a brook trout rise in a whirlwind where the back of a stone breaks the current. A bow and arrow throw puts a Cahill in the air, and as the fly lands, I mend the wrist line to hold it there. The trout rises through a shimmer of mica, rolls over the fly and dips to a cobblestone bottom. I put the hook on and feel the weight.

After a few strips, the fish beats in the shallows by my boots. I kneel down and wet my hand, I take this wonderful thing on my fingers. Autumn is reflected on the sides, the colors blend like that of a sugar maple: green to goldenrod, tangerine to scarlet. The dark green back is swirled with linden marmorations and red spots haloed with pale blue crowns. There is a sunset painted on my palm.

Winter renders the landscape in pen and ink, and I’m in a tree waiting for a stag that won’t show up. A hornbeam of golden finches flies over the timber line and lands in the brush and bushy pines at the end of a clearcut. Slowly the birds are heading towards me, landing in places that suit them for reasons I don’t know.

I’m bundled up and I’m cold, which keeps me still. The shaft stand is in a walnut background solidly surrounded by dogwood. In an instant all the charm converges on this singular point. They cling to limbs like leaves and are so close to me that when I focus on a single bird, I can see feathery barbs and barbs, wisps as fine as a baby’s hair. My vision recedes and I am surrounded by a yellow too bright to be understood. The universe becomes one color, and I’m trapped within it.

* * *

Everything I know about beauty I learned with a cane or a rifle. For me, fishing and hunting were the mechanics that put me squarely in the thick of things. I don’t mean to suggest it’s the only way, just that without a plan, few people would climb twenty feet on a pine tree two hours before daylight. People are looking for vistas to catch sunrises. They go around the bends in the trails and come across black bears, surely a stroke of luck. But who else shivers cold in the darkness in a tree miles from any road or trail and waits when the blue mist melts from the saddle at first light? Photographers? Mad Men? Maybe. And if so, I’ll gladly share the woods with them.

What I love most about these mornings is flipping the switch when the world goes dark. You slip into a place in complete darkness and wait for the silence to end. You are there when the first bird cries and the second responds, when life suddenly springs from every space that offered the slightest shelter from the night. The only requirement is that you still hold on without flinching and that you don’t dare break the spell. As Wendell Berry wrote, “For a while [you] rest in the grace of the world, and [are] free.”

* * *

The pine groves were opened by fire, and spring began to emerge its green face from the ash and black. By summer, what’s been burned will fill up again, but for now there’s no cover or place to hide, so I crawl along a dry creek bed , praying the turkey wouldn’t see me approaching.

Morning has just turned from black to sapphire, and the bird is pounding its member again, a sound so loud and so close it crashes into me like thunder. I look over the edge of the bank to find a place to sneak within reach, and I see an old pine tree nearly a meter across that’s more than enough to hide me. I lean against the tree, my torso turned into a trunk, my legs apart on the ground scorched like exposed roots. Somehow I managed to get within fifty yards of where the gobbler is perched.

Illustration: Song Kang

The woods are waking up around me and I have to fight the urge to rush things. I wait a few minutes for the light to rise before I call, and when I do, it’s nothing loud or startling, just a subtle tree cry sent out by the bell of a trumpet. I’m not waiting for the answer. There is no wing flapping or downward flight, just gravity and the ground, the thud of the bird hitting the ground as it falls from the limb like a stone. He stands in the clearing and cranes his neck to study the overlapping shadows where the call comes from, but I’m caught in a dark hollow the light has yet to find, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t. not see me. For the turkey, survival requires absolute certainty, and so the line of wood becomes its line of sand. He won’t come near.

A dogwood winter puts its breath out, each swallow a sound written like a score of smoke that hangs before it until the echo fades. He swells in the strut and rakes his wingtips through the frosty grass, his head drained icy white. For a long time, that was all that existed between us. I am a tree and he is a dancer. The sun takes an hour to crest the pines, to warm this icy blue dawn, and during this time it walks like eyes on a page, without taking a step in the margins.

As the first rays break through the treetops, I watch its feathers transform into stained glass, a fan backlit in bronze and barred, the outer curve fringed with gold. I can’t move and I don’t want to. This is where I would spend my eternity, heaven and earth in one place, though even as I breathe it I know it can’t last. As quickly as he came, he will go. There’s always the flip of the switch. The world is awash with miracles, and I’m grateful to just witness it.

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