Hunting is a repeating theme in many of the novels of one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry. Most of the male characters in his novels (which all take place in Kentucky) are hunters. One character in particular (Burley Coulter) will often disappear for several days to follow his dogs (who, in turn, are following a raccoon). Like me, Burley is a farmer, but Berry uses him to tell us how some of the best farmers have one foot planted in the domestic world and the other foot planted in the wild.
I grew up in a fishing family. Some of my fondest memories of my elementary school years were the days that my Dad and our friend Mel would pick me up at lunchtime so we could fish all afternoon on the Stanislaus River below Beardsley Reservoir. As I've grown older, I found it difficult to get away during the busy summer months to enjoy trout fishing in the Sierra. I did not grow up a hunter; my only experience with firearms was with a BB gun. In this, my 45th year, I've decided to try my hand at hunting deer.
I'll admit that I made this decision with some trepidation. I've been nervous about my lack of experience with a rifle. At times, I've felt like I was being disloyal to my upbringing - fishing seemed okay, but taking a fellow mammal for food, for some reason, seemed off-limits. Despite my reservations, I'm finding that I am enjoying the experience of hunting immensely (even though I've yet to fire my rifle at a deer). I've been out three times in the last week, and I'm planning on heading out again for several hours early tomorrow morning.
The attractions, for me, are several. I find that I like the opportunity to be outdoors without the noise that often accompanies my work. I've been hunting in the woods, mostly, and my work in the woods generally involves the use of a chainsaw. Stalking deer, by contrast, requires me to be as quiet as possible. I'm finding that I see and hear things that escape my notice while I'm working. The stellar's jays and bandtailed pigeons are especially noticeable at this time of year as they gather acorns for the winter. I'm also finding that I am more aware of surroundings visually. As I look for deer tracks, I'm also noticing other signs of wildlife - I've seen bear tracks, coyote tracks, squirrel prints, raccoon tracks, and other footprints I can't identify. I've also seen a huge variety of deer tracks - fawns, does and bucks - along with other signs of deer (broken branches along deer trails, tufts of hair, and droppings).
While the deer are skittish (especially at this time of year), I am noticing behavioral similarities with my sheep. The deer seem to bed down and chew their cuds during the middle of the day - much like my sheep. In the late afternoon, they emerge to graze and get water. My sheep also graze late in the day. I'm hoping that the deer are out grazing early tomorrow morning - I know my sheep will be. Yesterday, I observed a large fawn nursing on its mother. Like my large lambs, it lifted its mother off the ground as it nosed her udder to get her milk to let down. I've seen two bucks - an older buck with gnarled antlers and a younger forked-horn buck. The older buck was bedded down with several does, which I failed to anticipate - he was gone before I could raise my rifle. The younger male was watching me from a line of trees. I couldn't tell he was a buck until he bounded off into the brush. Had I been patient, I would have had a shot at him.
Like Burley Coulter, I'm finding that I'm enjoying these brief breaks from the work of farming. While most of my days are spent outside, I rarely have the opportunity to quiet myself to the extent that deer hunting demands. Likewise, patience has never been my strength - and hunting (like trout fishing) requires patience. Finally, all food production requires humans to interact with nature. I am finding that this interaction is much more direct with hunting. Whether I get a deer this year or not, I think I'll hunt for the rest of my life!