Shopping on Black Friday

A slender moon waxing to first quarter waits for the chasing sun to steel it’s glory as I scan the woods with adjusting eyes. The west provides the most likely approach and so receives my attention. As the sun flirts with the horizon behind me, extending the reach of my eye ahead, heavy soft clouds slowly take back all that dawn granted until I am enveloped. Turning back to the east, neither sun nor moon remain. Forty yards out, a silent, shadowy figure slips through the thick air. Coyote, perhaps? Deer? Whoever passes by, the stillness surely robbed her of my scent just as the cloud denied me her identity, and she fades away both unaware and unknown.

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When the woods are unseen, every sound is richer. A distant great horned owl keeps me company with a series of morning hoots while squirrels keep me vigilant, asking time and again “Are you a deer?” Slowly the cloud thinned, and woods return. Pileated woodpeckers laugh and rap, and somewhere in the distance the crack of a hunter’s rifle signals success for another who chooses shopping for venison rather than sales on this black Friday. I wonder if shoppers in the mall find as much satisfaction there, amid domestic chaos and competition for excess, as I find here bathed in wild minimalism.

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After four hours of sitting silently, sipping my tea, the need to slip back to earth arises and I climb from my perch with as little disruption as I am able. Carefully, I ease eastward along the old fence. A bent No Trespassing sign warns others against joining me on this side. Across man’s imagined boundary, a series of young trees suffer the aggression of a young buck, their bark and cambium stripped away, yellow sapwood abraded and raw.

Reaching the edge of the woods, I find the shell of a box turtle resting in the grass, belly up, abdominal scutes still plated and attached to the shell, and I wonder how he ended up this way. Was this upending the cause of his demise?

Climbing the dam, I crouch low, aware that deer often bed in the tall grass east of the shallow, spring-fed pond. A kingfisher chatters loudly. There are no deer to be seen when I crest, only the kingfisher lighting atop a stump in the mostly dry pond bed. Seeing me, she flies in two great swoops to a tree on the far bank. I sit in the grass and watch until she decides to cross the farm to another hunting ground.

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Circling the pond, I come across another line of buck rubs, these ones on larger trees and higher on the trunks. Two years ago, I saw four large bucks bedded here. Perhaps one of them is still visiting. The old coyote den shows fresh evidence of excavation after two years of dormancy. Perhaps the figure I saw in the woods this morning lives here?

I circumnavigate the pond to find three killdeer standing motionless in the late morning sun, and I stop to take a couple photos. They are too far for the shots I would like given the small lens with which I am equipped, but they don’t mind my presence and I sit with them for a few minutes before completing the loop back to my stand.

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Lunch is now beckoning, so I walk to the truck. Following lunch, a full belly calls for a nap.

Rested, I return to my stand with a couple hours of light remaining. I carefully scan 360 degrees, then arrange camera, tea and phone on the bench beside me. A friend has joined me this evening in a tree 130 years behind me and I send him a quick text to ensure he knows the rules—either sex is allowed. I turn the ringer off and place my phone face down next to the camera and scan to the west. Yellows and oranges seem to have faded to browns over the past week, but the reds, deep and rich, are brought to life by the low sun—my kind of holiday decorations!

As I turn back to the south, the sun finds a pathway through the trees catching my glasses and reflecting harsh spots on four does standing fifty yards in front of me. With neither snort nor stomp, they jump and scatter. Four tails disappearing with four single bounds, and in seconds the woods are quiet. Oh, well. I remove my reading glasses and set them with the phone beside me.

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Time passes quickly watching a setting sun through autumn woods and, with it, my shopping trip is over and Black Friday  fades to darkness.

What Would Aldo Do?

It was mid morning and I was pondering the grits I had left on the stove, when a crash in the leaves over my right shoulder caught my ear. Apparently, mine was not the only ear caught as what had been a cacophony of foraging squirrels stopped in an instant. I could hear nothing. My first thought was that the red-shouldered hawk who frequented this corner of the farm must have taken one of the squirrels. Slowly I turned to look behind me, hoping to see the mantled wings of a hawk guarding her prey.

I scanned the eerily quiet woods. Something moved fifty or sixty yards out. It was not a hawk. This was a mammal, but too small small to be a deer. Coyote, perhaps?

A couple steps was all I needed for a clear, positive identification. Bobcat. The feline moved slowly but without apparent concern through the woods on a line which, if unchanged, would bring her within twenty yard of me. The squirrels remained silent. I had forgotten my binoculars that morning, so if I wanted a closer look, my rifle scope would have to do.

As she passed behind a large oak, I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took aim. She walked with her mouth open, her head low in a perfect line. I wondered what the occasional flick of her short tail was communicating. When she paused and turned her head towards me, I froze. She seemed to look right through me, her tufted ears poised to gather evidence of any move I would make. She turned her head the other way revealing large white eyespots on the back of her ears. Looking back to her front, she continued on her way.

Coming even with me she entered a blackberry tangle, disappearing. When she reemerged, she was thirty yards away and passing me. Through the scope she felt close enough to touch.

Her path angled towards me, crossing broadside in front of my stand. I was taken by the mechanics of her shoulders, how her head remained steady, her large feet silent.

When she looked away from me, I became acutely aware that the crosshairs of my scope were squarely on her vital organs, just behind her shoulder–the kill zone. My finger was on the trigger. I pulled my finger away, out of the trigger guard, and reached for the safety. It was off. I did not risk clicking it back on and attracting her attention, but gripped the stock with my full hand, finger safely away from the lever that could take her life.

In that moment, I remembered a note Aldo Leopold made in his shack journal about shooting a bobcat while deer hunting on his farm along the Wisconsin River. He made the entry a couple decades after seeing a “fierce green fire dying” in the eye of a wolf he shot in New Mexico, an incident he used to illustrate the need for change in our relationship with predators in his essay Thinking Like A Mountain.

It is hard for me to imagine the same man who wrote such impassioned words about what “tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day,” pulling the trigger on a bobcat, but he did. Then again, I had just had my finger on the trigger.

Like the rest of us, Leopold was a complex man. He was a hunter and a conservationist. He recognized the the importance of “every cog and wheel” that keep the biotic community running smoothly, and he enjoyed taking not only his “meat from God,” but the shooting of non-game species as well.

WWADI did not pull the trigger that morning, but for just an instant perhaps I could have. Some instinct had me ready, even if my rational and emotional minds pulled me quickly back. To run my fingers through the coat of a bobcat is compelling. To take its life for that opportunity, was not something I could do.

How Leopold, so late in a life so rich with evolving thought and understanding as to lead to his Land Ethic, was able to pull that trigger, I don’t understand. Yet, he did. Like I said, Leopold was a complex man.

The bobcat’s path changed again. She turned to move directly away from me. Five yards on her new trajectory, she pause, crouched, lowered her head and sniffed at something in the leaves. Perhaps she smelled the deer I had dropped there a week ago–my “meat from God.”

ImageAnother ten yards away from me, she jumped effortlessly onto a thirty inch downed oak. A second tree of similar size lay perpendicular across the first one like a pair of pickup sticks. She reached forward and pulled herself up until she was nearly vertical, then looked back over her shoulder for a moment, this time right into my scope. A quick jump onto the top log and she disappeared over the other side. I clicked on my safety, lowered my rifle, and lifted my cup. The tea was cold. As I stared into the woods in the direction she had gone, I heard leaves rustling behind me, then more to my right. As the woods came back to life, I climbed down from my perch and walked back to the house for breakfast.