Quiet in the Woods – Garden and Gun

illustration: Sunrise Yang

He tells me to go where the path forks, to establish there in the corner. From that spot, she says, I’ll be able to see both lanes: the right one that leads to an old food patch, the left one that ends in bedding. Deer, she says, are likely to come from anywhere.

So mid-afternoon I slip in a good two hours before the night move. I find the spot you’ve described and slip into a thicket of seeds and green heather where I’ll be hidden in a chair on the ground. I can see down the right lane to where the trail turns into a fallow gap. But on the left side, I can only see a hundred feet to a curve, and beyond that is where I’m convinced the deer will be.

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

But the man who sent me to this corner knows deer and knows this place, which means of course he should listen. Instead, I grab my chair and slide around the bend. I bend over a stubby cedar that rubs against a pine tree. Now I can see to the end of the lane. About an hour before sunset, heavy footsteps come up behind me. The sound is way back, so I look over her shoulder and see her. She is a young doe, probably eighty pounds, her coat slick and tan as an acorn. Head down, she nibbles at the grass, then looks up with alert ears. She looks back to where she came from, takes a few steps and continues to feed.

illustration: Sunrise Yang

I decide I won’t move until it passes. The footsteps grow louder and I stand still, my eyes almost closed, my heartbeat drumming. At the final moment, I realize that I am sitting directly on a path. His head comes over my right shoulder close enough that I can touch it. I turn slightly just as he enters my peripheral vision, and that sudden movement widens his eyes. The doe nearly burst out of his skin, just a burst of muscle thundering across the ground and it was gone.

This is the first deer I have hunted and not killed. Instead, I tremble in amazement and wonder as she disappears. At that moment I realize that if a man sits still enough, he could disappear completely.

* * *

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 die down just as the pigeons begin to dive into the corn stubble fields. The pigeons disappear and the whitetail routine begins. The season brings us back to the season, and we run fitfully in search of the game we’re after.

I half joke that it will be a heart attack that will get me out of this place. They’ll find me at the base of a tree with muddy gobbler tracks stamped across my body, or sprawled on a dock having been woken by a snap of bait, the slow tick-tock-tick-tock of a flathead taking the line until the spool is empty and the rod itself slides off the spring into oblivion. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love the outdoors. They ask me to accompany them on walks, 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 up the pace and the conversation because I know that’s to be expected, but it annoys me how the forest fades around us. We are a fire that shines against a space that will not accept us. Nothing dares to enter that light.

As we stumble along, the deer hide and wait, the squirrels melt into the branches they cling to, and the birds stop singing. What we have become a part of does not want to be a part of us. Deep down, I want to tell the person 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 you that if we don’t, we will surely miss the sermon. But instead I keep those things to myself for fear of ruining their good time, and in turn we see nothing. The more time passes, the more I tend to go to the forest alone.

* * *

In the heat of the day, the heat of the day always pushes me further into the night. Midnight finds me alone on the water, the mountains of North Carolina resting black against the sky. I move the beam of light from a spotlight along the shore and look for eyes that shine like copper coins. When the brightness finds them, bullfrogs go into a trance that will not be broken as long as the light is constant. They cling to the shadows of driftwood until I’m close enough to snag them on cattails and reeds.

As the boat passes between the shores, I shine my light on the water and see sunfish in craters of swept sand. The fish lean back and forth as if sleeping with their fins flapping softly like lullabies. A loud crack breaks the silence, and without turning on the light, I know that a beaver has struck its tail in warning. Above, blue-green nebulae hover like smoke amidst the sequins, and I’m dumbfounded that I missed this until now. Who could care more about what brought them here? I turn off the light and lie on the seat of the jon boat in amazement.

Come fall, when the leaves peak and the trees cast their color onto the ripples of the creek like oil fire, I see a brook trout come up in an eddy where the back of a stone breaks the current. A bow and arrow release launches a Cahill into the air, and when the fly lands, I flick my wrist to keep it there. The trout emerges through a sheen of mica, rolls on the fly, and plunges back down to a cobbled bottom. I place the hook and feel the weight.

After a few pulls, the fish flaps into the shallows next to my boots. I kneel down and wet my hand, put this wonderful thing on my fingers. Autumn reflects on the flanks, the colors blending like a sugar maple: green to goldenrod, tangerine to scarlet. The dark green back is swirled with lime marbling and red spots surrounded by pale blue crowns. There is a sunset painted on my palm.

Winter turns the landscape into pen and ink, and I am in a tree waiting for a deer that will not appear. An amulet of golden finches flies over the forest line, landing in the brush and pine trees at the far end of a clearing. Slowly, the birds make their way to me, landing in places that suit them for reasons I can’t figure out.

I’m warm and I’m cold, and that makes it easy to keep still. The base of the tree is in a hickory with a dogwood background. In a moment all the charm converges on that singular point. They cling to branches like leaves and are so close to me that when I focus on a single bird, I can see barbels and barbs of feathers, strands as fine as a baby’s hair. My vision recedes, and I’m surrounded by yellow that’s too bright to comprehend. The universe becomes one color, and I am trapped in it.

* * *

Everything I know about beauty, I learned with cane or rifle. For me, fishing and hunting have been the mechanisms that put me squarely in the heart of things. I do not mean to suggest that this is the only way, only that without some project few would climb twenty feet up a pine tree two hours before sunrise. People chase views to catch sunrises. They round the bends in the trails and run into black bears, surely a stroke of luck. But who else is shivering in the dark high up in a tree miles from any road or trail and waiting when the blue mist melts off the saddle at first light? photographers? Crazy men? Maybe. And if so, I will gladly share the forest with them.

What I liked most about those mornings is turning on the switch when the world turns on. You enter a completely dark place and wait for the silence to pass. You are there when the first bird sings and the second responds, when life springs suddenly from every space that offered the least shelter of the night. The only requirement is that you stand still and don’t dare break the spell. As Wendell Berry wrote: “For a time [you] rest in the grace of the world, and [are] free.”

* * *

The pine forests have been opened by fire, and spring has begun to bring out its green face from the ash and the black. By summer, what has burned empty will fill up again, but for now there is no shelter and no place to hide, so I crawl through a dry creek bed, praying the turkey doesn’t see me approaching.

The morning has just lightened from black to sapphire, and the bird hammers again from its perch, a sound so loud and close that it crashes into me like thunder. I look over the edge of the bank for somewhere to sneak into range, and I see an old three-foot pine tree that’s more than enough to hide me. I lean against the tree, my torso now a log, my legs sprawling across the charred ground like exposed roots. Somehow I’ve managed to get within fifty meters of where the gobbler is perched.

illustration: Song Kang

The forest is waking up around me and I have to fight the urge to rush things. I wait a few minutes for the light to come on before knocking, and when I do it’s nothing loud or surprising, just a subtle tree howl sent by a trumpet bell. I’m not waiting for the answer. There is no flapping of wings or downward flight, just gravity and earth, the thud of the bird hitting the earth as it falls from the branch like a stone. He stands in the clearing and cranes his neck to study the layers of shadow where the call is coming from, but I’m in a dark hole that the light hasn’t found yet, and no matter how hard I try, it can’t see me. For the turkey, survival requires absolute certainty, so the wooden line becomes its sand line. It won’t come any closer.

A winter dogwood puts its breath in the air, each bite a sound written like a score of smoke that hangs before it until the echo fades. He puffs himself up into a swagger and brushes his wingtips across the icy grass, his head as white as ice. For a long time, this is all that exists between us. I am a tree, and he is a dancer. It takes an hour for the sun to crown the pines, to warm up that icy blue dawn, and in that time he walks like eyes across a page, without taking a single step in the margins.

As the first rays break the treetops, I watch their feathers turn into stained glass, a backlit fan of bronze and bars, the outer curve edged with gold. I can’t move, and I don’t want to. This is where I would spend my forever, heaven and earth in the same place, though even as I breathe it in, I know it can’t last. As fast as it has come, it will go. There’s always the flip of the switch. The world is awash with miracles, and I am grateful to simply bear witness.