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Said & Done: Hunting stories of life and loss

  • SEAMANS



For the Recorder
Friday, October 12, 2018

Once a hunter, always a hunter. The atavistic man and the contemporary man within me fight inside every time I have gone into the woods.

This skirmishing between two forces on different ethical planes rarely ends in a draw or compromise. I have lifted my gun from pegs on the wall and called my dog. That’s the way it’s always been and will always be as long as fall and winter woods attract the hunter.

Now, wildlife laws indicate a general time-out in the hunting game. Most creatures that might find their way into the kitchen and the kettle are protected. Other creatures that are black-lighted as pests and vermin make themselves so scarce that there is little likelihood a rambling gunner is going to close the trails of any of them.

So the gun is shouldered pretty much as a symbol that its carrier is out for more than a constitutional right, and that the hunter in him is still alive.

I have tried to substitute field glasses for my rifle. Somehow it doesn’t work. It’s beyond me why slipping and sliding through the woods with a gun works better than doing so with binoculars. I have seen more sights through my Lyman scope than I’ll ever see through my Zeiss 7x50 binoculars.

If this is sophistry, so be it. I have tried to give in to humanitarian friends who’d have me sell my guns and walk in the woods with a cane. No dice! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I shouldered that gun winters ago to hike the fields around the Urgiel Farm for the thousandth time. It took my hound and I two hours, and we were never let down. Something new and different was always in the offing.

One day in late winter, a quarter-mile from the house, we poked our heads over the brow of a hill to witness a confrontation as funny as it was desperate. Two crows were doing their best to beat a squirrel out of an ear of corn.

The squirrel was not to be intimidated. It had salvaged the corn from beneath the crushed snow. The crows, lacking digging tools for this, were hungry. All puffed up and formidable, they were making short rushes at the squirrel, never coming so close as to get locked in hand-to-hand (so to speak) combat. The squirrel saw their bluff plainly enough, hauled his bag 50 yards to the nearest tree and disappeared in its branches. Defeated, the crows flew off.

There is no bad news in the animal world. Its economy functions on a day-to-day basis without advertisement of discouraging numbers, and unemployment does not exist. Wild animals are either fully occupied or they’re asleep. Animals move only in response to empty stomachs and procreative urgings, barely pausing in their daily rounds as the ordered cycle continues.

But the end of winter is the grinding end of the animal year. If poverty and depression were measurable in the wild kingdom, graphs would be all bottomed out. Little food, short days and cold all combine to test the strong and kill the weak.

Some time before this particular hike, a calf was born across the way. There was snow on the ground, and the brief period of bitter frost gave hoary lace-work to the earthy bed it tumbled into.

Normally, the farm calves born in the field get a wagon ride to the barn, followed by a triumphant party of mooing mother and jostling aunts and sisters. For this January baby, there was to be no triumphant hay ride. The cow stood in the cold with her shoulders hunched and her head down. Her calf was dead.

A back-hoe came and a shallow grave was dug in the sand. The calf was buried without benefit of eulogy, no one to mourn the life that never got to make a sound.

My dog and I passed that way during a hike. Lo and behold, the grave was empty, and all that was left of the calf was a dried-out ball of skin and a skull. Tracks radiated from the spot like spokes from a wheel hub. Big tracks and little tracks, dog tracks, cat tracks and mouse tracks — conglomerate tracks unreadable in their mass convergence upon that food supply.

It is certain that we felt that loss of life far more keenly than the cow that bore the calf. We walked on with a small ache in our heart. The cow walked into a stall where fresh hay awaited.

From that place with its bit of tragic history, we tramped to the height of a ridge that looks back east toward the river. There was a fox den we’d been keeping an eye on. It used to belong to a woodchuck we knew. That creature could get out to a field of clover only by crossing 100 feet of swamp. We never saw it jumping from hummock to hummock to make this crossing, but we knew it had to be either jump or swim.

I say we knew that woodchuck, and it is true. I could have shot it, but it seemed to be so much a part of that clover field and its swampy margin that my hand was stayed. It maintained its residency there until the farmer pushed the field right into the swamp and planted corn in place of clover. Our acquaintance with that woodchuck was abruptly broken off.

Now a fox had taken over the hole. We saw where it had been sitting, warming itself in the face of an earlier rising late-winter sun. A few red hairs were frozen in the ice around the mouth of the den, and the place smelled of refuse and urine. The dog had a great time at this spot.

A hundred yards more of this slow perambulating and the two of us came out of the woods onto the road. We carried home with us only stories of life and death, and contemplation of the slim margins that encompass these juxtaposed incidents in the animal world.

Paul Seamans is a permanent resident of the Charlene Manor nursing home. Some of his columns have been previously published.