On a recent day in the fading light of late afternoon I pulled my bow from its case and using a range finder loosed arrows at longer and longer distances.
The newest bows are faster, quieter and ultimately deadlier than those made even five years ago. But they don’t shoot themselves, and achieving the stillness of mind and body required to consistently pierce a bull’s-eye at 40 yards requires total immersion in the present, a home run if achieved. As Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” said: If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right.
I had been up early on consecutive mornings carrying my bow, six arrows in the quiver. In the predawn of September beneath a cloudless sky, the stars themselves seemed in transition. Geese leaving their roosts honked their morning greetings, joined also, soon, by the bothersome smoker’s barks of crows. In the barn, the horse wanted his feed and the cat hunched low in the yard-light’s circular shadow.
Unmistakably autumnlike, these mornings trigger a desire to lay up by one’s own hand enough venison and fowl to last the coming winter.
Achieving this as a youngster often involves counting coup while putting something on the ground as quickly as possible, whether a deer, a pheasant, a duck, a grouse.
By contrast the older hunter often believes that harvests that occur too quickly are undesirable because the process of hunting and everything it entails necessarily also are foreshortened, including immersion over weeks and even months in autumn’s ever-cooler weather, and especially the opportunity, hunt by hunt, to devote oneself singularly to the moment in ways not otherwise possible in modern life.
A counterargument might suggest this is hooey, that sport of many kinds, be it rock climbing or throwing a football, or high-stakes gambling, or even labor, whether that of a welder or a brain surgeon, requires and rewards the same degree of focus.
There’s some truth here.
But the greater truth is that stalking an animal with a bow in one’s hand, or a rifle or a shotgun, or watching a knot of mallards or bluebills or redheads arrow toward decoys, or awaiting the flush of a pointed rooster, engages the senses in a moveable feast of sustained anticipation and reward otherwise rarely achievable — while also freeing the participant-hunter of extraneous thought.
The other late afternoon, as darkness descended, obscuring my archery target, I cased my bow.
I know where a good big buck hangs out and in coming days I’ll haul a portable stand into the woods and place it high in a tree.
I have no interest in shooting the animal before the rut and before his neck grows thick. Maybe I won’t shoot him anyway. Perhaps the rut will come and go and the good big buck will be a no-show. Maybe I’ll still be in my stand in December, squinting through bare-limbed trees during the season’s final days not for antlers but for meat on the table.
In December, they say, the freezer yawns especially wide.
Years ago, when our younger son, Cole, was in seventh grade he wasn’t required to be in school until 9 in the morning. So beginning in the last week of October, he sat in my stand before classes, his bow at the ready. There were deer around and he was a good shot. I worried only that he might stuff too many Oreos in his pack before leaving to hunt in the dark.
Then one early morning while I was saddling a horse, Cole appeared in the yard.
“I got him,” he said.
Even now I remember that deer, a tall-tined 8-pointer. But as equally I remember the far more typical mornings when no deer were shot, not by me or anyone.
In many ways, these outings were just as satisfying as the ones that ended with a buck swinging from a meat pole.
The former, after all, allowed the hunt, and the mindset that hunts inspire, to continue.
Pirsig, the motorcycle maintenance guy, summed it up.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.”