Minnesota gained statehood in 1858 and initiated a deer season the same year. A hunter could kill an unlimited number of animals and the season was five months long. Rifles leveled in the direction of the relatively few whitetails that existed then were the same ones deployed a few years later in the Civil War.
Not until 1929 did the Legislature authorize the killing of deer by bow and arrow, and still another 11 years passed before a separate bow season for deer was established, and then only in far-flung Itasca County, where archers were allowed a meager five days in the woods.
What took so long is a fair question, because sticks and strings have put meat on tables almost since man stood upright. Long before Robin Hood came Genghis Khan, whose mounted archers ensured accuracy by releasing arrows when all four of their horses’ hoofs were aloft. Designed either for close or long range, Mongols’ bows were made of fish glue, birch bark, deer antlers and animal tendons, and with them Khan and his descendants established an empire virtually unmatched in history.
I daydreamed about all things archery the other day as I climbed into a tree stand. My bow was tied to the end of a haul line dangling near the ground 16 feet below, and when I was seated in the stand and secured by a safety harness, I lifted the bow to me, hand over hand. The stand is an old one and I’ve killed deer off it before, as have my two sons.
This was in November, bucks were rutting and with two hours of shooting time left, the woods were quiet.
Killing a deer, especially a buck, with a bow and arrow is not an exercise necessarily requiring strength and smarts, but rather something nearer to their opposite, instinct and intuition being primary. A Zen state of mind gains traction here, meaning, more or less, a mind filled with nothing — and thus open to everything.
Nocking an arrow, I took a 180-degree gander at my surroundings. A hill towered steeply to my left. Colorless, bare-limbed maples in varying heights surrounded me. A northwest breeze wafted over my shoulder.
I had spotted two bucks chasing does the day before not far from my stand. One was a strong eight-pointer, the other a similar-sized buck bearing less impressive headgear.
Laying the bow across my lap, I sized up with my range finder a large deadfall strewn straight ahead on the forest floor, 22 yards. Sweeping in a half-circle, I similarly targeted other landmarks: a sapling bent at its trunk, 26 yards; a leaf-trampled game trail winding through a small clearing, 18 yards; a basswood split at its base by a summertime windstorm, 16 yards.
Restless people are, by their disquieted natures, reluctant bow hunters. The exercise rewards those intrigued, however inconsequentially, by the comings and goings of squirrels, the migration of waterfowl, the bark of a distant dog and the stilled nothingness of daybreak and day’s end.
Hunters who by contrast are thrilled only by the unarguable climax of the undertaking, the kill, reduce themselves to long autumns of rare thrills bracketed by endless frustration. As Robert Pirsig wrote in his book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:’’ “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than arrive.’’
A short while into the hunt, the smaller of the two bucks I had seen the day before appeared as most deer do, ghostlike. Almost tiptoeing, his nose to the ground, he descended the hill to my left, perhaps 100 yards out. The buck was unaware of my presence, seemingly alert only for the trail of a doe in estrus, and its neck was heavily swollen, signaling his ancient intentions.
Doubting the animal would end up near my stand, I nonetheless clipped my release to my bowstring and stood up when the sightline between the deer and me was blocked by trees. I watched then intently as the buck to my advantage turned first toward me and then circled behind my stand, ever closer.
I would kill the buck if given a chance, I had decided. Or try to. Freezers devoid of winter’s larder yawn unforgivingly in the long cold months, and I wanted not to say later I missed my one opportunity.
Yet when exactly to draw back a bow is a decision that has bedeviled archers forever. Too early or too late and opportunity can be lost.
I anchored my bowstring alongside my chin when the buck was about 34 yards out.
In these cases, especially as dark approaches, archers worry they might hit too high or too low or too far forward or too far back. Regret always follows the footsteps of hunters trailing blood.
Rolling the dice, I sent an arrow flying. As I did, three swans migrated overhead and a squirrel bounced on fallen leaves beneath my stand.
Ending something, and beginning something, too, in the twilight between day and night the buck took his last step, tangling then his fate and mine forever in archery’s long history.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org