COOK, MINN. – Whether deer hunting is deer hunting if a hunter's cartridge remains chambered all day, unspent, is a fair question. By its nature, hunting would seem to require for its success that a trigger be pulled and an animal felled.

Yet if productive hunting demands such a conclusive blow, as it might in a world that increasingly rewards gratification rather than the process of being gratified, perhaps then hunting's future is as troubled as some observers fear.

These and other thoughts bedeviled at least some of the estimated 500,000 Minnesotans who perched in trees or otherwise passed time on the lookout for whitetails when the state's 2017 firearms deer season began one-half hour before sunrise Saturday.

Among these were my brother, Dick, of Eveleth; his son, Brian, of Oak Grove, and Brian's friend, Nathan Hilson, of Duluth. They, and I, hunted together on a back 40 my brother and I own not far from Cook.

In this part of the state, snow began falling late Friday evening and continued most of the night, so we were greeted with a few inches of new snow when we awoke at 4:30 Saturday morning. Soon thereafter, we followed a footpath from a blacktop road to our hunting land, a distance of a half-mile or so, by the crow. As we did, snow billowed among the trees, building to 8 inches or so on the forest floor.

Our trail divided stands of balsam and birch, aspen and spruce. Trudging along, each of us carried rifles over a shoulder, headlamps leading the way. The temperature was 24 degrees.

Winding among semi-frozen swamps and up and down rocky inclines, we grew ever-more alert, step by step.

Writing in "Meditations on Hunting," the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) spoke of the transformation hunters undergo — or should — when afield.

Arguing that there exist, in variations, semblances of "natural" man (or woman) in all of us — as differentiated from what he called "changeable historical man" — Ortega y Gasset said the latter rendition is essentially an evolutionary embarrassment: "sleepy, benumbed, (and) without his (or her) lost form of instinctive hunter."

In this way, man differs from animals, Ortega y Gasset said, most of whom, to survive, must attain and remain in a constant state of alertness. Hunting's value, he said, in large part is its inducement to participants, or rather its requirement, that hunters achieve an equal state of alertness, thereby touching base, however fleetingly, with their natural selves.

Daylight was a half-hour distant when Dick, Brian, Nathan and I split up. Dick's deer stand watches over the edge of a far swamp. Brian oversees a swamp as well, high up in a tree, and Nathan would keep an eye peeled on a different patch of the same swamp. My stand was a roughneck affair on a ridge that sometimes sees a deer crossing, and I headed in its direction.

All the while snow fell, wet and sticky but accumulating.

Climbing into my stand in the morning's half-light, I pulled a thermos from my pack along with two cookies. Jacking a cartridge into my .270, I settled in.

Hours passed, during which I recalled purchasing the 40 acres we were hunting. The year was 1975, and I signed a 20-year note promising to pay a Duluth man $35 a month. The man insisted I carry with me while inspecting the property a two-pack of Reese's peanut butter cups.

"When you get the shakes in the woods," the man said, "the only thing that helps are peanut butter cups."

I also recalled that years ago I killed a buck from this stand, and recalled as well another season, while sitting with my younger son, watching him kill a buck here, too.

These and other thoughts came and went. Mostly I tried to stay sharp as a tack. The first raven of the morning croaked overhead at 10:32. Otherwise the woods were quiet.

Hunters sometimes complain of boredom when deer are no-shows. The antidote I figure is to pay closer attention. A spruce bough breaks beneath the snow. A skein of snow geese arrow overhead. A dog barks in the middle distance.

Ortega y Gasset said, "A fascinating mystery of nature is manifested in the universal fact of hunting: the inexorable hierarchy among living beings."

But if a hunter sits bump on a log, waiting only to crack off a round, the distinction can be missed.

Noon came and the four of us gathered beneath a tall red pine and built a fire. Perhaps the weather was to blame. Or maybe wolves were in the area. But deer weren't moving. We had heard only a half-dozen shots. In the afternoon, the snow turned to rain. We would have settled for one good buck showing itself. But it never happened.

Hunting, Ortega y Gasset said, is a vital vacation from the human condition — an opportunity to be alert in a world that otherwise can dull the senses.

Having not fired a shot, as darkness approached, we walked from the woods.

Wet, yes, and disappointed. But alert.

Dennis Anderson