The spark that ignites the fire is usually that chance encounter in the forest. A massive buck, 7 or 8 years old and so woods-wise as to be a sage in all things sylvan, winds up crossing paths with a human. The encounter is usually fleeting, but that’s all it takes.
The human goes home and dreams of deer. It becomes an obsession, a quest of near epic proportions.
For the truth of the matter is that such deer are phantasmal entities. A simple dictum governs them: you don’t get to be old if you’re stupid or careless. And the corollary of this dictum is that all those old monster deer, unless they have lived their whole lives in parks or on very limited access private land, are way smarter and way more cautious than the typical whitetail.
A deer lives by its nose and by its ears. The simplest snapping of a twig or the slightest waft of human body odor on the wind will force these old veteran bucks into extreme caution mode. The young deer learn to read the sounds and scents from their mothers. The bucks that watch their comrades fall from arrows flying from trees or from hidden gunmen get a crash course in human detection and human evasion.
A few years of such harsh lessons, and they become the grayness against the tree trunks in November. They become the stillness of the crisp air. They become more silent than the acorns falling upon leaf litter. They become beings that both exist and vanish, and no exactly when the vanish effort must be at its strongest.
So was the story of this old buck who had lived for 8 years of flying arrows and flinging lead. He knew every approach that man would make into his Allegheny Mountain redoubts. He knew the scent of man, including all the cheap cover scents that the hunter will slather upon his body in hopes of fooling neophyte deer. He knew the exact sound of a hunting boot cracking a beech twig in the heavy leaf litter.
He was a maestro of evasion, and most hunters are not maestros of deer. Most hunters are able to get the drop on the neophytes and cull them from the herds pretty easily. They also take the middle-aged bucks that get so cocky and horny that they forget that a human hunters are still a very real threat.
But some hunters are not content with the neophytes and the cocksters. The spark of a chance encounter has lit a flame that does not burn out easily. Indeed, it might not burn out at all.
The great buck had heard the guns go off for more than a week. It wouldn’t be long, and all the hunting camps would be cleared out. The ATVs would not longer be squalling up and down old tram roads. The forest would return to the more natural order of things, and he could get to work on trying mount a few yearling does before the long nights of snow came sweeping in.
As the darkness fell, he ambled cautiously down from his favorite remote stand of rhododendron and eased his way down to the creek. He drank of the cold November water. He allowed his brain to relax and passed a little gas.
Why he had chosen that second to relax, we will won’t know, but it was at that very second that a gun raised from the opposed bank. A shot was fired. The bullet shattered the buck’s lungs. He leaped in surprise, and he fell down in death. The cold creek water ran red with his blood.
The hunter emerged from his hiding spot. For three months, he’d been tracking this buck. He’d put out trail cameras, and he’d read all the sign. He knew that he’d never be able to get such a buck during the hard gunning early part of the season.
So he waited until that particular night, and he positioned himself up against the wind underneath a white pine tree. He sat stoically through the waning hours of the day. He felt not a tinge of impatience. He knew that the big buck would come. It might be almost dark, but he knew that the buck was still there and that he would be coming.
For years, this man had allowed himself to become ensconced in all things deer. He had settled with the neophytes and cocksters, but he had always yearned for a big buck.
And now one lay before him, dead from a bullet chambered in a rifle that he had carried that he had fired with expertise and efficiency, and it was so oddly satisfying. Yet it was also quite disconcerting.
The challenge been met, and all of us who seek goals know the feeling of reaching them. There is a certain feeling of sadness that the challenge no longer avails itself in the same way.
Every hunter, though, comes to love his prey. And there is always a remorse in killing.
And to kill a creature such as this one is to kill out of a whole history, a whole set knowledge that we will never know.
It is like felling an ancient oak and wondering about all those who sat under its shade.
The hunter was a trophy hunter, but he paid no more than the usual hunting license fee. He had never even left the state or even the county in which he resides.
He had let the fire burn and burn and burn until he could only go forth into the big woods and follow that quest for the big rack.
And no he had done so. He was connected once again to those Pleistocene hunters whose blood coursed through his veins, and who hunted, not for big racks, but for their very existence.
In France, some of those ancient hunters painted the likeness of their quarry on cave walls. In modern America, the buck’s head would be preserved in a taxidermy. It would hang on the wall, a tribute to both the buck’s cunning and sagacity and the man’s skill in hunting.
And the gamy buck venison would fill more than a few dinners as the dark days of winter approached.
And the buck would nourish the man. His flesh would feed him with the nutrition of biochemistry. The knowledge of having hunted this creature would nourish the man’s spirit.
And in the summer, there would be many bucklings among the fawns. Some of them would be the sons of the old maestro, and maybe one or two of those would have their father’s cunning and wisdom to live out long lives in the oak and beech woods.
And maybe in 7 or 8 years, they too will fall as their father did, and they will nourish the hunter as he did.
For that is the story of deer and deer hunting. It is not about the murder of the beasts. It is about passing it on, so that both deer and men can live out their dramas of hunter and hunted.
It is a relic of a time when man was a beast of prey and all meat that he consumed was either hard-hunted or hard-scavenged. It is a relic that pays tribute to that heritage, though few hunters will ever contemplate what that heritage actual does mean.
For it is ultimately about humans expressing our animality as much as it is about deer expressing theirs.
But it is almost never understood in those terms.
But it most certainly is.