THE FROST GLITTERS darkly. It sparkles as if all the constellations of the sky are knit to the ground. Walking down the block in the predawn light, I have on a hat, ridiculous orange, I’m embarrassed of even with no cars on the street and no one to see. It’s 5:30 AM, and I wear two of everything as if I’m preparing to flee or dressed for some Noah’s Ark of winter: two pairs of long johns, two wool sweaters, two hats, two pairs of gloves (plus hand warmers) and one old down jacket (dark purple, just to add to my ridiculous color scheme. I also carry an orange backpack, less bright than the hat, but still…). My winter boots have soles so thick I’m a full inch and a half taller. I’m not sure how to dress, but it’s 17 out, and I’ll be sitting for hours – not moving, not talking. Waiting, watching things rustle and the sun rise and the day shape over a hill by a field in upstate New York. I am going hunting.
I knock on my neighbor Becky Porter’s door, and in her kitchen she’s surrounded by a halo of light from a laptop. She’s all done up in boiled wool – pants, red plaid jacket, probably new 30 years ago, and a Holden-Caulfield hunting hat. Pinned to her back with a kilt pin is a plastic sheath outlined in bright orange with a florescent green piece of paper. Its bold black numbers give little hint of their significance. It’s her hunting license. It’s the start of hunting season, and she’s taking me out with her. Becky has a musical voice, a laugh that peels like the wind chimes on my porch. She’s stooped over the computer figuring out which stars are out this morning. Now the names become a blur, there’s Venus and something with an E or an O or maybe a U, a vowel. I can’t remember.
Walking across her lawn, I’m stabbed with a sense of missing my dad. When I was little, we’d sit out on the porch on the side of a mountain in Vermont in summer and he’d point out the stars. He’d served as a Merchant Mariner in World War II and knew the mysteries of the night sky. Inevitably too many mosquitoes and too many names drove me inside. This morning with Becky I nod like I know the ones she points out and wish I could see more than Orion or the Big Dipper.
As a kid I’d wanted to fish with my dad. I had this fantasy of being out in the quiet, maybe in a boat and his teaching me dad-things. My father, far as I know, never fished in his life, so I don’t quite know where this idea came from. Still, here I am with Becky hunting, but not even hunting. I don’t have a license. There’s no plastic sleeve on my back with bold numbers. I don’t have a gun. I am hiking; I am hanging out, but I want to learn to hunt, so have apprenticed myself to her and other neighbors I think might be up for taking a hunting-curious city transplant out with them.
Since I’ve moved to the sticks, I’ve heard stories about Becky and her sisters and their skills at shooting and field dressing (a phrase she would never use). When I do, she says, “We shoot it, gut it, hang it, skin it, cut it.” Her elderly father would call her for help if he shot a deer and needed help gutting it and getting it out. There’s another story about her dressing a deer on the way to church on Sunday. Becky’s husband was the central school’s environmental science teacher. She hunts; he doesn’t. He’s a birder, and there are tales illuminating the contrasts between them like when red squirrels moved into their attic, he trapped them. He got them into a pillowcase to move to the reservoir, where many a nuisance critter is released. (We drop our skunks and mice there). Becky picked up the bag of squirrels and slung it at a tree. In the version of the story I heard, after she brains the squirrels and he tells her he was going to move and release them, she says, “Well, this is what we do in Walton.” That’s the part of the county where she’s from, and the story could also be used to illustrate prejudices within our county, a place the size of Rhode Island. (Walton is supposedly rougher and tougher). Such stories are all the more striking when you meet Becky. She’s cute, diminutive, rides a bike with a wicker basket, serves on the women’s auxiliary for the volunteer fire department, and is a woman who can make a long shot from 100 yards as a deer leaps through the air.
So, here we are with her Elmer-Fudd outfit and my orange hat. It’s 6 AM and we’re up a path that follows the low chatter of a brook. We take our steps slowly, heel first, single file. My eyes water with the cold. The air has a steely sharpness like metal. The ground dazzles with diamonds. The crackle of stiff leaves ruptures the calm. We watch the dusky dawn-gray field alongside us with the white silvering of frost on it for any sign of deer browsing.
The world is re-imagined at dawn. There’s no birdsong, not in winter. All is silent but our breaths and occasional whispers. Becky leads me to a tree. A ladder is propped against the trunk. It strikes me as precarious; nothing holds it in place. I hand up her rifle. The cartridges, long brass rocket-type things, are in my pocket. They scare me. Passing up the rifle scares me. How am I supposed to hold it? Pass it? Is she sure there’s nothing in the chamber? I dully fumble with the gun through the thick gloves REI has promised will keep me warm to -10. (They don’t). I try only to handle the wood stock and keep my fingers as far from the trigger as possible. I try to hide my nervousness.
With her pack and thermos slung across her back, Becky scrambles up easily. In the crotch of the tree two planks are nailed in, and with all my layers on I am daunted that I might not make it, that I might not be able to bend or climb, and how can I climb up wearing those big snow boots? I seem utterly impossibly unable to get up, but I’m not going to show this, and there I am slinging a leg over one branch and slipping into place next to Becky. She slides the two long bullets from my coat pocket into the barrel. It’s like watching her slot in Pez, and I try to be nonchalant. I try to act I know what I’m doing (sort of) with a gun.
A few days later I’m out with Dick Sanford, publisher of the local paper, to shoot three different rifles. We’re up at his family’s camp, a hundred and some acres up a mountain. Snow is on the ground, and he points out the different hollows and ridgelines. On the porch I glaze over as he takes out the first gun. He tells me the name. It dissolves in a blur. He shows me the parts, and a fizzy feeling rises in my stomach like bubbles of Coca-Cola. I can barely grasp the details or remember that the bolt does this or the way to load a cartridge is that. I do remember now writing this to call the ammunition a “cartridge,” but then I call it a “bullet” and a “shell,” and he gently corrects me.
In my mind all guns have a cartoonish hazard glow around them. I’m scared of the thing, as if just touching it might endanger someone – or myself, as if to touch it, the gun might fire. Yet, being in the country, I am curious about hunting, and my feelings about it are perhaps muddied after Newtown though I don’t blur the lines between mass shootings or urban gun violence and hunting, at least not hunting with a bolt-action rifle.
I watch him shoot and I want to dry fire, but he tells me I can do this. I’ve loaded and unloaded cartridges. I know what to do, he says. He sets me up on the porch, with the rifle propped on a railing for stability, and I see the target through the sight. He teaches how to hold the stock nestled tight into my shoulder with my cheek along the stock and how to cradle it securely with both hands. I have it level. He shows me how to see it’s level through the sight. He teaches me how to breathe, that the breathing and shooting are connected. Inhale; hold your breath; don’t even pull the trigger, not so you realize it. Instead it’s this gentle squeeze so the shot surprises you. I shoot. I am surprised. Stunned, in fact. I yank the bolt back to expel the cartridge, and it clatters onto the ground. “Faster,” he says of my yanking and expelling. After trying this several times, he tells me I should not move. You learn to keep the gun steady on the recoil. We go to check how I’ve done. The snow crunches as we walk to the paper target, a grid nailed into a fence post. I’ve actually hit in the center area, not the exact middle, but close.
“Good enough for government work,” he jokes, and the phrase is a kind of compliment, only kind-of, still it makes me proud. I did better than expected (at least better than I expected), but also there’s something silly in the phrase, that he says it nearly every time I shoot, and it reminds me of the kinds of things my dad might have said. There’s something in his pride and kindness, his teasing me and his telling stories of going out with his brothers that makes me miss my dad again.
Becky and I are out on the Monday before Thanksgiving, the first Monday of hunting season, which used to be opening day and a school holiday. The bus drivers were all out hunting so there was no one to get the kids to school. Now the season starts on a Friday to make a weekend of it (the state believing it might get more people hunting), and running into Becky on her bike the week before, she said it wasn’t the same anymore. There used to be a thrum of anticipation through the village. The restaurants were packed, and people rushed to get in supplies and scout deer. There’s some of that excitement still on Thursday and Friday with men in camo and heavy boots in the supermarket and the florescent “Welcome Hunters!” signs out on the Country Store. Now though fewer people hunt, not just here but across the Northeast. Seeing cars parked on the mountain roads over opening weekend and knowing the drivers have climbed down and are stalking deer holds a thrill for me, as does seeing the kids in the paper with their first bucks. I’m struck with this pride that I can’t really describe – it’s about place and tradition and the skill that goes into hunting. I know plenty of people who’ve moved here and find the sport wrong, disgusting, upsetting…. They get upset when they see a truck in the grocery’s parking lot with a deer in it. I don’t. Up in our tree, the sound of shots rings out occasionally from over the hill, and I’m unsure if one shot alone means anything or if in succession it does—if one or the other is more likely to signal success.
Becky started hunting at 16, the first year she was old enough to, with her identical twin, Betsy. They were in matching outfits (“Woolrich plaid tapered-leg pants with elastic straps to keep the legs tucked in”) from the Jamesway in Oneonta, and they still wear matching clothes when they go out. She has madcap stories like the one where she and Betsy were out, and her sister’s neighbor came tracking a deer on a 4-wheeler through her land. He was a weekender, and this was back when downstaters were the only ones in orange or on ATVs. In his Italian accent he went on about how he’d lost his buck. “First I shoot it, then I’ve not shot it, and now you say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just a talking to you about tracking the deer through here.’” He looked at Becky and her boots. The women were in the exact same outfits just like when they were at teenagers. He searched her up and down. Betsy had gone inside. “I never seen a woman hunting,” he said shaking his head, “and now I see two, and a deer, and it disappears and I see one woman in the woods and then another just like her and this has been a crazy, crazy day.”
In the tree, she talks about her first season and the boys she and her sister and Peggy Holly had a crush on who were members of the same hunting club. She talked too about last season when her dad had been tracking the deer through his window. He was too old, too frail to go outside. One of Becky’s nephews shot a buck. “I know someone got the 8-pointer,” he whispered excitedly, “that left the 4-pointer and the spike horn, which is it?” And, he died just after hunting season ended as if waiting until the end of the season because hunting was such a big part of his and his family’s traditions. This year has been bittersweet for Becky. She’s also taking out her son-in-law hunting for his first time.
The few years I’ve lived here, I’ve heard plenty of good hunting tales, like the one about a neighbor, a friend, who when he was a teenager was at a hunting camp, Camp 13, that’s been used since the Depression. Someone shot a bear, and the next day it was tracked to a hole in the ground, no more than a foot or so wide. Rocks were moved; the bear was dead, and this friend who was only a teen at the time, offered to go down after it. He was the smallest and peeled out of his clothes to his long johns. He crawled in after the animal and tied ropes around it so it could be dragged out. The mystery of how he got in and out himself or down in the hole or how the bear got in and out are all part of the story. Another friend Steve Miller was too sick to hunt one winter when he was young. He had mono and got dressed to go out but couldn’t move from porch, a porch a few feet from where he tells me this story now. We’re talking about tree stands and deer blinds. He sat out in a chair, a buck walked by. He shot him from the porch, the clamor waking his father with the horrible noise. His dad was terrified, and then cleaned the animal for Steve who went straight back to bed. He has stories too of his grandfather tracking a bear for days through the snow up the mountain and woods from their farm that was flooded to make room for the New York City reservoir.
In her kitchen later, Becky tells me she learned to butcher deer partly from watching her dad but also from an ancient library book on meat cutting. Each year she’d check it out to refresh her knowledge, and there is something in this, in learning how to cut a deer from a book and in her insistence on self-reliance that I appreciate. She still remembers her first buck. She was 24 and says, “It was on the small side, an 8-pointer. I gutted it myself and dragged it to my car alone.” One of their neighbors saw her and stopped and said, “That’s a cute little deer.” It was, yeah, but the implication being that she was a girl with a girl-sized kill. She hiked to the tree stand where her dad was. “An hour and a half had lapsed,” she explains, and she called up in a whisper, “Dad, Dad.” He said, “Where’d it go? Which way did it go?” “Dad,” she replied with a pleading tone in her voice. “It didn’t go anywhere. I got it.”
She talks about waiting in a tree stand for a deer she’s hit to go down. I ask why, assuming there’s some reason having to do with hunting, with the skill of hunting, but she says, “Because I don’t want to upset it. I want it to have peace as it dies, and I don’t want to traumatize it at the end.” She also talks about her gratitude for the deer. It’s not spiritual, the language often used about a hunter’s “connection” to the animal through its life and death. She does feel linked to it, but more a sense of responsibility. That first time gutting a deer, she cut through its skin and felt a sense of obligation. At the same time she laughs. Her father (who’d believed she’d missed) thought it was funny she’d done it all by herself. He was proud too. “I was out there mavericking it. You’re not supposed to cut the stomach,” she recalls, but she had. “He helped me clean it up and tip it out, to keep the contents from coming into contact with the meat.”
“Now, when I get one, kill one, that is,” she says to make clear that she knows “getting” here is killing and she’s not one to shy away from the truth of the matter, “I feel such gratitude, a rush of gratitude, that I get to eat it. It’s food to me. That’s why I hunt, and I suppose,” she pauses looking for words because I’d asked if this is spiritual to her, “you could say it is.” Then she backs away from that and says, “Well, it might be.” But, that’s not how she sees the world. She’s more pragmatic than that, and says, “This is good food and it sustains us and it is local and nurtured by the good grass and good water we live among, and that makes me feels lucky.”
In the tree, ten feet above the ground Becky and I drink coffee from thermoses, and a female hairy woodpecker lands on the limb above my head. A chickadee breaks the silence; “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” trills the air, and we talk about fathers. She and I are hardly quiet enough; nothing comes by, but that’s not really the point this morning. Well, it could be the point, but it isn’t. We move to the woodlot and clamber up on pallets. Two brown creepers fly by feet from my face, they circle up a pair of sugar maples, and she points out where deer have been bedding down. It’s sunny now, near 10 AM. Her husband comes to cut wood, and we don’t get anything, don’t even see anything, the “anything” being a deer, but there is something else – this peace and being together in the woods. This is what I wanted with my dad, and I had it too in that way he’d point out the stars and try to teach me what he knew of them. This is what I have been looking for. I want to hunt to be connected to some tradition passed down and shared. I’m not sure I will ever shoot a deer, not sure I’d ever mange to hit it if I tried, and not sure what I’d do with all the meat being married to a vegetarian, but for now that’s not really the point. As I’m writing this over Christmas, Becky comes over with venison pot roast. Her nephew harvested the deer; the onions are from her garden.