Fall, the season when a hunter feels the call to saunter into the once lush forests of summer to survey the rusty browns and spicy aromas of the transitioning season. In my own case, being someone who came to bow hunting after a lifetime of passion for traditional archery, and without having been trained up as a boy, have learned through years of trial and error, leaning on the sage council of one or two generous and thoughtful men, for whom the hunt lies near to the heart. These early season exploratory walks mark my return to the mountain forest. The oppressive humidity and massive undergrowth allowing passage into a world only inhabited by my relatives in the “more than human world”. A summer’s worth of bedding areas, runs and tracks, revealed to my eyes for the first time, as I attempt to make my intrusion into this space as respectful and subtle as possible.
Being someone who has been long steeped in the realms of mysticism, mindfulness, yoga and other forms of contemplation, I have been reluctant to openly share my love for this ancient human activity. Though I have come to believe through my own time in sitting still on the land, that bringing great reverence, gratitude and awareness to the hunt, for those drawn to such endeavors, promises deep opportunities for connection and meaning.
As an omnivore, as an archer, and a forest meditator, I can think of no more powerful way to experience my full humanity than to enter into the timeless dance of predator and prey, endeavoring to feed my family by owning the entire process and not shying away from the reality of where food comes from, as is so easily done by most of the “modern” human race.
For me the journey to actually sitting in the forest, camouflage clad and armed with primitive weapons and an intention to melt into the tempo and cadence of the living earth, has been long and gradual. My particular hunting area is close to “civilization” and yet wild as can be, one of these wetlands at the foot of a mountain, overgrown to the chest with summer ferns and unsettling to pass through due to an almost total lack of visibility. It is a place that is teeming with life; black bear, bobcat, white tail deer, fishers, foxes, snakes, frogs, birds of all varieties, accipiters and herons, turtles and the occasional otter, turkey and coyote. And yet within five minutes of Stop & Shop! Spooking a stalking buck or grouse in the dew soaked marsh of 5:30am will challenge even the most seasoned meditator to regain their state of relaxed and alert awareness as they press on to their tree stand.
This fall I decided to place a ladder tree stand in my hunting location, an elevated perch from which I can survey the rusty ferns, red-osier dogwood and thickets where the bucks feed, take cover, and polish their antlers. I brought my son with me, who is nine years old this year (2020). Together we raised the stand and safely anchored it to the tree I had selected, a beautiful sugar maple with a balanced crown, a tree I have been eyeing for the last seven years. Upon climbing the ladder I saw that the place where the stand makes contact with the tree and the straps attached have caught the attention of some very small yet powerful entities, our familiar red ants. The wetland, and parts of our back yard are home to them and the kids and I have experienced our fair share of bites over the years. The pain comes on in a few moments after the bite, the skin begins to swell as the poison is absorbed and sometimes the swelling and the pain can be quite uncomfortable. I have come to develop a healthy respect and admiration for these strong warriors.
Of course, finding them fifteen feet up my tree stand tree was unsettling and, at first, disappointing. What could be worse than having red ants in my shirt and pants while I am sitting high up in a tree. That is a truly unsafe situation! So I kneeled on my stand and simply observed them. I began to consider the reality that this is not my tree at all, it is clearly their home. Imagine being the size of a red ant and living in, among and with such a massive and beautiful living tree. These ants are the tree protectors. Rather than go to battle with them I speak to them and I consider that when the frosts of October settle in, they will most likely retreat below the earth, as they do each winter, leaving the tree to me to enjoy in safety. I assure them that I will bring no harm to their home tree and that I honor them and thank them for being the protectors of this place. Rather than force my presence on this tree and these ants, I decide to retreat until frosts send the ants to their winter slumber. I choose to honor and respect their presence here and adapt to the way that things are. I had hoped to sit here this September but perhaps, the ants know better. Perhaps it is not my time. In this way I seek to listen and converse with the spirits of this land, and show my respect as a hunter.
Hunting has often been like this for me, an activity that yields outcomes unlooked for, connections unsought, teachings unexpected. The universe I call these woods is an endless network of connections and mysteries. A place where ants, human hunters and deer, meet and mingle, assess one another, and grapple with the ever present search for nourishment, safety and connection. I look forward to cooler days when I can sit aloft in that noble tree, honoring a respectful armistice with my ant brethren, and a fair and ethical dance with the buck with whom my life is, perhaps, entanging even as I write these words.