Bagging a Bushy Tail

Steve Lanham of southern Anne Arundel County teaches the finer points of squirrel hunting to his 12-year-old neighbor Brandon Powell.
Steve Lanham of southern Anne Arundel County teaches the finer points of squirrel hunting to his 12-year-old neighbor Brandon Powell. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005

Settin' still as statues, the squirrel hunters wait.

They wait for a tree limb to shake. For a hickory nut to fall. For squirrel teeth to squeak on an acorn.

They wait. The silence becomes physical, like spongy earplugs. Gurglings in the lower intestinal tract, usually masked by nearby noise, now whine loudly and awkwardly. When a single leaf finally drifts into view, pirouetting toward the ground, it's cause to marvel -- an event .

"It's kind of boring," confesses Steve Lanham, the zen master of this squirrel hunt, whispering under the protective groan of an early flight from BWI, "till you actually see one."

It's kind of enlightening, too. So this is how it happens: how even the more passive and peaceful among us can begin to root, urgently, for a kill.

* * *

"There's one way in that tree over there," Lanham leans forward and whispers to his acolyte, 12-year-old Brandon Powell. "See him?" He points to an oak out of range. "The tree limb's moving."

The hunt begins. Coming down the hill, stepping into the cushiony silence of downed, rotting trees, avoiding the crackling treachery of sticks and dried leaves, Lanham and Brandon evoke the ancient ritual of Homo sapiens doing exactly this: stalking then slaughtering their dinner. They have not TiVoed this experience. They are not reading about it. This is real.

Lanham leads the way, decked out in camo -- camo hat, shirt, pants, suspenders and belt -- his Marlin .22 rifle slung over his shoulder, a walking stick in his fist, ready to knock down cobwebs. Brandon follows right behind, holding with both hands his Remington 870 12-gauge pump shotgun. The whole scene is very Jedi-master, mentor-mentee here on this 270-acre farm in south Anne Arundel County, where the closest commotion comes from distant, barking dogs and the murmuring buzz of nearby power lines.

(At this hour of the morning, Lanham points out, the power lines merely hum, "but by 7 or 8 a.m., them wires are singing . And by 9, it's quiet again." He notices lots of stuff out here, "just settin' " in these woods, waiting for squirrels to wander by. He is a rifle-bearing naturalist, a plain-talking poet. On his last hunting trip, he watched "ants harvesting leaves." They "looked like little sailboats coming down the tree." This farm is his Walden, and even when the forest quiets down and he's killed enough squirrel for a meal, he's content to stay hidden in the hills, a gun on his lap. "This is what I call recharging my batteries," he says. "It's really low-key. I don't have to be in a hurry. I don't have a deadline.")

Brandon stops. His arm shoots up, pointing. There's the squirrel. The kid ducks low, inches forward, then looks back and Lanham motions him to the left. Disappearing into a tangled grove of trees, he's gone for a few minutes, then finally reappears, cupping something in his hand. A squirrel? That can't be true -- there was no shot. But the contagious, breathless thirst for blood and prey is now outpacing logic: It can't be a squirrel . . . can it?

"I found it lying on the ground," Brandon begins and opens his hands. Inside is a tiny, yellowish bird, breathing fast. "Some kind of a little -- ." He looks at Lanham looking at him, then mumbles, "I'll just put him right here." Brandon tries planting the wobbly bird on a twiggy branch, but immediately it falls to the ground.

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