John C. Hoffman's farm in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, is nestled at the base of the Allgheny range. From his kitchen window you can look out back on brooding South Mountain, down the mown hillside to his pond where the bass and bluegills abound, and in the brush edges where deer come to browse every evening.
He has 20 acres behind the house and another 20 across the road from his red barn. Once it was an active farm, but now most has fallen into second-growth timber, which makes wonderful cover for all kinds of animals, big and little.
I've always thought that nothing in the world could be better than an invitation to join Hoffman for a hunt on his farm on opening day of small-game season in Pennsylvania.
We'd likely see rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, pheasants, maybe even a grouse or a wild turkey or a covey of quail. And certain deer, though they'd be out of season.
But Hoffman generally doesn't hunt his land on opening day. I wondered why, and this year I found out:
Because everybody else does, whether he wants them to or not.
Hoffman did something with his farm this year he'd never done before, and he's lived there almost all his life. He posted the 20 acres across the road with no-trespasing signs. He thought it would be nice, since I was coming up, for us to have the patch to ourselves for a day.
It didn't work out quite that way.
Within an hour after the nine-o'clock legal start of shooting time we had seen and heard enough to convince us that we weren't really safe hunting Hoffman's 20-acre patch.
We had bumped up against a dozen other hunters, none of whom apparently had seen or cared to see the "posted" signs.
A pack of four or five youngsters was barreling through the woods so fast we couldn't keep track of them from one minute to the next. And it wasn't a minute between shots they fired.
It sounded at times like the war zone, and looked it, too.
"Look here," said Hoffman, pointing to a clump of brush.
In the clump lay one dead rabbit, blown almost in half by a high-powered pheasant load, and another hopped off minus one foot, wounded but not yet dead. p
The pack of youngsters apparently hadn't had time to pick up what they'd shot. We heard them shouting at each other from the hedgerow.
"Come on, Frank, hurry up. We're having fun!"
Hoffman has a wonderful, well-trained golden labrador he likes to use for all kind of hunting. But he wouldn't take the dog in his own field that day for fear he'd have to carry her out.
And before long we decided that even we might get shot, despite our Day-Glo hats and orange jackets. Shots kept going off where we didn't expect them, so we quit.
Pennsylvania isn't much different from any other place in the matter of the post or don't-post-your-land controversy, but there are probably more hunters there per capita than any other state in the East, and the sheer numbers bring the problem into sharp focus.
Fourteen hunters on 20 brushy acres, most of them armed with 12-gauge shotguns shooting magnum loads, is not a happy circumstance, particularly when no one knows who is where when, or aiming at what.
Hoffman didn't say so in the field, but when we got back to the house he conceded, "I was nervous out there."
He could have confronted the other hunters and told them to get out, but he was locked in a delemma that affects every landowner who likes to hunt.
He feels, as most hunters do, that the greatest threat to pursuit of his sport is the posting of private land. Rural Pennsylvania has traditionally been a place where folks who found a good farm could expect to be able to hunt it.
Encroaching civilization threatens that tradition, and Hoffman and many others hate to see that trend develop.
Later that afternoon, when we figured the bulk of interloops had done their business on the 20-acre patch, we went back and ran into three more hunters. Hoffman stopped to chat with them, and they said they had indeed seen the "posted" signs but explained, "We've always hunted this land, so we figured it was all right."
And indeed it was all right. Hoffman let them go on. But he couldn't understand, he said after they left, "why they didn't have the courtesy to stop at the farm and ask."
Which brings up a cogent point.
When a land-owner posts his land with "no hunting" or "no trespassing" signs, it doesn't necessarily mean he won't let people hunt or walk there -- a lot of times it means he just wants to be asked.
"I've been to plenty of places that were posted and and I've asked permission to hunt," one hunter, said the other day. "Sometimes the fellow will say, 'Well, I love to hunt birds myself and there aren't many there, so I'm keeping it for myself.' But usually they just tell me, 'Sure, just stay away from the pig lot and the cows.'"
The average farmer or land-owner figures that it somebody wants to march around shooting off a gun on the land that he paid for and pays taxes on, he has a right to know who that somebody is.
It might save a life.
And it might be his.