THIS WINTER'S deer hunt began in earnest in August, when my son and my cousin and I spent a couple of weekends building two platforms high in the trees on a Blue Ridge mountainside where we have hunted for several years by the kindness and consent of the landowners.
We waited until this year to build them because it took several seasons of hiking and hunting the ground to puzzle out the patterns of the deer. It may take several more years of hunting to tell whether we read the ground right. That's why it's called hunting.
The stands are twenty feet up in triple-trunked trees sprung from stumps left when the mountain last was logged, half a hundred years ago. They command a steep slope that looks as wild as when the world was new but has been clearcut many times since white men pushed their way into these hills and pushed the red men out.
Built of pressure-treated boards fastened with hot-dipped galvanized nails and lag bolts, the stands will last at least a decade, barring an extraordinary storm. Having survived the building of them, I have some hope of lasting that long myself.
Until recently no one had lived on the mountain since the war. The Civil War. Before that the thin poor soil was farmed so long and hard that a massive wall was made of rocks hauled one by one from these forgotten fields. It runs for miles along the crest of the steep ridge that keeps this slope in shadow for an hour after the sun has boiled off the fog from the Shenandoah Valley below.
When I sit on that wall waiting for deer, or turkeys, or squirrels, or grouse, or a bear, leaning back against a ruined oak that has been dying since before I was born, I think on the generations of men who worked this ground.
In my mind's eye they are strong and erect but thin and round-shouldered, like my mother's tribe who peopled similar ridges in an even more remote region of these old round- shouldered mountains. I see them muscling rude plows across the slope below, stopping to struggle with the rocks that appeared in the field each spring, frost-heaved from underground, bedeviling their efforts to turn the neat even furrows by which a man was measured.
Each cruel stone is carried to the edge of the field while the mule waits, anchored by the plow. In the little time between the kernel-by-kernel planting of the precious seed corn and the first backbreaking hoeing of the heart-breaking bindweed, the rocks are manhandled one by one into a stone boat, a crude heavy sledge hauled by the stolid stupid stubborn mule, big as a moose and mean as a snake. When the boat is loaded it weighs more than the mule, but he pulls it, driving one saucer-sized hoof after another deep into the damp fragile soil as he tries to angle across the slope against the man's determination to go straight uphill over the bad ground because the good ground is where you plant.
From where I always sit on the wall I can see how each stone was placed by those weary men, and why this one was put here and that one was put there. I have hiked a long way along the ridge, but never have come to either end of the wall. Looking at the wall, sitting on it, or just thinking about it, of the men who built it stone by stone, I lose my sense of urgency, of my years rushing by. My frustrations run out into the ground they fructified with their labor and watered with their sweat. Where they spent their bodies I take my leisure, hunting for sport and self-renewal the deer they killed to live. I come here and am reminded that by any reasonable standard I am rich.
Only the wall remains to testify to the years those men spent on this earth, but I cannot claim to have made any more substantial mark of my own. Once, sitting on their wall, I moved a stone that did not suit the way I sat. After a while I put it back where it belonged.