DRY FORK, W.VA. -- "You're going WHERE?" My friend is incredulous but I repeat that, yes, I'm going bow hunting, and what's more, I hope to "git my buck," as they say in this part of the world. It's something I've wanted to do ever since I was a small child in Ireland and a book called "Children of the New Forest" captured my imagination.
In this tale of 17th-century England, the children of one of the supporters of King Charles I flee to the home of an old servant in the New Forest after the king is executed by Oliver Cromwell and their father becomes a wanted man. Deep in the heart of the forest, away from Cromwell's Roundheads, the children learn the skills they need to survive, and foremost among these is hunting.
Fascinated by the descriptions of how they were taught to read the forest for signs of deer, and how by trial and error they painstakingly learn the art and perseverance necessary for a successful stalk, I wished myself in their place. I, too, wanted to pit my skill and wit and cunning in a contest where it seemed to me the deer held the trumps of speed, knowledge of the terrain and instinct.
Now, in a world centuries and a continent away from the children of the New Forest, I'm driving through the Monongahela National Forest on my way to Dry Fork. The bow season is a little over a week old and I've got a date with a local hunter to accompany him on his morning hunt. It's taken more than 30 years, but I'm finally going stalking, and I'm excited.
Here in West Virginia, hunting is as natural as breathing. Although some women hunt, it is essentially a man's sport. Killing one's first deer is a rite of passage into young manhood as symbolic as a bar mitzvah or confirmation. But it is not simply an empty exercise in machismo. Deer meat (it's not called venison in these parts) fills the freezer and provides meat for many a winter meal in an economy where cash is in short supply. In an unspoken but deeply understood way, it also affirms 20th century man in his role of hunter and provider, testing his skill with a bow or a rifle and his knowledge of the land and the ways of the deer.
My city friend was surprised and slightly horrified that I don't view deer hunting on a par with unspeakable acts and can eat venison with impunity. I don't, and I can. If I objected to eating deer, I think, I'd have to be consistent and object to eating any meat at all. Besides, it seems to me a strange reasoning that would condone eating a veal calf that has been penned up, or a chicken raised in a cage, or a sad-eyed steer from a packed feed lot, and object to killing a deer that has spent a life of freedom in the woods and mountains.
As I drive through the national forest, the headlights of my car pick out deer crossing the road and I have to brake hard. A collision with a big buck can total a car, so I slow down and keep my eyes peeled. Coming out at the town of Thomas, my lights catch five deer in a front garden, poised for a moment like figures in a diorama before they take off, graceful as ballet dancers, into the darkness beyond.
Although hunters swear that deer know when the season starts and disappear into the state parks or the high mountains for the duration, they are a common sight year-round in the woods and fields of this part of West Virginia. According to Jim Ruckel, assistant chief of game management and natural resources of the state's Division of Wildlife, there are "probably more deer here by the thousands than when the settlers were here."
In 1961, approximately 6,000 deer were killed during the season. In 1989 that figure rose to almost 150,000. Deer have no natural predators here except starvation, so hunting culls the herd and keeps the numbers manageable.
Bow season begins in the middle of October and lasts to Dec. 31. The rifle season for bucks goes from Nov. 19 to Dec. 1. Antlerless deer can be taken, with a special permit, between Dec. 6 and 8, and the muzzle-loaded rifle season lasts for five days between Dec. 17 and 22. In all, a hunter with the right permits can kill up to six deer within all the different time frames. Deer killed early in the season, when there is still ample food in the fields and woods, provide better meat than later when frost and snow make foraging difficult.
"There's no question that there's far more game in West Virginia than there was 60 or 70 years ago," adds Ruckel. "Deer in this state are doing very well -- the bald eagle should be so lucky."
When I get to our house I have some food and take the dog for a walk down the road before turning in. There is no moon and I find my way by faith and instinct. But the night is so clear the Milky Way appears like a brush stroke of silver across the sky. The temperature is dropping fast. My ears tingle with the cold.
I awake before dawn and dress warmly: cotton undershirt, turtleneck and sweater, long johns, corduroys and wool socks. I lace up my Austrian hiking boots, lay out my jacket and orange safety vest, hat and gloves, and make a big breakfast. I sit at the table overlooking the valley with my second cup of coffee and wait for my hunter neighbor to come by and collect me.
The dawn has begun to reveal the shape of the mountains around and show up the night's heavy frost. The fields are gray, then white in the gathering light, and the weeds look as though they were dipped in fondant. Slowly light fills the valley and a chiffon scarf of mist winding above the river gets the first rosy tinges of the sun.
There is no sign of my neighbor. I wonder what can have delayed him. He has no phone and lives a couple of miles away in a trailer down a road so rough it would test credulity for a Jeep commercial. I decide to hang tight at the house and be patient.
The sun climbs above the mountain in the east and streaks the field nearest the river with light. Suddenly I notice in the corner of the field a buck eating berries from the hedge. The light catches the white of his throat as he tosses his head, worrying branches out of the thicket. From where I sit I can't tell how many points his antlers have, but he is a magnificent animal. I'm filled with frustration: Here before me is an opportunity people wait all year for, on our land where a resident wouldn't even need a permit to hunt, and I can't do anything about it since I don't have a bow at hand.
As if sensing my helplessness, the deer continues to eat calmly moving along the hedge like a prince reviewing the troops. After 10 or so minutes he slips quietly through a gap and I lose sight of him in the scrub woods beyond.
Disappointed, I walk to my neighbor's trailer. It is shuttered tight and there's no car outside. I head back to the house, noting the scarlets and cinnamons and umbers of the leaves on the mountains like elements in a pointillist painting or tufts of a multicolored tapestry. It is a beautiful day.
I figure there's no chance of catching my neighbor now until the time for an afternoon hunt so I set to pass the time. I tidy the wood pile, fill the kindling basket and note the lack of good big logs. In the grove of oaks next to the house there are large unsplit rounds of a tree we had to cut down after it was killed by lightning. I get the wedge and the sledgehammer from the garage and set to. I enjoy the feeling of being squarely planted on the ground and the surge of warmth to my shoulders as I swing the hammer in as even a rhythm as I can muster. The contrapuntal sound thrown back off the barn helps me keep time.
After 15 minutes I've hardly made a dent in a round about 30 inches in diameter and 24 inches deep. The wood has hardened. It is so warm and sunny now I'm down to my T-shirt. After 30 minutes the wedge is about two inches into the log and fissures have become small cracks. Determined to succeed at something, I keep on. Finally I hear the whisper of a splintering. Several more blows and the wedge is fully inserted. With a sigh the log lets go and splits open. It is a small balm on my frustrations.
Giving my now blistered hands a rest, I make some lunch and think about how I'll cook any venison we get, that is if we get it. Several Christmases ago we got the present of a beautiful haunch from another neighbor in the valley. I marinated it for three days in red wine and red wine vinegar with juniper berries, onions, garlic and bay leaves. I can still remember the rich, complex, satisfying taste of it.
People around here often soak deer meat steaks in milk to remove some of the strong taste and then pan fry them as they would beef, or grind it for burgers or meat loaf. That appeals to me less than a good venison stew cooked slowly over a low fire, with mushrooms and pearl onions and the clean, assertive flavor of thyme.
After lunch I sit hatless in the fall sun, feeling its heat warm me to the core as it dries the fallen leaves and soaks the last sap from the Queen Anne's lace by the road. In this heat, any self-respecting deer is taking a good nap deep in a laurel patch. I nod off, tired after the early rise, and the sounds of the valley become distinct: the rustle of the dead leaves, the distant hum of a chain saw, the buzz of a hornet that escaped the killer frost.
At 4 p.m. I walk again to the trailer. There is still no sign of life. I go to the local store and make inquiries. No one has seen my hunter friend. How could he have forgotten? But, this is the country, and time has a different value here. There's always tomorrow to do what hasn't been done today. However, today's tomorrow is Sunday when hunting is forbidden, and Monday I must be back at my desk. There's nothing I can do so I head back to the house.
Still hoping he'll show up, I gather the huge, rough-skinned pears from an old tree next to the barn. These I'll bring home to the city and when they finally ripen a little I'll make pear sherbet to freeze for winter dinners.
Animals have taken all the chestnuts from beneath the trees, and the apples have gone too -- probably to deer. The sun arcs low and I use the afternoon light to clear some brush in the field that climbs steeply behind the house. I'm mad, I think, but how can I remain so when the day has been so beautiful and the peace of the valley has seeped into me like a soporific? My slashes at the briers and the scrub grow less angry. I feel in touch with the soil and the woods and the life around me.
I come back to the house and console myself with a big mug of sweet tea on the porch. The sun has set now. Gaudy apricot and turquoise stripes, like leftovers from some mannerist painting, daub the western sky. A pickup truck with no lights on drives slowly down the road. I know it is the son of the local builder looking up deer he'll come back to hunt. I suddenly know I don't want him to see and hunt my buck.
The light begins to leave the valley. Slowly, almost imperceptibly it grows dark, so dark that I almost miss seeing the black shape move from the lower field toward the river. It is the buck, alone, regal, possessive of his territory. I feel a start of recognition. Like co-conspirators we've inhabited this day and this valley together. He disappears over the bank of the river and with his departure, I realize, my wish to hunt him evaporates.
Driving out next morning I find my neighbor cutting wood. His buddies had come by and they'd gone hunting together at the Mouth of the Gandy. I tell him how disappointed I am. "Yep," he says, not adding any more explanation or an apology. Were they successful? "Nope," he says, tight-lipped. I don't tell him about my buck. It's a long time since I've been stood up. I need at least the illusion of revenge.
Anne Mullin Burnham is Special Projects Director of the Pittsburgh-based International Poetry Forum and has a retreat in West Virginia.