IT IS DEER season and I am standing by the edge of a rural Virginia road, gazing not into the thick stands of pine and hardwood that stretch away fuzzily to a blue distance, but through the back window of a repainted Ford pickup, past a plastic-coated two-gun weapon rack to the dashboard, where I can see the rubber coil and the chrome glinting knobs of a citizens' band radio set that has been fastened under the truck's instrument panel.
The gun rack is empty and the CB is in operation, and somewhere from the dark and hazy folds of the cut-over forest the voices of dogs boom, a romantic sound, a pealing of canine bells.
The rack is empty because the hunters have their guns in their hands, and they stand beside their trucks (who hunts alone anymore?) waiting for news of the hunt to come over the air; along the next road, at right angles to this, another pickup can be seen, just part of its dog box and a bit of fender visible beyond the mat of growth at the corner. Leaning against this fender and sending up blue clouds from under an orange vinyl cap is another hunter, quiet and calm.
Further down the road, a third pickup - same equipment, same expectancy - and a fourth and a fifth. They use up to 10 radio-equiped pickups in these hunts for white tail deer, and as many as 20 men. It is highly effective hunting, the dog pack, slug- or buck-shot-armed 12-gauge pump or automatic, the pickup, and of course the radio.
The method of the hunt is simple: the pickups and their crews surround a piece of land, their radios at a predetermined channel, and set the dogs loose. If there is a white tail in the piece, he will set off in soaring, leaping flight from his daytime hide; probably he will cross a road and the hunters will take chance. Sometimes the fusillades contain as many as seven shots.
I am not out to hunt but to watch, though I hold no preservationist brief for the silent deer.There are millions more of them now than there were when Columbus sailed west, and the more southern farmland timbered over, lying fallow or replanted in pine, the wider their habitat, the greater their food supply.
The white tail deer is a browser, a nocturnal feeder that nips hardwood buds and the soft end branches of waist-high saplings, the little weedy trees that crowd quickly into deserted fields of broom straw, or fill in a season or two the rutted leavings of pulpwood operations. Seldom in these latitudes is a winter hard enough to make the deer resort to bark. The farmers complain they are everywhere, and the bare earth of corn fields, tattooed with their spikey hoofprints, tells its own story.
But there is something going terribly wrong with deer hunting - and it's not just the trucks or the gang hunts or the radio. Somehow a limit has been defiantly stepped past by deer hunters. Machinery has invaded the sport like some defiling disease, toppling the ritual, crushing the esthetics, ending the chase, and leaving behind these grouped but strangely isolated figures clinging to the roads, holding shiny guns never whipped by brush or scratched by stones, and in place of the bell-like clamor of the dogs, only the quarter-octave, mechanical crackling of someone called "Good Buddy" on the CB.
Part of the stench about this deer hunting is the trampling of the law.
It's illegal, for instance, to carry a loaded gun on a public right of way in Virginia - or even within 50 feet of one - yet it's done openly. The radio quickly warns all of the approach of a game warden.
It's also illegal to hunt posted land, but now with the aid of the roadway and the ubiquitous CB it's also not necessary. The dogs do the hunting, and the hunters merely wait. When a local landowner, in a high dudgeon about the hounds trailing across his property, shot two of them, he, not the hunters, was threatened with the law. He made a handsome cash settlement.
The classic southern deer hunt, carefully portrayed by Faulkner, was only a little different from the 1970s version, but in hunting that little difference is vast. Then men went into the woods to stand and wait by game trails. Someone hunted with the dogs, even with a horn as in ancient days - the group camped, hunted and left, packing out their kill by hand or with horses.
Today the hunters may stay in an area as briefly as an hour or two, draw it with the dogs and motor on to the next "corner," enabling the group to cover many times the terrain. The logical extension is the use of airplane or even helicopter, which proved so effectively deadly against the plains coyote, the golden eagle, and the wolf.
Yet today's deer hunters are not perverse and wicked men. It is hard to argue with their simple urge to hunt, to kill game, to bring a huge haunch of venison home, their cheeks burning red as they step into the warmth of their houses. They hunt with what is available to them, they (usually) do not own great tracts of land nor do they have a great many days to hunt.
And deer are abundant, almost becoming vermin in some places. I think the hunters' innocence has somehow been betrayed by their machine - call it what you will, the hunt is subtly corrupted while retaining its old form like a hollow shell. If it is anything it is the poison gift of progress, that neurotic urge that is so ingrained in our country to improve technique and equipment and at the same time to ignore the rigid rituals and codes, to try something new.
It's only by looking sadly backward that one sees those rituals, now lost, assuming their true power and shape; that it was the difficulty of the hunt that made the kill worthwhile, that the limits placed on the pursuit of game were the heart of the matter.
Not another car passes on the dirt road while I am observing the hunt. Hardly a word is spoken by the men in view. They turn shut eyes to the white morning sun and then peer across the land, shifting booted feet slowly. A crackle of radio and the clear calls of the dogs scatter and diminish - so thick is the growth of saplings and small trees that no movement at all betrays where the pack is nosing, the damp leaves are silent as moss under their feet.
Conditions for the scent are perfect but the hounds can't find. They may have struck a cold trial. The hunters mount and push off, tossing their cigarettes and placing the guns gingerly into the window racks.
Later a pickup returns to find the dogs. Alone, this man loses some of his purposefulness and his danger. I ask him with completely false sternness whether he knows this land is posted, pointing to the yellow and black signs (the land is not mine, but a friend's).
This bit of landlordship is annoying to the hunter, his eyes go hard and blank.
"I didn't set foot on that place," he says: "They dogs can't read. They dogs don't know it's posted."
In a minute he leaves, swirling the dry grass - but for a week he stayed with us, for the children loved the incident.
"They dogs can't read," they said over and over in absurd accents, "They dogs don't know it's posted."