GETTING TO KNOW a piece of ground and the creatures that dwell in and on it can be the subtlest and most satisfying of the outdoor arts.
The traveler through woods and other wild places seldom sees much more than some birds and a startled rabbit or two; animals make their living from seeing without being seen, the noise of his passage of the reek of his scent sends them to ground long before the intruder arrives.
Superb nature photography transmitted by television has led us to believe we had a real sense of the wild. Walt Disney has shown us otters sliding in the snow, Marlin Perkins catches crocodiles for us. But it is sterile stuff, really. A thousand hours of Wild Kingdom cannot match having a fawn materialize at your feet after you have sat unmoving for an hour.
The fawn had been there all the time, curled up five feet away in the dry leaves where it had dropped down as the doe fled from the stanger.
The doe came back, snorting and trembling at the stranger's smell but unable to see him for what he was because he sat absolutely still. There were fat ticks on her neck and old barwire scars on her flanks. She moved into the clearing one tentative hoof at a time, her instinct for self-presevation telling her to cut her losses and let the baby go. The fawn, not more than a day or so old, did not budge until she nudged it with her nose, and refused to rise on its wobbly legs and follow her until she nipped and pulled on its ear.
That encounter this spring came in a farm woodlot about 100 feet from a well-traveled road and less than an hour from downtown Washington. Such experiences are available to any hiker who goes alone and is able to sit abosolutely silent and still while the pattern of life he has disrupted slowly weaves itself together again.
Concealment is often not possible and frequently unnecessary, although camouflage clothing probably is worth the trouble. Most animals seem unable to recognize - or simply lose interest in - a human being who is not standing or moving, unless they smell or hear him. The best observation post is a low limb on the edge of a clearing or overlooking a game trail, because it gets your scent off the ground and few animals ever look up. Wildlife concentrates around ponds and riverbanks. Go early or late.
Selecting a spot where animals are likely to pass is almost automatic, once you are far enough from peopled paths, because your feet will naturally lead you along, the ground contours and through under-brush openings that wild creatures favor.
The most important thing is that the spot be comfortable. A root that prods the buttocks is an annoyance after five minutes and an agony after 20, and if you shift your weight you probably have wasted all the quiet time you have invested. A turkey is said to be able to see a man blink at 30 yards, and the bird is likely to be closer than that before you see him .
It is not just what they perceive themselves that alerts wild creatures. The alarm network is interdependent. A hand moves to scratch an itch and the movement makes a bird flutter. A squirrel chatters. A trotting fox stops and the interruption of the rhythm freezes a browsing deer. Caution spreads outward in a circle from the tiny movement that started it all, and every living thing in a radius of hundreds of yards is suddenly suspicious.
It is a devilish discipline, this being still. If the day is cool, you grow cold. If it warm, you fall asleep. And once you have learned how to sit still for two or three hours you find that, like zen, your study has just begun. Perhaps you hear animals passing nearby but never see them; after you give it up, go where you heard them and see what it was about the terrain tha you missed.
Or, after you have sat for an hour listening and looking, close your eyes and try to summon up a detailed mental picture of the scene before you. If you can't see every rock and bush and limb and branch and shadow-shape in your mind's eye, you haven't been paying attention. Afterwards the scene will always be with you, like a favorite painting.
It is only after you have captured the pattern around you in your mind's eye that you will notice the changes. If you didn't see the white-footed mouse before the barn owl did (just as you were about to get up and go) you won't see the mouse jump two feet sideways, just before the owl swoops and scares the hell out of you because you didn't hear him coming.
And of course you don't know the names of all those things you see, which means searching the field guides when you get home. At which point you learn that you didn't really look at that woodpecker and can't begin to pick him out from a page of ladderbacks.
Painted turtle or pond slider? What kind of tree are you sitting under? Is that a monarch butterfly or the other one?
It's worth it. Raccoons (strictly nocturnal, the books say) wrestling at high noon. A fox batting down three quail from a flushing covey. A beaver trying to dam the Potomac at River Bend. A baby water snake choking to death on a baby sunfish. The slacking, and therf backing, of the wind on a mountain slope as the sun goes down. A skunk contesting the right of way with a procupine.
You will know you have mastered the technique the day a spider anchors its web to your shoe.