Life Lessons in the Wilderness
© Copyright 2023 by James Osborne
Photo by Steve: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-deer-eating-grass-397850/Photo by Steve at Pexels.
Photo by Steve: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-deer-eating-grass-397850/
It was a joy watching wild deer drink at a stream just a few yards from where I sat almost every day that summer. Some of them were does with fawns whose tiny cinnamon-colored backs bore galaxies of white camouflage dots.
On the far side of the creek a block of mineral salt awaited patrons. Its purpose was practical but that didn’t include deer. They used it anyway. One majestic buck would die within a few month as a result of it. My fault. One day I crossed a line.
June had been unusually hot. July and August promised more of the same. My parents worried that our dozen milk cows, and five spring calves might overgraze the small pasture on our remote homestead farm.
“I need you to do something for us,” Dad said one day. He looked worried. “Do you remember telling me about a clearing in the forest you found last summer?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a couple of miles north of here.”
“Show me,” he said.
We followed a faint path I’d found the previous summer while exploring the bush around our farm. Dad was surprised at the size of the natural clearing. It was half the size of a baseball diamond and carpeted with succulent grass, perfect to ease the burden on our pasture.
“Now that you’re on summer vacation,” Dad said. “I need you to trail the cows up here after milking each day and bring them home in the afternoon for their evening milking. Can you do that?”
“Sure!” I said eagerly.
This meant escaping some of the endless summer chores that Mom and Dad always found for my sisters and me. Dad’s assignment would get me out of at least some of the chores: cleaning the chicken coop and the cow and pig barns, splitting firewood, painting fences, hauling buckets of water to fill troughs, and helping to weed our family’s huge garden.
The next day, Dad and I trailed the cows and calves up a narrow path to the remote clearing. Our Border Collie, Tippy, and I herded the cows. Dad carried a heavy one-foot cube called a salt lick. The job of the blue-tinted block was to increase the cows’ thirst for water, resulting in more milk. It also contained minerals the animals needed to maintain good health.
Every day during the school summer vacation, I herded our cows up that narrow trail to the clearing after the morning milking and brought them home in time for the evening milking. The first few days were devoted to exploring around the inside of the huge clearing. Tippy followed me, sniffing, and peeing on just about every rock and stray bush in sight. Thereafter, he slept most of the day evidently convinced his ardent placing of territorial markings had done their job. Dense underbrush including bramble bushes with sharp needles discouraged us from venturing farther but also formed a natural corral to contain the cows.
Soon the job became boring ... watching over cows and calves as they chomped on grass. We could find little for either of us to do.
One afternoon, for some unknown reason, I began to see my surroundings as never before. I came to notice that all around ... the air, the trees, the bush ... were filled with creatures of every sort, large and small, four legged, crawling and winged. And the deer came every day, often with single fawns or twins, unperturbed now by Tippy’s and my presence.
One day, a coyote wandered along the edge of the clearing. A few curious cows raised their heads and then went back to grazing, unconcerned. I was surprised. My job was to protect them from predators, and I’d been warned about coyotes and cougars and wolves, yet the cows appeared unconcerned.
A few days later, however, I again noticed a coyote peeking out from the edge of the forest. Then it began crawling behind bushes just outside the clearing toward the herd. This time the cows gathered in alarm, tucking their calves under their bellies, bobbing their heads up and down and side-to-side, snorting and bellowing warnings toward the wild canine until it finally left. Tippy and I chased after it, but it had disappeared.
Later, I learned that most carnivores hunt not with malice or anger, but only when hungry or needing to feed their young. Somehow, their prey knows the difference. The cows did.
When I told Dad about the coyotes, he decided I needed more protection than Tippy and my handmade walking stick. Although only eleven, he taught me how to safely use his single-shot .22-caliber Winchester. Thus, armed and guarded by a loyal, albeit aging dog, known to be terrified of gunfire and thunder, we were deemed all set to resume our long daily vigils. Years later, I came to realize that firearm might have offered protection for us from an angry field mouse but from little else.
On the day of my epiphany, the sun was bright and the day warm. Tippy was dozing as usual. I was struggling to stay alert, lest a hungry coyote or cougar or wolf again take an interest in one of our spring calves.
Squirrels were scampering freely around in the trees, having given up scolding Tippy and I, a kind of acceptance I assumed. Birds of all types were chirping or squawking away, searching for insects and other tiny creatures to feed their young. Bees, wasps, horseflies and mosquitoes, and the dreaded black flies, droned above in search of nectar, or blood ... human, canine, or bovine ... it seemed to matter not.
My young mind became aware that I was thoroughly immersed in the flow of Nature. I was surprised and felt a bit intimidated at first, partly by the newness of the emotions, and partly by the awe and contentment I was experiencing. It was all very strange and uncanny. Later, I would realize that I’d become mesmerized by Nature, and by the privilege of being able to experience it. I realized also that I was a guest there, that I was witnessing birds and animals in their homes, and that I was a visitor.
Sadly, in just a few months, the joy of that experience would be repressed for years by another, more disturbing event soon to come.
Our farm was in an area where families relied as much as possible on what we could raise, grow, or hunt. Days were devoted to tending fields, huge vegetable gardens, and a range of animals: cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, geese, turkeys, and others that contributed sustenance. Farmers paid little or no attention to hunting regulations, and usually no one bothered to enforce them. Wild game was an essential supplement to our homegrown diets. The more successful we were at hunting, the more we were able to market farm-raised animals to earn scarce cash income.
Wilderness farmers hunted mostly in the fall after harvest. The priority was on what our families needed to see us through the winter. We hunted mostly in groups. It improved our prospects. Proceeds were shared equally. Depending on the region, we hunted for deer, elk, and moose, and sometimes bear.
One evening that fall, three farmers and my dad gathered at our kitchen table, along with one other farmer’s son and me. The neighbor kid, Ben, was big. He had to be at least fifteen or sixteen. I was sure that Ben knew a lot more about hunting than me. In fact, Ben hinted he knew a bunch more about a lot of things. He was feeling superior and proud of it. I felt intimidated and annoyed, as much at myself as at Ben.
The farmer/hunters began discussing places where they’d heard big game had been spotted in recent weeks. The locations were far away and would mean staying overnight. None of our families could afford an RV or motels, if there had been any in the wilderness. The locations meant everyone would have to sleep in tents at below freezing temperatures, or in their pickups.
I could see the farmers weren’t eager to face cold nights and I wanted desperately to be included in the hunting party.
“I know a place where deer come to water,” I volunteered. “It’s not far from our farm.”
That stopped the conversation.
“North of our place,” I added, turning to Dad. “You know ... where I grazed the cows last summer. There’s a little creek. The deer come there to use our salt lick and get water.” I’d pronounced it “crik”. That was the grown-up way.
I could see I had their attention. It made me proud. I could see also that Ben was impressed too. That pleased me even more. I felt like one with them now. Hey, good for me, I thought.
“Son, why don’t you tell us about that clearning,” Dad said. I understood he wanted me to get all the credit. Dad already knew the location. I described for the others the route that Tippy, and I had taken with our cows each day during the eight-week school summer vacation.
“Will you show us the way to the clearing?” Dad asked.
My heart soared! I agreed eagerly. I would be allowed to guide these grown-ups ... and the big kid! Now, I would really be one of them ... a real hunter! The hunters decided on a date. It would be the following weekend.
Earlier, Dad had made a point of showing me how to use his hunting rifle safely. I would be twelve soon and most boys in the area that age were allowed to use firearms on their own. The recoil from the .306 was fierce. Although Dad had shown me the correct way to hold the rifle to minimize kickback, I still ended up with a huge bruise on my right shoulder. Okay, I admit I was mighty proud of it.
I showed it to my sisters and displayed it proudly to Mom. She wasn’t impressed by the large black and blue blemish on her only son’s skin, nor about me learning how to use what had caused the bruise.
Finally, the day of the hunt arrived. The hunters came to our farm early in the morning. Everyone was there by 2:30 a.m. The hunters planned to make their way north to the clearing under a carpet of stars. They wanted to set up a hunting blind and be ready well before dawn.
Everyone was getting settled in the blind when Dad leaned over and whispered to me: “Son, this is your find. It’s only right that you get the first shot. Here, take my rifle.”
I was startled. My pride leapt to new heights. Dad was going to trust me with his rifle! I had thought he’d shown me how to fire the rifle just to make me feel more like the other hunters. I felt closer to Dad that morning than ever before.
The other hunters were quietly amused and indulgent as they watched Dad and me. Perhaps they were remembering their own first hunts. Some had sons they’d trained, like Ben, who’d come along.
Boy, I thought. Am I ever going show that kid a thing or two!
We all settled down quietly and waited.
Just as dawn began to show in the sky, Dad nudged my arm. I’d begun to drift off. He pointed cautiously through a slot in the piles of fresh-cut bushes that formed our blind. There it was ... a large buck deer with a massive set of antlers.
The buck was standing over the mineral block, sniffing and eying it warily.
A pang of guilt came over me – I remembered I’d been told to retrieve the salt lick on my last trip home with the cows. I’d forgotten. By spring, it would have disintegrated. Then I realized – hey, it brought the deer to us. I knew Dad wouldn’t scold me ... not with a huge buck right in front of us, less than twenty yards away.
I felt Dad nudge me again, smiling and nodding at his rifle. I was holding it as Dad had shown me. I must confess that I’d been so enthralled by the magnificent buck I’d forgotten all about the rifle resting on my lap.
Again, Dad nudged me and nodded once more ... showing a bit of impatience this time.
I watched the buck lower his head and sniff the salt. Then he licked it. Suddenly he raised his head and began sniffing the air and snorting quietly, one hoof digging at the ground. Nervously, he turned sideways to where we were hiding in the blind.
Maybe he heard or smelled us! I thought.
The buck swung his head back and forth, acting even more skittish. He stomped his feet and skittered around as he moved his body slightly further away from the blind.
I was struggling to pull my attention away from the beauty of this wild animal when I realized that everyone in the blind was watching me and tensing up.
Oh, oh! I thought, returning my attention to the buck. He’s going to run. I lifted the weapon and rested the barrel softly on a stout horizontal branch placed for that purpose. I peered down the barrel, being careful to center the sight as I’d been taught, just behind the deer’s front shoulder, now clearly visible. I squeezed the trigger. The magnificent buck jumped and started to flee, and then fell. He lay still. I suspected the bullet had pierced his heart, right where I’d aimed.
We jumped up. The other hunters cheered. Dad hugged and congratulated me. My shoulder hurt fiercely. I felt the firm slaps of congratulations on my back and shoulders from the others. Even the older boy, Ben, thumped my back with his hand ... a bit harder than he needed to, I thought.
“That was a nice clean shot!” Dad told me with obvious pride. “You bagged a big one, son. Well done!”
“Just like an experienced hunter,” someone else added.
I accepted their compliments graciously but felt no cause for celebration. I wondered why at first. Then it came to me ... I was feeling like a traitor.
From that day on I would carry the guilt of having broken trust with the lessons Nature had taught me: the magnificence of its creations. I had egregiously misused privileged knowledge by bringing the hunters to that special place, and then killing a magnificent example of Nature’s beauty.
Above all, in my heart I knew that by killing that majestic buck deer I had crossed a moral line that could never be uncrossed.
I never went big game hunting again.