A clear, cold morning in early autumn. The sun lovingly singles out the whitewashed walls of the old spring house from among the dark cattails and rushes of a little marsh. It almost seems to levitate, this strange little building – the only one on the farm that doesn’t line up with the ridges.
Two song sparrows are busy gleaning seeds from the tear-thumb, a two-foot-deep confusion of orange-red, vine-like stems and leaves choking the marsh and the adjacent ditch. I say “vine-like” because tear-thumb has no tendrils; the abrasive surfaces of its stems and leaves, coated with tiny, backwards-pointing barbs, help it climb over adjacent vegetation, but often it simply keeps piling up in place, falling all over itself. Its nondescript flowers have turned into clusters of little pink seeds, and I imagine that the bright autumnal color of its foliage, as with so many other plants, is meant to advertise their availability to the birds.
I watch from my chair across the road in front of my house, feeling that something is going to happen – has already happened – might be happening right now, without my knowledge. Autumn always provokes that kind of restlessness in me, a longing to escape the endless round of days and go wandering.
Gray squirrels start scolding at the edge of the woods: harsh, nasal alarms spreading from tree to tree. Probably a feral housecat, from the sound of it. I look for her without success, the black cat with white feet who has miraculously managed to elude the owls, coyotes and fishers for so many years.
I have been jotting down some thoughts in my laptop, the old-fashioned kind with a spiral of thin wire and dry skin-like leaves made from dead tree flesh. I’ve just been writing about power, and how adeptly it can disguise itself as love. I am not sure I can always tell the difference, even in myself. I know that both are necessary and at times beautiful, but I also know that I much prefer the cat’s silent slink to any klaxon.
The squirrels wind down after about ten minutes. Then I hear something large coming down the trail, and I go out into the driveway to take a look. An archery hunter – my friend Tim – is carrying his equipment out of the woods at mid-morning on the opening day of deer season. He sets his compound bow and portable tree stand down at the corner of the driveway and heads back up into the woods, emerging a few minutes later dragging a large, eight-point buck. He stops into the house for a glass of water, and I take the chance to grab my camera and snap a few pictures. This is far from the largest set of antlers I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the most perfect – well-proportioned and unchipped by combat.
Many hunters, including Tim, loosely refer to deer antlers as horns, and I’ve seen translations of Native American deer hunting songs that call them that as well. But true horns, as on goats or antelope, grow slowly and last a lifetime. It’s impressive to consider that these antlers sprouted just few months ago, and would have been shed by January, yet they’re anchored firmly enough to the skull to allow Tim to drag the entire carcass with a rope tied to their base.
So much of the animal’s energy supply goes into growing the antlers, and into the rut itself, that bucks are severely depleted of fat stores right at the start of winter when they need them most. The winter before last, following a less-than-average kill rate due to poor weather during the regular rifle season, unusually severe weather during February and March left deer carcasses scattered all through the woods. Enough of the fatter, fitter does survived to replenish the herd – indeed, the kill rate for antlerless deer on our square mile of land remained virtually unchanged in 2004. But the annual harvest of bucks declined precipitously here and throughout much of central and western Pennsylvania.
A small hole mars the pelt low in the chest. Tim tells me that despite getting a good shot near the heart, his quarry still had the strength to rocket up over the ridge and stumble halfway down the other side before collapsing. It took him a couple of hours to track it, field-dress it and drag it back up over the mountain. But as I help Tim heave it into the back of his pickup, I notice that the body’s still warm to the touch. The eyes have yet to glaze over, and due perhaps to the chill in the air, so far only one fly has found the rift in its belly, the opening to that dark, red cave.
This time the day before, I had been en route to a cranberry bog with my hiking buddy L. Detouring around the heart of small town where a recent fire had gutted two square blocks, we spotted a legless man standing – or perhaps sitting – in the middle of a brick sidewalk. He had no artificial limbs that we could see; no wheelchair was in evidence. Vestigial jeans held up by red suspenders covered his stump of a hip. He seemed to be waiting for something.
The ground-hugging cranberry plants were loaded with fruit, pinker and more diverse in size and shape than the cranberries you can buy in the supermarket. Three months of dry weather meant we could stand in sphagnum moss and barely get our feet wet. The air temperature was around forty degrees Fahrenheit, but when we reached our fingers into the mounds of sphagnum, it felt five or ten degrees warmer. We wondered if this was heat retained from the day before, or if it came from the decomposing peat below.
I thought about the bog people of northern Europe – I had recently re-read P. V. Glob’s famous book – and how perfectly the tannins can preserve hair, flesh, clothing, inner organs, sometimes even the eyes. Perhaps the peat, on its slow way to becoming coal, kept the bodies warm as well, consolation for the unnatural deaths that more than a few of them may have actually welcomed, with a shutter of joy intermingled with horror at the thought of going down to meet the goddess – or the horned god.
On our way home that afternoon, we stopped for coffee in the rural county seat. Traffic narrowed to one lane in front of the courthouse, and orange-shirted workmen stood up to their waists in a hole in the middle of the street.
At almost every moment, I think, it’s possible to witness something completely new, even if one never ventures far from home. The best hunters, like my friend Tim, are those who know where to sit: in his case, where the acorns lie thickest among the laurel. As for me, I’m sitting here watching the song sparrows use cattails for a kind of cursive scaffolding, something I’ve never focused on before. They grip the leaves near the top with their wiry claws and flutter their wings for balance as they ride them down, down, bending them over double and then some. The sunlight spreads into the marsh. The male song sparrow cuts short his eponymous song and dips his beak once more into the harvest.