When the leaves come off the trees, it’s not unusual to find men and women sitting or standing in them, holding very still. Do not be alarmed. They are merely practicing a locally popular form of spiritual exercise — hunting meditation.
Archery season for white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania began on September 30 this year, and ended on November 11, giving the deer two weeks to lose their wariness before the onset of regular rifle season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (See here [PDF] for a complete list of hunting seasons in Pennsylvania.)
Tree stands, as they’re called, may be as simple as a ladder of spikes and a flat spot on a limb, or as elaborate as the fanciest tree house. The tree stand above is on a neighbor’s property; I posted photos of a few other examples of fixed tree stand architecture here.
On my parents’ 648 acres of mountaintop land, we don’t allow any fixed tree stands. All stands must be portable, and can only be strapped to the trees. The only things we nail into trees are the “No Hunting Except By Written Permission” signs around the perimeter. Our hunter friends are only too happy to patrol the property and keep out the slob hunters and the local miscreants. So it’s no coincidence that tree stands are often located near the property lines, where they do double-duty as watch towers.
Tree stands are a fascinating and under-appreciated form of vernacular architecture. Requiring the hunters to use portable stands seems not to have crimped their creativity too much. One black cherry tree supports two stands back to back, and is often used by a mother and daughter who, between them, command a 360-degree view. I’m not sure that the camouflage paint does much to disguise these particular stands, but it does give at least symbolic expression to the underlying ideal of blending in with nature. It is this ideal that most distinguishes tree stands from other types of tree houses — let alone from more conventional dwelling-house architecture.
Hunting meditation is about more than just putting meat in the freezer. For some of the hunters, the two weeks of regular rifle deer season are the high point of their year, and they tell us they would rather hunt in Plummer’s Hollow than vacation in the Bahamas. Considering how cold and nasty the weather can be this time of year, and how early in the morning they have to get in their stands, that’s quite a statement.
Some of the hunters bring cameras as well as rifles into the trees with them, and often seem just as happy to get good photos or videos of non-huntable wildlife as they are to bag a deer. (Non-huntable wildlife on my parents’ property includes all predator species: bear, fox, coyote, bobcat, etc. We only allow hunting of deer — which we badly want taken off, for the health of the forest — turkey, and small game such as ruffed grouse and gray squirrels.)
Notice the green garden hose running down the inside of the ladder to the tree stand in back.
The hose connects to a funnel, which is mounted in the seat, as shown. The top of the seat is hinged, and can be lifted to allow access to the funnel. This tree stand was designed to make a daylong sit as comfortable as possible.
I sometimes hear non-hunters make fun of those who use tree stands, implying that they’re lazy because they’re not, you know, hunting. But we’ve been keeping careful records over the past fifteen years since we posted the property, and the records show that those who are the most patient and spend the most time sitting have the best success.
Hunting from tree stands is safer for us and for the hunters — it virtually ensures that they’re firing at the ground. It’s also practically a necessity in some habitat types. Much of the mountain has a dense understory of mountain laurel, a broad-leafed evergreen common in Pennsylvania. Whenever white-tailed deer come under intense hunting pressure, their normal instincts as a prey animal kick in and they do what they would do year-round if their natural predators, wolves and cougars, were still present: they bed down in the laurel, or other thick cover, only moving about when absolutely necessary. You need to sit well above the laurel if you want to have any hope of a clear shot.
Some of the hunters do use prefabricated tree stands, and some of the homemade ones incorporate lightweight, prefabricated ladders. But the wooden ones have the most aesthetic appeal, I think, especially as they age and weather and get chewed on by squirrels and porcupines. Many of the stands remain in place throughout the year, so casual hikers like me can enjoy them, too.
Sometimes “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word, though. The tree stand in these last three pictures is especially high, and is strapped to a large red oak right at the end of the ridge overlooking the Little Juniata River. It’s completely open except for two, flimsy rails on either side, and when the tree rocks in an icy blast of wind off the gap… well, let’s just say the deer aren’t the only ones stricken with terror. I have a healthy respect for anyone whose idea of a good time is spending two weeks in late autumn sitting in a tree.
Don’t forget to send in tree-related links to The Festival of the Trees.