This past Saturday was the last day of regular rifle deer season in Pennsylvania – kind of like the twelfth day of Christmas to those for whom hunting season is a bigger deal than Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s put together. Oddly, though, there didn’t seem to be too many hunters out. And the light was perfect, so around 2:30 I put on my blaze-orange hat and vest, grabbed my camera and headed into the woods.
I was wrong: the hunters were out. Those who weren’t sitting in trees on down the hollow had spent the morning on the other side of the ridge, in the woods above I-99 – an unsuccessful drive. I learned this from Carl, who stood a little ways up in the woods and motioned for me to come over.
I barely recognized him. Normally clean-shaven except for a mustache, he now sported a full beard. “Damn, you’re getting shaggy!” I said. “So are you,” he observed. “Yeah, well, I thought I’d grow my hair long for the winter,” I said. “Well, there you go,” he said. “This is my hunting beard.”
They were about to start a drive up toward the spruce grove at the very top of the watershed – right in the direction of the setting sun, which was also the direction in which I wanted to walk. Carl’s wife Carolyn was one of the two hunters lying in ambush. I quickly offered to go walk somewhere else. But they could use an extra driver, Carl said, and let the others know via walkie-talkie. He moved on up the ridgeside and told me to walk slowly forward through the laurel along the contour, pausing at the powerline right-of-way until the fellow on the other ridge – who bore the walkie-talkie handle “Iceman” – came even with us.
I was grateful for the excuse to bushwhack. My trajectory led me on a route about fifty feet above, and parallel to, one of our main trails: precisely that part of the property which is least familiar to me, because how often does one go bushwhacking so close to a trail? And the slow-but-steady pace forced me to stay attentive, make decisions quickly about what to photograph, and move on. The recent snow was still dry and easy to move through.
At the powerline, we had about a ten-minute wait, since Iceman’s route took him right through the areas hardest hit by last January’s devastating ice storm. Evidently this whole drive was his idea, though, so I didn’t feel too sorry for him. I watched anxiously as the sun sank lower and lower through the trees.
At the far edge of the powerline, I found a clump of sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), a huckleberry-sized shrub related to bayberry. Due to its wonderful aroma, it’s one of those plants I always stop to sniff and admire during the warmer months of the year. It’s just a very charismatic plant. According to the Wikipedia article, “Comptonia is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Grey Pug and Setaceous Hebrew Character.” Setaceous means “bristle-shaped; slender and gradually attenuated to the tip.” The Hebrew character in question is nun, the one that looks a bit like a backward C. I’d never stopped to look at sweetferns in winter – a calligraphy replete with ornate, bristly Cs. Their dried leaves would probably still make a decent cup of tea, but that would seem like a desecration now.
You can probably begin to sense why I am content to leave the deer-slaying to others, much as I admire the Pennsylvania hunting tradition and recognize its ecological value.
My more tender-hearted readers will be happy to hear that the deer were elsewhere that afternoon. I found one, day-old track – that was it. When the drive was over, the hunters stood around glumly contemplating their next move. “You should carry a camera, ” I teased them. “That way, you may not shoot what you set out for, but you always bag something.” For once, Carl didn’t have a snappy comeback. I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut.
I left them to their hunting and walked back down through the field, following my shadow.
You can live on the earth a long time and not get tired of that “certain slant of light,” as Dickinson called it.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —