Some years ago, I attended a nature conference in Jamestown, New York, at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. After Peterson's lecture, I caught a ride back to the hotel with the great artist and naturalist. I remember him saying--I wish I could quote him exactly--that for humans to preserve nature, two things are required: First, we must have an emotional connection to wild things. Second, we must not anthropomorphize them. Wild things are not human. Even then, I wondered how to reconcile these ideas.
Several years later I took up bowhunting. What I liked most about the sport was that I had to pay strict attention to deer behavior, had to try to get inside the deer's head.
I spent a lot of time in the woods--not hunting, but looking for tracks and signs and rubs and scrapes, thinking about what direction the morning or evening wind might take. I had to imagine the deer?s movements, when and why they walked, where they foraged and found water. Unlike rifle hunting, where hunters can kill deer at well over 100 yards, bowhunters must sit close, often within 30 yards of the prey. I had to find ridges or trees for my climbing stand close to deer paths. I had to disappear into the landscape.
On a friend's land, I found a huge old oak tree where I could sit 12 feet up and look out over an opening in the pines. Since baiting is allowed in our state and I'm not above sweetening the odds, I scattered corn. Dressed in camo, I would visit the stand about once a week in the late afternoon. I would sit till dark, driven crazy by every bird or squirrel I heard in the leaves, imagining it to be a buck.
Once, about half an hour before dusk, I saw something move in the dark pines. A young doe stepped into the clearing. Then two more. I may have moved in anticipation, the hunter in me lifting the bow and instinctively shifting my profile for a cleaner shot. Not that I would have taken one. These were small does, way too young.
At any rate, the first doe looked square at me. I never moved again, and she never recognized my human form or caught my scent. But she knew something wasn't safe.
I watched them for 20 minutes. Even if I had the chance, I couldn't have shot. They reminded me of girls at their first dance. Beautiful, graceful, nervous. The first one was obviously in the lead, wary. Or they reminded me of pistons in an engine. Each time one head went down to feed, one or two looked up to watch.
Finally they faded back into the woods. I relaxed and let out a deep breath.
It was then that a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch not three feet from my head. Awed, I turned my face up slowly toward him. He looked down at me for a moment, gave one "keer-r-r," then flapped off, unhurried.
No doubt I had startled the bird.
Yet I couldn't deny the feeling at first that the keer-r-r was a laugh, as if to say, one nimrod to another, "Isn?t this great--the life of the hunt, the old blood sport?"
When I told my wife that evening, though, she disagreed. The hawk--noble hunter that it is--was praising my restraint for not killing a little doe.
Sometime in the night, though, it occurred to me that the keer-r-r was scorn--the contempt of an apex predator, one unencumbered with any human ethos or empathy for the prey, one looking down at a fool, as if to say, "Idiot! Twenty minutes and you couldn't get off a shot?"
Den Latham grew up in Ohio and Tennessee, earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Tennessee and a master's from the Bread Loaf School of English. He lives with his wife in South Carolina, is a member of the US East Surf Kayak Team, and is at work on "Painting the Landscape with Fire," a book on prescribed burns and longleaf pine habitat.