For the love of hunting

Two weeks ago was opening day of archery season for Whitetail deer in New Hampshire. For a hunter the nine months between seasons seems like an eternity. In the off-season there are plenty of activities that occupy your time, however, nothing is like trying harvest a deer with your bow. Nothing!

I look at each season as an opportunity to correct mistakes and missed opportunities from the year before. Its a time when all the “what ifs” are put to rest and you are afforded another season of opportunities to better yourself.

This is the fourth for me in New Hampshire and Vermont. Four long seasons without taking a deer. During these four years I have spent  many hours sitting in my stands or slinking through the woods looking for “the shot.” And in four years I have only shot at two deer, and missed both!

As one of my friends said, “this ain’t Nantucket; there’s not a deer behind every tree.” The big woods of New Hampshire and Vermont have been a challenge for me.

My stand sits on the perimeter of an area that was recently clear-cut. Staying true to who I am, I ran out the night before the season opened and hung a stand in a huge oak tree situated next to an equally large eastern hemlock pine. The limbs on the pine provide me perfect cover for any approaching deer. I took the time to find an area with “a lot” of acorns. The lack of rain this summer has affected the amount of acorns, making this year’s yield very low. So finding an area with acorns on the ground was a huge score. Look for the food and you’ll find the deer. Sounds really easy, but nothing is that simple!

On Saturday the 15th, I got up at 3:40am, showered, got dressed, and headed out to my stand. I prayed fajr outside under the stars. Lately, the mornings have been crisp; I love the cold morning air. There is something majestic about seeing each breath. Perhaps its the closest we get to the “veil being lifted.”

As I approached my stand I tried to incorporate all of the skills that I learned at my time at the Maine Primitive Skills School—reading the landscape, using wide angle vision, looking for that which is hidden in plain sight and using the bird’s vocalizations and silences to understand activity in the woods. I read in a hunting journal that the hunt actually begins when you leave your home, not when you arrive at your stand. In other word s, the mindset begins when you make your first step towards your desired goal. Kind of like making your intention in Medina and heading to Mekkah to perform the Hajj. It’s the intention that brings about the mental state of consciousness.

I walked to my stand with relative quiet. The forest can be unforgiving at times, amplifying your every movement. About 20 or 30 yards away from my stand I thought I was home free, I had not “bumped” a deer walking in. Then, there was the sound that every hunter dreads, the blowing sound of an alerted “spooked” deer! The deer must have been bedded right behind my stand. After the sound all I heard was the deer running off alerting any deer in the area that a clumsy hunter was now in the arena! Immediately that deer becomes the one that got away, and the logical mind quickly begins to play the “what if” game, running a thousand scenarios through your head. All you can do is try better next time.

My time in my stand opening morning did not produce any deer as I had hoped. I spent most of my time engaged in salutations on the Prophet (peace be upon him), and listening to the alarms of the blue jays. The blue jay is probably the most reliable bird to alert you to movements in the forest. It will let you know when both predators and prey are moving about.

I feel that the energy, which is in us, is detectable by other living animals. I have learned directly from people who spend a large portion time in the woods and from direct observation that animals which are prey, have a keen sense of detecting predatory “energy” as it radiates out from other creatures. So I use the salawat to calm myself by bringing about a state of inner tranquility, which will in-turn be a means of comfort to the animals as well.

I sat for about 3.5 hours and did not see a deer. I climbed out of the stand around 9am. As I got to the ground I saw two does feeding about 30 yards from my stand. The wind was in my face, so my scent was not an issue. I sat there for a few minutes observing them. They looked too young to take; I was looking for a mature doe without fawns. Suddenly, something scared them. Perhaps an acorn fell off a tree on to her back. Whatever it was, the deer ran away as if her life depended on it. The morning hunt was now over for me.

I came back to my stand for an evening hunt. I prayed Asr outside, and made my way through the woods back to my stand. Seeing the two deer in the morning gave me hope that other deer would present themselves for a shot at some point. Early in to my sitting a young doe made her way back to my stand. She remained about 50 yards from my stand and continued to look over her shoulder. This normally indicates the presence of another deer. Sure enough, a few minutes later a larger doe walked out. The size of this doe made her one that I would harvest. I have waited three years and nine months to take a deer in the northeast. And here was my chance.

I sat in my stand and my heart began to pound as it usual when the time comes to take the life of an animal. I concentrated on the thikr, and tried to bring the meaning from my tongue to my heart. The two deer approached each other with a semi-hesitation. Then they did something I have never seen before. They began to groom each other. Licking each other on the head, shoulders, back and rib area. It was beautiful!

Given the size and age of second doe I felt she was too young to be the mother of the littler doe, perhaps they were sisters? I watched the two deer groom each other for about 30 minutes. It was amazing to witness!

Watching this expression of affection did something to me. I felt that I could not take this doe if she came within range and presented a shot. I felt a sense of closeness to these two deer.

I hunt to feed my family and I want to be clear about that. However, this should never be confused with the idea that hunters are not intensely connected to the landscape and everything that lives there. The time I spend hunting is not about killing something, it is about connecting with all that is around me and feeling at peace with God’s creation, and having God’s creation feel at peace with me. This is what stewardship means to me! It is real, not some slogan or label that is donned when it is socially appropriate. It is how I live and what makes me who I am, and it is how approach the natural world.

Perhaps God was testing me? Testing me so that I would know if I was being true to my thoughts and convictions about not shooting this deer. After 30 minutes the deer separated; one walking off away from me and the other walking towards me. I am watching this deer walk directly towards my stand and I begin mentioning the distance between us in my head. I say to myself, “when she passes that tree she is at 20 yards, and at the stump 10, and now she’s at 5 yards!

This deer walked right below my stand. It walked and smelled the limbs I cut from the beech tree to open up a few shooting lanes from my stand the night before. She smelled the ground where I had just walked. And then she looked right in my face, right into my eyes, I tried to lower my gaze and squint my eyes while she stood 2 yards from my stand. Direct eye contact should be avoided, it will send the animal in to a “fight or flight” mode. She knew I was there, but, perhaps, she did not know what I was. Perhaps the salutations created a wall of tranquility that veiled me from her, who knows? What I do know is that if I wanted to shoot this deer, I could have done so at any time. But something got in to my heart, which was beyond compassion for that deer. After our encounter she carried-on down the trail and out of sight.

My mind remained on our encounter. I still don’t quite know what to make of it? What I do know is that it was a great way to begin my season, seeing deer in both the morning and the evening makes me feel good about my choice for stand placement.

Hopefully this is only the beginning of many encounters with deer in this area. Hopefully it is not the last. And hopefully as I learn more about myself spiritually, the meanings and encounters will become more profound!

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