Here’s the scene: Bright sunny October afternoon, slight breeze, 50 degrees, leaves falling, dead silence. I am perched 20+ feet off the ground in a treestand hung in a large Hemlock on the wooded hillside, camo-ed head to toe, compound bow in hand, doing my best not to move—or to think—anticipating the approach of any of the many deer that regularly pass through on the trail that snakes through the forest 15 yards away from my chosen tree. Depending on my physical and/or mental state, this scene is either a moment of bliss or torture. Dragging a bag of thoughts and worries up the hill usually ensures the latter; in this case sometimes better not to go out at all, as an empty mind is prerequisite for this type of close-range hunting. Thinking one’s way through a hunt ensures (at least for me) any number of distractions: boredom, hunger, cold hands and/or feet, all kinds of noisy fidgeting, bad pop songs incessantly playing in one’s mind; it also almost always ensures that you will miss the subtle sights and sounds of the approach of a deer, until it is too late to raise and draw one’s bow or gun without being detected. This kind of mental drifting leading to missed opportunities during a hunt has happened to me more times than I would care to admit.
This day is bliss, though; nowhere else I’d rather be, no agenda-driven thoughts. On this day, the deer are really just an excuse to spend a few hours forgetting about everything and simply existing, like a sated hawk or owl. No need to move, no need to think; receptive, present. Time loses its linear quality, becomes slippery and malleable—minutes seem to encompass hours, or hours slip by in minutes. Vision shifts and becomes panoramic, diffused, freeing the mind from its habituated responses to the world. The slightest rustlings in the leaf litter are magnified; the atrophied sense of smell becomes especially acute, dominated by the delicious earthy scent of fungal decay on the forest floor.
About 800 years ago, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Eihei Dogen, wrote the following:
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
In the modern world, sitting quietly, thinking nothing, doing nothing, which is for all of our animal cousins (and was surely for our tribal ancestors) the most common of daily activities, seems to be a lost art among our kind. I wonder if we know what we’re losing in the process. Hunting is one of few common rituals remaining that by its very nature requires a degree of meditative consciousness, a temporary forgetting of the self. Homo sapiens—literally ‘wise man’ (no hubris there!); maybe we’ve grown a bit too wise; so impressed with our own brains (and their creations) that we have forgotten how to just be, part of a much larger whole.
The poet Gary Snyder (in a poem called ‘Long Hair’) reverses our customary view of the hunt, describing it as a subversive means for deer to infiltrate human consciousness:
Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They do various things
which irresistibly draw men near them: each one selects a certain man.
The Deer shoots the man, who is then compelled to skin it and carry its
meat home and eat it. Then the Deer is inside the man. He waits and
hides in there, but the man doesn’t know it. When enough Deer have
occupied enough men, they will strike all at once. The men who don’t
have Deer in them will also be taken by surprise, and everything will
change some. This is called “takeover from inside.”
Here in New York, bow season starts in a few days. I am looking forward to again becoming a student of the Deer.