In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
- In Flanders Fields, by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army
Last fall, I woke with the sudden compulsion to walk in the woods. In itself, this was nothing out of the ordinary. I live in the forested mountains of the west where wild lives interleave seamlessly with our own. The faces of the poised, furtive fox and austere, sensitive turkeys are as familiar as any relative. We walk among their tribes and they among ours.
Something about the day was different. For one, I wanted to venture far up in the hills without a dog. A walk without dogs is like a day without sunshine. To walk without the family is incomplete. Perhaps no one but a dog revels with such abandon, smelling the pungent leaves and galloping with unfettered freedom amidst downed trees and darting squirrels, scenting what we can only guess. Nonetheless, as unnatural as it was, I set off alone.
I drove several miles up the dirt road until the feeling of home disappeared. I stopped and pulled over, put on my jacket and headed out. This foray was unusual for a second reason. It was hunting season, a time when everyone, including humans—unless they are hunters—huddle behind doors to avoid the frenzied crossfire.
That day, there was no gunfire or birds, no sound except my feet pushing through the brush and leaves. The blue cold clashed with the warm reds of fallen leaves. Suddenly, I came across a figure sitting perched on an old tree stump. Woodsmen had scoured these mountains in the early 1900's and dropped Douglas–fir giants with their saws like so many matchsticks. The stumps remained, reminders of a time when it was humans who trembled, not trees.
The man turned slowly and carefully. Without a word, he motioned with his head to come nearer. He then looked back across the ravine ahead. I followed his gaze through the mist and trees. There, standing still and proud was a buck, a full antlered male deer—a six–point as they call them. He was as many years by that count. His motionless showed no sign of alert. His attitude was more a relaxed curiosity than fearful. It was clear that we were only able to spot him because he had let us. After a few minutes, with majesty, the buck slowly walked away and in a moment disappeared into a wall of branches.
The man turned and smiled and I smiled back, a secret shared. There was no reason to continue. Neither he nor I seemed to want more contact. I headed back to the car and home.
Every early spring, the bucks drop their antlers. For a few weeks, they run without their distinctive headdress and blend in with the does and younger bucks. Out of hunting season, they offer no antlered prize. Then, as summer nears solstice, new antlers begin to bud. Soft brown velvet rounds the edges of protruding prongs, soft like summer. It's as if mind mirrors body. These peaceful warriors seem to shed the tension of the fall and shift their consciousness to the smooth tone of summer.
The days are desultory. It is a quiet time, a time to watch the stumbling fawns and drink deep from springs and creeks. There are no guns, no trucks with lights to fix the unwatchful deer, no off-terrain terrors to run you aground.
As the season matures and autumn approaches, antlers grow and grow until body wisdom tells them to stop at exactly the correct number they should. Two for the two–year–old, three for three–year–old, and so forth.
Yesterday, the bucks appeared. It is only the first days of summer, but I see their antlers and I weep. I see the gold and green of fields and hear the laughing stream, but try as it might to disarm, summer cannot hide the blood and darkness that comes in fall. Summer is only an interlude before death.
Gay Bradshaw is executive director of The Kerulos Center.
Hunt report lacking: zoologist. (Feb 23, 2011). Mountain News. Retrieved June 23, 2011 from http://www.hamiltonmountainnews.com/news/article/230224