“Hunters: A Meander.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. 21.1 spring 2019
As I look out the window on this early winter day, cup of coffee in hand, I see one of my cats, starkly black and white against the winter grays and browns, prowling in the apple orchard, tail held high in a muscular curve, going after whatever moves there—mice, red squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles. He is beautiful and sleek, powerfully built, agile and alert. A hunter. Both cats live in the barn and under the house and woodshed. Ruth and I are both allergic to cats, so this is a necessary arrangement. Mustache and Stripe, named for their facial markings—one with a white stripe down his nose, the other with a white mustache—came to us as kittens, a brother and sister, many years ago, the unwanted progeny of someone else’s barn cat. They may live outside, but these cats have none of that mangy, scabby dullness that you might associate with working farm cats. They have bowls for food and water in the barn. They make an annual trip to the vet. They meet us when we come and go from the house, squirming over on their backs and offering their white bellies to be petted. They sit on the doorstep and print their muddy paws against the glass-paned door. They meow and purr and tangle themselves in our legs when we are in the garden or doing chores in the barn. They love to be cuddled and squeezed, held upside down even, and enjoy riding up on our shoulders. Their bellies are always full. Their eyes are shining emerald-green marbles. They are our pets and friends, our little white-mittened darlings. They are also ferocious hunters, so much so that we removed our beloved bird feeders soon after the cats arrived, because the cats would sit under the feeders, jumping athletically up, one paw outstretched, to hook down a tiny chickadee or titmouse. The cats have certainly done the job we hoped they would do, which was to help us control rats in the barn, mice that invaded our home every fall, and the moles and voles that tunneled through our vegetable garden, destroying any hope of successful onions, carrots, beets, and other root crops. As I look out at the cat hunting in the winter orchard, I am full of admiration for these shapely, self-sufficient animals, their sense of purpose, their repose, their joy for life, their effortless elegance and robust health, their seeming equanimity.
It is the second day of December in Maine. Last year we had several feet of snow by now, and Gene Allen, the old-time Mainer who plows our long dirt driveway, had come twice already. Last night it rained, and the thinnest shim of ice on the road brought out the town maintenance trucks, spreading sand and salt on the village streets and outlying country roads. Nevertheless, as I slowly took a corner coming out from yoga class, the wheel of the Subaru seemed to float out of my hands, and it felt for a moment like the car and I were weightless, about to lift off from the wet, dark pavement into the pines and naked maples and cattails beside the road. We settled back down, machine and I, and made it home. In the barn everything and everyone was safe and warm and dry, the chickens settled feathered-wing to feathered-wing in their coop; the goats resting in their bedding of dry, fragrant hay; the cats perched on the stairs in the barn, their thick winter coats glossy and black and smelling of fresh summer from their cozy bed among the bales of hay in the loft of the barn. In the house, Ruth had lit another fire in the woodstove before she left to spend the week alone in a small camp we had purchased on a pond just four miles away. The house held the signature of her consideration for me, her love. She had wanted me to have the pleasure of coming home to warmth and light, to coals in the woodstove still orange and glowing, ready for me, if I wanted, to set on more logs and renew the flame, so that I could sit in front of the fire, the stove doors open, and drink a glass of wine and eat some dinner, an omelet of eggs just collected from the chicken coop.
And so, I was alone. She was at the cottage on the pond, with its big windows looking out on the cedars and birch bending over the dark water with its own thin shim of early winter ice. She was in her own warm place and I in mine. We had been getting on each other’s nerves, I guess you’d call it. We had just returned from five weeks traveling in Italy and Morocco, a trip we both wildly enjoyed, but one that had us in each other’s company 24 hours a day every day. It’s a sad truth that such proximity can breed discontent even between people who love each other. Since our return I’d been finding fault in her at every turn. “You are wearing your shoes in the house again,” I said to her, something that irritates me because she scolds me when I shift furniture without lifting it, concerned that it might scratch our soft pine floor, and here she was tracking in grit that would leave little pockmarks in the wood. She often forgets where she has left her phone or wallet or keys, and because of that we are sometimes late. “Why can’t you just put your keys in the box near the door?” I said. When I begin to behave this way, I think of my father, who was angry like that, impatient like that, judgmental like that, mean like that, as far back as I can remember. He’s dead now, and I can’t help but think that if he could reflect upon his life from the spirit world, he’d be relieved that it was over. Being so annoyed with everything and everyone all the time had to have been exhausting. It was hard to grow up in a house where the father was angry all the time, where my siblings and I felt that everything we did was wrong or stupid or too slow, where that toxic buzz of pissed-off ness was always in the air, accompanied sometimes, when the pot was just too hot, by physical violence—kicked-in doors, smashed wine glasses, fist fights on the lawn.
The fear that I am like my father in that way hovers always at the back of my consciousness. Unlike him, however, I have been lucky enough to develop some skills that give me perspective on my emotions and allow me to say, sometimes, during these periods of difficulty, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I think I just need some time by myself,” which leads to me spending the week at home and Ruth spending the week at our camp, with tender phone calls keeping us connected to one another.
I never heard my father say he was sorry for his tyrannical behavior or admit that he needed time by himself. Ever. He did spend a good amount of time by himself, away from my three siblings and me and our mother, among his turtle bones and jars of formaldehyde at his laboratory at the university; off by himself collecting specimens in the jungles of Mexico; by himself early in the morning in his chair by the window at home with his cigarettes, coffee, orange juice, and the morning paper; by himself swimming endless laps in the university pool; by himself in his fly-tying room in the basement. What we didn’t understand then, any of us, including him it seems, was that this leaving home early and coming home late, this drinking himself into sleepiness every night in the living room before dinner, this going up to the university on weekends and holidays, might not have been because he didn’t love us. It might have been the only way he knew to recalibrate his brain so that he could live with any sense of ease. He probably didn’t enjoy being a mean son-of-a-bitch any more than we did.
In the last years of my father’s life, Ruth and I visited him several times in Utah, accompanying him on errands to his lab at the university. We were both astounded at the number of family pictures on display there among the skeletons and turtle skulls and snake and alligator skins. Lining the long hallways where he had his specimen cases, pinned to the cork bulletin boards on the walls of his office, taped to the windows of the vestibule off the stairway, stuck with magnets to the door of the lab refrigerator, were pictures of my siblings and me at every stage of our lives, pictures my father took of us during backpacking trips, fishing trips, and vacations in our trailer. Me as a teenager, my hair in blond braids, posed among wildflowers in the Uinta mountains. Eddie, my sweet brown-eyed brother, at 12, with a wicker creel full of shining trout. Ally, my late sister, snuggled next to my mother at a downtown Salt Lake City parade. Austin, the oldest, in his button-up Levi’s with his BB gun, a hot desert vista shimmering behind him. My mother picking dried grasses and milkweed pods for an artful bouquet. Anyone visiting his lab would think that this guy was a family guy, fully immersed in the intimate, boisterous, chaotic life of a big family. Not true. For my father, his family was most easily enjoyed one-dimensionally, photographically.
One of the pictures in that hallway was taken by my older brother, Austin, who traveled for extended periods of time with my father in the bush of Australia, into wild, hard-to-reach places inhabited by aboriginal peoples, where my father searched for turtles. The photograph shows my father in the foreground, both knees down on the cracked earth of a dried pond. He holds up a turtle with two hands. It looks as if he has just dug the turtle up from the dry earth at his knees. My father is wearing khaki shorts, leather boots, a green safari shirt, the sleeves roughly rolled to his biceps. He looks like Indiana Jones. A notebook and pencil poke out from the breast pocket of the shirt. He wears a bandana around his neck and a canvas brimmed sun hat. In front of my father stands an aboriginal child with a bare belly and bare legs, dressed in loose, baggy cotton shorts. My father is showing the turtle to the child, holding it up for him to see. Look! Isn’t it amazing? The child is smiling. My father is smiling. He had a brilliant smile. Between my father and this boy it looks like something holy is going on. In the background of the photo, slightly out of focus, are a bank of eucalyptus trees and an aboriginal woman in a loose, patterned sundress with her head turned slightly toward the camera so that her eyes and round, dark face are just visible.
I asked my brother about the photo after our father had died, and he remembered the day. They had asked this woman to show them where the turtles were under the dried bed of the pond, and she had walked directly to a spot in the dirt, pointed down, and our father had dug one up. What brought me nearly to tears was that in the photo my father looked luminous, at home in his body, fully present to his task, fully present to this boy standing before him, present to and a part of the heat and dryness of the day, to the adventure of being out in the bush. My father looked happy. He didn’t look angry or mean or irritated. He looked peaceful. I’ve seen other pictures of him at work, surrounded by colleagues and assistants and students in the field, in Australia, in Mexico, in southern Utah, in Brazil. He looked happy in those images too. Part of it, I know, was that he felt at home in his role as a teacher, surrounded by adoring graduate students, the center of attention. I often think that my father would have made an excellent bachelor professor, that he never was really meant for family life, especially life with daughters and a wife; he just wasn’t suited for fatherhood or husbandhood. He would have been much happier alone. Or perhaps not. Maybe he would have been miserable alone, but the fact is he simply could not make his peace with people who demanded something from him other than authority and expertise, such as attention, gentleness, or love.
If I am like him—which, genetically speaking, I certainly am—I think I understand. I often just want to be alone. I a not a misanthrope. I don’t think my father was either. I only require long periods of solitude and silence in order to approach the world and other people with grace. The noise in my head is sometimes so loud that I want to cover my ears. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by life—even my simple life without children, even my abundant life with plenty of money and space and a satisfying job and lovely friends, even with my patient, loving partner—even with this life, I am often so overwhelmed that I need to lie down and take a nap, make it all go away. Another cure is to dive into physical work in the garden or on the farm, digging up the beets, clearing a garden of rocks, repairing the pasture fence, something, anything, to make me sweat and strain and turn my thinking to my hands, my arms, my legs, my lungs. In order to keep order in my psyche, I prefer surroundings that are as spare and clean as possible. When the world is too much with me, I purge my closets and drawers, sending piles of clothing to the Goodwill, or I clean the house from top to bottom. I make room. Having space around me correlates to inner psychic spaciousness and balance. And sometimes I just need to be by myself.
I think about how the insights I am gaining about myself as I age help me to understand my father. To be a decent father, a decent husband, you must be in intimate relationship with other people. That requires energy, patience, compassion, understanding. Mostly self-understanding. Mostly self-compassion. That is where it all starts, the yogis and gurus and lamas say—it all starts with kindness toward the self. I think my father hated himself. I think my father never thought he was good enough to please the only person he ever really wanted to please: his mother. To his dying day, I think he hunted for her love—love she was probably as incapable of giving him as he was incapable in turn of offering us. Toward the end of his career he had the great honor of having an endowed professorship in anatomy named after him at the university where he had taught for 50 years. He didn’t invite any of his living family members to the ceremony, and when I spoke with him on the phone about the event later, he wept and said, “I wish my mother could have been there to see me.”
This was the grandmother I knew to drink her morning coffee in bed from dainty teacups; the grandmother who sternly enforced table manners, refused to hear us if we used improper grammar, and insisted when we visited her and my grandfather’s spotless, well-appointed suburban Minneapolis home once every three or four years, that my mother cut our hair—we looked like a bunch of ragamuffins. She was thin and aloof and wore cat-eye spectacles that dangled from a gold chain around her neck. She was not a climb-into-your-lap-help-make-cookies-in-the-kitchen kind of grandma. She was most likely not that kind of mother either. Two of her brothers, Marshall and Arthur Hertig, were the standard to which my father felt compared all his life. Marshall was a Harvard entomologist who helped eliminate yellow fever in Panama and solved the riddle of the mysterious “belt of death” in the valleys of the Andes—night-stalking, blood-sucking sand flies. Arthur’s groundbreaking work in embryology, also at Harvard Medical School, eventually helped lead to the birth control pill. I think my father probably felt that no less than “world famous” was necessary to get his mother’s attention. It should not have surprised me, but after my father’s death I learned from one of my cousins that her father, my uncle, had felt similarly measured and spurned by his mother, having to compete not only with these high-achieving uncles, but with his own brother and sister for a chance at love. “Not to speak ill of the dead,” my cousin said, “but Grandma Legler was a bitch.”
My father was an excellent professor, some say a brilliant scientist. He’d made the “world famous” mark as a turtle biologist. He could be charming. He was handsome. But he lacked sorely as a father, not in every way, but in one of the most important ways—that way of knowing and respecting his own needs so that he could practice love and compassion for himself and his children and his wife, so that he could mirror respect for the self so that his kids would grow up knowing that feelings were real, that the body and the
mind are integrated units, that emotions need to be attended to, that the body can be a trusted guide. We grew up scared and confused and not knowing or trusting ourselves. My sister didn’t survive. She committed suicide when she was in her early 20s. Children who grow up in homes where they are given a sense of their value as human beings, a sense of their unconditional preciousness and worth, a sense of their place in the family of things, a sense of how to listen to their bodies and respect their emotions—these are lucky children. They get a head start on being decent friends, decent partners and parents, decent human beings. Most of us get only some of what we need in this regard, some of us not much at all. We all end up hunters, sometimes discovering these vital truths as we age, and sometimes not.
Just days after Ruth and I returned from Europe, I went to the woods for the last week of deer hunting season in Maine. I looked forward to it—so different from walking the exotic peopled streets of Florence, Venice, Milan, and Marrakech, which we’d done for five weeks, with short jaunts into the more pastoral Italian countryside and into the Sahara Desert. I craved the physical strenuousness of walking in the woods with a rifle and a pack, the stillness and quiet of the forest, the opportunity to simply be still, and mostly, the chance to be alone. I wanted to not have to talk to another person, not have to negotiate competing desires or plans or expectations, not to have to translate my needs into an unfamiliar language, not to have to find my way on a map, not to have to meet anyone else’s needs (no matter how much I adored them).
I love the bleak, elegant formalism of a late fall and early winter landscape—the harsh geometrics, the colors—brown, black, gray, tan, rust, a shock of red where there might be a bunch of winterberry on the tip of a naked twig. In the late fall and early winter, without the confusion of greenery, it is easy to see what’s real—how trees are built, how ground rolls and rises, how rocks announce themselves. As I walked the woods on that hunting day, I noticed at my feet that the leaves of the wintergreen plant, which I love to pick and chew in the summer for a blast of freshness in my mouth, had gone from glossy green to deep wine. The feathery princess pine, the moss and lichen (occasionally a shocking peach or bright orange-tipped specimen) made a dense dwarf forest that absorbed me as I walked. Eventually, I came upon the place at the top of our land where the stone walls meet in a tidy, rocky corner, and thought what a sweet place that would be to settle into, lean my back against the stone, and be alone, maybe fall asleep into a peaceful nothingness, and best of all, no one would know where I was. The beautiful, simple landscape of the late fall woods reminds me of the Ingmar Bergman films I watched as a college student. Even then, I felt an affinity for those outer landscapes of subdued colors, muted tones, and strong shapes. These were the outer landscapes that neatly complemented my own serious, complex interior landscape of melancholy. The geography of my thought was the same terrain that Bergman explored in his films: death, illness, faith, betrayal, bleakness, and insanity. I wonder if it is true that some of us are hardwired to be melancholics, preoccupied with meandering about in the darkness.
Unlike the cats, I am not a hunter who is particularly interested in prey. I think I hunt for something else. In hunting there is an ache. I crave most the exploration of that ache—the ache between the necessity of being ready for anything to happen (a deer could emerge from the tree line at any moment) and the need for patience, stillness, grace. That clash of energies creates a strange liminal zone of exquisite being in the moment. While there must be some allowance for the expert hunter who has a certain amount of knowledge of the deer, the terrain, the trajectories of bullets, I feel that so little in hunting is truly under my control. I simply have to be in the right place at the right time, and even then, oftentimes that is not enough. I will miss the deer because the battery on my rifle scope is dead, or because I am just a lousy shot, or because it suddenly got too dark to make out whether the animal I was aiming at was a doe or a buck. Whether I shoot a deer or not, something magical exists in that space of readiness and acceptance that I adopt as a hunter—a sense of ease, a sense of rightness, a sense of balance.
That first evening of hunting, I stood on a ridge about 20 minutes’ walk from our front door, among the leafless beech and oak, overlooking a ravine. I knew deer would walk down from the ridge into the ravine and then up the other side over the hill to the old apple orchards on the neighbor’s land. While I waited for them, I listened to the small stream tinkle and gurgle below me, entranced by the black trail it made through the snow in the twilight. No deer came. I stayed long after dark. The moon rose. As I made my way out of the woods, the moon’s light turned from orange to white and reflected off the thin layer of snow on the ground, lighting my way.
My father told me many times, in passing, about how when he was a little boy he believed that if he closed his eyes he would be invisible. He laughed about it. But now that he is dead and I am trying still to make sense of my relationship with him, it seems meaningful. I can imagine him, a cute three- or four-year-old with brown hair and hazel eyes, dressed, as was the custom in his family and at that time, in a blue and white sailor suit—short pants with suspenders, white socks, saddle shoes, a sailor’s bow at the neck of the shirt, maybe even a little white hat. I imagine a crowd of adults, smoking, drinking their Tom Collins cocktails. He would have been instructed, as he repeatedly instructed us, to be seen but not heard. And so, he shut his eyes in defi ance. I will not only be silent, I will also be invisible. Or maybe he shut his eyes because it was just too painful to feel ignored and disciplined, to be treated like an object, like a pet or a piece of furniture, instead of a little boy. Maybe he “disappeared” himself to test whether or not anyone would realize he was missing and to see what they would do. I can imagine the questions at the center of his little boy heart: Do they love me? Will they miss me? One of the ways that he would dismiss and scold us when we cried or expressed any kind of strong emotion, even into our adulthood, was to say, “You’re just trying to get attention.” It seems as if he was doing exactly this in his own life—trying to get someone’s, anyone’s attention. Was his professional work also a way to make himself visible—the book, the monographs, the scientific discoveries, the generations of loyal and admiring students, the famous collection of turtle bones? Was it all so that other people could see that he really was there?
His death took us by surprise. Our relationship with our father was so distant that my siblings and I had not even known he was in the hospital. He’d sworn his live-in caretaker, Helen, to secrecy. After he had been in the hospital two weeks, she left a message on my answering machine casually suggesting that I might want to call home. I did and no one answered, which was not unusual; my father seldom answered the phone. It annoyed him to have people call. The next day I received a phone call at two in the morning from a defeated-sounding doctor in the ICU where they’d been trying to shock my father’s heart back into regular rhythm. They were not able to administer painkillers for some reason, and the shocks made him scream and writhe. They felt they were only torturing him. Someone, perhaps his favorite former student, whom he called his “protégé” and who was the only person besides Helen he allowed at his bedside, must have finally given the hospital my name and telephone number. With our father’s wishes in our minds, as expressed in his living will, my brother Ed and I gave the doctors permission to stop their Herculean efforts to keep him alive, which they did, but to their surprise he made it through the night. Because he had pulled through, I decided to carry on with plans to spend a weekend with friends in Montreal before I fl ew to Salt Lake to be with my father, who assured me that since he was on the mend, there was no need for me to be there anyway. Two days later, sitting on the stairs of my friends’ home in Montreal, my brother called to tell me that our father was dead. Years later I would receive a letter from the ICU nurse assigned to work with him the day he passed. “I thought you might like to know that I knew that you, like me, had a really, really tough relationship with your dad,” the nurse wrote. “I did sing to him because I didn’t know what else I could do (nothing we could do was working) and it seemed to help. I was able to treat him with dignity and compassion and professional caring and I thought of you and wished you well as I worked with him that day. I just didn’t want to miss telling you those things.”
I would have liked to have been the one to sing to him.
I realize now that the reason I’ve been so angry with my father is actually transparently simple—I loved him, as a child cannot help but love a parent, and at every turn he had made himself unavailable to that love. Not inviting us to his bedside in his last days was just one more injury, one more rejection. I’m sorry now that I didn’t fly directly to his side, sorry that I was not with him when he passed. But I did get to see his body before he was cremated, and perhaps this was even better than sharing a desperate, morphine-clouded, last living moment.
My final glimpse of my father was at the mortuary, where Ruth and I had brought a box of belongings we thought would be suitable to include with his body when it was incinerated. The box included his favorite clothes (khaki cargo pants, running shoes, rag-wool socks, a bush jacket), a selection of trout flies, his wedding ring, a tiny gold heart-shaped locket with a picture of him and my mother when they were college graduates, and other small objects. The undertaker settled the paperwork with us and then told me he’d need me to identify the body. I had never seen a dead human body.
“I don’t think I can do that,” I said.
“I’ll do it,” Ruth said.
I looked at her across the dark mahogany table in the quiet room. Scared. Unsure. Wanting to be brave. Wanting to do the right thing, whatever that was.
“Let’s do it together,” she said.
As we climbed the stairs of the old mansion that was the funeral home, my mind was a buzzing fog. The steps creaked under my feet. Stained-glass windows arranged along the stairway sent rays of blue and red across the carpet, dust motes suspended in their light. Ruth was just ahead of me. She carefully pushed open the door to the room we’d been instructed to enter. The hinges squeaked lightly. There was a body on a raised bed, covered with a homemade quilt. The room was cold, like a refrigerator. Tall windows looked out on the street below, trees just coming into bud. There was an unused fireplace in the room and a mantel upon which sat some pansies in a small vase. I slowly approached the figure on the bed.
“Is it him?” I asked Ruth, truly thinking there had been a mistake. “It’s not him!” The man lying there, a crisp sheet pulled up to his chin, the soft contours of his seemingly small body laid over with the quilt, did not look like my father.
“It’s him,” Ruth reassured me.
This man’s hair was silver white and wavy, brushed back to reveal a high, strong forehead, trimmed eyebrows, a handsome nose, a neat gray mustache, and clipped goatee. This man’s skin was smooth, flawless, glowing. His face was free of tension, his mouth relaxed and sensuous. The eyes rested lightly closed. I had expected that in death all my father’s torments would have been evident, that what I’d see on his face would be disappointment, sadness, rage—but instead the opposite was true. This was the face of a man who might pose as Santa Claus at the mall during Christmastime. You might imagine him swarmed by noisy, loving grandchildren. He looked, Ruth would say later, like Pete Seeger, that holy troubadour of love and justice who sang America through the 1960s. Something had come to my father in death that I had never seen in him while he lived. I wept. I wished that my brothers had been there to see him this way.
The world hardly blinked at my father’s passing. There was no formal ceremony. This is exactly what he wanted, what he insisted upon. While we cleaned out our parents’ cabin in Montana, my brothers and I took time to spread his ashes. After dividing the contents of the urn into three small containers, we each wandered off into the sagebrush and pines of their 30-acre plot, sprinkling as we went. I don’t know what my brothers thought or felt as they spread our father’s remains, but I was strangely unmoved; there was
no welling up of tears, no nostalgic ache. Ed and I met by a porch swing my father had built to face the sunset across the Madison River Valley, a place where he’d often go with a beer at the end of the day. Ed and I swung on the bench and each left a small handful of ashes at its base.
I had many dreams about my father in the years after his death, the first one terrible and violent. In the dream, set in the kitchen of my parents’ house, the entire family was gathered to witness me mercilessly humiliate him, berating him for every fault, every failing, every flaw, until he was on his knees sobbing on the linoleum in front of the stove. When he was down, I may even have kicked him. If I didn’t actually kick him in the dream, I certainly wanted to. It seems likely that dream helped pave the way for the most recent
one, which came to me in Montreal, in the same house where I’d heard news of his death three years earlier. In this dream he came to me quietly, his face open, his voice soft, and said simply, “Will you forgive me?” and I said, “I will.”
On the last day of deer hunting season I sat up in a tree for five hours alone. I came upon the stand by accident. I had been meandering through the woods, following deer tracks, when I looked up to see a metal ladder heading up to a wide cushioned seat set against a sturdy hemlock and draped with a camouflage blanket. A neighbor had fastened the stand to the tree, but hadn’t used it this season. It was on my land, I reasoned—I’d occupy it—and I climbed the 15feet up, rifle slung across my back, and settled in, arranging my lunch, my thermos, my notebook, extra mittens and shawl to cover my legs if they got
too cold. I wasn’t hunting, after all, so much as waiting. I wasn’t engaged in any kind of aggressive tracking or luring or baiting or outwitting; I would just sit there and wait to see what happened.
Two nuthatches visited, doing their funny upside-down dance along the trunk of an oak nearby. A fat, bright blue jay came and went, came and went, came and went, making loud rustling noises in the dried leaves that lay two feet thick on the forest floor. Amazing how vibrant, how startling, these small animal noises can be in the quiet studio of the woods. A chipmunk made a loud chirring sound and hopped from log to log, branch to branch. A hawk began to circle above me, circle and circle and circle, ever wider, ever wider, graceful, floating. He or she, I thought, was hunting too. And so was the flock of wild turkeys that came late in the day, shuffling through the leaves for acorns and beechnuts, finally lifting themselves on their massive dark wings into the treetops to roost for the night.
Suddenly then the sky turned from a partly lit gray-blue to an opaque gray. Just as the light changed, the feeling in the woods changed. A hush fell. Some God-hand had laid a blanket over us all. Everything was still—wind, stream, squirrel, jay, turkey. It was as if the woods exhaled a deep breath, letting out all the tensions of the day. And then it began to snow, and the snow came down in icy flakes, and as the flakes fell, each one, each one, made an individual tiny sound of connection on the leaves below. For a few moments, the sky was gray and full of snow and there was the music of snow falling on leaves—a soft pat, pat, pat, pat, pat. A gentle, natural, simple percussion, as simple as the pumping of a heart, as the movement of breath, as the beat of wings. So many hunters: my father, me, the cat, the hawk, the jay, the nuthatch, the turkey, the squirrel. What were we all hunting for? Those basic necessities that propel us all through life—a mate, a meal, a safe place to live, a sense of belonging, the heart’s content. In that tree stand, with the snow falling down, all alone in the woods, just me and the rocks and trees and animals, I felt effortlessly full of the goodness I longed for and that I longed to share with all of my beloveds. I was enraptured, intoxicated, so happy to be alive in that moment. I felt complete, overflowing. I was in the right place at exactly the right time.
When it was finally too dark to see, I climbed out of my stand and headed toward the house. I glimpsed the porch light through the naked trees. Ruth must have returned from her week at the camp. Halfway down the hill, she and our 11-year-old nephew Adam came to meet me, their orange hats and vests making them brilliantly visible in the fading light, and we walked the rest of the way home together.