Ah, fall. Even the warmest days carry a whisper of dampness warning of rain to come. Summer-browned lawns hint of green. Mushrooms of all sizes and shapes pop up in the oddest places in urban settings. The sky turns that heart-breaking shade of sharp, clear blue (now forever associated in my mind with that stunningly beautiful and horrific day, September 11th ) which starkly outlines urban buildings, tall trees and the West Hills.
For me, fall truly began this weekend. Deer hunting season started this past Saturday, and even though I don’t currently hunt, I still note the seasonal cues. Hunting season was as a major part of fall as I grew up. My father and assorted kith and kin left the farm before sunrise, as fog clung close to the ground, to join the procession of cars headed for the Coburg Hills near Springfield. If they succeeded, my father came back to get the older kids and I to help haul the deer out of the steep, muddy canyons (inevitably, the bigger the deer, the steeper the canyon). He considered how we got and processed food part of our education, a pleasant break from our home-raised beef and fryer chickens. When we hunted in Eastern Oregon, we gathered stove wood as well.
I guess some people would consider this abusive, both to us kids and to the animals. A local, well-regarded writer recently published a biting anti-hunting screed comparing local deer hunters to foxhunters in her native England. Even though the two experiences don’t match, I know the type of hunter she describes-the slob hunter who commits many offenses related to careless gun handling, lack of regard for their prey, the environment around them, and other people in the woods. Unfortunately, they tend to be urban hunters concerned more about proving their manhood than anything else.
In my case, hunting not only provided an excuse to tromp around the woods during one of the finest seasons to be outside, but also opportunities to socialize (some of my favorite outdoor parties have been in hunting camp) and gather wild foods. If we didn’t shoot a deer, we might catch some fish, shoot some grouse (to cook in aluminum foil in a campfire) or find some mushrooms. At the very least, we gathered memories of that cusp between the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Treating the woods as a commodity? Maybe. But I’d argue that it also created understanding and respect for the environment and the creatures which depend on it.
One year, I’d just finished dealing with a slob hunter who’d taken a potshot at me. I stomped further down into the canyon and kicked up a deer. I couldn’t tell until the last minute that it was a legal buck, until he turned and dove into a big stand of brush. Muttering to myself, I started marching further downhill-and heard a crash. Thinking I’d kicked up another buck, I turned-and a peregrine falcon, with a squirrel in his talons, flew past me, just twenty yards away. Saluting the superior hunter, I decided to call it a day (and, when I got home, called both the Audubon Wild Bird Line and the relevant Forest Service biologist to say “Do you know that you’ve got a peregrine hanging out near this proposed timber sale?” If you’re checking out public land abuses, hunting season works as a good time to investigate anonymously).
I recall listening to two bull elk trumpet dire threats from neighboring ridges. One night, we woke to unknown, heavy hoofbeats heading directly toward our tent. As my husband jacked a round into his rifle, I switched on my flashlight. Suddenly we heard a bull elk snort, bugle, then head off in another direction. I watched a late fawn nurse, sitting under a juniper in the Ochocos listening to elk bugle and coyotes sing, or sitting by the campfire, looking out over a mountain sagebrush prairie as clouds scuttled quickly overhead as a hawk circled nearby.
That said, we don’t hunt now. Not because of ideological choices or lack of interest, but because we don’t have the time. If you live in a rural town, it’s easier to slip out to the woods either before or after work or pull the kids out of school for a couple of days and get off work to camp out. Doesn’t work that well in an urban setting, especially with 4 p.m. grad school classes and an hour drive to the nearest hunting spot.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t stop when the air gets that faint smell of decaying leaves coupled with a damp, sharp crispness and think of days gone by. Maybe one of these days we’ll get back out there. Until then, I harvest memories of hunting season, dream of the high mountain fall, and think about wild foods and the cycle of life they represent.