October! and the trees are turning red, gold and topaz. Already cool breezes tug loose the gaudy vestments and scatter them in piles ’round the ankles of tall aspen and unsuspecting maples. The sumac, embarrassed, has blushed deep red overnight, it seems.
Only the oak maintains its dignity its greenery turns drab brown and rustles almost the entire winter through. Only after many long nights and cold days, when the first breath of spring tickles the topmost oak leaves, does the stoic tree shake loose its crumpled hood and prepare for new leaves and sunshine.
Used to be this time of year, just about the time my feet had learned the flagstone path to my morning classes and my digestive tract had readjusted to browning lettuce and red meat substitutes, I’d catch October on the wind. A good nose a nose hunting autumn could pick it out, somewhere above the stench of diesel exhaust fumes and ginkgo berries. (Ginkgo trees, so I’m told, filter pollutants out of the air and drop them to the ground in these concentrated flesh-colored packets, which, when stepped on, make you wonder who brought the dog and forgot the scoop. Popular with cities; not so much with pedestrians.)
Acorns! The smell must’ve blown in from East Rock, because squirrels in the city ate pizza crust and stale bagels. And the crisp smell of dry leaves tripping over the wind and each other, and I’d be halfway home and in the woods, hunting deer with bow and arrow …
In a city like New Haven, at a school like Yale, where every meal featured a vegetarian entree and people could say things like “turkey bacon” and not stumble over the contradiction, hunting was foreign to many students. The idea of climbing a tree to ambush a deer with a bow, a half-dozen arrows and a skinning knife was both terrible and fascinating … it also earned you a wider path down down a crowded sidewalk.
Even students who enjoyed red meat often found the idea of killing a wild animal appalling.
“How can you kill an animal and then eat it?” the would ask.
“How can you eat an animal and not kill it?” I’d respond, but they do not want to know what comes before the pink foam tray and cellophane.
At Yale it was always death that took the spotlight. It makes sense, I suppose, in a land where guns are used to shoot people and (sometimes) paper targets.
Looking back at past dining hall discussions to Octobers spent hunting, it seems the focus was never death, but the wide variety of life.
I remember piling into Dad’s rusty blue pickup in the wee-hours before dawn, feeling my way up the tree to my stand, and strapping myself in and dozing as the cold seeped through my coveralls. I remember starting when an owl a few short yards away and invisible in the darkness questioned my presence in the tree. I remember the stars fading, the breakfast arguments of ducks in the swamp around me. Somewhere a splash a beaver slaps its warning on the surface of the water. Then footsteps.
Eyes strain into the grey light. Stumps stop short and stare back; ferns move like deer at the farthest edge of sight.
It’s right behind me, but I don’t dare look.
It’s a red squirrel, moving one hop at a time through the dry leaves beneath the tree.
I relax, exhale, and I’m spotted; he chatters the news to the entire section.
I remember sitting in the treetops with chickadees flitting about my hat, thinking back on my beagle, Ranger, and Dad’s old red ‘coon hound, Jack. I remember porcupines and hawks and my kindergarten teacher walking her dog past my tree. I remember watching two bucks square off beneath my tree, and shooting at and cleanly missing both of them. I remember other deer, as well, and I remember, in six years of active bow hunting, never taking one.
In fact, in all my years of hunting, I have taken only one deer, and have fingers enough to count the number of partridge, rabbit and squirrel I’ve harvested. What I’ve brought to the table, instead, are stories and memories of animals quicker and more clever than me. If the the thrill was in the killing, I’d have quit a long time ago. Instead, I’ve at last come home to October’s breezes and the chance to return to the woods. And I can hardly wait.