Island Hunter Values Time in a Tree Stand
Regret mixed with relief as I retraced a brush-strewn path I had followed so many mornings and afternoons during the hunting season just ended on Martha’s Vineyard. There was no longer any need to walk carefully and quietly to avoid alerting any nearby deer as I took advantage of a welcome warmup to remove tree stands from the woods.
I enjoy hunting immensely, so I rely on state regulations and not self discipline to cause me to call it quits and attend to responsibilities I readily put off in favor of heading outdoors. Still, in the mid-winter stillness, as I made ready to undo a platform from the trunk of a large tree in which I had spent many hours letting the world, and an occasional deer, pass me by I felt a pang of sorrow. I’m going to miss this, I thought as I looked out over a grove of oaks I had watched undergo a multihued seasonal transformation until only bare limbs remained.
The Massachusetts deer hunting season began on Oct. 16 and ended on Dec. 30. It is the time of the year when I may sit alone in a tree meditating for hours at a time and only my wife questions my sanity. (It should be noted that my willingness to stand on a beach for hours fruitlessly casting to false albacore also raises questions about my mental fitness.)
It may seem a stretch to equate deer hunting with meditation, but time spent in a tree stand lends itself to deep contemplation and thought surrounded by nature. A hunter outfitted in camouflage is likely to experience just as much personal growth as an individual in yoga pants sitting in a pretzel leg position at a costly retreat in Big Sur, with the added bonus of being able to stock the freezer. The exception I think is the hunter who passes time playing video games on a smart phone — he can pretty much expect to stay at the bottom of the four stages of enlightenment.
Often, I climb into my stand in the morning darkness and remain aloft in a tree for several hours. That gives me a lot of time to think, or not, about what has been and what will be. I think about how Tisbury bungled the opportunity to transform the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop from a Soviet-era style building to a modern market with parking where a shopper might be able to find a gallon of milk stocked on a Friday afternoon. I think about all the fuss over the roundabout and wonder if there is hope for Beach Road. I think about why I have no interest in tweets. Sometimes I even think about deer.
The end of the season brings regrets because so few modern activities require that we remain absolutely still and attuned to our environment. The successful hunting experience is grounded in stealth and keen observation — sitting quietly, turning slowly when you must and listening for the telltale steps of a deer moving through the brush so you are not surprised by its sudden appearance. The emphasis on reducing the Island deer herd might lead the uninitiated to think that a venison dinner is his for the taking. But deer are well equipped by nature for survival. In addition to an acute sense of smell, deer can pick out the slightest discordant sound amid all the natural sounds and Island noise that surround them, which includes rummaging squirrels, passing vehicles and the incessant pounding of hammers.
The last stand I removed was on private property in Chilmark just off a confluence of walking paths. The location offered an advantage for entering the woods easily and quietly, and the paths made hauling out a deer less strenuous, an important consideration of mine with each passing year.
Deer also like to choose the easiest travel routes. I had already taken two does from this location when one November morning I hooked into my safety line and climbed quickly, then settled in with my bow across my lap and waited for dawn to lift the darkness. A whippoorwill sang in the distance. The haunting cry of this diminutive bird is one of the sounds that adds immeasurably to the Island hunting experience.
The morning was still. Ten minutes had passed when I heard a deer walking through a tangle of pines and brush down a facing hill. I peered through the darkness trying to pick out a shape. The footsteps were heavy and deliberate — a buck. The deer walked in my direction and stopped about 12 yards from the tree where I sat. My bow rested on my lap. I did not dare move.
The faint edge of dawn was beginning to appear. A large, 12-point buck began to take shape. If I lifted my arm I was certain the buck would catch my movement, or pick out the rustling of fabric or the sound of my beating heart. It was, as my southern friends say, so quiet you could hear a frog fart. I decided my best strategy was to wait.
After standing more or less stationary for a considerable time, the buck moved away slowly in its same direction of travel. I picked up the bow and for a moment thought I might have a shot but the angle was not favorable. Rather than risk a poor hit, I chose to wait for another day. That day did not come. There is always next season.