Surviving deer season

For a newcomer to Vermont, a local tradition provides a lesson in ambiguity

NEWFANE — The foothills of southeastern Vermont were once dairy country, although by the time I arrived, 20 years ago, dairying was mostly finished. One farm in the neighborhood still kept a few milkers, though, and it was there that I became acquainted with a particular local custom that is, I find, rarely celebrated in articles on endearing rural ways through the seasons.

Their authors will tell you how to tap a maple in March, mow hay in June, and make cider in October, but by failing to touch on the subject I refer to, they neglect a passage in the turning year that is as venerable as these but darker and more pointed.

One morning in November, looking into my neighbor's pasture, I observed an uncanny thing: on the nearest of his animals the word cow had been painted with whitewash in letters two feet high. A further look revealed that the entire herd had been painted the same way. What was this? Was the herd's owner perhaps expecting a visit from city people in need of rural education? Was his tractor painted tractor, his barn barn? I asked him.

“Well, you know what tomorrow is,” my neighbor said.

“Saturday?” I said.

“You're new around here,” he said. “You'll see."

I saw, all right. More precisely, I heard.

The next morning Vermont's two-week deer-hunting season began. Just before dawn, the slumbering woods erupted with the fell echo of small arms. Single gunshots, doubles, volleys of three or four, came from all points of the compass, some far off, others seemingly in the living room. By eleven, the fire had mounted to a fusillade worthy of Antietam.

Across the road, however, my neighbor's cows survived. They hugged the earth fearfully, like Tommies at the Somme, but they were alive. After all, no deer hunter who could read would shoot a cow.

* * *

Since then, I have become a close student of the lengths to which people go each year on the eve of deer season to provide a margin of safety for themselves, their loved ones, their livestock, their pets. This is the season when dogs wear brightly colored bandannas around their necks, like John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River. Cats and smaller dogs, as far as I can tell, have to take their chances along with the deer, although I don't know why the kind of elegant dog vest to be seen on the Pekingeses of Park Avenue shouldn't be produced in hunter orange for the greater safety of their country cousins.

That same hunter orange, a hideous toxic color, suddenly appears everywhere in mid-November, like the untimely bloom of an evil flower.

Hunters themselves, of course, wear hunter orange to make it less likely that they'll be shot by their peers. But civilians, too, turn up in hunter-orange caps, vests, sweaters, and jackets, as they go about their business outdoors during this uneasy fortnight in the year.

Uneasy indeed. Are you a hiker, a birder, an idle tramper through the woods? In deer season you think twice before setting out - think twice and then stay home. If you're a nonhunter, it's painful to avoid the woods and fields as though they were a deserted street in the South Bronx.

There is also the trouble of preparing for deer season. It's not as though you don't have enough to do to get the place ready for winter without having to find time to paint the cow, flag the dog, pray for the cat, and plan two weeks' worth of useful projects to do in the cellar.

* * *

The heaviest demands that deer season makes on the nonhunter, however, it makes not on his time but on his mind. You have to reflect. You have to collect your thoughts. You don't want to move into deer season without having examined your responses, your beliefs.

I don't object to deer hunting: let everyone have his sport, I say. I don't for a moment doubt the value, importance, and dignity of hunting for those who do it.

Deer hunting teaches skill, discipline, and patience. More than that, it teaches the moral lesson of seriousness - that certain things must be entered into advisedly, done with care, and done right. That hunting provides an education I am very willing to believe. And yet deer season is for me a sad couple of weeks. Because with all its profound advantages for the hunter, the fact remains that deer season is a little tough on the deer.

Suddenly deer turn up in strange places: thrown down in the backs of pickup trucks; roped on top of cars; hanging in front of barns; flopped in blood across platform scales in front of country stores and gas stations. It's hard to recognize in those abject, inert cadavers the agile creatures you surprise along the roads at night or see sometimes in the woods picking their way on slender legs and then bounding off, the most graceful animals in North America. It's hard to see them so defeated, so dead.

It's particularly hard for children, those instinctive animal lovers, to see deer season's bloody harvest hauled out of the woods. It's especially hard to explain to them why it isn't wrong to kill deer - or, if it is wrong, why nobody can stop it, and how it is that the hunters themselves, who are also your friends and neighbors, are otherwise such familiar, decent, innocent people. It's a lesson in ambiguity, I guess - a lesson in tolerance.

I had a number of conversations along these lines with my children when they were young, inconclusive conversations with on their side conviction and passion, and on my own . . . nothing satisfactory. What do you tolerate, why, and how? How do you separate the act from the friend, and condemn the one but not the other? Not an easy matter at any age, in any season.

We don't have those talks anymore. The children are older now. They know that with some things all you can do is figure out how you will conduct your own life and let others do the same. Perhaps they have learned this in part from deer season.

If so, I'm content. Let the gunners fire at will - and as for the nonhunters, good luck to them, too. It's not only hunters who can learn from hunting.

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