Driving around yesterday I saw two things typical of this area this time of year: white-tailed deer, and people trying to kill them. The deer I saw were in no immediate danger from hunters, since they were standing in a field on Antietam National Battlefield. Being a national park, hunting isn’t allowed in Antietam, and as a result there’s a large and visible deer population in the woods and fields that comprise most of the park. If you like deer watching, it’s a great place to take an early evening drive, or better yet a walk.
The hunter I saw a few minutes later was at least half a mile from the road, sitting in a tree in the middle of a farmer’s field off the Sharpsburg Pike, clearly visible thanks to the radioactive orange jumpsuit he was wearing. The crew on the International Space Station could probably see him, too. Wearing blaze orange is required of hunters by law in Maryland, and most other states, as a safety measure. It hasn’t succeeded in completely preventing accidental shootings during hunting season, but it does at least help the prosecutor gain a speedy conviction on the shooter, who is left with no excuse other than possibly “it was dark and he really sounded like a deer.”
From about age 9 to age 14, when the State of Maryland bought Woodmont and turned it from a private club where I spent a lot of time to a publicly owned property where I wasn’t allowed to set foot, I went hunting every year with my father and grandfather. I only ever killed two deer, a buck and a doe, both on the same morning when I was 14. The doe was standing a good way downhill from me, and it was a pretty good shot if I do say so myself. The buck was still alive when Pap and I made it over to him. We stood over him ten minutes or so, waiting for him to die. Pap was about to tell me to shoot him again when his eyes finally when glassy and his tongue flopped out of his mouth.
I don’t hunt anymore. At first it was for practical reasons — Woodmont was the only place I’d ever hunted, and it just didn’t have the same appeal as public hunting ground, especially with the clubhouse off-limits — but eventually I reached a point where hunting just wasn’t something I wanted to do anymore. The only time I’ve ever been hunting since age 14 was a few years ago when I went squirrel hunting at Indian Springs with Jimmy. I only went because he had no one else to go with, and didn’t want to go alone. We sat in separate spots, far enough away so that we couldn’t see each other, and as soon as Jimmy was out of sight I unloaded my gun. I never had any intention of killing something. When I’d been sitting there an hour or so, a squirrel appeared on a fallen log not twenty feet from me. I watched him until he scampered up a tree and got lost in the branches. It was a nice morning.
Encountering a wild animal is one of the most delightful and interesting experiences I get to have on a somewhat regular basis. I can’t imagine how the occasion of seeing a deer or a squirrel or a wild turkey during a walk through the woods would be improved by me killing the animal. It’s not that I’m opposed to hunting. I think it’s necessary to control populations, and hunters who do their thing humanely and within the bounds of the law (like my father did — usually . . .) are just fine by me. It’s just no longer my thing.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t get a kick out of laughing at the occasional mighty hunter when I see him. I’ve known people who take hunting way, way too seriously. Around here they’re the majority, or so it seems in the winter months, at least. And most of them don’t exactly need the meat, if you know what I’m sayin’. I’ve known guys who dress in camouflage from head to toe (excepting their blaze orange vest, of course), who bury their clothes or hang them outside in the rain a few days before a hunt, who spray themselves all over with deer scent. (By the way, “deer scent” — there’s an unnecessary euphemism if I ever saw one. Most hunters I know wouldn’t be the least bit bothered about buying a product called “doe piss”.) The funny thing to me is, my Dad and my Pap never did any of that. They just found a good spot in the woods where they knew there were some deer and sat still until one walked by. Then they got their gun up and shot it. No piss-soaked clothes, no camo jumpsuits required. And they did all right in their day. Pap’s nickname wasn’t “Killer” because he killed a lot of people.
When I was little my grandfather on my Mom’s side lived and worked on Woodmont’s turkey farm, raising fowl that were sold or used in club hunts. One year a deer who had been shot but not killed wandered onto the farm, and Pap Lashley and his sons, my Uncle Joe and Uncle George, nursed him back to health. They called him Bucky, and he remained relatively tame and stayed close to the farm for the rest of his life. When they were keeping him in an out-building during his convalescence I got to touch him, to pet him like a dog or a cat or a horse. Thinking back, it was the only time I’ve ever touched a deer that wasn’t dead or dying. That’s a little depressing.