Singular focus of a task at hand bestows a beauty and elegance of which is only rivaled by mountain vistas and grandmothers. The unblinking intensity that I witnessed that day in my October woods transfixed me and I lost my focus in his. He watched in silence the woodland floor. His presence, as statuesque and stoic as it was, caused great alarm by those that saw through his beauty and grace as an accipiter to the agile and effective killer that they feared.
The morning began for me with a climb to a perch strapped to a tree about twenty feet up a red oak in a place that embraces my soul. I have many places that might classify as hallowed ground, but a few of them transcend even that. Upon reaching the platform I transferred my harness tether from lifeline to tree strap and began to raise the cord that my bow and pack were attached to prior to my ascent. The early morning darkness was still and cool, creating what I felt was an amphitheater for my every move. Surely, I was going to scare all deer from my immediate area.
With my pack and bow securely in hand I began to situate my space for a long sit. I removed my binoculars from the pack, took a quick and satisfying drink of water and then got my pack hung on the just-screwed-in tree hook. I made one last check of my harness’ tree strap and tether for prudence sake and then I began my transition. The pre-dawn hours in the forest whisper truths if you’re ready for them. It’s a time of tranquil being. A time to settle in, to begin the transition to a member of the forest. It sometimes doesn’t happen and the forest community seems to know your presence almost immediately. They may tolerate you from that point forward, but they’ll never accept it. On other occasions, as the woods come to life, you’ll be absorbed completely. On this day in the October forest, I was just that. The woods began to awaken from the dark silence with the chirp of a cardinal, then a nuthatch and titmouse joined the progression. The process was akin to my children being woke up on Christmas morning – slow at first, but then the realization of the day causes an explosion of excitement and action. The quiet and sporadic chirps became excited and many other woodland creatures joined in the celebration of dawn and another day. This exultation continued and the search for food began. The day was glorious.
My transition was successful and I was a seemingly invisible spectator of the upcoming day and its happenings. I observed grey squirrels and chipmunks seek food, interact with competitors and keep a look out for predators. I watched white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets call and search, flitter and glean. As I looked and listened to the forest and its members go about their day I began to think of the opportunity that may come my way if all went right. I had asked the northern Appalachians for deer this day and I felt good about my prospects.
Silent and meditative as I was during the opening acts of the day – I couldn’t help but be slightly startled when off my right shoulder a sleek, blue streak whooshed by. The five feet or so that separated the object and myself was close enough that I heard it before I saw it. Passed me it went and alighted on an oak branch not twenty yards in front me and only a few feet higher than my position in my oak. I could hardly believe my luck – a goshawk! I sat in curious observance of the great aerial athlete of the forest. Perched with the same patience as a gargoyle, he watched the nervous excitement that he just created with his grand entrance. Squirrels scrambled onto the sides of trees with tails shaking wildly, their alarming barks echoing throughout the surrounding area. Chipmunks rushed to the safety of an underground borrow only to reappear at the opening to sound their chirping alarm call as well. Birds too, joined in the collective alarm calling. All were aware of the goshawk’s presence and none were impressed with it. None, but me that is.
As I observed the story of predator and prey unfold before me I couldn’t help but feel a connection to his position in the forest. I was a mimic of this impressive bird perched in quiet surveillance of the forest below him. His head tilted to the right and then the left. He was working out the geometry and probability of a kill – or at least that’s the story I imagined as he’d tense up only to relax. I’ve felt these same intense urges pushing me to act on an opportunity only to relax upon further analysis of the situation.
As the seconds – perceived as minutes – passed the crunch and rustle of leaves was all around me and I hardly thought to turn my head to another sound of the same, but the more the leaves made noise, the more it became apparent that the sounds were coming from under a hooved being. Deer were approaching. I slowly turned my head in the direction of the sounds while keeping my eyes on my feathered compadre. The sounds continued, then stopped, then began again. They were moving in my direction and my pulse quickened with the prospects of an opportunity to put venison in the freezer. I had to make a decision as a predator and so I moved my body along with my head and eyes in the direction of the sounds and waited.
The three does appeared like a fog from the hollow and were scanning the forest in front in them for any sign of danger. They dismissed the thought and continued their trek. I prepared myself for a draw of the bow. As I watched and waited, the scene began to spin minutes off my watch and my thoughts shifted back to the goshawk. I wondered if his hunt had offered an opportunity that he’d taken. I imagined his eyes locking onto a careless grey squirrel, his calculations lining up and him taking the plunge from his perch. He’d fall forward, wings slightly tucked and his legs would push in the direction of his prey. As his momentum gained his wings would open and provide thrust towards the target and acceleration would ensue. His approach would find a small tree in the path to the prize unto which the goshawk would tuck his powerful wings tightly to his body and pass through the crotch in the tree exploding out the other side. Before the squirrel had enough time to react it was hit with powerful talons that pierced and squeezed. The impact alone would be nearly enough to cause the death of the goshawks meal, but the talons and grip aid in the event. A couple of thrusting strokes from the blue wings would lift the predator and his prey aloft to a new perch for dining.
The goshawk, upon settling on his chosen location with prize in talon, would begin to tear through the hide of his meal. He’d rip and tug to create bite sized morsels of squirrel meat which he’d waste no time swallowing down. I imagined the unconscious squirrel being consumed, clinging to life, then passing its energy onto the hawk. There was no remorse. There was no hatred. There was only life – the end of one and the continuance of another.
The crunch of leaves brought my focus back to the three deer. They approached to about fifty yards before bending their path to the right and away from my location. I lost sight of them as they traveled into the thick brush of the creek bottom I sat to the south of. Although I continued hearing them walk and hoped for an opportunity to draw my bow, seeing them again on the opposite ridge-side made it clear I wouldn’t be getting it. They stopped and browsed on some red maple saplings, then moved up the ridge to a bench where I assumed they’d eventually bed for the next few hours.
Seeing my quarry disappear my mind went back to the goshawk and I began my slow and purposeful return to my original position. As my head and eyes reached where the hawk had been perched I was disappointed to discover he was gone. Not surprising as this bird’s foray through the forest from perch to perch while hunting only averages about a minute and a half per perch, but I was hopeful.
Now I sat, pulse lessening, mind reflecting. My thoughts took me to the beauty of the white-tailed deer, the near perfection of the autumn morning, the birds, the squirrels, the chipmunks, and the goshawk. I began to realize the connectivity of everything around me in such a visceral way that I faded from the moment. I faded backwards in time. Memories of past adventures rose from the depths and Dad and I were standing side by side in search of jerky and meat for Grandma’s mason jars. Then my imagination took me further back. I imagined what my surroundings would have been like when the old road delivered people to the house that once sat on the foundation ruins nestled in the ridge top behind me. Who were those people? What must have life been like for them? What brought them here?
My fade ended when a streak of blue caught my eye and brought me squarely back to the now. The goshawk was still in the area and still hunting. I watched intently as he perched. One minute, scan, launch, new perch. I witnessed three more perches and the chaos and panic each created before he vanished over the ridge top like a thief. Evasion tactics were successful on all fronts in this section of forest on this morning.
Seeking continued from my perch. I resettled, refocused and began on the next leg of the day’s adventure. What else might come my way? What other visions would this quest beget? What other sounds, sights or experiences would send me through time? Where would this day end? And who would visit me?
I close my eyes and let the sounds of my existence speak to me. I take in the broken October sunshine. I breathe in the hill’s air and smell the sweetness of damp leaves wafting up with the thermals. I feel the oak bark at my back and relish the moment. I am home.