My 84’ Ford roars to the top of the short dirt cutoff, thankfully not breaking down and drifting back to the highway like the last time I ventured to this WMA (Wilderness Management Area, state managed land). No, on this glorious morning I am able to park. I slip on a jacket as the January air and 6am darkness fill my lungs; it’s frigid. Arriving in the mountains is the first hurdle, now a two-and-a-half mile hike is on the agenda so I can get to my desired hunting location. In this part of southern Appalachia, the mountains aren’t grandiose but they’re steep enough to get the blood flowing and to break a sweat, even on a winter morning. My headlamp begins to fade about halfway up the mountain trail so I just turn it off. My destination is all too familiar, for I’m in the middle of a three-year hunt for a majestic whitetail and this hike is the point of entry for a twelve-hour sit. For some reason, maybe it’s my .22 or the fact that I’ve traveled up here so often, but the dark walk doesn’t send chills up my spine like it does every October. It’s almost comforting, possessing the knowledge of the turns and climbs, and the cool moonlight leading the way. Soon enough I hear the swift movement of the creek and feel my boots slosh in mud that overflow created. I’m here. I depart from the trail, walk halfway up a draw, and sit against an oak tree. It’s time to wait. Just as the first glow of dawn starts to push the stars back toward the west, an owl hoot breaks the silence. Each of his calls echoing up to me and then passed, traveling the ridge line up the mountain. Each hoot echoing the same sound – an almost purr toward the end of the utterance – that both woos me and seems to beckon the night to give way to the soft light of morning. “Whhhhhhhooooooooo, Whhhhhhhhoooooooo” his sound comes in waves of dawn up the draw. He vanishes just as quickly as he began. His part complete for the sun is now visible along the ridgeline before me. It won’t be long now before the squirrels awaken and my hunt can begin. I’ve got their movements and habits memorized; their traits I tucked away in my mind as if it were my back pocket, so I could pull the memories out this morning and take advantage of the knowledge gained during all-day sits this past autumn. They’re due in about twenty-minutes.
A little later than expected, two squirrels come bounding down an oak beside me with the lead squirrel stopping and juking like a wide receiver running a hitch-n-go route, and the second squirrel trying helplessly to catch up after guessing wrong. Their barking and ruckus causes the draw to stir and all life to sound aloud—a woodpecker begins to hammer his head in search for breakfast, woodland birds seem disrupted and fly about. I sit silent, waiting because I know there are more than just two rambunctious squirrels that call this draw home. These two scurry up another oak and jump to a neighboring branch. They leap from branch to branch running with a mix of grace and reckless abandon. As they climb, the lead squirrel must have slipped because the next thing I see is it free falling some twenty-five feet or so to the ground. It hits the packed earth with a thud much louder than I expect it’s small frame to make and bounces a few inches up after impact. In mid-bounce the squirrel flips right side up and begins running as it lands. A chorus of light chirping erupts all around me – like there are others in the trees watching this free fall and almost snickering at the ordeal. This free-falling squirrel runs straight up the tree it had just fallen from, meeting up with the other to continue their chase. They climb higher and higher, leaping from tree to tree until they either stop for a breather or I just lose sight of them. I grab my binoculars to search for these two but instead find five others, the culprits of the chirping; two on the ground, about ten yards apart, searching for buried acorns and three more in three separate trees.
All five are in shooting range of my great grandpa’s .22 rifle and me. I slowly pull up the .22 to take aim at the closest squirrel, one of the pair who’s on the forest floor sending soil flying in search of food. This is an old hat, the only hunting I’ve done since childhood, but as I set my iron sights on the squirrel’s head and push the safety up readying to pull the trigger, a chorus of barks begins to flood down the draw causing every squirrel to run for cover. This alarm system of squirrel barks was different in intensity and rhythm. The further up the mountain—say eighty yards—the more frantic and guttural they sound. It seems as if the ones closest to me were simply relaying the message or joining in to warn others, because there intensity level grows as the seconds tick by. These squirrels are communicating to one another in a way I’ve never heard. I have an inkling why and I’m fairly confident it wasn’t my subtle movements. I quickly put my safety on and grab my binos to find out what caused the alarm system to be alerted. All five squirrels had left their previous positions and gone quiet. I find one mid-tree, hanging tightly to the trunk, head facing toward the ground, and his tail waving frantically above him. A defensive maneuver, no doubt. I drop my binos to get a broad look at everything. Even louder than before they start up again, barking with no clear rhythm—like the chaos of a town square on fire. I hear the people grabbing the buckets of water, but can’t find the fire.
Looking up the draw to the false top of the mountain is fairly clear. The ground scorched by fire three years ago, hasn’t had time to replenish the undergrowth past ankle height. My eyes scan from charred tree trunk to tree trunk as I search up the steep pitch of the draw. Now amongst the barking chaos I hear rustling and scratching and from the false flat I see it. Movement. All has been still since their alarm sounded and I’ve been waiting for any movement to hone in on.
It comes bombing from the canopy up the draw from me, diving with a fierce force. Wings locked in place with a purpose. The hawk takes me by surprise, not by its presence for all signs pointed to it being there, but by the fluidity in which it appears and manipulates the air. It quickly soars my direction, it’s head focused toward the uneven ground and went for a squirrel sitting still on some boulders. Talons out stretched ready to snatch their prey miss for its flight speed looks too momentous, or it doesn’t calculate the side step and scamper of the squirrel. Undeterred, the hawk adjusts and gains several feet in altitude. Now the squirrel alarm barks are louder than I’ve ever heard and in these few seconds I find myself rooting for them, rooting for what is obviously (to me) the underdogs. Course corrected and honing in on the barks, the hawk dives for a squirrel in an oak not 15 yards down the draw from me. Mid tree, the squirrel races upward causing the hawk’s wings to adjust. This isn’t the squirrel’s first escape and maneuvering run, for he starts to corkscrew down the tree. In milliseconds the hawk is at the tree following suit, downward spiraling in tow of the squirrel with smooth controlled agility. Both squirrel and hawk circle around the tree three times before the squirrel hits the bottom and disappears in a hole. The hawk just lands on a near by rock, scanning. I sit still listening to the alarm system quiet down to infrequent barks and I almost shout in triumph that the prey out maneuvered the predator. As the hawk effortlessly rises to perch on a branch near me, the thought hits me that it and I are dancing the same dance, yet I do not want it to succeed. We’re both hunting, yet I’m rooting for the prey to get away. Not because I want all the squirrel hunting to myself, but because, even as a hunter, I still misunderstand how life unfolds in the wild.
The natural world doesn’t adhere to my rules or thoughts or human desire. What I realize while sitting in this draw, watching this hawk scan for his next meal, is that I’m not out here to take sides in life, and not to just be amongst it, but to experience and be apart of it. I eat meat every day of my adult life and it would be an up-sell to say that five-percent of it has been collected by my hands. That’s an odd thing to really think about. I’ve grown up in a society where we’ve lost contact of where our food comes from and the difficult reality that a life ends so that we can live. Even as a hunter, I’m still entrenched with the thought of wanting that squirrel to live when a predator comes in search of food; the desire of it’s escape feels embedded in my subconscious. I desired the escape of the squirrel from the hawk because of the way I’ve been raised—nurtured in a society where I didn’t have to grow or hunt or care for a herd so that I could eat. Or witness the last breath of an animal and watch as it transforms through the butchering process into delicious food. It’s messy, life and death, predator and prey.
For years, I didn’t have a thought of the pig or the butcher when I’d fry bacon that I bought from the supermarket. Hell, I didn’t even think of the work I did to get a paycheck in order to purchase the meat (or produce). I’d bet most people don’t, unless they hunted the animal, dispatched it, butchered, and prepared the meal, or picked the vegetable from the garden they tend. I was removed from the process and that removal stole away the notion that sustaining life is brutal and takes real effort. My removal from the process dulled my senses to what my life costs the world around me and left me ignorant to the efforts a plate full of food is built upon. I would go to a restaurant and not think twice about how the food got to my plate. My only concern was how quickly I could satiate my hunger. This way of life made me fat and soft, because I didn’t have to earn what I ate. The only skill needed was reading the menu or inserting my debit card. In bypassing the process, I bypassed struggle, hardship, and adversity. But I also bypassed the choice to choose perseverance, to endure, and to overcome. This bypass made my life easier and more comfortable, but also removed opportunities where I could struggle, and in turn, grow. It’s natural to put sweat equity and effort into living, and quite unnatural to have meat served to you without ever seeing the animal alive—breathing, eating, running. The journey from land to table is beautiful and painstakingly difficult. Shouldn’t it be since a life is taken? There should be struggle, sweat, wits, strength, and skill involved. However, most Americans are like I was, lulled into quick fixes and consumption, with no mind to the cost. Naturally, rediscovery leads to thinking differently, yet it’s from this lingering nurtured mindset that I root for the squirrel and not the chase of the hawk. Both are acting instinctively and sadly, so was I.
I come out to hunt the mountains because it’s hard. I have squirrels in my suburban yard and could choose to shoot them from my window. No I come to the mountains for more, to cleanse my mind of modernity and rediscover my natural instincts. I choose to hunt to be a part of the wild, not just observe it. I choose the roll of predator because I grew tired of being a passive one. I come out to experience the lessons the wild teaches, and to experience the beauty and hardship nature provides. During summers as a child I wandered around our family farm searching the cave where the bear supposedly lived or lay listening to the layered howls of coyotes at night, and both fear and wonder took hold of me identically; fear of the unknown and wonder for the possibility of discovering a glimpse of them. As an adult the fear has lessened but the wonder has intensified. How is it that these creatures survive? How is it that we’ve grown past the need to hunt and gather, and have we lost a part of ourselves now that we don’t? I wonder what it would take to sustain my life, not in society but in being alive?
I inch a little closer to the answers when experiencing an owl greeting dawn on a calm, brisk January morning and actively chasing my own food. In listening to the leaves rustle in the slight breeze and getting lost in watching squirrels chase each other around the draw. In observing a true hunter as it soars the sky, eyes always scanning. Witnessing the vividness of life in the Appalachian mountains: the sobering reality that both death and decay lead way to life and everything is made sweeter because of struggle. I still don’t enjoy death—for who really does—but I don’t make the rules out here. I only choose to be an active participant, and demand that I find the beauty in its order and cyclical chaos.
High on his perch, scanning for minutes on end, the hawk zeros in. He launches himself from the branch with each feather almost glittering in the rays of sunlight. There’s no alarm system sounding, just the powerful thrusts of his wings combusting through the air. They straighten and then arch and then move vertical. His talons clamp down on a squirrel as his body wars with gravity. Having succeeded, he quickly pushes off the ground, both wounding the squirrel and creating distance between the earth and his wings. His calculated instincts leave me in awe. He lands across the draw and begins to feed. Sounds of agony fill the mountain air. An hour later I climb to the top of the ridge where I’ve spotted three squirrels rummaging through the leaves. Four shots and two misses. There’s no sound after my shots other than my heavy breathing. It’s time to hike back to my unfaithful truck, and wage an internal debate on whether I’ll fry or bake these two little fellas who’s tails bounce off my thigh with each step.