In coastal California, the change of the seasons is a somewhat subtle affair. The grass, on the rolling hills, simply pales from green to brown. Lacking the hardwoods of the east coast, or the bite of winter that is found in the mid-west, in the aptly named Golden State temperature goes from mildly cold to mildly hot. Green surrounds us all year long. This humble cycle repeats itself every year.
My good friend Sean Marchetti and I, joined by our nine-year-old sons, were hunting blacktail doe with Jim and TinaMarie Schaafsma in the coastal hills of Northern California. Jim’s property consists of 24,000 acres; it is some of the most beautiful, some of the most diverse, property California can offer the bowhunter.
We found ourselves in an abandoned apple orchard, the only flat spot of earth on an otherwise eastern sloped hillside. Below us, about a half mile down the hill, was a large field bordered by conifers. To the south, running the entire length of the hillside, a deep craggy drainage bordered by bay laurel trees ran in a west–east direction.
Jim figured there would be deer in the field below us. “Just stay here, Jarrod.” He swirled his hand towards the field and back, “We’ll walk down the hill and drive the deer back up here to you.” Deferring to Jim’s expertise, I agreed.
Jim, Sean, and the boys slowly made their way down the hill, and I crossed through the apple orchard on my way to a likely ambush spot. I noticed that the trees were weighed heavily with fruit; the lower branches had already been plucked off by deer, so I reached my recurve into the higher branches, and pulled the apples by the stem in the space between my bowstring and limb-tip. From three pulls came three apples. I polished them on my shirtsleeve, thinking them treasures, and stowed the apples in my pants cargo pocket.
I then set to the task of finding an impromptu blind; it would take the shape of a recently fallen bay tree. I cleared away fallen leaves, checked shooting lanes, and finally kneeled down behind the elbow of a branch. Pulling an apple from my pocket, a watercolor-wash of greens, yellows, and reds, I bit into it. The apple cracked like dry core-wood. I quickly reduced the apple to little more than a ball of seed and stem. Still surrounded by evergreens, this modest apple was a reminder to me that it was autumn.
Through binoculars, I watched Saxton and his friend Nico bouncing about just behind Sean and Jim. I smiled, understanding that, while they were missing school this week to participate in this hunt, they were learning more here, today, than they would from sitting in a classroom. Eventually they all faded into the line of timber that bordered the field.
A rise just below my position would serve as a natural funnel. This funnel, hopefully, would take the deer to a heavily used trail that was 15 yards from my position. I nocked an arrow, pulled my bow to anchor a few times to warm up my muscles, then leaned the bow into the trunk of the tree. I continued to glass the field looking for evidence of deer or my hunting partners.
I heard them first, the unmistakable staccato jabs of bounding deer making their way in my direction. I picked up my bow. Tension formed on the bowstring. The first deer to arrive was a yearling that passed broadside, a mere 10 yards from me, wholly unaware of my presence. “Nope. Too young,” I said to myself.
A mature doe was next to arrive, but she did not offer a broadside shot. Three does trotted by; in a predraw, I led them with my bow, but they offered nothing but unethical frontal shots. Then, nothing more. I listened intently. Nothing.
I stayed put, hoping for a straggler, feeling a bit dejected that I was unable to pull off a shot on an otherwise well-constructed drive.
I was drawn to motion coming from the ridge of the wash that was just to my right. I spun on my knee to see the head of a deer emerge from the drainage. This was not a contingency that I had planned for, nor was it one that I would have thought a possibility. I began pulling the bowstring. The deer crested the ridge, turned, just broadside, and stood for a beat. The arrow hit its mark, the deer spilling back into the drainage. There was thrashing; then it was quiet again. I pulled an arrow from my bowquiver and set it in the ground to mark the spot where I had last seen the deer.
I looked down the hill though my binoculars for Jim, Sean, and the boys. I found them, though they were still a few hundred yards away. I waved my bow above my head to get their attention. Seeing me, their collective pace quickened; the boys began running, somehow understanding the importance of the moment. They were speaking in whispers, “Did you get one?”
“Yeah, right over there.” I said to them, pointing up the hill. “We’ll give the shot a bit of time.” They looked at each other then back to me, “But,” Nico spoke up, asked in a whisper, “why do we have to wait?”
“Oh,” I started, seeing their confusion, “we need to wait to allow the arrow to do its work. If we go after the deer right now, and if she’s not down, she will see us and run.” I poked Nico’s nose gently and smiled, “…And run.”
Nico and Saxton looked worried, as if their suggestion, itself, would make the deer run off. “But, if we wait, do you know what will happen?” They shook their heads.
“If we wait, the deer will simply lie down.” Kneeling down to their level, I held my hands as if to say, “What should we do?”
“I think we should stay here.” Saxton said. Nico agreed. The boys, obviously excited, looked at each other, and then looked back to me, applauding silently.
I relayed the story to Jim and Sean. Sean, as is his usual manner, bobbed his head knowingly, and said, “I knew you would get one. I just had a feeling it was going to happen.” I laughed, appreciating his undeserved confidence.
JJ, Jim’s blood-trailing wonder dog, was in tow; Jim took him to the arrow that I used to mark the spot where I had hit the deer. Jim, putting JJ’s nose to the spot, tapped his finger to the ground, “Here, JJ!” JJ happily bounced down the drainage. Even before I could take my first step, there was an excited bark from JJ.
“He’s already found it!” Jim said, excited.
As I climbed down the drainage, I found large puddles of blood. Following the blood trail, I came to find the doe piled among an exposed root ball of a bay tree. “Found her!” I said from the bottom of the steep wash.
Introducing a suburban child to the reality of the inevitable end of a successful hunt is a risky affair. For the suburban child, to be, suddenly, put in touch with the fact that their lives require another creature to die can be overwhelming. Modern society hides this reality of one’s dependence from the suburban child: a cow is called “beef”, a pig is called “pork”, and the poor chicken is reduced to “nuggets”. This erroneous vocabulary turns the animal into a product to be put into a foam tray, wrapped in cellophane, and displayed under neon lights, all with the purpose of distancing the human from the animal whose life they depend on for their own. Having been sheltered from this reality, finally confronting the animal in the hunt produces guilt. And these feelings are, indeed, as old as the hunt itself. And where, for the child of a hunting culture, are rituals that provide meaning for the hunt, a suburban child has none.
My son, Saxton was still making his way down the wash among the twisted, exposed roots of the bay trees. He knelt down beside me taking in the moment and the accomplishment that was the product of the entire group. Saxton, quietly, patted the deer on her side; blood covered his hand. Somewhat alarmed at this, he looked to me. I smiled an ‘it’s OK’, putting an arm across his shoulder, allowing him to take in the moment.
Surrounding us were subtle reminders of autumn. I reached into my pocket and removed one of the apples that I had picked from the tree. I cut a slice of the apple and placed it in the deer’s mouth, gently patting her muzzle, understanding that this deer’s autumn had just turned to winter. Saxton smiled, somehow understanding the profound abstraction that was this moment.