Dark and bloody ground is one translation for the word Kentucky. The 14th state was a hunting ground for numerous Indian nations, though no one group controlled any significant portion of it during the first white settlement of the 18th century. Once, as a teenager, I found an arrowhead lying along the bank of a small creek. It was black chert, cool in my hand, and I stood there under a steely autumn sky trying to think of who may have shot it.
If you spend time among the knobs and gorges of Kentucky you can never doubt the deep age of this land. The eastern part of the state is the last wrinkle of the Appalachians. Dark and brooding hills, fiercely lush in summer, a landscape of skeletal dreams and grey chimney smoke in the winter. The central part of the state, my home, the land north of the Cumberland River and south of the Ohio, is sprinkled with knobs that rise from ancient river valleys. Knobs are the remains of a once great dome that bulged skyward during the cataclysmic origin of the Appalachians. Forests cling to the steep knobs like delicate green veils and tendrils of fog slide down through the hollows to merge with the mists over the numerous streams.
Opening day of turkey season in Kentucky is in mid-April. Winter is technically over but the weather can be fickle and this particular opening day was frosty cold. The wind was out of the north and in the pre-dawn hours the sky was as clear as I’ve ever seen it as I pulled away from the house. I was to meet my buddy Murphy at a farm we had recently gotten permission to hunt. The section of the farm we would be hunting was a field perched high above the valley of a small river. The field was a narrow grassy finger with sharp drops on each side. Turkeys were roosting along the field edge with a thousand feet of sky behind them. Murphy was going to be hunting with a shotgun. I had my bow and arrow, a blind, and a couple of decoys.
Murphy and I sipped some coffee beside a tilted old barn before we went our separate ways that opening morning. Murphy is a pastor who God called to live beside one of the largest WMAs in the state, not to mention about two miles from a boat ramp. He and I have attained, through the graces of employment and pleasant wives, the kind of flexible schedules that allow for the occasional weekday outing. But since opening day was on a Saturday we thought we would get out a little earlier than we probably had too, just in case anyone else was thinking about hunting that field.
Before even the faintest pink of morning touched the sky we were set up, Murphy out on the tip of the finger, in the woods, and myself in a patch of broom-sage on a rise. I popped up the blind, staked out the decoys, and promptly settled into my folding chair for another cup of coffee from the thermos. I saw a shooting star and heard coyotes as the steam from my coffee rose toward the fuzzy arc of the Milky Way.
Dawn would come quickly under such a clear sky so I climbed into my blind and laid out my box and slate calls where they would be easy to reach. When the first light began to slowly flood into the field the turkeys started to fly down without much ceremony. With a parachuting flap of their wings and dull thump onto the nearly frozen earth, each turkey made their way into the field. It was still too dark to shoot, but this day was already good.
I try to hunt year round in Kentucky. The whisper of the bow seems to grow a little louder each year and I find my rod and reels getting less use. Trying to make meat with the bow calls me closer to the stories played out on each dappled spot of forest floor. The tracks, and scat, and tuffs of hair, or half eaten nuts all are stanzas in this poem written in dark Kentucky earth. Layers of Paleozoic lime under gird the ground we walk on. Kick the soil in the knobs and you’ll unearth the fossils of an ancient sea, fossils that were laid down when the strange mysteries of tectonics caused North America to meander along the equator. Crinoids, brachiopods, and other shelled organisms make up the bulk of the fossils. The crinoids are my favorite. Relatives of starfish, their fossils look like stone Cheerios. Occasionally someone stumbles across the bones of a primitive fish. The bones of the hills are primordial coral reefs, frozen in the limestone.
My archery year starts the first weekend of September. Deer season opens in the hot, hazy last days of summer and ends in the icy dark of January. I climb trees or hunker in my blind throughout this long season, waiting patiently to hear the footfalls of whitetail. From my ambush spots I’m privy to the ship of the seasons sailing one more time around our sun. The slow rain of leaves to the forest floor and the barking of squirrels are the background music to the rolling over of the year. The verdant woods grow dimmer and grayer each passing day of whitetail season. The streams flow more black and cold.
If the timeline of deer season tracks the great and slow move to a world slumbering under the skies of winter, then turkey season is that same world’s awakening. The flames of redbud begin to kindle along the sides of the knobs first, then come shocks of white dogwood flowers, and finally daubs of Bob Ross green emerge above the forest floor, giving the knobs the look of a newly started oil canvas. Each new filament of life reaches for the warming light of spring from the dark and limey earth below.
The late winter woods can be as quiet as a cathedral tomb but spring is a riot of noise. Juncos seem to flit in each bush. Downy woodpeckers and sapsuckers defy gravity by walking as they please among the vertical trunks of the forest, pecking to find the newly wriggling larvae of beetles. In the meadows larks poke their heads up above the greening grass and along the edges of ponds redwing blackbirds perch in the swaying cattails. Male turkeys gobble and strut displaying their considerable iridescent plumage in the hopes of pulling a hen to them.
Shooting light finally arrived that opening morning and just as it did an uproarious gobble sounded from just to the left of my decoys. I carefully opened one of the blind’s side shooting ports and could plainly see an enormous gobbler in full strut, his wing tips dragging the ground. He was within range but I knew Murphy was hunting in that direction. Steve Martin looked funny with an arrow through his head but I don’t think a skewered Presbyterian minister would have the same comedic effect. I called softly to the big bird trying to lure him to the front of the blind. He would answer back with a banging gobble then strut a bit more, seemingly very happy with the current stage he had chosen to perform on.
After about ten minutes the great bird wandered off. I picked up a slate call and did my best imitation of a hen looking for love. Another ten minutes or so passed when I noticed the snaking heads of two birds making a gentle rise in the field. They spotted my decoys and made a beeline for this plastic bachelorette party I had set up. It was full daylight by now. There were a couple of gun shots in the distance, someone was going home with a bird. There were gobbles in the ridges all around and I kept waiting for Murphy’s 3 ½ inch load to thunder out into the morning.
The gobblers closed on my decoys. My fingers tensed on the bowstring and I canted the bow preparing for the awkward draw inside the blind. The twin gobblers took turns sounding off for the hens and I could only wonder what they were thinking as my imposters twirled mindlessly on their stakes.
I’ve found the killing of an animal with a bow to be such a unique experience that I believe, and have told my gun toting friends, that it changes your brain. A bow kill is deliberate, thought about, as slow in my mind as the ooze of sap from a tree. The first deer I took with a bow I had the feeling of a spider perched above her, lightly holding the instrument of her death against the shelf of the bow. She was unaware as I drew, as I picked a spot, as the arrow streaked away and appeared on the other side of her after it had deflated her lungs. All of which must have happened within a second but in my minds eye the actions were so deliberate that I could see the hair of the deer ripple as she tensed her muscles to stoop for another acorn. In my mind’s eye it was a cool and slow eternity playing itself out on the Kentucky loam.
Both gobblers hung just outside my effective range. Something caught the interest of one and he sped off toward another corner of the high field. The remaining gobbler gave half hearted struts and answered my calls with strained reflex instead of the booming gobbles of the first bird that morning. I called back, making seductive purrs and clucks on the slate. Finally he drifted closer. I drew, anchored, picked a spot and then as if it had a will of its own the arrow flashed from the dark of the blind, its shaft now appeared on both sides of the bird. A good hit. He flopped and cart wheeled in the field, a flurry of feathers and shaft and point. Then burning through the last of his life he did the thing I never thought he would do. There was one small gap in the trees on the ridge, a precipice where even the most tenacious tree roots couldn’t find purchase. The mortally struck bird ran toward the gap and then hurtled off into the space above the Rolling Fork river valley. Recovery would be difficult.
I folded the blind and began the search. The hill was too steep for me to walk on much of it and I couldn’t spot any sign of the bird at all. I looked for hours, scaling up and down the sheer sides of the bluff. The bird was lost and the melancholy feeling that each bow hunter must at some point know began to well up in me. Murphy kindly gave up some of his morning hunt to help me look for the turkey, eventually he had to leave to go to his son’s ballgame, never having fired a shot. I continued to work the ridgeline until the last of hope of recovery slowly petered out.
I’ve caught fish where herons or turtles had taken chunks from them. I once watched a hawk drop a live snake in mid-air. A friend of mine took a coyote with only three legs. In the fields and out among the knobs hunting is not a balanced equation for any predator. There are missed opportunities, short striking talons and beaks, and the pangs of hunger or the torture of thirst when the seasons themselves won’t cooperate. No creature is isolated from the scratches and scars of a life where tooth and claw decide living and dying and protein is the precious currency. None of this makes it any easier losing an animal.
I pictured the bird somewhere down off the limestone bluff, returning feather and bone back to the earth through the feeding of coyotes and buzzards. My sleep was restless and fitful that night and I thought of the poem “Peace of Wild Things” by the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry and asked in my own way for forgiveness for losing the bird.
“…I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
In the fourteenth state, the earth is dark and the skin of the hills is held up by the skeleton of a long ago ocean. The stone and steel points of arrows lie hidden among the dark places from archers ancient and modern. As a bowhunter I stalk among the wrinkles of stone and walk along the edge of the vast gorge and I know I too must fade as the lost feathers. I give thanks for each hour between the awakening of dawn and the long sleep of dusk. Despite failing and feelings of loss, it is this simple truth that draws me back to days afield with stick and string.
Eric Hardin is a native Kentuckian. He lives in Lebanon with his wife Kim and three kids. Eric works as a financial advisor for a large firm who would frown upon his use of the words “flexible schedule.”