The first time my dad took me hunting with him, I was afraid of what would happen. I couldn’t have been more than six, and he took me out one fine spring morning to sit with him in the woods while he hunted. It had to have been May: spring turkey season. In New York State that means bearded (male) birds only, from dawn to noon.
Dad loved sharing his passion for the outdoors with me. He’d been taking me for walks in the woods with him since I was a baby, and I’d been fishing with him since my earliest days of memory. This would be the first time accompanying him on a hunt, though, and I didn’t know what to expect. Loud noises had always frightened me as a child; I would not even tolerate balloons popping, and fireworks were too loud for me even when I wore earplugs and shooting-range earmuffs.
How, then, could I handle sitting next to him when he fired his shotgun? At the shooting range I always wore earmuffs, and even then I thought the guns were too loud. His 10-gauge in particular made a raucous boom. There would be no earmuffs this time. You don’t wear earmuffs while listening for your quarry, and you can’t put them on before taking the shot.
All of this was at the forefront of my mind as we walked quietly across the neighbor’s hay field and towards the woods together. Farther back in my mind, I was worried about the death of the bird. I’ve always loved animals, but would run eagerly out to see the prize whenever Dad came home from a successful hunt. It was sad for the animal, but a happy time for the family. Death is part of conservation and population management, he explained. And wild game has a fresh, earthy taste that you’ll never get from a store or farm.
Bundled warmly and cloaked in camouflage, I followed my dad into the woods, gut twisting and heart pounding. We set the turkey decoys out and I sat beside him at the base of a large tree. Once we were settled, he made a few clucks on his turkey call. And then we waited.
Be still and quiet.
The woods were still and quiet.
Don’t fidget. Be patient.
The animals were patient. It took them time to come out of hiding after the disturbance of our arrival.
The creatures of the forest were good at looking and listening. I watched birds and squirrels scurry and flap and sniff. I watched them behold the world around them with their shiny black eyes. I watched chipmunks run through the leaves, and heard the agitated tittering of a gray squirrel. But where are the turkeys?
“Should you call again?” I asked my dad. It seemed an eternity had passed since we sat down, but any length of time is an eternity to a child.
“Not too much. Real turkeys don’t make a lot of noise,” he whispered, always so perfectly quiet but completely audible. I thought it was odd that turkeys didn’t make a lot of noise since there were so many different calls that they could make.
Dad called with yelps, clucks, and purrs. We waited. I thought surely the birds would be here soon. I still had mixed feelings about that. The sooner they showed up, the sooner I could leave. Once we had a bird, I wouldn’t have to sit still in the chilly spring air. Before going home with a turkey, though, there had to be a “bang”.
Initially, each scurrying squirrel or cawing crow grabbed my attention. A scuffle, a squeak. Anything might actually be a turkey. Sparrows chirped on tree limbs and hopped over the ground, chickadees flew through the dappled sunlight that filtered through the trees. It was fascinating, for a time, to simply watch the creatures exist. I turned my head a little too much, looking at everything, observing each little animal move through the forest. But they were not turkeys.
My fingertips got cold and I put my hands in my pockets. My backside grew numb, and I slowly moved my legs to a new position. I knew I was supposed to sit as still as possible since turkeys have excellent eyesight, but I couldn’t help but squirm in discomfort and boredom. I wiggled my fingers in my gloves and my toes in my boots. At this point, turkeys might as well be a mythical creature. There was nothing to see or hear but songbirds, squirrels, and crows. Hunger poked at my belly, and sleepiness weighted on my eyelids.
Then Dad whispered, “Did you hear that?” No. I snapped to attention and listened, adrenaline renewing my senses. “There! Turkeys!” Really? Yes, those were turkey sounds. They came from behind me, to Dad’s right, somewhere far away. I tried to sit still. Dad called again, just a little, and we waited with anticipation. I began to get nervous once more, my boredom replaced by anxiety. There were turkeys nearby, they were calling to us, and then Dad might shoot one. I knew I was supposed to sit still and move only my eyes, or very slowly turn my head, but I couldn’t force myself to be still and slow. I looked around, scanning the forest floor for any motion, and straining to hear if the turkeys were any closer.
“I’m cold,” I said in a whiny little whisper.
“Can you wait a little more?”
More turkey sounds. I squirmed. My heart was thumping to a rapid tempo in my chest. Loud noises aren’t so bad if you’re the one in control of them, but when someone else is able to make them you never know just when the sound will happen. All the waiting and brooding over this moment had made it more exciting and frightening than it might have been at the beginning of the day. I fidgeted again, secretly hoping the turkeys would go away.
I got my wish.
Whether the turkeys saw me or not I’ll never know, but they chose not to come within sight that day. Their sounds receded until we heard no more for some time. I think Dad was hoping they would come back, or that perhaps they were coming in slowly and quietly, but they were gone. I felt equally relieved and guilty that we hadn’t gotten to see them.
“Can we go home now?”
Next time I would be more brave.
I’ve had many hunts since then, but that was the only time I didn’t want to see my quarry! I learned to tolerate loud noises, and realized how the adrenaline of the hunt can erase the fear of noise and recoil. I also learned the patience and stillness of the hunt. Most of my time spent hunting is spent in complete stillness, simply waiting with attentive eyes and ears. There is nothing quite so humbling as being outsmarted by wildlife, and no better teacher of virtues such as patience, perseverance, dedication, and determination than Mother Nature. Now I walk the forest with a light tread, open eyes and listening ears. A hunter’s skills are valuable among society as well: look, listen, wait. That is how I learned the wisdom of the woods.