When I was a young man—well, actually more of a child than a man—I spent a lot of time in trees. I loved to climb high up into the canopy and feel the wind blowing over my ears, making that whispering sound that only leaves and poets can interpret.

On stormy days I would climb to the top of a tall pine tree and hold on to the trunk like it was my only connection to anything solid and earthbound. I would feel the rain stinging on my face and the whole tree would rock back and forth in the powerful wind. I never felt afraid, but I did feel a strange appreciation for life. I was resting in Mother Nature’s cradle and felt more alive than when I was grounded.

I was also a terrible athlete in the traditional sports of western Pennsylvania: baseball, football and basketball. If you didn’t excel in one of those you were kind of an anomaly to the region. Since my father owned the Little League team, I had to play at least two innings a game, so they stuck me in right field where few youngsters could place a well-hit ball. I would stand there with my glove covering my face and pray that our competitor’s team would not hit anything in my direction. I would stand there as long as I had to and dream of when the game was over, climbing back up in my tree and feeling like I belonged again.

Years later my father took me hunting, and I discovered that if I climbed a tree the animals would not see me (except for friendly chickadees and the avuncular red squirrel, who chided me for trying to hang out in his neighborhood). On the earth below I watched animals going about their business while I, feeling no particular aggressive intention, sat above in the limbs and learned about their lives. I saw bobcats hunting rabbits, ruffed grouse drumming for their mate on a mossy old log, bushytailed gray squirrels hoarding acorns in tree cavities, and, once in a while, an innocent-looking doe or fawn would pass under my tree, feeding on beechnuts and checking the constantly changing thermal breezes. She would hold her head up into the air, lick her nose to sensitize it for smell detection, and then inhale the soft autumn breeze.

Sitting in a tree I learned not only the ways of my animal brethren but also the feeling that I belonged. I belonged here—with them. I wanted to know them all like they were my family. I felt a strong desire to possess the grace and awareness of the whitetail, the cunning of the fox and the sense of direction of the geese as they flew overhead. 

It was in my tree that I began to wonder—if all these characteristics are actually some Divine Entity’s energy, how do I bring it into my life, my body? If, as science has proven, that energy never dies but merely transforms into another form, then where does this energy go when consumed? Do vegetables give me energy? Do eggs give me energy? What kind of energy? Might it be the energy of the animal or plant that lived? If that were true, and I consume the wild asparagus, the puffball mushroom, the fiddlehead or the ramps I pick every spring, do I also benefit from their beauty and the magic that made them grow? Taken further, if I consume the flesh of a brook trout from high in the mountains, where the water is cold and pure, will my spirit then radiate the spectacular beauty of its habitat? If the deer below me presents itself to me when it is my intention to become one with its grace and wonder, will I then also radiate that in my spirit if I consume its flesh/energy?

So, I am now 59 years old and I am sitting 25 feet up in a maple tree, in a treestand with a strong safety belt tied to that earthbound trunk, and I have to wonder, “Am I here to kill something? Or am I here to nourish my spirit and my body by connecting to my animal brethren?” If my intention is to kill, chances are that the deer spirit will sense danger and not walk toward me. 

I close my eyes and pray. When I open them, he is standing in front of me, broadside and still, looking out toward the distant hills. His antlers glow in the early autumn sun. I watch as he raises his head and licks his nose, inhaling the same cool clean air that we both share. We breathe in at the same moment and exhale in time. My heartbeat is in rhythm with his. I feel nothing but love as I draw my bow. We are one.

Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.