Deer camp.

As I sit in my treestand, 20 feet above the ground in a mature maple, I am in awe of the beauty around me. The light filters through the gold and red canopy above me, spilling onto the musky forest floor. It feels like I am in a cathedral. I am sitting here practicing being still and mindful only of my surroundings, but I am overcome with gratitude and wonder.

I begin to think ancient thoughts. Thoughts about how mankind has connected to nature and how in the beginning man learned everything he needed to know from animals. He learned to make calls imitating birds and studied the movements and patterns of four leggeds. He learned to hunt by watching larger carnivorous animals. And ultimately, he learned that he needed them to survive. 

This need translated to a closer connection. In order to eat, he had to understand the animals or plants that he could use to nurture himself—and often times learned from experience which organisms could make him sick or kill him, either with tooth and fang or simply through his stomach. 

I hypothesize that primitive man was in some way “grateful” for his successful hunt, although he probably didn’t sit around and pray about it. He just felt it. Food is good. I need food to survive. Therefore, I need animals and plants so they become important to me. I rely on them. 

As I am pondering these possibilities I drift into my own analysis of why I hunt now, when it would be so much easier to go to the grocery store and purchase the vegetables and meat I need. But do I feel any connection to this food? Am I grateful for it? I may be grateful that I have enough money for the purchase, but am I grateful for the animal or plant? Have I studied its habitat and patterns? Do I honor and respect its life? 

When I hunt, I feel love. Love for the woods. Love for the breeze. Love for the sunset and the trees. Love for the sound of the geese flying high overhead. Love for the animal I am seeking. 

I am filled with an appreciation of all that surrounds me and for who I am as a part of it. I am both insignificant and valuable at the same time. My value is no greater than and no lesser than that of the animals, the plants, and the sun that warms my face. I am at one with my universe. It is then that the universe rewards me with what I need. 

A doe steps into the open space beneath my stand. She looks over her shoulder with a maternal glance. Following her is a smallish fawn, no doubt delivered late in the spring. The fawn follows its mother directly under my tree. I watch in utter amazement as they work their way past my ladder. I am invisible. 

They sense no threat from me and thus their sixth sense accepts my presence as something natural. They wander off behind my stand, and I say a prayer of thanks to the Great Spirit for their visit. 

At the edge of the field that abuts the woods, a gray squirrel squeals loudly at something I cannot see. A twig snaps. My heart races. 

I practice breathing like I had never done it before. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Conscious of every breath. Through the tangles that envelop the ditch leading to the field, I catch a glimpse of motion. Brown motion. Then suddenly a stomp and a loud blowing sound. The wind has switched direction, and this animal, this deer, smells something that is unfamiliar in these woods. Behind an old oak, I see a head lift and the sun glints off of a set of gorgeous antlers. 

Another stomp and blow. The buck is looking right at my tree. He is out of range for my bow.  

He lifts his head up into the pillar of light and scans up the tree until our eyes are locked on one another. 

I wait. Measured breathing. Not blinking. We are joined in a primitive moment. 

I can see his chest expanding and contracting with mine. 

Suddenly, his tail swishes from side to side. He turns his head to the west and begins to slowly walk away from me toward the field. 

The sun sets and the birds get quiet. I sit down in my seat and take a deep breath. I say out loud “Thank you Great Spirit for my brother’s visit.” I have received a gift of beauty and wonder this evening that will remain as a memory for the rest of my life. And I am grateful.

Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor Mentoring, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.