Autumn: A hunter’s greatest blessing

As September slips away, summer releases its warm grip. Days begin to cool off, and the Canada geese fly with joy for their migration. Gray squirrels scamper across the forest floor, picking through the white and red acorns and the occasional hickory or butternut. The leaves begin to show the promise of fall as they turn miraculous shades of gold and red, draping canopies over the backroads.

To stroll down a dirt road with walls of gold, orange and reds feels like walking in the hallway of an ancient castle. Evenings start to get downright chilly, and hunters of all types can be seen quickening their pace to get those last summer chores finished. Autumn is a hunter’s greatest blessing. There are puffball mushrooms, hen of the woods and chicken of the woods to be discovered in the shaded woods. Maybe even a chaga.

I like to walk through the hardwoods with my .22 rifle and find a majestic old oak to sit under. I slow my breathing and begin observing the world around me. The smell of the forest floor, musty and pungent. I breathe in deeply, the smell of fresh earth stinging my nostrils. With a west wind I can smell the lake turning over its cold water, exchanging it for the warmer surface water. The fragrance of hickory nuts and beechnuts are welcome harbingers of autumn. In the distance, woodsmoke from someone’s firepit, celebrating the last rites of summer. A cerulean sky above me, I begin to drift into a transcendental state.

Suddenly, above me, I hear a chip-chip-chipping sound and see the large, still-green leaves rustle at the top of the tree across the path. My eyes strain to seek the maker of this movement. Small pieces of brown dust float down to the ground from on high. I know what it is that makes these movements.

Squinting, I can make out a flicker of a gray tail between the crotch of a branch and the trunk of the old tree. I raise my .22 and peer through the 4x power scope. Searching through the leaves, I cannot see my target. Out of the silence that binds the two of us, a loud trilling sound emerges from the highest branches. I can hear him. I can see his movements shaking the leaves and branches to knock the epicurean delights from their stems, sending them plummeting to the ground. Plunk. Plunk. One of the acorns lands right in my lap and I laugh to myself. What if this old bushytail scurries down the tree and tried to take this morsel right off my leg?

These little clowns of the hardwoods are so gregarious when they are without fear. My big guy lights up the woods with a loud chattering, telling all the other gray squirrels that this is his territory and he’s got dibs on all these luscious acorns. Soon the woods around me begin to echo with squirrel chatter, each bushytail claiming its own boundary. It feels as though I am surrounded. I hear scampering and scratching on the forest floor behind me, then to my left, then to my right. The feed is on!

Patiently, I begin to practice my breathing. Slowing it down. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Quietly. Steadily. As my blood pressure builds inside me, my breathing keeps me calm and prepared. On the tree in front of me I get a glance of a gray head peering around the side of the oak about 30 feet up on the trunk. He stares right at me, but I do not move. I am covered head to toe in 3D camouflage. Only my eyes move, and then I try not to blink. The head disappears and spirals around the back side of the trunk. I raise my rifle and wait. Breath in. Breathe out. Steady hands. Right eye just ½” behind the eyepiece of the scope. I scan the tree trunk and wait.
Suddenly, ten feet higher, he walks out on a limb and sits, flicking his big tail side to side, chewing on a nut. He has presented himself to me, and it is time to claim his spirit as my own. As I squeeze the trigger, I say out loud “Thank you, brother.” Tonight, we will have a Brunswick stew with sautéed puffball mushrooms.

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