On Saturday morning, Peter and I put on our blaze orange vests, and took a walk together in the woods behind our house.
There's an old woods road back there, maintained by the local snow mobile club, and used by the vocational school's forestry program, as well as various hikers and hunters. Since bear season is in progress now, I often see a jeep parked at the top of the V.A. Center's access road, the most common point of entry. There's a muddy spot there made by the action of tires coming and going, but otherwise, the road is paved with leaves, generally in a loose, ruffled layer.
When we were out this morning, however, we noted that the leaves were flattened--clearly there had been vehicles driving farther along the road than is normally the case.
There were other signs to be read in the road, too. I'd told Peter of a recent discovery, of a scenic outlook off a spur trail, an abandoned logging road that branched away from the main woods road to the east, and how I'd found many, many disturbed areas in the leaves. At first I had wondered if it was the deer; I'd been surprised last winter to discover how like rock stars wrecking a five-star hotel a group of deer could be, rummaging down through snow to churn up layers of (presumably warmer) leaves beneath.
But it is only November, and the weather has been mild. There is no snow, and the rut has not yet properly even begun. Deer yarding up made no sense to me. And yet, there was such extensive disturbance among the leaves.
I had noticed that in many of the disturbed places, the leaves had been raked back to expose the bottommost layer of leaves--the ones that, blanched and fragile, are perhaps one winter away from crumbling entirely into the black soil that lies beneath them. And I noticed that in many of those places, I could see the small, deep holes of burrowing insects--rooting for food in the leaf mulch in just the way you can nearly always find a few squirming bugs under an overturned log or stone.
Was the disturbance the work of an animal, hunting for grubs and insects to eat?
Could the animal possibly be a bear? Eating grubs seemed more in character for a porcupine or a skunk, but bears are surely working to pack on all the pounds they can, this late in the fall. And there were an awful lot of churned-up leaves.
That morning, walking along the woods road, we found more areas of disturbance. Here, however, the leaves had been scraped back to bare earth. There were marks that seemed suggestive of claws, but the road is hard, and amid the leaf litter and stalks of weeds, it was hard to be sure of that.
Until we found one area where the leaves had been raked away over moister earth than usual, and there definitely did seem to be claw marks there.
What's more, over the claw marks, we were able just to make out the faintest hint of a human boot heel. And in a dozen yards more, rounding the bend to where my spur trail left the road, we saw a big shiny SUV, parked across the trailhead.
I was annoyed. I was annoyed to find an SUV parked at the trail I'd hoped to take to my scenic outlook, which seemed both less safe and less bucolic with a hunter close by. And it seemed safe to presume he was close by. Why drive a car so deep into the woods unless you were averse to walking through them?
Which also annoyed me. Like a lot of liberals, I have mixed feelings around hunting. Though I'm not a vegetarian, I do have problems with eating the meat of mammals. My personal standard is "don't eat it if you wouldn't be able to kill it," and it isn't entirely a lack of skill that would prevent me from killing a mammal. Nor is it Bambi-propaganda; the more time I spend around animals, the more clearly I see that there intelligence and emotion is not so different from my own.
A clam I can kill without a qualm. I've dissected their nervous system--they haven't got anything you could really call a brain. Fish? I've killed fish before. More dying goldfish than fresh-caught perch or trout, but I've never seen much sign of emotion in the eyes of a fish. Perhaps it's speciesist of me, but there it is; I got no issue with killing a fish. Birds? I get a little hinky about birds, which can be so much more intelligent than we give them credit for. But it's getting so much harder to find sources of fish I can be sure are not endangered or harvested in ways that endanger other species that I've almost given up eating fish, and I'm not a skillful enough cook to do without meat altogether. So I suffer some pangs of... something, conscience or aesthetics--it's hard to tell--but I do eat chicken and turkey from time to time. And I do believe I could take their lives, if I had training to do it skillfully and well.
Not the big stuff, though. Not deer. Not cows. Not bears. (I am told by local hunters that the bears taken in hunting season here do, in fact, get eaten, for the most part. And do not taste like chicken--more like pork.)
But that's just me.
I recognize that there has been a long and interwoven dance of farmer and livestock, hunter and prey, involving my species for a very long time. I recognize, too, that it does not harm the environment to hunt within the limits set by law, and that hunters can be among the most passionate of environmentalists. So I try to do without an attitude around hunting. A lot of families around here engage in it, and a lot of my students, of both genders. And certainly, in comparison with the horrible conditions of factory farming for meat, and the appalling environmental toll of huge commercial feedlot operations, hunting for meat is among the kindest things for the earth or for animals that human beings engage in in their quest for food.
I know this. But, as I say, I have mixed feelings. The woods fill up with people firing guns, if nothing else. And I really never want to find myself on the receiving end of a bullet fired stupidly in my woods.
The SUV, though. That really ticked me off.
You're coming into the woods to take a life, I thought. And you can't even get out of the damn car and smell the air first? Why not just stay home, eat nachos, and play a video game about hunting?
A friend pointed out to me that a black bear can weigh as much as 600 pounds. And it's gonna be tough to move that much body back to civilization if the car is very far away. Which is true enough, I suppose. But, hell, comes a point when you might just as well bring your ATV, doesn't it? It just grated.
That was in the morning.
That afternoon, about an hour before sunset, I hiked out into the woods again, following the deer trails this time.
I stopped several times, listening to the sounds of the woods. The leaves are drifted so deep right now that even a squirrel hopping across it sounds very loud. I'm not sure that a bear in the woods would make as much sound as a squirrel does, come to think of it.
I was pretty sure the noises I was hearing were from squirrels. But I kept coming across churned up patches of leaves. And I had seen a bear not so very far away from where I was, not too long ago.
It occurred to me more than once that I find bear hunters more frightening than bears. A bear hunter is much more likely to harm me accidentally, after all. A bear is mostly likely to ignore me, and walk away, should we chance to meet. And it is unlikely to kill me if I forget to wear orange.
Neither is the hunter. Normally. Most hunters. But there have definitely been more New Englanders killed by hunters than by bears, and I can't help but think about that when I'm out for a walk in fall.
I did not see a bear today. I did reach the place where the SUV had been parked, and either that was a surrealistically tidy hunter, or he did not take a bear out of the woods with him today.
I did not see signs of the hunter down the side trail where I'd found the earlier patches of disturbed leaves. But I did see, in several places, more signs of bears: unmistakable claw marks this time, in the lowest, palest strata of fallen leaves.
The bears are here. They just stayed safe from whoever was seeking their lives this morning.
I'd be lying if I said I minded.