Ralph Gardner Jr. puts his past aversion aside and joins in a hunt
Three generations of the Morris family have hunted on our property in the Hudson Valley. But until the second day of hunting season earlier this month, I’d never gone out with them.
Just to name a couple of reasons why: I can think of better places to be at 5:45 a.m., when they typically get started, than the frigid woods waiting for a deer to stroll by.
Also, I don’t hunt.
I did once and regretted it.
I must have been 12 or 13 at the time. I aimed my brand new BB gun at a bird perched high on a distant tree. I had no hope of hitting it. But when my victim crashed through the leaves and onto the forest floor with a sickening thud, a wave of guilt washed over me so profound that I was persuaded the emotion isn’t learned but woven into our DNA.
I don’t think anything short of survival could turn me into a hunter. But when I saw that the Morris family shared my devotion to our woods, I realized that perhaps something more important than hunting might be going on. I was curious to tag along and find out what that was.
Paul Morris, whose father, Richard, was given permission to hunt on our land by my grandfather in the 1970s, told me that the only year he hasn’t attended opening day, since he was 10 years old, was 2009, when his father died the day before the season started.
“My dad was die-hard right to the end,” Paul remembered. “This was the only thing he did recreationally. He was such a hard worker his whole life. But he always made time to go hunting and taught me.”
Paul, who is 49 years old, remembers the first time he accompanied his father into the woods. “It was Thanksgiving morning. Cold as anything and he wasn’t sure I’d make it. He had a nice little spot. He used to love sitting there.”
We started walking toward that spot, barely hidden from the town road that traverses the property, certainly not in Paul’s blaze orange hunting attire.
My grandparents bought the place in 1948. But it hadn’t been farmed since the Great Depression. So the youngest forest is at least three-quarters of a century old. On steep hillsides, the towering oak and maple are far more ancient than that. All of it, apparently, is excellent dear habitat.
Paul Morris failed to get a buck his first season—“I got too excited and missed it.” He was more successful the next year. But his fondest memories aren’t of deer—such as cunning bucks that hide in plain sight, or the unsuspecting doe that almost stumbled into him—but of spending time with his father.
In particular, 1987 when there was a freak early October snowstorm, the snow so heavy and destructive that it turned the forest into a maze of toppled trees.
Richard Morris, a large man, got his biggest deer ever, an eight-pointer, that autumn. “He and I were dragging the deer out,” Paul remembered, “one hand on the deer, one on the rifle, when he caught a sapling and it was almost like watching a giant oak go down.”
It was such memories, though preferably not involving falling, that prompted Paul, a technology project manager, to teach his own sons to hunt. Two of them, 18-year-old Eric accompanied by his 15-year-old brother, CJ, were hunting on another part of the property that afternoon.
“There’s a lot of memories with this,” Paul said as we settled onto the rock outcropping where his father always sat.
His .30-06 rifle, which his father had made for him, the stock carved from a single block of wood, was propped beside him. “We’re always excited to just be out in the woods and see nature wake up. We don’t care which one gets one.”
Thus far, none of them had. They’d spotted a herd of does that morning, but since it was early in the season, they were holding out for a mature buck. In past years, the family has either eaten the venison or donated it to local food pantries.
Whatever your feelings about hunting, there’s something to be said for the discipline of learning to remain perfectly still, to become attuned to the forest.
“It’s neat to see them picking that up,” Paul said of his sons. “There’s so many more things for kids to do these days except to go out and spend time in the woods.”