I step out onto the patio and quickly don my boots and outer garments in the chilly November air. Armored from the cold, I feel clumsy and conspicuous as I make my way across the lawn by starlight. I look up to see I’m joined by the Greek bowhunter Orion, his stars shining brilliantly in the southwest sky. I love this time of day. Most of humanity is still asleep, and the sounds of nature rule the night. Deprivation of my full vision gives me the sense that I’m in a bigger, wilder place; a chance for the unknown and unfamiliar to happen, a feeling of excitement and anticipation.
The still, quiet air is broken by a loud snort and the galloping thud of hooves. Barely out of the yard, and I’m already busted by deer! No surprise, I think. I’m stumbling around like the Michelin man, and Orion is shining like a beacon in the night’s sky. As it has always been since ancient times, the deer is more than a match for the bowhunter!
Undeterred, I make my way by shadows and memory to my final destination. I’m now deep into the tallgrass prairie, sitting on the ground downwind from a crisscross maze of game trails. A great horned owl calls out and is immediately answered by another. Something is rustling around by my right foot. A prairie vole? A deer mouse? A shrew? Just overhead I hear a rustling, swishing sound. Likely a flock of wood ducks making its way for a morning feed in the pond.
As the stars fade, and my ability to see expands, I find myself surrounded by towering prairie grasses. Indian grass, big bluestem and switch grass restrict my vision to just a few game trail corridors. Like the night-time darkness, the walls of grasses keep alive my sense of a larger, wilder place around me. Success at shooting a deer here will require fast and instinctual action - a fluid and coordinated effort of eye, muscle and arrow.
I wait. I hear the winnowing of a screech owl and the cackle of a ring-necked pheasant. Although the pheasant is not native to this continent, I’m happy to hear them in our prairies. We’ve long ago lost our native prairie game birds such as the prairie chicken and sharp-tail grouse. We have deferred fall burning to the spring in hopes of keeping winter habitat available for the pheasant. There is little suitable habitat for them outside of our property.
I wait. The first rays of sunlight hit the hoar frost ice crystals and disperse into yellows, greens, blues, reds and purples. For a short, otherworldly moment, the prairie is transformed into a sea of tiny sparkling prisms. I hear the soft assembly yelp (a call to bring the flock back together) of a hen turkey in the nearby savanna. Small flocks of juncos and tree sparrows voraciously pick at nearby grass and forb (flower) seed heads. Crows have discovered one of the owls, and the game of chase and harassment is on.
I wait. Road noise from the nearby highway makes it to my ear. A tractor starts up in the distance. I hear the drone of a small plane overhead. The pungent smell of burning plastic irritates my nose. Man’s world is coming alive, and my special time is ending. I think of myself as a teenage boy with my Dad’s recurve bow in hand running around in the woodlands and fields of Indiana. My idols were Ben Pearson, Art Young, Saxton Pope, Fred Bear and Ishi. Past bowyers living in a big natural world of unending discovery and adventure. I dreamed of owning land where my family and I could bowhunt, grow old and be one with the land.
I have arrived at my childhood dream, but I am no longer the bowhunter of my youth. The world is smaller now, nature more fragile, wildness more difficult to find. The irony stings as I find myself longing for my earliest bowhunting days.
I take one last scan of the game trails in front of me, mentally willing a sign of wilderness to show itself in these long-ago tamed and inoculated lands. Desperate to rekindle the flame I once had, hoping for a chance of discovery in a shrinking natural world, I wait a moment longer. But the sign doesn’t come.
As I make my way back home, I think, maybe tomorrow?