There’s something about a forest that seems to sooth the soul. Peace settles among the trees of deep woods like it has moved in to stay forever. But a deeper reality contradicts that calm. Don’t let your guard down, for violence visits there, too.
I tried to like hunting. It’s expected of a Southern boy living in the countryside. Even more so for one growing up there half a century ago. Our Tennessee farm was evenly split between open, rolling fields and stretches of wooded, steep hillsides and ravines. Those wooded stretches were fingers reaching out from the deep woods of a state forest preserve adjoining our farm. The fall I turned 12, my father gave me a bolt-action single-shot rifle—a Remington, perfect for taking to the woods. My father said, “Son, that’s the best beginners rifle there is for shootin’ squirrels.”
Late autumn is prime time for squirrel hunting. By then, leafy treetops have abandoned my part of the south for the season. Left behind are barren branches looking like fingers grabbing for the sky. They seek a handhold against the howling winter winds yet to come. Squirrels are out and about in abundance. This is their busy season. From treetop nests of sticks and leaves—homes with a view—they make their daily commute to aerial fields of acorns growing on the branches of nearby oaks. Their job is to pluck acorns and bury them in secret larders under the detritus of the forest floor. After a day spent buttressing their winter food reserves, and maybe some time cavorting and sunning themselves, they head home again to be rocked asleep by swaying branches.
Those brown balls of fur are exposed as they venture overhead, as they leap limb to limb, as they race up and down the trunks of trees. The fallen leaves have turned mostly brown, but many are brushed still with a touch of red or gold or purple. They have just enough life left to complain at being kicked about by scampering paws scurrying across the forest floor. That crunch can give away a squirrel’s location.
A forest is never silent, so I hear them. I am quiet; they don’t hear me. A forest is ever moving, so I see them. I am still; they don’t see me. From hunts with my father, I’ve learned to sit patiently on the ground, waiting serenely so forest creatures won’t know danger lurks.
I know the habits of these squirrels. They nap midday. But they get hungry. I have staked out a spot here in our woods where I know squirrels love to feed on the plentiful acorns of our tall oaks. I am determined to drop a squirrel, so I wait in ambush here. But these are clever animals. They know to run down the backside of a tree trunk, putting themselves on the far side of danger by placing the tree between them and the disturbance of any sudden movement or suspicious noise from below. I have curled my legs underneath me on a cushion of moss with my back braced against the rough bark of a chosen oak. A few deep breaths serve to still my mind and body. I inhale the rich smells of the dark and musky forest, and hold it for a time, before expelling that last big breath. Then I consciously will a more shallow and quiet breathing pattern, one with a rhythm more conducive to listening for the sounds of squirrels chattering among themselves, high in the canopy above my head.
Soon enough a bushy-tailed rodent wrapped in a fuzz of fur makes its presence known. He springs atop the leaves of the forest floor, scurrying here and there in spurts, stopping at times to listen for sounds of danger. I am his danger this day as he goes on his way to his private larder for his evening meal. I am prescient, like some god, for I know this: he’ll have no need for a fur coat this winter, nor even for the dinner he is seeking this day. I unlock the safety, take aim at his head, and tenderly pull the trigger of my Remington.
Pop! goes the rifle with its gentle kick as the cold bullet pushes off my chest and shoulder, and springs forward from the aim and intent of my eye toward its warm target. Almost instantly, there comes back to me the start of a loud echo from the firing gun. It drags behind it a small scream—whether of surprise or pain, I don’t even consider. My only thought is this: I didn’t get off a clean shot to kill it right away.
I jump up and run toward my injured prey. It begins to flee, trying every few yards to ascend the trunk of a tree. Invariably, it climbs a vertical foot or two and then falls back to ground. I’ve done so much damage to a forelimb that it can’t manage the climb. Every time my victim falls, it takes off running again, with me racing after it. Soon, my breath is coming as insistent puffs and I am sweating. This chase goes on for some time. Run. Climb. Fall. Run. Climb. Fall. The squirrel keeps glancing over its shoulder at me in pursuit. Each time it does so, I see blood and big eyeballs staring. Eyes that are wild-eyed terrified.
Thinking back, I must have looked wild-eyed, too. That poor squirrel kept trying to climb a tree like ancient Sisyphus, who perhaps even now is trying to roll his boulder to the top of the hill. That leaves me the role of a capricious, vindictive giant—a very small god. I am looking down at a trail of blood, and I am tenacious in my tracking. But now I’m starting to have qualms about what I’ve done. My prey is demonstrating tenacity, too. It has a strong will to live, and I can appreciate that. At least, it has a strong will until the moment it doesn’t.
That soft bundle of fur finally gives up. It stops running and turns in its tracks. As it rises up to stand on its rear paws, it stares me straight in the face. I look back into those pleading eyes and something inside of me melts. That squirrel can’t utter words, yet some form of communication is flowing to me. A creature that had felt so alien and devoid of the gift of emotions I had presumed only humans possess is now showing me its fear and longing. Through the wet windows of those dark eyes, I see wistfulness and other sentiments that I cannot name. Two questions from me now fill the space between us: little creature, are you cursing me or forgiving me? And are you begging me to let you live or to put you out of your misery?
That day, I couldn’t discern what last wish that creature might be asking of me. It had been created by a greater God than the one I had made of myself—a would-be god who on a whim had aimed to end a life. Anything I had left to give, I’d give. But what did it want from me? What I want most is to make it right. To undo everything. To unshoot that innocent squirrel, to unwalk my way to the deep woods, to unload my shiny new gun at home, to untake that murder weapon from the gun rack on our living room wall, to undress myself from these constricting clothes now trying to smother me, and to un-get up from my warm bed earlier this cold day. But I can do none of that.
That day, I had brought violence to those woods. So what was left? What could I have done that moment for that small creature whose life I had recklessly toyed with? I fired one more time and put the spent ball of fur out of its misery. Spent, I say, for unnecessarily I had spent a life, one that was not mine to cash in. I couldn’t leave that injured animal there to die in agony or to slowly starve. So I left that ball of fur where it fell dead. I left it lying atop a bed of purple, bruised leaves sprinkled with bright red drops like holy water. But first, I fell on my knees and let my hot tears light the fire of a funeral pyre, one that still burns in me. Then I stood up and walked home.
“Take this gun back, Daddy,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t hunt no more.” Just as that squirrel had done, my father looked at me with eyes that spoke without saying a word.