Skipper at Dawn
I was visiting with my friend Roy (we have been friends for thirty plus years) when suddenly he began talking about the white deer that he had shot in 1953. Roy is 101 years old and his sharp, perceptive memory far surpasses mine, and so when he tells me a new story I am really listening.
Roy spent most of his working years in the local mill where he was part of an assembly line that made pop eye toys and other wooden implements. This career began after he spent four years in the service. In his “spare” time he managed to become a scholar specializing in local history, built his own home, which he still lives in, and later, both his daughter’s homes, managed to keep a huge impeccable vegetable garden in addition to keeping great expanses of field cleared sometimes using a scythe. He was/is also a most dedicated father who took excellent care of his wife Lois, his lifetime helpmate, and their four children.
During those first years the family didn’t have much money, so Roy hunted and fished to keep his family fed during the winter months. Bringing home a deer each fall was a necessity for this family and Roy was an excellent marksman who learned how to use a rifle as a boy. Roy also shot birds – especially grouse for the table. No part of the animal was ever wasted. Roy’s love for animals shines through his respectful and deeply loving behavior towards the cats and dogs he has had most of his life, the birds, cat, and chickens he still feeds. He delights in the antics of squirrels and each time I visit I hear that a skipper (young buck), doe, and a fawn visit him every morning to feast on his apples like they do on mine. He thinks we may have the same deer visiting each house, and maybe he partly is right. But I do not have a skipper.
Hunting is a thorny subject for me until I start listening to Roy telling me how he fed his family with the wild animals he shot. Then I suddenly feel what it’s like to be on the other side of hunting and how honorable these actions can be. Roy never exhibits the characteristic hubris/arrogance, or the hunger for “power over,” – attitudes that are so common today with some hunters. This is not to say that ALL hunters are like this; they are not.
Some local hunters still shoot deer and moose to put food on the table. A few, that are friends of mine, including Roy and Roy’s grandson are extremely knowledgeable about the habits of wild animals and have been a source of on-going education for this naturalist. Some hunters and naturalists have a lot in common, I have learned.
What I object to is mindless slaughter – trophy hunting is repulsive to me (especially for bears who are almost never eaten) – as is the prevailing attitude of many hunters whose “right” to kill for the sake of killing, or the “high” that it brings, has nothing to do with the animal in question and is all about having power over a non – human species. Respect for the animal as a living being is totally absent.
Perhaps it is my Native roots that inform my perspective, and/or my love for animals both wild and tame, but either way I believe the prevailing attitude is corrupting humans in ways that we are not even aware of. We have become a nation of killers. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between slamming an automobile into an innocent woman killing her, murdering those who are ‘different,’ or the mindless slaughter of animals for “fun”. White supremacy is terrifying, and unfortunately in Maine, groups like the KKK have been active since the early twenties of the last century and before. I am ashamed to be part of such a legacy of hatred.
But it is time to return to my story of the white deer. In the fall of 1953 Roy was hunting on Bird Hill behind his house. On a ridge above him stood a white deer amongst granite rock (Often white deer are shunned by others of their kind, according to him). Roy was stunned by the animal’s extraordinary appearance. After a minute or so, Roy took aim with his rifle and shot up the hill. It is difficult to aim accurately when you are shooting an animal above you, Roy informs me. It took four shots to kill this deer, and Roy was so shaken by this experience that he had to sit down; his head ached terribly. Afterwards, he brought the animal home, cleaned it, and the family ate it.
Roy also mentioned that there was a superstition that warned hunters that if they killed a white deer they would not be able to hunt successfully for another seven years. But in his case this superstition didn’t hold true, because Roy continued to hunt for his family successfully each fall.
When I heard this story of the white deer and the superstition around it I immediately thought of the Cherokee myth of Awi Usdi, the little white chief of the deer who came out of the mountain to dispense justice for the animals, if too many were taken by the Indians. Awi Usdi would come to the hunters through dreaming telling them that they must restrain from too much killing/greed or the animals would leave… I was sure that the superstition that Roy had spoken of was a remnant of an Indian mythological story, because the white deer is sacred to so many tribes across this country.
In my heart I am convinced that Roy’s attitude of respect toward animals in general affected the outcome of this particular hunt. That Roy saw a white deer in the first place was an anomaly and quite amazing, that he shot it successfully was a mark of excellent his marksmanship. Perhaps the deer’s willingness to become a sacrifice was another aspect of this unusual story, especially if taken from a Native perspective. The most important aspect of this memory from my point of view was how the deer affected him personally – he was shaken by the experience, and this reinforces what I know about Roy; he has a deep humility and love for all animals…
Roy has also been a fisherman all his life. I have always believed that fishing had a greater, perhaps more spiritual significance for Roy that exceeded the practical aspects of feeding his family, since as an older adult he continues to routinely disappear into the forest to reach the best fishing spots at the river’s edge. He always fishes alone. Although he now has trouble walking long distances he continues this life – time habit up to the present even if he has to crawl through the brush. He is still catching brook trout, which are his favorite fish. While I was visiting yesterday he told me that he had been fishing the day before. Shiners weren’t working, but worms were, he told me. He landed a ten – inch brook trout, brought it home, and cleaned it.
In his characteristic off-hand way he suddenly asked me if “I would have any use for the fish.”
“Use?” I responded. “Of course I would!” I have eaten Roy’s brook trout before.
Surprised and delighted, I asked him “How many did you catch?”
“Just the one,” he responded.
“And you don’t want it?”
Roy mumbled something about eating many brook trout and this was when I realized he wanted me to have the fish!
“I’ll take it!” I responded with enthusiasm. I felt honored.
Before I left we talked about how I would cook the fish filling it with herbs (me) and onions (Roy) before baking it. My mouth was watering. I thanked him for the gift as I left, remarking on the startling beauty of the fish with its deep orange spotted body.
When I got home I prepared the fish, noting the sweet scent of fresh water that permeated the air as I stuffed him. When I sat down to my feast, I thanked my friend for his generous gift, hoping he knew how much I had come to love him.