One day during deer season I was standing out in the yard wondering what not to do next when a hunter, short, round and swathed all in red like an armed Santa Claus, came down the dirt road that leads into my place. Clutching his rifle, he advanced cautiously, bending low as he followed some deer tracks made about two weeks earlier. Keeping this hunched-over posture, he made the turn and continued up my driveway.
Briefly he disappeared behind the smokehouse and the lilac bush, emerging with his eyes still fixed on those ancient tracks, as intent a Nimrod as you would ever hope to see. He was passing only 40 feet from me, and I stood quietly, wondering if he would crawl under my car when the trail led there. At this point he saw me. Rising erect, he stared as though I had just stepped out of a flying saucer. His jaw dropped as he took in my modest establishment: the house, the weathered barn, the lawn and the circular driveway.
Without a word he wheeled and ran back the way he had come as fast as his pudgy legs could carry him, vanishing over the little rise where the road leads down to neighbor Pratt's place.
"Aha!" I thought. (I often preface my thoughts that way.) "Farmer-sportsman relations must have taken a turn for the worse."
Just in case you are unaware of it, the farmer-sportsman problem has been with us since the invention of the barbed-wire fence. Reduced to its simplest terms, the controversy is this: the hunters demand the right to go onto the farmer's land and plug game, but the farmers usually insist they stay out. State game departments attempt to bring the two together, and the question is often ironed out pretty well in convention symposiums, but under actual field conditions the irate farmer is still giving the hunter the old heave-ho.
The location of my 26 acres gives me an excellent observation point from which to look at both sides in dubious battle. My land lies on the edge of a beautiful stretch of country, 1,735 acres of boulders, swamps, meadows and woods bearing the bucolic designation "State Games Lands No. 56." Back during the Depression it was purchased by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania out of hunting-license fees for $10 or less per acre (just think of it) as a place for hunting minus the old farmer-sportsman problem. Anybody with a license may hunt there.
Our family loves Bucks County and old No. 56. Although but 70 miles from Manhattan's towers, it is a respectable forest. In spring the wild columbine festoons the massive boulders. Other flowers bloom along the little streams, and nine species of frogs and toads provide music from late March until early June. Over the years since No. 56 was set aside, many nongame as well as game animals have increased or come back. Even a pair of pileated woodpeckers are in residence near my house, although I have never found their nest. No. 56, as well as the surrounding countryside, has a goodly number of deer. We watch the does with their fawns all summer, and in the fall they come right into the yard to eat fallen apples.
Strangely enough, these woods with pleasant picnic spots, plenty of space for bird walks, nature study and other outdoor recreations are practically deserted all summer. Multiple use is not in effect here. Once in a while you may come upon a man with a pair of binoculars or, in early fall, a couple of elderly ladies looking for the fringed gentians that bloom in open glades, but generally the area is devoid of human life. Once my neighbor, S. J. Perelman, the writer, was apprehended in there. When asked what he was doing, he muttered, "Taking a walk—eccentric," and disappeared into a hemlock motte.
I've never been able to understand the summer shunning of these beautiful woods. Perhaps it is because people must have things labeled these days. Maybe if they put up some neon signs around the place saying NATURE WALKS ON THE INSIDE or WILDLIFE STUDY FREE they would get more customers than they could handle. But as it stands now the only time you see more than one person at a time there in summer is when you encounter a pair of shy young lovers in fond embrace.
On the opening day of deer-hunting season this sylvan solitude is shattered. At daybreak an army clad in red moves down the old woods road that passes my house. Most of them are not content with just a red coat but wear red pants, shirt and cap as well. Each armed with a rifle, they march into the woods singly and in small groups. A person might think that the British were back again. In fact, it was only a few miles below here that Washington crossed the Delaware.
I am not against hunting as such, but some of the methods and attitudes prevalent in these thickly settled areas of the East would have driven Daniel Boone into a monastery. Game-department officials agree that the traditional American concept of hunting, the hunter stalking and outwitting the wily game in the silence of the forest, no longer exists. These phalanxes of redcoats marching into the woods have a single purpose: to get a buck and get out with a whole skin.
They make themselves as obvious as possible, and well they might. The woods are full of other redcoats, tense and eager, some of them novices literally trembling with buck fever. One method is to line up and drive the deer, the hunters beating on tin pans with such enthusiasm that you might suspect it was half time at a Chinese football game.
One neighbor of mine who had not hunted since his youth decided he would give it a try. He climbed up a tree near a deer trail and got his buck all right, but getting it out of the woods was another problem. He and the lad helping him would carry the buck a piece, then drop it, talking loudly and at the same time watching for the gangs of other hunters, who by this time were on the prowl for deer alive or defunct. My friend described the trip as a period of downright terror and said, "Never again."
Another hunter found a solution of sorts. He was clothed in such fiery red that if he had had a tail he would have looked like the devil. Walking warily down the old road, he stopped at a point only 300 feet below my house. There he stood for three hours, his rifle at the ready, waiting in hopes that a buck would be driven out of the woods in his direction. My wife, who was cleaning the house, would glance out the window once in a while and grin. At one point she observed, "Looks like somebody erected a statue out there."
My wife used to regard the hunters with outspoken hate. A forthright woman, she invariably won the day in clashes involving the chase. One morning she heard a fusillade of shots and loud yells close by. Dashing out, she came upon a dying buck behind the barn. Half a dozen redcoats climbed over a stone wall and jogged toward her. Their one concern was that she might claim the buck.
"Honest, lady, we didn't shoot him here," one pleaded. "He jumped over the fence after we shot him."
"I don't care where you shot him. Take him away and be quick about it." Under her reproachful gaze the redcoats dragged their victim across the field and over the stone wall into No. 56.
Over the years, though, my wife's attitude toward the hunters has gradually mellowed. She has watched as they have fought snow and bitter cold, urged on by a passion beyond her understanding They get lost, they have accidents and they hurt themselves. In small-game season they are forever losing their dogs, and their plaintive calls for old Rover can be heard far into the night. Their joy in the sport is shadowed by an abiding fear lest they, instead of the deer, become the victim. (And some of them do.)
My wife is no Diana, but she laughs at some of the things the hunters will do. They will snap to the alert on spotting tracks that are weeks old. They tear their britches crawling through fences. She remembers with glee a morning after the usual platoon of redcoats had advanced into No. 56. In the road just beyond neighbor Pratt's she came upon five deer. They had simply circled the hunters and were headed into a piece of posted land.
Now my wife's attitude toward the hunters has become one of amused pity. Recently she has even been seen chatting amiably with groups of them as they pass the house, an odd sight comparable to Carry Nation's having a sociable drink in a saloon.
Hunting accidents do occur in old 56 but, considering the number of hunters hereabouts, not nearly as frequently as might be expected. Local game officials say more hunters shoot themselves or each other during the small-game season when they hunt with shotguns than they do during deer season when they hunt with rifles. Most of the complaints from landowners involve hunting too close to houses or trespassing. Two neighbors whose places are located in an area where the deer move back and forth between No. 56 and the farmers' fields felt they were suffering undue gunfire one year and put up the following sign:
WARNING! HUNTERS KEEP OFF!
Anyone caught on the patrolled posted lands of the undersigned without written permission will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The undersigned are sick and tired of having our families terrorized by irresponsible hunters.
1. Mr. Mich has five bullet holes in his home and one bullet in his barn.
2. A neighboring house has a bullet hole through its window.
3. Mr. Damm has had two doors shot through in his home.
4. One bullet hit alongside the window where Mrs. Mich was washing dishes.
5. Two bullets went over Mrs. Damm's head while hanging laundry.
6. One bullet plowed into the wall where Mrs. Mich's children were confined for safety reasons.
7. One bullet went between Mr. Mich and his father-in-law, embedding itself in the corn crib.
8. We would like to be able to work and walk on the land on which we pay our taxes.
C. A. Damm, Joseph Mich
Damm had the game protectors in. There was quite a hassle for a while, and farmer-sportsman relations sank to a new low. But during the last few years Damm's house has remained intact. He says the fact that a local gun club has posted the private land around him has helped to keep off irresponsible hunters. Now he uses the sign as the cover of an old well out behind his house.
Not all accidents are caused by firearms. One deer season a hunter in his 60s fell in the frozen swamp back of my place and broke his leg near the hip. His companions fiddled around for some time trying to make a stretcher out of a small piece of rope and a couple of cedar poles. This didn't work, and they finally called an ambulance. When it came we took the stretcher down into the woods and carried him out. He had been lying on the frozen ground for two hours and, despite the sedative given him by the nurse, he kept up a running comment in a loud voice as we toted him along. "My old woman is going to give me hell for this," he kept shouting. Apparently there are terrors greater than hunting accidents.
If killing a deer is the sole object, the automobile is almost as effective as the rifle. In thickly settled areas such as ours, where numerous blacktop roads thread the fields and woodland, collisions between cars and deer occur at a high rate. Last year here in Bucks County 697 deer were killed by hunters, and in the same year 318 deer were killed accidentally and illegally, most of them by cars.
A single month's figures for the state indicate that deer are far from safe outside of hunting season. In October of last year 2,399 deer were known to have been killed in Pennsylvania. Of these 1,833 were killed by cars, 293 killed for crop damage, 66 killed by dogs and in falls or other natural accidents and 207 killed illegally.
Our local game protectors say that poaching is becoming a terrific problem. Most of the poachers can well afford to pay a fine, but apparently shooting deer illegally adds spice to the game. The worst of all are those who shoot them and leave the carcasses where they fall. These cases could be handled better by a psychiatrist than a game warden.
Poachers are still a minority in No. 56, and most hunters try to stick to the rules, their infractions resulting from overeagerness in a highly competitive sport. As deer season nears, their anticipation becomes evident, like that of children as Christmas approaches. They go out and practice with their guns, and they scout the woods for likely spots. Strangers stop by my place to ask about No. 56 in hopes of picking up valuable hints.
When the great day comes they drop everything to go hunting, or "gunning," as most of them call it. They play hooky from their jobs, and it is hard to find anybody to do repairs. One day I phoned the plumber to cope with a bathroom emergency. He rebelled, plaintively explaining that he had promised to take his wife gunning. I said he could bring her along and they could hunt in No. 56. To my surprise they showed up, he did the job with rare speed and they set off into the woods with their guns. Usually during deer season you are lucky if they answer the phone.
I have seen only two or three female hunters around my place. The game protectors say that many more women get licenses than appear in the woods, the inference being that certain husbands like to have an extra deer tag on hand for obvious reasons.
But during the season the fever runs rampant among the males. They will suffer awful miseries to get their buck. And when they get one their pride is ill-concealed. They ride the deer around on their cars, and they hang it up for all to see. A buck hanging in the yard is a trophy commanding the highest respect. One neighbor, the late Sonny Bryan, used to have a big buck hanging in front of his house each year before the hunting season was an hour old. It was generally believed that he somehow tied the buck to a tree the night before.
One pair of hunters carried a young buck out of the woods with the animal trussed to a pole they had cut. To see their air of smug satisfaction, you would think they had found the Kohinoor diamond back in the swamp. They untied the deer, and one of them held the pole in a moment of indecision. Then he threw it at my feet like a rich toff tossing a coin to a cabbie, saying, "You can have the pole." Why he thought I would want that bloody pole I will never know.
But only a small percentage of the redcoats are able to toss the pole as a gesture of success. Some of them hunt for years without getting their buck. As the woods and fens of old No. 56 echo to rifle shots and the deer sprint from thicket to thicket, I often talk to the hunters who come back to warm up in their cars or to eat lunch. They complain about all the private land being posted, about the great number of hunters, about the weather and the scarcity of bucks.
Those who are able are fleeing before the urban sprawl to places like Canada. Our section is about to be gobbled up by the megalopolis. More and more houses are being built, and the farms are being broken up into small plots. More people means more hunters, and old No. 56 is under heavier pressure than ever before. Ed Flexer, our local state-game manager, Bill Lockett, our game protector, and their men try to help conditions by improving the game lands and enforcing the law, but as far as the hunting fraternity is concerned the outlook is not encouraging. As one wise old Nimrod said to me, "God keeps making more hunters, but he ain't making any more land for them to hunt on."