There are some places on Earth where happy, childhood memories are anchored so firmly that we should never revisit them. We should let them stand in our minds, forever undiluted by age and perspective, remaining precisely as they were during one very specific moment in time. With years in between, even if these places look the same, I promise they won’t feel the same and, if you’re at all like me, harboring a romantic notion that our youthful worldview was generally better, you’ll quickly be disabused. You’ll pick them apart, the idyllic replaced by the real, and come away having lost something beautiful to the analytics of adulthood.
“Don’t do it,” I say, and that, along with two dollars and nineteen cents, will get you a cup of coffee at your local minimart.
I’ve never been terribly good at following my own advice. I prefer to think that my repeated attempts at bending the laws of common sense when it comes to my own being is more old-fashioned, Northern-Vermont stubbornness than egotistical, but at some point I have call a spade a spade.
I knew this. I knew it as surely as I know that sap runs on sunny, windless days in early March and that, also during the same cruel month of extended winter, the Red Sox will always win the World Series. And to my credit, I hesitated a solid ninety seconds – maybe even a full two minutes – before getting out of my car early in the morning on a damp September day when rain came the color of Memphremagog’s fall waters and the wind blew from Quebec, the ever-present odor of wood smoke there in my mind if not on the breeze. After more than a quarter century, I needed to see the place again and this day was as good as any other to violate my better judgment.
A boy doesn’t and never did – even in the Northeast Kingdom – become a man when he kills his first whitetail buck. That’s a more arduous journey with, thankfully, a few other stops along the way. Still, for most of us, especially in the 1980s, it was a box that needed checking off. I X’d mine on a slate-gray November day when a young deer high on Irasburg Mountain made a mistake and I didn’t. And now I’m going back. Not just to the county or the mountain or the general north-facing strip of hemlock, but to the exact spot where I stood the better part of thirty years ago and fired a bullet which, in many ways, has compassed me ever since.
To rationalize deviating so sharply from my philosophy that places like this are best seen only once, I’m going there to ask myself a question. Two of them really. I want to know, fast-approaching middle age, with my feet planted firmly right back where it all began, if I’ll ever find the sense of home I had so completely on the evening that two friends and I dragged a five-point buck off the side of a Vermont mountain. I’ll ask that, and also for the answer to the most paradoxical part of my being: how can I, often with camera in hand, be a lover of animals and also, each year during November, go to unimaginable lengths to kill them? I’ll ask myself, and if Irasburg Mountain, that patriarchal figure on the Western boundary of where I grew up wants to join in, though I won’t hold my breath, I’m hoping he won’t hold back.
I am blessed, or more likely cursed, with an inability to forget. Oh, I might rumble around my house at a complete loss to recall where I placed my truck keys an hour earlier, but then, a year or more down the road, I’m apt to see them so clearly in the spot I left them that I could draw the direction each faced on its ring.
There’s a “condition” assigned to this type of memory – nomenclature given to those who can remember verbatim conversations from the age they first learned to form words. Mercifully, it has different levels of involvement and mine presents as “moderate.” I don’t remember each second of my life. But I remember most of them, and in detail that makes distinguishing past from present challenging. There is an immediacy to memories that time can never dull.
It has its upsides, I think to myself as I get out of my car in the exact spot where my mother dropped me off nearly three decades ago, thermos of hot chocolate and peanut butter and jelly sandwich tucked in a fanny pack below my hunter-orange, satin jacket. It has its downsides, too, I know, looking for the thick, low-forking alder I stepped out around just across the barrow pit. I can see it as plainly as I did on that morning when I was a kid. The crotch has collected a few icy leaves, a luminous, milky lichen grows on the north-facing side of the left fork, and for a moment I debate whether it’s better to step through the notch or go around the whole tree.
No such question of route this morning. The alder has long ago given way to poplars, some of which stand thirty feet tall. Their crowns are a golden hue of stubble fields at last light, but the leaves below the canopy are still green, clinging to summer as long as they can. I stare at them and nod. I haven’t been here to see this place change, another warning that what I’m doing may not end well. Still, I wipe my mind and stride off in the general direction I need to go, following that internal compass all people raised in the North Country, where a close horizon obscures distant landmarks, possess.
Might as well begin kicking over the questions I need answers to I decide, plowing up a logging trace fast losing ground to the wide-leafed moose maples happy to grow in its humped center. I’ll tackle the tougher of the two first I think where, through some combination of sense of direction and old memory, I veer from the logging road down over a bank choked with hobble bush.
My father didn’t hunt. Not really. He owned one gun, a single-shot, 16-guage shotgun made by Harrington and Richardson, purchased new in 1964 for $16. I remember the first time I saw it lying broken open below my feet in the back seat of our lumbering station wagon we used to poach mossy rails from an overgrown hill farm for the fence my dad was building around our Brownington home.
“That’s a gun,” I said to my mother when she turned around in the front seat. I knew it through an instinctual recognition – one that may not say much good about our cultural ties to weapons.
“It is,” she said, “and it’s your dad’s and you must never touch it.”
I sat quietly, the wheels inside my two-year-old brain whirring forward to a time when I knew that I’d be doing a great deal more than touching it. I’d seen the whitetail deer hanging from our neighbor’s trees in November – gray denizens of the wilderness brought down by men with wool coats and thick beards. Men I already wished to be. I remembered the night that a black bear climbed into the pen with our donkey. Loud, terrified braying, a bare light bulb clicking on over the stairwell in our house while my father searched for a flashlight. I laid awake a long time waiting for the crash of a gunshot – whatever exactly that might be - and when none came I was outraged that my father hadn’t dispatched a bear, one with the audacity to practically come into our home.
“I scared it away,” he told me the next morning, words which met a silent, icy stare from his young son.
More than forty years later, as the trickle of water over stones carries to me through the tap of water landing on leaves, I realize that I have no memory of ever making a decision to hunt. From the time I stole steak knives from my mother’s dishpan to take into the woods and hurl errantly at grouse, hunting was something I gravitated to with no more power to dissent than this brook has to stop its downward flow toward the Mississquoi River.
Pushing upstream past where the brook nineties around a mossy, granite erratic, the first thing I see that has remained unchanged since the last time I was here, I have visions of the barred tail feathers of grouse, the scaly skin that falls over their closed eyes, and my sister’s springer spaniel I’d sometimes take with me when I hunted them. Then, when I hear the rush of one’s wings nearby, I am hard pressed to understand if the bird flushes now or a thousand times within my mind.
It’s time to leave the bank of the brook. I’ve got to hook a little north or I’ll run into the seven-foot dam of the 10-acre dead beaver bog at the western base of Irasburg Mountain. I know this and also that I’ve already gone too far and will likely have to fight through whatever remains of the great alder swamp where I shot my first Canada goose. I did it as matter of factly as I would have the grouse I was there to hunt, knocking it out of the sky without hesitation.
I was fourteen, and sitting with it on the edge of a bog where asters still bloomed and a kingfisher called from the naked limbs of a waterlogged spruce, I first confronted the duality I’ve come back here to address. I understood then, running my fingers through downy breast feathers, that this particular bird would not be one of the ones to bring me great joy the following spring when their north-flying Vs passed over a still-wintry landscape and their encouraging calls drifted to a boy desperate for spring. It was a fleeting thought, lost to a boyhood eagerness to find my father, walking along a high field edge while I hunted, and show him what partridge hunting had yielded, but it has come back to me in years since, a gnawing, hollow sensation that in bending to who I am I’ve betrayed who I could be.
I step over a miniature peninsula of mud holding the faded print of a black bear and see the large, cinnamon-colored one that I hunted for three springs in a remote mountain range in Montana. We played cat and mouse on steep hillsides where glacial banks of snow cast long shadows and fed streams like the one I walk along today. Driving past those mountains in the dead of winter, I liked thinking of the bear sleeping up there, unaware of the great gray owl landing nearby, the howling of wolves, or the thunder of elk hooves racing below. Then one evening in late May, as bitterroot flowers opened wide and pink and our Earth lolled toward our sun enough to prevent a frost, he walked out fifty feet from where I sat. I killed him on auto-pilot, exactly as I’d done the goose, then sat with him a long time, looking at the fur between his broad toes, his yellowed, worn teeth, and the scars on his head from a lifetime of proving to other bears that this mountain range was his.
I had come there to hunt bears and I never quite wished that I hadn’t shot him, but I was acutely aware that something important would be forever absent form this place. Absent from my relationship with it, too. Struggling under a bulging pack of hide and meat, moving slowly through the single-digit hours of late night, the irony of killing what I understood, even before I pressed my trigger that I loved, weighed heavily on me. When, close to my pickup, I found the melted tracks of this very bear in a shaded spit of snow, I swore off bear hunting, easy to do with a punched tag. It was a resolution that lasted until the following spring when something stirred deep in sleeping bears and also inside me. Time to hunt again.
Believing that any animal would prefer being hunting by someone who holds a deep affinity for it rather than the man who fires a bullet parallel the beam of a blinding spotlight is anthropomorphisizing. They are programmed to survive, and all else is irrelevant.
I’m not making much headway in answering how two beings of polar opposite inclinations can reside within me when I reach the edge of a soupy land more water than soil. The path ahead appears a hopscotch trail of dark-green cowslips, old beaver staubs, wet ferns and the very occasional patch of terra firma. I choose my first step poorly and sink my boot well under black water, pulling it out with a sucking noise that confirms fetid mud below the surface. Angry, I reach further with my other leg, this time going in nearly to my knee.
Good and wet now, I forgo any finesse and charge through the swamp, knocking my way out of a dense stand of alders where land finally turns to land. And then I hear a voice.
“A young bull moose, crazed by the rut, running pell mell after the amorous scent of his cow could scarcely have made more noise.”
It’s a true enough observation, though I don’t like it flung up in my face.
“I wondered when you might chime in,” I say toward the mountain ahead of me.
“I’ve been biding my time. Hoping you’d learned a thing or two since your last visit. What is it you say, ‘wish in one hand…”
“You’ve become a cantankerous old bastard I see,” I say as I begin walking, wiping mud from my jeans with my hands, then wiping my hands on the smooth bark of slender beech trees.
“Old is right enough,” the mountain says. “And that’s something you won’t live to be if you insist on floundering around in the muck on days like this, dressed as though you’re ready for a summer night out on the town.”
It’s impossible to argue with mountains, especially this one. I glance at the goose bumps on my arms and wonder why I didn’t wear a jacket.
“Beat a hasty retreat back to your car and leave this fool’s errand for another time.”
The words seem to come from all around me at once.
“Not exactly my style,” I say.
“No. Well, pride goeth before the fall. Just try to get beyond my crest before you keel over. The west wind will carry the stink of your carcass off into the valley below where I won’t be smelling it.”
I can see the top of the mountain a mile away through ash limbs, its rocky spine traced by weather-sculpted hemlock.
“How about you just go back to eroding in silence?” I say. “Might rain for a week straight.”
For half an hour, I walk in an increasingly hard rain, retracing my steps up the mountain, once in a while recognizing a boulder or a tree – a yellow birch reaching its limbs for another like the outstretched arms of a lover, a beech scarred its entire length from bear claws during a fall heavy with nuts, and a lone sugar maple whose base is ringed with discarded sap buckets. I look now as I did years ago for other maples and again see none.
Did some farmer’s wife cook down just enough sap, boiling it away on a wood-fired kitchen stove, to make a Mason jar’s worth of syrup? I’m unaware of a homestead within a mile of this tree but haven’t a better explanation. Less of the buckets protrude from the ground than when I last saw them. Slowly, as leaf litter builds soil, they are vanishing. I doubt I’ll ever see them again, and this thought brings a cross of sorrow and fear while the rain drums all around me.
Ahead, the land has been logged, though I think at least twenty years ago. The deep ruts of a skid road hold soft maple saplings three inches through, interspersed with the tall canes of long blackberries. It’s a thorny barrier I’m better off going around than through, and I swing north to dodge the clear cut.
“I was rather looking forward to you thrashing through that tangle,” the mountain says. “Are you sure you don’t want to have a go at it?”
“Sometimes the quickest way there is the longest way around,” I say, proud to use the old, Vermont adage.
“Speaking of which,” the mountain replies, “you’ll go round and round and never find what you’ve come for. I change more than your Montana forests of lodgepole, so content to wear the same look for hundreds of years. Much less rigid up here, we are.”
“More talkative, too,” I say with a smirk. “Too bad there’s no oil to frac for. Give you quite the enema.”
“You’ve a sharper tongue than your father,” the mountain says quietly.
“A quicker left hook, too,” I say.
“Yes. He lamented both to me on many occasions. What was it he said? Oh, yes, ‘Can’t a week go by without a uniformed officer of the law showing up in my driveway?”
Those teenage years were a long time ago, I think, though this revelation brings a host of memories not entirely free of regret.
“I was unsympathetic,” the mountain says. “I told him he was his own fool to name you for a whiskey-running, bar-fighting, deer-poacher and expect anything else.”
“What else did the two of you talk about?” I knew my father spent many afternoons walking and cross country skiing along the hedgerows of fields where their war with the woods, skirmish lines of golden rod and meadowsweet, marked the active fronts.
“We speak about all manner of things,” the mountain says. “It’s the best conversation I’ve had since the great sea dried up and I had to stop conversing with whales.”
I stare at a log more moss than wood until my vision blurs.
“Speak. You said ‘speak’,” I whisper.
“Did I now?” the mountain booms.
“Yes. As though you still talk. Do you?”
“Never mind. But by the way you’re shivering you’ll be able to have a nice chitchat with him yourself if you don’t get the hell out of here soon.”
I am shivering. Hard, too. I rub my arms vigorously then slap the water off my hat on a peeling white birch.
“I’ve already told you that you won’t find the place you’ve come looking for. Might as well pack it in.”
“Don’t bet on it,” I say, mustering all the resolve I can.
“That’s exactly what I’ll do,” the mountain says. “A gentleman’s wager. And a timed one at that because I don’t want your death on my conscience for another billon years. I’ll give you forty minutes. If you can find where you did that embarrassing bit of whooping and hollering after killing one of my ridge runners I’ll answer your question.”
“And if I can’t?”
“When you can’t, you’ll high-tail it out of here without ever knowing.”
“High stakes,” I say.
“Not at all,” the mountain retorts. “The men and women who cleared my slopes a hundred and fifty years ago to graze a few sheep and milk half a dozen Holsteins played for high stakes. This is paltry diversion for me. Clock’s ticking.”
The day I killed my first buck, on an afternoon of light snow with the temperature penduluming back and forth across the freezing point, mist blowing over the mountain like clouds through a ruined rain forest, I crested the peak well south of where this clear cut has forced a detour. I turn sharply in that direction, nearly falling into a cellar hole obscured by raspberries and half filled with the rotting trunk of a massive maple which toppled over before I was born. An arrow of British solder lichen on its punkie face points toward a pair of squat cedars, odd to be growing at this elevation, whose frond-like limbs shelter a gnarled lilac.
“Your doing?” I ask the mountain.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” it answers. “Purely coincidental. I would neither dwell further on it nor dawdle longer.”
I wonder if down below the fallen maple in the cellar hole lie the remains of a cook stove? One upon which a pot hissed and sap turned slowly to syrup?
My mother and I boiled sap from the great maple in our front yard when I was a boy. We boiled it until the kitchen wallpaper peeled and the horsehair and lath ceiling bubbled with heat blisters. Thinking about it brings something akin to homesickness, another recognition that I've chosen to walk away from places I love - a mountain range with one less bear in it, a kitchen dripping steam. It seems I could no more give back the dead bear than return to the March evenings when I'd draw off half a pint of fancy maple syrup, saving it for holiday pancakes when everything in the world seemed safe and certain and exactly as it should be.
I’m moving quickly now, down the spine of Irasburg Mountain to the south, and also back through time, feeling the smooth stock of an early, Remington .270, cold through the damp, yellow gloves I wore. I'm looking for something I remember from the last time I was here, following a wall of granite with a limited number of crevasses I could have weaseled my way through. In ten minutes, I come to where the peak rolls off to the east, the Black River oxbowing through cut cornfields below me. I’m looking back in time further now than the day I killed my deer, remembering the two-year search my father and I conducted along that river for a fabled place where brook trout gathered by the hundreds each October to spawn. On the afternoon we found it, when a cast line went taught with the weight of a large trout as wine-red maple leaves spun slowly downstream, a drake and hen wood duck whistled overhead, their shrill cries fading to the liquid slap of a tired, big fish’s tail on the surface.
I spin away from the river before the memory consumes me, but in a sense it already has, thoughts of time and home and an achy uneasiness that what I’m here for today may indeed be beyond my reach. Retracing my recent steps, I pause at a rift in the granite low-wall then decide it wasn’t where I passed through. A few feet further take me to a fat hemlock, however, that I remember as clearly as though I’d carved my initials into it.
“Right here,” I say out loud. “I climbed up right here.”
There should be a stand of limby, dead spruce here, I know. Trees where three sleeping porcupines rested and I debated shooting them because I rarely came home with unfired cartridges. I’d looked at them a long time, finally deciding against it because my great uncle once told me it was illegal to kill a porcupine where he lived in New York’s Catskill Mountains. They are one of the few animals a lost and starving man can kill with no more than a stick, he’d said. So on that day the porcupines slept undisturbed.
The trees should still be here I know, but they aren’t. I look back and forth and begin second-guessing my recognition of the hemlock. Overhead, leaves stir in the first wind of the day and a woodpecker hammers out a search for insects. I follow the noise to a limbless spire of wood, and as the bird creeps into view, its beady eye finding me, I see the raised outlines of fallen trees all around this one. The porcupine trees.
“If not for the woodpecker,” the mountain grumbles.
“Like the cedars,” I say, unable to hide a smile.
And then I recognize everything. The natural swayback I walked through to the ledge of rock where I ate my sandwich, sticky, raspberry jelly leaking through bread onto my hands. Thirty-one steps from the ledge take me to the edge of a stand of beech, taller now by three times than they were when the first buck whitetail I’d ever seen in the woods bounded out of them toward me. I watch him come, the strike of hooves on wet leaves lost to the swish of my coat as I raise my rifle, finding him magnified six times there in my scope. His shoulder, etched with muscle, moves through my crosshairs and the gun goes off. And then the deer is gone, lost in balsam so completely that the far-off echo of the shot is the only proof I have that any of it happened.
The balsam, too, are larger today. Well beyond the height of practical Christmas trees. I weave through them, step for step with my younger self, seeing where I found the first ruby drop of blood, further off the track than I thought it should be. It lay in crystalline snow, and I picked it up, smearing it between my fingers. The deer was bounding, all four feet landing close together, covering fifteen feet with each leap. Where its hooves bit into the ground next, there was more blood, a spray of it on snow and leaves, but then for two jumps I didn’t see any.
Moving slowly, both now and then, I lift my head and see the hand-sawn stump where the buck piled up, little more than a lump of moss now. I don’t realize the rain has stopped until a ray of sun, nearly as wondrous an appearance as the buck years ago, glints off a barn roof east of Irasburg on Burton Hill.
I sit down, sopping leaves soaking through the seat of my jeans in the precise spot a deer once died. I can see both of Irasburg’s church steeples as well as the leaning pine guarding the common. As the beam of light cuts west through the village, I am flooded with memories from both home and abroad. In rapid, snap-shot succession, I see bears and mountain lions and wolves and elk, animals I’ve killed in huge wilderness two thousand miles away from where I sit.
Inseparable from these, I watch myself tug the deer down from this highest point on Irasburg Mountain to a flat, hardwood bench where I fumble through gutting it, something I’d never seen done. I drag it by its small antlers until I hit a logging road, leaving it and my coat, nearly running the two miles to the closest house where I call a friend who calls another friend, both showing up in a brown, Ford Ranger a few minutes later.
With common, teenage disregard for a vehicle’s well-being, we crawl the truck up to within a quarter mile of the buck, sliding it down together, heaving it into the back where, many times on the short ride to Irasburg, I turn around to be sure it’s still there.
Then, watching myself loop a rope over a beam in my garage to hoist the buck, I begin to see more animals outside hunting season – calf elk, fall moose, great horned owl chicks, sleek red fox and a spotted bobcat with three kittens. The shutter clicks of cameras come faster than water drops forced by the wind from their overhead perches. Sunlight fades for a moment then reappears brighter as a patch of blue opens above me.
Autumn leaves shine bright all around, but what I’m looking at is a dark Route 14 in front of the garage that held my deer, a truck’s taillights growing dim toward the common, a sense that what will always be one of the best days of my life was winding down and also that I was nearly ready to say farewell to much more than good friends for the night.
What if I’d missed, I wonder for a moment? Would that have changed the course of my life? Would the small, rat-hole apartments, seasonal jobs, barely-drivable cars and trucks and constant fear of being completely out of money all so that I could spend a month or two hunting each year be entirely unknown to me? Would I have been all man with camera instead of man with camera and rifle?
And what of this sense of home that has eluded me almost from the moment my first deer died? I said earlier that no boy becomes a man with the killing of a buck, but nor is he ever all boy again. We take something and give something. An irrevocable trade. Still, the security - the sanctity - of a world bounded by the slap of a baseball on a cold catcher's mitt, the clink of dishes in the sink after a family dinner, the smell of maple syrup and coffee on a morning when there is no more to do than whatever pleases me, it has all been well beyond my grasp for many years.
A blue jay calls behind me, somewhere back by the remnants of the porcupine trees. I’m aware of it, but my thoughts are still on home – the safety of a childhood home I should say – and I’m thinking about a life that has rolled along faster than the Black River when it crests its banks with snowmelt each spring. Faster than Idaho’s Salmon River, where it pinches down in the canyon and February sun shines only a couple of hours a day on the fishermen, myself included, who wait for the tug of steelhead, often freezing in vain.
“You humans are an odd lot, and I must say that the Moshers are stranger than most.” Until the mountain speaks, I’d totally forgotten about our wager. “By your standards, and now even by mine, I’ve been here a long time. I’ve spent quiet eons under water and also under ice. A Plesiosaur’s bones once settled very nearly where you sit. Another time a mammoth, and there weren’t ever very many of them around here, walked the length of my back. It was all by itself and seemed lost, and I’ll admit to wanting to help it more than I could. That’s more than I can say of you when you encountered your wayward goose up here.
“Pine grew on me for eight thousand years and then were cut down with the rest of my trees. Sheep came and then cows and then one night there were lights on after dark in the village down below. Not the warm glow of lanterns, but brilliant electric lights. People built homes here and then they fell down and the forests grew back. I’ve been the same mountain through it all.”
I look around through the dappled light pocking the forest floor, not entirely able to visualize a mammoth tromping by.
“You say that you miss your home. That perhaps hurling yourself to the winds of the world wasn’t the best choice. Now I’ll counter by saying… no, by telling you that it was the best thing you could have done. Trust me when I say that seeing the same country as a boy, a man, and then an old man, day in and day out, is a difficult sight to behold. You evaluate differently, even with a memory like yours, gauging it forever in the here and now. Lost almost entirely, like dreams you never fully remember, is your childhood view of where you live. It’s been run through the wringer of life. Gone in a square and come out a circle whose ends never quite meet.
“Maybe the price of one of my deer the last time you came up here was a forfeiture of that boyish view. I’ve been accused of driving a hard bargain a time or two before. But by leaving – by getting up and out – you tucked this part of the world, this little sliver of Earth, away somewhere you were damn certain it would stay safe. And it has, and I’m envious of that. Don’t ever confuse your childhood love affair with this country with home. You’ll chase a time more than a place and wonder how, though your feet fall where they once did, you feel so differently. Let home be where the end of each day finds you, not where you fell asleep as a boy.”
“That sounds like something my father would say,” I reply. “Maybe not the part about the goose, though.”
I hear a deep, rumbling laugh that, like the drumming wings of spring grouse, seems to come as much from within me as without.
“That is the only part I pilfered straight from him,” the mountain says. “He’ll be mad that I told you and probably won’t speak to me for a few days. Then he’ll get over it and want to know more about the whales or the Indian moose hunters or what tectonic forces drove my heights so far above where I sit today.”
“That sounds like him,” I say, my eyes drifting down toward the Black River again, down toward the nondescript stretch of water where brook trout have gathered for as long as there have been brook trout. Just how long that’s been is a question I suspect has already been put to this mountain.
“So,” I say, “my second question.”
“I’m glad we’re getting to that,” the mountain says. “I was beginning to think I’d be mere grains of sand before it came up.”
“Then perhaps you won’t be so long winded this time,” I say.
“I won’t, but only because you ponder such a trivial thing. You came into this world a seeker. A hunter, if you will. It chose you and not the other way around. Yes, there have been animals that wish it wasn’t so, and there will be more to come, no doubt. Even mountains don’t understand all the workings of this universe, but I do believe there is a point to much of it and part of that involves following what we’re drawn to. It is our responsibility. A duty. Some of what keeps things chugging along the way they’re supposed to. Could there be a greater wasted life than one spent by a moose wishing it were a bear? A mountain wishing it were a desert?”
“You and your grains of sand may be one some day,” I say.
“That is so. On the surface. But I will always have been born a mountain. If the day comes when I bake under hot sun where nothing grows and am as flat as the surface of one of my beaver bogs at daybreak, there will still be times. Times when a breeze blows or night falls or the thousand-year rains dampen my soil. I will remember then, just as you may some day remember the bugle of an elk, the flush of a grouse, the way a certain deer looked through a boy’s rifle scope. Your hand will twitch even if your legs can no longer carry you and your heart will quicken. You will remember who you are. And that may be the best any of us can hope for. So you love wildlife and also to hunt. Embrace them both and be grateful for more than a one-dimensional existence.
“And now, with this unexpected break in the weather, I doubt you’ll die of exposure up here. But don’t come back. Not to this same place. Maybe you needed to see it today, and maybe I didn’t entirely dislike our talk, but leave this one alone now. Feel free to thrash around elsewhere up here. Carry a shotgun if you like, though with your waning reflexes I give my grouse six to one odds these days. “
“And you’ve lost bets before,” I say quickly. “Tell me, did my father really say that about the goose?”
I look southeast toward Albany, then west to where the crooked nose of Jay Peak juts into the sky, then north to rolling mountains in Quebec. I wait for an answer, listening to the wind in overhead leaves, the patter of the rain they still shed even in the sun, the hushed sweep of ferns, and the other sounds that make a mountain a mountain.
Excellent tale, Jake. You shine when unfettered by the mundane concerns of editors and publishers. I’m wondering where you’re sitting in the photo. Somewhere above Newark Pond? Please let us know when you return to our neck of the woods.
Beautiful essay! A piece to read, reread, and think deeply about. I love Jake’s fresh, self-searching look into his hunter’s heart, tugged one way by love of the chase and the kill, another by love of the quarry. In a witty dialogue with wise and crotchety old Irasburg Mountain, he comes to embrace (though not to resolve) this paradox. He’s in good company. In “The Bear,” maybe the greatest of all American hunting tales, the paradox also goes unresolved. For me, the building excitement of Jake’s search for the exact spot on the mountain where he first squeezed the trigger on a buck is marvelous. And so is his handling of another search to which this one points: the quest for home. I mean the home we seem to have lost somewhere (Was it in childhood?) and can’t quite recover in this life. We’re much like Thoreau, who hunts without success for a lost hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove in WALDEN, but turns up only second-hand rumors of the horse’s tramp, the hound’s baying, and the dove’s disappearance behind a cloud. Never mind. In this kind of search, the important thing is to be on the trail. And you couldn’t walk it in better company than Jake’s, on Irasburg Mountain.
Thanks again for capturing what many of us sense but haven’t the words to describe. I appreciate your insights and share your love of home and the struggles with not being there. I think that’s a uniquely Northeast Kingdom thing.
Howard Frank Mosher and Jake Mosher have a great deal in common, not the least of which is their ability to converse with the natural world. I like to think that Howard and his special “friend” are still sharing their commentaries on what’s going on down here.
I love the notion of your father and the mountain having discourse