Death in the Woods
January 1, 1970
When my grandfather moved with his family from New York City to New Jersey, in 1890, they were moving to the country, a peaceful place beyond the frantic pace of that big city, a congested place, even then. My grandfather was a young man of fifteen at that time and he enjoyed hunting when he was not at work. Venison was a delicacy and he tanned the hide into soft leather. He hunted then in the hills and mountains around their north Jersey home, until perhaps the early 1920s. By then, many houses had been built in his hunting woods. One day, my mother and her sister came home from school to find their father lying on the couch, in pain. His leg was full of buckshot, the mistake of another hunter. He looked at his children and he said, “It’s not safe to hunt in this place anymore. There are too many people. My hunting days are over.”
My aunt remembers that day as a time when a kind of innocence left them, a time when the world pressed just that much closer to the perceived freedoms that my grandfather, who once walked across the suspending cables of the newly built Brooklyn Bridge and who enjoyed swimming across the Hudson River, felt made this country a wonderful place to live.
In Maine, thirteen years ago, Karen Wood was shot and killed by a hunter who said he had mistaken her white mittens for the retreating tail of a doe. She was hanging clothes in her backyard and her twin daughters were inside the house, waiting for their mother to come back inside. They screamed from their playpen while their mother bled to death on the November ground just yards from their back door. Those girls are almost grown up now, I suppose, and I wonder what memories they have of their mother, if any at all.
Another man and his girlfriend were loading wood into their pickup truck by the side of the road, also in Maine, perhaps ten years ago now. It was dusk and the hunter who approached them had been drinking when he shot and killed the woodsman as his girlfriend looked on in horror. The hunter went to jail and the girlfriend descended into paralyzing grief.
These are the indelible mistakes of a growing population caught in the crossfire of its own sense of sport, a population that barely remembers venison and that no longer stitches moccasins from deer hide.
Last year my neighbor was walking his dog down this road at ten o’clock at night when he felt a bullet whistle by his head. The police came and in the morning they found the bullet lodged in his fencepost. Though there never has been a real explanation for what happened, there was speculation about poachers using night vision goggles to find and shoot deer in the darkness. If that was the case, then they mistook my neighbor or his movement for a deer, or for any living animal that might be felled by their bullets. Of course, this kind of hunting is completely illegal but the end result could be the same.
If you knew this road and the incredible peace that descends with nightfall or if you knew my neighbor and his beloved old dog, you would find this as surreal as I did. The newspaper, the next day, apparently found the incident so inexplicable that they mistakenly headlined it as a “drive by shooting” when in fact, there was no car, only a phantom bullet in the stillness of a cold New Hampshire night. Were these clandestine hunters desperate for meat or desperate for thrills? What would have happened if the bullet had hit my neighbor’s head rather than the fencepost? Save for the unfathomable grief of his loved ones, perhaps nothing would have happened, just as nothing really happened as a result of Karen Wood’s death. Or the death of the young man cutting wood. Every November, the hunters return. And hope that their aim will be true.
It all reminds me of the story about my grandfather, the hunter who loved his gun and his sport but who knew when times had changed and, with his leg riddled with buckshot, when it was time to stop.