I was still rather a newcomer to upstate New York. Newly married, my second marriage, and already having misgivings about it. We lived in a little house near Ithaca we’d recently bought. The back yard bordered on a large nature preserve owned by Cornell University. We could walk out through our back yard and go hiking for miles through a dramatic and beautiful landscape of woods, hills, gorges, and creeks. That nature preserve soon became a kind of personal refuge for me. My wife worked as a nurse at the local hospital and she had to work that Christmas so I was on my own. I had a couple of drinks and stared out of the windows. Feeling bored and restless I wandered out into the back yard and then kept going, out into the woods, and trudged around for a while. The sky was gray and it had just begun snowing lightly. The woods were silent. There was a thin layer of snow over the carpet of dead leaves on the ground.

On the slope of a little wooded hill I came across something I’d never seen before in those woods. Something you wouldn’t expect to see in a nature preserve. I had to stop and think about it for a moment before I realized what it was. High up in the fork of a tree was a deer stand. A bunch of planks nailed together to make a platform for hunters to sit securely up in that tree. I stared at it for a while, being momentarily paralyzed by the incongruity of it. I happen to hate illegal hunting. And the idea of people hunting on a nature preserve makes me angry. So after standing there for a couple of minutes I finally decided I had to do something. But what could I do? I thought about getting tools to dismantle the damned thing. What kind of tool?

I ran back to the house and opened up the back yard shed and took stock of what we had in the way of tools. Mauls, axes, sledge hammers, and crow bars. I decided I could only carry one thing so I grabbed the heaviest sledge hammer in the shed and ran back to the place in the woods. Looking up at that deer stand I wondered if I really could do anything about it. I’ve always had a fear of heights, even of fairly modest heights like that. But I pushed myself to climb up anyway, along little hand- and foot-holds that some hunter had constructed in the side of the tree, climbing one-handed and carrying the sledge hammer with me.

I made it up to the fork of the tree just below the deer stand, which was braced on opposite trunks of the fork. I was perhaps twenty feet off of the ground. Now I started to wonder just what it was that I was going to do. In my position just underneath the wooden platform how could I possibly get a good whack at that thing with the sledge? It didn’t seem possible. I tried raising the sledge and swinging it upward against the planks, but it was impossible to get any real force behind such a blow and the sledge bounced harmlessly off. I felt like a complete fool. After a few of these wimpy attempted blows I was panting from the exertion and starting to sweat. I stopped to rest and think.

It occurred to me that I might be able to effect some damage by just pushing the head of the sledge hammer straight upward and ramming it against the bottom of the platform. I tried this and it was easier than trying to swing it upward. But the head of the sledge wasn’t doing much when it struck the planks. Becoming frustrated, I started ramming it up into the bottom of the platform with a desperate, angry energy. After several such blows, one end of one of the planks sprang free. I felt a sudden elation. I was doing it! I was going to win this battle after all. I rammed it again and one end of the plank broke free from the nails that held it and swung down, crashing directly into the side of my head with shocking violence. I thought I saw sparks flash for an instant and I wobbled in place a bit but I managed to keep my balance in the tree. I grabbed the plank and angrily wrenched the other end of it off of the platform, pitched it out into space and watched it fall to the ground. I stopped to rest. There was still a gentle snowfall. I looked around me. The woods were beautiful. I was exhausted and starting to feel hot. My breath steamed in the winter air. I was sweating profusely. I unzipped my parka, and ripped off my wool hat and flung it out over the forest floor.

I went back to work. I continued my method of ramming the planks from underneath with the head of the sledge. Now that one plank was gone the others were easier to dislodge. I got two more free and threw them out into the snowy woods. I stopped to rest again, swaying and feeling shaky from my exertions. The thought flashed through my mind, this is a foolish thing to do, I could die doing this. But I didn’t care. For some reason I felt a strong sense that what I was doing was right, that it was in fact the only right thing that I could be doing at that moment. Where this conviction came from I don’t know.
Finally I got all the planks knocked down. Shaking from exhaustion, I climbed down the tree. I gathered up all the planks of what used to be the deer stand. I dragged them all home through the snow and stashed them in the shed. My wife came home from work and was angry with me because I had washed a load of her laundry earlier and she didn’t like the way I’d done it. I didn’t tell her about the deer stand, in fact I didn’t say anything. I just went upstairs by myself and went to bed.
Eventually when spring came I burned the deer stand planks in the back yard fire pit. That’s all there is to this story. It doesn’t seem to be particularly significant although much later I found myself coming back to this incident over and over in my memory. It occurred to me that maybe what I had done constituted some kind of small spontaneous act of worship, because however crazy my actions may have seemed to someone else, it was one of the few times in my life when I had acted directly and out of real sincerity rather than from some kind of ulterior motives.

There is a strange postscript, which is that about three months after knocking down the illegal deer stand I came home from work to find two perfect little deer antlers lying on the ground right in front of the back door to the house. Deer normally shed their antlers out in the woods by rubbing them against tree trunks. I’ve never heard of deer shedding their antlers right in front of the door of somebody’s house, but this is what happened. I mentioned this to my friend Sharon, who was a shaman. She was completely unsurprised and said that, of course, the deer offered me this gift as thanks for my knocking down that deer stand. It made total sense to her. I, being a skeptic and a non-believer in magic, am unconvinced that that was the case. But to me it seems a strange and interesting coincidence nonetheless. I still have those antlers, sitting on a shelf in my study.

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