In the old days the season started in mid-November, around the peak of the rut, but for a long time now opening day has been moved back to the first Saturday. Some years we need the woodstove, other years the air conditioner. Cousins, fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfather—for a week we live in the Hill Country bunkhouse built by us in the broiling spring and summer of 1987. The roof gets pounded by marbled hail, and for those of us sleeping on the upper bunks, our faces grow chilled by each night’s frost and our hair stands on end during the electrical storms that cause the tin to crackle. On balmier nights the branches of overhanging oaks scrape and scratch against the roof like the sound track of an old horror movie.
My father’s father, Old Granddaddy, found this property via an ad in the newspaper up in Fort Worth. It was the heart of the Depression, but he was a young man and wanted a place in the Hill Country where he and his family could go hunting. He came down here and checked it out, decided to take the lease—what was it, a dime an acre for a thousand acres? Who knows? He said yes. He changed our lives.
Relatives of Davy Crockett had once owned it, and before that, Comanche claimed it. Judging from the incredible density of tool shards scattered here and there—arrowheads, spearheads, ax blades, awls—I believe it was as special to them as it is to us. On one mesa, I found lichen-spattered sandstone rocks arranged in a perfect circle, the size of a tepee ring, with a view of the entire Hill Country. Lower down, at the mouth of one of the canyons, there are fantastic granite monoliths, eroded into visages eerily reminiscent of the giant heads at Easter Island, and other boulders loom in the shapes of elephants, rhinos, clenched fists.
Now and again you will encounter an old, blue-tarnished bullet casing. The dozen or so men in my family who have hunted here every year since about 1935 have fired a lot of shells. Even if we shot only a couple of times a year, that would still add up to almost two thousand bullet casings breech-jacked into the brush, cartwheeling gold-glinted through the sun, to be lost for a while, until joined by another, perhaps decades later, landing in the same location.
Over time, the deer tend to be drawn to the same landmarks—passing through the same slots and ravines and trails, often at the same crepuscular hours. By learning so well the shape of the land and the timing of the deer as they pass across it, we have found a curious way of slowing time down, or at least bending it, like a blacksmith forging an iron wagon wheel, into something less linear, something that moves in an arc or, for all we know yet, ultimately a full circle.
The more deeply I have come to know this place, the more I understand that there is a reassuring sameness everywhere. The green translucence of each sunfish in the little creek casts a delicate fish-shaped shadow when sunstruck, so much so that the shadow seems more real, more visible, than the fish themselves. A hike through the high boulders on the east side of the lease—boots scritching on the pink wash of gravel that is the detritus of the decomposing granite—takes me past the crystals of quartz that lie next to the bleached skull of a wild hog. The teeth and savage tusks, loosened from his jaw, appear in their repose no different from the bed of ivory crystals on which he now rests.
Elsewhere, on the same hike, far back in the brush, I encounter the skull of a bobcat, with its formidable rabbit-killing canines still intact, resting amid a mound of dried rabbit pellets. Who controls whom, predator or prey? I suppose we should be more intent on finding and killing deer, but we have killed so many across the decades. It’s not so much that there’s a truce as there is a desire, finally, for everything to move more slowly—to move as slowly as possible—and as we all know, when you kill a deer, the hunt is over. At this stage of our lives, we are all less eager for the hunt to be over.
A close observation of nature cannot help but yield a poetic sensibility, and who observes nature more closely than a hunter? Not all hunters, however, evolve (or devolve) into poets. Certainly Old Granddaddy did not. He remained a resolute slayer of deer all the way to the end. After a stroke at 87 damaged his shooting arm, he learned to shoot left-handed and continued his life’s harvest, uncomplicated, it seemed, by questions of mortality, or even jeopardy, chain-smoking cigarettes around the dry cedar all day. An eater of fried foods, particularly pork—“I never see a pig I don’t tip my hat”—he probably would have lived to be about 120 had he had even remotely better habits. He’s gone now, though steadfastly we each and all follow him.
Hunting demands presence and attentiveness, makes life electric with possibility. Even as we age and lose the fire for killing and procuring—as if made weary by our relentless success—the habit of attentiveness continues. We observe the regularity of patterns, from the four seasons to the phases of the moon to the cycles of the deer in the fall breeding period, and everything in between. And yet the hunter’s eye stays ever watchful for the anomaly, the unpredictable bright spot amid the comfortable patterns of the familiar.
This ability to be two things in the world—pattern-viewer and anomaly-seeker—has sharpened who we are as a species and as individuals. I think that stories serve the same purpose within a family. Each year we retell so many of the old ones even as we seek new ones. Many of them concern pranks. Again and again we fall happily