Bow hunting is best pursued alone, and usually is. Here and there but rarely in Minnesota there are "bow hunting camps," and years ago I hunted elk with my bow in Colorado with an outfit that catered only to archers. But group archery hunts are the exception. When a quiver is affixed to a bow, a hunter usually enters the woods alone.
This fall, I set aside seven days to hunt deer with my bow. At other times I hunted with a rifle. But the preparation for one is so unlike preparation for the other that except for their common quarry they are barely the same undertaking.
With a rifle, for example, a few trips to a gun range to brush up usually suffices. By contrast, releasing an arrow accurately has more of a Zen feel to it, and a mind free of clutter is required to do it consistently.
This thinking, that the harmony or disharmony of oneself is expressed through the accurate or inaccurate shooting of a bow, dates back millennia.
The ancient Japanese practice of Kyudo — the way of the bow — displaces the modern notion that archery is mere recreation. Considered instead to be a pathway for personal growth in which one's spiritual, mental and physical energies are joined to hit a target — target in this instance being defined in many ways — archery in the Kyudo tradition is less a means to perfect a shot than to perfect oneself.
The Irish philosopher W.O. Judge, born in Dublin in 1851, also was a spiritual archery advocate.
"When the arrow is aimed and loosed it must be slightly raised to allow for the trajectory, for if not it will fall short,'' Judge wrote. "We must have a high mental and spiritual aim if we are to hit high, [allowing] for the trajectory that comes about from the limitations of our nature."
Viewed this way, the bow is not so much a material object as a manifestation of the self. To know one is to know the other.
On my seventh day, I had climbed into my stand prepared not to shoot my bow again. Two fork-horned bucks, a spike and two does had passed beneath my stand on the previous days, but I hadn't drawn back. The meat I already had in the freezer would last longer than the coming winter. And anyway, whatever the point of the hunt was, ending it early was not on the list.
On that final day I had shot a dozen practice arrows before heading out. This was at home and I stood 30 yards from the target. Half of the arrows had field points and half broadheads. Always I want the broadheads to fly as true as the field points, and these did. My larger intent was to stretch my shoulders and arms and to hold my bowstring at full draw while stilling my heart, my breath.
Much has been written about the window to the natural world that awaits the attentive hunter. Squirrels scamper across fallen leaves. Geese fly overhead in precise skeins. A fox materializes from nowhere, or a porcupine or even a wolf.
Unseen, the keen hunter observes these with high interest, while, in the process, relegating to immaterial the cadence and content of the day's news — the monkey on our collective back, as it were.
This tuning out, or, more appropriately, tuning in, is what the Japanese call munen musō, meaning, variously, "no thought/no illusions,'' or "no thought/no action." Doubtless this and similar states of mind can be achieved while stuck in traffic at rush hour. But arguably they are more readily realized in natural settings than in any other.
With only 45 minutes of daylight remaining, a doe emerged in the distance walking toward me. She was good sized, with no fawn or yearling, and from west to east she approached on a trail before finally appearing about 20 yards from my stand, moving deliberately until she stepped to my downwind side.
Then, smelling me, she froze, with all but her head and neck obscured by two large trees.
For five long minutes she and I remained absolutely still before my scent became too much and she bolted to the south.
Close encounters of this kind with wild animals that otherwise would be shamed by such proximity are a hunter's reward. Yet, and still, for the hunter, a tension always exists between being only an observer and leaving the woods with blood on the hands.
As the Spaniard Jose Ortega y Gasset said in "Meditations on Hunting": "One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted."
Ten minutes passed. Then a buck, a tall 8-pointer, appeared, trailing the doe. He never saw me draw back as he approached, and when I had a clear angle of view I whistled. This would have stopped most deer immediately. But he took two extra steps, and now was partly obscured by tree branches.
Adjusting myself in the stand to clear a shot, I hurried to find a sight line to his shoulder and just behind. Moving slightly again to avoid still more branches, I fingered my release trigger delicately, and fired.
Soon thereafter, cold enveloped the woods and I climbed down from my stand in the dark.
I had missed the buck, shooting cleanly over his back, and he had vanished ghostlike into the ether.
Following the beam of my headlamp, I walked to my truck a half-mile away.
I had no other hunts planned. But I thought the next day I would do some shooting, and the day after that.