Mid-November is hunting season, bringing me a rare chance to sit still in the woods and just listen. We value silence and listening throughout the year, as often our best clues to natural or human events are not visual. Working in the fields, our eyes have to focus on the task at hand, but our ears can remain perked for unusual birds, chicken excitement (possible hawk), frogs, insects, and more. Knowing the soundscape of the farm allows us to understand far more of its patterns than our eyes could ever tell us. Even so, hunting gives me a new perspective on this aspect of our life.
I hunt primarily by sound rather than sight. Our woods are fairly thick, meaning there are no long sightlines or shots. I usually hear a deer coming well before I see it; it takes concentration to pick out the quiet step-step-pause of a deer moving through leaves, and to prepare before it comes into sight. I use an iron-sight hunting rifle with no scope, and set up either in a basic open tree stand or on the ground, sometimes stalking on foot to scare up something. Then, too, I usually hear the deer I scare before I see it, and have to judge by its sound where it went. I don’t bother with fancy hunting gear, scents, or other purchased tricks. All this requires concentration on the environment around me, far more so than relaxing in a heated deer cabin at the edge of a cornfield. I consider it a much more interesting, and fair, competition with the deer; the frustrating days when I don’t see or achieve anything at least keep the odds balanced.
Nestled under a tree deep in our eastern woods before dawn, I settle in and listen to the woods come awake. Goldfinches start up early, flitting high overhead with a rapid chew-chew-chew-chew that everyone but me thinks sounds like po-ta-to-chip. Crows and Blue Jays also tend to start early, the latter mimicking hawks and generally carrying on. Some mornings the woodpeckers are really active, with Flickers, Red-Bellieds, and Downys all over the place, or Nuthatches crawl the trunks with their distinct honking call. If I’m lucky, the loud distinctive cry of a Pileated Woodpecker echoes through the trees, and I might catch a glimpse of the large bird skimming through the treetops. Squirrels get off to an early start, too, driving me nuts as they create the momentary impression of a larger footstep before going on to make far more noise as they rummage through leaves and chase each other. Most of these things I hear more than see, tracking the noises and estimating where they are across a landscape very familiar to me.
The natural world isn’t the only source of morning audio stimulation. One or more roosters start crowing well before dawn; in fact, I can trace Joanna’s movements as she does the morning animal chores from the sounds that echo back to me through the woods. First, a flutter of squawks & clucks from the chicken shed as she opens the door and the hens fan out in search of food, the roosters fighting over their first courtesan of the morning. A few minutes later, the three goat kids start hollering as they catch sight of her walking down the field road toward their overnight shelter. We’ve been housing the adult does overnight in the dairy barn for the last three weeks, leaving the kids in the normal field shelter, and they’re quite capable of sharing their displeasure with the entire neighborhood when they have an excuse. Early-morning whining goats are our answer to barking dogs in the middle of the night. MAAAAAAAAAAAAAA in three slightly different keys, kept up as the heartless Joanna goes right past toward the barn. I can’t hear the adults hollering back, or the pig squealing in excitement at her approach, hidden as they are behind a hillside, but I know the timing of each. Eventually, when she’s done milking and brings the does back out to pasture to rejoin the kids, the ruckus quiets down again.
There are off-farm sounds to follow, too. The four-lane Highway 63 is barely a mile to the east, and can generally be heard roaring away unless a trick of air currents masks the noise. The twin bridges over Silver Fork a few miles to the north are special offenders, acting as a sounding board for the constant traffic, even at wee hours of morning or night. Commuting hours, such as the prime deer-hunting hours, ratchet up the highway noise even more. There are mornings when I really have a hard time picking out the subtler noises of the forest for the ubiquitous white noise from 63. Even on the west end of the farm, our blacktop road can be just as loud, as even a single set of tires from some predawn commuter whine for several miles, echoing up our valley and obliterating the gentle movement of leaves that signals a quietly moving deer. There is no answer to this problem; we use roads too and our tires are no quieter, but I suspect we also pay more attention to the value of silence than most people. Of course, there are other mornings where the atmosphere has played a different set of cards, and the absolute silence could convince you there’s nothing for miles.
Oddly, I’ve found that having something else to listen to sometimes heightens my concentration on the surroundings. My mind is always in high gear, unable to shut down and stop thinking entirely, and I can easily get lost in thought and stop paying attention, or get antsy thinking about all the other farm jobs I’m not getting done by sitting out here with a rifle. While it would be nice to be one with the woods a la Thoreau or Muir, I don’t find that easy to achieve when the demands of farm life are so strong, and the world is full of interesting and frustrating things to think about. So I’ve experimented with listening to audiobooks on a small iPod, an earbud in just one ear and the volume turned way down, and found it a very effective compromise. I can half-listen to the book, usually something that doesn’t take too much concentration, letting it keep the thoughtful part of my brain occupied in a more-passive situation than active thought, while the other brain half and ear keep a normal watch. Having one ear blocked means I turn my head more, keeping up a regular owl-like swivel across the landscape, actually improving my eyes’ ability to pick out subtle movement or link it with my open ear’s attention. So far I’ve never been surprised by a deer or anything else while using this method, and it lets me stay in the woods longer without stress, annoyance, or distraction. On the surface, this is rather contrary to the enjoyment of natural sounds around me, but we’re all inconsistent beings, and I’ve found this to be a good compromise between an idealized druidic oneness with the woods and my high-octane personality and brain which don’t like sitting still not accomplishing anything.
This season offers a rare chance to spend time in the woods rather than fields, and I enjoy the chance to slow down and appreciate a different part of the farm and a different way of experiencing it, in a way that works best for me.