Now that another deer-hunting season has ended, I’m reminded of the old joke about Robert Frost in heaven. As soon as Frost gets there, he hails three other newcomers. “Where are you from?” he asks the first. “California.” “And you?” “Massachusetts.” “Marvelous,” exclaims Frost, “come discuss poetry with me!” Turning to the third, he asks “How about you?” “Maine.” Frost pauses, then says, “D’ja get your deah?”

In the 1980s, most of my neighbors hunted deer. In November, you were nearly as likely to see deer as holiday lights hanging from front-yard trees. Triumphant hunters used to drive around town with a buck instead of a Christmas tree strapped to the roof of their cars.

Deer hunting, or at least the public display of dead game, seems less common now in Maine. Many people feel alienated by the sport and estranged from sportsmen. I confess that I used to dread hunting season because it seemed unsafe to walk in the woods. The first thing I did when we bought our house 35 years ago was post “No Hunting” signs.

But with each November I became increasingly uncomfortable judging and being wary of my hunter neighbors. Those I came to know turned out to be responsible people, concerned about safety and wildlife conservation. To my surprise, I began to feel an atavistic urge to join them, to be a hunter-gatherer and provider. I was also attracted to the notion of avoiding bovine growth hormones and the environmental impact of factory-farmed beef, and thinning the herd that was ravaging our vegetable garden and flower beds.

So, at age 45 I took down the signs and took up deer hunting. A neighbor who was dying of cancer had just given me his Remington .35-caliber rifle as his parting gift. Other neighbors brought me venison for inspiration and good luck, along with heaps of advice about what to wear, where to hunt, how to hide my scent.

If you’ve watched deer brazenly grazing along the highway but never hunted them, you might be surprised to find out that it’s harder than you think. It requires sitting absolutely motionless, often under frigid conditions, ideally in the dim light of dawn or dusk, intensely alert to the snap of a twig or a deer’s ghostlike appearance from behind a shrub. While you wait, being still and quiet in nature can astonish you, like the time a downy woodpecker, mistaking me for a sapling, perched briefly on my thigh, or a fisher ambled up, suddenly noticed me, and leapt with a hiss into the tree above my head.

Most of the time, though, nothing happens while deer hunting. I don’t know how my neighbors pass their time in the tree stand, but I memorize poetry. I can do it without making a sound, and it makes me feel as if I’ve actually accomplished something after investing fruitless hours without seeing or hearing a deer. This year I added to my repertoire Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (which, given the pandemic and our troubled politics, seemed especially appropriate), Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” and Frost’s “The Master Speed.”

Deer hunting has brought me many gifts. Not much venison, to be honest, but a trove of memorized poems and a deeper awareness of nature. What I’m most grateful for is the sense of kinship with my neighbors, even those whose political views I don’t share. Now, when I bump into a fellow hunter dressed in blaze orange and a Cabela’s cap, I’m eager to find out how his season has gone, swap stories and get to know him better.

I can’t remember if the person who first told me the Frost joke was a local or “from away.” It is tempting to hear in the telling a regional snobbery – blue staters versus red staters – and the whiff of “deplorables.” But I prefer to imagine Frost trying to elevate poetry and hunting to the same heavenly plane. To encourage us to listen to each other. To bring us “together wing to wing and oar to oar.”

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