When I read that the Great Meadows Federal Wildlife Refuge had been opened up to hunting I was aghast. How could a place that claims to offer refuge to wild creatures invite other creatures in to stalk and kill the refugees ? It seemed, on the face of it, malicious, even diabolical. After all, "refuge" carries a quasi-theological promise of protection. Theists take refuge in the shadow of God's wings. Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Even the body of the church is called a sanctuary. As in Audubon.
The hunters, I read, could go after deer, but only with bows and arrows. Bows and arrows ?
I pictured wounded deer fleeing, hiding in the brush, suffering prolonged and painful deaths. I shook my head and read on. Hunters would have to wear regulation amounts of "blaze orange." Great: so maybe they won't shoot each other, but what about shooting me ? There was nothing about visitors wearing blaze orange. Then I learned that the refuge had also recently banned dogs. Wildlife and visitors had found them too threatening. But what about the lurking presence of strangers with rifles and crossbows ? Not threatening ? I certainly felt threatened.
Nonetheless I went off to the refuge. I wanted to walk its pleasant, hilly trail, and, on the adjacent town conservation land, to revisit the meadow where, last fall, I'd found a host of splendid, bedraggled sunflowers. Maybe there would be no hunters, or maybe they would be off somewhere else, in some distant part of the refuge. How far can a bullet travel ? Or an arrow ? Two men wearing camouflage and tall rubber boots stood near the door of visitor center. There would be hunters. And nearby.
It was a pleasant, warm morning. The sun had retreated behind low, thin clouds, but, still, the light was good. I crossed a narrow paved road and headed toward the town conservation land. Soon I became aware of the sound of distant bells and an intermittant whistle. Had someone hung a windchime in the woods ? And what was the whistle ? I listened, puzzled.
I found the head of the trail and set off uphill. I was pleased to note the town's "No Hunting" signs. The Feds might count hunting and fishing as two of the six prime usages of public refuge lands; the citizens of Sudbury would have no part of it. Good for them.
The sound of the bells continued from down a steep wooded slope to my right. I walked, stopping to take a picture now and then. I found my eye draw to leaves caught mid fall. Oak leaves cradled by the twigs of a bare bush. A maple leaf caught in green pine needles. Errant leaves that have found temporary lodging on their way down. It seemed an image of tremendous hospitality. Compassion, even. Or mercy. Then I spotted him. The hunter. I spotted his blaze orange cap through the trees of the wooded slope. He was less than 100 yards away, and he saw me too. I tried to appear as undeer-like as possible. I followed the trail uphill, and then, relieved, found the entrance to the sunflower meadow.
I felt safer there, out in the open, among signs of last summer's public garden plots: low wire and twine fences, an overturned wheelbarrow, a seedpacket on a stick, a plastic swan. Surely this deserted field was benign, even vegetarian, home to peaceful, cultivating citizens. Surely it was a safe haven for deer and photographer alike. Surely it was a refuge. We grew this lettuce ourselves, on the conservation land. Isn't it tasty ? Pass the snow peas. Would you care for more veal piccata ?
I remembered a newspaper piece I'd read last spring, about fiddleheads. It featured a photo of a portly, crewcut man holding a plate. He was interviewed in the article. Fiddle heads were, he said, delicious. Especially steamed, and with lots of butter. Later, photographing the sticky, webby, uncoiling ferns, I was stunned by their beauty, and my heart sank. How could anyone eat something so beautiful ? But weren't all fruits and grains and vegetable beautiful and miraculous ? I was already a vegan -- what would be left to eat ? Air ? What was it that Simone Weil, that great renunciate, had said ?Beauty: a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.
andThe beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be.
Clearly, one had to go on eating. And, by extension, killing. But I could draw the line. I had to draw the line. Somewhere. As I photographed a bed of dried, drooping compositae, I heard a voice. I looked up. There was the hunter, across the field at the edge of the woods. He was waving and calling. His dog was at his side.Hellooo ! Take my picture !!
I obliged. He assured me he'd simply be passing through the woods beside the meadow. I shouldn't worry. I waved back, unsure of what to say. What had our transaction meant ? Was he baring his throat to me in a primitive gesture of non-harm ? Was my snapshot a reciprocal gesture ? He intended ME no harm. I bore him considerable ill-will, yet did as he requested. He was eliciting from me more forbearance than I was from him. He wasn't out to kill me, after all. I, on the other hand, wanted to give him a piece of my mind. How can you possibly kill a living creature ? They have a right to their lives just as you do and I do. As your dog does ! Surely you don't need to hunt to eat. And don't give me that argument about overpopulation and culling the herd. It begs the question of you chosing to become executioner: annihilating, in cold blood, one particular creature's existence. That's not abstract theory. That's the most intimate of acts. Chosing, stalking, wounding, killing. The creature feels fear and pain: what justifies your choice to inflict it ? Tradition ? It's fun for you ? You like the taste of venison ? God has given you Dominion over the beasts ? They're just stupid animals ? We're carnivores by nature ? Don't you see how killing debases YOU ?
His handsome dog trotted toward me across the field. There were the bells I'd heard -- a whole rack of them, almost as big as cowbells -- hanging from his collar. He clanged as he trotted. Like a belled cat, or a leper. What did it mean ? The hunter whistled, the dog clanged off
and I returned to the dried pods and fallen fruits of the meadow gardens. Whom was I kidding ? This meadow was no paradise, no pre-lapsarian eden.
It was, if anything, post-post lapsarian. We know all about good and evil, and by golly, we know that we know that we know with six degrees of blood-curdling irony. CEO of munitions plant by day, organic gardener by night. All is possible. All is granted. Just wear a little blaze orange, will ya please ?It was an accident, your honor. I swear !
Little wonder I've spent the last year or two dreaming about monasteries and lauras of hermits. Where is refuge in a world where lines are seldom drawn, where restraint is rarely advised, where appetites are freely indulged. Where everything is fair game. Where we are all sitting ducks.
Fragments of text -- birds of the air, lilies of the field -- remind us of the holiness of everything; and, we are reassured, all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well. Sometimes, gazing into the heart of a flower, I can almost believe it.
When the gun finally went off it was almost a relief. Startled, I fell to my knees in a bed of rotting peppers. My body could fall among them to this ground, fail, relinquish its nattering "I" and, like them, turn to wormholed slime. I and all my siblings -- peppers, birds, deer, dogs, hunters, planets, suns -- will eventually tumble from our precious, temporary lodging, back into -- into what ? God ? The Void ? The Mother of All ?
There, in the field, on my knees I was neither wounded nor praying. Or was I ?