My second hunt took place a few weeks later. I let the rest of deer season slip by without trying again. Every book I read suggested that I really ought to cut my teeth on small game anyway. This time I set out to a nearby piece of public land with my brand new Ruger 10/22, a written list of all the small game currently in season, and little idea of what I was going to do.
There is a special feeling that accompanies the first time you set off on a trail with a rifle slung over your shoulder. I’d only fired a gun for the first time a few years prior, and every experience I had was in a very controlled setting–several gun ranges and a couple experiences shooting skeet out on the barrier islands of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There is a feeling that flows through you that you are really doing something when you set off down a public trail with a rifle over your shoulder. You immediately engage with the world differently, your awareness changes.
This is not to say that I was suddenly some sort of squirrel sniper. I spent the first half of the day wandering around the woods without seeing much. I found a thicket of raspberry brambles that seemed like it would be a great place to be a rabbit, so I watched it for a while, but they were too wily for me. I wandered up to it and found their passages, but they wouldn’t show and eventually I gave up and wandered off again.
Around noon I decided it was time for a bite, so I found a beautiful old beech tree to lean against and sat down for lunch. I pulled out a book after eating because I thought I might as well get something productive done while I was out there. The book was Islands in the Stream by Hemingway, as I remember. Fitting, as he was one of the people whose writing originally inspired me to pick up a rifle and take to the woods.
I read for I don’t know how long. I’d started this book years before while traveling to London, but it had depressed me too much and I had to put it down. I was just eighteen then, and apparently not yet ready for the beautiful melancholy of Hemingway. This time I was wrapped up in the story. Almost too wrapped up to hear that rustle, to see that flash of grey.
Thirty yards in front of me a squirrel pranced its way along a downed tree. I set down the book slowly, careful not to make any noise or move too quickly. I picked up my rifle and brought it to my shoulder, trying to approximate a seated firing position without rustling any leaves. I put the squirrel in my sights, but it had crept down the log a bit and there was now a tangle of branches in the way.
Reasoning that my bullet would probably be knocked off-course by one of those twigs I stood up and took a couple steps to the right, but the squirrel had disappeared. I jogged a few steps toward the log and stopped, scanning the forest and listening for any movement, but for the quality of my senses, it had fully disappeared. I went discouraged back to my beech and my book.
An hour or two passed without sight or sound of another critter, but my book was good and the forest was beautiful. It was, however, time to go home. I gathered up my things and started walking out. I decided to rely on dead reckoning to find the parking lot–if I walked the trail I certainly wouldn’t find anything, but maybe I’d rustle something up if I just beelined through the woods.
Sure enough, a few minutes later there was a fierce dash on through the leaf litter. I startled up a grey squirrel and it took off across the forest floor. In this moment I was as close to a terrier as likely I will ever be–I took off after it immediately, instinctively. After only a few yards it flew up a tree and I followed its course through the branches as well as I could. It was moving far too quickly for me to shoot at it, so I followed it with my eyes and my feet, hoping it would pause on a branch for a moment and give me a clean shot. Instead, I watched as it found a broken top tree and plunged into a cavity nest.
But I couldn’t let this one go. I still knew where it was, it hadn’t succeeded in losing me with all of its aerial acrobatics. I sat down, trained my rifle on the nest, and waited. I don’t know how long I sat there, but it was not a short period of time. My fingers were freezing where they stuck out of my wool gloves. But eventually it showed itself.
As I sat watching it poked its head out of the hole for just a moment, quick as can be, then disappeared back into the dark. Over the next few minutes the squirrel became slowly bolder as it probed for predators. It would poke its head out for longer and longer, eventually it began to call out, giving away its location while it remained mostly inside the safety of its home. I watched and remained patient. I needed it to come out of its nest before I could shoot, otherwise it would just fall in there and the meat would be wasted. This time spent sitting and watching the squirrel I felt more engaged with nature than I had before in my life. I felt more human. I was engaged in a life or death struggle with another creature and it was incredible.
It finally crept its way out onto a large branch just above and to the left of its nest. It was far enough that if I hit it well, it wouldn’t be able to get back into its nest. I recentered it in my iron sights, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger. The bark of the tree just in front of the squirrel’s head erupted, maybe two centimeters from a perfect shot, and it darted back into its nest.
I repeated the process, waiting in the same spot, sights trained on the nest, while again the squirrel went through its dance, trying to lure me into making a mistake, to overplaying my hand and giving it a chance to escape. But it had a couple tricks up its sleeve as well.
It began the performance just as before, poking its head out for longer and longer periods, eventually calling out its presence. But this time it did not creep out onto the branch and expose itself to me. This time it shot out of the nest like a rocket and bounded off through the canopy.
I leapt up and gave chase, doing my best to follow its movements above, but it did not pause for a moment. It jumped and scrambled its way from tree to tree and then disappeared into another hollow tree.
I could have sat down and repeated the process, once more lulling it into a sense of security and then hoping that it would again expose itself to me, but I didn’t. I wanted so badly to come home from this hunt successful, but I didn’t have it in me. This squirrel had shown me something about the world. That time spent engaged with the squirrel was some of the most real of my life. I had scratched the surface of something deep inside me, something ancient. I returned to my car humbled.