Three days after Christmas, the first winter storm softly blanketed our small Vermont town with 10 inches of fresh powder. Suffering from an early case of cabin fever, Tom and I decided to head out for a day of rabbit hunting, up behind Mike Lourie’s dairy farm. We parked Tom’s Ford pickup by the snowmobile trail on the abandoned railroad bed; opened the crate to let out Bernadette, Tom’s plump 7-year-old beagle; and set out over a small bridge up onto the side hills that we have hunted for a dozen years.
Expectation is the first thing that comes to mind as one starts off on a hunt. I remembered the time that we chased the legendary “ghost rabbit” up and down the mountains and how he outfoxed us at every turn. And the warm, wet day in late fall when we ran more than half a dozen rabbits, Bernadette circling down a side hill, through the swamp, and back up to the hilltop while we watched both her and the rabbit with the satisfaction of a proud parent. And the day that a large “brownie” kept crossing a narrow field, always just out of range, making me feel like Elmer Fudd trying to outsmart Bugs Bunny.
But on this day, there would be no rabbits. Bernadette was having a hard time breasting the windswept snowfall, following my footsteps instead. The rabbits were holed up, well concealed under brambly thickets or in old woodchuck holes. Bernadette was game enough, heading into hedgerows with enthusiasm but emerging with snow-filled snout, sheepish and hangdog. I saw snow-sketched tracks of squirrel and chipmunk but hardly a sign of rabbits, as if they had all headed south for the winter with the geese. Rabbit populations rise and fall in cycles, or so the locals say: something to do with disease or an influx of coyotes or, more likely, simply the ebb and flow of nature.
After a couple of hours of hard going, my expectations dwindled and it became clear that today was not going to offer much excitement, and then disappointment set in. I stopped, wolfed down half of a roast beef sandwich with a gulp of water, and then decided to take the long route around a large two-acre patch of brambles and up to the top of the hill.
It had been cloudy and sharply cold all morning but then a royal-blue pennant of sky emerged above the treetops and floated out triumphantly across the broader horizon. The sun made a shy appearance, snow sparkled, ice crystals glistened, and the distant frosted mountains, still in dark relief, set off the bright white-clapboard village below: a winter diorama. I watched the sky, a quick-change actor of great experience: a gunmetal weight of clouds, a hazy sun spotlighting open fields, a pop of sunlight, and, finally, a wisp of snowflakes and the swift return of a winter countenance. I heard Tom and Bernadette below, so I shadowed their movements, but higher up, to catch a rabbit running uphill if one should appear.
The afternoon lengthened and disappointment faded. I saw frozen, icy milkweed and thistle; a weight of snow on a canopy of thornbush; a small encampment of scalloped deer beds in the snow; and drunken deer track, weaving in and out of the tree line, hunting something good to eat overnight in the storm. The walk reminded me of a Sunday cocktail hour the prior week in Boston, in the living room of a friend who had suddenly turned ill. We chatted up the little things—the muted football game on TV, a speech on the occasion of a 75th birthday, a child’s portrait, the lack of skating ice last winter, and the subtleties of soup making. The room was comfortable and steam-heated, decorated with a child’s ladder-back chair; a defiantly joyful Christmas tree; a dimpled, late-middle-aged sofa; the hollow chunk of ice against glass; a lifetime of helter-skelter knickknacks; and a whiff of incense, myrrh perhaps (a hint of ritual purification).
When you step out your back door to hunt, expectation preempts the ordinary nature of most outings. One sits in a tree, in nature’s living room, and listens to the conversation or walks through a snowy field, in vain pursuit of quarry. There, in a cozy parlor, or on a cold, wintry landscape in brambled pastures, we harbor hope for the future.
On occasion, however, whether from fate or snowfall, we must set hope adrift and turn back toward familiar shores. We return to the pickup, legs rubbery and worn, faces ruddy from pale winter sun. Or we end our visit with friends, twist mufflers against the cold, and don heavy peacoats in familiar ritual for the December walk home. We will say later that, all in all, it has been a good day, a day for the little things, a day when we took full measure of the ordinary and did not find it wanting.