The Ground Beneath our Feet
Mr. President, titular head of the Old Rabbit Hunter’s Association, is not one to jump headlong into a campaign. The pickup must be parked properly beside the railroad bed, the dogs removed from their cages and leashed, the tattered hunting vest donned along with his vintage Mossy Oak camouflage cap, and then, and only then, can we parade across the bridge that brings us to our hunting ground. The casual reader could not know that this bit of protocol—crossing the bridge with beagles in hand, gear and sandwiches properly stowed, and our hearts light with anticipation—has its share of pomp and circumstance. This particular bit of ground that we see before us, part of Mark Lourie’s dairy farm, is hallowed. It is an endless expanse of scrub-filled sidehill dense, thorny undergrowth punctuated by hay fields, brooks, and access roads, the perfect habitat for cottontails, Sylvilagus floridanus. Mr. President has hunted the larger snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus, and I have had the pleasure of photographing him with a particularly large example of this species in hand after a successful hunt, but it is the more commonplace brownie, the cottontail, that is the object of our passionate quest on winter weekends, as we once again enter this heralded preserve.
This has been a poor season for rabbit hunters, an admittedly small association of those of us who are at the very bottom of the hunting hierarchy. Not for us the majestic elk or the 12-point South Dakota mule deer. Not for us makeshift blinds, bird dogs, and the incoming whoosh of a flock of canvasbacks or goldeneyes. And although we approach deer season with eager anticipation, we miss the bark of the dogs, the gentle walks through wintry landscapes, and the hour-long runs as the rabbits double back and take unexpected turns, the chase often ending with the triumph of rabbit cunning and experience. For those unfamiliar with this commoner’s sport, thinking that the hunter and hunted are terribly mismatched, I can only recount the following story. One day 30 years ago, Mr. President found his dog running hard in a circle with the rabbit watching contentedly, seated on a tree stump, smack in the middle of the action.
Despite a low population of rabbits and a prior hunt that unearthed not one encounter, the dogs were hot on the trail of the first rabbit in just minutes. Mr. President and I waited for the cottontail to make the turn, and we were soon heartened by the sound of incoming, full-throated beagles. We waited but the rabbit was clever: It ducked down below us into the scrub before it came in range and then holed up; the dogs lost the scent. It is curious that many of us go through life living in a place that is quite the opposite of our natural territory. Rabbits are well adapted to their environment, with large ears for sensing predators, eyes located on the sides of their head for wide vision, and camouflage: Some species, such as snowshoe hares, even turn white in the winter and brown in the summer. And, like Briar Rabbit, they choose a landscape well suited to survival: dense, thorny scrub with easy access to food and water.
Mr. President, who often remarks that he was born to hunt rabbits, is similar in nature. He needs to live in a place where he can step out the back door to hunt, sit down after dinner and watch his potatoes grow in the summer, or tap trees in February to get ready for the first run of sap and the first boil. It is a life of engine oil and welding equipment, of 16-gauge shells and pig feed, of rabbit dogs and sand spreaders, of pellet stoves and binoculars. But so many of us—my father, for example—never found their spot, the place where you stand and feel life coursing up through your legs, animating one’s spirit and fueling optimism for the future. For some, it is the streets of Paris, while others ache for the soft impression of a mossy bog.
The trail of the next rabbit was picked up down by the stream that trickles through a reedy marsh and then runs behind the farm. Bernadette, the more experienced dog, sniffed out the track, and Nellie, the 2-year-old with her first scent of rabbit, opened up as well, with high-pitched yips of childish enthusiasm. Off they went, barking and bugling, through a hedgerow, into the next field, and then up the sidehill and into 2 acres of dense undergrowth. The rabbit went for a long, straight run and then turned; we could hear the dogs getting louder, and then the chase paused, the dogs sniffing in circles to pick up the scent. I waited in the next field, watching the hedgerow. Finally, I thought I saw young Nellie through the brush, paused. Then, with two hops, a buck rabbit emerged and sat quietly on the edge of the field, just 15 yards away. Any hunter who has come face-to-face with one’s quarry knows the truth of this encounter. The rabbit is perfectly at home in a world that is beyond human understanding. As a hazy sun emerged and I saw the upshot ears, the overstuffed face, and the motionless outline, I did not lift my gun. Then, with an explosion of speed, he wheeled and ran up the hill through the undergrowth; I picked a clear patch about 40 yards out in front, amid the brush, and waited until the very last moment, when he was almost out of range.
It is 8 degrees today, the day after the hunt. The ground is frozen, the sky is gray, and we await the running of the sap, the white smoke billowing forth from the sap house, and the coming of another season. But even walking through a frozen, snow-crusted field, I know what lies beneath my feet: a thin layer of mountain soil, clay, schist, slate, perhaps marble, and then a porridge of glacial moraine. I have walked these woods for more than a half century, and they offer hard-earned intimacy: a bear and her cub sashaying through a forest clearing, a great horned owl eating a field mouse in a tree at dawn, and a great vortex of honeybees moving like a cloud over a pasture, floating up into the woods. All that is required is to know where to stand, to choose the right floor for naked feet at morning’s first light. With the ground solidly beneath us, we can stand up for what we believe and remain standing no matter what life has to offer.
Thanks and apologies to Gordon MacQuarrie, author of Stories of the Old Duck Hunters.