Or How to Skulk In the Woods
Our first lesson is stillness.
Not easy, perhaps, to generate or even locate deep quietude in frenetic modern times. But nature doesn’t tend to do frenzy for long – that realm prefers to remain tranquil, rational, and chary of waste. Sink into nature completely, and her reason and peace may come to you.
Pull your body and mind out of the kingdoms of concrete and electricity, of jittery phones and social demands. As you do, you’ll find that a portion of your natural birthright stands there waiting. Pay close attention to instinct, and it can help you follow a trail of cues on the proper way to immerse yourself in the wild.
To begin, just believe it’s possible.
That swarm of crapola loosely summarized as “civilization” has only been hung around our necks for 10,000 years or so. Origin of us homo saps as a species wends through the millennia way further, ten or twenty times as far, reaching back into a now-dim yet then-vivid era in which we were simply other animals. Cognitively sharper than most critters, maybe, but not living so distant from our furry, scaly or feathered compatriots in terms of habitat or lifestyle.
Be invisible in the wild –
I’ve trodden a fortunate path. Not only did I wander around forests and swamps nearly every day as a child, I’ve spent much of my adult life continuing to roam the outdoors, acquiring and reviving capacities that help me relish moments like this one…
Thick mist shrouds oaks, bays and buckeyes clumped in a thicket filling an ephemeral creek channel. A forked branch a hundred yards up this gulch tilts, gleams, and turns. Seeing it as a tip of a big deer’s antler rack, I glide to a halt. Ceasing my movement is easy; I’ve only taken a single pace forward every three seconds or so.
Horns appear once again. The buck hasn’t detected me, and he continues to walk my way. I slow my pulse, deepen my breathing. Let stillness flow through my body in the same way that cool morning fog threads along this creekbed. The big buck reaches the edge of the trees, looks right past me, rotates his head away, then steps out onto this trail where I stand.
He’s five feet away.
I can nearly count the hairs on his muzzle, almost see the fleas crawling on his butt. I definitely can smell his odor, since he’s positioned slightly upwind – he broadcasts an earthy and acrid tang of warm venison.
His tongue flicks out, making that black nose shine. He sniffs the air. Big ears rotate like fuzzy satellite dishes, seeking to net a signal. His environs apparently feel good and safe to him overall. Yet, some detail seems to nag. It’s as though the visual cortex of his brain taps his situational awareness on the shoulder, and says, “Hey bud, wasn’t there something weird about that stubby tree-trunk you saw before you stepped onto the trail?”
His head swivels back to me, and the pupils of his eyes dilate into dark saucers.
Emotions are forms of primitive cognition that both animals and humans share, biologists say, and I agree. I’ve watched animals reveal a menu of feelings that include embarrassment, even mortification. As with this buck, right now. In anthropomorphic terms, it’s as if he thinks, “Can’t even imagine how I ever let myself get caught so near to a freakin’ human!”
He launches a swift riposte. All four hooves come a yard up off the ground, he pulls a mid-air end-for-end swap like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, then bounds away from the creek to the closest ridge, using a Columbia blacktail deer’s escape gait (termed a “stot”) that makes him hop so high and long he looks like he’s riding a quartet of atom-powered pogo sticks. Just before vanishing, he takes a final look back over his shoulder.
I don’t even raise my rifle. For one thing, on this day, I’m out after feral hogs. But mainly, some wildlife interactions strike me as so grand and wondrous that taking a shot just doesn’t occur to me. This is one of those times.
Getting near wildlife is a win —
Achieving such moments of contact, for me, is like the Plains Indian practice of counting coup. Getting near enough to touch your quarry is far more artistic and worthy than attacking it. Fulfillment of your skill comes in scoring a marvelous opportunity. What you choose to do with it next ends up as a secondary matter.
Since bloodshed isn’t hunting’s most satisfying aspect for me, I find that techniques of a hunter can also be easily and profitably deployed in a more peaceable fashion. My aim on a given day might not be to fill the cookpot, but simply to score a great sighting or take a photo. The primary goal is learning how to share life in the wild with its animals so that you can blend in adroitly, and not bother them unduly. A day well-spent in the woods can be its own sublime reward.
How do you accomplish this? By developing patience, by honing perception, then investing both of these in all aspects of your sylvan behavior and appearance.
By investing in appearance, I don’t mean draping yourself in camouflage till you look like a SEAL Team Six wanna-be. True camo is what I wish to talk about. That miraculous stuff isn’t woven of cloth, but assembled from choices in movement and from skillful use of light and shadow.
It’s achieved via deft navigation past landforms, through exploitation of textures on the earth, and by synchronizing yourself with the very pulses of air – waves one can observe bending a hillside’s grass fields as though they were receiving steady strokes from a vast, invisible hand.
Immerse yourself in understanding and use of these techniques, and you wrap yourself in a cloak of invisibility. Step slowly through a forest while using them, and you make yourself a far more successful hunter than you would by zipping on any garment decked in colored blobs that you can ever hope to purchase.
This might arrive as dismaying news to the folks who like to roar around on dirt roads sitting in large, jolting, 4WD crew-cab pickups. You might’ve seen them, macho guys all camo’d up from their snakeproof boots to their military field hats – some even daubed with streaks of facepaint – who leap from their vehicles infrequently, to blast away at such unwary game as they manage to spook out from cover and into the open. (To dub such men “slob-hunters” is to insult your true slob, a harmless, stubble-chinned guy who likes to lounge on couches and view televised sports while he drinks beer and munches on cold pizza.)
Tarted-up teams of pseudo-commandos just plain miss the point. Both main points of being outdoors, actually. They don’t strive to pursue game quite so much as to overwhelm it. Plus, the grand style and the blunt tools of their overwhelming are such, they barely notice they’re out in the woods. They’re like ham-fisted gardeners trying to till window-boxes with a roto-tiller.
Whatever one wishes to label that style of operation, right now I’d like to discuss its opposite.
Move to stillness, slowness, silence –
Stillness has a cousin named slowness.
In wildlife viewing, speed kills! I realize that’s a slogan cited to combat meth addiction. Associating it with another kind of overwrought behavior is intentional. At what point did we begin to celebrate outdoor activities done at a rabid pace?
The Appalachian Trail is just under 2,200 miles of rolling hills, chuckling streams and sumptuous forest, and Karl Meltzer ran it all in 2016 in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes. The Pacific Crest Trail is almost 2,700 miles of epic alpine vistas, and Joe McConaughty ran the whole thing in 2014 in 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes. Both men averaged 50 miles, performing some two trail marathons each day. Anyone like to convince me these gents fully appreciated the splendor into which they’d thrust themselves? Instead of having to concentrate on mainly avoiding sprains and twisted ankles?
To me, manic activity like this reduces our great outdoors to another consumer product. It shows as much respect for nature as hot-dog-eating contests do for nutrition. Instead of winning renown, participants should be awarded a dose of Ipecac and a bucket. There’s no appreciable difference between running double-marathons through the woods in a day, or charging along on an ATV or snowmobile. Waves of visual and sonic disruption spread wide, and the critters you’ll see are mainly those you shocked out of their naps.
The basic goal of a hunter should be to explore a landscape thoroughly, not rapidly. The overarching aim is to put quality above quantity.
A thoughtful footfall –
Even strolling at a regular pace through a forest is inimical to good wildlife viewing. The crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch of a typical human stride is a dead giveaway – a presumed master of the food-chain is touring the woody ‘hood. For a clue on an alternative, examine how wild creatures move, even the eentsy wren hopping about in your backyard. The bird will hop-hop, pause, check around, hop.
Save your driving rhythm for a dance floor. In the woods, pitch change-ups. Animals move, pause, scout, in a sequence that is seemingly random and highly variable – due to instant responses to fresh inputs. If you hope to blend in, do the same.
Smoothly glide from stillness to slow movement, then back into stillness.
If you think humans are among the planet’s noisiest creatures, you’re right. Yet every being produces some noise while moving, whether it’s a bobcat or a newt. The trick is producing less, plus making the unavoidable amount sound more like it’s been produced by a wild animal.
We’ve already talked frequency, so let’s mention amplitude or volume. Of two places to put down your foot, one will always be better. Study the earth till you know which is which. Are those dry, fallen leaves from an oak or a manzanita? Did those blown away from beneath the tree’s branches happen to get soaked by morning dew? If you step on that patch of gravel, will it grind? What generates more noise, stepping on squishy moss or slimy mud?
Your style of foot placement is also of great consequence. Most people hike by landing their boots with heel strikes. On steep or slippery ground, this is a terrible gait, since if your heel slips out, you’ve got nothing left. Heel-striking also deprives one of the ability to truly sense the resilience of the material underfoot. However, if you slow your pace, and deliberately lower your toes and the balls of your feet to the earth, you can rock back onto a heel and use it to brake should you happen to slip, while you are also able to carefully manage your overall delivery of pressure to the ground.
To put it in simple terms, instead of making a twig snap! you can make it go s-m-u-s-h. From a long and disciplined series of tactical footfalls can emerge a considerable measure of stealth.
Native strategy in the woods –
Early American writers made a big deal of the ways of forest Indians and of their stealthy movements. James Fenimore Cooper who penned his five “leatherstocking” novels in the early 19th Century, praised that “noiseless step” of indigenous warriors. Much of Indian ability should be ascribed to their well-practiced technique, but a certain portion must be credited to their equipment. I can’t conceive of better footgear for feeling the earth and accommodating your step to all it might lands upon than using soft leather moccasins. Hard-soled boots constitute a poor substitute. But should we step carefully, we can render our boots much quieter.
A beau ideal would be imitating the footfall of lynxes and cougars, whose paws mold themselves like beanbags to the ground as they touch it. Even maintaining a conscious intent to have your footfalls land that way can make them more quiet.
Cooper also mentions that Indians heading out on a raid tended to put one supremely talented warrior in the lead. All those who coursed along behind him would carefully place their own feet in the prints of that first man. Thus, each brave traveled more silently than his predecessor, and the war party as a whole made much less noise than it might’ve otherwise.
Delight in finding game trails –
Which brings us to game trails. Pristine, undisturbed nature is a myth. All woods and meadows are wreathed with a network of pathways, some a trough of faint scuffs where a few animals have passed, some worn bare and smooth by many sharp hooves and sets of padding paws.
How do you locate and tread these paths more traveled?
Remember at the beginning, when I said nature tends to be rational? The ancient Greeks perceived that reason isn’t a whimsical blessing or curse that the gods bestowed solely on humans. The Stoics maintain that reason flourishes at the heart of all reality. It’s something inevitable, ineluctable, ordinary, and shared.
Animals seek food, water and cover. As you study a landscape, visualize yourself searching for these, as well. Pursue them in the most logical, efficient manner. Odds are you’ll discover a game trail – at the smartest place to cross a stream, the easiest way over a ridge, the most secure spot to drowse into a nap, and along routes that let you stay hidden under a line of foliage for the longest period of travel.
Walk a game trail that’s already had its sound-generating potential tamped down, and you’ll harvest a large degree of silence. Wild animals grasp this principle well. Even a novice human hiker should be able to pick up on it.
Use of shade and sunlight –
Forms that make up landscapes may be emphasized or muted by sunshine and shade. A wise hunter finds advantage in their interplay. Pop chanteuse Joni Mitchell sang on a live album, “Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light…” The genius inherent in Joni’s line is that it acknowledges a multiplicity of shadows can be cast by various shapes, while (outdoors, at least) light generally streams from a single point. On the “downstream” side of hillsides, trees and rocks lurk banks and blobs of shadow. You can connect these dots like beads on a necklace to create a concealing line of travel for yourself.
I know I dissed camo-clothing earlier, but that was mainly to make a point that wearing camouflage is no substitute for smart use of natural features. Out in the woods, I do tend to wear drab clothing, with the shirt a light color and the trousers dark, or vice-versa. That way, whether I’m illuminated or shaded, as long as I’m not moving, I’ll appear to animals to be half my size. If I move through a bank of shadow, I stop before emerging into the light, and take a moment to study what’s out there before proceeding. Animals do this, too.
Exploit all false horizons –
The many horizons our earth affords can be used in this fashion, as well. On undulating terrain, every single hill, slope or ridge provides its own horizon line, as does each thicket or line of brush. While out hiking, as soon as your head rises up past any of these crests, you should pause – because at that moment, you hold a clear advantage.
You can see everything on the other side, but animals on the other side can only see your head, which means, at that point, they won’t necessarily be able to ID you as a human. You could be just a small, head-sized critter, say, a porcupine with an odd pelt. If you don’t reveal the rest of your body, if you traverse instead of continuing up over the hill, if you don’t act predatory and instead mimic animal movements, you may well avoid spooking them.
Of course, once they notice you at all, they will use all of their senses to try to figure out what you are, and whether or not you pose a threat. Animal senses of smell do tend to be better than our own, so if you appear upwind of them, it’s usually game-over. If you stay downwind, however, you’ve got a fighting chance to keep them uncertain of your identity. Even when air seems still, there are often subtle currents. To discover which way a mass of air might be moving, pinch some dust or duff (leaf litter), raise it up, let it go, and watch it drift. But even if you find out the direction of the main current, air flows in boils and eddies, just as water in a creek bounces over and re-circulates around rocks. So don’t be surprised if the critters score a whiff even while you imagine you’re still downwind.
Waltz with nature’s rhythm –
Moving air demonstrates another characteristic that can be further discovered and exploited. Wind commonly arrives in pulses which can be observed in the waving of grasses, the bobbing of branches, and the vibration of brush. Such movement is multiplied by the corresponding dance of shadows around and beneath this vegetation. The pulsation inherent in wind does not adhere to the firm beat of human music, yet it does own a loose rhythm, all the same. By perceiving it and incorporating it into your movement, you’ll instantly turn less noticeable. It’s a giant step toward truly blending in.
I used to call the way I moved out in the woods, “stalking,” but now I’d term it, “drifting.” It’s a better term for the way I seek to blend into terrain, as well as the forces that flow constantly over and through it. As side benefits for maintaining a slow, sensitive, rational pace, you’ll find yourself becoming less thirsty, less tired, less sweaty, and releasing less scent. You will also learn a hunk of geography more thoroughly. An enduring map of it can then dwell in your awareness.
Camo-up your consciousness –
Okay, we’ve talked some about how to achieve true camouflage by fitting yourself into the woods the same way that animals do it. Now let’s take up the topic of superficial camouflage – in other words, the camo that one can buy in a store. Besides my mix of light and dark main garments, I like to add drab fingerless gloves, to keep light from glaring off my white-boy hands, as well as a soft and foldable camo hat with a brim that shades my eyes. That last aspect is of great importance.
Most wild animals become nervous if they feel they’re being studied too keenly – since this may well signal predatory intent. If your eyes are under a band of shadow, they can’t tell that you’re looking at them. Similarly, when using binoculars, sweep with them rather than holding them steadily on a given set of critters. If you freeze while holding field glasses, from an animal’s point of view, it’s being stared at by a giant black pair of eyes.
Our eyes actually work amazingly well without aids. Humans don’t give ourselves sufficient credit. Some biologists say, in terms of overall capability, we possess the animal kingdom’s second-best eyes, only exceeded by predatory birds, such as hawks, owls and eagles. Compare your talents to those of other animals, then figure out how to exploit the differences.
What stops us? We’re a bit too used to thinking of ourselves as underdogs, in terms of the raw power of our senses. For example, real dogs have 50 times the number of scent receptors that we do, and 40 times the number of brain neurons for analysis of same, so their olfactory ability is about 10,000 times as potent. Dogs can locate truffles, sniff out cases of prostate cancer, and detect victims buried under avalanches. Cool work, if you’re able to pull it off. But if any human could, his mental model of existence would be astonishingly different from a visual model that presently dominates our awareness. In contrast, the theme song of a Disneyland for dogs would have to be, “It’s a Smell, Smell World.”
When it comes to eye-power, a dog only rates 20/75 vision, compared to that sharp 20/20 benchmark that humans often achieve. Pooches might be able to follow a bouncing tennis ball, but they do it nowhere near as well as we can. (Serena has nothing to fear from a border collie.) Since we humans possess binocular vision (eyes placed in the same plane at the front of our skulls), we can range-find – that is, estimate distances. We have decent resolution and depth perception, as well as superior color recognition. We are “trichromates,” meaning we have three types of cones or color receptors in our retinas, for red, blue and green, as well as any of their mingled shades. During our evolution, this helped us select ripe fruit and veggies, and shun boldly-colored poisonous critters – like coral snakes, venomous frogs and lion fish. Nowadays, it helps us parse meaning in all manner of vista. And our vision is backed up by substantial cranial computing power, capable (for instance) of rapidly inferring the whole from a part. (Recall my recognition of the approach of a buck from the brief flash of its antler tine.)
Deer, on the other hand, are mere “dichromats,” they have just two color receptors, and they must seek happiness in a world they perceive as utterly drenched in the blues. In addition, they can see a bit of gray and yellow, and possibly have some UV (ultraviolet) sensitivity. Their retinas are short of cones, but high in rod receptors, awarding them good low-light sensitivity. Not only that, but a membrane behind the retina, the “tapetum lucidum,” reflects any un-absorbed light back out, giving them a chance to process it twice.
Which is why deer eyeballs glow if they are spotlighted at night. If you drive around a curve and smite them with headlights on high beam, the reason they freeze as if stunned is because they are. You’re like a SWAT team assaulting a hostage-taker with a flash-bang grenade.
But far away from roadways, on woodsy deer turf where you have to play by deer rules, their strengths show a few definite advantages. Deer are “crepuscular,” creatures of dawn and evening, and they see much better in twilight. Bulging eyes positioned toward the sides of their heads provide a remarkable field of vision, on the order of 280 degrees, quite useful for a prey species, because it makes them hard to approach. They are attuned to spotting movement, not so hot at defining form. Their top usual visual acuity is rated no better than 20/40. They can only use binocular vision in a narrow band, extending perhaps 10 degrees to each side of their noses.
That’s why a deer who seeks to figure out who you are and what you might be up to will assume a classic “Y” configuration: Two great ears that jut up and out and cup at you, the nose down and pointed at you and snuffling, the eyes fixed in an unyielding stare.
And what does that staring buck or doe see? Should you cease all movement, and if your clothing blends with your surroundings, not much – not by human standards. If you use what I call true camo, and conceal your shape against landforms and inside patches of shade, essentially you turn invisible to them. You can become just as hidden when you stand unmoving out in front of a tree trunk, as you could be by ducking behind it.
Next camo-up with clothing –
Any drab clothing with minimal patterning works well for this. Of course, you want to avoid blue, since that shade appears quite bright to deer, and shun white also, since that can reflect blue light (along with everything else). But your granddad’s old red, “buffalo” plaid lumberjack shirt would work fine on a deer hunt.
Another hunter can also see it easily, which makes you safer in the woods. Can a deer pick it out from a forest background? Not so much.
Even better performance can be won by use of the feathers, furs and fringed skins that indigenous peoples wore. Recall the pulses of air current I described as constantly wafting over a landscape? Imagine a warrior standing perfectly still, whose garments and adornments slurp up gusts of breeze, and sway with them in loose synchronicity with all those nodding branches, shuddering patches of brush and fields of grass. Think that might help him blend in?
European settlers were not slow to pick up on native ways of concealment after they arrived in the Americas. Well, maybe some were tardy, but it’s fascinating to read about the ones who weren’t, like Pilgrim raiders led by Benjamin Church, who often snuck up on Indian camps during King Phillip’s War. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, writing 140 years later, describes his most worthy and enduring hero, Natty Bumppo (aka Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, etc.) as clad in, “a hunting shirt of forest green, fringed with faded yellow.”
Basically, the hunting shirts or smocks worn by settlers mimicked native buckskin garments. These were linen garments dyed in muted or drab shades, which sported frayed or fringed layers of cloth on the shoulders, chest and limbs. We could do worse than imitate colonial hunters. Some re-enactors do precisely that, stalking the regrown East Coast forests while toting a replica flintlock and powder horn, with a leather “possibles” bag (the day-pack of its day) flung on a broad strap over one shoulder.
However, since the majority of us will never attempt to dye linen fabric in a cast-iron kettle simmering over a wood fire laid on a rock hearth inside a log cabin, nor stitch it up into a hunting smock, let’s talk about the camo garments you can go right out to a store (either online or brick-and-mortar) to buy with a credit card, smartphone or whatnot. But just before we go there, let’s check out some more camouflage history.
Camo through time –
Military design exerts a strong tug on camo now. It wasn’t always thus; early on in Western armies mass concealment was undesired and unsought. From the phalanxes of Greek hoplites to the marching Roman legions to Wellington’s infantry squares at Waterloo, bold and assertive fashion in battle dress was order of the day. Bright and gaudy elements bore high value. By comparison, unobtrusive wear made a soldier look feckless and unheroic. In the heydays of pikes and muskets (the infamous “Brown Bess” had an effective range of just 50 yards), one pretty much had to stare an enemy in the face before you whacked him, and taking the field in a huge, bright, cohesive mass was itself a tactic of intimidation and often a key to victory.
Even so, there were counter-currents. British redcoats marching in formation became utterly flummoxed by colonial sharpshooters who concealed themselves by wearing buckskin and hunting shirts as they flitted between trees and fired from cover. Germany and Austria had a tradition of using skilled riflemen, termed “Jaegers” (hunters), who dressed in muted colors, including forest green, and could be assigned to sneaking up on and eliminating the officers on an opposing side.
Starting in the mid-19th Century, bling in military dress was gradually subsumed by drab. An early-adopter was Sir Harry Lumsden, a veteran of the battles at Khyber Pass in 1842, who five years later got tasked with forming a Corps of Guides to gather intelligence and help direct English forces along the frontier of Punjab Province in northern India. The Urdu word for dust is “khak” (to remember this, consider the sound you’d probably make after inhaling a puff of it), and Lumsden asked his guides to wear outfits dyed in a dust color – which was swiftly dubbed khaki.
The advantages of blending in with the landscape, so opponents would have a tougher time detecting your force or estimating its size, soon grew apparent. By 1857, khaki was being adopted by other regiments, and by 1899 – in order to cope with daunting reversals sustained while fighting guerillas early on in the Boer War – it became the new standard throughout Britain’s army.
Whereupon, generals stroked their mutton-chop whiskers and began to visualize other possible advances in invisibility.
Disrupt or blend? What’s best? –
Nature displays two basic types of camouflage: the “blend-in” kind, similar to the spots an ambush predator like a leopard uses; and the “disruptive pattern” kind, such as stripes that a tiger displays, which can befuddle prey about a big cat’s size and movement amid a stalk or a charge.
Tim Newark, who wrote “Brassey’s Book of Camouflage” in 1996 and followed it with a further pair of authoritative volumes on the many methods humans use to hide in plain sight, says that disruptive pattern camo began to crop up in WWI, when the oddly bold lines known as “dazzle” camouflage began to be painted on the sides of ships, to make it harder for U-boat skippers to estimate the course and speed of a target vessel or a convoy.
Once aircraft came into use for recon, next in spotting for artillery, then finally to make bombing runs, ground forces adapted dazzle camo covers to break up the shapes of tent camps, gun emplacements, vehicles and so forth, coating them with so many aberrant angles they proved nearly impossible to recognize from the air. And yes, civilian artists (camofleurs) charged with making the stuff were heavily influenced by local trends in art, including Cubism.
Newark says that when a young Pablo Picasso noted a camouflaged cannon being drawn through the streets of Paris, he exclaimed, “C’est nous qui avons fait ça!” – “It is we who did that!”
Sporadic efforts to supply individual camo suits and helmets to trench scouts and snipers in WWI morphed into a wholesale effort to equip troops in WWII, especially by Germany, and a variety of patterns got designed and deployed, particularly to divisions of the Waffen SS. The U.S. experimented with camo uniforms, decided it actually could handle making troops in motion become more visible rather than less, and settled for outfits of famed olive drab.
That’s where the affair stood until jungle combat in Vietnam made U.S. brass recalculate, goaded by seeing American military advisors show up with duck-hunter camo bought at Sears, or trying to adapt tiger-stripe outfits worn by Vietnamese special forces. In subsequent decades, the U.S. played with a variety of camo styles, yet always tended to founder a bit on these competing and initially exclusive aims: do you want a soldier to blend in with his background, or do you want to disrupt his shape? Do you want your camo to work best when he is concealed and still, or function better when he’s in motion?
Computer-aided design eventually squared this circle by creating digital patterns that achieve both ends, with blots of pixels that function on both a micro and a macro scale, which can seemingly blend with vegetation if a viewer is close, but also suggest shapes that break up the human form if seen at a distance. (One example of this is OptiFade, developed for W. L. Gore; another is modern Flecktarn, an advanced iteration of a WWII German commando pattern.)
Go cheap, but well-considered –
If you hope to bolster invisibility by adding the superficial camo of clothing, which items, plucked from a spectrum of outfits in sport catalogs and Army/Navy surplus stores, should you acquire? Well first, toss out any idea that the fancier and pricier stuff is, the better it works. You seek to hide from animals, not people, and most animal vision is just not acute enough to make camo that slavishly renders the shape of every twig all that useful. To a deer, that stuff is just a confused blob (might help you fool a keen-eyed wild turkey, though).
What I do, besides wear the drab shirt and pants, and brimmed camo hat and drab fingerless gloves, is add a field jacket either in a classic U.S. Army woodland pattern (with four colors: sand, brown, green, and black) from the 1980s, or a modern digital pattern jacket. The woodland coat I use amid bright light, from late morning onwards; the digital at twilight or in foggy situations.
But again, camo garments are mere aids, and do not provide us with a deep answer to the question, how does one fit into the wild world? For that, let us return to our first topic, stillness, and take up its manifestation in a fresh venue: the human brain.
Words from a poet of the wild –
Gary Snyder won renown as a Pulitzer prize-winning “Beat” poet. I prefer to think of him as a laureate of wild zones of the Pacific Northwest, since nature herself remained Snyder’s constant muse, as well as his dominant theme. I also admire his role as a cultural pioneer who brought an understanding of Zen to the U.S. (he studied in Japanese zendos for more than a decade). I’ve chatted with Snyder off-and-on since the 1970s, and felt intrigued when he said he thought the practice of hunting was at the root of all meditation.
Peace-loving Buddhists tend to go off their rockers when they hear an idea like this, since “ahimsa” (the spiritual rubric of trying to do no harm to any sentient being) leads directly to their First Precept: Take no life. However, I lean toward Snyder’s more nuanced view. He notes that, “It’s better to be a lousy Buddhist, than no kind of Buddhist at all.” He has deeply studied the web of life in which we’re all enmeshed, and perceives Indra’s Net: a living, densely woven mandala with a naturally enlightened being at every node.
Energy and wisdom and organic molecules remain in flux from one node to the next. It is all union, and the sacrament of eating is communion, within and throughout existence.
And I also ponder the tumult within my own bloodstream, where macrophages (white blood cells) constantly function as semi-autonomous hunters, tracking down, absorbing and slaying invasive microbes (sentient beings in their own right). In fact, if I, as well as every vegan, did not have such violence occur within us regularly, we might have an immune deficiency syndrome making us feel ill, right up to a point when we rather messily expired.
I prefer to translate the First Precept this way: Do no wanton harm.
Snyder summarizes this approach by quoting a T’ang dynasty Zen master, Hsiang-yen, to make a title for a poem in his “Turtle Island” collection: “One should not talk to a skilled hunter about what is forbidden by the Buddha.”
Mind of the hunter –
When I raise my rifle to take a shot, I wish to be in a state of mental calm, physical relaxation, and emotional confidence. That helps ensure the animal will drop as if struck by a thunderbolt, and so will experience minimal suffering.
One does not achieve such tranquility by accident. It must be fostered through your whole outing. You must begin to establish it long before setting out.
It’s easiest to achieve poise in “still” hunting, where one takes up a concealed position near a game trail and awaits the animal’s approach. Yet even such an ambush-style hunt can be ruined if the mind is not silent, if the hunter allows boredom to strike, and lets “busy-brain” thoughts intrude to overwhelm input from the senses. I.e., “Did I pay the utilities bill… What the hell is that weird noise in my truck engine… Are my daughter and her boyfriend having sex yet?… What did my boss mean when she told me…” etc., etc.
The sole way to do this effectively is to empty the mind of ego-focus and personal thought, and to allow sensual awareness of the wild world to take its place. And just sit with that. Stillness will finally grow past being able to hear yourself think. Your mind can flow on into being able to hear yourself not-think.
One should not even nurse a desire for game to appear, because, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “To hope would be hope for the wrong thing” – which can induce impatience and give you the jitters. Of course, nobody is able dwell continuously in a state like this upon the first outing, so plan to try it out as a mental respiration. Then whenever you catch yourself fretting, take a deep breath and return to emptiness. As you do, you’ll find that calling a nest built for hunter concealment a “blind” is a misnomer. Really, it should be named a “see,” since you’ll find yourself able to observe, and smell, and hear – and intuit – far more than before.
It grows more interesting if you take this act out on the road, by which of course, I mean a trail. Then you must try to maintain a state of clarity and calm and openness to the world as you move. We’ve already covered many techniques for moving through the woods with minimal disturbance, so I shall not bother you with a re-cap.
However, I will add one.
Enter the stalking game –
Once you and an animal notice each other, a psychic chess match is initiated. To keep the game afoot, don’t act like a typical human, and beyond that, definitely don’t act like a predator. Prey species are keen readers of body language. To convince them to hang around, you need to shape your messaging.
How? Number one, don’t “startle” or jerk in surprise or too-avid interest if you spot an animal. Instead, perform what I call a “soft freeze,” and let yourself glide to a halt. For two, don’t stare at them, but regard them fleetingly from the corners of your eyes. Acknowledge their presence, yet also scan around, as though you might be a prey animal yourself, and also on the lookout for predators. This is a policy of many flock or herd animals; they strive to maintain joint watch. Act this way, and you might score an encounter such as this…
A setting sun sent amber light through trees on the hill, and painted a broad swatch of gold-leaf on a hidden meadow. A large buck was grazing there. He did not scent me due to the upcanyon wind, yet had heard me coming. Since my footfalls were tentative and slow, similar to those of a wandering deer, the buck was curious about me rather than alarmed. Once we had each other in view, I reacted as described above. In addition, I bent over and plucked at the ground as if browsing. I’d move a few steps, browse, move a few more. I took a line tangential to the buck’s position, did not head straight at him.
I acknowledged him with a few glances, but clearly showed that I planned to quietly shuffle on by. He continued to graze, sometimes put up his head and chewed away with grass fibers hanging from his chin as he looked me over, once lifted a rear hoof and scratched his belly with it. I climbed slowly over a strand of rusty barbed wire, and got within 30 feet of him.
He was a magnificent animal, with a tall rack of branching antlers, a deep chest, well-muscled haunches. His tawny hide seemed to glow in the late evening light.
I wondered how he’d react after I moved completely past him, when he’d get hit by my scent. As I did so, I watched him glance back over his shoulder, but otherwise, he calmly continued to graze. I’d already demonstrated that I was focused on going someplace else, and was no threat – I was only another animal, out for a stroll. Yes, perhaps I did reek of humanity, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
My Winchester remained slung over my shoulder. I had been out for a walk in the woods just a few days before deer-hunting season, to enjoy a bit of a scout. Well then, after the season got underway, I never so much as got a glimpse of that grand buck again. Which was perfectly fine with me. Bathed in all that sublime, J. M. W. Turner light, he stands there yet, still and proud, in my vivid recollection. And actually, I’d much rather visit him in that mental space, than see his untenanted skull and antlers hung up on anyone’s wall. Including my own.