I park the truck early and step out into the cool crisp morning. It is still dark, but I know the way from years of scouting and hunting the area. I gather my gear and step into the leaves that have recently fallen from the trees. The evening dew has settled heavily on the leaves and reduced the amount of noise, but they still crunch with every step I take. This is part of the reason for the early start. I need to get into my spot and let nature settle in before the early light of dawn. I use the moonlight and knowledge of the terrain to guide me into my spot where I get settled and await the break of day.
My eyes have already adjusted to the dark. From my seat, I can make out the trees and bushes nearest me, but everything else appears as shadows or dark in the distance. The sky is full of stars. As many times as I have been out in the woods at night, it always amazes me how many more stars there are in the sky when you get away from the lights of the city. I pick out constellations even though there are only a few that I recognize. I become aware that this is the same experience that my ancestors have had as far back as my family tree goes
Usually at this time, my mind is still swimming with details about work and family matters. My everyday life and its details race through my brain and I am unable to settle on a single thought. Did I clear my calendar, what loose ends did I forget to tie up, did I set my voice mail to tell people I wouldn’t be in the office this week.
Off in the east, the stars begin to fade as the first light of dawn begins to turn the sky from black to a deep dark blue. It will still be 20 minutes or so before I can begin making out details in the distance, but I am ready. The temperature begins to drop just when logic says it should begin getting warmer. The warmth of the sun will have to wait.
My senses are at their peak as my ears and nose have been forced to take over for my eyes. I begin to see the details of the forest nearest me. The forest is very quiet at this time in the morning. As the forest becomes more visible, my mind begins to switch from thoughts of everyday, to thoughts of the moment. The musty smell of dirt, moss, and decomposing leaves fills my nose and serves as a base for the many changing smells I will experience throughout the day. With the exception of strong smells, I do not notice the change in odors in everyday life like I do in the woods.
I hear a leaf rattle in the distance. This when I get excited as my adrenaline rushes as I search the landscape for signs of anything that may have produced a sound. I can now see shapes in the distance, but colors and details still elude my vision. I try to rely on my hearing to tell me of my surroundings. After enough practice, you can begin locating the source of sounds and tell if the source is moving or stationary. Since it is very important to remain as motionless as possible, my ears become my primary source of information in the woods. This can be misleading, because a turtle or mouse can make more noise than a deer.
An acorn falls from the tree and lands near me. Startled, I jump in my seat. I laugh silently at myself and realize I need to relax and calm down. The light in the sky is now bright enough that I can clearly make out individual trees in the distance and details of items nearby. As the light changes, the details change in front of my eyes. I can start to make out colors, especially in the tops of trees. Over the next fifteen minutes the world will go from black, white and gray to blazing color. This is when my eyes can really play tricks on me, so I depend even more on my ears.
Not too far away I hear a turkey gobble from the top of his tree. It will still be a while before the turkeys come down and begin their day. Off in the other direction, I hear a squirrel chirping from in its tree. I watch as the squirrel comes out onto a branch of the tree and takes a look around. After a minute or so, the squirrel begins making his way down the tree. He jumps from the tree and lands with a crash in the leaves. He takes a few hops over to an old stump then climbs on top. I take out my binoculars and see that he is eating a mushroom that is growing from the stump. A few minutes later he is joined by another squirrel, I am guessing that they are mates.
Then, I hear a rustle of leaves from over my shoulder. My ears perk up and I focus on the direction from which the sound came. Another rustle from the same direction, and then another. Very slowly I turn my head so I can see in the general direction of the sound. I have to turn very slowly to avoid being seen.
Another vocalization from the turkey.
I listen to the slow steady progress of the rustling leaves and determine it is coming from behind a rise. I adjust myself so that I am properly positioned for something coming over the rise. The squirrels I have been watching give a warning bark and go scurrying up into their tree, one stops on a branch and looks over at the rise as the other heads for the nest. The rustling sound stops, and silence hangs for eternity.
I hear the flap of turkey wings as a turkey hops from one branch to another in the distance. In my ears, I can hear my heart beating as it races in my chest and I work to control my breathing. The leaf rustling starts again, only this time the progress is faster. I am positive it is coming my direction and ready myself. At the top of the rise I can make out movement where something has set a sapling in motion. The next few seconds will show what is coming over the ridge.
I ready myself, hold my breath, and a large red squirrel comes bounding over the ridge. The squirrel jumps onto a tree to get a better look around, then jumps back down into the leaves where he continues looking for acorns. I let out my breath and again laugh at myself for getting so worked up over the sound of a squirrel making its way through the woods. I would think that after all these years, I should be able to tell the difference. I can’t tell you how many times a deer has turned into a squirrel just as it came into sight.
I settle back in and enjoy hours of company from the squirrels doing their thing. Often I get the chance to watch turkeys, and sometimes I am blessed by a coyote or a fox, a turtle, chipmunks, and one time a bobcat. Watching them helps me to pass the time, and clears all of the clutter from in my brain. If I am lucky, I will get to come back tomorrow and maybe a few days after. I know I have reached my goal when I am able to sit down and think about one thing, and think my way through it without other thoughts bombarding my brain’s process.
At the end of each day in the woods, I am very relaxed when I walk out. This has become a factor in my well-being, and is a time that I look forward to each year.
This story was originally written in 2000 and published to the Ozarks Regional Information Online Network (ORION) with the title “A Peace of the Ozarks” . It was retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine . ORION was one of the very early freenets that introduced the general public of the United States to the Internet. It was a not for profit organization housed by the Springfield-Greene County Library in Springfield Missouri. The nature of the organization changed from its origin in 1994 until 2001 when it was dissolved. I was employed as the ORION Coordinator from July 1994 until July 2001.