Matthew Dickerson: Sound of a squirrel scampering
This fall I fell into a trap.
The trap was only metaphorical. It was a trap of noise and busyness. And I didn’t so much fall into it, as I felt pushed into it. Though, if truth be told, it was my own doing.
Normally, the fall deer season is an opportunity for me to sit out in the woods and experience some needed hours of stillness, of quiet and of listening. And this fall should have been no different. Indeed, the need for a break from the “noise” of 2020 was as acute as ever. Or more so. However it also seemed that my fall was busier than ever.
The pandemic has not made my job any easier, or lowered the expectations. I don’t say that by way of complaint. I’m happy to have a job. And for the most part, I enjoy my work. I feel very badly for the many who have lost employment: from performing artists to many in the hospitality and travel industries. It has been a very difficult year for many people, and I am fortunate. Even to be able to hunt at all, and moreover to live in Vermont where I can walk out my door and be hunting in five minutes (or fishing in 15) makes me very fortunate indeed.
Nonetheless, this year — in large part due to COVID-19 — has brought a significant increase in administrative work as well as in virtual conferences and digital correspondence. It seems that my days fill up with Zoom conferences and e-mails and all of a sudden it’s bedtime. Much of that work is something that in a normal year could have been handled in a few moments walking down a hallway for a quick personal conversation with a colleague — or perhaps something that wouldn’t have to be done at all. The most pressing jobs on my to-do list, and the nagging awareness of the less pressing ones that I’ve neglected, have made me feel guilty about walking out into the woods and “doing nothing” for several hours.
Given my work schedule and the fact that I can’t simply take off entire weekdays to hunt (even in a normal year), my typically routine during the two-week rifle season is to get up around 5:30 a.m. — sometimes earlier and sometimes later since I often trust my hungry-but-imprecise cat rather than my iPhone to be my alarm — eat a quick breakfast while I dress in my hunting clothes, and head out the door before 6 a.m. This gets me settled in the woods well before the start of the legal hunting day which is 30 minutes before dawn. Around 8:30 a.m., I head back home, change into my work clothes, and get to my day job. Sometimes instead of a morning hunt, I’ll head out into the woods an hour or an hour and a half before sunset. Weekends, and over Thanksgiving break, I can put in much longer days.
Except that with my 2020 COVID-impacted work schedule, I’ve still not felt like I had the freedom even for this truncated hunting schedule. And so I’ve been bringing work with me into the woods. It might be material I’m supposed to be reading. It’s often an electronic device so I can take care of some correspondence. (My primary tree stand has walls, which gives me the flexibility to read without tremendous risk of spooking the deer.)
So what should be my important time of quiet, reflective, listening became yet one more time with electronic devices to keep up with work. Yes, I still had some part of my brain that was listening for sounds of deer, or prompting me to take my eyes of my reading from time to time to scan the woods for a flickering white tail. But what I wasn’t doing was paying attention to the hammering of pileated woodpeckers, or listening to the myriad varied calls of the sizeable vocabulary of the crows that haunt the woods, or paying attention to the creaking of trees on a windy day. I wasn’t admiring the barks of different trees, or the texture of the green moss and ferns still poking up through the piles of brittle brown leaves of the maple, ash and sweet birch trees whose crowns towered over me.
In short, though I was still walking out into the woods to hunt, I had lost the most valuable aspect of my hunting time: silence, attentiveness and presence. In an earlier paragraph, I put “doing nothing” in quotes as a description of hunting. Hunting can seem like doing nothing. But it is a “doing nothing” that in the best of worlds invites active engagement. I would have been better off cutting my hunting time in half or even down to a third, but leaving the work at home when I did go out. Which is precisely what I returned to this week in the muzzleloader season.
What brought me back was a book I started reading by Paula Huston, an author friend of mine who for several years taught English at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. She is a novelist, essayist and also a writer of contemplatively spirituality. It was one of her works in that last category that got my attention: a book titled “The Holy Way.” In the book, Huston shares some of her experiences, and the life-shaping importance of what she learned and saw modeled, as a vowed lay member of the contemplative monastic community of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. In reading the book, I was reminded of how much I am missing when I don’t make the time for quiet, stillness and solitude. I may have thought I was missing something if I didn’t bring my phone with me. In truth, I was missing something if I didn’t leave it at home.
So now I am back to enjoying the sounds of squirrels scampering in dry leaves. And if you meet me for a Zoom conference and you miss the frazzled expression of anxiety on my face, you’ll know why. I was busy doing nothing.
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