IMAGE OF THE WEEK
On the turn of the millennium, I moved across the Hudson River, returning to the Catskill Mountains from Dutchess County, NY, where I had lived for four years with my children. Farm country didn’t feel like home to me, and I missed the mountains, visible from across the river, almost constantly. So when an opportunity came to move back, I jumped for it.
Returning to the town of Phoenicia, I began to explore my new neighborhood – that is, the forests of Romer Mountain, which rose up behind my new home. There sat what was once the first ski slope in New York state – now steep, overgrown mountain meadows. The owner of the land, my new neighbor, graciously gave me permission to walk his land. But I wasn’t just walking for pleasure. I was an active bow hunter at the time, and was scouting for deer – and it was October, the beginning of archery season.
Every hunter knows the secret to success is good scouting. In order to place yourself where the deer will come within twenty yards (proper range for shooting with a bow) yet not detect your human presence, you have to be thoroughly familiar with their habits. Habit is the only chink in a deer’s defense – for no human can match a deer’s acute sight, hearing, and most of all, sense of smell. I had no such familiarity, and I also knew there were far fewer deer in the mountains. The grassy ski slopes, however, offered good browse for the deer. I saw plenty of deer trails and droppings as I climbed the steep meadow – but was this all nocturnal activity? I did not know. With low expectations, I reached the top of the ski slope and settled myself into the edge of the forest with my back to a tree, hoping the wind would blow toward me, away from the meadow. I nocked an arrow (fitting it to my bowstring), just in case.
I waited, motionless and silent, scanning the meadow for any sign of movement. Deer or no deer, I was in a magnificent place. The old ski slopes provided a break in the forest that gave a spacious view to the west, over the valley cut by the Esopus Creek and beyond. The mountains were covered in peak fall foliage, a glorious blend of autumn color. I was grateful just to be in this pristine and peaceful environment, and to have some time to think.
Scarcely an hour passed – more like a minute in hunting time – and the sky was already deepening into sunset hues, when I heard the crunching of a leaf to my left. Out of the forest stepped a spike buck (one antler on each side). The young buck moved forward, dropping its head to graze. It was well beyond range of my bow, about thirty yards away. I waited, holding my breath.
Then it happened. Another sound came from the edge of the forest. Bucks are solitary creatures, but for some reason this spike was not alone. Out of the trees stepped a magnificent buck with a broad seven-point rack. The light of the sunset glinted off its curved, shiny antlers. This buck was even further out of my range as it stood like a king, surveying the valley before it. I was transfixed.
To see a wild animal up close in the wild, in its natural environment, is a feeling that is difficult to describe. It is a privilege first and foremost. To be undetected by a wild creature is to know you have successfully blended into the forest from which the animal emerges. This buck appeared to me as a manifestation of the elements that sustained him. He was composed of the clover and bark and beechnuts he ate, the rain that filled the rocky pools, the forest that gave him cover, and the wind that blew through his world, informing him by scent of his surroundings day and night, season by season. I scarcely blinked as I gazed at these two creatures, alive and free before me.
But the wind must have shifted, for suddenly the older buck swiveled his ears, rippled his massive shoulder muscles, and looked in my direction. Did he see me, dressed in full camouflage? Maybe not, but he certainly caught my scent. In two elegant arcs, he leaped away, crossing the narrow meadow into the woods. The younger buck followed close behind. In a few seconds, they were gone.
I exhaled and leaned back against the tree. I hadn’t expected to shoot a deer on my first day of scouting. But I harvested something else: a rare and sacred moment to capture and preserve in a painting. I came home and started working on this image right away. I actually did two versions of it – one on rice paper and one on a collage of a different papers glued on a cardboard surface. Both paintings sold relatively quickly.
Mountain Buck became the emblem of my new website, and my new life in the Catskills. It was a great welcome back for me. I continued hunting the slopes of Romer Mountain for the rest of archery season and into rifle season. As mating season approached, I saw deer rubs and scrapes all over the place – signs of fresh activity – but I never saw a deer during the daytime again. I even slept on the mountain twice to confirm their nocturnal presence. Once, a fox came and sniffed me as I slept under the open stars with my gun by my side. The snorting of the deer (a distinctive sound deer make to warn each other when they smell, but cannot see, danger) came between midnight and 2am.
I’m grateful to be both a hunter and an artist, for it enables me to harvest something besides venison. Fifteen years later, I still drive back to Dutchess County in order to hunt – where the deer population is diurnal, and so high that hunters are needed to keep them in proportion to the environment that supports them. Here in the Catskills, deer are far less plentiful, especially away from the roads that attract wild animals with salt during the long winter.
Order Mountain Buck as a POSTER this week, and get a free greeting card (of the same image)! $10 for the poster and card, shipping included. Order your poster here!
Wishing you a good week,
D Yael Bernhard
Author / Illustrator of
JUST LIKE ME, CLIMBING A TREE: Exploring Trees Around the World – new!!