The Hunter

Scudding clouds and a lowering sky fill my window today in this day of winter.  Shards of rain scatter into the garden.  A raw wind flicks shrubs and groans against the house; it is an indoors day for me now but it was not always thus.  As a child it would be a day for foxhunting.  Foxhunting in the bush.  The bush was always warm, benevolent trees provided shelter, the wet underfoot hid the sounds and marks of our footsteps and a predictable wind would direct telltale scents away from our canny prey.

The hunters however many in number or calling had one commander; a solid indestructible tactician, larger than life, modest of his abilities but the best shot easily of us all and a man who knew the ways of the fox as well as the creature did itself.  Landmarks familiar to the animal were his compass points too.  With his team and dogs he worked the dispositions of the quarry marshalling its flight toward our guns ensuring its destruction by calculated maneuvers and securing the land searched preventing its re-occupation.

He knew the haunts of the pursued; where it would lie warmly in the bracken, where it might be found curled in the fork of a tree, where it might pad sure-footedly across a rocky ledge or tred silently some mossy valley in quest of food.  He knew the creeks where it would leap from bank to bank and breast the water dispersing its odour trail to confuse the following dogs.  And he knew the earth, the den; that soft darkness which enfolded the palpitating fleeing animal but which was a precursor to its end.  Once deprived of its maneuverability and scope for cunning the animal faced certain cheerless death.

Our leader worked his skills dispassionately; no need for moralizing on the taking of life. The fox was an enemy not a noble foe.  It attacked defenceless lambs, ate the softer parts of living new born calves, plundered herds by driving mothers away from their young.  It attacked silently, swiftly, administering death to native animals not equipped to counter its intelligence, cunning and speed.  It scoured the land of prey then moved to new pickings; havoc would be wreaked over whole square miles by a single animal.  The fox was to be eliminated not preserved as sport.  So any fox was taken, the young, pregnant vixens: no exceptions.

The hunt would gather at the home of the leader.  Wordless tough country men unslinging guns, packing ammunition belts which they drooped bandolier fashion over their broad shoulders.  Farm workers and tradesmen bonded to a guild which for the afternoon would transform social order, perceived superiorities and deficiencies, into a machine with common purpose.  The fox worked his magic deep into the town. 

The journey out would be organized; we boys squeezed between leather-coated men in the confined spaces of utility cabins the common purpose lending an intimacy to our nearness which none recognized and all would have strenuously denied.

 Once out and deployed each shooter would work his way soundlessly through the damp forest probing spreading ferns, spindly saplings, searching the tall waving tussock grass and walking on the soft green ground to meet the fox in his world.  Then the ancient silence would be annihilated.  Great bangings from multiple weapons would tell of the fox breaking cover; the prey put up perhaps by the dogs perhaps by a man.  Shots would be fired into the narrow space over the back of a pursuing dog and in front of the fleeing fox; failure to surround the prey with shell would result in a wounded animal which could easily escape to a den and be irrecoverable. 

With the kill secured the party moves smoothly and relentlessly on; no word needed to break the natural silence each shooter primed and coiled for the next bursting of an animal from cover.  Each man ready to fling the gun to a firm shoulder and fire unhesitatingly over following dogs and alongside companions.

And so the afternoon moves on.  We stalk through old trees and an ancient landscape to which the fox is a relative newcomer.  Humans have been here longer, longer than the trees but not as long as the venerable rocks.  As the party traverses stealthily through the landscape, trees and land standing at one moment quietly and untrammeled in the softly falling rain are momentarily invaded by an invisible tension as the party passes.  Tension which could pass silently or resolve into shattering sound as the fox broke cover.  Sound which is as foreign to the land as the fox himself.  

We boys keep behind the stalking figures struggling with the rough sticks, rocks and grades of the walk: we are to be seen not heard but are still of the party.  Our leader sets the way becoming part of the silent landscape as his big frame slips quietly through the gathering forest.

The denouement is likely to be a large den in which we know animals well ahead of us will have taken cover.  Because the fox is an astute animal there will be two openings at least; one perhaps down the hill to decant a fleeing animal into handy undergrowth and rocks, the other the more obvious front door through which normal animal commerce passes.  The men deploy to cover both entrances and our dogs eagerly enter the den.  Whatever comes out is shot in an unrelenting hail of fire.  It has no chance; foxes and men in their own circumstances give no quarter to their victims.

Back home we stand around retelling the tales of the day but the mystique of the hunt is gone.  Men are men again.  The romance of the hunt fades, social mores invade the hunters’ intimacy and the spell is broken until next time.  Out in the forest all is unchanged. It is as it was before we came.  The old trees and ancient silent land measure their time passing by the gently falling rain.