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The One that Got Away

All the weeks of preparation—scouting locations, getting the gear together, sighting in the rifle—came down to this single moment: sitting in a tree stand on a bitterly cold November morning, listening for the sound of a breaking twig or a footfall in the dried leaves.

And then I heard it. Looking left, I could make out a large shape moving steadily through the underbrush where only moments before there had been nothing. It headed toward a small opening between clumps of willows, poplars, and pines, just wide enough for a clean shot.

I lifted the rifle. The deer took one more step, then—unexpectedly—jumped across the opening. I had a glimpse of antlers and a large, muscular body; no time for a well-placed shot. He had leaped over a fallen tree, then resumed his regular pace, obscured once again by heavy brush, oblivious to the close presence of death.

I did not know it at the time, but my hunt was over. There were many hours yet to sit in the stand, listening and watching, enduring the icy wind. But there would be no more deer, no more adrenaline rushes, no more moments of heightened awareness where every perception is focused entirely on the now.

The enduring attraction of hunting, it seems to me, resides in the fact that the stakes are high, yet the circumstances are so often unpredictable. It reminds one that much of life is wild, resistant to intention and manipulation, that profound moral choices, like the taking of a life, often require the ability to respond quickly and decisively to events that take shape outside of one’s calculations.

Technology has revolutionized our lives, giving us unprecedented control over circumstances. We can eat fresh strawberries in December. We can replace arthritic knees, repair damaged arteries, and shrink tumors. We can see storms coming weeks in advance. GPS can tell us where to turn and when, guiding us around traffic delays, getting us to our destination at precise times.

When I step out of the woods and back into this brave new world of satellites and microprocessors, it is like stepping back into a dream. I turn on my smartphone and a notification pops up: a meeting requested for 8am on April 21st. I open my calendar and see an endless series of people and events, times and dates. My life spread out before me: everything of significance planned, deliberated, calculated.

Yet somewhere in that calendar, in a narrow opening between appointments, somewhere between now and the distant future, death lies in ambush.

Sitting in the deer stand I think of a friend who is ill, whose most fervent wish a couple months ago was to have just one more day in the woods, watching, waiting, feeling fully alive. I remember we are mortal beings, dependent upon fate, circumstances set in motion by forces we neither fully understand nor control.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised his readers to “let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”

For the Stoics, a good life required awareness of what is under one’s control and what is not under one’s control, and the ability not to be deceived into thinking one can control all of life’s circumstances. That would be living under an illusion, passing daily through a series of false expectations and fruitless regret. By keeping death before our eyes, we are encouraged to live fully in the present, knowing that the moments of each day are gifts, not to be taken for granted.

That attitude survives in the Latin phrase “carpe diem,” penned by the Roman poet Horace:

“The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking.

Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.”

When I was young, I measured the success of the hunt by the quality of the kill. But now that I am older, I hunt for moments. Moments that remind me of the wildness of life, of the beauty in the world, of the terrible fragility of all I hold dear. I emerge from the woods deeply grateful for the gift of each moment.

This year, the deer got away. So did I.

November 18, 2019

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