Sitting in my treestand this evening, on opening day of Vermont's rifle season, I tried to think of a time when I had felt lonely while hunting. While I often hunt solo, I could not recall a single instance of loneliness.
Yesterday, Vermont's governor announced a "social lockdown": as Covid is spiking here, we shall continue going to work and school, but may not gather with anyone outside our households, not even a masked outdoor walk with a neighbor. I'm lucky to live in a homestead of three adults (not to mention the goats, dogs, and chickens), but I still felt some deep loneliness and isolation during lockdown last spring, since I'd been accustomed to exchanging hugs, smiles, and affectionate words with a wide variety of friends throughout my community every week. A pandemic is a hard time for those of us who are not "coupled" in the traditional sense.
But today it occurred to me that I have never felt lonely while hunting. I've contemplated many things while sitting in the woods, including my own heartbreaks and disappointments, but that is not the same as the embodied sensation of being lonely. Hunting not only gets me outside, where the trees and squirrels and weather patterns clamor for my attention and engagement, but it adds the act of courtship. When I hunt, my posture is one of prayer, one of questing, one of calling out to the Deer Spirit to send a willing buck my way. I make offerings. I prepare carefully. I "dress up" for my beloved, in a big marshmallow blob of wool, down, camouflage, and hunter orange. I know I may only get one chance.
While my personal hunting practice is usually solo, in non-pandemic years I also guide. When I guide another person in the hunt, we don't talk much. We are in a parallel silent courtship of the same beloved, each calling out with our spirits in the way that feels right to us. We collaborate, and in questing together without words, we come to know deep things about each other. You don't know how much you understand without words until you put them aside. But while we keep each other company, each of us is primarily in relationship with the elusive deer that we are seeking together.
This year has brought layer upon layer of struggle, stress, and grief. For many of us, it has made us feel alone many times over. Learning how not to feel alone may be one of the most important "survival skills" of our time. So I invite you, in the next few days: go hunting. Seek that which is elusive and filled with mystery. Whether you bring a rifle or a camera or just your observant senses doesn't matter. Spend a day, hour, or week in quest and courtship. Perhaps you'll find, as I have, that you can't feel lonely when you are devoted to the patient search for grace. In the search itself lies our wholeness. I think we'll need every bit of our wholeness to navigate the times ahead.