Wild NJ On the Hunt: Treasured hunting spot bulldozed over in name of "progress"
Photo credit: conservativehome.blogs.com/
By David LaStarza
It was a crisp autumn morning when my alarm interrupted my slumber. I hopped out of bed and put on my worn, hand-me-down camo clothing which consisted of mostly mismatched treebark patterns. The camo was old and tattered, but my father had hunted for many years in them. In my eyes, this was a good luck charm.
I grabbed my bow and pack and headed out into the still morning. The crisp autumn air felt good in my lungs as I left the house and headed toward the small brushy field adjacent to my Branchville property. It wasn’t very big but the deer certainly seemed to like it and used it as a bedding area as well as safe travel corridor. As I walked off my cut lawn into the knee deep grass of the field, the morning dew soaked my pants. I walked on through the maze of briar bushes and tall brush, trying my hardest to be stealthy among such noisy cover.
I glanced down and noticed two Coca-Cola cans crumbled and faded by the sun underneath a big black walnut tree. These cans were from a hot summer day a few years back when my best friend and I had enjoyed some cold drinks under the shade of this old tree. Memories - this place was filled with them.
I continued on, heading towards my stand site which was in the hardwoods behind the overgrown field I passed a half finished tree fort. We had started the fort a few summers back but we had run short on lumber, so all that stood was the platform. Just looking at it brought back naps on a summer day, hiding underneath it during a rain storm, all those typical country boy things. Right above the fort was a faded sweatshirt, still hanging from the day we built it. As time passed the tree swallowed the sweatshirt, locking it in place.
Eventually a field mouse took up residence in the front pouch, followed by a house wren once spring arrived. All this was so long ago, but it was very fresh in my mind on that brisk autumn morning. I reached my stand and surveyed the area. The predawn light was breaking through the trees causing rays of light to invade the forest floor. I slowly ascended the tree, pulled my bow, knocked an arrow and began my wait.
There is something magical about being still and witnessing the forest coming to life. Inanimate blobs of darkness materialize into squirrels and crows waking from the trees above.
Just as it was light enough to shoot, I detected some movement across the swamp. A small buck was moving from his bedding area towards where the deer typically feed - directly behind me. My heart rate quickened as the deer stealthily made its way through the underbrush. I admired its almost ghost-like appearance. Then as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished in plain view, as whitetails have a knack for doing. My heart rate returned to normal and I eased back into my seat.
After a few hours of enjoying the scenery, my stomach rumbled. It was time for lunch. I climbed down from my perch, admiring how beautiful the woods were at this time of year. This was not just any woods - this was my woods! I cracked a smile and was on my way. I backtracked until I was in the field again. The shadows I had passed this morning had morphed into trees, bushes and stone rows with the rising of the sun. I had passed through here probably 100 times over the years, but every time the memories it evoked caused me to stop and think.
* * *That story took place many bow seasons ago. It is years later, and my precious deer sanctuary is littered with neon orange survey tape. I think nothing of it at first, until the “For Sale” signs go up. Despite my best efforts to make the signs “less visible,” the property sells in late summer. Then comes the people looking around, marking things, cutting paths. I grow more worried as the days go by.
I continue to hunt my stand behind the brush field until late winter, harvesting a mature nine point and a fat doe for the freezer. Returning home from school one day, I spot four trucks parked on the road in front of the property. That's not a good sign. I slowly approach the property line where my cut lawn meets the tall, now brown, weeds of the field - when I realize that line is gone. All the trees are cleared from the lot, all the brush cleared and stacked in the front by the trucks. My serene little piece of woods is now filled with the whining of chainsaws and men yelling at one another over the obnoxious noise.
In the weeks to come, a wood chipper visits the property, followed by a bulldozer, a backhoe, and, finally, a foundation. This whole thing is deeply depressing to me, but nothing hits home like the day I sneak over to take a look at the "progress." I wait for all the workers to call it a day, then I creep over. My wonderland is now nothing but six acres of overturned earth.
Walking through the mounds of dirt, I step on something. It is my buddy’s sweatshirt. Only a piece of it remains. Then I see something even worse. There, in about 100 pieces of splintered memories, lies my tree fort. At this point, I realize that my beloved hunting grounds, a place of so many “firsts,” is completely gone. I gaze at all the debris for what seems like an hour before I slowly turn and walk away. Before I leave the property, I check out the only tree left standing in the brush field, the black walnut.
Under the tree, nestled close to the trunk, sat the two faded soda cans from years ago. For some reason, they don’t hold the same meaning anymore. They look simply like two crushed pieces of aluminum. I walk back to my property and stare back one last time, and understand this is the last time I will be here alone.
I think of all the memories I had on the little parcel of land. To the man that bought the property, it may be someplace for him to put his house. To me, it is so much more than that. It is that magical place I played as kid, that place I went to think, that place I learned so much about the whitetail deer. This is that special place I will forever hold close to me.
David LaStarza has hunted in New Jersey all his life. This is his first story for WildNewJersey.tv .