A brilliant cardinal perched on a dead twig. The quiet songster peered to the left, fixing its attention downhill. A hunter’s aging eyes followed its gaze; a plump fox squirrel bounded once, then disappeared in the dark spaces between the bases of the autumn olives and barberry bushes that obscured the lower two trails.
Steel-grey clouds hung above the barren tree tops, cloaking the glade in a massive, almost ominous shadow, at the least, foretelling of an early nightfall. Yet, the cardinal’s crimson plumage glowed as if illuminated by a noonday sun, its forest presence magnificent, compelling, and entrancing.
After a minute or so, the cardinal glanced to the north, then turned to its right, spending an equal amount of time surveying the oak leaves that carpeted the hill’s upper flat. I turned a bit to my left to see what occupied the songbird’s interest. Twenty paces to the east another fox squirrel flung leaves and dirt as it dug at the drip-line of a young red oak. When I looked back, the cardinal was gone.
Disappointed, I returned to watching the hillside that led to the sequestered plateau. The cool, calm evening air carried no noticeable scent, no marker that set that evening apart from others, late in December of 1798. The celebration of the birth of the Christ was but six days away.
Reflections on the events of the fall, thoughts of the upcoming weeks and speculation on the severity of the winter came and went as I sat beside a powder-keg-sized red cedar trunk. The tree’s lower branches broke up my deathly silhouette, yet due to its size and the spacing of the scraggly limbs, I had ample openings through which to take careful aim. Now and again my eyelids grew heavy from fatigue, perhaps induced from the peaceful silence that surrounded my being.
A noticeable chill accompanied the day’s dimming. A deer’s hind leg pushed a patch of brown body hair to the east, upwind, just beyond where the cardinal perched. The Northwest gun’s muzzle eased in that direction. My right thumb began massaging its usual tiny circles on the hammer’s jaw screw. With a couple of steps, the whitetail’s head would pass through the first small opening.
A barren head dropped to the leaves. Another leg moved behind this deer, and the odds were it was antlerless, too. Then to the right a pair of ears twitched on the uphill side of the tangle that hid the first fox squirrel. A button buck’s head, then its neck plodded into view, still upwind, following a trail that forked before my cedar tree. The right fork was not an issue, but the left passed in front of the cedar fortress, then curved downwind.
All three deer paused and stood still at about the same time. The tiny plateau grew darker and darker until the day was done. My thumb slipped from the jaw screw and my muscles eased. Again, as if sharing a common thought, the three grey ghosts crossed the leaf-strewn flat, scuffing through half-damped brown skeletons with no care to the noisy ruckus they raised.
A solid five minutes after the glade grew quiet, I got to my feet, slung the portage collar that bound the bedroll over my shoulders and stalked back to the wagon trail, taking care that each step did not betray my presence and making sure an unseen twig did not slap my face.
A Different Christmas Message
In the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, Michigan’s muzzleloading deer season always ends a few days before Christmas. After hunting hard throughout the fall, the last few days of this season are a time for peaceful contemplation. That evening was no exception. To be sure, I still concentrate on filling a buck tag, but the complexion of the hunt changes.
This change is due to the realization that the probability of bringing home fresh venison diminishes with each passing day, and it is due to a shift in my emphasis as I look forward to returning to small game hunting. Another contributing factor is Christmas.
When I sit and cogitate on Christmas, as I did that evening, I most often think of the nativity described in Luke’s gospel—sometimes I think of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree on Schroeder’s grand piano and Linus reciting the story while he held his blanket. But this year was, and is, very different.
In the last month or so, I have found myself confronted with Luke’s story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. I use the word “confronted” because the passages, or parts of them, have popped up under very unusual circumstances, and with enough frequency that one cannot help but take notice.
And as I sat that evening, I was thinking about the various circumstances and at one point I realized that I was telling myself, “this is a bit frightening”—nowhere near what Mary and Joseph must have experienced, if only for a few moments. In response, I stepped back and attempted to view the birth of Jesus from a broader perspective.
As the Christmas season progresses, the arrival of the shepherds, the wise men and the flight to Egypt unfold and take precedence—yet, there is little mention of what came before other than maybe a Gospel reading at church. But as a living historian, I have learned to view a passage from many different perspectives, and for that I feel truly blessed—especially with this passage:
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
“‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’ And the angel said to her in reply, ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.’
“Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her…” (Luke 1: 26-38)
Merry Christmas to all, be safe and may God bless you.