Don’t just stand there looking from a distance, friend. Go ahead, step inside the woods. Get in there and go deep. You haven’t seen or heard anything yet.
That’s it. Cross the line. Leave the beaten path. Watch your step, of course, but go. It’s the only way you can truly see the forest. Or hear it.
Now, then, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Can you feel it? The woods are alive, aren’t they? You’re more alive as well.
Now sit down. Most any spot will do. There’s a nice dry patch of earth under that big hickory over there. That old windfall oak looks like a passable sofa. That stump’s nice and smooth; just eyeball it for yellow jackets first. Go ahead, take your pick and have a seat.
Very good. You’ve taken a load off. Now be quiet. Really quiet. No humming, no whistling, no muttering to yourself. Don’t shuffle your feet in the dry leaves.
Wait, now. I didn’t say freeze up completely. Don’t go static. You can move. Just do it slowly, deliberately. Don’t jerk your head from side to side. Turn it smoothly, carefully. Don’t look up suddenly. Just let your gaze drift slowly upward and downward, from the forest floor to the tree canopy and back again.
Good. Now use the eyes God gave you and look. I mean really look. And when you look, pay attention. The greatest mistake you can make in the woods is not looking. The second greatest is not seeing.
For instance, you could easily look at that pine bough up there and never see the fox squirrel stretched out along it. Same goes for that sycamore limb. That’s right, there’s a little screech owl perched atop it. Almost missed him, didn’t you? Good. You’re getting the hang of it now. Yes, that’s a Carolina chickadee. Yes, that is indeed poison ivy. No, that strange hump in the leaf litter over there isn’t a rattlesnake, but it could have been. Nice job. Being wrong isn’t always a bad thing.
See that deer? It wasn’t there when you looked just a second ago, was it? That’s right. Sometimes they seem to just materialize, almost as if you dream them. And how about that shiny little black dot in the briar clump? A rabbit’s eye. Gives him away every time, no matter how still he sits. The late, great outdoorsman Charlie Elliott taught me that. It’s a pleasure to pass it along.
Okay, buddy. Now give your ears some exercise. Hear what you can’t see.
No, that’s not a deer, just squirrels scratching in the leaves. There’s consistency to the sound. It’s almost constant. Whitetails never broadcast their presence like that. That nasal, wheezing “blow,” on the other hand? Well, get ready. That’s no bushytail.
Hear that squeal and splash in the creek behind you? Wood ducks pitching in. They don’t call them squealers for nothing. That high-pitched, single, long-note keening sound? Red-tailed hawk. Notice how the squirrel scratching stops all of a sudden? “Jug ‘o rum?” That’s a bullfrog. “Who cooks for you?” Barred owl. Mindless hysterical chattering? The squirrels just spotted the hawk.
Hear the leaves rustling high up in the trees? Sure, just a light breeze, but it’s getting on toward evening. Strange time for a wind this time of day and year. Might mean rain. The screech owl thinks so. It just scooted into its hollow.
What? Forgot to bring your flashlight and rain gear? Better start back to the truck? Good thinking. In the woods, a little caution goes a long way. Besides, you might as well leave now, anyway. I know you hear those other sounds.
Which ones? Just listen. Over there on the old firebreak road. That loud truck engine. The slamming doors. All the top-of-the-lungs hollering.
What’s that, buddy? The sounds of ignorance, you say?
My, oh my. You do learn quickly, don’t you?
Too bad we’re not screech owls, huh? We could just find ourselves a hollow and stay.