Innocence in Deep Woods

ONE early morning years ago, I stepped out, gun in hand, to commit murder. This is a confession, but I don't think it will lead to a conviction because what I'm about to set down here has to do with innocence, not with guilt.

It was in India. I had checked out a Royal Enfield rifle at the armory on the Royal Air Force staging post at Maharajpur where I was stationed. The victim I had in mind was a deer. Now, as I look back on the incident, I don't think ``murder'' is too strong a word to use. Maharajpur, by the way, is in India's central provinces and some 30 miles from Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). In those days, the local rajah was well disposed toward the British and had no objection to our hunting in his jungle country.

I was young, alone, and inexperienced. As I walked away from the air base into the bush, I had no idea that I was attempting to destroy innocence. Deer are guilty of nothing but survival.

After a two-mile trek in blistering heat, I came abruptly to the edge of a small ravine, and there a hunter's dream awaited me. Some 80 yards below, within easy range, was a young doe. She stood motionless by the edge of a stream, her eyes away from me.

I raised my rifle and set my sights on the target. My finger began to close gently on the trigger. As I aimed, I was a boy again in Wales.... And all at once, I remembered the innocent. I remembered those small innocent creatures that fled from the shadow of the hawk's wing, that lived by courtesy of the tom cat or the snake. I found myself remembering them as utterly helpless and forsaken.

Suddenly, in the sun's blazing stillness, the doe turned and looked up at me. Then, to my astonishment, she took three steps very slowly in my direction. I lowered my rifle. Without warning, the creature leaped sideways. Now, far from being helpless and forsaken, she became a poem of unquenchable life. In unimaginable bounds, she swept exultantly along the ridge, her whole body a lovely dynamic - the very epitome of freedom. In no time, she was gone.

And gone forever was the thought of innocence as vulnerability or naivete. In turn, a sweet force swept through me - a strange mixture of gratitude, awe, and sheer delight. That force moved in me long after I had returned the Royal Enfield to the armory.

Two years later, I was in Germany, still in RAF uniform. I found myself at Gutersloh in Westphalia. It was the week after Christmas. The countryside was heavily treed, and snow lay thick on the ground. Once again, I set out by myself into the wilderness. But I carried no rifle. It was my camera that would be doing the shooting this time. Or so I planned.

That time back in India, there had been extreme heat. Here now in a German winter, the temperature was well below freezing. Yet already the preludes to these two distinct experiences had something noticeably in common. Silence. It was extraordinary. At the outset of both expeditions, I recall that there were no birds singing, and there was no cracking of branches anywhere to betray the presence of animals. Just uninterrupted - almost uncanny - silence.

I trudged deep into that soundless forest. After about an hour, I came to a clearing and stood still at the edge. Only my frozen breath kept me company. Each time I exhaled, a small cloud formed in front of my mouth and hung there for a moment on the cold air.

What was I expecting this time out? Indeed, I was willing to be surprised, but there was something more than that. With the quick stirring of anticipation came a surge of love for the beauty surrounding me, and with it, a deepening of respect for every living thing.

As I glanced about me, for no reason at all, I wanted to laugh out loud. With difficulty, I restrained myself. The wilderness enveloped me. But wilderness must be celebrated, and I felt that somehow a celebration was imminent.

My intuition proved to be right, but I was not prepared for what actually happened. I was about to step forward when my eye caught something moving in the air only a few yards ahead. What I was looking at, there at the edge of the foliage and some 10 feet or so above the ground, were hand-size clouds, gathering rhythmically and noiselessly in the space before me.

Breathing! I had no time to speculate. A second later, the leaves parted, and I was face to face with a giant elk.

He stood there, motionless, his large eyes fixed on mine. So close were we that our ``breath clouds'' began to slowly mingle. Then all at once, this majestic creature reared up on his hind legs. A moment later he swung around and was off, crashing through the branches.

What happened next I shall never forget. The whole wood came immediately alive. Elk were everywhere, pounding through the trees, with sudden sunlight shafting off their bodies. This was no stampede; this was celebration! My camera was forgotten as my heart raced with the herd.

It was as if escape had lost its meaning and, in some way, what began as startled flight had changed into a glorious charge. As with that doe in India, purpose was being redefined, no longer as freedom from, but freedom for. Those elk never seemed to stop. For them, exodus had become odyssey.

Or so it seemed to me. Gratitude, awe, sheer delight. The chemistry of that sweet force has ever enriched my encounters with wildlife and with wildernesses.

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