I stood immobile in the woods and listened carefully through the headphones to the two jets flying over head. For weeks we had been filming* in the most rural parts of Washington County, New York, yet every few minutes the silence was broken by another plane. If it weren’t for this 21st century intrusion, I would think I was in the 19th century or even the 15th century, as the hunters and trappers we are following with the camera walk through streams in the their boiled wool pants that sag at the knee like a figure out of Bruegel’s, “Return of the Hunters”.
Davey hit a deer and we follow the blood trail through the forest carpet of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves. Despite being a highly visual person, I see nothing: not the tiny dot of red blood on the yellow leaf, nor the small broken twigs that lead David rather quickly to his deer.
The months I have spent with Dave and Steph have completely changed my understanding of landscape. I saw the landscape as a view outside my car window, something molded and harnessed by men for their homes and farms. When I am with David, I see the fields as habitats for the deer, bear, fox, muskrats, minks, beavers, otters and wild turkeys. The roads cut through them like rivers. Dave knows how to move through this landscape. He is as comfortable in the woods as I am in my bedroom. One night, after some excessive drinking, while being followed by the cops, Dave ditched his jeep behind a barn and spent the night walking home though the woods using the light of the moon to guide his way — for all 17 miles.
Dave could read the signs of the animal scat, and broken twigs, and gnawed bark. Each day he checked his traps. It is cruel and illegal not to. Despite any love I have for animals, I admire his skill as a trapper, and the intimate connection he has to the animals. Even skinning and preparing the pelts to be sold was something he did with great care and skill.
When I watch him work, it connects me to an earlier time, when one was not quite so removed from one’s food source. Dutch paintings, in particular, come alive for me, as I watch Dave pile up the animals to be skinned. When Steph butchered a deer on the dining room table, Dave’s girlfriend’s daughter picked up the deer’s severed leg and marched it across the bare wood floor chanting, “I’m going to the castle, I’m going to the castle.” Later that night, she would be eating that deer.
The final revelation came for me when I saw Davey draw a deer on a piece of cardboard, that he and his partner would use for target practice with their compound bows. He placed a crayon at the foot of the deer and drew the deer in one line. His mark was so sure he could have been tracing his own hand. It may not have been a brilliant drawing, but it was remarkably accurate and came form a place of certain knowledge of the animal.
Davey propped the cardboard against a couple of bails of hay, and from the roof of his cabin, Steph took the first shot with his bow and put it through the heart of the deer. Davey took aim and shot the deer though the same hole — exactly, not even widening the initial hole. I felt that this must have been what went on in the caves of Lascaux: these men connecting with the animals they stalk.
* For seven years I worked as a sound person for the documentary filmmaker, Michael Marton.
American Trap 1982
60 min. WMHT Schenectady, NY and German TV
The story of two laborers in upstate New York who decide to live the life of their ancestors and become full time trappers and hunters.
(Video Center, Hamburg, Germany / Anthology Film Archives, New York)