(Editor's Note) The column below was judged an award winner by independent judges of writings by members of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA). Barham received the third place award at the annual conference of SEOPA, held this month in Fontana Village, North Carolina. The column appeared earlier in the Meridian Star. There are 260 media members in the organization from 30 states and one foreign country, and winning an award is known to be the most difficult of all outdoor writing organizations in the country.
The woods scene is blurred with fog, that wonderful, mysterious shroud. Wet leaves crush silently underfoot as I step to the next dark tree trunk and lean against it for concealment.
Silent moments pass and suddenly the quiet is shattered by a squirrel’s raucous bark. My approach, though stealthy to the limit of my skills, has alerted him. And his bark is one of both curiosity and alarm, intended to force me to reveal myself as the danger I represent. I freeze. My intrusion has caught him on the ground to my left.
More silent moments as the squirrel waits to learn if his bark rousts the unseen enemy. I give him time to decide my noise was from harmless feet. But, still untrusting, he dashes to a nearby slender oak, and comes into sight as he scurries up its trunk to gain an overhead view. I make out his silhouette against the gray sky as he clings to tree bark and surveys the woodland scene below.
Leaves on a dozen sprouts camouflage me well as I raise the little rifle confidently. Just as I bring the silver bead to rest on the squirrel, I give a low whistle to freeze him in place, and I press the trigger. The squirrel falls to the wet earth with a thud amid a carpet of newly fallen leaves; green ones and red ones and yellow ones atop last year's brown ones. A yellow one, dislodged by the squirrels fall, twirls down and lands silently beside him; a hushed postscript to the incident.
I pick up his limp form and marvel at his splendor, the characteristic soft, gray fur and white fringed tail. The demarcation line between the upper gray coat and the snow-white belly fur is appropriately distinct. Accents of reddish-brown about the face and legs, are placed perfectly as pastel highlights by the Divine Artist.
Perhaps because of maturity as a hunter, or maybe because after a thousand squirrels are bagged it is simply time to see the meaning, I find myself pondering instead of dropping the squirrel into my game bag and moving on. How long I have pondered, I don’t remember, but I now find myself speaking in silence.
“I thank you, Mr. Squirrel, for your life. You give me your tasty flesh, which I will savor and which will nourish my body. In a sense you are giving me life. Your life for my life. And I honor you for that and much more.
“The ten acorns you ate each day will now instead give life to others of your kind, or fall to the forest floor and feed the deer or sprout giant oaks to feed the masses of the woods and sky. Let’s see, ten acorns a day for a month is 300 acorns, enough to nourish that doe deer with the twin nursing fawns for several days. Maybe just enough to make the difference so she can survive the winter to bring us more fawns next year and the next.
“Your life, and thus your death Mr. Squirrel, has counted. As I take your succulent meat, I will leave your fur and entrails here in the woods. Other animals, our kin, will eat and be nourished. And the tiny, unseen ones we call microorganisms will take your every remaining cell and convert it slowly, dutifully, perfectly, to part of the soil; the humus part; the rich part; the necessary part.
“And one day a tiny acorn will fall on your converted remains; remains which will be there because you lived and died, and the acorn will sprout and form a plant. And the plant will form a giant oak with thousands of acorns, a ton of acorns throughout a lifetime, to feed unnumbered of your kind and a dozen other kinds and sprout new oak trees. You have made a difference, Mr. Squirrel. You have fulfilled your purpose in full measure. The Divine purpose.
“And you have clearly shown me my role as well. For I too will soon contribute my body to the soil of the future. Like you, Brother Squirrel, I will be privileged to live in the lives of following generations. When I lay down for my last time, the microorganisms will do their work and fix my body for its new purpose. I will join you in the soil.
“Together we do our little parts, our special parts, in this marvelous scheme. Together we fulfill divine purpose. I will be there with you Brother Squirrel. You and I together; in the end, which is the beginning for those to follow.”