This morning I was talking to Frankie, our weathered and wonderful 70-year-old caretaker of 25 years, who was in my Mom's bathroom, changing light bulbs. Frankie is the former Town of Shelburne fire chief, the brother of my uncle, a seventh generation old-time Vermonter, and very tough. He's had two marriages, four sons, many bee stings, and several heart attacks, mostly suffered while working in the woods. But through a combination of emergency phone calls, epinephrine shots, a pocket beeper, and dumb luck, he has managed to survive every siege.
Like any self-respecting old-time Vermonter, Frankie is a hunter. In his lifetime he's taken over 40 deer (including a few does) using a rifle and a muzzle-loader. To me, Frankie has always been the classic woodsman, with the squinty eyes, gruff voice, red plaid jacket, and good boots to match.
Frankie is learning to use a computer and gets my photos by email each day. We were talking about my Oregon owl and he said how it seemed to be watching and guiding me. He told me how his old dog Deek, after a long drive lying in the car with his eyes closed, would suddenly sit up and look around as the car approached the gates to the farm, and how eerie it was. He also told me about when Deek was very old, and had been too weak to walk much for months, and he had finally made the impossible decision to put Deek down, and it was the morning of the last day of Deek's life, and Frankie was out in the field, driving a tractor and doing some work because the vet appointment was not until the afternoon. Deek, who hadn't left the house for weeks, followed Frankie down the stairs that day, hobbled out to the barn and down into the field, and staggered along next to the tractor, never breaking eye contact with his master. From his perch on the tractor, Frankie tried to ignore the deeply knowing stare that Deek was shooting at him, but he could not ignore it and not much tractor work got done that day. Deek did not know this was to be his last morning alive, yet somehow he knew completely. Frankie said how animals know things.
There were some deer in the bright snowy field below the house and Frankie turned to look at them. He said that in the last few years he'd been having a change of heart about hunting, that the deer began to seem innocent, and not worth killing. Before, he had gotten a primal rush from hunting, and wanted to kill for the fun of it (although he always ate all the meat). But recently, he said, he's been seeing deer around the farm and just letting them walk away, because it just didn't seem right to kill them. He still got a deer this year (his family depends on the meat), but that basic desire to hunt has disappeared from his heart. I asked him, "Do you think it's because you're getting old, or is something changing in you that has more to do with the changing world?"
He said, "Both. I think both. I know some old dodgers that shoot away all giddy like till they fall in their graves. I don't know what it is. I just don't have that hunger anymore. I think I see animals different now. When you're young, life is all about thrills — four-wheelers, snow machines, hunting, booze, women — but when you get old like me you realize things have a cost, and consequences, and so you act different. But animals, they really understand life and death. That's one thing. Yes sir, they sure understand life and death."
When I was a kid in Vermont we would get so much snow and you would commonly see herds of 40 or 50 deer at a time in the fields around the farm. Now it rarely snows and when it does it rarely sticks, and you seldom see any deer at all.
But this weekend Burlington was buried in 32 inches of snow, which is a record, and people like Frankie are beginning to change the way that they feel about animals, so maybe the future will be more like the past.