From Where One Stands

by Conrad Vispo

A version of this was published in the Plough & Star


Deer hunters build elevated perches from which to surprise their prey. In Germany, these stands resemble trim, tiny log cabins on stilts, the envy of any boyhood fort builder. In the U.S., such stands are more often roughly cobbled nests whose use requires balance and tolerant buttocks. This differentiation says less, I think, about respective architectural and carpentry abilities and more about the forests that these stands overlook, and the public interactions with those forests.

Walk through the Black Forest, and you’ll find an orderly woods, criss-crossed by logging roads that serve double duty as frequently-used walking trails. It is a neat forest dominated by relatively few species. The ground is clear of most debris and underbrush is scarce. By contrast, the New England hunter overlooks a less-orderly and less-wandered woods, more diverse, more scrubby. Both of these modern forests are the product of re-births, largely growing up on once-cleared land. The contrasting results have to do with historical exigencies and the consequent requirements of management. Intention returned forests to the Schwarzwald; indeed, that forest is really a loose plantation intended to supply a densely-populated country which, especially after WW I and then during WW II, had a high demand for national wood. There was also a long history of agricultural clearing at least in the valleys. Expanding food-supply markets have since reduced the need for regional agricultural production, and maintained forestry’s primacy. In contrast, benign neglect returned the trees to most of New England when, as better lands were opened farther West, it no longer paid to keep such rocky fields cleared. While such secondary American forests have sometimes been recut, it has usually only been as an afterthought. Hence, one stand surveys a landscape that, while scenic, bears a requirement for efficient production, while the other looks over a forest of more nebulous, although not necessarily less-valued, purpose.

The hunters themselves likely brought differing self-perceptions when they climbed aloft. For a pretty penny (or rather euro-cent) the German has taken his hunting test and leased exclusive hunting access to a parcel for himself or his group. As such, he is a member of a relatively small elite subscription to which has brought privileges and duties. He is often required to cull a certain number of animals from his parcel, although he can sell the meat to offset costs; he is, in a sense, a wildlife farmer. The American is one of a larger, albeit decreasing proportion of the national population. He may well not be rich, and in fact, while the game meat cannot be sold, it may make a meaningful economic contribution to a strapped food budget. He has bought a relatively cheap license that gives him the right to hunt wherever he can find legal access in his state. He is something of a hunter-gatherer. In effect, the German hunter is a contributing manager of the wildlife in the well-maintained forest plot he overlooks. The American hunter may be no less interested in the fate of the species he harvests, but his managerial interaction is much looser, and he may or may not have any intimate knowledge of the messy forest he traverses in his hunt.

This description is not meant to be judgemental. The purpose in its sketching is not to highlight any aspect other than the intimate way in which a culture’s interaction with its land is shaped by both the culture itself and the land. The German hunter’s stand is part of the expected forest scenery during a woodland walk, just as day-glow orange marks the autumn season in New England’s forests. Within their cultures, each group is associated with a certain stereotype, as are the forests they hunt. In sum, characteristics as simple as those of deer stand construction reflect broader, more profound variations in human/land interactions.

The same enviro-cultural interactions hold for farmers and farmlands, although I am less capable of outlining it in such a comparative format. Nonetheless as we consider agriculture in Columbia County, it’s worth thinking about the “deer stand” principle – few are the human constructs that aren’t a reflection of their environment, and few are the environments that are not, at least in part, human constructs. How has farming shaped us? How does it influence our gut feelings about a landscape? What does our style of farming say about our culture? How is it shaped by and how does it shape the ecology of the lands where it is found? And, finally, once we have understood these questions as spectators or passive participants, then we can ask the key questions of where do we want this interaction to go and how do we want to get there? As we follow our lives in city or country, we are standing not just at a certain point in our own personal, daily schedules or at a particular graphic location on a map, but we are also actors on the ecological stage, displaying our emotions and perceptions of that stage in our “artwork”, be that work a ploughed field, a mowed lawn with a plastic flamingo, an exquisitely-marked hiking trail or a deer stand. The difficult task on such a stage is to perceive it in its entirety, realizing both the immense and beautiful depths of our interactions and the dangerous power of our own hands.