As the sun rises just beyond the tree line, my dog, Penny, and I ease ourselves out the front door and head for the orchard, breaking the stillness inside the house and in the woods just beyond. We're going on a deer hunt.
I'm no hunter, and she's no hunting dog, either. We're both in training. I'm working on my call—"Get 'em, girl!" or, more common in our parts, "Hyhh!" A friend suggested that I even give Penny a name with more bite, like "Killer." I didn't mention that her full handle is "Penne Pasta." She's a rescue dog without a mean bone in her little Beagle-Lab body. She just loves to run through the woods and boing-boing among the trees when she sees a deer or a squirrel. And we see deer everywhere, which is the problem.
See, our mission is to save the blueberries. There was once plenty of fruit for everyone, and—as people will be in times of plenty—I was "one with nature" and for "sharing the whole." I remember telling someone that deer were nature's natural pruners. Whoops.
It's been a good spring: The eight-foot-tall Rabbit Eye bushes are covered with new growth and flowers. Knee-high runners are pushing up through the pine straw borders. A local beekeeper has two-dozen hives next to a pond 100 yards to the east. Without a late frost in the next week or two, we'll be getting buckets of berries in July. The deer know this, too.
Penny and I cross a little wooden bridge that cuts over a dry creek. She's picking up speed. She knows what's at the top of the hill, grazing, perhaps still groggy in the early dawn. Armed only with a mug of coffee, I'm trying to keep up. She lives for the chase. I'm thinking we're a good team.
I once stumbled upon a lost hunting dog in the woods. He was feeble. I coaxed him over and looked at his dog tag—"Lickskillet." I went home and called his owner. He didn't sound too excited. "Oh that's Old Lickskillet," he said. "You can keep him. I name all my dogs Lickskillet."
Penny, on the other hand, is our love dog. When we brought her home, she was eight weeks old and rather skittish, with a furrowed brow that suggested she was waiting for the sky to fall. Now she's ready for anything. As she circles and patrols the hillside, I'm watching in the brush at the edge of the woods for white tufts of fur, listening for that chirping sound the deer make. I suspect they're watching us.
Each morning, we do a different loop from the house, hoping to keep the deer on their toes. Some mornings, we don't see our familiar herd. Does that mean they have indeed moved on to safer browsing? Or are they just chilling 20 feet deep in the forest, waiting for us to trot along on our merry way?