A. J. Windless
Shots Not Heard

The following short story takes place several decades ago just outside of Salt Lake City, high in City Creek Canyon. It tells how and why nature photographer, A. J. Windless, transformed from hunting with a bow and a rifle to creating the work you see on this web site today. It was originally written as part of a five story series, each of the true stories woven together by the themes "leave no trace" and "trails".


Deer trails, a thousand feet and more above me, traversing ridges and snaking around jagged outcrops, a thousand years and more some of them have been here. Notwithstanding, take away the deer, and within weeks the weeds would reclaim the trails, leaving behind little sign that deer have ever lived here.

Down below, on the canyon floor, where all the hillsides have stopped tumbling, I sit. To my right, within an arrow's flight, but out of sight, gurgles a small stream. Like a deer that vanishes into the forest and later reappears higher up the mountain, so too, this stream vanishes underground and later reappears further down the canyon. She steadily matures for another ten miles before reaching "Memory Grove" where she again dives underground, this time, however, diverted there by the hand of man. But like one of his own teenagers, man would not always control her. Instead, she would, during the floods of '83, cruise State Street, as if a reminder that Mother Nature might one day reclaim the trails man has made.

At my fingertips a bow, a quiver of arrows, lie, but belie, the why of my presence. Camouflage completely covers me: clothing, hat, gloves, arrows, even the mosquito netting over my face. I am still as bark on a fallen tree. I must be. Dozens of those trails trickle off that mountain, some of them crossing a small opening near the edge of which I have hidden myself. There was, however, no perfect place to sit. Hoof prints are scattered on the ground behind me, some of them embedded nearly on the spot that I sit. Any movement I make may be detected by deer approaching unseen at my backside.

As fog through a hardwood forest, my thoughts drift, a thousand miles and more to the east. Hemlock branches once hung over my head, as I watched the evening settle on a trail of power lines that weaved through a woodland as quiet as an empty cathedral, save for the hymns of a few song birds and the scurrying about of various small creatures like mice on the cathedral floor. I sat in silence, as if I had brought rosary beads before the shrine of Mother Earth, but I was preying the return of a whitetail buck that a week ago I had envied like a cougar from hidden behind these leaves. As a pillar that joined the cathedral floor to the ceiling above where painted angels poised amid the clouds, before me a mature hemlock trunk joined the forest floor to the loft above where squirrels frolicked among the branches. For one pair of squirrels that tree trunk had been a spiraling staircase, which they scampered round and round, mate after mate, as I sat there, never a sound, deep in my wait. Only a hop away, at first they protested my intrusion, fussing and chattering, as if I had ignited the cathedral's alarm system. Notwithstanding, still as a stone, I stayed, until, hour by hour, night by night, they came to regard me as just another tree. So much so, that one evening, as I scanned the foliage for sign of a buck, bow resting across my lap, arrow knocked at the string in powerful readiness, one of these frisky red squirrels suddenly leaped into my lap on top of my bow. A wild forest animal that likely had never been within twenty feet of another man, he didn't stay long, but someone should have taught him to leave things as he found them. Perhaps he thought he had. A closer look, however, would reveal that he had left behind one of the seeds he had so tenaciously gathered for winter. It was deep inside of me, and though I didn't know it yet, when winter had passed and the snow had begun to melt, the seed would begin to grow.

As fog across a mountain peak, my thoughts drift back to those ridge trails a thousand feet and more above where I now sit. Just one year ago I sat patiently awaiting the opening of the rifle hunt. I watched as a string of flashlights over a mile long marched like an army in the darkness, rattlesnaking through the bottom of the canyon. Dawn grew, a slowly developing idea, daylight dissolving darkness, exposing a healthy buck nibbling a breakfast of leaves barely fifty paces from my rifle barrel. All the ridge tops for as far as the ear could hear lay deceptively silent, about to explode with gunfire at any moment. My shot would be the first. I rested my rifle on the rocks in front of me. Then I pulled out my camera and placed it behind the scope trying to photograph the buck as he appeared with cross hairs dividing his body. That morning my camera fired the first shot, leaving the buck still munching nonchalantly and the canyon as silent as before.

So, slowly I evolve, finding what it is I am really here for. On this spot I have nested only two weeks now, but already the experience has been as rich as a book of poetry. One evening I listened to a pair of cougars fight like stray house cats, and though the carnivores tore into each other way up on the south ridge, the snarling and screaming blasted throughout the canyon as if boosted by cathedral walls. Even long after the cat fight ended, the entire congregation still sat in stunned silence as if their priests had been quarreling on the pulpit. Even the small song birds froze in their pews as if deep in a long penance.

In contrast, a few evenings later it seemed the entire congregation had filed in on all sides of me. One doe nibbled so close we could have been in the same room together, while behind me footsteps sounded almost within arm reach. At sunset buck heels sounded against stone like shoes on the cathedral's hardwood floors as he charged back and forth in small bursts. Finally one of his chases brought him through the brush to the left and revealed the widest set of antlers I had ever seen. I attempted to get a shot but only succeeded in emptying the entire building, perhaps having robbed the sanctuary of its holiness. I would wait a week, until now, for his return, but would only spend the hours in solitude.

And so, I continue to wait, not left alone by the influences of the canyon, a canyon that for now is quiet. I, too, am quiet, having melted into my hiding spot like a raindrop lost on the forest floor. My body ceases to exist. Only my soul seems to float with that which my eyes see until I am not sure where I end and the forest begins.

A twig snaps! My heart pounds in my ears. Almost breathless, I wait. Outside my netting a mosquito buzzes hungrily within an inch of my eye. I must ignore him. A chipmunk rustles in the leaves. Seconds stretch into minutes, and minutes seem hours.

Eventually, a few crickets begin to ring in the distance. In time, a few more chorus in. Their symphony soothes me: rhythmic, hypnotic, slowly drawing my innermost feelings into the scene itself. I watch the evening sunlight take on a warm glow. Shadows climb up the mountain side. Birds settle for the evening. The last trace of sunlight surrenders from the mountain top. Dusk begins to settle.

At last I know I can wait no longer, for the canyon is almost dark now. Stiffness settled into my muscles I rise, a little awkwardly at first, and stumble down that trail in the direction of that house I call home. For at least one more night I have left the canyon as I found it. Not by intent, but in time that intention would grow. A few months from now I would settle the cross hairs of my rifle scope on a live target for the last time. A year from now I would remove all razors from the tips of my arrow shafts. I would come to choose a new weapon. One that I could hunt with all year round. One with which I could shoot anything, endangered species, flowers, even the moon. Now I fire shots that leave the buck still munching nonchalantly, and the canyon as silent as before.

Listen to the song "Shots Not Heard" (click here)

 © 2002 A. J. Windless
First draft written and copyrighted in 1992

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    © 2002 A. J. Windless    
    First draft written and copyrighted in 1992