I am encouraged by the young men and women I have met recently who defy the trend of their peers and immerse themselves in the outdoors, and particularly those who communicate their passion for nature through art.
Isabelle Sweeney, 17, has been crafting, painting, drawing and sculpting since she was little. “It started as something I would do with my mum and siblings, and over time it became something I would do to escape and unwind,” she said. “Painting has always been one of my favorite ways to do this.”
But she has always loved being outdoors. “I feel at peace in nature,” she said. So when her friend, naturalisit Brian Balik, suggested painting a deer skull, it seemed like a great way to combine those interests. Balik gave her a doe skull he had found, they cleaned it up and she set out to turning it into art.
Deciding on black paint because she liked the contrast on the white skull, she sat down one evening, turned on some music and started painting. “I never have a plan when I start,” Isabelle said. “I love the natural symmetry of the bones, so I let them guide me. I let the shapes I see in the skull come out in the black paint.” She finished that first skull in one sitting. “I didn’t stop until it was done late that night.”
I loved that first doe skull when I saw it, and asked Isabelle if she would paint the 6-point buck skull I used for my blizzard time lapse video earlier this year. She was excited to work with the additional interesting features of the antler bases, and came up with an absolutely beautiful design.
“I relish being able to take something from nature, something that had died, something that would have been wasted, and giving it new life as art,” Isabelle said. “To make it beautiful in a new way.”
I am so proud to have this work of art hanging in my office as a reminder of the beauty of nature, and of those who embrace it and find creative ways to express themselves through it.
With winter storm Jonas threatening to dump two to three feet of snow on Loudoun County, Virginia, I thought it would be fun to set up a time lapse of the entire storm. I set up my Nikon DSLR to take a photo every four minutes, and focused it on a log outside my office window with the Potomac River in the background. A 6-point deer skull on top added to the composition, and 484 frames later, it was all over. Jonas left us with close to 30 inches of snow, with drifts more than twice that. Wind direction, drifting and timing made for vastly uneven snow totals around our property, though, and this stump was spared the full brunt of the storm. Still, it’s a peaceful, mesmerizing look at a storm that, when viewed in real time, was a powerful, sustained, dangerous winter storm. Enjoy!
It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.
We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.
Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…
We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.
So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.
While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.
I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.
You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.
So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.
The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.
And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!
Sandy and I and all the dogs met up with our friends Anna (of AKG Inspiration) and Chris and their two dogs to run around the woods, get some exercise and hunt for antler sheds. This is not the type of activity that Sandy and her dogs would normally join us for, and while it was nice to have them along, I did get the distinct feeling that things would get interesting. So come along on a photo tour of our day…
The recent snow and quick melt made for muddy conditions, but Finn and all the other dogs had a blast running around in the muck.
Wyatt came up big early, finding this T-Rex thigh bone. He was very proud, as well he should be.
Finn: “Is this an antler?? I think I found an antler!” (He found several deer parts portable enough to bring back to me in varying stages of decay. I praised him for this, as I felt it was a short leap from finding and fetching leg bones to finding and fetching antler sheds.)
Winnie: “Dude. You are an idiot. Antlers don’t have joints, and they don’t reek like buzzard breath. Which you now have.”
There were a few creek crossings that got pretty interesting. Here Sandy crosses with Monkey, but Petey is no fan of water, so he wouldn’t cross here.
Speaking of Petey, I didn’t get a lot of still photos of him today as he was on a leash with Sandy. But here is a video dramatization of Petey when he timidly tried to venture out a bit off leash.
Okay this happened. Luna and Winnie are watching a scene unfold.
Here is that scene: We were walking along the margin of a wooded area and a dead cornfield, and we stopped to watch many, many deer in an adjacent field. They were running back and forth and one of them darted into the field we were in. She was maybe 150 yards away when some of the dogs saw her and took off. Finn was in the lead with Wyatt and Monkey not far behind. I had the e-collar on Finn but a firm “Here!” caused him to break off his chase and circle back. Wyatt also broke off his chase and came back. While I was congratulating myself for what a good boy Finn was, we realized – if a little slowly – that Monkey was not coming back without a deer. He had visions of himself, like a lion dragging a gazelle into a tree, just hauling that deer back to us as everyone would cheer and hold him up in the air and celebrate his bravery and prowess.
Perhaps he was imagining the cheering as he ran through the dried corn and dimly heard people shouting his name. These “cheers” only propelled him faster. Two hundred yards. The deer spots him. Three hundred. The deer is hauling ass now. Four hundred. Yelling is fruitless at this point (even more fruitless than it was when he was within ear shot). At one point, the white dot moving in the distance changed course, and Sandy said, “he’s coming back.” But I knew better. He had taken a bad line on the deer, not realizing that when things are a thousand yards away moving at forty miles an hour, you can’t run to where they are, you have to run to where they’re going to be. A quick thirty degree course correction and he was off again. Easily half a mile away now, a small dot in an enormous plot of land, it was hard to get a perception of the speed involved. I once watched the International Space Station make an arc across the night sky. A dim, white spot lazily crossing from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes. This was like that. It doesn’t look like it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, but you know in your heart there’s no way you can catch it.
Still, Mommies do what Mommies do, so Mommie dropped some extra baggage and took off in a jog after the International Monkey Station. As he neared the treeline maybe three quarters of a mile away, several other deer spooked at the frenzy of activity and took off after the lead deer. To us in the distance, it just played out in surreal slow motion. The other deer, five or six, were trampling through the corn in a panic, basically right where Monkey was. I thought, well if he doesn’t get killed right here, he’ll have to be scared enough to turn back. Nope. He now had a half dozen new targets ahead of him, and he slipped into the treeline and vanished.
By this time Sandy had reached the general area and, I presume, was calling him. I can only imagine what I would have been yelling at that point, but we couldn’t tell what she was yelling, what with the vast distance involved. When she stopped running, I knew she had spotted him and he was on his way to her, and we all could relax enough to really laugh quite hard at the entire incident. So we waited, oh I don’t know, a half hour or so for Sandy and Monkey to return. Perhaps this photo gives an idea of how far that distant treeline is. Actually the treeline here is the short way across the field. To the left, where Monkey ran, the edge of the field is probably four times as distant.
When he returned from running the scale-adjusted equivalent of me sprinting from our house in Virginia to Dayton, Ohio, the other dogs were quite interested in what happened. “Did you catch it? How close did you get?? Were you just FREAKING when those other deer almost ran you over??? You’re so BRAVE!!”
While Monkey had his sights set on live deer, we still hadn’t found an antler shed. Despite covering, depending on which of our party you were talking about, between six and forty-five miles. Sandy finally kept us from getting skunked when she found this nice little one! Being a great steward of the environment, she returned it to the earth to let nature take its natural course. And by “being a great steward of the environment,” I mean, “Having shallow pockets and not really paying attention to stuff falling out of them.” But at least we got this photo of today’s find.
Here is our team of shed hunters: Luna, Wyatt, Winnie, Finn and Petey. On the end there, doing things his own way as he always does, is Monkey, the dog with the biggest heart of all. He’ll sleep for two days, and deserve every minute. And as I watch his feet twitching in his sleep, and his mouth quivering just a bit, I’d like to think that in his dream, he gets that gazelle all the way up the tree.