Into the Woods With...james Dickey
Novelist James Dickey is scratching his head in bewilderment. He can’t find darts for the six-foot blowgun he had hoped to take to the woods and perhaps kill a snake. “Damn,” he says in a lyrical drawl, “could ah be out of dahts?” He searches briefly but realizes the futility of finding anything so tiny in a house stuffed with 35,000 books, six guitars, two sextants for mapping the heavens, 20 bows, hundreds of arrows and dozens of knives. But no darts. “Then,” he says, “Ah must take to the woods with bow and arrows.”
The mystery and wonder of the great primeval forests of the American South gripped Dickey when he was a kid and never lei go. He often hiked with his daddy, a lawyer, into the remote North Georgia backwoods to watch cockfights. “I don’t know why certain things call you,” he explains, “but my connection with the woods is deep and abiding. It evokes a feeling of wonder and creation and diversity.”
One of the century’s great literary lions, Dickey is now in his 71st winter, but his lifelong obsession with prowling the woods is undiminished. It provides a respite from his teaching duties at the University of South Carolina and the four portable typewriters in his office containing novels in various stages of completion. Where he would once disappear for weeks at a time, now, slowed by brain surgery in 1986, he must content himself with short excursions near his home in Columbia, S.C.
More often than not, he’ll bring alone one of his tools of destruction. Primitive weapons that deliver silent death in peaceful places have always fascinated Dickey and figure prominently in his work. Winner of a National Book Award for Poetry. he is best known for his 1970 best-seller, Deliverance, the story of four businessmen on a canoe trip who are set upon by crazed Georgia rednecks. In the movie version (for which Dickey wrote the screenplay), Jon Voight’s character pins a man to a tree by firing an arrow through his throat. Similarly, Muldrow, the central character of Dickey’s latest novel, To the White Sea, is a B-29 tail gunner shot down during a firebombing raid over Toyko. In his quest to survive in enemy territory, he turns into a killing machine, murdering everyone he encounters, including a woman he expertly beheads.
Before taking to the woods, Dickey must first show off his toys. The blowgun that can penetrate a rabbit’s skull at 35 yards is a favorite. He has, however, never used it in that way. He is an odd hunter. He doesn’t like to kill. He likes the contest.
Then there are the knives: daggers, jackknives, machetes, piled on every level surface in his home. And the arrows. Above all, it’s the delicate design of the arrows that intrigues him: the feathers, the colors, the whooshing sound they make whipping off a bow string at 180 mph. “Guns are for crazy people,” he says with disgust. “Since the wars I’ve become gun-shy. Guns are noisy and dangerous. Arrows represent classic beauty.”
Dickey flew more than 100 B-29 bombing missions in World War II, dropping gasoline and napalm on the Japanese in the South Pacific. He dropped more bombs in the Korean War. Now he savors quiet places.
He selects a compound bow that draws 60 pounds of pressure, enough lo kill an elephant at 40 yards. He admires its power and sleek, clean design. That such a simple instrument could produce death fascinates him. “This will kill anything in North or South America,” he says, mashing a battered camouflage cap on his head before going outside.
The house Dickey shares with his second wife, Deborah, 42, and their daughter Bronwen, 12, sits on a wooded ridge above a 167-acre lake. (Maxine, Dickey’s first wife, died in 1976 after 28 years of marriage and two sons: Christopher, 42, a journalist; and Kevin, 35, a doctor. He married Deborah, then his student, two months after Maxine’s death.) As Dickey moves down the shoreline toward the woods—arrows in one hand, bow in the other—he spots a clump of green vegetation in the brown grass. “How far away is that? Twenty yards? Looks about right,” he says, notching an arrow and drawing the string back. The arrow whirs to its target, burrowing into the greenery. Perfect. The old lion is elated. He hasn’t lost the touch.
Dickey has spent 40 years bow-hunting for whitetail deer, the most elegant of To rest creatures. Yet he has never killed one. Never even fired an arrow at one. Unlike most bow hunters who sit in trees waiting for a deer to walk underneath. Dickey prefers to stalk them, which is almost impossible. Sitting in a tree isn’t fair, he believes, since a deer never looks up. That’s not hunting, he says, it’s killing, and it doesn’t interest him. He destroyed too much life during the wars, and it brought no joy. The joy is in the watching, the listening, becoming part of something larger. “Man can figure out the what of everything and how it all works, but can never figure out the why. Why is there anything? Why is this woods here?” he asks, settling against a tree.
Dickey recalls a lime long ago on a ridge above the Shenandoah Valley when he fell asleep in the woods, resting his bow across his chest. He awoke to find 10 or 12 deer standing motionless before him. Staring. Wide-eyed. Unafraid. The deer had successfully stalked the hunter.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and the deer were gone. “I never heard a sound,” he says. “That’s why whitetails are the best opponents. They have everything to defeat you. They are quiet and cautious. When they are motionless, they are so camouflaged they almost cease to exist.”
He’s rolling now. The poet, the novelist, the hunter with his fistful of arrows joining forces with the teacher lo lecture on the wonderment of the woods. “It seems like a perpetual miracle—there are so many forms of life in the woods, and you leave time behind when you enter. There is a communal feeling about it, a timelessness. We’re part of some enormous continuum, and the woods represent the continuum. All these things come lo be something mystical, the shape of an arrow, a new area of woods. When you cast yourself into these situations, pick up the bow and step into the woods, it restores your sense of the primitive peace.”
It’s nearly supper time now, and the old lion is hungry. Heading back, his spirit restored by the gentle healing hands of the forest, he quotes Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who on his deathbed murmured finally, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”
Dickey is not yet ready to make that crossing himself. He has too many stories yet lo tell, too many students to teach, too many bows to draw. “Some good may yet be done,” he says, turning north toward home, down the winding forest path.