Something happens to Jake Anderson when the leaves change colors in the fall. This year, it occurred while on retreat at Pacem in Terris retreat center near St. Francis earlier this month.
A seminarian at the St. Paul Seminary, he was there to spend some time away from the classroom to reflect and experience God.
“It was difficult for me to enter in because the leaves were falling and my instincts were to look for deer,” he said. “When it drops below 50 or 60 [degrees], something happens. It’s time.”
Time for hunting. It’s a natural activity for someone who grew up in rural Wisconsin and spent many a morning and evening hunting whitetails with a bow.
But, what makes Anderson unique is that before he even became a teenager, he started making his own bows. In fact, he has pieces of wood — ash, maple, osage — tucked into a corner of his small room at the seminary, along with the tool — a metal rasp — he uses to form them into bows.
I got a chance to look into the world of traditional, primitive archery when I paid Anderson a visit last week. He doesn’t have a workshop at the seminary, but he manages to fashion his bows, nonetheless. He takes a piece of wood and the rasp and goes out the back door to sit in the patio and shave away.
It is here where he can experience long periods of quiet reflection, the kind of reflection that has helped him solidify his decision to pursue the priesthood. Currently a Theology I student, he will be ordained in May 2014 if all goes according to plan.
“It’s an area where I can disengage from the rigors of the intellectual life and engage in a different form of leisure,” he said. “It’s peaceful, it’s relaxing, it’s also challenging. And, it’s a form of art.”
He is hoping that, long before ordination, he will harvest his first deer with a homemade bow. He has taken three with a modern, compound bow, and has come close to getting one with one of his traditional bows.
His best chance came in 2006, when he was hunting on land near his family’s home in Baldwin, Wis. He was hunting from the ground, again in traditional style. A deer came to about 10 yards, but turned and walked away before he could shoot.
But, he is far from disappointed. He seems to have developed his “patience muscles” just like any good archer develops shooting muscles in the arms and shoulders.
These days, I’m learning about shooting muscles. I took up archery back in June when I purchased a compound bow. I had bought a recurve bow for my son, William, and thought it would be nice to get a bow for myself so we could shoot together.
We’ve been able to do that, and I have enjoyed those occasions when we visit a local archery range. My interest has progressed to the point where I have decided to bow hunt this fall.
For people like Jake, however, it’s less about the kill and more about the other elements of the experience. Before he ever sets foot into the woods, he already has taken part in a rewarding experience that connects him to the Native Americans who ultimately were responsible for his learning how to make a bow.
Native American connection
When he was 11, a friend told him about someone in the neighborhood who had learned how to make traditional bows from Native Americans experienced in the craft. Soon, Jake was invited over to the man’s house to watch how he did it. He had been making bows since he was 7, but with poor results.
“I found out that the wood had to dry; I was using wet wood all the way along,” he said.
The drying time? Two years. Anything less and the bow won’t be strong enough to put an arrow through a deer. Anderson likes to have draw weights of 40 to 50 pounds.
Despite the tedious steps involved — it takes 15 hours over four weeks to make a bow out of the dried wood — Jake finds both fulfillment and spiritual value in the undertaking. Often, time spent making a bow or sitting in the woods with his bow clears his head and helps him make important decisions.
In our fast-paced culture, this type of activity is a nice change of pace that can provide some great spiritual benefits, not to mention produce an effective hunting tool. I sincerely hope Jake is able to take a deer with one of his homemade bows someday.
“That would be a big moment,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Dave Hrbacek is a staff photographer for The Catholic Spirit.