DELAPLANE, VIRGINIA. — Delaplane, Virginia -- With the leaves gone, we can see far down the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, past Oven Top, the Peak and Thornton Gap, halfway to Harrisonburg. Through the bare oaks and hickories, ridges hidden all summer appear again, and the far trees make a fuzzy crew-cut along the skyline.
A man's feeling of proprietorship expands with his horizons. The property line is just down the south slope, but as long as nobody intrudes on my view, the country seems all mine. Fences, roads and posted signs mean nothing to the eye when it reaches so far beyond. But that works in both directions: Others can see into my land as well as I can see out.
This time of year, the dirt roads through these hills are busy with slow-moving pickups, usually with rifle racks across the rear windows. Trucks and muddy cars ease along as their drivers inspect pastures and wood-lines for targets.
It's deer season. In some parts of the country, people go crazy on the first day of deer season. Schools let out, because if they didn't, boys wouldn't come anyway. For father and son to head out that first time together, to sit waiting in the cold, rifles ready, is touted as one of the greatest bonding experiences there is.
Perhaps so. At Taberg, an upstate New York village where the Associated Press says ''deer hunting is considered a rite of passage,'' Gene Bulak and his 18-year-old son Michael thought of it that way. Near Cooperstown, they went into the woods this week, and with friends apparently split up to encircle a deer.
Neither of the Bulaks was wearing blaze orange hunting clothes, which are recommended but not required by state law. Gene fired at a movement in the brush, and shot his son in the head. He sent his friends for help. As they were returning, they heard another shot. Gene Bulak, distraught, had killed himself, too.
I don't hold out this tragedy as the inevitable end of such male bonding. Of the millions of Americans who go hunting, only 140 or so are killed in hunting accidents each year.
There is more to the hunt than shooting -- the uphill climb, the campfire, the talk, the wait, hyperactive squirrels rustling the fallen leaves, crows chastising a sulky owl, briskly driven clouds across the hills. Indeed, there are those who believe all this is quite enough without the added thrill of shooting a trophy buck and dragging it home dead.
But in the countryside, any male so easily pleased is not considered quite manly this time of year. Some disdain comes from beer-bellied types who roister along, advertising their testosterone with deer draped over the hoods of their pickups.
Some comes quietly, from road-bound sportsmen who look the other way as you pass them scouting other people's land for deer, who then return at dawn or dusk to sight in illegally from their vehicle doors. And some disbelief comes from friendly others, who simply take for granted that if you are not a vegetarian Communist from Pluto, you share their red-blooded American enthusiasm.
The other night my phone rang with a call from the son of a country neighbor. Anticipating the season, he had put up a deer stand in the woods on our boundary, and someone had torn it down. Did I know who might have done it? I told him I didn't know, but I had a good idea -- the man whose Herefords are often grazing in the pasture nearby.
I reminded my caller that my cabin is back in the trees, invisible from the road or the property line -- and that my pre-school grandchildren sometimes come out to play around it, and that some years back, my wife and I had been walking up the hill when a bullet zinged just over her head. We stopped, and heard someone with a .22 plinking away just beyond the wood-line, in this neighbor's back pasture.
My caller was polite. So was I. He said he knew nothing of the near miss. He was more interested in what happened to his deer stand. I did not press a query about why, if he intended to shoot on his own land, he had built the stand on the line instead of in the middle. We said goodbye with assurances of good will on both sides.
Driving up the lane, I usually go as quietly as the old wagon lets me, and sometimes come across a turkey or a grouse or, yes, a deer that waits to flee until we are close upon it. Last weekend, at the curve before the steep slope, I honked the horn repeatedly. When I dared go outside the cabin, I wore a red cap. Walking down the lane, we scuffed our feet and talked aloud.
In our own woods, 200 yards from our boundary, we felt we were in a free-fire zone -- that no man's land is his own until the frenzy passes in mid-January.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.