Dean Bennett begins this memoir by reminding his readers that, in days gone by, the most important enterprise in the small Maine town of Locke’s Mills used to close down on the first day of deer hunting season. “The act of shutting down the mill wasn’t any small, trivial indicator of where deer hunting stood in people’s minds,” Bennett writes. “Never mind that the E. L. Tebbetts Spool Company mill was the major industry in town, the largest employer, the biggest part of the area’s economy. . . . But when hunting season rolled around, never mind the need to work or the demands of the mill; it was more important to hunt deer.”
This passage, like the book’s subtitle, suggests the reach of Dean Bennett’s memoir. It is not just about the hunt itself, though there are plenty of pages devoted to days afield, to hunts that end with tenderloin suppers, and to some that do not. But it is also – and more importantly – the chronicle of a man whose life was shaped by growing up in a culture where deer hunting played a central role.
Dean can trace his ancestors back at least nine generations in the rugged hills of western Maine, and Dean’s father and grandfather, Donald and Jason Bennett – both lifelong deer hunters – were Dean’s most influential mentors. In 1936, when Dean was just one year old, Jason Bennett decided to build a hunting camp on his woodlot just five miles from his home in the village. Thirty-six friends and relatives gathered on September 8 and built the camp on one single, marathon day. The cost, Dean reports, was “less than 100 dollars in materials, and hours and hours of time given in the spirit of friendship and goodwill.”
Camp Sheepskin, as it was christened because of its proximity to nearby Sheepskin Bog, served not only as a hunting camp but as the Bennett family’s retreat for weekend getaways and holiday gatherings. Here, in the woods around the camp and at Sheepskin Bog, Dean discovered – in early childhood – his passion for studying plants and animals, an interest he would carry with him into adulthood and that would lead him to his life’s work in natural history, science education, and conservation. As the author of several books, among them Allagash: Maine’s Wild and Scenic River and Maine’s Natural Heritage, he has championed the protection of wilderness not only for its intrinsic biological value, but also as a haven where people can go for recreation, renewal, and an inkling of what an untrammeled world was like.
Idyllic as Dean’s childhood and youth were in many respects, he does not neglect to mention forces in the wider world that touched on his family’s life. His two uncles were drafted and served in the European theater during World War II; his father enlisted in the Navy and served as a Seabee in the Philippines. To the great relief of their family, all three men returned safe and sound. In a chapter entitled “Inroads,” Dean touches on the postwar push for development that brought road upgrades, increased automobile traffic, and even break-ins and theft at Camp Sheepskin.
What makes Ghost Buck not just another collection of hunting yarns is its scope and depth. It is instead the record of a life rooted in a family and community whose members cherish each other, the Maine forest, and all the creatures living in it, including that huge, elusive buck that haunted every hunter’s dreams.
Reviewer’s Disclosure Note: I’m a long-time friend of Dean Bennett and wrote the foreword to Ghost Buck.