Ahead of me there was a dog working the fields. His feathers brushed the mountainside with the speed and fury of an artist on fire. This was his work, and I watched it. My work, if it would be done, was to appreciate his gifts, to honor his points, to shoot his birds. I’d need to shoot clean, and this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes a winged bird would drop to the ground still alive and, for a moment, while it breathed, my own painful life became an agony. Why do I kill birds?
When I woke up in the morning, I wanted to go to the mountains. There were birds there or there weren’t. The mood of the place changed from season to season, and it didn’t matter if we went in on snowshoes or wore hiking boots. What mattered was that we followed a dog, and he illustrated and illuminated the country with an inner fire. Following Winchester was an invitation to go to a place that didn’t exist – a Neverland of sorts – where invisible birds appeared ghostlike on the wind. What did any of it have to do with killing birds?
In the cold months, the mountains and the birds are pure white. The snow and cold air distill the landscape so that nothing seems to be alive. Wind pushes snow and suddenly, where there was nothing but arctic waste, a flight of ptarmigan appear in the gusting snow. When the bird is shot and, as it dies, a pinkish glow appears in its feathers. Some might wonder if it is the glow from the sun mistaken by ptarmigan hunters as a phenomenon. Does it matter if some follow a light and then watch in wonder as it goes out and others don’t?
These are wild places, wild birds and yet, they are not a secret. It’s possible to never see the birds, never shoot them, and never see them in their light. The beauty of hunting is that it something more than a hike or a nature-viewing opportunity. The places we hunt are haunted. They have been travelled for centuries or more. If we approach them only to take birds, we will have missed our mark. And if, in missing our mark, we think that we can work harder and somehow earn the opportunity… it isn’t like that.
Chesterton said it best, “There is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.” If it is in our hearts to be grateful for the worlds we encounter, we must know we are not capable of earning such worlds. We cannot imagine that any amount of daring on our part will reward us with quarry. Instead, there is another threshold that must be passed. It’s this threshold that I long to cross over every day in the field.
Whether it is my life that goes out in a pink hue on the mountains or the life of a bird, it is a pursuit of something beyond myself that drives me. Whether it’s my own spiritual and moral loneliness or something bigger than myself, I’m compelled to get there – to get to the place that isn’t on a map. Not because it hasn’t been charted but because it exists in the chemistry of the moment. It’s where I feel alive. It’s where nothing else matters.
As long as the dog knows how to get there, I’ll follow the dog.