Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Month: July 2015


Hugo1 Hugo stopped 2,000 feet above us on a ridge. His long body had stretched out and covered first the low sloping hill patched over in wild geranium and a fray of white mountain flowers up to the moss-covered rocks that shifted beneath his feet without his noticing, to the opening of the first valley floor where a lake pooled and broke over the edge, crashed down the rocks and slowed to a stream at our feet. We watched him as he held his pose on the rocks. Our voices calling him back were locked behind the sound of so much water. He’d never been to this particular place, where the mountain terrain seemed endless, and the limits and boundaries that tied him to us were only a tenuous agreement never tested.

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hugo 047A few weeks earlier, Purdey, one of Hugo’s littermates turned away from us on the Kenai River Flats and ran a straight mile to the road. She didn’t respond to the call on her collar or stimulation. Her speed and focus propelled her through sensation just as all of my senses focused on the sight of cars slowing and stopping along the highway. She was too small in the distance to be seen, but I knew she was on the road surface. Even though I was running toward the road, in my mind I was standing still watching as she was being loaded into an SUV. Even though I was calling her name, no one could hear or see me in the distance, and the vehicle drove away with her inside.

Hugo was also still a pup at just a year old. His confidence suggested he was braver, stronger and smarter than any of us knew. Beneath the size and shape of a full-grown dog was the puppy who had only left the safety of the yard on a leash or well-worn trail through the woods behind the house. He pointed moths and attempted to kill redpolls, grosbeaks and downy wood peckers at the feeder just off the porch. As far as I knew, he’d never succeeded, but I’d watched his tense body plan attacks for longer than I’d ever planned a dinner. The kind woman who picked up Purdey on the highway called us to arrange her return. The only time Hugo ran from us on our walks, we knew where he was headed – the bird feeder in the yard.

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Hugo dropped from the ridge somewhat like a falcon from its perch. His line from the rock face to us reminded me of Winchester, his father. Hugo was less practiced in catching himself on a descent but, like Winchester, his lightness and grace seemed to make more use of air than ground. Still, when he reached the top of the flower field, a mistaken step resulted in a roll. For a moment I worried, then all I could do was laugh. If only my own spirit lacked the consciousness to fault myself, if only it could use all of my physical capacities and hold nothing back, if only it could take a fall and regain as if fueled by the joy of living. Happiness is not something exclusively human.

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It was four weeks before the start of the bird season. We knew that there was a possibility we would find a white-tailed ptarmigan hen with her chicks. Following a caribou trail along a ridgeline, my partner saw her first. One of the collective nouns for a group of ptarmigan is an “invisibleness” of ptarmigan. Her chicks bounced in the mossy rocks at my partner’s feet, but I couldn’t see them from my distance of 100 yards. As my partner took photos of the chicks, I saw Hugo on point 25 yards away. I haven’t wondered if dogs are conscious of things like truth or meaning, but I know they have thoughts about objects. After a summer of watching tweedy birds, the look on Hugo’s face at seeing the mother bird was, “Wow, that’s a big one.”

He’s going to break, I thought. He’s going to rush that bird and help himself to the chicks.  “Whoa,” I said. Hugo was fixated on the bird, but he didn’t move. I’m not sure if it was his understanding of the command, which he never seemed to hear, or his focus that ensured he didn’t break. I led him away from the birds down the rocky slope back to the lake. We were on the descent now, heading back down the mountain, and he seemed to forget the birds.

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hugo 8I stopped and sat on a hillside to take one last look at the open valley below, and Hugo sat beside me. The air smelled faintly of mountain flowers in the cold breeze off last winter’s snow. I loved how there could be snow and flowers in the same scene. In a month, the snow would be gone and the flowers would disappear. There would be birds to hunt instead of watch. There were so many things I wanted to tell Hugo, if he could understand them. It was better to keep those things to myself and let them unfold – most of all the obvious. He was shaping up to be a good bird dog and the mountains were beautiful.

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Winchester and ptarmSometimes there are no birds. Either they are not in a particular valley on a particular day or they are there and elude us. Sometimes I find myself saying, “It doesn’t matter if I take a bird or not.” It seems an odd thing to say. When I was new to bird hunting, it didn’t make sense when I heard a hunter say taking a bird didn’t matter. If only as a practical matter, it mattered. If there were no birds, we would not hunt. For those of us who are not hunting so that we can eat, who can afford the luxury of not taking a bird, we can say it doesn’t matter and suffer no grave significance. It’s only when we have evolved past our need to eat that we can open our eyes to the philosophical light and say taking a bird doesn’t matter.

It’s possible I’m hunting two very different things. The obvious hunt is for the bird. There are a logical number of things included in the pursuit – shotguns, equipment, dogs, location, and weather. Although my birds will end up in a frying pan with rice, their wings sent to a biologist as part of a study to determine abundance, and a few feathers kept for sentimental reasons, I don’t need to kill birds to survive. Neither is hunting entirely symbolic of the requirement that something must die so that I may live. Intellectually, it may be monstrous to kill or necessary. The millions of centuries of bloodletting active in my organic body cannot be undone on principle as they can be made palatable by the sporting life.

When there are no birds to be found, something else rises to the surface. I wrestle with my egoism, arrogance, and all of the other unseen. There is a point when the hunt seems futile, when I know I’ve lost. Part of me gives into this, but part of me continues to hunt. I am anxious  and maybe desperate to bring home a bird. For myself or for the dog. The day is still good if we aren’t lucky. Maybe if there were always birds, I would never get to the bottom of it. Maybe the ease of a full game bag would never allow me to wonder about my motivations in the absence of birds.

An individual ptarmigan or grouse is not a one-dimensional concept any more than a hunter; we are both real and made up of multi-dimensional parts. He wakes up in the morning and searches for food. He cannot believe it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t find it. And I can’t continue to say it doesn’t matter if I don’t find birds. The beauty and sentimentality that goes with bird dogs, bird guns, and all things bird hunting is intoxicating at times. Anticipating the glory of the season, making ready, setting out, following dogs, the adrenaline of a wild flush, taking the shot – it all deserves the paintings on the walls and bourbon by the fireside. But lately, in the face of harsh realities and headlines about declining bird populations nationwide, I wonder. What if there were no birds? Would that change how much it mattered to take a bird or not? I have to think it would.

Hunting the mountains put a spell on me.  No place close to home can share the harshness of their edges, haunted peaks, streams that roll through time, and birds that live amongst rock and scrub. There’s no easy way to climb to them. There’s no ride to the top that gives the same view. To see it the way it was meant to be seen takes heart, legs and lungs. The dog carries the spirit of the hunt, finds the birds and holds them. The entire mountain is cast in the light in which it was dreamed and remembered, and the bird in my hand carries the weight of my sport and solace. It matters.