Sometimes 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.