Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Author: ccunningham (page 2 of 5)

curing the gap

My regard for beauty had fallen into a desperate state. The simple act of going out to bird hunt in the mountains to get away was now an act of going toward a certain thing. The thing was not so much adventure as a chance to see a show that had played out hundreds of times, and it played as a favorite song on repeat. As much as my body could bear it, the same images and sensations drew me back to the same places. I watched a black and white English setter in a wide-open run, his coat more feathers than fur, and lit by the morning sun. It was opera and fashion in a place that had neither. It was a wild mountain filled with the sophistication of good breeding, and Winchester appeared like a man on the run from his wedding day, his bow tie loosened around his collar, grinning. When he went on point, it was the high mark of beauty. And, I lost my taste for anything less than his mastery of a time and place.

One of his pups, Hugo, carried the gene. He had the same athletic body and a similar carriage. His enthusiasm made me remember Winchester’s puppy days when he would overrun birds. The differences were all shades of the similar. Instead of a black and white coat, Hugo was all the colors of a sunset in dappled oranges and whites. Or, these were the dim thoughts I had about the vision of him as he ran ahead of me. I’d point out a similarity or a difference as if the only thing I knew for sure was the standard. “He runs on his toes like Winchester,” I’d say. I said this in the obvious and uninteresting way someone says, “Look, look,” as if the act of pointing was an act of creation.

Hugo grew up on wild birds, but they were faint-scented alpine birds that held for a point. White-tailed ptarmigan and even the sub-alpine willow ptarmigan, belonged to another world. It was the world you found when you went over the last false summit, and the sounds from below were audibly silenced. The birds he hunted were native birds who feared hawks and falcons. Hugo’s wild energy met them with the force of an invisible other world. While his legs stretched out, my mind stretched after him to the things I knew he would encounter, and then, somewhere in the distance there was a gap for both of us. There were places neither of us had been.

He was just over two years old when we loaded him into a crate at the Anchorage airport. He was born in my living room and had grown accustomed to hunting in alpine air scraped empty over slate, raked by lichen, and still cold in summer from last season’s snow. He was used to a yard he shared with his littermates, Winchester’s mountains, and birds he knew how to hunt.

When he jumped out of the rental car in southern Idaho, he had plummeted to a world of parched basalt rock and the overwhelming scent of sagebrush. But he didn’t hesitate to run ahead of us the same as he did in the mountains. We hunted mostly chukar and found ourselves telegraphing our presence to birds who in turn echoed calls across the canyon. Hugo worked frantically to find birds that moved along the ground and left scent and sound everywhere. My thoughts followed him as he ran to the edges of cliffs and stopped, not to point but to ponder the same thing I did. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere.


We came across deer hunters taking a break from dragging a deer. Hugo seemed uninterested in meeting them or the deer. His single focus was reaching a pitch. He ran through thickets along a creek bed as if he were running down hallways deep in his mind, before memory. He was in a world of his own, searching for something he could only recall in his blood, a bird he had never seen. And suddenly he knew something I didn’t. He angled into a thorn thicket throbbing with life at the bottom of a canyon. Quail ran along the ground ahead of him and hopped onto low branches, but he didn’t relocate his point.

His solid point and certitude slowed time before the flush and my two shots stole a moment from my memory. There was a gap lost to time. The birds were on the ground, and I was on my knees picking up the male. The sharply-dressed bird was as colorful as the country, his breast was the color of juniper berries, his flank pintucked with a chaparral tweed, and his plume fell forward of a tiny beak and closed eyes. Holding the warm body, I realized my hands were shaking. Hugo was already on to the next bird. We had both found a part of ourselves un-met before. But, I was holding on and couldn’t look away or move just yet.

I picked up the other bird and held them both. It’s never easy to kill a bird. How do I reconcile the urge to hunt, which is part curiosity, part wonder, and part adventure, with the resulting birds in my hand? Hugo is on point again, and I settle on acceptance. The birds are part of me, part of life, and the newly discovered quickly becomes what is left behind. No matter if we are at home in our own mountains or in another place, there is always a gap. And it moves like flight ahead of us. Sometimes it is far beyond and we never get to it, sometimes we chase and it escapes, and sometimes it stays inside us and all we can do is try to cure it.

California or valley quail

California or valley quail




I recently took a survey of women who love to hunt or fish. Several of the questions asked about the reactions of men and the challenges of being a woman in the outdoors. One of the questions asked if I felt that women are naturally better at a certain aspect of hunting and/or fishing than men. And if so, what? This was the hardest question on the test. I am very helpful in camp or on a hunting trip but, above all, my tolerance is the highest. It seems as though the men I have hunted with constantly ask for my assistance and then cannot tolerate it. On the other hand, I am always being offered assistance and tolerate it very well.

Last season on a caribou hunt, my hunting partner and I were field dressing a caribou. I had not field dressed a caribou before so my role was as student observer. “Will you at least hold the leg,” my partner asked. Sure, I thought. That’s the least I could do. As I held the leg and watched the proceedings, my mind began to wander until the leg thwacked my partner in the head. He gave me an intolerant look that seemed to conclude that I could not at least hold the leg. “Ooops,” I said. The second time the leg thwacked him, his eye twitched. “Maybe you could put the hamburger meat in that game bag over there.” When I let go of the leg and it thwacked him a third time, he seemed to have lost all tolerance for my help.

Another time I was called upon for help it was to make sure the trailer lights were working properly. I was to stand at the back and answer a series of questions. It felt a bit like an intelligence test, and I wanted to be sure to pass. “The left tail light should be blinking,” he called out. “Yes,” I said. He seemed pleased by my answer. “Now the right tail light should be blinking,” he said. “Yes,” I said. He got out of the truck and announced that it was a miracle they worked. I said, “Well they didn’t work.” He said, “What?” I said, “You said the left tail light should be blinking, and it wasn’t.” He said, “Why did you say yes, then?” Apparently, I had over-focused on the word “should.” “Let’s try again,” I said. But, he preferred that I find a safe place to hide while he chained himself to a tree in the back yard.

Sometimes I am asked to go retrieve a specific item that either a) is being called by a name I am not familiar with b) is not in the place it is said to be or c) has been mis-identified. In some cases, all three possibilities occur at once. My partner often refers to items as the “thingamajig” or another less-appropriate, all-encompassing title. He believes that the actual name of an item is not necessary in groups of equal intelligence and experience. In fact, a thingamajig can be used twice in the same sentence. For instance, “Can you get me the thingamajig out of the thingamajig?” The more stressful the situation, the more vague the nouns. If he is attempting to start a fire and asks for me to get the thingamajig and I come back with a wrench, he doesn’t think it’s funny.

I cannot recall ever personally asking for anyone to retrieve a thingamajig in my life. I am either very proficient at already having my thingamajigs in order or never forget the correct name for my items. I’m not sure which. But, I think if there were ever a situation where I was in need of a thingamajig and someone brought me the wrong thingamajig, I would be very compassionate and understanding. And if someone let an animal’s thingamajig thwack me in the head a couple times, I’d probably just say, “You know, all those stories about how I’ve done this myself a hundred times and loved every minute of it. Those are completely true.”

true north

The winter swells churned up sand further up the beach, but the gentle waves in the lagoon were broken by a rock barrier in the water and rolled across the sand and over my bare feet and legs. The next exposed land from where I sat on Maui’s North Shore was over 3,000 miles away across the North Pacific where my English setters were resting near a wood stove, and I imagined only Hugo looked out the window over the vast distance through birch trees and darkness. He did that sometimes, look out with a focus that betrayed there were no objects in front of him except for his certainty, whether it was a bird that would appear where it had once been or I would be coming home soon. It was hard to guess what was on his mind.

“He misses you,” my partner said. It was hard to tell from the photo on my phone. His open jaws seemed to be smiling and his eyes illuminated with the animated life I can only recognize as human. “He looks like a person in that photo,” I said. And, after saying good night, I put the phone back in my beach bag and felt alone. I knew the ocean waves weren’t travelling all the way from Alaska to my feet, but it appeared that way. And, although the water hadn’t moved except for up and down, it transported energy in a way technology could not. I had unplugged for a month to attend a yoga teacher training and feel the health and harmony of the islands. So I would feel it, damnit, I thought. But I missed my dog.


This is why you do it, I reminded myself. The warm surf lulling at my feet telling me that no amount of balmy weather or flowery air or abiding beautiful place was ever as sweet to me as the middle of nowhere that was home. Its cold waves hitting the deck of fishing vessels, its morning winds working down the mountain at sunrise, its dangerous expanses of water and mountain country that threatened to destroy us or set us free. The wild of one place is the hell of another.

Be where you are, I reminded myself. And just then, a young pit bull ran down the beach and stopped at the water’s edge. He watched a young boy, his boy, stand up on a board and tumble into the water. He charged out and stopped again to watch. There was a connection between wolves and humans. It was a dog. For three weeks in the studio, I had practiced yoga postures and breathing. We studied anatomy and philosophy and ate healthy food. I was freed from the artificial rhythm of my workday life and addiction to social media and instead invested in a skillful use of a routine meant to bring balance.

In anatomy we learned our bodies are made up of cells. The qualities of a cell are sthiram (steadiness) and sukham (ease). A balance between these qualities is also what we are looking to cultivate in our practice as well as extend into our daily lives. A focus on this balance is a way to remind us that it is not the attainment of a perfect form that matters as much as the effort and ease we put into the result that has value. It was something I believed before reading the yoga sutras. I saw the way the dogs were able to “resolutely abide in a good space.” It was called a point. And it looked like a yoga posture: firm, strong, steadfast, resolute and also easy, gentle, joyful, and good.

I sat on the beach alone and watched the waves. There was something coming ashore and drifting away at the same time. I felt like I was in a good place, even if it wasn’t home. My housemates were somewhere behind me on the beach, and they were practicing, too. We were all on the same path more like waves than walking, moving energy not space in our minds and time on our wrists. Whatever we were seeking was always ours, but we needed to learn it anew, so we could go out there again and maybe teach it to others. We would all go home soon, but we had realized the moment together. We had experienced where it begins in every second and in each of us no matter what direction we faced.

I’m home now, and Hugo still sits in the middle of the room looking out. It feels so good to sit next to him and look out past the snow-covered birch trees and across the ocean to a good place.

20160218_193814_resizedLokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

(May all beings in all worlds be happy and free)



We had driven for two hours even though we knew we were driving into the unknown. Between Christmas and New Years, two feet of snow had fallen in the pass. Winter storms had loaded an already unstable snowpack, and the avalanche advisory kept us out of the mountains. Maybe it was hope in the face of weather predictions that made us see a chance or maybe we knew better and just had to see it ourselves. We figured we could hunt the low meadows for willow ptarmigan under a clear sky as long as the wind didn’t come up and the temperature stayed low. The unexpected rain turned to snow with low visibility. Winchester slept in the backseat as I wondered if it truly was impossible to hunt or if we just hadn’t considered enough alternatives.

The mountain pass was dark with heavy snow. To see it lit by headlights gave it the same desolate appearance as the blue light from electronics I’d wanted to escape. Neither of us said anything about it, but our silence suggested we both knew the plan was going backwards on us. We pulled over to evaluate the snow, which I imagined as a new euphemism for urination. The wind blew and the wet snow sank five inches to a light crust. “What weather report said the sky was going to be clear?” I asked. But I knew the weather report didn’t matter. I didn’t know how else to acknowledge the situation. We weren’t going hunting, and Winchester wasn’t going to understand it in terms of a weather report.

When we turned the truck around and headed back Winchester fell asleep again. He was not as concerned as we were about the change in direction. Although he enjoyed stretching his legs and needed time in the field, he had the steadfastness of a dog. It was something I needed to learn from him. Things are not always what they seem. We had thought we were getting closer to what we wanted by driving for what turned out to be four hours in a snow storm. When we pulled into the driveway at home, disappointed and wasted, it was not because we’d spent a long day in the field. It was because we did not have a dog’s Zen understanding of things as they really are.

And what is real? If I had to ask Winchester, he would not have a view clouded by assumptions. He would not think we were foolish for setting out or wise for turning back. He wouldn’t fill his mind with how things seemed because he had only to notice how things are. He knew what mattered. We can’t change the weather. I didn’t mind going as far as I could – whether it was to look out the window or make the drive to the mountain or ocean – and see for myself the impossibility of certain paths if only to be certain we couldn’t take them. In the same way, I would watch a loved one walk away for as long as I had the view.

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind -Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

Because, when you love something – a person, a passion, or a dog (or those things combined in the chance to hunt together), you cannot sit at home and look at a computer screen. If the weather is bad and you’ve sat near a fire for long enough and you’ve read enough books, eventually you have to get up and see what’s preventing you. You have to stand on the beach or at the base of a mountain. In those moments, it’s possible to feel that you’re in a futile chase. There’s nothing to be done about the weather except sing its blues. And, to the extent you feel the longing and the pain, you know the feelings not in vain.



The lights were off in my bedroom, and the kitchen light backlit Hugo’s shape at my door. He stood still – he held his breath while the snores of the four other dogs emanated from various points in the room. Purdey nestled against my back, Boss was laying along my legs, Cogswell was on the floor at the foot of the bed, and Colt was making pig-like dream sounds from across the room. Hugo and I stared at each other. I reached my hand out to him, and he took a step into the room. His claws did not tap the wood floor, and he paused. It’s been said when a pointing dog points, the point is nothing but an exaggerated stalk. I never had more insight into Hugo’s character – yes, a dog has character – than to watch him use his physical prowess to cross a bedroom in the night without waking four other sleeping setters.

Hugo never faltered in his technique. It reminded me of the Warner Brothers cartoon in which Yosemite Sam is a Roman legionnaire sneaking across a lion’s den. The lions were undefeated that day in the Coliseum. But, Hugo is no Yosemite Sam.  He was most concerned about waking Colt, and once, when Colt jostled, Hugo froze. One of his back legs was in the air, and it stayed there. His eyes shifted to me. That was the only movement. Seconds had passed before the back leg came down. He waited again. It was agony to watch, but I was fascinated. I wondered if I was prey, like the songbirds he stalked. I wondered if he would launch onto the bed all of a sudden. What is in this dog? I wondered. That he would spend a half hour crossing a room.

A predator searches, stalks, kills and consumes. But, Hugo was not a killer and ate his meals with the discernment of a child who doesn’t like vegetables or anything of a certain color. His attention drifted from food so frequently that it seemed he was looking for reasons not to eat. To call him prey driven when he had little interest in consuming seemed insufficient. There was more seriousness to his actual pursuits, and this was due to breeding. I listened to the other puppies sleeping just as I watched them eat with total normalcy amongst them. Hugo was the exception, and our eyes locked when he stopped between each step, letting the room settle. He was invisible except for those dark eyes, hidden in his mask. Why is he expending so much effort? I wondered. Why would a dog do this?

All I could come up with, at the end of his stalk when he pressed his nose into my neck and was safe to move deliberately onto the bed knowing I would guard his passage, was that Hugo was a perfect expression of himself. He did not spend his time searching, killing or consuming, as other dogs or wolves sharing his ancestry might. He did not fill his time with the play or fights breaking out amongst his litter and yard-mates. He did not spend his time in the unnecessary ways but mastered exactly what it was that he did best. He could stalk like no one else. He could pay attention and plant the seeds that, tended, grew the exact thing he angled toward. There was no denying Hugo, and he would not break to pounce before I alerted the others (I didn’t) or took my shot in the field.

And, it seems odd to say I share a bed with a dog even when I share the hunting field with him. It’s somehow more intimate and controversial to have been stalked and snuggled by an animal that many others keep in kennels and crates. I am not making love to a dog, if there’s any doubt about what it means to sleep with one. I am not changing them into children or lovers. It’s exactly that they are dogs that I enjoy so much. That they are the wolves howling for me somewhere. They are calling me to join them, follow them, and they will show me exactly where birds are hiding in the field. They will set aside animal instinct so that I may shoot a bird cleanly and so we each act our part as beautifully as blood and brain allow. There’s nothing like the bond this partnership creates. It’s an art of expressing our utmost – dog and human. Whether he’s asleep on the floor at my feet while I type or next to me in bed or ahead of me in the field, Hugo brings a light that does not shine on a lifetime but, even brighter, on the thing in each of us that makes a moment last forever.

unlikely harmony

They seemed like strangers when they bounded out of the truck in separate directions. Despite living together in the same house and same yard day after day, their enthusiasm in the field was at different frequencies. Winchester’s single-purpose intensity broadcast from deep space while Hugo took in a whole range of signals. He lit on song birds and flying insects. He ranged the mountainside in wild abandon. To watch them was like watching two different flight plans precluded from intersection. The older and wiser Winchester and the new pup Hugo were each in their own world with a thin line of trust running back toward us.

Winchester ran at full speed to the farthest range of the slope and just inside the curve of our view. He knew it was the furthest he could go before we would call him back. He worked his way through willow patches, weaving so that he covered them all in figure eights before floating in defiance of gravity back down to us. Hugo ran one way and then another, up the mountainside to the rocks and back down. Hugo played loose while Winchester worked with intent.

Hugo had pointed his first ptarmigan earlier in the fall. He had also seen a spruce grouse fall to my partner’s gun in the woods. Those two experiences weren’t enough to impress on him exactly what it was we were doing. The whole of a hunt did not occur to him as much as its parts were all equal wonders in a vast array of possibility. Winchester and Hugo were in two different worlds when Winchester went on point at the top of the hill. We could see just his tail over the rise.


The birds were a hundred yards away when we put Hugo on a check cord. He bucked and pulled as we moved closer. They were a young group of whitetail ptarmigan more likely to run than fly. I walked past Winchester to flush the nearest bird. The bird did not move even as the rest of the covey wavered at the periphery. I looked back to Winchester. He stood solid in a petrifying stare. In the distance Hugo strained to break the tension against a tight rope.

I walked closer to the bird and caused the rest of the covey to flush. The single bird held. It seemed incapable of moving no matter how close I got. I looked back to Hugo again, and the bird ran. Winchester hadn’t moved. My partner hadn’t moved. Only Hugo and I were frantic. I followed the bird. It flew a short distance – not far enough for a shot. I should have picked out another bird when the covey flushed, I thought. I should have shot already.

All I could do was chase this bird that wouldn’t fly. At what point would I let it go, I wondered. The sounds and smells of the morning were all gone, and all I had was a jam of thoughts slowing my action. Just then, without seeing the rock-colored bird lift off the ground, its white wings opened in the gap of the rocks above me, and I shot.

Hugo, let loose, ran toward the fallen bird. He was wild with the scent in the air and ran all around the bird. His senses were hot, and my voice was lost in static. “It’s right there, Hugo,” I said. His tail wagged in circles as he ran one way and then another, up the rocky slope past the bird and back down. I remembered the first time I had seen a ptarmigan. The bird stood still in the rocks on the bank of a mountain stream. I’d looked at the exact place many times and didn’t see it. It’s hard to see something you’ve never seen. But that moment, when your focus adjusts and you attune, the image strikes you.

Hugo grabbed the bird with the fierceness of that discovery. Winchester let him in a rare act of grace. Their worlds had finally come together in an unlikely harmony. It reminded me of something the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery had said about practice, “I never practice my guitar… from time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.” There are plenty of interpretations on what he could have meant, but I like to think he meant that his guitar was a living thing. Likewise, the hunt is a living thing that we do not play as much as feed.




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.

hugo 030

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.

hugo 089

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.

Hugo 5

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.

hugo 6


hugo 9

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.

Hugo 10

Hugo 11


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.



winYears ago, my yoga practice focused on poses. I balanced on bones. I let muscles fall away. The allure of the outdoors took me away from the studio. The diversion filled me with a desire to find magical places that exist in the heart – those powerful images from the field. They were more than a vision. They were a feast of visions and sensations. They were hard-won battles my body suffered and celebrated.  I pushed myself to the edge and peered over. There, I saw vast and endless valleys and a lifetime of adventure. I would never go back to the mat, I thought. Not with this much life to live.

The meditation that allows me to escape from the human condition is in both places – the field as well as the studio. It’s there in the exotic force of nature, but it’s there in the empty hollow of it, too. Ten years ago, my shoulders rested on the mat, floor or “earth.” Reaching forward, I felt my edge: the boundary of my physical ability to stretch, the inner limit of my range where I hesitate. Ahead of me was the mirror not the mountain. Ahead of me was the boundary and the boundless, same in the studio as in the field, but also different.

The sight of a white and black English setter hunting the side of a mountain valley is partly a painting in progress with brush strokes working fast to capture a memory of a place in time. Partly, it is a ballet in which the body of the dancer embodies the meaning of the dance. Partly, because to watch and create at the same time is not possible. My part is only visible like it is in a dream. My mind takes in my place and, if I’m any good at dreaming, the effect is one that turns the visible world inside out. The secret world of imagination, emotion and memory spins on its axis, and I wake up. I didn’t hear the shot. I don’t remember the finer details – they escape me like smoke. Ahead of me is the mirror, a photograph, a scrap of time and not time itself.

I returned to yoga because I found myself observing too much. My time in the outdoors was exchanged in too many words, too many shared photographs, and too many thoughts on the subject. I had started to hover, as if in a dream. I had waxed too poetic. I wanted to feel my weight again. I wanted to push the inner edges of myself again. The bare walls of the studio gave me no distraction from the constricting force of my own nature. It was the wall around me I worried about more than the limits of my outward experiences. This invisible wall was built out of fear: a physical fear of pain, a psychological fear of suffering, and a spiritual fear of intensity.

The visible world holds everything that we see, that moves us and touches us through our senses. The invisible world holds everything within us, and those valleys are just as vast. When I go to the edge outdoors, I’m working the outside edge, so to speak. It is the frontier of myself – my small self in an environment that is so much bigger. When I go to the edge in yoga, I work the interior edge. No one can see the work I do with intention. What the two worlds – visible and invisible – have in common is a moment of hesitation and wonder. Then, there is the desire to push through it, to discover more. They’re both life in practice and action. Both living.

As much as I’ve sometimes believed that “he who hesitates is lost,” there is something of value in the pause. It’s a moment of creation. It’s not an expression of doubt to take a moment. It’s the subtle exchange between two worlds, self and other. It’s a communication that slows down time and stretches not just our bodies but our lives. That was the difference, in coming back to yoga ten years later. I’d grown in my time away, and learned it isn’t the posture – the visible form of a pose – that holds the most value, but the stillness within it.


off the grid

The aluminum hull of the boat slammed the swells that marked the entrance to the gulf across which there was no shore in sight for as far as 6,000 miles. The next exposed curvature of the earth was across a storm swept arm of the Pacific Ocean where the world’s largest tsunami had once consumed Lituya Bay. We were soon to be in the middle of nowhere with no one to save us. The captain had said this was why he could never stand to be in jail. Ten foot waves hit the deck, and we agreed. To fish the way we wanted, we had to head toward the most dangerous expanse of water, where hundred foot rock pinnacles cover the ocean floor, where giant ling cod feast on the violent currents stirring up their prey, where the outer limits threaten to destroy us or set us free.

The idea of living off the grid has never appealed to me in those exact words. The grid, if it’s the power grid or the matrix of our consumer-driven lives, is not the problem. If we are looking to be self-sustainable, it is not our dependence on public utilities that is troubling or un-troubling. Why would getting away from the grid, the numbers, and the crazy world matter if it still existed? Living off the grid requires a grid. But, there was and is something better than just off the grid. It’s right on the edge of it and exists in a person if not a place.

Living off the Grid may be the same ethos that informed the American Dream. The same character attracted to a better quality of life, freedom, and happiness might as well find it by becoming debt free and building a tiny house in the woods capable of surviving a disaster scenario. The techno-primitive nature of an off-the-grid life can only appeal to us now that we have solar panels and batteries. But the spirit behind it was always there. In me, it’s wanting to feel the sea salt in my face or the mountain wind telling me that, this is it, you either ride this wave of water or snow or light or mud or you don’t. When you don’t make the cut, you head back for shelter.

 When did living off the land or sea become living off the grid?

When did living off the land or sea become living off the grid?

If the grid were jail, we’d all want out. When we got out, we wouldn’t go to office buildings that look like jails and follow rules that might as well be painted on the walls of the visiting area. We want to go outside. We want to feel alive. My first year duck hunting, I had this moment where I wanted to go back to the car. I’d gotten too wet, too cold, and a piece of metal had worked its way into the bottom of my foot. To get to it, I’d have to disrobe full-body neoprene in a rainstorm. My hunting partner had no sympathy, and it was his lack of sympathy that got me thinking about why I was there. And why I had to stay out.

I wasn’t just hunting ducks because it was an intellectually responsible form of getting meat or because it was pure joy to call them in and take them on the wing. The earthy smell and cold driven rain did something for me. It seemed like the worse the weather was, the more excited we were to go. Better chances at ducks, better time doing it. If something requires ultimate effort, I want to do it. I want to spend every breath, not save the ones I need to go over the last hill for getting home. It’s not for a return on investment, but it might work out that way. Even if I don’t get food in the way of game, hunting makes food taste better at the end of the day. It makes a sleep and a shower better. It’s living life the way I want to.

The outdoors is the only place for me to get things right. The list of obstacles is a bucket list. If it’s going to be cold, let it be damn cold. If it’s going to be far, let it be as far as I’ve ever gone. If it’s going to be exhausting, let me fight to stay awake for it. If there’s one way to become free from the stuff in our heads, it’s to face a life where there’s no room for a mediocre thought. There’s no room for what doesn’t matter. There’s only this moment in front of you and it’s yours to make. It’s off the grid not because my body is connected to a power utility but exactly because what lives in me is not and never was powered by utilities. And, if the lights ever go out, I know I’ll make it not just because of my dreams but because of my character.


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