Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: beautiful creatures


My eyes follow Winchester’s point in a straight line from his nose. Nevermind that scent does not travel in a straight line, and it is clear he has not yet seen the bird he is pointing. It could be 100 yards away or travelling down the mountain. But then, his body lunges internally like an anchor dropping. He has seen the bird somewhere among the rocks that have always been there, broken down the mountain this time by an old goat, and in other times by gold miners or avalanches. What holds the mountain together as a landscape is its vastness. The sudden shift of knowledge in this vast, rocky, terrain; this unsorted panorama of glacial wreckage and debris; this endless valley of wind fighting its way into and out of rocks, is as breathless as we are. At a certain point in the morning near the summit the wind calms and whispers the secrets of birds.

The shotgun is getting heavy in my arms. I’ve already walked through Winchester’s point and past the invisible line between his eyes and the ground. He’s looking at a bird. I know him well enough to know the difference in his body between scent and sight. My fear is that the first day of the season the birds will be too young to hunt. They won’t fly but, instead will run. And the work will be steering Winchester away from these coveys for the rest of the day.

For now, I look for birds I’ve seen before – the shape of a ptarmigan’s head slightly lifting in agitation. Winchester’s flinch at any movement. But there is nothing but statues all around me – rock, dog, bird. And there it is, suddenly. A young bird, his herringbone feathers damp from the morning make him appear more rock-like than the mottled gray and brown of rock and earth alone. His head is tucked into his shoulders, his eye wide and round, unblinking. In this bright light after rain, the coal black eye reveals a pupil not often visible in the dark eye of small game.

I break open my gun and kneel to the ground. The bird, a male white-tailed ptarmigan, does not move. Now, I am a statue, and my partner, Steve, sets down his pack and kneels to change the lens in his camera. Winchester has not moved yet. I look over to him and see another young bird only six feet in front of him, similarly perched like stone. His gaze is on the first bird.

Steve lays out on the ground, and I glance at his pack. Another bird sits inconspicuously just inches away from the pack. None of the three have moved, and I wonder over the tightness in which these birds are holding. It verges on the unbelievable, miraculous, strange. Where is the hen, I wonder.

“There,” Steve says, answering my question.

We both look up toward the movement in the sky – it isn’t the hen, but a goshawk flying awkwardly from beyond the next hill and a thousand yards distant. He screams, a banshee sound echoing off the cliffs. A group of white-winged birds lifts out of the rocks below us and we see the hawk has a small ptarmigan clutched in his talons. Winchester moves, and five small birds lift into the air around us.

Later, we reflect on the hawk and the reason the birds held so tight. We climb higher into the basin and find more young birds. Winchester runs the flat-sided rocks in slides and catches, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. I stare at my feet as I walk to make sure I don’t slip, and this action forces my thoughts inward instead of observing the mountain.

The sorted news of the day and the progress of the times in terms of gear and regulations have nothing to do with the equilibrium of life and death here. There is nothing to conquer as we invade the privacy of this valley, sealed and distant from the noises of the highway beyond. There is nothing to feel we have done when we turn back except to have given ourselves over to the mystery of a place.

Winchester points an older ptarmigan on the edge of the level we have only just reached. I can see it’s an adult bird, far enough away and unsteady. The bird flushes as I approach and descends across the shale slides we just climbed, landing on a rock 100 yards below. Winchester relocates, bounding down the shale, the sound of coins pouring into piles. I follow him, my shotgun slung, digging into the solid earth below the rock to stop my fall.

He’s pointing the bird he sees. But, he also looks back at me. This is new, I think. He knows I see the bird as well. I run on the edges of rock with the thought that his look told me to hurry. The bird is uneasy, about to fly, and it does just as I reach Winchester. I don’t have my footing, but the bird turns and circles, crossing 30 yards in front of me and I shoot.

And, sitting down to examine this one beautiful fallen bird with my shotgun open causes me to miss another. I hear Steve calling from above and watch Winchester running, tongue to the side in the thrill of birds and mountains. In the house he is a different dog, we all are different. We are tame and covered in dust and hair. We breathe without wonder at the mystery – the constant moving breath of earth, and even the still vital life in my hands feels alive.

It’s near impossible to reconcile to those who do not struggle every day to be aware of the human impact on the world how hunting is not destructive, not violent. How can killing be anything but?

When done with respect, it is the rare thing that does not portray itself or act on the stage of life. It is the embodiment of what it means to be alive and relate to the natural world and its mysteries with sometimes fear, fascination, and wonder that we have come so far as a race and only in moments reflect on the greater strength of the wild we will never master.



take me to breakfast

As I write, an Irish setter named Red lays on blankets. My partner and I can tell that he is afraid. We’ve lived with him for five years, and our best guess is that he is 12 years old. The family that fostered him told us he was seven the year he came to live with us. He weighed just 63 pounds, which gave him supermodel proportions, as he was the tallest Irish setter I had ever seen. The color of his fur is a royal red, and his long nose, ears that hang like locks of hair, and doe-like eyes give him the appearance of a noble creature – half horse and half wolf with a dash of red stag thrown in. “We have a hard time getting him to eat,” the woman who gave him to us said.

It was after the last line that I stopped to think about Red’s condition again. He had fallen in the yard and, after making it to the shop floor, had not gotten back up. It had only been a few hours, but I had typed “was” instead of “is” and then corrected the error. Then I stared at the screen as my eyes filled with tears. Tonight, he is not with us anymore. I have a column due on the subject of rescue dogs as hunting dogs, I have work in the morning, and somewhere – because he can’t be gone – that lovely creature is roaming the heaven of places that must exist because we still feel the gravity of those who live there.

We never had a hard time getting Red to eat. We were also told he barked a lot, and this was true. He barked orders for food, especially. But, he also barked when he wanted out or when he wanted attention. Those giant setter lungs could put out a bark so painful to the ears, he was impossible to resist. I’d like to think we were the first people who listened to what he was saying instead of making futile attempts to quiet him, and that’s one of the reasons we all got along so well.

There were times we tried to preempt his bark. Before we settled down to write or read, we would offer him a trip outside to do his business. “Do you want to go outside?” my partner would ask in the kind voice he only had for animals. Come to think of it, his hospitality is squandered completely on the non-human. Red would not lift his head. “Red,” he would say, “outside?” The situation amused me. “You can try,” I said, “But Red calls the poops around here. You can’t call the poops on Red.” More often than not, once we settled in, the tympanic sound of Red’s bark lifted us from our seats. “Now,” he seemed to say. “Outside!”

He preferred cooked food to chasing wild birds. When we took him to the grouse woods, he obliged to walk ahead of us and, if he got overheated, he laid his now 90-pound body of groomed red hair in the largest mud puddle or dirt pile. He was the woman in the million-dollar red satin dress jumping on the back of a motorcycle. Why? Because he was more beautiful than aspirations of beauty. And that’s how it looked to see him in the mud – damn beautiful.

The veterinarian showed us the pellets on the x-ray. We had seen them before. He had got them in his life prior to the one he had with us. It’s hard to say if that’s why he didn’t care for hunting. Probably not. For the last few years, his favorite thing was going to breakfast on Sunday mornings. He barked relentlessly on those mornings until he was secure in the back seat of the truck. His bark said words in a voice I remember for its demanding and darling Irishness. “You’re going,” I would say in attempt to get him to stop barking. “Just five more minutes.” And he would respond, at least in my mind, “Shut up! and take me to breakfast.”

He lay on the bed behind us as we looked at the x-ray. He was still wrapped in the blanket we’d brought from home. He’d laid on the blanket all night with my partner, unable to get up. We folded him in the blanket to load him in a sled to take him to the vet. There were three strangers in the room now, and one asked us what we wanted to do. Red had not stood up, eaten, or drank water for over a full day, and his eyes were tired. He trusted us to make the decision on whether or not this was his last moment on earth. It was a trust we had never earned, and now we could not earn it. Not in the way we wanted. Not by giving him a heaven that was not ours to give. Not by answering a question that held the weight of his giant red body and life on an x-ray table.

Red knew what he was doing when he won our hearts. He knew how we adored his demands and were at a loss when he stopped demanding. Demanding of each other is a show of love. And, as it’s so difficult to find thoughts that comfort or words to write on the subject of why a rescue dog makes a good hunting partner. The only thoughts I could conjure were memories of Red, who never really hunted. Maybe, I thought, there isn’t one kind of wilderness two souls find together. Maybe it isn’t always a bird that a hunting dog hunts. Maybe, when the world enlarges enough for all things to be possible, it’s more likely that a dog knows just what kind of dog you need him to be. That was the kind of dog Red was. A hunting dog.



field of time

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We first saw her from the road, our eyes stopping briefly at the shape. The tide was out with the mountains in the distance, and the window through the trees offered a scene worthy of a sign along the highway advising motorists of a place to take a photo. There were no cars in the nearby gravel stretch, and my partner veered off the pavement just as we both registered the shock of seeing the 30-ton body of a humpback whale stretched out on the beach. The white of her pectoral fin from a distance appeared stained by blood and white graffiti lettering. We didn’t stop to talk about the safety of the rocks or sand as we ran out toward her. We didn’t stop until we had both touched the rubbery surface of her skin, and then we were under a spell of discovery, too lost for words except the exhales of amazement which are not words but raptures.

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She was gone, although parts of her body were still warm. The body lay wrecked like a battleship. Her mouth, stomach, and tail collapsed against the sand in a shape her body never formed in life. In life she was suspended in water and sometimes air. The hard surface of the beach was a cliff she could not jump from. A man in an official jacket approached us as we circled her. Because of the jacket, I asked him what happened. He said she came up to the river at high tide, probably got disoriented, and wasn’t able to make it back out before the tide left her on the beach. “She died last night,” he said. “That’s when we tied her off. She was facing the other way last night.”

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Then I saw the rope tied around her tail fin and followed it across the beach to the nearest trees. She was dead when the rope was tied, but biologists didn’t want to lose the opportunity to access the body, collect samples, and determine the cause of death. She had rolled with the tide. “People keep coming down here with their dogs,” he said. “No respect.” Did he mean disrespect to the biologists or to the whale, I wondered. How respectful was it to tie her off to a tree for a full necropsy and then throw her back to the sea in pieces. For a moment, she was Tiamat rising out of the salt water or the abyss. Tiamat was considered the grandmother of all the gods, but was killed, cut up, and the sky and heaven were made out of the upper half of her body. The lower part created the earth, her head a mountain, and out of her eyes run the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers of Old Babylon.

The mountain in the distance behind her looked the same color as her gray skin. I touched the white rings, which were scars left by barnacles that had been knocked off. “What are these?” I asked. “They’re from eels,” the man said. “The eels latch on and leave marks the shape of their mouths.” Higher on her body a deep blue gash appeared like rocky mountain topography. “And this?” I asked him. “That’s a bite mark from an Orca whale probably.” Above us, on the road, a car was slowing. We backed away sooner than we would liked to have left. The crowds would descend soon, and we had Hugo in the truck waiting to run the mountains. As we drove away, we could only describe our shock. We’d never seen a creature so big. We’d never forget it. It wasn’t something that belonged to anything we’d seen before. She was wrecked and destroyed on the beach, a picture of something wrong and out of place.

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The shock stayed with me as we drove the winding gravel road through the mountain valley. When we stopped and unleashed Hugo to run, a man approached us. He had been camping there for a week. “There have been sightings of a grizzly bear up in that valley,” he pointed. “And other reports of a black bear wandering along the road.” We thanked him, and headed up the trail that would lead into the open mountain country. Hugo ran ahead and back to us, his tongue hanging out. He didn’t know about the whale or the bear. He was my un-initiated youth and vitality as it wished it ever was. I watched him run in his wide open manner, wishing he could claim wildness and freedom for me because I’d never be so fast, and still hoping he’d come back and stay in view. He did.

We were only a mile down the trail when we saw a young bull moose stopped on the side of the hill. His nose was in the air into the wind. He picked up and turned the opposite direction, and ran across a snow pack. He ran up the side of the valley and didn’t stop until he disappeared into alders. People often reported on bears, but I believed there was a bear. Even though he was impossible to see. There is an expression for the feeling I’d heard somewhere: “Grandfather is in the woods.” I called for Hugo. He was too small of a snack of a dog and charging into willow bushes without knowing any better.

It was only a few hours since we had left the whale. She was surrounded by officials. Her side facing the tide was open and coolers were stacked nearby. Her blood ran into the tidal currents in the sand and out to the inlet. It was impossible to look away. She seemed alive. She seemed to have emerged from the abyss willingly. She’d been lost, but maybe she knew it. There’s something here, I thought. Hugo and I climbed up the rocks to watch the scene from above. I watched the whale, and he watched the shadows of birds on the beach without thinking to look up. “Hugo,” I said. He knew how to follow a point. I pointed up, “the birds are in the sky.” He was too focused.

Her body was my body. It was 42-feet long. The body of my life, or what some ancients call the “long body,” that is, the body of our entire lives and not just our face in the present moment. The body we lose at the end. Even though I wasn’t, I felt tied by a rope to something just as I pulled Hugo’s leash to keep him from the edge. Would I let him go any more than myself or the whale? Were we all tethered to something that could not be cut down? Would we fly if we were free instead of swing. What was this thing that seemed to hold our attention and would it let us one day fall to the floor or come ashore? Grief so often isn’t just about missing someone, but a feeling that life has gone, that all our lives will go. And here it was, all of my life stretched out before me. A beautiful creature.

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