Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: off the map (page 1 of 2)

standstill

His tail was as straight as a lion’s when he struck the icy water which filled the air with another flight of ducks, and another until soon the swans at the distant shore lifted their wings. My eyes came back to the form of the dog, now submerged and fighting to stay afloat on the ice he broke through at each crushing leap he took with a body I had only before seen at a leisurely pace in the field or curled asleep in the recliner near the fireplace back home. Cogswell forgot every command and was lost to instinct as the ducks circled and tried to sit back on the open water he churned, ignoring our calls and never knowing our fears that he did not have the vitality to fight his way out of ice if he stopped for even a moment to panic.

This was a dog who had never lost his cool. He paused when other dogs charged. He sniffed the air from a standstill when other dogs followed scent. He slept and lounged and loafed the first few years of his life, showing only a few rare moments of competitive daring if spurred on by his littermates. In a litter of dogs with the distinctive fine bones, dished profiles, feathered features, and high spirit of bloodlines developed for the hunt and the thrill of the flush, Cogswell was a taller, more muscular and heavy-footed, jug-headed dog with a short coat and slow, ox-cart-pulling demeanor and build. And, here he was, with his mind lost in a sea of birds calling so loudly and the icy water crashing all around.

He couldn’t hear our calls for him to come back. Flocks of mallards flew over and circled, pairs of mergansers darted past, and the terns came up between them screaming for their nests. I was running and calling for Cogswell as I watched him struggle in deaf pursuit further out into the ice where he was now caught in the channel he made and unable to get to the surface.

He was on the surface now and running. Run, I thought, get to the shore before breaking through again, and he did. But the ducks weren’t leaving their hole, and he followed them back across the water, breaking through the shallows and again gaining the surface. For twenty minutes I yelled and ran the shore until my partner, having waded out to the gravel bar snatched Cogswell up by his collar like a mustang-sized misbehaving rascal of a puppy who kicked and bucked still crazed by life.

We marched him away from the frenzy of birds as they settled back to the water behind us. As we marched, Cogswell mellowed and changed back to himself. He changed back from the wolf and became the English setter again, despite his momentary outburst as a water dog. When we rounded the curve that took all birds out of view and let go of his collar, he was his cool self again and sheepish. “Cogswell,” I said. “That was so not like you.”

We sat together for a few minutes, and he looked out over the water the way humans and animals do when satisfied and sure of who they are by what they see and sometimes sorry for it as much as they know the urge will come over them again to be wild and free. I was glad he did it with as mixed a feeling as can be had by someone responsible for training a dog to be safe and sound and still admiring an animal for not always being predictable as long as it ends well.

Cogswell walked at my heel for the miles back to the truck without a command and without further interest in single ducks or ravens flying overhead. It was that feeling when you’re walking away and not looking back so there is nothing of interest ahead, just the world at your feet until you feel quite yourself again.

“Go on,” I said. “You don’t have to heel up.”

But then I realized what I’d just learned about Cogswell. When he didn’t have to be good, he was as good a dog as anyone could hope to bring along to the park. When the world spun and vaulted him in a vision of wings and soaked the air with the scent of birds so heavenly he’d throw it all away to get there again and never leave it as it stirred and sounded all around, it was good-bye.

Now we were just trudging up the hill for another ride down, and he was giving me that good-ole “I love you honey” like I didn’t know any better what kind of dog he really was. And I scratched his ears because I was glad he had it in him, anyways. The bloodline of setter tricks up the sleeve to pull out when it counts and keep a girl going further in the same direction to get ahead of it til next time.

 

magic

Every now and then, there is a day when things go right because you let them. When, for whatever reason, you get out of your own way. You don’t take into account anything that doesn’t matter. You don’t set expectations within the context of time, money, or energy available. You don’t let the hooks flying at you in the form of annoyances or anxieties come anywhere near flesh. They bounce off you like the steel of your resolve toward the pure experience you want, and you get. Because every now and then, you haven’t skipped any steps or put in too many. Every now and then, it happens on the same day to you as to the dog, and everyone eats breakfast and is heading to the mountains like we’re never going back home.

Today was like that. Cogswell in the back seat and only good songs on the radio. Every light in town was green or else we didn’t notice that the world was conspiring against us like on a Monday morning when they are red, red, red. And you jerk to a stop again with the angst of an animal caged wearing slacks and a blouse, as my friend reminds me no one says slacks and blouse anymore. “Actually,” she said, “No one has said blouse since before you were born.” I’m sticking with it, because if I have to wear anything resembling a blouse, defined in my mind as an article of clothing so fragile it only makes sense to wear in temperature controlled buildings and also great for tearing off and waving like a flag out the window of a car leaving the last light in town with the radio blasting Free Bird, it’s not just a shirt.

We were free of drag – the total sum of the things in life that keep you buttoned down. We had our shotguns and our snowshoes. The temperature was still below freezing at that early hour. In a hundred more miles on the road, the sun would be hitting the north-facing slopes, and the light would hint off snow like diamonds. We’d be in heaven, and we wouldn’t care about if it was exactly the right temperature or not.

It could all go wrong, without saying. We could find another party at our spot. The snow could be too soft or too hard for Cogswell’s paws. The birds could have moved down or up or over. Sometimes it’s fun to have a conversation about what-if-but-then. Other times, you know your day is about waking up to the sun coming through the slats in the blinds before 8:00 a.m. for the first time in all of winter and how good the cold feels. You take off your blouse on the beach and love the smell of napalm.

That’s it. Today was the first time I would use steel shot for upland birds instead of lead. It was the right thing to do, and it felt right. The conversations leading up to it for so long were filed away in my head with so many other files: never apologize for being a hunter, hunters are conservationists, public lands are grand. It isn’t that those aren’t all part of the important talk at the outdoor community church. It’s just I want out of there sometimes. I want out of wearing the shirt.

Perhaps one of the only things my mother said to me that stuck was just after I came home from the first day of kindergarten upset. I had dressed up for school in a red dress and red shoes with matching hair ties. No one had prepared me for the fact that children did not dress like collector item dolls. The other kids made fun. I came home and threw my matching red purse on the sofa. “And no one has a purse either!” I sobbed.

“Honey,” my mom said. I could barely hear her as I racked my brain for how to get my hands on a regular pair of slacks and a blouse. But she finally got my attention, and said, “If somebody doesn’t like you, there’s something wrong with them. Because there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Sometimes, that advice doesn’t work because there is something wrong with me. But other times, it’s gold. There’s nothing wrong with me when I go about life in a way that is loving, skillful, and reverent. When I get out of the truck with the intent to go up a mountain in deep snow with an adoring dog I adore to find birds I love and shoot them because every day, every second on this fire planet there is living and dying whether I do it right or wrong or not. It can happen in the dark, in ignorance, or by inevitable accident. Or it can happen in the way in which two hunters follow a dapper chap of a dog into the mountain light. He points a bird, and the bird decides whether or not to flush in such a manner as to be taken.

There is blood and magic in these memories. They will flash before my eyes when it is my turn to flush and find salvation or not. I want these days – the ones that start right and go right more than the days that go by. Whatever we can say about them to ourselves or others or for ourselves for living the way we do doesn’t matter as much as taking every step we know we need to take to meet the needs of the day and not – as much as we can help it – give a shirt about the rest of it.

 

 

 

going out

 

 

Going out with the dogs means any number of things. It can just be a walk around the yard or even the path behind the house. It means going outside of ourselves as much as the house. Going out also means going in – into the woods, into the hills. Hugo knows the difference between climbing a mountain and seeing his reflection and an obligatory run along a gravel road on Sunday. He’ll go on either trip, but I can tell when he ignites. What is it that makes us know we’ve done enough in a day for it to count?

Hugo jumped into the cab of the truck while the other puppies barked and howled. It sounded like the cries of the damned might sound. The slight of being left behind was such a hell. But Hugo was quiet and sitting tight in the back seat. I looked back at him, and his eyes were brighter than I’d ever seen them. He was less than a year old, the timidest dog in the litter, and he’d never gone on a trip in which he was the one dog. He’d never been hunting, and it wasn’t hunting season yet. I’d never seen him so excited. His look out the window was more intense than when he watched birds in the yard. The other pups – his littermates – didn’t know any more than he did what it was we were doing, just that we were going out.

The wind had picked up by the time we reached the base of the mountains. It would be worse above tree line. We had travelled a long way just to turn around. “Let’s take him out to the rock,” I said, pointing to a ridge of rocks fronting the ocean. We could give him a chance to run through the woods where the wind wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t much of an adventure, but it was the best we could offer. When I opened the truck door, the wind slammed it shut. Hugo resisted the leash, and I fought him, the wind, and the door. There was no chance the day would be anything but a bust. Only, he didn’t know that.

Hugo leapt out of the vehicle just as a gust of wind pushed me against the truck. His body was ridged and faced toward the wind. It lighted him up, and he charged toward the woods. “Look at him,” I said. I was unable to hold him. His tiny body pulled with all he had, and his nose was high in the air. I gave in and ran with him through the woods. He delighted in everything he saw, bucking and running from one bush to another. When we broke out of the woods and met the bare rocks along the ocean, the force of the wind hit us again. Hugo faced it with his chest wide open and head high. The wind blew his ears and lips back, but he was un-phased.

I laughed at first, watching him take in the wind and the newness despite the comedic look of his lips flapped back past his gums. I sat next to him and could feel the pent up days and weeks he’d spent in the yard or short walks flood out of him as the wind rocked both of us. This was where he wanted to be – I knew it because he faced it. He faced it the way I faced newness without fear but with the desire humans feel when we know what we are capable of and just want the chance. When we have the chance, we take it. He took the full force of the wind into his chest and body. He seemed to want it all. I felt it hit us both, everything we wanted.

This was the Hugo I hadn’t seen before. Maybe it was building up in him as his body grew from a puppy to a dog. Maybe the light was always there, and he just hadn’t opened his eyes or I hadn’t opened mine. He’d never been in his element. His element was wind. We sat together in the open, my hand in the fur of his back. His body quaked, and he held himself on the edge of the rock as the wind off the water blasted us in a cold force of waves. We were alive. If any creature had what it took to be great – at life or hunting, I thought. It was Hugo. Because his intensity was unshakable. Because his eyes were wide open.

It may not seem like much. We walked from a parking lot to the cliffs and let the wind rake us for minutes, not hours. It wasn’t our first hunt or first bird, but it was a day where something happens like falling in love. There’s a moment of openness and connection. We go through so many automations and domestications in life, building up our habits and defenses. To go out doesn’t mean to go further in. It means exactly to go out – to meet that wildness that is also within us. When that happens, we step into the light, the wind, the waves. It’s not a place or an occasion we go out toward but a stepping out of whatever holds us back or holds us down.

 

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.

hugo_idaho_chukar

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

 

vantage

I’d been studying the weather since the ten-day forecast, and the forecast was rain every time. There was no way around it. It was going to rain on opening day. The grass and lichen in the mountains would be wet and slippery, Winchester’s feathers would mat and clump instead of blow in the wind. The birds would be more difficult to smell. I’d have to wear a hat. A dog doesn’t know about the weather forecast, but he somehow knows when summer changes to fall one morning. In his seventh year, he becomes anxious and excited by all the signs of the coming day. I studied the weather and its limitations with the dead stare of someone who could no longer read the un-changing prediction, and Winchester studied me. There was nothing liberating about the weather outside of being in it. But the way he looked at me was something close to the look of love and hate – a call to action.

He got out of the truck and didn’t stop for five miles. They were his miles. He didn’t stop until he locked up in the square rocks at the back of the valley. We were still at the top of the first hill opening to the valley when he went on point. I usually took a break on the hill to catch my breath before the prospect of birds, but there wasn’t time. Not because Winchester wouldn’t hold, but because I couldn’t ponder at the speed it took to catch up to him. I wanted to have the silence of coming over the hill settle into me and then feel the softer sounds of the mountain come alive. I wanted the wind to carry the last flower smells of summer in the updraft before heading across the valley. I wanted what was before even though none of this occurred to me as well as the fact it wasn’t raining until much later.

The bird he pointed was a single white-tailed ptarmigan chick. It appeared larger when it flew, but even the stretching of its wings betrayed its infancy. My reluctance to shoot a bird so young at least had behind it the skill required to miss on purpose. Instead of fretting about the non-existent possibility of rain, my fretting turned to the fact that my inability to shoot too-small birds may ruin the day. When we reached the next level of rocks and peered back to the blue mountains in the distance, a momentary calm came over me until the lies I told myself started back up again. Winchester was on point. If the birds were small, I would miss again. My thoughts created a drag, a draining of energy from action.

allshadesofblue

This covey was also too young. It wasn’t important as much as my thoughts about it created a dullness. I made us sit together, and we looked out over the valley. His eyes were bright, and I followed where they led – to that remarkable place that doesn’t exist. It’s the world behind the world or something so real that it takes piercing eyes to see it. It’s everything that is possible if we just stop looking and live it. This wasn’t the time to lecture about what he didn’t understand. This was about what I didn’t understand. “Show me,” I said.

The back of the valley was surrounded by peaks we had never climbed. I let go of the weight anchoring me to fears of rain, exhaustion, running short on time, too-small birds, and too-small thinking. “Let’s follow that line,” I said. My partner had already figured a route. If we stayed to the side of the snowpack and the shale slides weren’t too steep, we could get out on top and look over. The rocks near the top appeared jagged from the other side of the valley, and it was impossible to know what we’d find. Winchester would find it first, no matter how many times we called him back as we made our slow ascent. The most I could imagine was a rocky peak over-looking the next valley. It would be cold and windy up there.

When we came over the top, it was nothing like I’d imagined. It was a wide-open field where the hoof print of caribou and sheep unearthed lichen and stirred the mountain soil. The edges were soft and bright white and lime green compared to the dark shale rock across the valley. It was a kind of floating heaven, and we both ran it. We ran across it, first just to run, then it occurred to me how badly I’d wanted to peer into the next valley.

mountainfields

edges

At the edge, the updraft hit us with all the cold of the summer’s un-melted snow. The dark pit of the valley below held the jeweled lakes we climbed to on other days. Today they were far below us and spilling into streams. Above them loomed the last remnants of a glacier, I had never seen from below. It lay shipwrecked and scared in the jagged rocks below us. It was always there, for all the years we’d hunted beneath it, and we never knew.

galactic cutup

Winchester was calm now. The tide had turned, and he sat the way he does. It’s a smart posture, like meditation. The wind beat loud against us, and it was the quietest we’d been all day. There was nothing to say, nothing to do. Just for that moment, all the stillness was below. No matter what anyone says about what a dog can see or what a dog can feel, there are moments when those two worlds come together.

stillnessbelow

 

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.

12802911_10209119173319462_2035684704863643980_n

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)

 

stealth

Hugo

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.

onward

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.

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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 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.

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pause

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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