Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: only the dogs have names

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.

 

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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hugo 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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strive

When a puppy is three to four weeks old their dormant senses wake up, and they become aware of their surroundings. The puppy realizes it is alive. These are the tender weeks that would never be known to me if my dogs continued to come as rescue dogs or were purchased from a reputable breeder. The first week was the toughest of my life. Not all of the pups born lived. There is a pair of boxes buried on a hill with names and a short span of days.

“We’re not breeders,” I told my hunting partner.

We were lovers of dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. They came to us with breeding or without much of it, but each of them strived toward the kind of manners a dog needs afield. It was as if the dog, in a striving to abide by human conventions, was striving to overcome its breeding. Yet, in possessing the manners of a gentleman, a dog is ahead of most precisely by what he is not. By virtue of human surroundings, he constantly aims to rise the way we might in a higher culture. They are incapable of the deadly sins, do not strive for false effects, create scandals, or tell sad stories. Sometimes, in the cock of their head, they want to understand the universe.

“The longing for light is the longing for consciousness” C.G. Jung

“The longing for light is the longing for consciousness” C.G. Jung

 

If I was not a breeder, why did I want my dog to have puppies? Did my reasons fall into one of the polarized categories (reputable breeder or backyard breeder)? Did anyone else have my reasons? Where had this person or persons written about these reasons? Did they first have to announce to the judgment of the categorical tribes that yes, their dog passed conformation, temperament, health and genetic tests? And if I truly valued the reputation of the breed, only then, and perhaps out of a sense of service, would I seek to improve it?

There were more interesting questions, and they came in the form of symptoms, denials, and confessions that always end with “am I the worst?” The first of which was: did I want my dog to have puppies to experience the closest thing I would know to having children (which I would never have)? Was this a reason as badly expressed as “for the sake of it” or “because I could”? Was I as reckless as any mother who wanted a child no matter her circumstances? Or, any man who wanted a woman without a thought of children? These miserable comparisons would not suffice.

The puppies all sat like dogs and peered up at me with their veiled eyes. Their world had not happened yet. They were a delight. They would yield to the tyranny of manners and they would act according to their breeding, which, despite my own contribution, was on footing as sure and sanctioned as any other great line. They would look heavenward for birds in the air, for things I can’t see or smell. And, there would be no apology for why we ended exactly in the place we found ourselves. Somewhere I’d read that dogs are striving to be human the way humans are striving to be gods. Where we fall short of our striving, we wonder. And in wondering we strive again to be something that is merely what we are. Alive.

What I wanted most was a chance to be a part of the life of my hunting dog at its earliest beginnings when its character develops. We were going to keep two pups from the litter. That was decided before they were born. Which to keep was the trouble. There was three spot, the sole female, a tri-color with spirit enough to pounce her littermates; two spot, a black and white who looked a miniature version of his father with one spot extra; orange spot, the biggest and calmest; side spot, a pup who looked upward more than any other; and no spot, a shy and sleepy pup that wanted most to be held.

The five dwarves slept in a pile and they were named, as we promised not, when we agreed to the spot-method: Purdey, Colt, Boss, Cogswell, and Hugo. We would keep them all.