Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: what matters (page 2 of 3)

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.

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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)

 

steadfast

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.

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.

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.

winchester

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.

 

 

solace

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.

 

threshold

IMG_1101Ahead of me there was a dog working the fields. His feathers brushed the mountainside with the speed and fury of an artist on fire. This was his work, and I watched it. My work, if it would be done, was to appreciate his gifts, to honor his points, to shoot his birds. I’d need to shoot clean, and this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes a winged bird would drop to the ground still alive and, for a moment, while it breathed, my own painful life became an agony. Why do I kill birds?

When I woke up in the morning, I wanted to go to the mountains. There were birds there or there weren’t. The mood of the place changed from season to season, and it didn’t matter if we went in on snowshoes or wore hiking boots. What mattered was that we followed a dog, and he illustrated and illuminated the country with an inner fire. Following Winchester was an invitation to go to a place that didn’t exist – a Neverland of sorts – where invisible birds appeared ghostlike on the wind. What did any of it have to do with killing birds?

In the cold months, the mountains and the birds are pure white. The snow and cold air distill the landscape so that nothing seems to be alive. Wind pushes snow and suddenly, where there was nothing but arctic waste, a flight of ptarmigan appear in the gusting snow. When the bird is shot and, as it dies, a pinkish glow appears in its feathers. Some might wonder if it is the glow from the sun mistaken by ptarmigan hunters as a phenomenon. Does it matter if some follow a light and then watch in wonder as it goes out and others don’t?

These are wild places, wild birds and yet, they are not a secret. It’s possible to never see the birds, never shoot them, and never see them in their light. The beauty of hunting is that it something more than a hike or a nature-viewing opportunity. The places we hunt are haunted. They have been travelled for centuries or more. If we approach them only to take birds, we will have missed our mark. And if, in missing our mark, we think that we can work harder and somehow earn the opportunity… it isn’t like that.

Chesterton said it best, “There is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.” If it is in our hearts to be grateful for the worlds we encounter, we must know we are not capable of earning such worlds. We cannot imagine that any amount of daring on our part will reward us with quarry. Instead, there is another threshold that must be passed. It’s this threshold that I long to cross over every day in the field.

Whether it is my life that goes out in a pink hue on the mountains or the life of a bird, it is a pursuit of something beyond myself that drives me. Whether it’s my own spiritual and moral loneliness or something bigger than myself, I’m compelled to get there – to get to the place that isn’t on a map. Not because it hasn’t been charted but because it exists in the chemistry of the moment. It’s where I feel alive. It’s where nothing else matters.

As long as the dog knows how to get there, I’ll follow the dog.

4T3A0360

 

the edge

cc-remote-writingAdventurers inspire me. They are the fearless few of us who do not shrink at change, at risk, at loss or gain, at limitations, at third party perspective, at any of the things that truly do not matter. Instead of emotionalizing a static world, they vitalize the real world with their daring. They are never victims. While the world vaults them as heroes just as it attempts to wrap its arms around them never wanting to let them go and crying over goodbyes, the adventurer always must go, always grow, and lean into the light.

The spirit of adventure is one of the most attractive, healthy, thriving spirits out there. It is often unapologetic, not because it doesn’t care, but because it lives so close to the survival instinct. It cannot explain, promise, or otherwise foster co-dependency. Hesitation means death, stopping to explain or wrongly consider is a waste of its time. The adventurer is meant for heavenward flights and plummets by the grace of gods within us all. Let them go.

I remember a friend who always stopped when entering a store. Right inside the doorway, he would stop. Much like a deer transfixed in a road way by lights, new information came to my friend at overwhelming and dangerous speed. I ran into his back at least twenty times. “What are you doing?” I would say. We were on the anti-adventure of shopping and still it dealt too much adventure for this friend. I got to where I would map out the store in advance of the visit: “When we go in, head to the right…”

Although my adventures do not amount to heroism, world records, or even great feats, the spirit of adventure courses through me to a degree that I make decisions as fast and wrong or right as possible just to keep on top of what feels like a wave. When I walk into a building, I never stop. I’ve been known to push through a crowd. I’ve been known to walk out of meetings and classrooms. I’ve been known to chunk away relationships, jobs, and ways of life just to feel the raw edge of new beginnings again.

Most of all, I love other adventurers. I love, especially women, who never say “I can’t.” They become young mothers and find a way to make it work. They have a dream and they do everything to make it real. When obstacles are presented, they find paths to a solution. Or better, their way of thinking is constantly addressing obstacles before they arise and developing contingencies and alternate routes before they ever need them. They inspire others with their conviction, and they have conviction in spirit if not by way of explanation.

In my mind, these rare few are always living on the edge. They are recognizable instantly by a certain clarity in their eyes, a weathered complexion, a distracted purpose if any where other than the mountains, air, or sea. This edge that they live on and I hope to always live on is also a gap. It is the space beyond. It is the sun that a blade of grass reaches toward. It is the next bend or hill a hunter must travel. Or else it is the endless night and ache and torture of a life spent in the office.

When I had the recent opportunity to write a regular column for Women’s Outdoor News (the WON), there were several ideas for what we could call it. We thought about what I would write and the appeal of Alaska to readers. I thought of Alaska titles with a bit of dislike. What I wanted to write about was living on the edge. I wanted to write about why adventure matters. Why it matters in small ways and big ways. How it matters. Where it matters.

My new column “The Edge,” sponsored by EvoOutdoors, explores the expanding perspectives on hunting and the outdoors offered by a growing community of women hunters. I hope you read it between adventures.

 

inside the outdoors

boatEvery couple of days, the need to get outdoors overcomes me. It isn’t the need to go “outside,” which is just the external of being inside the house – the outdoors is a place that is everywhere and nowhere. It can be on the edge of the neighboring woods or in a farmer’s field. It can be on the summit of a mountain, if that’s how far it takes to feel spaciousness and serenity. Being outdoors means being beyond the edge of the modern world. It’s a place where there are rhythms instead of language, cycles instead of signs and, suddenly, you pass through an invisible door that is not like the one that exists on a house. It’s a door that closes everything that is behind you and you are finally free. Once you find that place, you never stop looking for it.

There are plenty of legendary outdoorsmen who have crossed that threshold and never come back. They are the storied mountain men of another era or even the cautionary tales of today. Most of us have to come back from our outdoor trips. We have families and jobs. We have to find a balance between the need to experience the great outdoors and still keep the lights on back home. Sometimes, it seems like it would be ideal to live a techno-primitive lifestyle – a remote cabin with an internet connection and espresso machine. As cool as it would be to scrawl out a note that says my gun “kilt the bear that kilt me,” the best thing I can do is just try to get outdoors at least every couple of days.

Several years ago, at the Vancouver Peace Summit, the Dalai Lama famously said, “The world will be saved by the western woman.” His words were in the context of global and humanitarian issues, but his words rang true for something else as well. This isn’t to say that women aren’t powerful globally or there is an impending apocalypse we all need saving from. It just so happened that I read his words after reading a similar quote in a conservation journal: It had said that women were the future of hunting.

In the context of the outdoor industry, more women hunters means more hunters and more hunters means the salvation of hunting. Statistics then showed women were the only growing demographic and the rate in which children were apt to hunt increased when their mothers hunted (more so than their fathers). What interested me most in these numbers, however, was the potential for quality instead of quantity. Women have always hunted, but what would the growing number of women bring in terms of the female values of compassion, connectedness, and community? As articles went to press about the downward trend of the “vanishing hunter,” I was more interested in the hunter that was emerging.

In the same way that western women have a sociopolitical position that allows us to take a leading role in humanitarian efforts and business, hunters also have the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation on our side. Even as media began promoting women as the new sportsmen, we had already been connecting socially online and creating communities some writers have called “the underground sisterhood.” It wasn’t anything so clandestine as far as I could tell. But, something was happening, and we were all part of an emerging industry that matters.

As much as it is fun to share the outdoor experiences that connect us, the adventure happens in the field. That’s where we find that place that is a Neverland of sorts, where we walk through the invisible boundary between our human world and the world that always was and will be. It’s a place for new beginnings and restoration. For those who crave reality, there is nothing more real, more life-affirming, than the outdoors. It was there before the indoors, afterall and before a word like “outside” became possible.

center point

First it’s the beauty of watching him run. There are all the marks of what would be an athlete if judged on the human scale. In the animal world, it is merely living unfettered by the chains of survival. Where the wolf or the coyote considers the efficiency of the chase, the hunting dog is let loose with a freedom to exhaust his powers. His endless drive doesn’t save for the starving months of winter but fasts on the bounty of wide open spaces. He finds invisible birds on the wind and spends every reserve of his body to hold them, to point.

winwin

At the age of 36, the mid-day sun on the mountain after hours of climbing gave me the feeling of being at the center of my life. It isn’t rational thinking that put me in the center. A divided calculation of life expectancy cannot give a feeling like that. The warmth and light of the sun and the way the snow in the mountains cut the blue sky gave me the feeling. The alert body of the dog a few feet away trembled to hunt while we took a break on a dry bank where last season’s blueberries had frozen and thawed.

“It’s a sin their life spans aren’t much longer,” a friend had said.

Winchester’s entire life would span only a portion of mine. No matter how much he stretched out in the mountains and ran up and down mountainsides that would take me an hour to cross on snowshoes without fear or faintness, no matter how he could out run me and out-live me in so many ways, when it came to a number of years, my sluggish life would drag on longer than his almost by the exact amount that he could outperform me in a daily accounting of miles.

My mother has not stopped imagining that someday she will hear the news that I’ve given up my stubbornness and decided to have children of my own. The conversations on the subject are like the distant noise of the highway while I am tucked away in a mountain valley. Somewhere, back in the modern world, the conversations are still happening between those who may have lost the vocabulary to express the stake we have in life no matter what is born or dies when it is what lives that matters.

We had held Winchester back as we climbed because we thought it would save his strength for when we were above tree line. Then, we surmised, we could let him run in the wide-open way that is his nature. The wind-blown snow had dried so that the surface formed a solid shelf of waves and beneath this crust was dry snow. We broke through on every step and had to pull the surface back up so that what was usually an hour hike took three hours. By the time we reached tree line, he had pointed three coveys and we had not fired a shot. Whether it was the noise of our approach or the will of the day, I’d like to think that there is a reason that some days no birds are taken.

point

Just before we rested, Winchester had stood overlooking the creek bed. The three of us watched over a hundred white birds sail past us against a background of snow. Their flight seemed not to have a sound or a wing beat. We were all three so enchanted that nothing seemed to happen except the birds passing in the same way the wind moved the dry snow in wisps and flurries. The light of the sun coming into the valley cast bird shadows on birds and willow branches, and even the shadows were white.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. We talked about going further up the valley to where it turned and opened into yet another valley over a rise. The other option was to hunt the creek bed back down and find the birds we had watched in the distance. We sat for a while and contemplated without conversing. That was what I loved – the day itself making the decision. We were in a place that did not have a waiting line or validation ticket. There was no goal. I’d like to think that’s why we didn’t shoot any birds. We didn’t need to.

The end of the season was two days away. Here I am, I thought, in the heart of life, and I must stop short. Winchester’s empty stomach and lean muscles still trembled, and the day was half over. We would descend into the creek valley. “Easy,” my partner said to Winchester. And I watched how he ran and checked himself in a choreographed manner – his front paws would switch back and forth then he would run again, stop, switch paws. I love this dog, I thought.

There was a message on my phone from my mother about spending more time with my family. There were birthdays and holidays that had been missed and would be missed. It was fine to not have children, but my solitude was at the expense of relationships and too much time away was “unhealthy.” Winchester was asleep in the back seat. The highway leading back to town had no treacherous passes or open fields. It was just a line of vehicles and a view out the window.

Was I chasing a dream or falling asleep at the wheel?

mountains

I was chasing a dream, damnit. And following a dog to get there. That day we had nearly broke ourselves and were too exhausted to say we were sorry. And we weren’t sorry. And we’ll do it again. For as long as each of us lives.

what matters

happywin

It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, if you are a man or a woman; it matters that there are hills you dream of hunting and still others you will never know, that there are coverts left long after you are gone.

It doesn’t matter if you are hunting behind a pointer, setter, retriever, or spaniel; it matters that there is a trust and devotion that will just as easily cause you to smile as bring you to tears.

It doesn’t matter if you are hunting with a pump, semi-auto, side by side, over/under or single shot; it matters that there is skill behind the gun and, if you’re lucky, a treasured story.

If doesn’t matter if you shoot the most birds, the best birds, the rarest birds, or no birds at all; it matters that you go afield with reverence for the species you hunt, unhurried and worthy of your game.

It doesn’t matter if you are traditional or modern in your approach; it matters that you are still learning every day and willing to find your own answers.

It doesn’t matter if you are a member of organizations; it matters that your thoughts are your own and you give back to the earth as much as you have gained from it.

It doesn’t matter who you know or how you came to be an upland hunter; it matters that you found something worth doing, worth fighting for, and worth remembering.

It doesn’t matter if you have love, money, or fame; it’s truth that matters most, that and your ability to breathe the air, taste the bitterness in the rain, feel the coldness of the wind, and experience all of the things in life that can only be done as a solitary person.

It matters that there is skill, honor, beauty, and death in upland hunting. It matters that, no matter how many evolutions there are of the story or how many have shared it, the moments are yours. And they are worth every second.

what_matters

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