My eyes follow Winchester’s point in a straight line from his nose. Nevermind that scent does not travel in a straight line, and it is clear he has not yet seen the bird he is pointing. It could be 100 yards away or travelling down the mountain. But then, his body lunges internally like an anchor dropping. He has seen the bird somewhere among the rocks that have always been there, broken down the mountain this time by an old goat, and in other times by gold miners or avalanches. What holds the mountain together as a landscape is its vastness. The sudden shift of knowledge in this vast, rocky, terrain; this unsorted panorama of glacial wreckage and debris; this endless valley of wind fighting its way into and out of rocks, is as breathless as we are. At a certain point in the morning near the summit the wind calms and whispers the secrets of birds.
The shotgun is getting heavy in my arms. I’ve already walked through Winchester’s point and past the invisible line between his eyes and the ground. He’s looking at a bird. I know him well enough to know the difference in his body between scent and sight. My fear is that the first day of the season the birds will be too young to hunt. They won’t fly but, instead will run. And the work will be steering Winchester away from these coveys for the rest of the day.
For now, I look for birds I’ve seen before – the shape of a ptarmigan’s head slightly lifting in agitation. Winchester’s flinch at any movement. But there is nothing but statues all around me – rock, dog, bird. And there it is, suddenly. A young bird, his herringbone feathers damp from the morning make him appear more rock-like than the mottled gray and brown of rock and earth alone. His head is tucked into his shoulders, his eye wide and round, unblinking. In this bright light after rain, the coal black eye reveals a pupil not often visible in the dark eye of small game.
I break open my gun and kneel to the ground. The bird, a male white-tailed ptarmigan, does not move. Now, I am a statue, and my partner, Steve, sets down his pack and kneels to change the lens in his camera. Winchester has not moved yet. I look over to him and see another young bird only six feet in front of him, similarly perched like stone. His gaze is on the first bird.
Steve lays out on the ground, and I glance at his pack. Another bird sits inconspicuously just inches away from the pack. None of the three have moved, and I wonder over the tightness in which these birds are holding. It verges on the unbelievable, miraculous, strange. Where is the hen, I wonder.
“There,” Steve says, answering my question.
We both look up toward the movement in the sky – it isn’t the hen, but a goshawk flying awkwardly from beyond the next hill and a thousand yards distant. He screams, a banshee sound echoing off the cliffs. A group of white-winged birds lifts out of the rocks below us and we see the hawk has a small ptarmigan clutched in his talons. Winchester moves, and five small birds lift into the air around us.
Later, we reflect on the hawk and the reason the birds held so tight. We climb higher into the basin and find more young birds. Winchester runs the flat-sided rocks in slides and catches, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. I stare at my feet as I walk to make sure I don’t slip, and this action forces my thoughts inward instead of observing the mountain.
The sorted news of the day and the progress of the times in terms of gear and regulations have nothing to do with the equilibrium of life and death here. There is nothing to conquer as we invade the privacy of this valley, sealed and distant from the noises of the highway beyond. There is nothing to feel we have done when we turn back except to have given ourselves over to the mystery of a place.
Winchester points an older ptarmigan on the edge of the level we have only just reached. I can see it’s an adult bird, far enough away and unsteady. The bird flushes as I approach and descends across the shale slides we just climbed, landing on a rock 100 yards below. Winchester relocates, bounding down the shale, the sound of coins pouring into piles. I follow him, my shotgun slung, digging into the solid earth below the rock to stop my fall.
He’s pointing the bird he sees. But, he also looks back at me. This is new, I think. He knows I see the bird as well. I run on the edges of rock with the thought that his look told me to hurry. The bird is uneasy, about to fly, and it does just as I reach Winchester. I don’t have my footing, but the bird turns and circles, crossing 30 yards in front of me and I shoot.
And, sitting down to examine this one beautiful fallen bird with my shotgun open causes me to miss another. I hear Steve calling from above and watch Winchester running, tongue to the side in the thrill of birds and mountains. In the house he is a different dog, we all are different. We are tame and covered in dust and hair. We breathe without wonder at the mystery – the constant moving breath of earth, and even the still vital life in my hands feels alive.
It’s near impossible to reconcile to those who do not struggle every day to be aware of the human impact on the world how hunting is not destructive, not violent. How can killing be anything but?
When done with respect, it is the rare thing that does not portray itself or act on the stage of life. It is the embodiment of what it means to be alive and relate to the natural world and its mysteries with sometimes fear, fascination, and wonder that we have come so far as a race and only in moments reflect on the greater strength of the wild we will never master.