Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Tag: bird dog

unhindered

I am in a large white house as I write these words. The weather outside is a limp gray, threatening to rain but content to hold over for days, indecisive. And, that’s how I feel. English setters drape the furniture and sprawl out on the floors. We are all comfortable and uncomfortable. Somehow, freedom from pain or danger softens our edges so that, should we dare to go outside and leisurely run or exercise, it is only in the way that spares energy. And it makes me think of the wolves in the Arctic. It makes me think of the loping, hungry gait and predatory eyes of a creature for whom remorse is a luxury. The exact wolf in my mind is a lone white wolf spotted by the pilot ahead of us in her super cub a few weeks ago.

It took me a few seconds to adjust my eyes to see it, and at the same moment, it looked up at me, flying overhead in a small plane. Does the wolf wonder what alien machine flies overhead? Does it know there’s life strapped into a seat and riding above the earth for the thrill of looking out a window? Part of me went out to the wolf in an attempt to understand the nomadic life of an animal living unhindered and without remorse for killing caribou calves or anything. And, part of me felt romantic and ridiculous for staring out from confinement at a living being as an emblem of freedom when I’d be back to work in a week.

The comparison between dogs and wolves is as farfetched as the comparison of me to a wolf. Wolves are wolves – the wild spirit of the land, the monstrous mother who nurtures and destroys. The rightful inheritor of the planet. Sometimes, it’s a comfort to think that when human-caused destruction of the world is done – when our thoughts and actions have finally run out the life course of existence, the earth might heal and recover. Maybe our race will have moved on to another planet, and slowly, out of age-old rock or ice, new life will emerge. It may take a million years to reverse the extinctions but something like a wolf will be born and live and range again.

My first dog, a German Shepard named Sheba slept next to me on the floor at night. An uncle kept an animal he said was a “real live wolf, I swear to God” – a mangy black Shepard-looking dog with green eyes and a sloppy grin. Both “dogs” jumped into the bed of his truck, and he drove down the highway with them at 60-miles-per-hour when the wolf jumped out and landed, running. Sheba followed, and she died instantly upon hitting the pavement. It was difficult not to hate the wolf, although nothing was its fault. Easier to hate the uncle. But, nothing is anybody’s fault as much as it is a thing that happened. The lesson, in my mind then, was not to follow anyone over any edge, but to pay attention to my boundaries.

One of the setters, Hugo, sits down beside me as I write. He waits for attention (rather than beg for it as the Labs do). I finally look at him – he’s drenched from being outside in the yard. While the rest of the setters have lounged and napped, Hugo is lit up by the rain. I scratch his wet ears and look into his amber eyes. He wants me to come along and see it. There are birds feasting on the worms called out by rain. There is a throbbing pulse to the showers and sudden light from the sun when the rain stops. There are things to do, Hugo seems to say, rather than sit in pajamas and stare into flat screens.

Instead of following him outside, I step over one, two, four, English setters – his littermates – on the way to the coffee pot for a refill. I don’t know what to say for myself. I crave adventure, but there is always a warm house waiting for me to return. Hugo can run 30 miles in the mountains – I’ve counted his miles on the GPS. It’s not something a wolf would do – run a marathon for nothing but sport. All my miles, all my journeys, as much as I love to go and look at open country to purify my mind; sort out the notes of murmuring water and bird sounds in the mountains; smell the faint hint of petals mixed in with the heavier scented greens; taste the cold white water purified over rocks, and lay on a bed of lichen, which seems to grow against your back as a testament to the ever-living mountain, it is only as a visitor, hindered by a requirement to return home.

I sit down with my new cup of coffee, and Hugo appears next to me again. He’s the only dog in the family running in and out the dog door on a rainy day. “What is it?” I say in the annoying rhetorical way of human-dog relations (“who’s a good boy?!”). His tail wags, and he looks at me, insistent. I start to feel like the dumb townspeople when Lassie attempts to report a child fallen down a well. “What?” I say. “Do you want me to follow you?” (Great, I am the dumb townspeople, I think).

I get up in my pajama pants and wool socks to go out on the porch. I am slightly annoyed, as I am trying to bemoan my domesticated existence in the face of having returned from one of the last wild places on earth and an encounter with a “real live wolf, I swear to God.” Heavy rain has pooled on the boards of the deck soaking my socks and water runs off the roof and down the back of my neck. I look over at Hugo, his tail wagging.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” he seems to say in the rhetorical dog-human way.

And it is wonderful.

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.

 

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.