Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Tag: bird dogs

take me to breakfast

As I write, an Irish setter named Red lays on blankets. My partner and I can tell that he is afraid. We’ve lived with him for five years, and our best guess is that he is 12 years old. The family that fostered him told us he was seven the year he came to live with us. He weighed just 63 pounds, which gave him supermodel proportions, as he was the tallest Irish setter I had ever seen. The color of his fur is a royal red, and his long nose, ears that hang like locks of hair, and doe-like eyes give him the appearance of a noble creature – half horse and half wolf with a dash of red stag thrown in. “We have a hard time getting him to eat,” the woman who gave him to us said.

It was after the last line that I stopped to think about Red’s condition again. He had fallen in the yard and, after making it to the shop floor, had not gotten back up. It had only been a few hours, but I had typed “was” instead of “is” and then corrected the error. Then I stared at the screen as my eyes filled with tears. Tonight, he is not with us anymore. I have a column due on the subject of rescue dogs as hunting dogs, I have work in the morning, and somewhere – because he can’t be gone – that lovely creature is roaming the heaven of places that must exist because we still feel the gravity of those who live there.

We never had a hard time getting Red to eat. We were also told he barked a lot, and this was true. He barked orders for food, especially. But, he also barked when he wanted out or when he wanted attention. Those giant setter lungs could put out a bark so painful to the ears, he was impossible to resist. I’d like to think we were the first people who listened to what he was saying instead of making futile attempts to quiet him, and that’s one of the reasons we all got along so well.

There were times we tried to preempt his bark. Before we settled down to write or read, we would offer him a trip outside to do his business. “Do you want to go outside?” my partner would ask in the kind voice he only had for animals. Come to think of it, his hospitality is squandered completely on the non-human. Red would not lift his head. “Red,” he would say, “outside?” The situation amused me. “You can try,” I said, “But Red calls the poops around here. You can’t call the poops on Red.” More often than not, once we settled in, the tympanic sound of Red’s bark lifted us from our seats. “Now,” he seemed to say. “Outside!”

He preferred cooked food to chasing wild birds. When we took him to the grouse woods, he obliged to walk ahead of us and, if he got overheated, he laid his now 90-pound body of groomed red hair in the largest mud puddle or dirt pile. He was the woman in the million-dollar red satin dress jumping on the back of a motorcycle. Why? Because he was more beautiful than aspirations of beauty. And that’s how it looked to see him in the mud – damn beautiful.

The veterinarian showed us the pellets on the x-ray. We had seen them before. He had got them in his life prior to the one he had with us. It’s hard to say if that’s why he didn’t care for hunting. Probably not. For the last few years, his favorite thing was going to breakfast on Sunday mornings. He barked relentlessly on those mornings until he was secure in the back seat of the truck. His bark said words in a voice I remember for its demanding and darling Irishness. “You’re going,” I would say in attempt to get him to stop barking. “Just five more minutes.” And he would respond, at least in my mind, “Shut up! and take me to breakfast.”

He lay on the bed behind us as we looked at the x-ray. He was still wrapped in the blanket we’d brought from home. He’d laid on the blanket all night with my partner, unable to get up. We folded him in the blanket to load him in a sled to take him to the vet. There were three strangers in the room now, and one asked us what we wanted to do. Red had not stood up, eaten, or drank water for over a full day, and his eyes were tired. He trusted us to make the decision on whether or not this was his last moment on earth. It was a trust we had never earned, and now we could not earn it. Not in the way we wanted. Not by giving him a heaven that was not ours to give. Not by answering a question that held the weight of his giant red body and life on an x-ray table.

Red knew what he was doing when he won our hearts. He knew how we adored his demands and were at a loss when he stopped demanding. Demanding of each other is a show of love. And, as it’s so difficult to find thoughts that comfort or words to write on the subject of why a rescue dog makes a good hunting partner. The only thoughts I could conjure were memories of Red, who never really hunted. Maybe, I thought, there isn’t one kind of wilderness two souls find together. Maybe it isn’t always a bird that a hunting dog hunts. Maybe, when the world enlarges enough for all things to be possible, it’s more likely that a dog knows just what kind of dog you need him to be. That was the kind of dog Red was. A hunting dog.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

nothing to do with results

The art of wingshooting, like other arts, is more of a practice than an acquired skill. How else would I have fallen in love with it or enjoyed it in a way no one could teach me? And yet, some words have stayed with me.

This is what fall smells like.

Nothing in nature is dirty.

We’re in the country now.

These words do not appear in my mind as if they are on a white page. They appear in a duck marsh, a river flat with the feel of tidal mud caking on my cheeks, and just above the tree line where the trail ends as if so many before us agreed exactly where to stop just to tell us where to start.

The art is in the imagination and recollection, something we are maybe born to recognize. Others may never see it. Fall smells like fall. Dirt is dirty. The trail is life.

But I’d like to think I knew before I ever shot a gun – like you know before you ever make love – that your heightened sensitivity toward the object of your affection is half of your making. It’s a dream embodied in life. In wingshooting, the field awaits at dawn.

When you go out, it is with a dog. There are hunters who don’t hunt birds with a dog and painters who don’t use paint brushes. I’ve done both but prefer to see paint brushed onto a canvas and the flash of a dog work a field. It’s my dream, not just something to be done.

For me, the way a hunter hunts is not a practical matter. No matter how many instructional books or how-to-do-it articles exist on a subject, they exist to fill the cup, not empty it.

It matters that there are ways to do things properly. The bare necessaries of wingshooting require that a hunter become a good shot and have a gun, shot, and choke that make sense. The poetic nature of the pursuit informs the practical so that there is some joy to be had by an obsession with every detail so long as the lessons do not become limits.

A dog to find birds provides a division of labor that allows the wingshooter to perfect his or her art. That is not the only reason. For some, a dog is a partner who lives between the wild and the human worlds. Maybe they are a medium. Maybe they are reincarnated zen monks. I really don’t know.

What I do know, is that bird hunting did not come to me as an inheritance. No matter what I’ve learned from books or days afield as an adult who woke up to life late, the birds I hunt are close to my heart. When a bird is in your heart, it’s on your mind. And when you go out to hunt it, you cannot fail to bring it home. I can’t tell anyone how that magic happens – how to fall in love, how to digest food. Even though I am sitting down right now trying to figure out how exactly to do just that.

So this. Don’t love what I love. Love what you love. Open your heart up to everything that belongs to that other world whether it is Frisbee golf or collecting cow figurines. I don’t know how you do it.

release point

winterblues

The danger of an avalanche existed somewhere high up on the mountain, and it was our reason for not taking the dogs. Days passed with each window of opportunity shut out by the prediction of snow or danger whether it came or not. And down low, where we were predictably safe, a wrestling sense of affliction from lack of risk kept me staring at the ceiling.

Without a way to spend our energy, we opened our eyes to the winter darkness, gasping for air and spiritually freaking out as if we were unable to dig ourselves out of the suffocating weight. Not from an actual piling of once-individual snowflakes descending en masse but from an avalanche set off from within the confines of the house.

The torturous sound of ten bird dogs scampering about the floors without occupation, two pots of black coffee on raw nerves, and a ticking clock that circled the same 12 hours as it had every day of my life. Except on this day, it jarred at 3:48 p.m. (sunset) and, the slide into another early night was unbearable.

The coming of night in mid-afternoon is not the worst of an Alaska winter. A person can still be happy or sad with five hours and 57 minutes of daylight. The avalanche conditions or sunlight charts do not hold my fate so long as I take an extra serving of natural berry flavored vitamin D supplement and soak in the blue light emitted by electronics and energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.

These were my tiring thoughts, anyway.

It doesn’t matter if the setters are pacing the house like caged badgers,  their claws making the chaotic sound of seven cross-beat clocks, and the urge to restore tranquility comes in a desire to smash the face of the clocks with immutable fury and without harming the dear creatures making the noise. And, they must feel the same because any sudden sound from outside sends them into a fit of barking.

I laid on the couch “like a patient etherized upon a table.” The sight of the dogs all sitting politely in a row and staring at me made me laugh at myself and the situation. I momentarily forgot the snow blowing by the window in gusts and how the fractured slope of my sanity had descended with soundless expression down a chute of narrow thinking. Right then, I stopped asking the overwhelming question of whether to dare to disturb the universe or the mountain and pet the dogs.

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