Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Tag: upland hunting

mysterium

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.