Monday, March 30, 2009

A Novelist Takes Aim

...on the charm of dogs, guns, shells and supper

from The Wall Street Journal March 28 2009
On a bright and cold October morning in Montana, my dogs Abby and Daisy, The Pointer Sisters, are in my closet helping me select my clothes. On the left end of the rack are everyday clothes; on the far right are coats and ties for the occasional urban jaunt; and in the middle, clothes for sport, especially hunting. Here sit the two girls, tails whisking the floor between the shoes. They moan, grumble and pant wishfully while my hand hovers over the coat hangers. I shouldn't do this as dogs don't enjoy being trifled with. They know where the thorn-proof pants hang, since the red suspenders dangle to eye level for them, but they watch my hand. I don't move; Abby turns to stare at my boots with such longing she must think they can scoop me up and take me into the hills. Finally, Daisy can't stand it and barks at me: I pull the hunting pants from their hanger and with a cry of triumph they scramble out of the closet to watch me dress. Let others withstand the elliptical trainer, the rowing machine and the NordicTrack. Mama wants two partridges for tonight's table and I will walk long miles hoping to get them.

The author on the trail with Daisy, left, and Abby

I can tell myself that I take my dogs afield because they want to go and yet when the hunt is on, its urgency spreads from them to me as they course through rivers of scent; I am tugged along in a state of rising alertness and renewed addiction. The Pointer Sisters are running and gasping for my truck while I lug their water jug in one hand, the shotgun in the other while trying not to step on my untied bootlaces. They run round and round the truck to keep it from getting away before I can take them to the hills. Now they peer from the aluminum boxes, happy to be on the wagon and to hear its hearty engine start with a roar, as if glorying in our carbon footprint. It's an unusual East wind and I ponder the places that will let us hunt into it, to gain the scents and ambrosial trails that lead us to the quarry. Dogs, gun, shells and supper -- all in a row. It seems about right.
There have been several hard frosts and the morning is young. Those rattlesnakes not yet denned will be too sluggish to matter. The cattle have been gathered from the hills and now it all belongs to us. The hawks are up to the same thing we are; and it is possible to feel the competition of the Northern Harriers as they course low to the ground in the very fields we hunt. The light from the East and the bright serration of new snow on the mountain ranges surrounding us seem to bind a vast country together.
The dogs wait behind the truck as I rattle some 20-gauge shells into my pocket, slide the plastic water jug into the game bag behind my back. I walk a few yards in front of them, turn and tell them that they may begin. They leave at a blistering rate and in a very short time are rifling through the buck brush and chokecherry stands, across the broad juniper savannah, crisscrossing each other's trajectory with a reciprocity it took them a couple of years to work out. I potter along on two legs, gun broken open and dropped across my shoulder. I seem to be drawn by the wind behind the dogs as if I were sailing. Abby succeeds first, stopping to point as though she'd hit a wall. From a nearby rise, Daisy sees her and backs. If anything on either dog moves, it is because of wind. They are inanimate objects in the landscape. My heart races as I step into a chaotic covey rise of more than 12 birds, partridges everywhere. I manage to scratch down one and Daisy retrieves it to me. At the end of the day, this is all we have, one partridge. It will go into a salad. The carcass is cooked to make a liqueur to go over the kibble.
There is so much in the air suggesting that hunting is an anachronism that it's easy for a hunter to feel he is an anachronism too. An old fishing friend of mine said, as we headed home from an agreeable outing, "I thank God I'm not a day under 80." I'm a meat eater and have the teeth to prove it, but greatly pity the creatures in the domestic meat businesses. An industrial chicken factory gives me heartburn and Thanksgiving is a tragedy for turkeys. I don't wear camo, don't belong to the NRA and haven't been to a gun show since the jovial grandmother sitting behind the pile of machine guns said to me, "Goblins get in your house you'll love having one of these." I have no great enthusiasm for family tradition but my father and grandfather were hunters, and I can not remember a time when I didn't wish to hunt. Like most who have hunted all their lives, I have grown quite austere about what I harvest for our table -- some for sustenance, some for ceremony.
The dogs are everything, and they want to hunt, too. Bird dogs plead with you to imagine the great things you could be doing together. Their delight is a lesson in the bliss of living. As Bob Dylan says, "You've got to serve somebody." I serve my dogs and in return, they glom the sofa. Too many hunting dogs live depressing lives in kennels with automatic feeders and waterers, exercised only enough to keep them ready for work.
All vigorous pursuits bring real change. As I keep track of my dogs in broken country I notice that my memory improves, particularly short-term memory -- no small thing at my age. The hills that at the beginning of the season seemed so laborious roll beneath me. One does not set about doing these things as a salute to the Protestant Ethic but rather by noticing the land, the weather and the dogs and by allowing a sympathetic chord to rise to the hunt.

Daisy at rest

When our northern season ends, the backslide begins, a fearful dullness and the prospect of thickening. The dogs hardly wake up during the day. Something must be done and the longer quail season in the South beckons. West Texas is beckoning too, one of the few places left where mean and deceitful are not considered virtues.
I don't face the facts of late fall in Montana until the whistle freezes to my lip. "Girls," I announce, "we're going to Texas." In two days, Abby, Daisy and I are asleep in an Oklahoma motel, a dump with truckers snoring through the walls. We've just done an 800-mile nonstop and are stunned, in bed with the TV running, and I'm trying to get motivated to drive the last stretch. I step out of the artifice of my truck and I'm some place which, in all its weirdness, is not home. I have a tummy ache from the simple fact of eating along the highway. Is this worth it? But a day later a covey of bobwhites flashes up through mesquite branches, Daisy locked on point and trembling from head to toe, Abby backing and listening to the report of the gun while I drop to one knee and await Daisy's retrieve.
My season ends in the South with old friends Guy and Jimbo, five dogs on the ground at once: the Pointer Sisters; Jimbo's radar retriever Dixie; Guy's recently retired Brittany Obie and Obie's successor in the field, the valiant Bridget. We are like parents at a school play and privately root for our own dogs. The hills sweep under old moss-hung oaks and tall longleaf pines. The morning frost is gone by nine. The pretty black ponds are alive with wood ducks and cranes. We had to get this out of our systems: the Super Bowl is about to start. Guy prepares the mood with stone crab claws and a platter of roasted quail. We watch a somewhat fragmented game between never-ending commercials. At halftime, a lunatic with a microphone runs around in tight pants bellowing to the crowd. My host sighs, aims the remote, and shuts it off. The day had started quite early: It would be a good time to feed the dogs, clean the guns and turn in.
Now the long wait begins before we can do this again. Off season, the reports fly: Kansas has a few birds, Oklahoma looks spotty, West Texas coming back, wheat in Saskatchewan still not combined, bad spring freeze in Montana, Arizona desert birds droughted out, prairie chickens on the rise, ruffed grouse cycle on its way and if they've got woodcock in Louisiana they aren't telling. No sense taking anybody's word for it; we'll see for ourselves.

Thomas McGuane is the author of nine novels, three works of nonfiction and two collections of stories. His new novel, "Driving on the Rim," is due out next year.

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