Sometimes when I am hunting with my wife – possibly we have just come to the edge of some vast sea-field of wheat stubble, or climbed hands-and-knees up out of a frozen river channel and stood on an open spot from where we can see off a long way through scattered trees toward mountains, gray and ivory at the pinnacles-sometimes at such moments of reconnoiter, Kristina will say to me, “Well, which way now? Where to?” and take a deep breath and smile toward where we’re looking.
And I think to myself then – I think it every time – Which way? There’s a good question, since farther on there seems to be more wheat, and pheasants will be there if it’s early day, or late. Only, down the river the other way the banks are dense with rose briars and chokecherries, and back across there’s alfalfa, which I hadn’t seen till now. Birds can be there, too. Which way, indeed.
When I was in the 50s – I hunted with my grandfather. Quail only. Up in the direction of Clinton, or west in Yell County on a farm owned by Dizzy Dean’s brother, Paul, or in a place he simply called “Bird Town,” a spot I can never find now and that may not even exist. But on those cold December mornings, when we hunted, my grandfather always manifested a plan: “We’ll go up this gravel road a quarter mile and cross a fence to the right side into the lespedeza field. Birds were there once, just beyond the fence.” And later on, up the other side of a wooded limestone hill, to the margin of a disused cotton field: “Go up there, Dick, and see where the dog went, and if he’s not on point, then come back down and meet me where that stone house was beside the road, and well cross over the river again and work up the other way. once there was a big covey, right at the edge of the woods. It’s birdy up there.”
Of course I know now that he did not know which way. He went where he’d found birds before or he went toward what looked good at the moment he had to say where to go. The discovery of game was as much a shock to him as it was a mystery to me. He worked on faith and repetition and counted strongly on the dogs. And there were more birds then. Farming had not yet become so ruthless.
But ultimately, learning where to go next – learning where to hunt – must just have been distilled from the habit of hunting, and from his personality, and from our family’s habit of not explaining things (we never knew the explanations for most things), nor asking for explanations, and also may have come from some devout connection between hunting and the wandering human condition – a faith that not knowing is sometimes the incitement to a pleasing act of imagination.
Even now, when I drive past some great stubble field, as I did last November near Havre, Montana, on my way to hunt pheasants, and I see geese in flight, lowering and lowering toward the ground, and can see the specks of men in their pits waiting for a flock to come in close, close enough to be shot, what I feel underneath my exhilaration is the small, scratchy anxiety from my young years now gone – the anxiety of not knowing: How do the hunters know to hunt this field, this day? How do they know where to sink their pits? Why do they think their decoys will work? Do they call the geese or simply wait? It is not such a bad thing to feel, this anxiety. It is a kind of longing, and I’m sure I’ll have it all my life, even though I know now that the men drove out the night before in trucks and with their headlights spotted the geese feeding, guessed the birds would be back the next day, dug their pits, and simply came out and took their chances.
Sometime in the crystalline autumn of 1984, my wife decided she wanted to hunt with me – to carry a gun, to learn to find wild birds, to work hunting dogs, to shoot. And since then, in the falls and winters when I always hunt, I have tried to teach her what I know, as little as that might be. And especially, I have tried to teach her what I have just begun to describe: tolerance for the limbos and anxieties and ambiguities that seem to be near the heart of hunting…(P2)