– Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010), from his book The Unnatural Enemy
If a bird fall…
All bird hunting is creative fiction.
Perhaps it seems that way only to me, as a writer who hunts upland birds. (Some would suggest that I am an upland bird hunter who coincidentally writes.)
But for every bird hunter, writer or no, at day’s end, the moment the dog is back in the travel box, the shotgun in the case, the birds in the cooler, and the vest and chaps in a heap in the back of the pickup truck, the hunt goes through a metamorphosis from enactment to history to fantasy.
If some dispassionate observer had followed this hunter unseen, keeping a minute-by-minute log of the day’s events and actions, and if those factual records were compared to the fireside stories the hunter will tell come evening, mellowed by ale or aged in Scotch, his account would bear little resemblance to the observer’s notations.
Be there two or three other hunters in the day’s party, quite likely there would be only passing resemblance in their various narratives.
We compose the saga of the hunt as we go through the day, mentally recording moments and impressions and emotions, calling them up for edit and rewrite as the hunt progresses and its theme takes shape, polishing them to fit the plot, reshaping the action sequences to match the development of the adventure story we want this to be. We do these revisions at each juncture – each memorable event of the day – and then carefully save the improved version in a mental digital file so it can be retrieved and embellished into an even more exciting tale come nightfall.
Hunters achieve renown not so much from their expertise and prowess as from their epic story-telling.
Bird hunters do this, at least I concede I do this, not to grasp the laurel of fleeting fame but to fulfill a longing and a passion for the hunt itself to be a time of joy and wonder, and to prolong memories of bright and shining moments among the hours and days and years that are too often numbingly dull and dispiriting. Our stories evoke much-needed interludes of happiness.
You lift your spirits with that memory of the day your best-ever dog (gone now these five or ten or fifteen years) swept across the wide, shallow saddle between two ridges of low hills in the heart of the Fort Pierre National Grassland, snapped into a marble-statue point , held rigid and trembling as you jogged across two hundred yards of shortgrass prairie to her side, flushed a pod of fourteen prairie chickens, dropped two stone dead with a classic right-left double, and watched the rest fly to the far horizon as their tuk-tuk-tuk alarm calls grew fainter and their beat-beat-beat-glide winged forms became dots in a pale blue Western sky. And of course your dog made two soft-mouthed retrieves to hand.
At least that’s how you remember it. And how you will tell it to your dying day. And why not? It’s your life story, your epic poem; surely you should have the satisfaction of being the heroic figure in a few of the chapters and verses.
We take those euphoric memories out of the file in times of emotional need and inhale them furtively, like those stout cigars we are no longer supposed to enjoy. Complemented by the scent of a wet dog at your feet, the walnut-and-steel contours of a double gun in your hands, and the iridescence of a tuft feathers floating out from your bird vest’s game pocket, they can be compiled into a series of chapters that comprise a novel about the bond between hunter and dog, the camaraderie of long-time hunting companions, the magic and mystery of the game birds, and the wonder and awe of the primal country that is the fantastic landscape for it all.
These are life chapters unencumbered by the shadows of doubt, anxiety, fear, regret, uncertainty and failure that beset us most days. Like all familiar stories that are more fantasy than fact, we go back to them, time after time, to remind us of our true avocations, our passions, and our values.
So forgive me if I begin to craft the storyline the moment I step into the aspen and alder woods, the shortgrass prairie, the cattail marsh, the CRP field, or the brushy waterway. I may be premature in constructing the day’s tale this early on, but I do not think so. I’m yearning for the journey and the narrative to go forward in harmony, page-by-page, so I can be central to the story of discovery of the promising bird covert, the dog enticed by the first trace of scent, the anticipation that she will cautiously but surely work her way to its source. I want to turn the page to see her lock on point, tensely waiting for me to flush the crouching bird into a feathery explosion of flight. Then the shot, the fall to earth, the dog’s frantic search for the dead bird, the fetch and retrieve, and the sweet anticlimax of holding the gamebird in hand.
If a bird fall, it is like being able to bring back a token from a dream. A mythical creature from a fantasy. Indelible proof that you were at the heart of an adventure story that, I fear, only a dwindling few bird hunters can now read and understand.