Live everyday as if it’s your last, boys, and one day in the future when you look back, you’ll have lived ten thousand lifetimes.
– from the novel I Have Lived Today by Steven Moore (b. 1974), teacher, painter, writer
Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain. (It is not certain that everything is uncertain.)
– Blaise Pascal (1623-62), French mathematician and philosopher
One thing’s for certain
Sasha does not know that she is 12 years old. She only knows that it is pheasant season and she is in the heart of it in South Dakota.
I know it’s pheasant season, too, but I also know that Sasha is 12 and that I am 65 and that these may be the last of our glorious days together in Dakota. Bird hunters envy their dogs in many ways, but the greatest of these envies is this: bird dogs know only the certainties of life while hunters know only the uncertainties.
On this sunny, blue-sky, 50- degree November day near Aberdeen Sasha can be certain when there is pheasant scent and when there is not, where there is good-looking bird cover and where there is not, if a bird on the wing has been struck by my gunshot or not, the direction the wind is blowing, the depth of the water in the cattail slough, the location of the other dogs, and whether I am working according to her body language, signs, signals and instructions. This day’s hunt, in fact her entire life and being, is based on these certainties.
Lacking a dog’s intelligence, senses, perception, and judgment I can be certain of none of these things. I am handicapped by the human attributes of foresight, logic, reason, prediction, and projection, so I am confounded by indecision and apprehension at every crucial moment. A day of hunting, indeed my entire life, is beset with uncertainty.
One could simplistically summarize the differences in our disposition and behaviors by saying that Sasha lives in the moment and I do not. Sasha’s nature is to take life one day at a time – perhaps even one moment at a time – without regret about the past or worry about the future. I, on the other hand, am constantly fretting about the shortcomings in my past and pondering what the future may bring and how I will deal with it.
Although there is much truth to this “live only in the present” cliché, it misses the mark in describing a dog’s life of certainty and a man’s life of uncertainty. Sasha is not incapable of looking ahead, predicting the relationship between cause and effect. To the contrary, she constantly exhibits her ability to analyze a hunting situation, make decisions based on past experience, and act accordingly to bring about a successful result. Nor am I unable to take pleasure in the moment (sometimes euphoric pleasure); most days afield it is easy for me to sublimate all thoughts of past and future while reveling in the joys and wonders of the outdoors and the hunt.
But while we can both live in the moment and both act with foresight, Sasha has the blessing of a dog’s certainty and I have the curse of a human’s uncertainty. Among the things that she certainly does not know and that I most certainly do know is that our days together are numbered. There may be few of these perfect days of pheasant hunting left in our lives.
Sasha has been my every-hunt, every-day, every-bird hunting companion for 11 seasons. She can be stubborn and hard-headed and self-righteous, but those may be our strongest character bonds since I am also stubborn and hard-headed and self-righteous. In other ways, our personalities balance one another: Sasha is optimistic – I am pessimistic; she is forgiving – I carry a grudge; she is obedient and cooperative – I am rebellious and oppositional, she is a social butterfly – I am a recluse.
We are both a little crazy about bird hunting. Of the dozen bird dogs in my life, there may have been two others that I loved as much as I love Sasha, but today in the wide open grasslands and cornfields of South Dakota she is the apple of my eye. Because of her age and the unexpected 60-degree afternoon temperatures she has been hunting only in the cool of the mornings, but for those three or four hours we have been remembering and reliving our best pheasant hunts. After shooting three birds over her points I am filing this morning’s hunt away as a special chapter in the memories book.
Through our years together I have come to think of Sasha as the most beautiful bird dog I have hunted over although in truth she does not have graceful form of a setter or the racehorse body of a pointer, being too short-legged, barrel-bodied, thick-necked, and square faced. But then I do not have the graceful form of a classic bird hunter, also being short-legged, barrel-bodied, thick-necked, and square faced.
She hunts with a steady, methodical, practiced style, not wasting energy and time with wild and wide sweeps across open country. She has learned where birds will be, and that is where she hunts. She seldom ranges out farther than 75 yards, and she checks back every few minutes without prompting. Twenty years ago I would have called her an “old man’s dog,” but since I am an old man now she has been perfect for me. Together, we have bagged a lot of birds: pheasant, ruffed grouse, woodcock, sharptail grouse, prairie chicken, quail, Hungarian partridge, even doves.
Sasha is also the ultimate social dog: friendly, easy to travel with, quiet, accepting of all other dogs in camp. She does snitch food from other bowls if you don’t keep an eye on her. Could be learned behavior since I do the same with other people’s beer.
With some reservations, I loaded her into the travel box for the long drive to Dakota and the hard five days of hunting. One the first morning I apologized to the rest of the Over the Hill Gang that we might need to takes breaks now and then to let her rest. “No problem,” said Dennis. “She’s earned it.”
That’s for certain. And because our future seasons of bird hunting are uncertain I am taking special pleasure in following Sasha on this one.
More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.