Sasha and Abbey know they are not really hunting on this morning walk but some manic corner of my mind does not, and I allow my awareness of nature and its wild beauty to be restricted by my ingrained habit of always acting, and seeing, like a hunter.
Through a hunter’s eyes
Bird hunters wander around looking at wild things in the summer, but truth be told we do not see all that we should. We’re out there watching for an hour or more each day because our dogs must be exercised and worked through these sultry months so that they do not become fat and stale and lethargic (or worse: psychotic for lack of the stimuli and action that their canine minds and bodies demand). But we are usually watching the wrong things because we view the wild through a hunter’s eyes.
We are focused tightly on the visual clues that are linked to the species that we hunt. The broken stems of grasses and forbs along the edge of a trail that mark the passing of a doe and her fawn that morning. The trampled weeds and circle of feathers that are “forensic evidence” that a fox caught a hen pheasant on her nest during the night. The “whitewash” spatters of droppings in the new growth timber that tells us a woodcock has built her nest somewhere nearby and is finding a goodly supply of earthworms in the shallow loam to keep her and new newly hatched chicks well fed.
Our field of vision tends to be narrow, restricted to that “middle distance” where there is really not much to be observed.
I would see more if I would widen my scope to the panoramic view of the whole river valley below me –red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures gliding on the updrafts, fog lifting from the deepest part of the finger draws to reveal flocks of blackbirds swarming, an isolated grove of young oak trees with pale green leaves swaying the wrong way, apparently against the prevailing gusts of wind, the gray and brown gash of a recent rockslide on the far side of the valley where a twenty-yard section of limestone ledge collapsed under the weight and erosive effects of this summer’s series of one and two-inch rainfalls.
There would be even more interesting things to be seen if I would tighten my focus to the macro world at my feet – the first pink and white blooms setting on the clover, the “spit” of the spittle bugs clinging to the leaf clusters of the birdsfoot trefoil, the blue jay’s feather dangling from a low branch of the prickly ash thicket, the perfectly outlined front paw print of a raccoon on top of a pocket gopher mound, the opening of the cluster of jack-in-the-pulpit flowers under the shade of the white oaks (well, those are hard to miss even when I’m not paying attention).
I overlook both the panoramic and the macro world of visual wonders because my eyes are locked on that middle distance where the dogs are working the scents of the hay field and woods’ edge, flash pointing and then chasing after the “stink birds,” the dickcissels, grass sparrows, blackbirds, bobolinks, and other ground nesting songbirds. This is an early summer playground game for them (and I sometimes suspect for the stink birds, too), not the serious work of true bird hunting that comes with the October chill and leaf-turn, but I cannot take my hunter’s eye away from their disciplined weaving pattern through the grassland as they use the wind and vagaries of scent to track down, to pinpoint, the exact location of that smelly little sparrow on her nest. I am programmed to follow the nuances of the hunt, even on these days when their points are lackadaisical, half-hearted, soft; purely for the amusement of the moment.
Sasha and Abbey know they are not really hunting on this morning walk but some manic corner of my mind does not, and I allow my awareness of nature and its wild beauty to be restricted by my ingrained habit of always acting, and seeing, like a hunter. The bird flushes, I bring my phantom double gun to my shoulder, swing through the line of flight, and tap the imaginary trigger to fire the imaginary shot as the imaginary barrels move ahead of the target. I confess: I usually say “bang!” and I seldom miss. In my imagination.
What I’ve done, focusing on eight or nine meaningless hunt-point-flush-shoot stink birds in the course of this morning’s walk, is miss the much more fascinating wild dramas playing out in our grassland and woods. I’m reminded of this when I see the dozens of bits of “cotton” clinging to my forearms, the seed-bearing tufts of fluff drifting down from the cottonwood trees at the top of the west bluff. I stop and watch for a few minutes. With a million seeds spreading out over the woods and fields, why are there not many more cottonwood trees sprouting across our part of the north country? If I kept my eyes open, maybe I would see the answer to that question.
My beautiful blond wife Patti sees much more than I. She can recognize and name at least a hundred wildflowers on our farm. I struggle to identify ten, and I give them names like “ragtop” when they deserve the respect of their correct name, nutsedge. She also knows the names and habits of dozens of songbirds from watching them at the backyard feeders through the seasons. I can’t tell a towhee from a warbler. On the other hand, I can distinguish a golden eye from a bluebill at a glance. Well, we hunt ducks, don’t we?
I doubt I can change this behavior; I’ve been doing it for sixty years and every time a grouse flushes my heart still leaps in a way it never will when a tree frog sings its soprano aria while it clings to the screen door of the deck. But on these summer morning walks I often regret that my perception and comprehension of all I observe in the wild have been limited by my predator’s inclinations. I wonder if the coyote, the owl, the bobcat, the northern pike have the same tunnel vision, and I…
Look! There goes a squirrel!
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.