We hunt, the dogs and I, on an October morning under a rising sun that sparks the trees to a blaze of light. It is calm; the air dry. It has been a dry fall that has followed a mostly-dry summer. Areas that usually hold water lie barren this October, hard mud, cracked earth where water usually puddles.
Three weeks ago the grouse season opened and the dogs and I walked in fern turning from green to brown but more than that; so many variations on a color scheme, umber and ochre and sienna; greens of every hue, an artist’s palette come to the land. Now yellow rules the woods; birch and popple and shrub and on this day the sun lights it and turns it ablaze; fall leaf color seems hot in the chill of morning.
The dogs hunt in the shadows of thickets, under the spread of balsam, through skinny popple tree groves; run, do the dogs, into the bramble of blackberry, under Aldo Leopold’s red lanterns, for such did he label the leaf of blackberry turned crimson in autumn grouse woods. Most of the time I do not see the dogs; they are as wind in the woods, invisible but there all the same. They come back, check to see where I am, then run again into the thickness of fall woods as if they do not wish my company.
I hear the bell on Riika’s collar; Thor runs silent as shadow. We bell Riika since she is the one most likely to roam farther out. I want to know where she is.
We move down overgrown pathways, familiar to us; the dogs lead the way; they know as well as I do where we are going. Everywhere is yellow leaf on this day, yellow with a mix of orange in places, the flash of red berry leaf, the ever-present deep green of spruce and balsam. We brush balsam and smell the sweet scent of balsam and in that, Christmas, for balsam is the Christmas tree of choice and the branches fill wreath and garland. Early October; Christmas in the air.
We skirt the edge of marsh, the thick tangle of alder, the border of spruce and pine. I see Thor in dark places under the trees, nose tight to the ground, tail flagging and I think, “He’s on something” and I turn toward him as he pounces in the manner of all canines, coming down stiff-legged as a fox or a coyote on a mouse. He mouths something and I move quickly to him.
Thor turns to me and gives to me a woodcock, soft and warm and limp, freshly killed. Gives to me a woodcock, yes, but gives to me also a mystery, for how did the bird come to him? Was it wounded? Crippled? Young and dumb and vulnerable to predator? A bird in hand; a mystery posing questions that will never find answer.
All that morning is a marvel of color gone to riot in the woods; trees thick with yellow leaf splashed against blue sky, white birch etched against it all; pale popple, rich green of pine. To walk on a day such as this is to walk in wonder, mouth agape, eyes open wide. And to walk on such a day is to live with the curse of memory, for without memory you would think days as this would last forever, but with memory comes the knowledge that they will not and in that is a sadness.
It is not simply for the chance of a bird in hand that hunters walk the woods in autumn; it is for a morning as this, when the colors rise and swell as a crescendo and the morning light brings treasure rare. How rare, the morning bounty? So rare that it will last only days, not return for a full span of twelve months. Miss a day or two; miss the season.
On the next morning it all changes. The wind blows hard and the leaves fall, fall as if rain, a golden rain; fall as if tears as the season changes. We hunt again, for it is fall and the days are short and precious now and we hunt because we can, and we hunt because it is what we do.
Sixty days prior, Sally and I ran the dogs in what would pass for the cool part of an August day. Riika ran full bore as is her style but 15 minutes into it she was whipped and lay at our feet, panting like a steam engine, eyes rolled up, gasping for air, and Sally turned to me and said, “That’s how long you can hunt her. Fifteen minutes and she’s done.”
So we started the season easy; short hunts, meager portions. Riika came home tired and achy and Sally said, “She’s 10 years old. You need to be easy on her.”
But with each hunt Riika lasted longer, ran herself into shape like a miler with a meet at hand, pushed as she does because it is what she is. Now, three weeks into it, she runs full tilt, hunts for an hour, two, comes home tired and sleeps hard. And is ready to go at next dawning. She hunts because it is what she does; she hunts with a passion and in hunting sheds the years, finds rejuvenation, becomes young again. As we all do.
On this day we hunt longer, both dogs recharged with the power of the hunt on the day of a blizzard of falling leaf and in the October wind the leaves slide to earth, and if you squint your eyes partially shut, the leaves blur in yellow streaks as comets in the sky, all the leaves falling to ground.
We hunt an area of clear cut, four, maybe five years past the cutting and the trees stand skeletal on this day, most leaf gone to ground now and the trees bare as bone. There is the occasional maple mixed in, rare in the crowd of aspen and the maple leaves hold tight; yellow and orange as the color of flame giving heat to this cooling day.
Riika moves to my left into the thickness and a woodcock rises suddenly like a fall breeze, rises above the thin trunk of a young tree to the wispy branches high where the tree fades into sky and for an instant the bird is silhouetted against the sky as if part of it, part of the sky, and then I shoot and the bird falls back to the ground; sky come to earth, death come to life.
Riika and I reach the bird at the same time. Her eyes are alive as they are only when she hunts; she is quick on her feet, lighter now than 60 days ago. I tell her she did a good job, that she’s the best girl dog that I know and that she is a wonderful hunter. And it is all true, all of that.
I pocket the bird, call Thor and the three of us walk back to the truck on the day when the leaves fall to the ground and the season changes irrevocably, for no matter what warm days we will have, the leaf once fallen cannot rise, as a bird that falls will never take flight; as a season once past will not come again, not for a long, long time.
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