We flush three woodcock in the first 15 minutes and I tell the dogs, “We’re into them! Today’s the day!”
I’m wrong; we never see another bird in the hour and a half we hunt. Hunting is a matter of high expectations brought down by reality.
I kill the second bird and it falls at a steep angle; feathers float in the air like dust motes. The bird falls into thick spruce as it would fall into darkness at dusk, as a hunter’s expectations fall to reality. I cannot trace its path to ground through the thickness.
I call the dogs to where I think it landed, where all the woodland duff looks like feathers on woodcock back and wing. The dogs work; I watch, as if I was a man leaning on a rake in a yard full of fallen leaf.
Thor finds the bird, mouths it and then turns away, looking over his shoulder at me like a kid sneaking off with the last cookie in the jar. I call, sternly; he drops the bird, reluctantly. I hold the woodcock, turn it in hand, a palm-sized marvel of mottled feather and absurdly long bill. Then I slide it into the dark vault of game pocket and move on.
The woods are varying shades of gray mixed with green of spruce and balsam, lit by yellow of remaining leaf; the only bright color in the somber woods. The yellow on this dreary day is of the color of ember in the waning fire, giving feeble heat but comfort nonetheless.
It has rained and we are all very wet when we quit, the dogs’ coats matted and stringy, but their eyes hold the light as if reflected sun. In a dog’s eyes the light comes from within; they glow even on a day of cloud and rain.
I know that we will not be able to hunt for the rest of the week. The dogs do not know this and I do not tell them.
The next day I take a flight to Arizona for the funeral of Sally’s father. He has passed, as they say, as if describing progress in school, after a long, slow slide. At a certain point, one can only hope for peace and comfort at the end and in this he has managed both, the final stages in a life marked all along by accomplishment and success.
The plane lifts over the Wisconsin landscape, over woods and field. The woods the colors of a mallard; chestnut oak trees, dark, rich green of pine; etching of grays and black as vermiculated feather; a richness of muted color. Interspersed the splash of yellow leaf that holds to tree as October holds to the season, yellow the color of mustard on this gray day under thick cloud.
I love to watch the landscape from planes. I watch the flat lands of the Dakotas give way to foothills, to jagged ridges, to snow-topped mountain and then reverse; ridges to foothills, then flat.
I see the strange geometry of agriculture; irrigated circles green in the dust; quarter section squares of road, hieroglyphics of development. In one county a series of rectangles, varying in size and proportion, as if experimenting to find one most pleasing. But to whom? For only when seen from far above can one fully appreciate; one wonders what they seem from ground level.
I see smoke of forest fire heavy on the horizon. I see steep pitches of hills, I see road and fire lanes snaking up and over and down. I see the land from 30,000 feet and want to be there, boots on dusty ground, walking the lanes, scrambling up the draws, standing at the top and looking for horizon.
I always do this; always wish myself to the ground in rugged territory.
I see pancake-flat ground so unlike Wisconsin. I think back to the day before with dog and shotgun in woods thick with growth, heavy with rain and water. Two worlds, so far apart. Each so unlike the other.
Yet I also see the yellow leaf of October trees, the same hue as Wisconsin woods. I see it in the groves of western aspen in Colorado; I see it in the flatlands, a yellow rope of willow that follows course of stream and river, roots reaching for water. I see the yellow embers far below in geometric lines of grid on town streets where shade trees stand in stately rows, regimented as if lined out on sleepy side streets in small out-of-the-way towns.
Then the land goes dry; the yellow leaf past; green turned to brown and gray; leaf and grass gone to dust and sand and rock. A harsh land, this; desert, dry and foreboding.
The plane descends slowly over the parched land. On the horizon, Phoenix; city and suburb and sprawl. There is no splash of yellow leaf here, no mallard-head green pine or spruce but in an ironic twist, backyard swimming pools glisten azure, golf courses and lawn glow lush and emerald as Irish countryside. This in the desert. One wonders how deep the wells must reach; deeper than any rooted tree; deeper than any would think possible.
In the shadow of tall buildings cars flow as if liquid; squint your eyes and they blur together, steel and blue and white, all moving as a river through the sand, over washes where rock fills the dry riverbed. The temperature is 90; the air dry and dusty. I am as uncomfortable as if I was in a foreign land. I long for the woods from the moment I am on the ground.
I sit next to the pool at daybreak; I’m two time zones off from my norm and wander dazed as if I was in a country where I could not speak the language. The early morning sky is very light blue; there are wisps of high cloud. The backyard is rocky; large rock on the border, small in the middle; all dry as a kiln. It is very quiet and I like that. Then, improbably, the sound of geese in the air and a small flock flies overhead; golf course birds, heading for the fairways.
In time, Gambel’s quail fly into the yard, give color and life to the stony ground. One wonders: What sustenance do they find in this dry land? What comfort on stone and rock?
Mice, drawn by water, fall into the pool and drown. Tiny bodies sink to the shadows at pool bottom as if they are preserved in crystal. I find them in the morning. Then the heat builds, pervasive, unrelenting and I flee to shade like a refugee seeking asylum.
I stay inside until dusk, then venture out. Birds hurry across the sky as if racing sundown; doves and grackles and hummingbird and geese, hurry all, as if a curfew is in effect. Bats flicker their unsteady flight across the rose sky at dusk, as unpredictable in direction as falling leaf, as if tossed, as leaf, by winds swirling and invisible.
Sally and I walk in the darkened sidewalks in the quiet town. It is pleasant; it reminds of a summer night in Wisconsin. Then, against all odds, the call of owl. We ease our way down the boulevard. Owl hoots again. And we see it, perched on a light post, calling into the darkness, a great-horned owl calling to the night, calling to the huddled houses, calling wild and free and in this we both take some measure of satisfaction.
We fly out on a red-eye midnight flight, leaving the city behind. Two days later I call the dogs, head for the woods where the thin trunks of trees reach for sky, where leaf molds on the ground, where the air is heavy and moist, where the dogs and I find sanctuary.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.