March 25, 2021
I remember a morning a decade ago when I laid in bed beside my wife and watched the seasons slipping past, and I thought about moving West. It had been a wet and windless October, and through the bedside window I could see birch whips on the field edge standing stark against the dark and deeper woods. Their leaves, what remained of them, were soaked and luminous in the early light.
On that morning, fall had been inching its way out of the north for a week or more, arriving in our dooryard with sprays of sunburst maple, and stars at night that sparkled like cut crystal, clearer than they had been in summer. It was only the beginning of the turn, and the season would unfurl for a month or more. In the days that lay ahead, the hillsides would spill their brilliant color until only the last frail rusts and golds remained, and when those too had gone it would all become skeletal and gray. Then one morning, without a flourish, our ridgetop would wake to a hard frost that would stiffen the grass, pulp the apples and kill the year for good. What remained beyond that would all be winter. One I wouldn’t see. By then, I’d be a thousand miles west or more, in the shadow of higher ridges, walking unfamiliar ground under a bigger piece of sky.
I’d been thinking about leaving for a year or so and mustering the courage to actually go. My wife had felt the calling too, and her conviction had been even more stout than mine. She had been gone already. Unwilling to make the hard break I had opted instead for a poetic gesture, allowing myself a timeline that let autumn’s arrival force my hand. I told myself I’d drift away from my New England home before the wave of its aging year swelled and crested and broke. I told myself that if I wanted to salvage a bird season, I’d need to get a move on, to gather my wife, my two small daughters, and to load the truck heavy on its springs. I told myself that come Thanksgiving my family and I would be west of the mountains, and the root-bound strands of our New England birthright would be probing younger soils. No more wet October birch leaves, no more timberdoodle moons, no more apple-studded hedgerows in late summer. We would find in the West something wind-blown and new, and we’d be leaving soon.
I laid there in my bed and thought about what I’d bring with me, and what I’d leave behind. The shotguns would get packed of course; they’d see more use out there, where birds would congregate in number. The old books would go too, the hard-bound ones by Foster, Tapply, and Ford. I’d bring with me their stories of birds familiar, of popple coverts I had walked myself long after they’d grown over and gone barren. I’d load the brush pants, the dog bells, and the leather boots with their chain-link rubber soles. By their very nature, these things would paint me in the West as someone used to short walks in tight places. I’d pack up the dishes and the dining table and the bed frame, and the few simple treasures that my daughters had come to count on. But I’d leave behind my Brittany bird dog in the place where he was born.
He wouldn’t recognize where we would be going, and his soul would not be easy there. He’d stay here, somewhere among the bittersweet, alder and popple-whip thickets, where in his dreams the woodcock would spin and the partridge would thunder out, just as Burton Spiller saw them do.
MY FIRST BRITTANY
My first Brittany bird dog was the one I lost, and the one I’d been unable to let go, even with a younger pup up and coming. I took the ashes to which his car-crushed body were reduced and locked them in a wooden box in the drawer I reserved for reminiscences and treasures. I stored him for years in the place where he waited alongside other things I couldn’t let go of: the pouch-full of my daughters’ baby teeth, the letters that my wife wrote when our love was young and new, and the mushroomed blood-crusted slug that I cut from the spine of my first deer. I thought about him, missed him, and counted him for years in the prayers I sometimes said before I slept. But I’d finally be following my longings West, and leaving my dead dog, and my New England, far behind.
On an October morning nearly a decade ago, I laid in bed beside my wife and thought about a dead dog’s ashes, and I thought about moving West. I felt an empty feeling rising and warded it off with my assembled justifications. In me there lived a bird hunter, one with legs that had some good years left in them, lungs that needed the sage air, skin that craved the windburn. I, like those western birds, wanted to spread my wings. Out there, a horizon opened wide and clear, and departing coveys clattered up to cup their wings and soar, uninterrupted, right out to meet it. Out there, birds came down where a man could see them land, even a mile off. Unlike the birds I’d grown to know, they remained tangible pieces of the present and the future. Things to be followed up and found again by a strong-legged hunter with sage air in his lungs. Western birds were irrefutable.
In the place that I was leaving, in the space of my short walks in tight country, there was often either nothing at all or just a roaring flush, falling leaves, and an apparition at best. In the place that I was leaving, birds ducked behind posted signs, roadways loomed close, and I tripped and trundled through my autumn days after the lean promise of something that likely long since left. Soon I’d be leaving too. I wanted what was out there beyond the plains, what lay quantifiable between me and the horizon. I wanted what was concrete, whether I found it or not, whether I followed it into the air and suspended it there with a squall of number 6 shot. I was done following ghosts. I was going West.
But my first Brittany bird dog would not have been driven, as I was, for things that appeared in number, without abstraction, framed in flight against a canvas of open air. He was the mystical sort. He believed in the magic that lurked in our New England woods, and in something that need not appear to make itself plain. He found it there sometimes too, despite my doubts. He teased birds out of barren lands, and surprised me with his faith, as I surprised myself when they fell at times to my gun. His rootedness in this place never faltered, and he never wanted more.
Perhaps that’s where I failed him; failed to appreciate the divergence between his ability to hunt for something that was largely not there, and my desire for something that I told myself was better. That, and I let him run too close to the road. Or maybe such explanations were just the musings of a poetic New Englander. Maybe, on a frozen December morning, the metaphysical had simply collided with the mechanical, and snuffed him out too soon. And so, I had a dog to bury, because I was moving West.
I became quite certain that resigning a box of ashes to the soil would be my final gesture to that place. It would be an offering of sorts, and it would hold within it some finality, the bittersweet twinge of something ending. As I lay there, looking out the window at the turning leaves, my heart was filling too, with courage and conviction, with the restless, reckless fluttering that would see me out the door. There in the damp October morning, I thought of what waited for me where I was going. Out there, on the far side of the mountains, there would be Huns and sharptails and sage grouse. In the coulees and cattail draws there would be pheasants that had never known blinders or grain bins. In the spruce-strewn timber there would be blues and ruffs that would look down with fearless indifference from their perches. Over the rim-rock and through the canyons there would echo the sounds I’d heard and understood but not recognized: the startled chirps, the wing beats, the covey calls. Out there, a dog could run so far as to become a speck, and there would not be a road in sight to interrupt him, or cut him short, or snuff him out. These things sounded good to me. Good enough to follow. Good enough, it seemed, to let go of things I’d clung to, and to love them still as part of a historic landscape, an evanescent piece of time. Their memory would grow dusty and faint, and that would be okay. They would, he would, be with me still.
I was remembering recently an October morning nearly a decade ago, when I laid in bed beside my wife and thought about seasons slipping past, and I thought about moving West. As I sat remembering, I was looking out the window at birch whips on a field edge framed against the deeper woods, and I held in my hands a small wooden box. Inside that box was thirty pounds of glory and conviction, a thousand brush-worn miles, six short years of memories, all reduced to a pound of ash. In the end, I never could bury him, and perhaps I never will. Certain things, even ashes, are hard to leave behind.
Our family had sniffed around out there, west of the mountains, and filled our lungs with sage-scented air, felt our cheeks go red with windburn. I’d sought my birds and found a few, and even brought some to bag, while countless others soared away to the horizon. But in those miles walked under a bigger piece of sky, I’d come to miss my Brittany bird dog even more, to long for the tight places through which I’d been led by his convictions, in search of apparitions. Our shared memories didn’t precede my footsteps through the plum thickets and the prairie grass, and in that windswept space I didn’t hear the tinkling of his bell. He was never a part of the western landscape. Maybe, in the end, what I sought out there was something that would appear in number to fill a hollow place that couldn’t be filled. Maybe, I learned that I didn’t need something to appear in number to make itself plain.
One day I will bury his ashes beneath an October apple tree. He’ll rest easy, and I will too. One day, my own ashes may lay beside him. And in our humble way, we’ll become a piece of our New England, and together in the black autumn soil we won’t want anything more.