Killing Softly

Sharp-nosed dogs, stealthy birds, and the sweet secret of dawn: A neophyte gets a taste of the hunt

Later Al will tell me: "When Maybelle goes on point, I know I have time to think about the bird's probable course, what my best shots are; I have time to adjust my hat." For me, watching, it seems like we all become something other than conscious--more like functions, levers within an old and efficient machine. The bird appears to fly up at the same time the gun goes off; it is falling, light to dark, even as it rises.

"Down bird!" Al commands, and Maybelle leaves her point to snuffle for the woodcock. "Was that loud?" he asks me, grinning. "Not really," I say, although the shot still echoes. The whole moment was loud, not just the gun.

Maybelle brings Al the bird, and he brings it to me. Patterned in deep brown and black, the woodcock fits exactly in Al's wide palm, its neck draped over his wrist. "How do you know it's dead?" I wonder anxiously. Al wiggles the loose little head, with its thin stilt of a beak. It does look lifeless. He spreads the tail feathers and shows how the mottled pattern types this bird an adult. Longer-beaked, larger birds like this one tend to be female, he explains. I can't see where she's shot, but Al has blood on his hand. I hold out my two, and he tips her onto them.

The body is hot. I didn't expect that. The eye is black and glassy yet, the white ring around it emphasizing the gleam. Drawing out the wide wing, I can feel its tensile strength. The needle bill, with which the woodcock probes dirt and wet leaves for earthworms, opens to reveal a slim tongue. These details escaped me the last time I stalked woodcock, a spring evening years ago when some friends and I drove to the Elm Creek Park Reserve in Osseo to witness the male's whistling courtship flight.

Crouched low, uncertain in the deep dark, we heard above us the trill of the wind through the male's wing feathers and his chirping song, inscrutable music to an invisible dance. This bird, leaking warmth into my hand, cannot hide herself. But her weight, the tactile substance of her soft feathers and bony bill, strikes me as a mystery equally bottomless and off-balancing.

As Al drops two more woodcocks and a pair of grouse, missing a single cunning grouse who refused to fly, the thunking reality of all these interrupted ascensions chips away at the wonder of a bird in the hand. Whatever your respectful intentions, a shot bird still flops cruelly to the ground. My eye tries to keep the downed bird flying into the what-if dimension, into the web of ghostly flight paths envisioned by writer Robert F. Jones. Jones would have it that spirit birds, forever "winging on out as if they'd never been hit," eventually weave the hunter's "rough winding sheets." I'm not sure nature writes its stories with such satisfyingly karmic ends.

The hunting creed assumes that the lives of prey can and should be sacrificed for the sustenance, physical and/or emotional, of the hunter. Most people who eat meat pay someone else to kill food for them. Hunters pay to kill. Their refusal to distance themselves from killing intrigues me: I don't know whether they deserve my disgust or my respect. It's the latter that has shot up lately.

Nearly two decades into vegetarianism, I've lost a bit of the self-righteous edge: I keep running into contradictions. Plant-eaters tend to trumpet the animal cruelty and environmental destruction caused by meat-eating--a valid, constructive criticism, and disingenuous, too. At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana University researchers have been watching as run-off pesticides and fertilizers from heartland farms liquidate the ocean life over an area the size of New Jersey. Part of the dead zone bears my name. So do gender-bent alligators and walleye, five-legged frogs, and thin-shelled eagle eggs. Organic farms displace wildlife habitat as surely as conventional ones. Whatever you eat, because you eat, something else doesn't. The hunter doesn't try to elude responsibility for human appetite and its consequences.

A year ago Thanksgiving, Al presented our gathering with his fall harvest: Woodcock, pan-fried, baked, and served with a reduced red-wine sauce. I did not refuse a sample--per the worm diet, it tasted rich and steaky--partly because I knew that these birds had enjoyed a wild, unfettered existence, and partly because I wanted to acknowledge the labor that had brought this food to the table. I'm a gardener; I plan and plant and weed and water, coaxing life and dealing death until the two become one and I fold the wasted plants into compost. Al scouts and trains his dogs and talks woodcock for months preparing for the hunting season (September 19 to November 2 this year); he marks time by the birds' migrations as much as I do by the freezing and thawing of the soil. Perhaps the hunt and the garden should be considered together, the hobbified versions of ancient, essential pursuits. Perhaps when you shoot, as when you dig, you remind yourself that food is not just bought, but earned.

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