Clarity and certainty and love and faith join hands in the mud and mist of a duck marsh.
by Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal Nov/Dec 2009
In late fall, the last corn has been cut and chopped, and liquid manure dries on ankle-high stubble, fading from brown to gray. At dawn, frost stifles the manure’s tang, but as the earth warms it rises, and by midmorning it seeps through the valleys in a pungent wave. It is a smell that for some is so descriptive of autumn it goes unnoticed, mingling with tractor exhaust and the earthy undersides of fallen leaves. For others, the idea of a barnyard loosed on the wind is a breach of courtesy, and storm windows are dropped and latched. To me, the smell is familiar, and so definite that I cherish it, as I cherish most things that state themselves as clearly. It is a smell that merges at dusk with the feather-whistle of departing ducks, and makes me look high for a chevron of Greater Canadas. And it reminds me to call Dave Linck, to see what’s been landing on Mud Pond.
Driving over Eden Mountain, my rear tires slip on the washboard gravel. It’s lovely when favorite things come so simply. I stop at the Eden General Store as I always do, a store that opens daily at 4 a.m. There is something exclusive in the brethren of the early risers, who create themselves on and out of the earth.
Alone on a starlit road, a Styrofoam cup of tepid coffee in one hand, I watch for the moose that part the roadside brush, wraithlike in their migration from wetlands to ridge tops. I drive slowly, savoring the moments and the possibility; the morning may be made of ducks, though likely most will fly off unseen in the dark. The ones I see I may not shoot, but I will revere the cold and the sunrise, and the fact that Dave and I will sit in mud in the dark, overjoyed at the world around us. On the trip over Eden Mountain, there is certainty in my gratitude for autumn and tepid coffee, and my heart is open wide.
It is with some ambiguity that a canoe drops into the water, as there is no planar division between the flat of pond and the sweep of night. In the dark, the boundaries don’t matter. I step into the canoe, awkward in layers of wool and rubber, and settle onto the bow thwart, digging my knees into rounded ribs. I think back absently on the fading summer, and wonder if Dave remembered to patch all of last year’s leaks. A grateful weight plunks in behind, and the bow tips up level as Dave kicks us free from a fulcrum of crumbling bank. We float somewhere between heaven and earth, stars twinkling above, below, and all around us, and it feels good not to be out here alone. Dave dips a paddle and we depart in earnest.
Mud Pond is aptly named, more of a grand puddle than anything else. It is bounded by Gary Houston’s dairy farm, and lies hidden behind corn and maple leaves for most of the year. In fall, the trees spill a final cascade of color, confessing the starkness of cultivated earth that slopes to the pond’s reedy shores. A bay on the southern end depicts Houston’s loafing yard, and in early morning the disembodied bellow of a Holstein wails in echo across the water. The pond narrows and grows shallower the farther north it goes, and its terminus is indistinct. Somewhere to the north it becomes more cattail ooze than open water, and in that maze the ducks wait in darkness, stirring in their featherbeds as dawn begins to break.
Every year, Dave and I paddle out into the dark of Mud Pond hoping to shoot some ducks. But every year, we know we’re lucky to shoot any at all, and a couple of birds at the end of a morning are something to brag at.
It’s funny, this thing that Dave taught me. It’s somehow a gift to sit in the dark with a gun and think about shooting ducks, to know you’re hunting whether the guns go off or not. Not raised a hunter, the successes still sting a bit. I watch, removed, remorse and excitement coinciding with the collision of shot and departing flight.
This piece of hunting, the dying part, is never the part I look forward to. The part I love is the cold, and the smell of manure, and the morning sounds. And all these things were given to me by Dave, and by the ducks and the cattails and the dawn. And in that offering there has always been a price to pay, and something is sacrificed to make the rest possible. But sitting with Dave in the mud, and knowing that he keeps doing this, keeps sitting through bitter mornings to not shoot ducks, reminds me that these gestures of futility are in fact gestures of faith. And faith knows no logic, nor does it come without loss. But faith, like liquid manure, is certain, and in the mud in the morning, faith keeps you warm enough to wait a bit longer, hoping that something will drop in the decoys.
Moving through the darkness, my paddle dips to keep time with Dave’s. In his youth he paddled big Canadian water, and earned a stroke that speaks of purpose. It is indescribably true that a canoe in the command of a seasoned paddler moves with utter conviction, and it is with conviction that we sluice into the maze of cattail points that crisscross Mud Pond’s north end.
Years ago, on an early foray with Dave, I sat in the rising dawn, watching mats of cattails drift back and forth in the mist. I worried for my sanity, then at length assured myself that the unaccustomed wad of Red Man in my cheek was the cause of this trick of light and motion. Hawking it overboard, I continued to watch, and timidly ventured that the pond had perhaps come unstuck from the world around it. Dave spat vehemently and announced that since the hippies had run the trappers off Mud Pond, muskrats had laid waste to the cattail root systems, casting hummocks of root and stalk adrift. Mud Pond is therefore constantly changing, reworking itself momentarily into new bays and channels. It is nothing to paddle into the north end at dawn, and paddle out of a completely different pond by midmorning, yourself changed by the experience, ideally with a brace of mallards or woodies to show for your adventure.
Our schedule is always the same. We scatter the decoys across a cove, keeping the wood ducks separate from the blacks, mallards, and teal. Then, Dave backs us into the rushes, and we step out onto bobbing hummocks to yank the canoe out of sight. I climb into the bow and bend cattails over the stem, dulling the sharp silhouette of the canoe’s peaks and gunwales.
We load our guns and tuck in, hoping that shooting light will come before the cold stiffens our fingers. Dave whispers of family, and hunts long since past, and the days when the autumn sky grew dark with migrating waterfowl. I sit and ask questions, and try not to shiver as I study my wristwatch. Ducks are shot at most a half-hour before sunrise, never more. And when the minute hand announces our legality, I am always slightly disappointed that the marsh doesn’t erupt with flapping wings. So we sit and listen and scan the sky, armed with intention and the sanction of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
I have never been good at pass-shooting ducks, mainly because our pass-shooting takes place in near dark. When my shotgun barrel swings against the dark sky, I never see the bird, but pull the trigger anyway, to crack the silence and announce our presence. When ducks jump from their roost they sometimes quack or squall, but more often they pass with little more than a high soft whistle between the flight feathers. Picking them out of the dark is hard, and harder still is the incorporation of a shotgun into the seeing.
Dave drops a duck here and there, though I rarely do, and together we mark its fall in our memories. On open water a fallen duck is always shot again, a practice that at first appalled me. But Dave taught me that, when killing, certainty is reverence, and the duck’s certain end is the onus of the hunter. By first light we are lucky and somewhat sad to see a few humps of feathers and webbed feet drifting among the decoys, suspended forever in their autumn departure from Mud Pond.
After the first wave of shooting ends, we relax a bit and drink sweet coffee from a dented thermos, and wonder where the ducks we missed all went. At length we pull up stakes, and Dave tells me to be ready while he pokes the canoe into hidden coves, hoping to kick up a straggler. This is jump-shooting, and it’s the place I shoot best, largely because the shots are close and straight ahead.
As we round a bend and a new pocket opens into view, my belly always knots a little, and I get far too tense for fluid shooting. Sometimes we surprise an otter or spook a bittern. We follow hidden channels as far as we can and then poke into the channel-end weeds, and I stand carefully to scope out any hidden potholes. A black duck jumps, huge, from an unseen opening, and stalls momentarily at eye level as its departure catches itself. There is a fact of ducks that they stop in midflight just after their jump, shifting gears from upward to forward. At this moment there is an iridescent flash of purple on black, as I catch the splash of color on the big drake’s wing. I see the duck framed in flight against a graying sky, then momentarily see the shock of it, as a clap of thunder and lead tumble it back over itself and into the cattails. And I’m never exultant, though in my mind I’m pleased that my aim was true. There is no exultation in the loss, nor is there disgust. There is simply certainty, and the slight push of air that still moves across Mud Pond from the fallen duck’s final wingbeat.
Fallen ducks in the cattails are hard to find. Nature hides them perfectly, and in an ever-changing pond they disappear fast. Looking hard to find something designed not to be found makes me stop for a moment, and wonder why I killed this bird.
Dave is fidgeting in the canoe, and an arc of sun is slowly spreading over the cornfield. The milking machines at Houston’s dairy are humming, and the sweet-sour manure smell is gaining strength.
Norman Maclean, who understood and wrote of love, once noted that “at sunrise, everything is luminous but not clear.” In late fall, clarity and certainty and love and faith join hands in the mud and the mist of a duck marsh.