Poetry in Flight
by Reid Bryant
Published in the Ruffed Grouse Society Magazine, Winter 2016
If you hunt ruffed grouse for any length of time, you will invariably become a poet.
This assertion may sound unreasonable, particularly to those who, in the infancy of their love affair with Bonasa umbellus, still worry over full bags and spent shells. But those folks too will see, in a matter of a few seasons, that their hunting has mellowed into something richer and finer, something as lustrous as a piece of oiled English walnut, and as complex as the smell of turning leaves. They’ll have little brown birds to thank.
Why this change occurs is not entirely clear, but it is as reliable as the sunset, and as timeless. Perhaps it is because ruffed grouse, by their very nature, lure us into places that we never assumed we’d go. After all, it is into those bittersweet tangles and hedgerows and sucking alder runs that the birds disappear, and that we follow them, for no other reason than we must. It is impossible for a sensible man to look into these overlooked places and feel compelled to try to enter, and in doing so we become piece of a landscape known only to a precious few. In the wake of a grouse flush, all reason is lost.
Perhaps it is because grouse undo any semblance of real shotgunning we ever may have learned, forcing us to poke holes in the sky as barred tails bend off into hidden places with a roar. After all, to swing a gun as our British forefathers taught us is darned near impossible when noosed by grape vines and bloodied by thornapple and imprisoned by a screen of popple whips. Who could mount and swing through and shoot in such a forsaken place? So we bang away at blurs of color, and learn to miss, and to see hitting as a rare gift, as perchance we should have seen it all along.
Or perhaps it is simply because in grouse hunting we give way to the child that still lives in us all, even as we go gray around the temples. After all, in grouse hunting we are afforded the pleasure of pulling on a pair of tattered boots, whistling up the dog, and carrying a gun out into the autumn woods. What is left of romance in this world if not that? We walk miles through sifted sunlight with hope in our hearts, and our senses alive to the sound and the movement. We rest on stone walls and eat now-wild apples from the trees our ancestors planted, and we consider ourselves successful when by sundown we are mud-splattered and hand-scratched and bone tired, whether we’ve cut any feathers or not. Where else does wonder exist than in tromping out into the edges of nature in pursuit of a dog, with the prospect of a few fingers of bourbon and a grouse breast fried in cracker crumbs at day’s end?
I’d say nowhere.
It is no surprise to me that the great grouse hunters were all poets, and men of great faith, regardless of their religious leanings. It is no surprise that Spiller and Foster and Tapply and Leopold took to the woods in October in the wake of jingling dog bells, in the hope of birds and so much more. I dare say these men found their poetry as much through grouse hunting as on behalf of it, and were they here to tell it, I bet they’d say the same. But so too does the slab-handed Vermont dairyman, playing hooky from his work on a weekday afternoon, kneel when he picks up a fine cock grouse, smoothing the feathers and spreading the fan. If you were there to see it, you’d watch him sit there for a moment in unabashed reverie before he tucked the fine head back beneath the wing, and delicately slipped the bird into his game bag. His poetry is just as true.
Ruffed grouse make poets of us all. How could they not? Those that we see are thundering apparitions, bits of motion through the fir boughs, bits of the landscape broken free. Far more often than not, all we glimpse of them are pieces of time and blurred color, and all we keep of them are the days we spent in their pursuit, and how the hills were ablaze in color, and how the smell of rotting apples and spread manure was more sweet than sour. So we make our stories from those things, and the way they give flesh to our memories.
But when we hit, and kneel to smooth the feathers back, only poetry can express the gratitude that fills our hearts.