The Shape of Things to Come
By Reid Bryant
First published Covey Rise Magazine, April/May 2017
There is nothing quite as lovely as a New England autumn, when the world goes crystalline beneath the year’s first frost, and October moons push timberdoodles into the lowlands south. It is then that the aspens turn from green to gold to naked silver, and the thornapples shine red against the bone of coming winter. The year’s young partridge sift into tangled corners from which they thunder out, thrilling us with sparest glimpses: hatchet heads and barred tails bending, fleeting apparitions punctuated by #8 shot. These days of concerted beauty tempt the New England hunter into the brambles once more, entangling his hat and shirt-sleeves for too few days, while gripping his soul for a lifetime. Ruffed grouse and woodcock, orchard walls and popple whips, wobbly Parker guns and sickle-tailed setters… these are the things that afford substance and identity, well beyond the scope of a bulging and blood-stained bag.
Looking back over a half lifetime in New England, what captivates me most is the aesthetic. At the core of my delight are the birds themselves, which are lovely without ostentation, a melody of color both drab and dizzyingly intricate. Their peculiarities are fascinating too: birds that fly by moon-shadow, that skitter through the thorned and thankless understory, that elude advancing footfalls in their flushes, only to confound me one time in a hundred with the blessing of a straightaway shot. I am captivated by what frames these creatures: a landscape flaming out in a burst of color, fading all too fast to ashen gray. And I love that all of this has been cherished, chewed on, and summarized by a legacy of men that navigated the seasons and tromped through an evolving landscape behind a bloodline of dogs purpose-built. These men emerged from towns where cows were milked and lumber was sawn and socks were darned by pragmatic hands, and import was given to grace. It goes without saying that grace was said for birds and dogs and seasons, and it was reflected in their art and poetry.
No other genus of hunting has been celebrated such. No other genus of hunting can claim the likes of a William Harnden Foster, a Burton Spiller, a George Bird Evans, a Tap Tapply… men given to harnessing moments in ink and watercolor and well-ordered words, toasting it all with a belt of bourbon. That grouse and woodcock inspired their moments and aroused their expression, makes absolute sense to me; I know the coals that glow in the New England hunter’s heart. I know the full-heart feeling of a ‘little russet feller’ heavy in the hand, when the world smells like rotting apples and sweat has soaked a wool collar clean through.
But in our lexicon, these men and their expressions have become retrospectives of a bygone era. In some ways, we New England hunters relish the Wharton-esque grimness of our heritage, commenting aloud that the golden days have come and gone. Indeed, the abandoned farms of Spiller’s Maine are, in large part, now grown over, and the Pinetop grouse of Tap and Gorham are both rare and reluctant to sit tight for a dog. As in grouse and woodcock hunting, those people and those places that defined the passing autumns scab over and mature and eventually go dormant, as they have since time began. They do not offer what they once did, and for that we postulate that the good ‘ole days are gone.
In recent years, having listened hard to my elders as I was taught to do, I’ve considered somewhat quietly that we New England hunters might be served better to broaden our collective faith. After all, the grouse and woodcock that eluded Foster’s gun didn’t up and disappear, though they likely nudged their progeny out of pre-war Andover and into places more hospitable. And so it goes that if the grace is imbued with a dollop of hope, we might see instead a renaissance in place, a golden age of artistry and poetry, settling gently all about us, like popple leaves on fertile soils. There must be a metaphor here somewhere.
So as another season comes to a close, and we dampen the stove for a long winter’s rest, we will and should be given to our nostalgia. But may we find in ourselves the embers that burn bright beneath the ash, with the promise of a next October, and the birds yet to be found and flushed, the moments to be painted and expounded upon by artists yet to be recognized as such. I’d venture that perhaps the finest season we will ever know is the one that lies ahead, and for that may we all be grateful.