Surely heaven, Elysium, Valhala, or whatever awaits for us on the other side of the here and now, this land of the living, the anxious, the suffering, and the desiring mostly frustrated, surely that place of perfect bliss and easy hearts is as individual as those of us dreaming for its sweet relief. How could it not be so? What brings peace for this one agitates and corrodes that one. What thrills one horrifies and traumatizes another. So if we cart anything, even a single course hair of the camel through the needle’s eye into a life beyond, and with it anything of the sort of idiosyncrasies that make us who we are and which would necessarily gladden the heart of any benevolent deity and any divine in whose image we might be made, it must be as unique and unrepeatable as the anomalous variability of fingerprint, the Gordian knot of double helix, the thin, translucent map of retina capillary, the precise tone and tenor of vocal cord, the very specific way we hold our hands, or the distinctive way we shift our gaze when embarrassed, or in love.
In this harvest season of my 46th year, I often have the feeling that I am witnessing flashes of the world that I dare hope may await me, that even now may be being stitched together from ephemeral, silken moments of perfect joy that I must not let pass by unnoticed, that I must remind myself to touch and feel and plow deep within so that they provoke in me a magical and efficacious gratitude before they slip past. And it is a deep intuitive hope I have that these threads I tuck away in some warm, blood-rich pocket of my heart will then be used by some master weaver, who is by turns radically stranger and other and yet simultaneously deeply familiar, sitting at the celestial loom, to stitch out a landscape and a scene populated by those who love me and whom I love and whose own paradise borders might overlap and intersect enough with my own for us to share common fields of gold and alabaster and rough-hewn hearth-fire dwellings enveloped by chilled breezes and wood fire smoke, all under a blazing autumn-pink sky.
And in these past few weeks, winding my way into this week of Thanksgiving, the threads and sparks and flashes have spilled out of these shortening days quick and regular, setting bounty’s table. From them I can see that the woman I have lived with and loved for more than half my life will be seated by me in the chair of her own paradise and one chestnut-crimson and clear bird dog will be at my feet dreaming of and twitching over birds and a couple of Siamese felines will be lounging their yin and yang on a couch by the fire. Beyond that, I can only empty the cardiac pocket and run my fingers along the other threads collected there with a burning hope that they might not be lost unto time’s relentless march, but somehow saved instead to be used by that One benevolent divinity to populate with poppies the Elysium fields and my own soul’s true home.
I tend to come across the threads and sparks and flashes in fits and starts, ironically - or maybe necessarily - just after a long exhalation of frustration. Case in point: as you may recall, it’s been my goal this past year to return to Orapax and the annual Ledbury hunt to revisit the scene of my very first hunt, but this time with Lincoln on point. I didn’t realize fully at the time that within that simple and pure vision, made manifest last year in me over post-hunt cocktails, sat fat not a little hubris and what was actually a large ambition for someone completely new to the game. But, after surprising progress this past year and Grayson’s coaching and copious amounts of assistance and advice from those who have been kind enough to mentor me as a newbie, I entered October with some hope that such a lofty one-year goal could in fact be achieved. Ledbury didn’t offer their annual hunt this year, but Orapax worked to provide what was and is in my mind an ideal stand-in as they sought to celebrate the renovation of their barn as an event space. A hunt would be offered in the morning, followed by a long-afternoon celebration in their newly renovated barn. I enlisted Chip and his awesome dogs to again serve as guide and lead dogs and three good friends to join us: Justin (returning from last year’s hunt), and Rob, and Jason. The plan was for me to work Lincoln in on some runs this year and the event would be an equivalent replacement for my goal, exactly one year after my inaugural hunt sans Lincoln.
My hope for this goal-hunt was further raised by the best training session I’d had with Lincoln to date, a week before the scheduled hunt. He stood staunch on point and resisted even the temptation I offered him to break. He held for what seemed like an eternity, let me march ahead of him and kick up the brush, then simply watched the bird flush out of the concealed launcher, held steady through the blank shot and my throwing a dummy, stood steady until I tapped the back of his head for a retrieve, which he then executed flawlessly. In fact, he did this not once, but three times, before wisdom nudged me, this time at least, to end the training session on such a perfectly positive note.
I was of course so thrilled by his demonstrating this level of proficiency in being steady to release on this admittedly artificial training set up that I thought, “maybe he needs one more session just like this before Sunday’s hunt, just to make sure he’s ready for the same on loose birds.” Any seasoned dog trainer will in that thought immediately recognize my rookie mistake. And I should have too. We went out the next day, with the exact same set up, plus adding a second pigeon to fly on his point before release and it was … a total and complete disaster. I had one of the launcher pigeons in a Higgins releaser (a box that remotely opens but that does not fling the bird in the air like a launcher does) and intended for him to approach the launcher first and have the launcher ready to open for the second bird. Lincoln of course deviated from the path I imagined he would take and ended up establishing point on the releaser and was quite close to it, also deviating from his recent habit of establishing point over thirty feet from the bird. But, I thought to myself, “he’s been staunch on point since he was with Grayson in August, he’ll be fine.” I firmed him up on point, shuffled and kicked around in front of him. All was good. I then remotely opened the Higgins box. The pigeon hopped out and flew about five feet up … and then … landed. It was just too much for Lincoln and he lunged in and caught the pigeon. I was close enough to give him a haunch yank and he released the bird, which flew away, apparently unharmed. But I was crushed. The very last thing you want a staunch dog (or a dog at any stage of steadiness) to do is to catch a bird. It’s a huge reward for a bird dog to get feathers in the mouth, and a dog breaking and catching the bird on its own is the one thing a trainer should avoid at all costs after puppy introductions to birds and especially when it is the direct result of the dog not obeying what the dog knows the trainer is asking. And the worst part was that it was completely my fault (which really, when you get right down to it, is the same for any dog mistake - it’s the handler’s fault, somewhere). I had gotten too greedy, had pushed too hard. I let the artificial goal of Lincoln demonstrating the very best he had achieved to date during the coming Sunday hunt distract me from careful attention to what Lincoln actually needed to maintain and reinforce his newly acquired state of steadiness.
I immediately decided that Lincoln couldn’t run in the hunt on Sunday. And that was it, a goal that we’d worked toward for a year wouldn’t be achieved. I felt I just couldn’t risk putting him in a situation with even more temptation to catch a bird than the one he’d just been in and wasn’t able to resist. That decision felt logically sound. And yet, somewhere in the back of my mind it felt also a little bit like punishment - for Lincoln, for me, for both of us. And maybe it was. I was unjustifiably upset with him and much more justifiably with myself for ruining a great week of training.
Jane Kauder at Orapax was the first to offer some intervention in this sorry state of affairs. She received my embarrassed report of Lincoln catching one of their homing pigeons with her characteristic grace. “We’ll see about the pigeon. Thanks. I’ll let you know. It’s probably fine.” But then she offered, “I encourage you to hunt Lincoln this weekend. All dogs, as they train (which is a life long journey), have it down pat ... and then some days ... act like they have never even met us, their owners and handlers. I’m voting that Lincoln have a fun day on Sunday!” That was fine, I thought, and very nice. But I wasn’t able to shake it off, thought she was probably just trying to be kind, trying to make me feel better in face of a training disaster from which it would probably take a lot of time for us to recover.
I messaged and then got on a call with Grayson the next day and he hit a lot of the same notes. His first texted response took the edge off, as did the content of his suggestion when I took it as advice: “Some days you just gotta grin and pour a neat one.” Later, when we spoke, I described in detail my mistake and my plan to pull Lincoln from Sunday’s dog line up in my hunt with Chip, his awesome dogs, and several good friends. “Relaaaaax. You don’t realize this now, but you’re going to look back on this year with Lincoln as the Golden Hour. It’s the year you found out you’ve got an honest-to-goodness bird dog on your hands. He’s already on the right side of the bird dog bell curve and now you’re training him into the top 10% of all bird dogs in terms of steadiness. Maybe even you’ll take him into the top 1%. But, that’s for later. This year is his year. Take him hunting. And just enjoy it. And let him enjoy it.” I could feel the tight muscle in my gut starting to loosen up.
Okay, maybe I’d take Lincoln with me on the hunt, I thought, but I’d not let him be lead dog. I’d work him on a check cord and have him practice backing, or honoring another dog’s point, a skill we’d done a little work on but certainly hadn’t mastered. But, no birds for him. Just backing.
The day of the hunt arrived, a perfect autumn day if there ever was one, a splendidly clear blue sky, crisp, chilly fall air and a late season leaf turn such that the woods around the hunting fields were at their very peak of autumnal glory. We started the hunt with Chip’s two most mature/in-their-prime dogs, Skylar and Kona, taking their turns, coveys of five or six quail exploding upward in strong flight after splendid points and hunter flush, and many birds were brought to bag.
It was a perfect day … except Lincoln was in his kennel in the back of my Jeep. I just couldn’t bear the thought of him missing out and had the feeling he might not forgive me … or rather that I wouldn’t forgive me if I were him. I headed over to ask Chip what he thought of me bringing Lincoln out for a run next and would he mind since he was serving as our guide and had his own pups, Nova and Otto, to worry about getting some more experience before the day was done. He was walking over to me to suggest the exact same thing: I should run Lincoln. And so the day’s silken thread of enshrined golden memory spun out of my finally loosening up, shaking off the prior week’s mishap and failure and rolling the dice on us. Lincoln could not have performed better: terrific hunting and scenting, staunch on point and through most flushes (for better or worse, I stood on his check cord as the others flushed the birds), and then picture-perfect dead bird hunts and retrieves to my hand. His first bobwhite quail retrieve to hand in a group hunt got me a little choked up, I have to be honest.
And over post-hunt cocktails, a year from the emergence of the goal of coming back this year with Lincoln on point, surrounded by our good friends and our hosts and a harvest table of great food, the day’s events washed over my memory like an unconscious orison, a sparkling revelation, a flash of eternity: the woman I love more than life itself, people I’m proud to call friends, and our dog, our ever-devoted companion, scenting, hunting, and finding birds and bringing them to my hand. The wealth of relationship and achievement sitting large in that moment was impossible to miss and I in no way let it pass. I did have an honest-to-goodness bird dog, we did achieve this goal a year from its emergence, despite a failure just days before that I had feared heralded only a downward spiral into disaster. And so I sat in the evening’s dying light and enjoyed the gilded bliss of beholding the harvest of all the aspiration and work we’d put in both separately and together during the year before.
Gratitude swelled up from my gut and expanded into my chest for everything that led up to that moment - the many days of hard work, many struggles and frustrations, many steep mountain miles hiked and hunted for wild birds, many building blocks of training success, all scattered over the past year. That gratitude for all of it was the key to the heavenly gates, unlocking the thread and experience of earthbound bliss I can only hope point through the glass darkly unto some perfect world to come. I hope for it for me and I hope for it for you too.
The Heaven of Animals
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.
To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.
James L. Dickey