In this Easter season, the holiest of seasons in the Western Christian liturgical calendar, I find myself wondering a lot about what it is about upland bird hunting that has captured my imagination. The word that keeps coming to me and seems to fit the tone and vibration of what these pursuits inspire in me: incarnation.
There is something about these pursuits that strikes me as deeply incarnational, that makes the abstract so immediate and visceral. As a long-ago historian of religion, if pressed to name a distinctive quality of the Christian tradition, it might be the degree to which it is experienced by its adherents as a deeply incarnational faith. Abstract, transcendent Godhead becomes the concrete flesh and full humanity of the Son, the Christ. One can understand why the other Abrahamic traditions are suspicious of something bordering on polytheism and/or idolatry that they might guess lurks within the dogmatic Christian assertions of the Trinity. But, in addition to an attempt to reconcile oppositional strains (that were in many ways mutually-exclusive logically) of early Christian theologies, such dogma seemed also to arise as a secondary function in service to the tradition’s insistence upon the primacy of the experience of and relationship with the Christ, the lived memory of the human Jesus, the horror of his crucifixion, and the natural law-defying hope that arouse out of the emptiness of his burial chamber two days later. In that way, Christian orthodoxy points to the experience of the personal manifestation of the transcendent, beating heart of the Godhead, containing all power, all knowledge, and all love through the very specific life narrative and personae of a single life that is paradoxically proclaimed by the tradition to be fully human and yet also fully divine. A more generalized subtext here might be that you can only approach the universal and abstract divinity through the grit and grime and individuality of a single human life.
And so I can't help but see Platonic shadows of incarnational theology dancing on the cave wall in the pursuits of bird hunting and bird dog training. When I eat the meat of a quail I have bagged through hunting, I experience it in an intimate and immediate way through having Lincoln first find the bird, seeing it alive in the field and then on the wing, through my own decision and action to take it as prey by pulling the trigger of my gun, and then seeing it fall to earth.
My relationship with the process and components of the hunt and meal preparation lead me to a deeper understanding of the words nourishment, food, meat, and even what it means to be human through my participation in bringing food to my own mouth and to the mouths of those I care for as family and friends. The bird flesh itself becomes a totem, an incarnate symbol of so many other things - the more complex living bird as well as the elaborate process of the hunt and meal preparation that went into its transformation into food.
In dog training too, the presence of and relationship with an experienced mentor saves one from the confounding perplexity of what can feel like a thousand mutually exclusive and conflicting philosophies that have been proposed for getting the job done. Though I'm not sure I've ever met one in person, I am astonished by folks who are able to train a dog from a book. Even using YouTube or instructional DVDs (while valuable and probably required, if not primary) don't seem to have by themselves the power to get me and Lincoln where we need to be. Meeting friends who have been at this for years, and who have learned these skills from fathers and/or mothers and/or aunts and/or uncles and/or friends, has helped us the most. People who can see me work with Lincoln, put their "hands on the dog," who have known us over the course of this beginning season in our training and who are physically present to me and give us permission to stand before them in our frustratingly imperfect state of development, are the ones from whom we can most learn.
With a few glaring omissions - for whom I unfortunately don't (yet) have a pic to share - here are few examples of those who have been incarnate for us in this first year in upland hunting, shooting, dog training, and/or dog care, and have joined, guided, taught, and/or mentored us:
Lincoln and I ritually enact all that we've learned from those pictured in our daily training sessions, whether in the field with birds or in our early morning yard work for Lincoln's breakfast. In those times, we are also present to one another, exchanging commands and glances and gestures and reciprocal actions and food rewards. Dog training demands this on a regular basis, not as a soul-deadening going-through-the-motions kind of endeavor but a joyful and relational back and forth to practice what we've learned, to understand one another better each day, each of us learning one another's formerly alien cues. For him, that's the variations in single word commands, and even more importantly, my tone and demeanor, and what it takes from him to obtain food or praise from me. For me, that's the quiver of his lip or a waggy tail, a snort or a sneeze, or the particular attitude that's evident in the bounce of his step, his proud prancing, or in a tail tucked or standing at attention.
It is a common temptation when starting out is to wait until you have settled on what is for you the perfect training system or philosophy and, secondarily, refusing to learn from those who are available to you because they don't in your mind represent that particular philosophy. I've found at even this early stage that any philosophy or system is no match for simply being willing to dive in, often before you feel ready (or feel that your dog is ready which is actually much less likely than you not being ready), to be led by the powerful guides of your dog's innate instincts and an experienced friend or two or ten who can bear the hard work of tolerating beginners. If I've learned anything so far to pass along to those behind me, it is this: waste no time in allowing the training philosophy words to become flesh by finding yourself some training mentors and gurus you can meet live and in person who can show you the way and help you find the way forward from within whatever cracks form between written or spoken instruction and those spots where you and your dog are stuck. Because it is a rule that you will get stuck without help.
In all these ways, upland bird hunting and dog training themselves have become totems for me, mere single pursuit signifiers for a larger life well-lived, in service not to the narrow selfish perspective of a world view unchallenged by others nor to dogma, but instead to a more open-hearted and loving perspective, to a humility when faced with others and what they have to teach, to a living and loving mutual interdependence with other human beings, canine companions, and the Divinity manifest in one another and the natural world which holds all of us in the all-too-brief and ephemeral parade through our present lives. In these middle years for me, within the context of this Easter season, I can see my personal sacred task in its outlines before me and Heather and Lincoln as we grow together in our pursuits as a new dog family: dying to the rigidity and confounding miasma of the former and being resurrected into the efficacious, life-giving, and liberating work of the latter.