Sep 10, 2014
The Bells of Autumn
By: Ron Weber
It was just the kind of day I had been waiting for. The temperature hovered in the low forties with a light northwest wind gently rattling the golden leaves of the quaking aspens in my yard. So far this October had been warm, almost summer like. Overnight a cold front had moved through bringing with it some light rain and noticeably colder temperatures. In its wake this day were clear blue skies which foretold of steadily falling temperatures and by morning the season’s first frost. The birds, insects, plants and animals all sensed the change and were busily preparing themselves for what was coming. So was I.
After spending a good part of the day readying my yard and garden for the approaching winter season, as I cleaned and put away the weapons of war, my mind was busy planning an evening grouse hunt. I had actually begun planning this hunt back in March but I had been waiting for the first real day of autumn, though the calendar claimed that was three weeks earlier. I didn’t want to waste this hunt on a warm September afternoon with the woods still green and buzzing with mosquitoes. The setting had to be just right.
Here in Wisconsin grouse season runs from the middle of September to the end of January. I like hunting grouse anytime, though the early part of the season can be uncomfortably warm and the tail end of the season quite cold with deep snow to bust through. For me, and I’m sure many others, this October is what I had longed, sometimes impatiently, an entire year for. I knew a place.
As I crossed the fence in my backyard and began traversing a field of canary grass studded with goldenrod and white asters, a doe with twin fawns suddenly sprung to life and hightailed it the couple hundred yards to the woods line, their white flags disappearing into a stand of thick balsam firs. As they faded from view, I thought back to my boyhood days growing up in southern Wisconsin. Walking into the small woods behind my house then might lead to jumping a cottontail or possibly a pheasant. Either prospect always made the journey exciting. Now years later, walking into these woods behind my house in northern Wisconsin I may see deer, bear, coyotes, otters, fishers or maybe even a wolf. I was just glad that after all these years the journey was always still exciting.
Walking purposefully through the shaded stand of balsams and occasional large white pine I rousted a barred owl from its roost. Many is the time I have jumped grouse here, but my mind was on a special place, so I found myself hurrying on with little thought of flushing any birds from this spot. I soon left the darkness of the conifers and stepped into the dappled light of the hardwoods, the sunlight revealing brilliant orange sugar maples and the crimson of red maples. I wish I had words, but maybe it is enough to just say it was beautiful. It has always been a lament of mine why this beauty has to be so short lived. I guess it is the relatively brief life of autumn in which so much activity must be crammed into a few short weeks that makes us treasure every moment of it.
My destination was close now so my mind started to focus earnestly on the hunt at hand. Looking up a small rise my eyes came to rest on a large red oak spreading its gnarled branches skyward. The oak stood guard above a steep ridge which descended into a mixed forest of balsams, quaking aspen, and red maples. Beneath the trees was a layer of thick brush, beaked hazelnut and blackberry briars mostly, the berry leaves a brilliant red in the October sunlight. It was the kind of place a grouse just could not resist. Nor could I.
Reaching the oak, I took a seat at the base, leaning back against its mighty trunk, and surveyed the landscape below. This was a great spot for a wanderer to rest their legs and let the eyes do the wandering. Having done just that so many times that though my bank account may say different, I felt so much richer than any Wall Street banker will ever know. My eyes having finished their trek across the landscape now closed that I may begin my hunt.
Humans are such a visual animal that it is not until that sense is diminished or taken away that we can appreciate fully the other sensory experiences. With my eyes now closed and the kaleidoscope of fall colors no longer blinding me, I began to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the light breeze on my face as it made the oak leaves sing. In the distance I heard the gregarious cawing of crows, maybe in battle with the same barred owl I saw earlier. The dank, earthy smell of the soil and leaf litter, which would be growing thicker soon as leaves continued to fall and plants were laid low by
impending frosts, filled my nostrils. Above this bombardment of the senses rose a sound that cocked my ear.
There! At first it was hard to decipher as it was thin and wispy, as if distant. It was becoming clearer now, closer. It was the unmistakable tinkling of a bell, a sound I loved, a sound that haunted me, a sound I would never forget. In my mind’s eye I saw the dog, a chiseled Springer Spaniel, working out from a thick patch of balsams, his rear end wiggling wildly as he decoded a litany of scents known only to him looking for that one that made his life worthwhile. As he neared a blow down I noticed his wiggling intensify and on cue a bird flushed and soon after a second. The first was an easy straight away shot and the bird crumpled and fell into a casket of bracken ferns. The second bird veered sharply to the right and as it sailed behind a screen of balsam boughs the shot did not feel true.
After retrieving the first bird to my hand, my guide is sent looking for the second bird but to no avail. Over the years I have grown to trust his ability and his wisdom on such things without question, so I have no doubt that my shot missed. In that same time he has grown accepting of my propensity to fail to put a bird in his mouth, but if he held a grudge against me for that he did not show it.
We sallied onward jumping grouse here and there. A single flushing wildly from a fortress beneath a huge oak limb which had broken off during an ice storm was brought down with a shot the dog would call lucky, though I would argue required some level of skill. As he retrieved the bird I know he is perplexed how I can pull off shots like this from time to time but miss easy flushes as often as not. Though in many ways he is much
smarter than I, little does he know the real reason behind this inconsistency in my shooting prowess was done for his benefit. I was more than happy to leave the woods with one or two birds in the game pouch. His excellence at flushing birds required me to miss many that I had no intention of killing, but knew that the shot would make his heart race with excitement. This shame I brought upon myself as a poor wing shot I did for the noblest of reasons – love and friendship. There were times as we sat and took a break from the hunt that I looked into his eyes and sensed he appreciated that.
Approaching a thicket of hazel and blackberry the dog became birdy. He rushed headlong into the tangled mess, leaving me to fight through it as best I could. Suddenly I noticed the sound of the bell beginning to fade, becoming more distant. “Buddy!” I yelled. No response. “Buddy!”
My eyes opened at the second call. I realized that I was again back in this mean world in which time does not stand still but ticked insidiously forward. My hunt was over, but what a hunt it had been. I let my eyes wander again and I remembered the spot where Buddy had chased a monarch butterfly one beautiful June evening in his puppy summer. That long ago summer’s life was just beginning as was his. Over there lay a huge oak on the side of the ridge, the victim of a violent wind that pulled its roots from the ground. From under that blow down one December day Buddy had flushed seven grouse one right after the other. I knocked down two of the first three. The last four I let go and called a truce for that season. I will never forget the excitement Buddy felt that day.
The sun sinking fast in the western sky signaled that I begrudgingly rise to my feet to begin the journey back home. I hated to leave because this was such a special place, a restful place. It was here under the big red oak that I left him in March to keep watch over the thickets and blow downs below. I am sure it is a common lament of all who share their hunts with a dog as to why the time has to be so short. I guess it is the relatively brief life of a dog in which so much to do must be fit into the ten or fifteen years they are given that makes us try to treasure and remember every moment.
As I walked back through the darkening woods the excitement of the hunt began to fade and a more somber mood crept into my being. Pushing through the thick balsams and into the field, I heard it.
There! That distant tinkling just as before and like before it was getting louder, closer, only now my eyes were wide open. Up above the long grass I saw the head of a Springer bouncing up and down as it ran to greet me. I would know that face anywhere. For a moment I really wanted to believe it was Buddy, but instead I was greeted by his younger brother Buck whom my wife had let out the back door. I know it was not fair to Buck that I felt a tinge of disappointment, but at that moment I did.
Still, the cloudless orange horizon hinted that tomorrow would be another day perfect for grouse hunting. There were many other places where Buck and I could go to continue making our own memories. And like Buddy, he seemed to be accepting of the fact that he was doomed to do the dirty work for a lousy wing shot.