There is a stone wall at the bottom of the Blackmer place that runs north to south along the forest edge. In New England fashion, it is straight and true despite its age, three stones wide and another three high, a dry-laid bulwark of our native schist. The slab-handed dairyman on the place claims that the width spells it out to be the boundary of a long-forgotten garden, as the pasture walls of his forbears were built in the width of a single stone. But the garden is gone now of course, and the flint corn and squash and drying beans that once grew there have, like the farm itself, been deemed New England heirlooms. As for the wall, I dare say in the last hundred years it has contained nothing at all except a grown-over section of bittersweet tangle… and, of course, a steadfast supply of grouse and woodcock for the unlikely likes of me.
I ran my first dog along that wall in training and in earnest for the first five years I lived here, through all the seasons except summer. In fall, I carried a gun back and forth across it, teetering over the loose stones with the gun broken. The dog, who is now just ashes and memories, made his first by-god grouse point just beside it, and followed the wing-tipped bird well over the hill in the retrieve. And it was there one October day that I tripped and fell and busted my knee and put a ragged, three-inch scar into the stock wood of a treasured bird gun. I’ve never had the heart nor the money to get the gash repaired, just as I’ve yet to relegate the dog’s ashes to the loam in that place beside the wall. I suppose the jagged scar, which has darkened with years and gun oil and sweat from my hands, has grown to make the gun, and indeed the autumns themselves, somewhat more my own.
I think of scars often in that way, as things of beauty, vestiges of memory. The dog that now shares my bed tore a flap of his flank away on a barbed-wire fence when he was no but two. He never made a peep, and he kept arcing through the alder just ahead of me, and only on a woodcock point did I notice the blood on his side. I took the stitches out myself but missed one somehow, which I still feel as a rise in that half-moon of nubby flesh beneath his fur. I remember too the way the vet smiled up at me over the stainless table, a man who knew about dogs and guns and horses. “Don’t worry,” he said to me, pulling the black gut tight. “On the sporting breeds, the show judges don’t draw points against dogs marked up in the field. In fact, I think it adds to the appeal.” True or not, I liked him all the more for saying it, though it was the least of my concerns that day or now.
Scars tell a story. Scars prove our mettle. Scars are what make old men old, and old guns heirlooms, and old dogs sore when they whimper, sound asleep, by the fire. In the annals of my New England, there is a photo of Burton Spiller, the poet laureate of the New England grouse woods, holding a cockbird by the toe before Tap Tapply, its native son. It’s a black-and-white photo, well weathered, barely more than an etching of a time when partridge filled the forgotten corners, and the forest was re-gaining ground, and a pointing dog still had a chance on those ruffed-necked biddies of the autumn woods. Spiller is holding the bird out to Tapply, and I can only imagine and can’t quite see the little rents and tears and scuff marks that line the backs of his hands. A lifetime in the grouse woods, torn by thornapple spears and blackberry and the odd bit of fence wire. Those hands carried a gun through a land scabbing over, and healing, going dry and full to bursting with birds, while stone walls lost their purpose and became nothing more than scars themselves along the New England landscape. And here I am now a part of it too, walking the walls where Spiller tread, where my first dog pointed a first grouse, and I tipped it barely into the remains of our forefathers garden, and he fetched it back. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” says that good book, but I say what of the scars that linger, reminding us each of the of autumn days? It’s the scars that tell the story, and fill our hearts when, as old men, they are all that we need to remind us.