Cottonwood Bottoms

Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways. – Black Elk

The way the sap smells. A rising tangy scent among tall trees, buds not out yet, but pushing, pushing. Like bean sprouts in black soil.
The trees rattling bare in spring wind and then, almost overnight, even though you have plotted the course of it for weeks and stared hard, it is there and it surprises you: leaf. New baby leaf, small, the sheen of it a subtle thin blanket like some green lacy organic lingerie. Once, long ago, when I lived in a high mountain valley and we ached for something green in a place where snow cuffed the land hard and fast for months, we made a bet. When, we asked, would the cottonwoods across the street leaf out? Who won the bet is lost in decades, but the date remains: May 17.
June came to this piece of ground where I live and the stream swelled up out of its banks and danced and flowed among the trees, large and small. Saplings bent to the force of it and the soil soaked and soaked until it could not take any more. Down where the stream met the river, more water poured out of the margins, onto fields where center pivots lay idle because God’s irrigation system was in full throat. The river ran between cottonwoods tall and cottonwoods small and pushed brown water full of rich silt onto sapling flats, feeding and watering in one big swell. Then the water dropped streamside and riverside and left mud flats around thin lively stems and sun provided the boost, the power, to young and old trees alike.
Summer now and the cottonwoods fully fledged. Three species on my place, all staking their own part of the ground: black, eastern, narrowleaf. And deep smells now, rich and full. Not the promising subtle-sharp odor of rising sap, but more pervading—the kind of scent one gets when you step into a candle store, a spice shop. A hint, somehow, of cinnamon. Not just from the cottonwoods, though, but chokecherries in their shadow, mint along the ditchbank, grass and flower and soil alive.
I walk with my morning coffee now among the trees, sipping and feeling the height of these giants over me, the deep green shade of their leaf. Cottonwood. I think about the cottonwoods I have known, the places. A shaded glen, an Eden along a desert river where in all directions there was nothing but baking slickrock and sweltering juniper, yet beneath the cottonwoods on a desert river, there was cool greenness and hearty laughter. A thin line of cottonwoods way out in the eastern plains, a line of trees, a line of life. In late summer, no moisture anywhere, but the roots deep in hard sand and cobble-soil and somehow the trees green. Another cottonwood grove in another place, where a vast stand sheltered a flock of wild turkeys and I stalked them with my shotgun and waited. Listened.
No tree has so defined the West as the cottonwood; its fluffy seeds waft in the breeze over nearly every western town, its bark is still nibbled by horses just as it was in the time of Lewis and Clark, its saplings are thrashed by whitetail buck antler and nibbled by mule deer fawn. The scent of dried cottonwood burning in my open-air barbecue pit floats now across a summer landscape and elk steak sizzles over cottonwood coal. Just as it did in the time of Washakie.
Fall will come to this land in a few months, crisping the big trees, tinging them yellow. A new scent will arrive, an odor that somehow reminds me of fresh apples. I’ll walk among the trees with a rifle and wait for a whitetail buck that I’ve watched all summer long. I’ll know his pattern, the shape and curve of his horn. If I’m right and he does what he has been doing, I’ll shoulder my rifle as I lean against the wizened bark of a one hundred-year-old tree and my aim will be solid and sudden. Then the next summer, when the scent of richness hits this piece of western ground, I’ll sizzle venison over cottonwood and think about the cycle of life and the turn of leaf.

This essay originally ran in Wyoming Wildlife. 

Into the basin

Cold blew hard from the north. The setter tore into it. The man followed, wind whipping his shirttail and numbing his face.

He focused on the dog ahead and his footing below, stepping cautiously but letting his mind run, replaying the hours before.

“Why don’t you let me come with you,” she asked for the hundredth time.

“Alone is part of the attraction,” he answered honestly.

He looked at her face, ruddy from an early-morning, cold-water scrub and saw the corners of her eyes crinkle in concern. “Are you sure you can handle it,” she asked.

He hesitated, almost giving the easy lie, then conceding.

“I can’t say for sure.” He wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself, but she deserved more than that. “I might be old, but I don’t have to die in bed.”

He stepped off the porch and walked in the early morning darkness to where the truck was running and the dog was stretched across the seat.

He slammed the door and the dome light went off. He saw her on the porch, lit with the glow of a single tungsten bulb. She looked so much like her mother that for a moment he was confused about where and when he was. His mind righted itself and he reaffirmed his time and place before stepping on the clutch and pulling the shifter hard, willing it into gear.

They crept out of the drive, the dog standing on the seat looking back at the house before settling in and resting his head across on the old man’s leg.

The wind gusted, tugging at his collar and bringing him back to the sage brush and basalt, both frosted in white.

He wore awool vest– black with silver buttons – that had lay in the bottom drawer of the dresser for 20 years waiting for a special occasion. He had donned his best shirt, a bright white, pressed herringbone pattern that he’d always saved for Christmas.

The shotgun was cold against his hand, but the weight felt good and it balanced just at the hinge pin. For all his years collecting shotguns, he was down to this one, a 16-gauge Parker GHE. The spiraling pattern in the Damascus barrels grew more intricate as you looked closer. His great uncle had left it to him when he was 30. He rarely shot it and never hunted chukar with it.

Mostly, he hunted with a 20-gauge Remington pump gun. He had other guns, a Spanish side-by-side and an Italian over-and-under, but he’d kept them for the trap range and lowland pheasant jaunts. He told those who asked that the pump was a proper chukar gun, indelicate and with a handy third shot. In truth, he carried it because it belonged to his father.

Dad was decades gone, but on warm fall days seventy years past his father had picked him up from school and taken him along to jump shoot mallards on Elk Creek. They hadn’t said much to each other – those days or any other – but the just-fired smell of waxed paper hulls still brought a vision of those moments.

The Parker had always seemed as if it were for someone else. Over the intervening years, he’d retrieved it from the safe countless times to hold it in his hands, admire the cartography of the dark-grained walnut and listen to the sound it made when he closed the action. He would stare at grain of the pattern-welded barrels until he drifted off to some other place, then he’d heft it a few times before returning it to the safe.

The pump had been handed over to his daughter and the other guns had been passed on in quiet ceremonies with nephews and friends. Even the safe was gone now. He’d paired down some, though he was dressed for a wedding and carrying a shotgun that was worth more than his pickup, so he hadn’t exactly stripped himself of all but the essentials. Still, he was lighter than he’d been in thirty years in more ways than one. He was not alone, though barring the dog no one depended on him for anything any longer.

The young setter was the same as he’d ever been. Fleet and determined. He always seemed to be charging, never running or going anywhere in particular, but moving across the terrain as if he meant to subdue it. He still thought of him as the young setter, though he wasn’t anymore. He was the last in a line of dogs that stretched back to his teens. Ten seasons had slowed him some, but he was more than enough dog for the old man.

Unprovoked thoughts of mortality washed over him as he struggled over the uneven ground. The man knew he would die, maybe someday soon. He wondered if the birds ahead could feel what he was feeling. Did they feel death descending on them like a darkness, or like something familiar and warm? Maybe they felt something different. Maybe they felt the car slipping on the curve at 90 mph, the terror of losing control mixed with the certainty of immortality. Even chukar must be teenagers at some point, he mused.

The dog ranged ahead and he followed, lost in the decades that melded together somewhere between the pickup and the big wide empty.

Follow the girl, follow the job, follow the money. Follow. Eventually, the job finished, the girl passed on and the dream faded to something simpler.

And he did dream of this. This ocean of grass and sage had always called to him. In the last few weeks, he had dreamt of this place and had woken disappointed.

The setter marked a variation in the sea of rock and snow and grass and varied his course to carry them toward it. When the old man arrived a few minutes later, the dog was gone upwind, still seeking.

He stopped at a rock wall, all that remained of a house in country that was too hard for someone, even back in the day when people were harder. There was a low spot in the wall that must have been a window. It’s weathered wooden frame stood like a portal, nothing on one side. More nothing on the other.

The grass was better around the old house, as if some spirit still tended it. The grass had drawn the dog and the man had obliged. Now he sat with his back against the wall and rested for a moment.

He reached for the whistle to reel in the setter and realized he’d left it hanging from the rearview mirror back at the truck.

Swiveling to look, he saw the dog had come back and was lying at his feet. The man reached down and gave him a pat, wondering how he would fare without him or if he would. He’d left the camper shell on the truck and the tailgate down. He’d put food and water in with the old sleeping bag he used as a travel bed, justin case.

The old man knew if he tipped over, the setter might stay with him and lead him right to the end. And if so, he would follow.

He only been in the hospital for a week. Nothing serious, just a bout with a virus, though he knew age was the real culprit. All the damn beeping and buzzing of the machines, plus people coming in every few minutes to check on him, had interrupted his mental wandering into the basin where the chukar lived. If they had left him be, maybe he could have just died. But his body wasn’t ready to give in and now he was less worried about death and more worried that being off his feet had taken the starch out of him. Folks had waited on him hand and foot. They had spoken to him softly, as if he were a child and not an 81-year-old man with poor hearing and low tolerance for bullshit.

It wasn’t that he wanted to die. This was not some final quest for peace. It was just that he didn’t want to die slowly. He didn’t want to slide into nothing without putting up a good fight. He chuckled at the thought of quoting Dylan Thomas as an explanation for being here.

Truthfully, part of him wished he’d let her come along. She was good company, a good shot and the dog worked harder for her. But he did not need his hand held today. He didn’t need to see the look of poorly concealed concern on her face every time he took a step or climbed a hill.

He stood up and checked the chambers before closing the Parker on two purple-hulled shells.

The setter was already gone, 50 yards in front, nose into the wind. Before he could follow, a wave of vertigo washed over him. Maybe stood too quickly. Maybe his blood pressure was out of whack again.

The fall wasn’t painful, but it shocked him. One moment, he was standing watching the setter, the next he was lying on his back with the Parker across his chest. In the lee of the wall, the wind slowed and for a moment it felt almost warm.

Lying on his back, he turned his head and looked over the wall, through the old window hole and saw snow flurries swirling against a gray sky. The weathered wood of the window framed a swath of grass and sage that made up this part of the Great Basin. Low hills off to the west were crowned with black rock. It was the kind of view that might have kept someone here, he thought.

He loved this wild country. Even mulled walking into it and not coming back. In the beginning, the longing was about traveling, about toughness and exploration and the feeling that comes from a long hard walk and the knowledge of self-reliance that is strongest when you are young. Later, when the rolling hills beaconed, it was about running away from all the things he’d spent his youth chasing. Now, there was nothing left to run from and nothing left to pull him back either.

He lay still for several minutes before struggling to his feet. Miraculously, the Parker was intact, not even scratched as far as he could tell. He dusted himself off and felt no worse for the wear. He looked for the setter and to his surprise, saw him on point maybe 100 yards out on a shallow hillside just past a low spot that might have carried water in wetter times.

You can always find a little extra energy when the dog goes on point, and he moved toward the setter, no longer sore or tired or dying, but striding with determination.

The dog would wait, that much he knew, though he couldn’t say whether the birds would.

The setter was upright and solid, the feathers on his tail were waving in time with the grass but he was otherwise still. He walked in confident that they were holding, though his confidence stretched to little else.

He had time to soak it up. He saw the setter give him a sidelong glance as he walked past. He saw the snow, on the ground and still falling. He saw the cheat grass poking up above the skiff of snow and the jet black of the rocks in the lee of the storm.

There were a dozen, flushing from the snow at 25 yards. He lifted the Parker and swung on the second to last bird before shooting far behind. It would be easy to say he missed intentionally, though it might be harder to say he could have connected if he wished.

The old man broke the gun open and caught the fired purple hull with his palm as the ejector kicked it from the chamber. He lifted it to his nose and closed his eyes. He had a vision of his father, tall and lean with jet-black hair and a rare smile on his face, holding a pair of drakes in one hand and a Remington model 17 in the other.

He slipped the fired hull into the back pocket of his vest and dropped another shell in the chamber. He felt good. Maybe even as good as the young setter.

The old man looked over at the dog.

Just for a moment the setter looked like he was standing in a picture frame, or maybe a window.

No matter.

The setter was waiting for direction.

“OK, let’s go find them.”

The dog tore into the wind, and the man followed.

 

Greg McReynolds

Another way to train bird dogs

I catch myself when I tell people he’s fifteen months old because, as time does, he is really seventeen months. As soon as I get used to telling people he’s seventeen months, he’ll be nineteen months.
But these days he’s fun and it’s the things that all parents mark mentally. Words and facial expressions and a sense of humor. Things like that.

So every day after daycare, rain, snow and shine as these May months are, we jump into the month and get out on the ground. Sometimes, he’s in a backpack, sometimes in a stroller. Always, the bird dogs are here. I can’t help, at these times, to reflect on how different the world is for myself, my son and my bird dogs. And how similar. The dogs are still getting out, still getting exercised, still running big, but their humans now shout unintelligible gibberish.  Then again, maybe it was always that way for them. Nonsensical words shouted into the sky.

Get it over with

The sky is pissing again.
Shouldn’t complain considering winter didn’t even start until just before the Super Bowl kick-off. But then it just flat got with it. Drifts. Wind-chill. Dead-chill. Frozen pipes. Deer in the haystacks. Deer dying on the road. A fawn over-nighting in the woodshed and raiding the birdseed. More snow coming. Calves dying before mothers could lick them dry.
Saw the ground for the first time in weeks days ago. But today it’s what the weather forecasters call a wintry mix. Down along the Front Range, it’s cancelled flights and bomb cyclones. With names. Last one was named Wesley. Dumbest thing ever to name snowstorms.
It’s April and the sky is pissing. Again. Hope for rain at the right time. Time it for desert quail, sync it to not fiddle with the Hun hatch, clock it just so with our friends the chukar and pheasant and their chicks a’coming. It’s April. Do it. Rain. Snow. Just get it over with. Don’t save it for later. Do it.

A bystander

The dogs went around this hill. I’m climbing it. The season is over and I’m getting fatter by the day. A climb is necessary. Also, I have no idea where the setters are and I hope to spot them from the top.
A golden eagle hovers in the stiff wind over the crest. I top the hill and look down the steep sage-covered hillside. They are at the bottom, hard up against an abandoned irrigation ditch, pointing into the stiff wind.
It’s strange to see them pointing together. It’s the young dog’s first year and I haven’t run them together much. The eagle is almost at eye level with me, surfing the wind, waiting to see what comes loose.
I straighten the collar on my jacket to cover my bare neck and regret not dressing warmer. I don’t scramble downhill. The time for that ended months ago. There is no rush. I’m just a spectator. Less invested than the eagle. He is the hunter today. I reach for my phone to snap a photo, realize it’s still on the dashboard and I’m ok with that.
The eagle is close and I can see his feathers fluttering in the gusts, his head moving as he watches the action play out below. I‘m surprised at how steady the dogs are, not as individuals, but together. The wind is whipping. The March snow, hard and gritty, stacks against the base of the sage brush, making a last assault before the ground melts and the sage blooms and world turns green and soft.
For a reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel a great sense of melancholy. The weight of nothing in particular presses down on me, anchoring my feet to the ground. I stand alone in the snow, watching life and death play out in slow-motion. None of it seems to matter.
The spell breaks with a rustle and a clatter of wings. A rooster rises and streaks along the bank. The eagle flares, but doesn’t dive. Maybe he decided a wiry old rooster was too much fight and not enough meal. Or maybe he just couldn’t get up the enthusiasm. He floats away without acknowledging me at all.

GM

Dog attacks, hamsters and peacocks

I’m not sure how to respond to this, published in the Washington Post last week. It’s a horrible story about an “emotional support” pit bull that attacked a 5-year-old girl in an airport.

And then it gets weird in a way I did not see coming at the beginning of the story. I’m not sure what to say about it, so I’m just going to leave this here. From the Post story …

The support-animal shenanigans — and tragedies — have not been limited to dog bites. One service dog, a golden retriever named Eleanor Rigby, gave birth to puppies at a terminal in Tampa in June, though people didn’t complain very much about that. In sad news, an emotional-support hamster named Pebbles was flushed down the toilet by its owner in February 2018 after Spirit Airlines informed the student she could not take the pet with her on the flight from Baltimore. Another man got angry at United Airlines for denying Dexter, his Instagram-famous emotional-support peacock, a seat on the plane from Newark, even though he had purchased a ticket for the bird.

 

 

It is all over but the cryin’

The inspectors examining some of the year’s take.

It started in Idaho at the end of August and ended in New Mexico in the middle of February. Some might say that was plenty. The dogs might say they were just getting going.
But it’s over now and it is February and the deserts of New Mexico were thin soup, but soup enough. A covey a day, a point a day, maybe a bird a day. Good stuff. Hunt ’em when they are thick, you can hunt them when they are lean. And you were following your dog with a shotgun in your hand and that, for anyone, should be enough.
Now begins the long wait. There’s a year ahead and two young setters, aunt and niece, ready for anything.

Liars

A chile relleno is a Big Jim pepper stuffed with asadero cheese, battered and fried. Full stop.

Sometimes, in places that are not New Mexico, a waiter will put a plate in front of you. You will look down and see what appears to be an omelet, wrapped around an anaheim or pasilla or poblano pepper with a little cheese thrown on top.

You may ask, “What is this?”

If the response is, “A chile relleno,” then you have encountered a liar and you have great cause for sadness.

 

 

 

 

Damn you, James Knox Polk! or Annex that shit!

Old Mexico’s quail and Coues country looks pretty good.

Okay, we got California and Nevada and Utah and most of Arizona and New Mexico all in that deal with Mexico back in 1848. I get that. Pretty good stuff.

Jim Thomas, author of Negotiate to Win says Americans are the worst negotiators in the world and when you look south from Mearns quail country, you get the feeling he is pretty right about that.  President Polk’s armies had Mexico City in 1848. They had a lot of good quail country. And then they gave it all back. Couldn’t we at least have kept Sonora and Chihuahua? No need to build a wall, let’s just move the border. It’s narrower down there anyway. Annex that shit. Think of the Coues deer and the Mearns quail awaiting us!

 

 

In rooster country

It is about people and the land. People and how they manage the land. People who were here and then left. People who were here and died. People who are here now.

This is the pheasant hunt.

Up on the chukar cliff, time goes by and human touch is lighter. Same for the blue grouse ridges, the Hun hills, the ruffed covers of the West, the quail arroyos. Here, bird abundance is not always tied to human influence. It is tied to rains and snows, sun. Not so the pheasant fields.

I cannot walk here, into the teeth of this northern wind–a wind bringing Canada straight down to Kansas–without thinking about covers and pheasants and people and the many places of the wild pheasant in a life measured by the lifespan of a half dozen good bird dogs.

My pheasants have burst from the rich soil and buffaloberry of a Montana valley disappearing steadily to the appetite of citizens wanting a slice of Big Sky, hitting that magical age of fifty-nine and a half, and coming into the country with an AWD, a golf habit, and a pension plan. That soil, that buffaloberry and those roosters went to the pavement during the last boom.

My pheasants have run ahead of a fast-moving expert bird dog on a wind-lashed Wyoming morning, running faster than any bird dog alive, scurried between patches of greasewood and saltbrush, ducking and sneaking like a house cat in mouse pursuit, then bursting to wing. Beyond, even, rifle range. Out here, out in this wind-blown far-away, the nearest crop for the crop is a Russian olive pit. Coyotes, not bird dogs, are the common predator and alfalfa is turned into beefsteak. Row crops are found two hundred miles east, but here lives a savage, colorful, cackling son-of-a-bitch in track shoes. One-a-day is a good day.

My pheasants have flown before the guns on a genuine South Dakota Million Man March, the kind of hunt that puts a dozen ball-cap crowned faces in front of your shotgun muzzle on the other side of the field. You start walking toward each other, carrying a weapon. Wondering just what the hell you are doing here with your gun pointed skyward, praying that the guy you just met on the other side of the field directly opposite is a good gun handler who does not shoot low birds and that the plastic in your sunglasses can stop a pellet. And wondering again why you aren’t out alone with your setters in some other field instead of this gang-slog through millet planted specifically for this moment. That evening, with a pheasant burger in your belly and a limit that you did not shoot in the cooler and the whole house roaring with the laughter of old friends and new, you understand. This day was not about the hunt, it was about now, this moment.

My pheasants have come from the CRP of a tenant farmer out south of Ogallala whom you woke from a nap in the middle of the day on a Tuesday when you knocked on the door of the single-wide, stepping over the carcass of a month-dead kitten on a plywood porch sogged and sagged by many Nebraska winters. More cautious souls would have told you to move on, fretted about meth labs and trigger-itch, but you wended your way through junk piles and slinking hair-on-end farm curs because that cover out there looks too damned good to pass up and three cockbirds flew off the borrow ditch when you turned the pickup down County 26A.

And my pheasants have come from the beautiful well-kept old farm down near the Kansas line where row after row of cedars broke the constancy of the west wind coming from the far-off Colorado mountains. A farm that you visited on a bitter November day with ice in the air, ice on the stems of brome out in the CRP across from the corn, and ice in your beard. When you stepped over the Welcome mat and knocked on the door, he came to the screen bent by seven or more decades of this land and said If you guys are crazy enough to be out in this weather, just go right ahead and thanks for asking. Three roosters went into the bag in thirty minutes that day because ice on the grass on a bitter west wind is the great equalizer for a running feral bastard with no boundaries and no order of the day other than running and flying. The next year, the old fella was gone and unwelcome signs were on every corner. Nursing home? Grave? It made you sad just thinking about change.

These are the vignettes, the playback of cover and cockbird and human and there are seemingly thousands of them, scattered and random as spring snowstorm. A hunt in far northeastern Montana on a morning so cold that the lobes of your hunting buddy’s ears, bare skin sticking out beneath wool cap, freeze and frost bite. The roosters hold tight this day and blow out of snow drifts and rose bramble, birds reluctant to take wing in minus twenty-something. Which reminds you of a college Colorado hunt out east of Flagler during a hard deep blizzard and roosters at road edge for the bloodlust of a teenager’s trigger finger. Cottontails and roosters in the daytime and hard-drinking some gawd-awful flavored liqueur at a lonesome farm house filled with your local pal’s high school friends eager for tales of Arizona college shenanigans.

And finally my pheasants have come from the Gion farm out past the North Dakota diner named the Corner Club on the highway’s only curve on seventy miles of straight-away. Thirty years ago you stepped onto that ground with a good friend and his new Gordon and you and your new English and all there was to do was drink Johnnie Walker when the wind rocked your camper and get out every day and watch the roosters fly to the sky off the bends of the Cannonball. Walk against the hangover and into the wind, walk on a sour morning stomach empty of everything but camp coffee and old Scotch because it is morning and you are young and so is your bird dog and neither has the corner on enthusiasm. Breakfast can wait for mid-day. One morning your bird dog, all eight months of him and trailing thirty feet of check cord, pins a wild rooster against a fence and when the bird goes up you center the hell out of him and down he goes and the dog is on him and back to you with that rooster stone-dead and all you can do is shout for joy because Hank just became a bird dog. And your life-long mentor with his 1950s Superposed folded over his arm and a smile on his face is there to witness the coming of age.

So you march north in this Kansas cum-Canada windchill, contemplating this pheasant hunting life’s vicissitudes. People and the land. A life measured by covers and roosters and the occasional hen, by diners with good burgers and terrible coffee, by good kind people opening up thousands of acres to strangers with guns, by canine joy. And that of your own.