The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called. The door that leads to the cathedral is marked by a hesitancy to speak at all, rather to encourage by example a sharpness of the senses. If one speaks it should only be to say, as well as one can, how wonderfully all this fits together, to indicate what a long, fierce peace can derive from this knowledge.“Children in the Woods,” from Crossing Open Ground
When you’re out there. Head. Thoughts. Observations. Hidden rocks the size of a golfball take you down, all stone of you. My experience is mine. Yours yours.
Here’s something of mine, what happens during and after, and also before the hunt. Not the hunt, but a hunt, and I’d be surprised if most chukar hunters don’t do this, too: things I’ve read that week or that stuck in my graycraw wash into the footsteps and missteps and breathing and hearing. When you’re climbing you’ve got the goal you can see — the ridge, the outcrop, the abutment, the hawthorn vein — but it’s never a straight line, especially with a pointing dog who, after all, is your partner. You repeat that, sometimes out loud and sometimes not, as if some or even you won’t really believe it. The fact of gravity resented. The failure to lose the weight you promised yourself you’d shed. Math. The sharp pain in the back of your throat. Is it Covid? It can’t be. I’ve been careful. Or have I? During a short rest a sound.
Howling. I hope it’s a wolf. We’ve seen prints nearby in the snow years ago. Suddenly I’m transported back 15 years to a solo elk hunting trip. The two nights I was camped featured nightlong wolfpack serenades. Ecstasy. Prescient or not I’d brought Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men to read. On the second day of the hunt a tall wolf — one of the singers? — and I met at 15 feet on undulating ground. It vanished before my eyes while I marveled. Lopez’s book added to my admiration of these dogs, deepening the irony of living in a state seemingly committed to committing the sins Lopez documents in Of Wolves: extermination without cause. Worse: the science shows wolves improve elk numbers and genepool, but if only the politicians and ranchers would read and think they’d make a place for this predator. But that’s asking too much.
Caught up in this thoughtmemory, I’m a little further up the hill. Peat’s on point. I get over to him. Because they’re in the rocks they spot me miles away and bust wild. I reorient to the climb and return to the thought which now is more like a dream, triggered by another howl. I appreciate Lopez again and think of some of his other work, writing that — in part — led me to Idaho because I wanted to be like him, or at least write a little bit like he did, or at least about the kinds of things he wrote about. River Notes, Arctic Dreams, Crossing Open Ground. I had this romantic idea about the land and trying to fit into it and onto it and let it get through me and through to me. I still do. Without work like his, and others of his ilk (David Quammen, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Edward O. Wilson, Farley Mowat, John McPhee, Robin Kimmerer, Rachel Carson, Diane Ackerman, and Annie Dillard, just to name a few), what happens when I’m outside would be, I’m certain, much different. Worse, I think.
And then, nearing the ridgetop, I remember my favorite piece of Lopez’s, “Children in the Woods.” My mom, an art teacher, tricked my brother and me into competing to become the bird identifying champion of the Back Bay. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why my dad, a poet, built a cabin in the woods of Idaho but it set us free to explore and learn so many names of things in the forest that we didn’t even need to speak them anymore because we’d prefer to pay close attention to what we sensed and think about relationships between those things and us. When I think about it, as I did on this hunt, this, this is really the only peace I have. It’s as good an explanation as I have for why I keep wanting to hunt.
While recovering yesterday from this momentous Christmas Day hunt (momentous in so many ways, not least of which was the wolf howl and what it conjured), Leslie told me Barry Lopez had died. May he rest in fierce peace.