We were where the
southernmost range of the Helderbergs meets the northernmost range of the
Catskills. Land never much good for anything, hilly and rocky. It was once,
long ago, for a pioneer people willing to work harder for a living than the
generations that have succeeded them, hardscrabble farm country. Humbling, even
heartbreaking, is the sight of the endless high stone walls made of the huge
rocks heaved up by the frosts each and every spring, then to be lifted onto
horse-and ox-drawn stoneboats, dragged to the site, lifted and fitted into
place, year after year after year.
the area was a never very fashionable summer vacationland. Today it is all but
abandoned, gone rank, reclaimed by its original, its primal growth, a place of
long harsh winters, late and sluggish springs, short summers and glorious falls
tinted with a spectrum of colors as replete as a painter's full-spread palette.
Now the year's first gentle frosts had alchemized the landscape, transmuting
into gold and old gold and golden-orange the tremulous and scintillant poplars
and paper birches; into ruby red the sumacs and the swamp and sugar maples;
into topaz and opal the oaks. Only the hemlocks and the pines high on the
slopes surrounding us remained untouched. The medley of colors was that of a
macédoine, the salad of fresh fruits of all kinds upon their bed of green.
exchanges between Paul and me, much like birdcalls, kept us posted at all times
on each other's whereabouts. Should a bird flush wild anywhere within the
50-odd yards we kept between us, we knew where and where not to fire.
When we had
beaten through a covert and emerged within sight of each other, Paul silently
signaled with his hand where to turn next. He was familiar with every foot of
this terrain, having hunted over it for years—the only person permitted by its
owner to do so. His brain was upside down, too—a woodcock's brain, for sure. He
thought like one. He knew just where to look for the birds and where not to
bother. He knew which way out of any spot one would fly when flushed. He knew
every bush and berry, weed and flower, fungus and fern, and could tell you
their names. White-haired and a lover of good living, he was nonetheless in
condition to run a marathon. I was in safe hands, and I was hunting with a very
savvy old hand.
Some of those
coverts were almost impenetrable. Not daunted, Paul tore his way through the
worst of them, hoping to drive birds to me out on the edge. He had hunted a
couple of days earlier this season, before my joining him, and his hands and
his wrists were already scabbed where he had been scratched raw by
dogs' bells tinkled incessantly as they ranged. The two bells were identical
and produced the same pitch, yet you could distinguish one dog's from the
other's by their different tempos. The slightly slower, more deliberate, though
by no means plodding, bell was Ipsy's; the slightly quicker one was Ipsy's
daughter's, the younger, more enthusiastic but less woodcock-wise, less
energy-conserving Aïda. Celeste Aïda, forma divina! We were far from the
Metropolitan but not all that far. German short-haired pointers they were, the
mother an unbroken brown, the daughter brown speckled with gray. It was music
to our ears, that syncopated twosome of a tinkle, but in so closely attuning
our ears to it, what we were really listening for was that magical moment when
it should cease. As with Grecian urns, so with woodcock hunting: Heard melodies
are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.
silence of the bells signified that the dogs had located a bird and were on
point, the one honoring the other who had scented it first, both rigid, two
weather vanes indicating a wind from the same quarter. The wary and wily
woodcock might sink itself into its surroundings as closely concealed as the
chameleon, but those two saw with their noses.