Reviewed by Donald Johnson, English, East Tennessee State University
10 june 2013 archive
In these 23 essays, among which I include Richard Ford's insightful introduction, some of America's best writers, such as Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Clyde Edgerton, Sydney Lea, and the editors themselves, confess their exasperations, admiration and unalloyed love for the dogs they have trained, hunted with and, ultimately, mourned in their hunting lives. As Thomas McGuane suggests in "The Only Honest Way to Eat Poultry," "hunting is an anachronism, and it's easy for a hunter to feel that he is an anachronism, too." So much effort goes into choosing the right dog, training him or her, trying to apologize or compensate for a given dog's enthusiasm and hard-headedness, and then ultimately losing him or her to old age or one of what seems hundreds of fatal maladies, that it's just short of amazing that anyone bothers anymore, especially given the loss of habitat, the dwindling numbers of wild birds, and the increasing difficulty of finding dependable hunting companions. Thus, all but one of these authors can probably best be described as "old men," the exception being Jeddie Smith, son of Dave, one of the volume's co-editors.
In "A Good Southern Name," the younger Smith reveals himself as an heir to the rituals, the genuine hard work, and the shared values consistent with membership in the brotherhood of those who shoot over well-trained dogs. The younger Smith's essay about learning to hunt woodcock in Louisiana with Jake, the Brittany given to him by his father, provides ample evidence for the father's observation that the dog in bird hunting linked him "to those men who shaped my life, a life as mysteriously joyful as it is sinister."
The rewards of such attachments are manifold: the satisfaction of participating in time-honored traditions; the pleasure to be gained in walking fields and woodlands with like-minded friends, the absolute joy of watching a dog mature into a fine hunter with the ability to locate, point and hold birds, and to honor another dog's efforts by backing its point. More significant, perhaps, are the memories, the cumulative experiences that maintain bonds among the brotherhood (all these memoirs are by men) and help support us in moments of disappointment or sadness. Ironically, even the grief that comes with losing the beloved working dog is tempered somewhat by the commonality of that experience. And if there is one fact that emerges as paramount in these memoirs it is that the owner always outlives the dog, usually multiple dogs over a lifetime of sport, and the shared experiences of friends who understand this sorrow strengthen the bonds in the community that sustains us.
There are many comical moments in this collection, mostly revelations of mistakes or failures on the hunter's part, many expressions of a kind of weary satisfaction of the kind Sidney Lea sums up in the title of his piece, "Blessed." But the overall tone is elegiac. As Bobby C. Rogers asserts in "Hunting Close: On Bird Dogs and Lost Time": "If you spend much time among hunters, you'll find that the good days are always in the past: habitat's gone all to hell, birds won't hold in any kind of gentlemanly manner, shells cost too much, nothing's the way it used to be." Moreover, Scooter I, Point, Carnac, Babe, Lady, Rosie, Molly, and all the other "fine dogs" whose lives are recorded here, are gone, and the question that many of these elegists face directly or indirectly, in essay after essay, is, "Do I have enough time and energy remaining in my own life for another dedicated companion?"
Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs. Robert DeMott and Dave Smith, eds. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010. Hard Cover $24.95. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-1-60239-776-7.
Copyright © 2013 by Donald Johnson