trotting away on his narrow paws. He glanced back, looked me in
the eye, then vanished. Where’d he gone to earth? Marvelously,
nowhere I could see.
Even when I can’t see animals, I need to know they’re there.
Animals are the bright throughline of my life in the world; they
have a way of being that I worry less about romanticizing than
I used to, despite well-founded questions of animal consciousness and selfhood. Our world doesn’t need more theories. Our
world needs love, and the clear sight and conviction of which
love makes us capable. The grief-lit questions of the Anthropo-cene are loose among us right now— who’ll carry on what we
love? Who’ll protect the dying, speak up for the vanishing, bear
witness and struggle and mourn?
My father’s dead. And now these questions slice into me,
and twist. Who will know the stories he knows, stop to marvel
at a tree full of winter birds, speak with dignity in a world that
shouts? What will I keep doing with the gift he gave me: a writer’s first necessity, a keen and rapturous attention to the living
world? To whom will I tell what I see?
ON A THOUSAND ACRES in east Alabama, my father made a
world for himself, and us, centered on the bird-hunting tradi-
tion in which he’d been raised. Like his father, he was a doc-
tor who kept cattle and horses and planted longleaf pines.
(“When William Bartram came here,” he’d marvel, “the whole
Southeast was full of them, a pine savanna the Indians would
burn every so often, because longleafs love fire.”) He labored
over habitat for bobwhite quail, bewildered by the decline in
the modest little creatures that had once been known as the
poor man’s bird, rocketing out of every fencerow to feed any
sharecropper with a rickety gun. Too many subdivisions mush-
rooming up, now, where pastures had been. Too many coyotes,
those opportunists of over-peopled land. Too many chemicals
in air and water and, thus, in eggshells. Who knew all the rea-
sons behind their decline? But nevertheless bird hunting—the
ritual, if not the killing— was a big part of the place; there were
always the kennels full of pointers and setters, leaping against
their chain-link walls and shivering with delight. (“A righteous
man,” read the verse from Proverbs taped to our kitchen cabi-
net, “cares for the need of his animal.”) There were the horses,
Chester and Pal and little Charlie, who’d lie down and roll in
water even on a cold day. And there was the “Stal,” or “White
Stallion,” a 1995 white two-door Tahoe with Quail Unlimited
plates and 300,000 miles on the odometer and a bumper hitch
to pull the dog trailer. “Let’s see,” he’d sigh, “how long we can
keep this thing going.”
I spent more bright winter days than I’d ever count there in
the field with him, learning by sight, like a young monk with
master, what became a ritual preserved for its own sake. Let the
dogs fan back and forth in front of you. Walk easy, don’t crowd.
And say good dog early and often. Bird dogs like a woman’s voice,
although I was less dog-handler than preteen horse-holder while
the men got off and waded into the brush to shoot. I’d gather
the long reins into my hands, soothing the horses as the men
withdrew the shotguns from the padded scabbards under their
stirrups (“thank you, honey”) and crunched away into a stand of
partridge pea and thorn behind an excited dog freezing on point
before the whir of wings exploded into the sky. The older we got,
the less shooting we did. But we never gave it up entirely. Some
rituals are worth preserving simply for the way they direct you to
an ethic of humility, for the way they train your eyes toward that
which is just beyond your sight.
I’ve never killed a living thing with a gun and expect I never
will. But I love bird hunting. Like any walk, it tunes up my sight.