feature By: P.J. O'Rourke | November, 19
I’ve been shooting in New Brunswick, Canada, for a decade. Usually 8 or 10 of us make an outing in the fall. We are an ordinary lot, halfway though life’s actuarial leach field and pretty well fixed. We’re not likely to be tapped for a Benetton ad.
Some of us are avid hunters and deadly shots, and some of us have a gun that doesn’t fit and needs a different choke and the safety keeps sticking. I was using the wrong size shot and too light a load. I’m beginning to get arthritis in my shoulder. I have a new bifocal prescription. My boots hurt. The sun got in my eyes.
This is not one of those men-go-off-in-the-woods hunting trips full of drink, flatulence and lewd Hillary Clinton jokes. For one thing, some of us aren’t men. A couple of us aren’t even Republicans. We pack neckties, sports coats, skirts and makeup (although I don’t think anyone wears all four). There is little of the Cro-Magnon in this crowd. Though there is something about three bottles of wine apiece with dinner and six-egg breakfasts … Did someone step on a carp? And you’ve heard about Hillary . . .
Our New Brunswick sojourn is not a wilderness adventure either. We’re no Patagonia-clad apostles of deep ecology out getting our faces rubbed in Mother Nature’s leg hair. And we’re too old to need a 30-mile hike, a wet bedroll and a dinner of trail mix and puddle water to make us think life is authentic. If we’d wanted to push human endurance to its limits and face awesome challenges of the natural elements in their uncivilized state, we could have stayed home with the kids.
No. We spend the shoot in the deep woods but at a good lodge with an excellent chef. The chef not only cooks six-egg breakfasts and Bordeaux-absorbent dinners but also packs delightful lunches for us; for example, moose sandwiches, which are much better — also smaller — than they sound.
What we are hunting in New Brunswick is mainly woodcock, Scolopax minor, a chunky, neckless, blunt-winged, mulch-colored bird with a real long beak and a body the size, shape and heft of a prize beefsteak tomato. Rereading that sentence, I see I have failed to capture in prose the full measure of the woodcock’s physical attractiveness. Probably because it looks like a knee-walking shorebird in urgent need of Jenny Craig. It does have lovely eyes. And a wonderful personality, too, for all I know. Anyway, the woodcock is, in fact, a cousin of the sandpiper and the snipe but makes its home on less-expensive real estate.
Woodcock live in the alder patches that occupy, in horizon-knocking profusion, the numberless stream beds and vast marsh bottoms of New Brunswick’s flat, damp topography. The alder is a pulpwood shrub whose branches grow in muddled sprays like bad flower arrangements. Hunting in young alder thickets is like walking through something with a consistency between Jell-O and high hurdles. Old alder thickets, which grow as high as l2 feet, present grim, decaying vaults of face-grabbing, hat-snatching limb tangles. But the alder thickets where the woodcock roost are, like us, in their middle years. And these have all the bad features of alders young and old, plus a greasy mud footing and foliage that, even in late fall, is as dense as salad. Once such a mess of alders has been entered, it becomes impossible to tell the time of day or where you are supposed to be going or whence you came, and the only thing you know about your direction is it’s not the one the dog’s headed in.
The woodcock are in the alders because the soil there is full of earthworms, which is what the woodcock eat. The flavor of all birds is notably influenced by diet. A Canada goose shot in a field of corn is a treat. A Canada goose shot on the fourth green and filled with fertilizer and lawn chemicals is disgusting. Fish-eating ducks taste like fish that have been eaten by ducks. Woodcock are delicious. This raises the worrying thought that we really should be hunting and frying night crawlers. They are certainly easier to find and kill. But worm-digging gear is not going to look stylish in an Orvis catalog.
You need a dog to hunt woodcock. Most pointing dogs can be trained to do it, but the breed of choice is the Brittany, a knee-high orange-and-white canine about as long as he is tall with no tail worth the mention and looking like an English springer spaniel with a better barber and a marathon-running hobby. Brittanys were bred in the eponymous province of France about 150 years ago specifically for woodcock hunting. They have a character that is both remote and excitable — yappy and grave at the same time, something like a John Simon theater review. Brittanys are very intelligent, whatever that means. Does a very intelligent dog have a good and logical explanation for humping your leg?
What a Brittany has, in fact, is an intense, irrational, foolish, almost human desire to hunt woodcock. He possesses several techniques. He can run into the alder cover and flush a bird that is much too far away. Flushing is what a hunter calls it when a dog scares a bird silly and makes it fly. It will then fly in any direction that your gun isn’t pointed. This as opposed to pointing, which is when a dog scares a bird even sillier and makes it sit down. The Brittany can also run into the alder cover and point a bird that is much too far away. When a Brittany points, he goes absolutely rigid and still (and does so in a way that makes him look like he’s about to hike a dog football or moon a dog sorority house rather than in that paw up, tail out, King Tut tomb-painting posture that dogs have on place mats from the Ralph Lauren Home Collection). The Brittany wears a bell around his neck. The idea is to keep track of the dog in the woods by following the noise of the bell. Then, when the dog goes on point, the bell will stop ringing and you’re supposed to head directly toward — You understand the problem. Brittanys may be intelligent, but the people who thought up the bell were, to put it bluntly, French.
The Brittany can also do what he’s supposed to do and hunt right in front of you — “working close,” as it’s known — in which case he’ll walk over the top of the woodcock, leaving you to flush it yourself by almost stepping on the thing, whereupon it will fly straight in your face with an effect as nightmarish as a remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds starring Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie.
For me, there’s hardly a bird that comes before the barrels of my gun that doesn’t get away free. Nay, better than free: The bird receives an education about what those orange and hairy — and pink and winded and pudgy — things are doing in the woods. I am a university for birds.
Birds of course do get shot on these trips, even if not by my gun. And the dog is actually as important to finding dead birds as he is to missing live ones. Woodcock possess almost perfect camouflage, and, while difficult to see when living, they — for some reason — disappear completely into the leaf mold once they’ve been killed.
That dogs are able to find birds, alive or dead, is not surprising. Dogs more or less “see” the world through their olfactory sense. Woodcock — to judge by our dogs’ behavior — must smell to a Brittany like coffee in the morning or Arpège at night. The surprising thing, rather, is that hunting dogs don’t leap on the live birds or gobble the dead ones. The whole point of breeding bird dogs is to come up with a pooch who — contrary to every imaginable predatory instinct — doesn’t catch his prey. He lets you, with your shotgun, do it for him. (Or not. It is a fact known only to bad shots that dogs smirk.) Suppose you sit a six-year-old boy on the end of a dock with a fishing pole and every time the bobber goes under, you grab the rod and land the fish. Suppose you get the child to put up with it all day — and not only that but like it.
And pointing is only half of what dog breeders have accomplished. The dog also retrieves. Imagine you found a Guess? jeans model in your front yard, naked, covered in baby oil and intensely interested in affection. And suppose you carefully picked her up, being sure not to hug her too tightly or return any intimate caresses, and delivered her to your next-door neighbor, the guy who’s had your Skilsaw since last February and always lets his crab grass go to seed.
I have no idea what dogs get out of hunting. And once I started to think about that, I realized I don’t have much of an idea what people get out of hunting, either.
Partly it’s a social thing. All of us on the trip are good friends, and it’s nice to be off together in a place for which our bosses and offices can never quite figure out the area code. (“Where was that you said you were going? New Orleans? New Guinea? New Jersey?”) But we could go to each other’s houses and turn off the phones and run through the shrubbery in our old clothes, if we wanted.
There’s nature appreciation. But, although New Brunswick has some appealing coastal vistas and some handsome salmon rivers, the province is not a scenic wonder, and the land we hunt is no prettier than the average Ohio cornfield. Still, we do appreciate it. There’s something about being out in nature with a purpose — even if that purpose is only to torment dogs and scare feathered creatures — that makes you pay more attention to the outside world. When you hunt, you have to keep a careful eye on weather, terrain, foliage and dangerous animals such as me if I happen to be in the cover with you, swinging my gun around in every direction trying to get the safety to release.
Hunting also produces a good, solid sense of false accomplishment. After a long day of bird getaways and gun bungles, of yelling at dogs and yourself, you really think you’ve done something. You don’t get this feeling from any other recreation. Probably it’s a throwback to the million years or so that man spent thumbing through the large stone pages of the Paleolithic L.L.Bean catalog. The cave paintings of Lascaux, after all, depict bison hunts, not tennis matches.
The fact that my friends and I don’t have to hunt to get food may actually be our reason for hunting. Fun can be defined as “anything you don’t have to do.” Or is that right? You have to eat. And eating is the one sensible thing that we do on this trip.
Woodcock is almost fatless and can be cooked as rare as steak without a chicken tartar effect. Woodcock has a slightly liverish flavor, but it is liver to make a Neoplatonist of you. This is the cosmic ideal of liver, liver in the mind of God or, anyway, in the mind of Mom — liver that tastes like your mom thought you should think it tasted.
We have meals of high savored woodcock, served with steaming heaps of fiddlehead ferns picked from the nearby woods and bowls of piping New Brunswick potatoes, small as golf balls and sweet as pies, plus rolls and buns and scones and jiggling plates of wild foxberry jelly and pots, tubs and buckets of strong drink and desserts beyond telling besides.
Here at last is something I really am good at. I can tuck in with the best of them. And I get better at it every year. I have the let-out pant seats to prove it.
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