Illustration by Chris Smith
For nearly two decades, I’ve wrestled out a living as a beat cop. Before dawn, the clock’s insistent alarm rouses me and sends me to wailing sirens, angry shouts and crashing metal. After 12 hours of cacophony in a patrol car, what I desire most is peace and quiet. No chance of that, though, especially during summer – the season when crime rates and pandemonium reach a fever pitch. Come October, however, the weather cools, society settles down, and another sound awakens something deep inside me.
Long before honking horns and buzzing alarms, bells signaled the arrival of ships and summoned hopeful souls to churches. Prior to speeding cars and rushing trains, bells announced the passage of buggies and sleighs. The pastoral tones of bells also marked the presence of sportsmen and dogs amid the aspens and scrub oak. While modern wing shooters might prefer digital collars, one bell has a story no beeper can rival.
After serving on a sleigh in a previous life, this bell spent a purgatory amid the musty confines of an old shoebox. These days, though, it swings freely around my setter’s neck, and its timeless tones echo throughout our secret coverts each fall.
Similar to classic fabrics like flannel and wool, bells honor tradition in ways synthetic fibers never can. Mellowed by age like fine bourbon, the finish on this particular bell glows with a golden luster, and its tones ring bright and clear. Perhaps even greater than its music, though, its sweet silence declares, “Setter on point!”
I remember the day my dad rescued the bell from the dusty recesses of our attic. Between sneezes he told of the time his great-great-grandfather had stopped at an estate sale in Tarrytown, New York. For some reason, a battered leather bridle harness decorated with brass bells caught his frugal eye. That our economical ancestor tarried, as the locals used to say, at the sale seemed surprising; the fact that he traded the milk money for some old sleigh bells sounded even more preposterous, considering his Dutch sensibilities. On the other hand, his interest probably had been piqued once he learned the harness had belonged to resident author and essayist Washington Irving.
Irving achieved literary acclaim with classics such as “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). In fact, modern monikers such as “Gotham” (referring to New York City) and “Knickerbocker” (a “New Yorker,” from which New York’s NBA team derives its name) can be traced back to Irving’s creative genius. Irving was a country man to the core, and his love for his native New England resounds through tales, like this thought from “Sleepy Hollow”:If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley. …
Seen through the gauzy glow of nostalgia, the past seems idyllic – especially when compared to today’s frantic pace. And yet, the need for such quiet dreaming was apparently just as important back then as it is now. Thankfully, when chasing grouse among the aspens, the relevance of time fades like pipe smoke in an autumn wind.
Nevertheless, the modern world seems far-flung from Irving’s era. Trucks and SUVs have replaced whimsical sleighs and carriages. Subdivisions and strip malls emerge at alarming rates, and much of the undeveloped land has been posted “Private – No Trespassing.” Cell phones and digital GPS units infiltrate the uplands under the guise of efficiency, though their merits are debatable. Fortunately, fragments of hunting’s halcyon days still exist, though contemporary sportsmen toil harder than their predecessors for each remaining sleepy hollow.
Bird hunters often harbor unrequited love for days gone by, and even the most modern wing shooters freely admit their affection for brush-worn shotguns, beat-up leather collars and smoked-out pipes. Who among these sentimentalists can deny a fondness for a father’s folding knife, a battered pin-on compass or the tattered tail feathers from a pup’s first grouse?
Doubtless, certain sportsmen hold tight to the merits of modern technology, but those of the classic persuasion appreciate tradition. Dyed-in-the-wool wing shooters revel in golden October afternoons, of cresting a rise and finding a dog locked on point, in the damp-dog aroma that permeates a pickup at the end of the day and in the deep silence following the crash of nitro and the metallic ping of an ejected hull.
Washington Irving lived in an era free from social media, televised politics and Internet propaganda. Through stories like “Rip Van Winkle,” he obviously agreed that fields and forests were synonymous with freedom:Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative, to escape from the labor of the farm and clamor of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods. No matter when these pages were drafted, their sentiment holds true today.
Escaping in a manner similar to Ol’ Rip, I park the pickup at the edge of the woods and climb into the soft light of an October afternoon. I’m surrounded by solitude and clothed in a costume synonymous with bird hunting – freshly oiled leather boots, stained goatskin gloves and a scuffed canvas vest.
My setter Winston knows the drill and stands patiently upon the tailgate. Donning brush pants and flat cap, I pocket a handful of purple no. 8s and assemble the old side-by-side. The still tight fit between barrels and frame belies a century of use. Saving the best for last, I smooth my setter’s tri-colored coat and fasten the leather collar around his neck reverently. “All right,” I whisper, and he whirls into the wind, disappearing quickly into the thigh-high ferns.
A fragrant breeze, freighted with the scent of moldering leaves and overripe apples, murmurs among the treetops. Off in the distance, the trusted old bell rings clear among the popples, transcending time and chaos and guiding us into another autumn.