column By: Glen Blackwood | July, 20
Laurel, my spaniel sidekick for the past 11 seasons, will not be in the truck this October. She turned 12 in January, and her days afield are limited to memories.
While her desire to cast across our backyard and find hidden bumpers by her nose remains resolute, her pace and athleticism have receded. Hunting her last fall, I saw glimpses of our future. She struggled this past winter with the cold and snow, leaving her nest only for bodily relief and not to romp, retrieve or catch the scent of fresh air. It was only after the Michigan winter broke and snow gave way to grass that I fully realized her casts were to the beat of a waltz, not of improvisational jazz as in our past. As I am prone to do in times such as this, I searched my bookcase for solace and found it in the words of Robert F. Jones.
In the opening paragraph of his book Upland Passage: A Field Dog’s Education, he writes:
If life were fair, hunters and their gundogs would have identical life spans — learning, peaking, and declining together, step for step, one man, one dog hunting alone along a trail toward the Great Grouse Cover in the Sky. But it doesn’t work that way. Few hardworking hunting dogs last more than a dozen seasons. Then time catches up with them, rewarding their diligence with arthritis, cataracts, cysts, tumors, and just plain old age.
This title, published in 1992 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, combines the author’s candid voice regarding gun dogs and bird hunting with photographs by Bill Eppridge, the noted photographer, with whom the author worked during his tenure as a staff writer at both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine. The text and images combine the stories of the retiring of the veteran black Labrador called Luke and the developing new yellow Labrador, Jake. While this book might be small in size, a mere 68 pages, it is large in scope as it depicts the lessons and bonds that the author achieved through his canine companions.
Published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux was a children’s book along the same theme, Jake: A Labrador Puppy at Work and Play. I soundly suggest this book be read by or to any child with an interest in bird dogs.
A professional writer by trade, beginning as a newspaper journalist for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later as a staff writer and columnist for major magazines, Jones also wrote sporting fiction as well as novels such as The Run to Gitche Gumee published by Skyhorse Press in 2001. His writing background taught him to write the story from the inside, then inside out and tell it in a robust, succinct and detailed nature. His raw descriptive phrases add to his works, while not being wordy.
Another of his strong sporting works was included in Dancers in the Sunset Sky, from Lyons & Burford Publishers, 1996. I would start by reading the book’s final piece, “In the Drowned Lands.” Combining both romance and nostalgia, the story is set in New York state and includes a well-balanced, 14-gauge cap lock Greener, a brace of clumber spaniels and woodcock. Add in a pinch of mystique to further the ambience and you have quite a tale.
Another essay, “Glorious Carnage,” compares and contrasts pheasant hunting or shooting from a boyhood South Dakota trip in 1948 to a driven pheasant shoot in the United Kingdom in 1974. The essay’s title is brutally honest and illustrates the crisp truthfulness found throughout Jones’ works. He writes of being a bloodthirsty young hunter while being remorseful at the same time. I believe he gleaned that trait from reading, as this book references authors and cites passages from George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, Tolstoy and Kafka. Both essays also appear in A Roaring in the Blood: Remembering Robert F. Jones, published in 2006 by Sporting Classics magazine.
Finally, I feel the need to mention Jones’ use of vocabulary. While big, obscure words are certainly not a prerequisite to good writing, they can add notes of flavor when used properly. His words do just that.
In the second paragraph of Upland Passage, Jones writes:
But the good ones never lose their passion for the field. Nothing is sadder for the hunter than seeing his old dog lame and white-muzzled but with his tail still going like a runaway metronome, as the man takes down his gun for an outing he knows the dog cannot endure. The dog stares up with clouded eyes, pleading.
“No boy,” the man says. “Not anymore. You stay home and rest.”
I am sure I have a puppy in my future. For now, I have an old gal asleep on her nest. I could go out and hide a bumper, awake her and give her a run. Then again, I could let her dream of October afternoons.