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Homage to Guy de la Valdène

Part II: Quail Hunting in a Piney Woods

‘Death steals everything except our stories.’
— Jim Harrison, In Search of Small Gods

In early December 2019, Upland Almanac Editor Tom Carney and I began making plans to pack up our setters, Maddie and Katie (mine), Lizzy and Abbey (his), and trek down from our homes in Michigan and Ohio to visit Guy de la Valdène at Dogwood Farm in northern Florida’s Gadsden County. The goal was to hunt wild quail on his beautifully managed 800-acre covers that winter and then conduct an interview for this magazine regarding his rich, lifelong bird hunting experiences, some of which were the substance of his unparalleled trilogy of upland books — Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock (1985, 1990), For a Handful of Feathers (1995) and The Fragrance of Grass (2011) — on woodcock, quail and Huns, respectively. In 2003, then again between 2010 and 2015, I had hunted numerous times at Guy’s main Dogwood Farm and his secondary property, 850-acre El Consuelo Plantation, and my enthusiastic accounts of those visits, I hoped, would prove contagious for Tom as well. Not surprisingly, he was immediately all in, and so we arranged with Guy to arrive in mid-to late-February 2020, toward the tail end of Florida’s quail season.

We never made it.

Because, like a juggernaut, the Covid pandemic hit and out of common-sense caution and extreme trepidation, all our plans were put on hold. But as is often the case in such cataclysms, things only went from bad to worse, and in an eye blink it seemed the world was on the brink of careening out of control. Emails and phone calls flew back and forth, and whatever hope we had about making the trip — if not in 2020 then a year hence in 2021 –– receded further and further from sight. A one-year postponement stretched to two, then three. In the interim, many things collapsed. Bird dogs passed on (Maddie, Lizzy and Abbey), friends and family came down with various pernicious ailments and suffered all manner of body betrayals, and worst of all, loved ones died.

When Guy’s beloved wife Terry died in 2020, he wrote me that “things here are slow. Health, enthusiasm, etc.” He later added sarcastically, “Welcome to the Golden Years.”

He seemed resolute in the face of that and another earlier disaster, his daughter Valerie’s mysterious death in 2014, and his own failing health and various surgeries, but I would not have expected any less from him. Whatever the cause — Covid, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or otherwise — none of us were immune to the onslaught, even Guy, the once heartiest of us all, who passed away in early 2023 after a troubling, painful physical decline that had worsened over the previous three years.

Guy de la Valdène (from left), Jimbo Meador and Robert DeMott gather for a pre-hunt confab with French Brittanys Brigitte and Louie.

His death was bitter. We were contemporaries in age, for Christ’s sake (he might have been a brother or a cousin in another life), and his passing cast a long shadow on my heart. I considered him a gifted artiste, an expert outdoorsman, a bird dog man extraordinaire, a brilliant chef, a remarkably generous host, an unusually affable person, an economically privileged man with a common touch and, more than anything else, an abiding presence in my personal sporting pantheon. You know how it is with some people: They are lodestars, and just knowing they are alive and keeping on in the world is cause for immense rejoicing. I can say without hesitation Guy was one of those special people. When I heard he had died, I wept uncontrollably, for him, for myself and for family and friends who knew him way better than I did.

But what’s left when reality outstrips dreams, what sustains us in times of disappointment and grief? It is a turn toward our memories, the root of our narrative stories, especially those that are buoyant, positive and redolent.

In the previous issue of The Upland Almanac, I wrote a tribute to Guy’s Making Game, his exquisite paean to woodcock and a bolt of lightning still ablaze in the world of sporting literature. This time around, however, my focus is on a tangled, textured skein of memories and experiences associated with some yearly visits I made when he invited me to his marvelous northern Florida estate, where wild bobwhite quail and companionable bird dogs were coin of the realm.

“I hope to see you here this winter…. We are loaded with quail,” he offered in his usual hale, welcoming manner on more than one occasion during that period. Visiting Guy’s was doubly pleasant as it gave me time to catch up with my former Ohio University Ph.D. student Patrick Smith, who was living at Dogwood Farm while he was teaching at Bainbridge State College in southern Georgia and who had become one of Guy’s close sporting friends and trusted allies.

In six-plus decades of upland bird hunting and fly fishing, I count myself fortunate to have accumulated a lifetime collection of lasting memories with good friends that keep providing soulful sustenance. My friendship with Jim Harrison, however, jump-started a series of rarefied acquaintances I never could have predicted, dreamed of or realized, for it was through Jim that I brushed elbows, metaphorically speaking, with a remarkable group of artists, writers and sportsmen: besides Guy, the group included Russell Chatham, Tom McGuane, Charles Gaines, Jim Fergus, Richard Ford, Carl Hiassen; and also Jimbo Meador, legendary southern woods and waters sportsman; Dr. Charles Harvey, retired surgeon and avid dog man who appears prominently in The Fragrance of Grass; and on one especially memorable occasion, the one-and-only Jimmy Buffett. All of them enriched my life in ways I am still calculating. That several of that distinguished group are gone now, my beloved student Patrick Smith among them, only makes the memories more poignant, the echoes bittersweet at best.

This stone cobra, carved by de la Valdène’s mother, Diana Guest, stands sentinel over the small lake at Dogwood Farm.

It is 850 miles from my home in southern Ohio to Guy’s farm, just far enough to seem like an exotic destination and worthwhile road trip, yet close enough to make it in a day or day-and-half. Leaving an Ohio winter for some temperate southern exposure always had the right allure. The spectacular grounds at Dogwood — the carefully tended lawns around the living quarters and the acre after acre of well-managed prime southeastern understory cover and regal long-leaf pine woods — are home to an abundance of all manner of flora and fauna that a person used to a northern landscape would notnormally encounter. Everything about the place was exotic, even the seemingly endless driveway off the highway that brought you around a sizable lake (one pleasant afternoon between bird hunts Guy and I fished for bass there out of his jon boat), and then up to the main house and the nearby tandem guest houses, the latter fronted by a reflective swimming pool and expansive tiled patio where I would enjoy early morning coffee at a leisurely pace and had the chance to count my lucky stars before easing into the day afield.

Too, there are arresting sculptures to take note of, for Guy’s mother, the late Diana Guest, was a prominent stone sculptor. At the edge of the lake, a 4-foot-high coiled cobra (featured in her book Diana Guest, Stonecarver) looks out over the water with a kind of ominous intensity, perhaps a sign that even in the midst of Elysium one has to be careful not to misstep. Two of her matched retrievers flank the driveway, offering silent greetings to all who come their way and a symbolic indication that you have arrived at a place where dogs rule.

Dogwood struck me as the kind of unique, sequestered place, a world unto itself, where anything at all could happen. It turned out that for me, anyway, it was all good.

Guy’s splendid book, For a Handful of Feathers — every bit the conscientious equal to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac — gives all the information one would want about his acquisition of the farm, his ongoing efforts at responsible, ecologically sound stewardship and the complex details of maintaining a first-class wild quail population in a swath of northern Florida and southern Georgia that has its share of renowned quail plantations and rabid quail supporters, advocates and aficionados.

For wild bobwhite, the fertile, rolling Red Hills region (roughly speaking, stretching from Thomasville, Georgia, to Tallahassee, Florida) is the epicenter, both for managed hunting and for the kind of wild bird population and maintenance studies carried on at the famed Tall Timbers research center in Tallahassee. Guy was smack dab, cheek-by-jowl, amid the best bird habitat imaginable, and he made the most of it at considerable expense of time, energy and money:

“So the farmer in me grows an annual crop of wild flying delicacies and the hunter in me harvests a percentage of this fruitage; the businessman in me recognizes a losing proposition and the child in me doesn’t give a shit,” as he puts it in one of the memorable sentences in his book.

With more than two dozen resident wild coveys, Dogwood Farm offered the best of possibilities for its host and its guests alike. When “hunting season arrives,” Guy writes in A Handful of Feathers, “I think of them as my birds, to be shared with whom I chose, when I choose.”

That wasn’t acquisitiveness talking, but pride in his successful, labor-intensive stewardship, and a large dollop of his legendary generosity to boot. On a fortunate day when the dogs worked their marvels on any number of coveys, you managed to shoot well enough not to embarrass yourself or your gunning partners, and at last were rewarded with one of Dogwood’s jet-propelled quail in your hand, it was like catching lightning in a bottle. You never forgot it.

Hunts were carefully organized on Dogwood and El Consuelo, specific coverts chosen with care, then rested and rotated to avoid excessive pressure. Guests respected the ethical protocols, and each day’s outing — usually one in the morning, then after a leisurely lunch, one later in the afternoon — found you partnered with a like-minded sporting companion and an eager, willing company of French Brittanys, English pointers, English setters, German wirehairs and a plethora of well-trained English cockers that seemed to revel in zipping around under the legs of the taller dogs and stealing their thunder.

Ah, sweet serenity! Near the pool outside the guest house is a great spot for taking one’s morning coffee in peace.

I loved hunting at Guy’s because the day’s outing was always about spectacular dog work in an unparalleled, textbook setting and numbers of coveys encountered, never solely about bag count. Some birds were taken, many were missed, and that was the way it went. Better yet, enough birds were taken — it didn’t matter how many (though suffice to say it was a small percentage of the total flushes) — to make the time afield (and the marvelous after-hunt dinners) not only worthwhile but also to serve as proof that there was nowhere on earth you would rather be in those moments, as the following few excerpts from my hunting journals might suggest.

January 27, 2010: Jimbo Meador, Jimmy Buffett, and I hunted a section of Dogwood Farm this cool, clear, bright morning until about 11:30. We ran my setter, Meadow, and Jimbo’s English cocker, Dixie, as a companionable working pair. They meshed well together on a few coveys. Meadow pointed, Dixie flushed, the guys shot. We got some birds but missed some too. Buffett — he’s a surprisingly good hunter — shot a quail over one of Meadow’s points, so as far as laying up tallies in setter heaven, she has that going for her! Good girl! Big shindig tonight at Guy and Terry’s with the Harrisons, Patrick Smith, Charlie Harvey, Russ Chatham, Jimbo, the Buffetts, Mario Batali and others. Not sure I’ll even be able to hunt tomorrow! Let the revelry begin!

February 22, 2011: Guy and I hunted Dogwood, 8-10 this a.m., with my Meadow, Guy’s handsomeLouie and Brigitte [French Brittanys], and Heather, his English cocker. Very good, lively action on 6 different coveys, and we came away satisfied with several birds each. They were gifts, and they were enough. Despite the heat, the dogs acquitted themselves like champs. Louie is a hot ticket, a real bird finder. Guy carries a Belgian 24-guage side-by-side, an exquisite piece. I have never seen one before.

February 12, 2012: Windy day, sunny and cool. Nice day to be out. Guy, Patrick Smith, and Charlie Harvey (wonderful storyteller!), and I hunted several hours this a.m. at El Consuelo in Quincy. Charlie and I with his dynamo pointer Ida, Skye, his German wirehair, and Ginger, his great cocker. The dogs got us into 5 coveys, and we had outstanding dog work. Skyeand Ida pointed, Ginger flushed, Charlie and I bangedaway (I managed a double), Ginger retrieved. Guy and Patrick went off in another direction with Louie, came back with birds in hand. No lost birds today. All accounted for by excellent dogs. It doesn’t get any better.

February 16 & 17, 2014: Saturday: Guy and I hunted Dogwood, 9-10:30. We had points on 4 coveys on plenty of fine dog work with my Maddie [English setter] and Guy’s Louie and Brigitte. One moment was worth the trip — all 3 dogs locked up on a covey. A wonderful picture! A few birds taken by each of us, some others missed. Sunday: Patrick, Charlie Harvey, and I hunted 3-5 p.m. at El Consuelo with Maddie, and Charlie’s Skye, Ida, and Ginger. 3 good sized coveys, probably 80 birds total, and one indelible moment with Ida and Maddie locked on birds together. They looked like those sculptures Guy’s mother might have made. Life imitating art, or is it the other way around?

Margaritaville didn’t include an English setter hunting pal, but Dogwood Farm did. Here, the late singer Jimmy Buffett enjoys with Meadow a post-hunt salute to the dogs, the birds, the land and the host — Guy de la Valdène — who brought them all together.

February 10, 2015: Jimbo Meador here from Alabama. Wonderful man. A pleasure to know. He, Guy, and I hunted 9-11:30 this a.m. at Dogwood. Maddie, that sweet gal, really off her game. Busted a few birds, so unlike her, though she did find a pair of downed birds everyone else had run by.

There was something restrained, genteel and unhurried about hunting at Dogwood and El Consuelo. It had a convivial social element as far from a free-for-all as could be imagined. Perhaps it stemmed from the wisdom of old age, but the pace was ratcheted down, and there was simply no need for one-upmanship, competitiveness or constant hurry-up in order to put another bird in your game bag.

“Everything I do now that involves birds, dogs, and a gun has been simplified to the extreme,” he admitted in The Fragrance of Grass. In fact, Guy now and then left his gun at home, happy to work the dogs instead and aid and abet his partner’s success, whatever that might prove to be. In the field on those occasions, with or without his gun (Jim Harrison believed Guy was one of the best shots he ever saw), he was as knowledgeable, forthcoming and bone honest about assessing habitat and judging the fine points of bird dog behavior as any professional guide I have ever known. You would have to be a dolt not to profit from his experience and insight. I know I did. He defined what it meant to be a fully conscious, ethical sportsman. Plus, for a literature wonk like me, he could talk books, culture and art as well as any college professor, so there was that extra icing on the intellectual cake.

Which is to say, Guy de la Valdène was large and contained multitudes. It wasn’t only hunting that brought many of us to his world but the whole surround of wild birds, good-going bird dogs, convivial, large-hearted company, superb epicurean dinners and meaningful conversation. To hunt with Guy, to spend time in his company, to hear his stories, to share his splendid table with friends (and dogs!) was to be touched by a remarkable generosity of spirit and to be immersed, ever too briefly, in a rare, unified way of being in the world worthy of celebration.

Bob DeMott

About author
Bob DeMott, (demott@ohio.edu), a lifelong upland hunter, co-editor of Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs and retired English professor, has been a regular contributor to The Upland Almanac since 2018. A native New Englander, he now lives in southe