"Indian Autumn," the brief cool spell that always comes in the midst of the dog days, brings the promise of fall days afield.
And it always catches me unprepared: Where are the dove decoys? Why isn't there a calendar in the house that shows the phases of the moon? Is Jack's Pennsylvania friend going to let us hunt on him again this year, and when is deer season up there, anyway? Which guy was it who borrowed the waders? On my sainted aunt look at this shotgun, salt water must have gotten into the case! Where is Cork's phone number? Who was it I invited to come East for which season, why didn't I write it down?
Being unready is part of the plan, because scrambling to catch up fills the last long weeks before the first seasons open. It's an excuse to go skeet shooting, to spend long hours in the sporting-goods stores, and to fool around in the workshop. Or in this case in friend Dave's workshop, where he is solving the problem of the deer rifle that doesn't shoot straight when it rains.
Fortunately the seasons, from dove to deer, come at intervals that allow time for gearing up. The preparation for me is more pyschological than physical anyway: The most important things one takes to the field are perception and pace.
Moving from the city into the wild world is a journey in time as well as space, and adjusting to rhythms that follow neither schedules nor clocks is not only necessary, it's the main point of hunting for me. I can't sit at my desk for more than a few hours, but by the end of deer season I will have relearned how to sit almost unmoving in the woods from dawn to dark, waiting for an animal that may not come or may be gone in a matter of seconds; and to spend an hour crawling a hundred years along a riverbank toward a flock of gabbling ducks; and to stand all day in a howling winter wind searching the sky for geese.
The shotgun and my joints are rusty, but rustiest of all are my eyes, locked for most of the time in reading focus or the sidewalk stare. Seeing far, and wide, in the great outdoors is an art that takes concentration and practice.
The guide who has taught me to love Chincoteague and to understand something about its wildlife can identify by species, and sometimes sex and age, birds I can barely see through binocluars. Objectively my eyes are better than his, but he has been watching the birds with loving attention for half a century, steeping himself in subtle details of flight attitude, wingbeat, flock patterns and a hundred other things he is sometimes hard-pressed to explain because they were not learned so much as absorbed.
When that chilly morning came last week it reminded me to look. When the squirrel in the front yard completed his burglary of my almond tree and scampered into the maple, I kept watching instead of turning back to the paper when he disappeared into the leaves. He was hiding to eat the nut, but wanted to be able to see all around him. So he stopped short of the densest branches. After I had looked long and carefully enough there was the shape of an ear and then the flick of his tail.
Watching him, I became aware that the tree was full of mourning doves, sitting almost motionless while digesting the mulberries they had gorged on in the street and squirting the purple results all over my van.
Below them, crouched in the hedge waiting for an unwary bird to flutter down to pick gravel from the crumbling sidewalk, was Sam the Cat. He is a fine mouser and a fair birder, but his ambition has always been to pounce on a plump, tasty dove. He has been trying and failing for five years without getting more than the odd tailfeather, yet he keeps on keeping on.
I will try to take his example into the field with me this season, for Sam is what I never will be: a natural hunter. If I could take half his stealth and awareness afield I could see very time what instead comes at rare moments: fox kits at play; a fawn trying to nurse while his mother tries to wean him; mallards and black ducks struggling for dominance in a marsh pond; a peregrine falcon preening. . .
But in that case those moments would mean no more to me than following my trail meant to the coyote who tracked me down on Bull Run Mountain. Another day at the office.