There are two ways to hunt doves, neither of which works. Since the main idea is to spend a day afield, either method is satisfactory.

The classic dove shoot involves dozens, scores or even hundreds of gunners, ranged around a vast and recently cut cornfield. Ideally it lies between a woods where the birds roost and a pond where they drink, and is bordered by a gravel road where they peck up grit for their crops.

In theory the setup draws the doves and the gunners alert each other and the fusillades of shots keep a dodging bird aloft until it blunders into somebody's cloud of pellets. It sounds unfair, but in practice most dove shoots produce very few kills, many excuses, and oceans of money of wildlife conservation, since the purchase of all that powder and shot yields taxes earmarked for land acquisition and game management.

All such organized shoots really are occasions for social gatherings. Some are parties held by persons of consequence; tweedy men bring their wives and much drink and food are consumed. Fine shotguns are carried and discussed but seldom employed. Real dove shoots are attended by rural working men and their sons eager to see old friends and take a break from summer's labors; they mostly carry pumpguns and actually are hoping to down birds to carry home to squeamish and resentful wives and mothers.

The distinction is of small consequence to the doves, since three out of five of them will die before next nesting season, fewer than one in the dozen by the hand of the hunter. Doves are the grass of the avian world, upon which countless predators graze.

The other way to seek doves is to go alone to an abandoned farm and wander around pretending to hunt them. It is pretense because solo dove hunting is nearly as fruitless as trying to walk up quail without a dog; the birds are found rarely and always unexpectedly, so that when they do appear you're never ready.

The only valid reason for carrying a shotgun on such a foray is to keep people from calling the sheriff; an unarmed, dogless man quartering the countryside is a suspicious character. Touch off a round now and then and all will be well, assuming you have permission to hunt the ground.

What one finds on such a hunt besides fresh air and exercise and now and then a dove is a feeling for who used to live on the land and perhaps some clue to what became of them. It is not something that can be divined in a day, but some suggestions present themselves almost at first glance: how the house was seated; how near it was the barn; what kinds of trees remain, if any, and are they older than the buildings; is there logic in the fencelines; are there gullies in the fields, is the barnyard strewn with the bones of worn-out machines.

Some ground gives no answers. There is a farm in Fauquier County, distant yet from exurban sprawl, that not many years ago was a thriving dairy operation. The layout speaks of a clearheaded, careful husbandman of great energy and little imagination.

It was a sizable operation, with two houses, two great barns, a milk shed and other outbuildings, only two of them properly oriented to the sun and the prevailing winds on the knoll where several still stand.

The land is held by speculators now, and until the demand justifies subdivision it's being contract-farmed as one huge cornfield broken only by fencerows too brushy to be worth clearing, where foxes and rabbits and quail still find refuge and deer make secret passage from one woods to another. The soil never was rich but it not yet poor and is little eroded, so the farmers who have tilled it for at least a couple of centuries must have had some feeling for it. Yet the most recent dwelling has no windows to the south, where both the finest view and the warmth of the sun were free for the taking.

One walks the land with little sense of the spirit of the man who most recently held it or of why he gave it up, since nearby farms still flourish. Perhaps he just wore himself out, or borrowed too much money, or grew old without sons who cared to take over.

An afternoon's research at the county courthouse would tell much, but it is more satisfying to listen to the land. The matter will come clearer of itself as the doveless days go by.