The way watercolor artist Chris Clarke sees it, hunting gives him insights into the world he paints that he just can't get any other way.

He recently told a mixed group of proponents and opponents at a Maryland forum on the future of hunting that the sport demands a focus birdwatching, hiking or sightseeing simply do not. His participation as a predator, as he put it, channels his attention and sharpens his senses, he said, leaving him rich images to pass along in his work.

In short, hunting puts him inside the picture, instead of on the outside looking in.

The calendar says only a few weeks remain until hunting opens again hereabouts, with dove season coming first on Sept. 1 in both Maryland and Virginia. The good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, Clarke will be there, as will millions of kindred souls across the land.

Maybe it will be hot. Some opening days in these parts the sun beats down with merciless summer intensity and the air hangs heavy as damp wool. Days like that, you want to get near a waterhole where the doves come to refresh themselves.

But it could be cool, too, with an early northwester blasting down from Canada, dry and crisp as silica. On such days you want to park yourself near fresh-cut grain, where the birds look to feed up for their migration south.

There's no predicting any of it, of course -- not the weather, the conditions, the presence of birds, the likelihood of success or failure, even the keenness of shooting skills after an eight-month layoff. The unpredictability, in fact, is largely what draws you back.

But one thing is sure. Wherever you walk and wherever you stop, you will remember it. You will not have passed that place by; you will have been there.

It's odd how different these places turn out to be under your own two feet than they look, viewed in a rush from the car or out the window of a climate-controlled house.

The cornfield that appears flat and smooth as a dance floor is as textured in the flesh as the bay on a breezy day, full of humps and hillocks, clods, stones, watercourses, weeds. It makes for hard walking for us, but did you see that rabbit take off?

The beaver pond that looks innocent and picturesque from the road turns out to be a quagmire waiting to suck you under a tangle of lilypads. Yet the wood ducks are right at home there.

Quickly: How long do you think it takes from the time the sun touches the horizon until it disappears completely from view? Six minutes? Ten?

Most any waterfowler can tell you it's three minutes to the second. He will have watched it often, disappointed usually, because when the sun is gone his day is done, by law.

How different the woods are in the dark before dawn, when the deer hunter slips noiselessly to his tree stand. How easy to get lost among the shadowy thorns and deadfalls.

How distinctive are the forest sounds, once you get to know them: The dee-dee-dee of the chickadee, the harsh scolding of a titmouse or a wren, the leaf-rustling of grey squirrels followed by the clack of their warning call, like two half-dollars struck together hard.

What breaks sticks in the woods? It can only be a hunter or deer approaching; nothing else is heavy or clumsy enough. And that shrieking cry? That's the giant pileated woodpecker, the "Lord God" bird, so nicknamed because when he startles you with his call, you're likely to exclaim involuntarily, "Lord, God!"

I myself am recently back from a bit of a jump-start on hunting season -- two weeks of rabbit hunting in southern Spain, where cottontails are so plentiful the government offers an early season to keep their numbers in check.

But that makes it sound too easy, as if rabbits by the score bounded out of every hidey-hole, unbidden. Not so, of course.

The way we hunt in the rolling countryside north of Huelva puts a premium on stealth and knowledge of the land. You plod, plod, plod, quiet as you can go, and if you're lucky, get a half-dozen shots in a day.

But even if you come up skunked, as happens, you've not tramped in vain. Long after a trip to the farm in Spain, I'll open a drawer where I've stored my hunting vest and whiff the piny brush that fills the underbrush there. The resin sticks to my clothes and remains so richly redolent, the odor transports me back to bright, dusty places I have known.

What memories stick best? Big failures, often as not. My fondest goose-hunting recollection is of a long day spent alone in a cornfield near Chestertown, Md., watching Canada geese by the hundreds buzz in and out of a pond a mile or two away.

Though none came near my pit blind, I knew if I waited long enough some might stray that way. Near sunset, five lifted off the pond and, employing the power of positive thinking, I decided they were my birds.

Honking with renewed vigor on the goose call, I watched in astonishment as the geese banked and headed straight for me. A few hundred yards out they cupped their wings obligingly and began dropping, passing over the blind once, then spinning into the wind for a final approach. My heart stopped.

At precisely the proper moment, I threw off the cover of the blind, stood and shot three times, never dusting a feather with a pellet. The geese glanced down disdainfully and headed for friendlier parts.

I'll not forget that scene, nor the complex mix of emotions accompanying it -- wonder, bewilderment, despair, delight.

If I had Clarke's gift, I might be able to capture some of it in a painting. As it is, I'll have to be content with the picture in my mind, which is plenty.