First of all, let’s take a moment to revel in the fact that I have managed to upload a photo.
I have managed to upload a photo.
Once I buy a digital camera, this blog is gonna go in a whole different direction.
So, do you like the gratuitious puppy photo? Is Nick not the cutest damn dog you have seen recently?
He is about to be my dad’s last hunting dog. For as long as I can remember, my dad has counted down to his death via his purchases, so, for example, five years ago when he bought these incredibly fancy fly-fishing waders from Cabela’s, he said “These are my second-to-last-pair of waders in my life.” His elaborate fly-rod was “one of the last” and his last shotgun was “probably his fifth or sixth last gun.” For a long time I rolled my eyes at this kind of language because I couldn’t recongize it as my father grappling with the very real fact of his aging and instead found it melodramatic reasoning for spending loads of money. But my dad is sixty-four now and if I sit and consider if for a moment, this puppy will certainly be, as he says, his last bird dog.
And that is hard to imagine for me, because bird dogs have marked full eras of my life, and because so far S. doesn’t bird hunt it’s unlikely we will ever have one. Oh, sure, we may adopt a mutt at some point, or even buy a collie or a golden retriever down the line, but my life in dogs has been marked by spaniels, first springers and then a Brittany and now, the fanciest, hoity-toitiest bird dog of them all, the French Brittany. And there is something,to me, so remarkable about bird dogs, about entire breeds born to point and flush woodcock, grouse and pheasant – the way instinct consumes them so immediately. A drive in the woods with a bird dog is one way to understand eternity.
Our first bird dog was Toby, a runt-of-the-litter springer spaniel who adored my dad and me and hated my mother and my brother. My dad decided, since he and I were the calmer personalities in the house, the dog understood something basic about human nature and despite the fact the dog never once let me mom into her bedroom without my dad calming him down, first, Toby was part of our lives for thirteen years. Toby’s personality was hair-trigger and he had bitten more than one person who tried to approach me unexepectedly, but I trusted him completely and used to pat my chest, which signaled to him he could climb on top of me so I could rub his ears. In the mornings whenI was particularly young, and woke up before my parents, Toby could sense my alertness and he would come to my bedroom to play while we both waited for breakfast. Oh, he was a psycho dog, no doubt – and neither my mom nor my brother ever managed to warm to him, but he loved me and was loyal to my dad and every uncle I have has sworn to Toby’s prowess in the woods. After Toby died I asked my uncle Bob if Ty (the new spaniel) was as good as Toby in the woods and Bob replied that Ty was a great bird dog, but no bird dog had ever been meant to hunt, the way Toby had.
Ty, who I got to name, came after Toby right before I left for college. Ty will probably always be my dad’s favorite only because in dog years, he and Ty spent a couple of years around the same “age,” which my dad found wonderful. Ty is a Brittany spaniel, and so sweet it breaks your heart to think he has to survive the world, even as a dog. He is breaking down, now, though – he has colitis and kidney trouble and cataracts and can’t spend another autumn in the woods. A lot of the conversations I have with my dad center around Ty’s potential receptivity to this new puppy – we discuss dog psychology, and how Ty has never really liked puppies to begin with. On the one hand, my dad feels like he is betraying Ty, the nicest bird dog in the world, with this new, expensive, one-of-a-kind puppy, but, on the other, he says, Ty is just a dog, and my dad shouldn’t miss a fall of bird hunting, for a dog’s feelings, for God’s sake.
I love how instinct rules these dogs – how the just the sight of my dad’s hunting bag sends them into frenzies around the house – how they aren’t allowed in the room with shotguns, because they know what shotguns are and will want to race to the woods, immediately. I love the way their legs tremble in the car when driving through the woods, as though their destiny is right there, and they could fulfill it if only given the chance. When they come home, paws and legs bloody and bruised, briars caught in their ears, I loved that often I got to groom them, sleepy, worn out dogs on my lap, allowing me to clip their nails and trim their ears – they are the first things I ever tended.
Nick, the last good bird dog, will be picked up by my father in Minneapolis next week, at precisely 3:00 PM in the afternoon, on a certain day, and my dad will drive day and night to bring him home, where he and my mom have staged an elaborate meeting ritual for him and Ty, on neutral territory, a beach. I know a lot of people who justify not owning a dog (or dogs) because of the expense, because they want to travel, but my parents are dog people and both say they can’t imagine a life without a dog. What a soulless way to live, my dad says.
I have a picture of my dad that is my favorite, and I keep meaning to frame. In the picture it is winter and my father is dressed in warm hunting pants and a flannel shirt. In one hand he holds a shot gun and spread out before him are some late-season birds. In the other arm rests Ty, his tongue hanging out in full-dog pride. It reminds me of the way my parents marked the days for me, growing up – and the way they fed me – grouse wrapped in bacon and stuffed with gouda, woodcock over toast with gravy, pheasant roasted and served with pan-cherry sauce. Meals we ate all winter long, thanks to the dogs in our lives.
We have high hopes for Nick, the French Brittany – he has a lot to live up to – some (please, forgive me, I know it’s awful) big paws to fill. But he is my dad’s last bird dog and I hope the same kind of instinct that takes over in the woods, will fill this puppy and help him recognize this fact – that he is the last bird dog, destined to hunt in Hemingway’s last good country, by the side of a man who has high hopes, come this bird season.