Spent shotgun shells lie in the dirt like Oil Age arrowheads. The top halves have sun-bleached to pink, while the bottoms have stayed as red as the shells in my own gun. Their plastic casing hasn’t cracked yet; the brass has just begun to rust. I shake out the dirt, drop them into my pocket, and perk up. Someone shot at a bird here.
Hunting forces a constant awareness of dogs and partners, and of the truck parked on the other side of those trees, and of another hunter’s orange vest walking beside an old fenceline a quarter mile ahead. We adjust our route to avoid him.
We don’t follow trails out here. We rove, the general direction planned and the particulars improvised: dad wades into a tight, head-high grove while the rest of us fan out among the sagebrush, or someone hears a quail call just beyond the trees and we abandon the hike-around-the-lake idea. Listening is the surest way to find quail. The dogs can smell them, but not all that reliably, and not until we’re almost on top of them. So we listen and look, and we feel all sorts of plants and weather and aches as we go, and this, I think, is mindfulness.
I start the morning wearing all my layers. Long underwear and oversized, button-fly jeans; a t-shirt, wool shirt, ripped jacket, and hunting vest. I wear a wool glove on my left hand, since that one doesn’t need to move the safety or pull the trigger.
Frost makes the plants stiff. The leaves don’t flutter this early in the morning, and the stalks snap as often as bend when I push them aside. The ground breaks differently when I head uphill, up a steep, thirty-degree slope between plateaus. The ice binds the dirt together so my steps don’t crumble into dust like they will a few hours from now, after I’ve stripped off my jacket and everything wool.
The air feels crisp, and it’s my turn to plunge into a tangle of underbrush. My layers armor me against thorns and brambles, against the branches that whip back and try to sting my jeans, vest, hat. Is this how animals feel? Warm in thirty degrees and able to walk anywhere they please?
The underbrush tightens. I wield my gun in front of me like a riot shield. A nettle slides against the back of my ungloved hand and leaves a row of welts that feels good, in a way, like when your nostrils freeze, or when you escape a stuffy room and take that first breath of icy air.
The brush around the lake has grown back thick and wild. One bush glows mauve, plum, and magenta beneath a tree that still holds a hundred shades of green. I don’t know words for these colors.
Nowhere else looks like this place, in this season, in this golden morning light. It’s Planet Earth in IMAX. A painting from the Hudson River School. But those only imitate life while this is real, unbounded by oils or two dimensions or classifications like “mauve,” “plum,” and “magenta.” I retreat to the imitations for language, to show me what to look at. I don’t know how to process the real experience; it’s overwhelming.
“We get to participate,” dad says whenever he talks about hunting. We get to participate in the food chain and the land around us. I feel most connected to the seasons when I’m here among these hills and lakes and old fields. I’ve known this place my whole life, in weekend visits far enough apart that each time it looks new.
Half a jawbone lies in the dirt. It might have belonged to a cow, back before Indian Dan donated this land, back when he used to keep cattle here. Or maybe a coyote carried the jaw from somewhere else, gnawed on it a while and left the scraps for mice and insects to polish off. Nature eats itself, and hunting makes me honest about that, much like gardening does.
I don’t notice much while walking through Seattle, or sitting in my home, or working out at the gym. It’s all the same, these strangers and routines and so much damn drywall. Even on a hike that’s too near my budgets and to-do lists, I have to force my attention: name five things I see, four that I hear, three that I feel.
Today I smell dead quail and gunpowder. Today I taste sweat. Good things, and my attention comes on its own.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. After hitchhiking, he found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He now helps authors introduce their books to the world as the marketing manager for HarperCollins Leadership, builds websites as the owner of Branded Look LLC, and makes trail maps as the owner of Where We’ve Been Trail Maps. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.