The end of January is the close of pheasant season in England. The Beater’s Shoot marks the day at the end of the season when the paying guns are done, and the beaters take guns in hand. At this point in the season, one takes aim at the wily fowl who have managed to survive not only foxes and dogs, but the other guns who’ve been at it since November. These are the birds who’ve managed to keep their feet on the ground, or who’ve won the lottery of the air.
I’ll tell you right now, that I’m a terrible shot, and my fumbling attempts with a firearm led me to the conclusion that I am left-eye dominant and right-handed – a physiology at cross purposes for the sport. But I preferred the work of the beater to the sport of the guns anyway. My eyes were better suited to sweeping the scenes of the hedgerows, searching out the silhouettes of trees. Old perry trees. The lone oaks settling in their centuries-old seats on the hills. The hawthorns and the blackthorns dividing the fields.
In England, one of my best friends was a gamekeeper for a small shoot on a local farm, and his sweetheart had an eye for good dogs and taste for good gin. Many of their circle were hunters and farmers and gamekeepers. Even my neighbour next door was gamekeeper. My social circle was the working edge of English Country Life, peppered with people in other professions: occupational therapists, farmers, conservationists, blacksmiths, repairmen, EMTs, and caterers. On the weekends, the working folks would gather for the working man’s portion of the country shoot: we were the beaters.
The beaters stalk the birds, flushing them slowly from their hiding places in the thickets and streams, along the hedgerows, chasing them carefully toward the edge of a hill, where they finally fly up and out, into the air where the gentlemen with guns are waiting to take aim.
On reflection it seems a bit unfair, chasing these dull birds to the edge of their small range of comfort, where they have fed and roosted all summer and fall, towards a trap of forced flight before a firing squad. But crawling through the hedges, and along the fields, the immediate feeling is a quiet rush, the thrill of stalking the quarry. The successful shot is more than the work of a trigger finger and an eye. It is the quick targeting, the end capture of a long slow ramble begun by the side of the road. Jumping out of an old truck, sweeping the landscape of its feathers, with a long brushstroke traced by wellington boots on the muddy ground, the beaters flush the countryside towards the moment of the shot. And it is almost an afterthought in the air to hours of feet in the mud, wading through acres of wheat and feed corn.
By the end of the season, I knew the paths well. We traced a pattern each time, along a series of field boundaries, scrambling across streams, quiet, so as not to scare the birds to an early flight. You must keep them scuttling across the ground till the last moment. And each time I retraced the path I loved it more. My favourite hedge was one studded with old perry trees. Who knows how old they were? Or if anyone had ever collected their pears? Had they been planted? Had they sprung up as wildings in the hedge? Who could say? I loved encountering trees this way, as signposts on my path, familiar sentinels in the fields, yet lonely, somewhat desolate in the midst of a wild undergrowth of young hedge. We were shooing the pheasants, birds we could rarely see until they flew, through their daily habitat among the shrubs and trees toward a brief and panicked vault towards the sky.
At the end of the first drive, we would end up on the edge of the Dabinette orchard and walk to my friend’s family home for a lunch of pork sandwiches and cider, and set out again for the afternoon. And at the end, tired, we’d walk the last stretch to the pub.
The memory is three years old now. But what I think what a pleasure it would be walk out again with my friends, stand on the headland overlooking the Wye Valley, with Ross below us, May Hill in the distance, and my friends ready with flasks full of home-made sloe gin tucked in tweed pockets to keep us warm from the inside.
We would wave our hands in the air to shoo the birds towards the guns if they took fright and flew. But from the top of that high hill, the escaping birds could see, like us, the Shire below, peaceful, settled into the grey quiet of winter.
I’m not so different from the pheasant. Who wouldn’t want to keep their heads under these quiet hedges? The trick is to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
Days later, after the beater’s shoot at the end of the season, I was in the air too, on a plane, flushed out of my beloved hedgerows by threats slowly pursuing me: the end of a work visa, faltering finances, the duty to return home to tend unfinished business.
It’s not the final shot that hurts – no – it’s the grief of letting your feet leave the textured, familiar ground of a beloved place.
Will the old pear trees still be there when I return, the oaks? They are long-lived trees, and I hope they will still be there to greet me, landing from another life, another textured ground in Ithaca, across the sea.
For Toby, Kate, Howie, Ed, Mel, Laura, Will, Mark, Ru, St.John, and the rest of the Rascals
Brrhhhrrrhh, the roll of the tongue, Brrrhhhrrhh,
A rough coo tumbling into the cover of wheat
Where the birds barely rustle.
The roll of a tongue and the rasp of a stick on the wheat,
The rhythmic beat, and the rough-shod treading of feet
over the wet pasture, over the stile.
Beyond, in the next field over, the unsettled bleat
of a flock of Shropshires retreating from the din of the guns,
to the far side of their pasture.
And the rolling hum of the beaters,
driving their wild feathered flock
towards one last flight for the guns,
From the hedge studded with old perry trees,
From the swollen stream and the bramble-curtained low ravine,
From the pig’s wood, from the maize, from the corn,
Till finally, their long tails trailing them, they fly
Over the guns, and the shots pulse out,
a patter of lead falls, a tuft of feather rips out from a breast
The wings spread out – the bird spirals down
to the crest of a hill,
Where a spaniel gallops, retrieves, the kill.
A whistle blows. The keeper calls the beaters in
To the pub, where they warm themselves
With ale or gin, counting the braces of birds they’ve tied and hung.
We rattle home in an old car that spills Van Morrison out the windows,
softening the curves the lanes.
The pheasants left to grey dim light begin to roost,
climb the darkening air to their nightly rest.