The smell of sage was strong as I drew the warm entrails out of the bird and onto the ground. Food for scavengers, I thought.
“To hunt the all American bird one should have the all American gun,” he said to provoke me as I rose to my feet. I looked with affection at my Spanish side-by-side made by temperamental Basque artisans, and then at the feathery legs of the sage grouse hanging limp from its eviscerated body.
As a painter, I understood the value of having the right tool. Yes, one could hunt pheasant or Hungarian partridge, exotic species that are exquisitely colored, with an import. But the sage grouse calls for something else.
It is a bird plain of feather mirroring its surroundings of bleached umber soil, alkaline whites and drab sage. Its body swells large at the middle with short neck and tail, like a Greek hydria tipped on its axis. Its sound when flushing is much lower than a pheasant’s. Reverberations are hollow and liquid as if the ancient water jar’s opening was covered with taut skin, the wing beat drumming and slow to rise.
I had come to love this bird: its plainness, its force, its flavor. It led me into a landscape equally plain, forceful in its empty presence, pungent.
The following winter, at a Helena gunshop, I handled the all American gun. A Model 12 Winchester pump, made in America like the sage grouse. It possesses a shapely profile, but unlike the Spanish double, is not elegant. It has an economy of form that is pleasing but not ingratiating. And it works well and plainly, leaving the gratifying, if uncouth, metallic sound of the bolt chambering the shell.
My husband’s point was not only that the shotgun was homegrown like the bird, but that it held five shells in the magazine rather than the two of the double. Typically, I had learned from experience, one walks miles to locate the grouse; and upon entering the flock the birds flush sporadically. After two shots with possibly one bird taken, they continue to rise. With an empty gun one can only watch as they fly away.
The purpose of a gun with five shells is to bring home the meat. In 1912, Winchester designed and manufactured the firearm for the working man. European gunmakers served the aristocracy and their handmade products were for sport.
While I can appreciate the form of the aristocratic pursuit, the primal joy of bringing home savory and wild meat is what moves me; the primal act of hunting satisfies something ancient in me.
I learn where the animals are, what they eat, and the soil in which their food grows. I learn the shape of their beds and the contours of the land that holds their water. I learn the weather they endure, the predators they suffer. I learn how their bodies are structured by literally taking their bodies apart. In this way, I also learn about myself and participate in what at age five my son called “The Great Charming.”
By spring I was standing in the living room of an ex-Marine and veteran of World War II whose Model 12 was for sale. The sixteen gauge felt slim and light in my hands and the focus of the single barrel gave it weight and direction. It was made in 1942 and in excellent condition. It had a cigar-shaped forend, the wood grain was lively, the bore pristine. American guns of this quality were no longer made. There was no question. I wanted it.
He took me into the basement.
The top of his crew cut was as flat and level as the shallow shelves which lined the walls above his work bench. On the shelves were placed useful items, in order. He pulled from a cabinet large sheaves of paper. Each sheaf was riddled with the shot of the sixteen gauge and each looked different and were labeled: twenty-five yards, thirty yards, thirty-five. The shot patterns displayed what he could expect from his shotgun and were evidence that this man was a conscientious hunter.
His voice was soft as he instructed me in how to clean the gun. Over the years his care of the firearm was worthy of a Marine and he was trying to insure that I would take the same care.
I watched attentively as he slowly and carefully broke down the gun, so that the barrel was separate and accessible to the cleaning rod. He recommended a certain jig which he attached to the end of the rod and covered with a cloth patch dipped in solvent. He then pushed the rod through the barrel until the bore was absolutely free of residue and the steel shone brightly. I was asked to repeat the procedure. Under his observant eye, I dismantled and reassembled the gun several times: sliding the forend, pushing the pin, turning the barrel until the faint arrows lined up, releasing the barrel from the receiver. The repeated motions became rhythmic and in this way were remembered.
My Montana colleagues tolerate the fact that I hunt and consort with ex-Marines, but the urban artists I know are repelled. They think of my gun as a weapon, my pleasure in eating what I kill as bloodthirsty. They perceive me as a potential redneck and thus question my place among them. An opera connoisseur, European and American bred, summed up the general feeling when he said with disgust, “Why on earth would she want to do that?”
I admit to an unease. I am a woman wielding a gun. Women do not own guns and do not kill beautiful animals. I am a painter who at times finds it difficult to reconcile my attraction to gun powder with my love of powdered pigment. Artists live in lofts, teach at universities; and I do not.
Rather, I move deeper into landscape and the further I go the more distant are my relations with urban artists, the more the gap widens between me and those with an aesthetic eye sharpened by proximity to the great painting collections of the world. This pains me, for it is not only the flesh of the wild grouse that feeds me, but the cultivated mind of the city dweller. To my detractors I am a relict, my atavism proof of their advancement.
There was a time I thought as they, but I found I wanted more. More of myself and of my work. This choice they do not and will not understand, unless perhaps they participate.
I know of one other such person who is taking that step. He is urbane to the bone, but in his marrow he feels the pull of the hunt. An art critic, he wants to touch what lies beneath the great American city.
He sometimes takes to the field with us. When he must cancel, it is a with a mixture of regret and relief. Yet he senses and honors why I cannot let go of the hunt. He understands that the pulse of the hunt and of art are one. They both originate in the great charming.
But do I delude myself? How deep beneath the city streets do I really want to go?
I recently learned that a grizzly bear has taken up residence on the ridge above our cabin near Yellowstone Park. Ranchers who for years have summered their cattle in the area are anxious; one has left it to her husband to fix fence and repair broken waterlines.
Grizzlies can be unpredictable. Will I hunt blue grouse on those ridges as I do every fall? Does the primal tension between the hunter and the hunted lose its charm once I am the prey?
Still, I will hunt. I am not a tourist. And the gun is not my camera. It takes me beneath the city’s concrete.
Concrete made of rock and lime.
Lime made of bones.
Bones made of marrow.
Marrow making blood.
Earth making pigment.
Pigment made of blackened bone.
Used in testament.
. . .
This essay also appeared in The New Montana Story: An Anthology, edited by Rick Newby, Riverbend Publishing, Helena, Montana, 2003
Photo: J.M. Cooper