Every year the end of January ushers in a sobering melancholy. It marks the end of another bird hunting season, and this year a stark realization that there may be fewer days in front than behind. Colored in consequence, this is a day of settlement. I breath in deep to recapture the fragrances of fall but the grip of winter hinders the memory. Warm fall mornings draped in shadow and the deep purples that paint the sky as the sun dips below the Bighorns are overwhelmed by stinging ice crystals in my throat and a deafening crunch of snowpack beneath my feet. I trudge defeated back to the truck.
At the tailgate, the dogs are satisfied. After all, they'll be more coveys tomorrow; little do they know. Sharing the last sandwich of the season, in the quiet of the prairie, we peer back to the hillside in silent reverence.
In every season past I have celebrated its end. It's a reflection of all things accomplished, an account of new species, new country, or a better understanding of the chase. This year I am only filled with regret. Rather than listing in my mind the things I did, I'm overcome by the things I didn't. It starts innocently enough.
"Hey, my shell bucket has a lot less empty hulls in it this year," I say out loud. Tilting their heads and perking their ears, are the dogs trying to understand me? Perhaps they're just saying, "Well, that's because you shot like crap dumb ass." I don't know.
"Boy, the birds sure weren't around this season," I warrant. Suffering a down year is something all hunters must endure from time to time, but as I stare straight into a mirror of adversity, the reflection I avoid is completely without character. "That's because you watched too much football," I reason. If you don't cover enough ground, you wind up with empty pockets. Was it really a down year?
This past season had its highlights but was tarnished by laziness, not enough homework, acceptance of circumstance, and general dissatisfaction. A well broken in dullness from justification served over a long season settles in my subconscious. Thought to be benign, on this day of discovery I realize in full color that I let my dogs, myself and my friends down. Struggling to find comfort in memory, I bitterly accept the aftermath, that I am required to flip the calendar back to seasons long since expired to find warmth and consolation.
Cleaning out my bird vest at the end of the season is an annual ritual that's mournfully depressing and at the same time revitalizing. Sifting through its contents and caressing the dirt, feathers and bloodstains is considered by some, my wife among them, disgusting. For me, it's a moment of grace and humility, an opportunity to immerse my spirit in the benevolence of earthly pleasures. I love the rich smell of loam, the tickle of fine dust wafting to my nose that makes me sneeze, the dirt that gets beneath my fingernails, and finally the feathers. Each tells a tale of struggle in life and death, long before their owners fell to my gun to feed my family.
The recipes of game are as cherished as the hunt. I account for each throughout the season with great affection as I catalog each feather in my mind before it's removed from the vest. No bird taken with arms has suffered an indignant demise. Every one has taught a lesson to my children, not the least of which is that not all food comes from a grocery store, sterilized in plastic, styrofoam and chemicals.
This world is filled with empty promises. I am ashamed to admit that I have made my fair share. While I lament my failure to prioritize my passion above the mundane, there is a stirring voice somewhere in me that offers up assurance that this won't happen again. There are precious few days on this earth and with the passing of each, I am starkly aware that nothing I can contribute in business will account for anything of value or be remembered. The only thing that matters is the time spent with friends and family, the connection between myself, my dogs and the land, and the virtues that come from the anticipation of another season chasing the horizon.