It's Not Just You
An Upland Life Review of
Joel Spring's Thursday's Bird
There's learning on your own - through dumb luck, trial and error - and then
there's turning to people with experience who can save you ammo, boot leather,
and those short, irreplaceable days of the season. One can passively take things
in through word and image - reading web sites about, sitting through a lecture
upon, or watching the DVD showing the how-tos
of the matter. Or, there's actually getting out and doing the thing with someone who's done
it before and learned the hard way. But there's no question that living it -
learning Italian in Italy (be sure to tour the Beretta factory while you're there),
or in the field taking cues from an old hand and his dogs - will teach lessons
that no book or video can deliver. If you're going to read a book, make sure it's
as close to being there as possible.
Reading Thursday's Bird is, more than anything
else, like tagging along with your longtime hunting buddy Joel Spring.
Restlessly following him as he scouts and fidgets through the months leading
up to the event, and trudging happily, anxiously through the scant weeks of
upland game season on his home turf in upstate New York – reading along is
an all-too-brief immersion in Spring's world. Spending the upland season
with Joel means encountering (or being taunted by) cock pheasants and snipe,
putting challenging game in the freezer, and racking up sore muscles, trips
to the vet, missed shots, and the slow agony of disappearing hunting grounds.
Spring's prose is very approachable, and drifts slightly in and out of a
journal in form. His self-deprecating humor and genuine, hard-earned upland
hunter's humility are a comfortable departure from both the gung-ho hunting
glossies on the magazine rack and the nearly scripture-like experience of
reading, say, Gray's.
Upland bird hunters with the means to travel the continent and visit legendary
grounds in pursuit of their quarry may not appreciate what Spring is up to,
here. His accomplishment – whether it was his goal or not – is to soothe the
anxieties and share the frustrations of his fellow semi-suburbanite hunter
of modest means. He doesn't directly address these things in a tutorial fashion,
he just reports his observations and actions - warts and all - and allows the reader
to connect on whatever topics they share. He's got a regular job, a family to
care for, makes do with a Stoeger, and counts his vacation days like beads on
some sort of Hunter's Rosary. His two dogs (a Lab and a Springer), second
perhaps to his wife and kids, are his imperfect treasures. Those two canines
inspire much of the material in the book. Not because he set out to write
about his dogs, but because he writes about hunting woodcock, cottontails, and
pheasants - and without his dogs, there wouldn't be nearly as much to tell.
-- from Chapter 5 --
Greta and I had teamed up with Maggie and Ted for an early morning
hunt in my hometown. It was nice to see both dogs back in top form and
working as a true team instead of a tag team. Not far into the field, the
dogs began bouncing around crazily in some ankle-deep water. Maggie moved
out to the right and Ted to the left. A light fluttering of wings caused
me to spin around. Caught off-balance, I watched the snipe rocket skyward
as I fumbled with the safety. My second shot seemed to knock off some feathers
and the bird slanted downward, still under power, into a far hedgerow.
"Woodcock?" Greta asked.
His story, which covers a single season's preparation and those shimmering
weeks of cherished leave from work, is sprinkled with the flashbacks, exposition,
and brief asides that any Hunting Buddy would need to know about the guy
walking on the other side of that thicket with a shotgun. If you'd met Spring
at your local preserve, perhaps fending off his bouncing Lab, Ted, you'd
recognize him as a kindred spirit. He's a reserved, private man that clearly
knows the anxiety of walking into a new social situation without being sure
how things will go. He didn't grow up bird hunting, but came to it later in
life. He thus brings to the hunt all of his grown up caution and tendency
to over-think things, but can still find within the wonder, giddiness, and
validation that a day in the field can inspire.
To recount any more of Spring's musings or the subtle wingshooting
tips that are found within this brief, sometimes bittersweet book would rob
from the enjoyment of reading it. Suffice it to say, that this
reviewer found a thread running through almost every chapter: it's
not just me! I'm not the only one with crazy dogs that run too far out,
the only one that can break almost every clay on the skeet range but still
miss a pheasant the size of a turkey hovering in front of me like a piñata,
the only one that drives in frustration past untold thousands of acres
of ideal but no-hunting-allowed terrain,
or the only one oddly wishing that everyone - and at the same time no one -
else would understand hunting upland birds. Joel Spring's primary
call to action (other than the encouragement simply to get out there and hunt)
is to put one's resources and passion into preserving the grounds that attract
and maintain wild bird populations, and to cultivate a culture that understands
both the need for access to it, and the obligations of those that would use it.
His disgust for pointlessly cut-down hedges, or ditch-to-ditch
farming where 5 feet of cover left standing would guarantee a season's worth
of fat rooster pheasants... well, he's quietly persuasive on these fronts.
We're not nagged about the disappearing bird fields. Rather, we look out of
Joel's pickup truck window with him, and feel the erosion.
-- from Chapter 3 --
As we rounded the bend past my shed and headed out into a neighbor's
big field, I felt several pangs of doubt. I loved hunting out here, had
killed several deer and countless rabbits and even a few woodcock, but
sadly, I could remember every pheasant I'd flushed here in the eight
years since we'd moved in. There were the two hens I flushed shortly after
buying the property. There were three or four hens that had gone up in
the big field when we were woodcock hunting. One year a monstrous
rooster had come up from behind a log when I assumed Ted was rooting out
a rabbit for me. And last year I hadn't seen a one, although occasionally
the cackle of a cockbird was carried to me on the breeze at sunset while
I was bowhunting deer. They were out there, all right, but not in any
Every hunter's know-how background is enriched by tales (and tails)
from fellow uplanders. Thursday's Bird is an absorbing pleasure
you'll pass around to your friends so that, once you've all read it, you can
share a laugh over Maggie's tree episode, or take some of the author's
days in the hedgerows and weld them onto your own. We're looking forward to
the next opportunity for a literary outing with Joel Spring - perhaps he'll
get a little more time off and be able to take us all quail hunting down south.
Click here for more info and
to order from Amazon.
5 Shells Out Of 5
Hardcover, 267 pages, with occasional black and
white photographs (color dustcover).
Having read this book, you'll feel you've shared
a couple of weeks bird hunting with a new friend.