New England Grouse Dreaming

For a few weeks in October New England forests are awash with an impressionist’s pastels. Soon the color drips in fallen leaves to the forest floor where grouse drum and the Robert Frost poem “October” (O hushed October morning mild; Thy leaves have ripened to the fall … .) seems to be whispered by the wind.

Now, though we’re seduced by the natural splendor, we’re careful how much we say so. Articulating such things just isn’t manly. It isn’t what hunters do. But, as I crumble under a maple on a colorful mountain, I know it isn’t just the cagey ruffed grouse that drew me north to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in late October.

I kick yellow leaves in frustration. I know too well why the word “grousing” was coined. I’d crunched down an overgrown logging road under trees shedding a rainbow of hardwood leaves and when the flush finally came the bird blasted off behind me. I turned, shot off balance and missed badly. The miss reminded me that New England grouse hunting is for masochists.

I grew up breaking brush and shouldering a gun all-of-a-sudden when this brown-and-gray game bird booms its wings and rockets up and twists away, giving glimpses when you’re fortunate. Now I’m reminded that the past can be mischievous, even a shape shifter. Time slips by but doesn’t just peel away as memories fade; no, they can also grow more golden—recollections thereby become masters of spin.

Maybe that’s what drew me north to hunt grouse. Surely I was influenced by memories whispering things like: Don’t you want to drive the meandering byways over red covered bridges? Don’t you want to see the autumn sun making color-splashed trees shine like fallen rainbows as you hunt for the explosive ruffed grouse? Come on, this is when the words from Corey Ford’s “The Road to Tinkhamtown” are tossed over a mountainous landscape; this is when grouse drum and woodcock wing through; this is when a bird dog becomes part of living art … . And so go the one-sided and awfully wistful deceptions.

Of course, I concede there must be sparks of truth in the remembrances because Corey Ford himself wrote in that elegant story: “The past never changes. You leave it and go on to the present, but it is still there, waiting for you to come back to it.”

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