Dove and Buffalo

A remote-controlled fireplace. 

I ponder, what level of human laziness guides intuition or initiative to achieve such an invention? Did I contribute to this weakened evolution of man, or mankind, if you will? Or, did I miss an inventive opportunity?… Deep thoughts of a father of three young girls and husband to an always-just spouse who just wants a damn fire burning. 

In the middle of this particular home remodel project, I argued with the wife to keep the original wood burning fireplace with its earthy aromas and distinctly primal calming.  The crackle and pop of freshly split pine.  Dreamily, I pictured the two of us cozied up together in a handsome Pendleton blanket on the floor with hot chocolate while the flames licked up the once-cool brick, now hot chimney. The romance brimming over. . . And so forth, as you can imagine.   

Yet today, realizing the amount of work she saved me by installing a gas fireplace I control with a few clicks from the couch leaves the taste of swallowed pride tasting delicious.  

While I stared blankly into the flames, I caught the smell of gun oil. I had cleaned my shotgun that morning and the smell of gun oil took me back to Texas and warmer days.

Labor Day is opening day for dove season in Texas which is eight hours away from our Denver home.  We make the drive almost every year to hunt on my family’s ranch.  I hadn’t missed an opening day my whole life until our middle girl was born.  I’ve missed a couple since then, which I try not to resent her for. 

When I was in junior high and high school, I was so addicted to dove hunting, I’d get up early to blast a couple birds before the school bus arrived, which was early.  I’m surprised at the motivation I had as a teenager, but I didn’t have an iPhone to wrongly occupy my time. 

Last September we made the pilgrimage southeast to the hot, windy panhandle for opening weekend.  It’s the event I think about all year.  If you’ve never been dove hunting, it is like bobber fishing out of a boat.  Much louder, but equally relaxing.  We drive out to a small waterhole, usually next to a stock tank and windmill, since there are few naturally occurring springs in that part of No Man’s Land.  Then we sit and talk while swiveling our heads around until something flies in. 

I took my lovely wife out last year for the first time because she couldn’t “see what the fuss is all about.”  She’d tell my buddies and I that we were just looking for an excuse to be alone so we could satisfy our closet homosexual urges.  I always played along making blow job gestures and she thought this was funny, thankfully. 

During that evening hunt she finally said, “So you just sit here drinking beer and telling the same old stories with a little excitement every five minutes or so?”  Exactly.  This is the perfect speed.  Any less action and I’d lose concentration and drink too much beer; any more and we wouldn’t get to bullshit, and I’d go through too many shells.  Besides being fond of relaxing situations, I’m also cheap.

My lifelong friend and hunting partner Brandon Johnson has been talking about going to Argentina for decades to experience the swarms of migratory dove that funnel into that country.  The thought of just blasting into a black swarm of birds while underpaid natives retrieve your birds just doesn’t feel that sporting to me, plus it would leave no time for catching up and enjoying each other’s company. 

Johnson isn’t as fanatic a fly fisherman as I have become though.  He’s a gun guy who possesses literally more weaponry than he could shoot in a weekend, but that’s his thing and he excels at it.  I flatly told him that if I went to Argentina, I would shoot blindly at dove until I emptied a case of shells, but then I would hit a river for trophy trout.  We don’t talk too much about it anymore, but I sincerely hope we each get our wish someday.

The first morning of the weekend I got out of bed before sunup and grabbed my nephew Eric ,14, for the first hunt of the weekend.  Morning hunting is always slow with the cool air and plenty of dew on the leaves to quench the thirst of roosting dove.  This keeps them away from the ponds we hunt, but a few that have never been shot at usually straggle in obliviously. 

In the early morning with no action I found myself on a different life plain than my young counterpart.  I was immersed in watching the dragonflies dart around the pond and listening to the bob white quail giving away their location somewhere in the sagebrush prairie.  From our vantage point we could see for fifty miles in all directions.  Watching the sun come up over the immense plains is like seeing it rise out of the ocean. 

Eric asked from across the pond, “Did you see that dove?”  I looked around and shrugged I hadn’t.  He laid back down in the dirt with his shotgun across his chest, probably dreaming about some blossoming female in his class, or more likely, a fully developed senior. 

He was a visibly restless young man who needed to shoot something. 

Out here on the plains, during mid-day, I have more than once lost my bearings.  Once on a cattle drive when I was maybe 10, I awkwardly argued with my uncle that we were driving the heard the opposite direction of the corrals.  To this day he thinks I’m an idiot.

While the sun struggled to rise, I noticed the sounds of the high plains for half an hour while all the dove slept in.  To the west an oil truck hauling his load from one end of the horizon to the other geared down as it approached a turn. 

I heard my constantly ringing ears for the first time in a long while.  They’ve been ringing my whole life but it’s easy to tune out since it is completely constant.  I didn’t wear ear protection growing up as I threw lead all over this flat country for the same reason I didn’t own a bike helmet.  We didn’t know no better.

A herd of mom’s cows mooed nearby in the tiny creek bottom as they made their way towards us swatting flies with shit-caked tails.  They were curious of my shiny pickup from the city that obviously had never seen a bale of hay.  There was a gunshot in the distance that could have been in the two pastures over or the county over. 

I snickered at myself when I tried to figure out who it could have been.  There was a time I might have made an educated guess when I was a true local, but I’ve been removed for over twenty years now and happily categorize myself as a deserter.  I’d like to believe it was probably some twelve-year-old kid whose parents I may have grown up with.  But it was probably a pumper poaching dove off a high line just killing to kill like a true son of a bitch. 

A storm was passing 80 miles away in Kansas, but it seemed much closer.  Lighting illuminated the clouds while the sun seemed in no hurry coming up.  I took a chance that no dove would fly over and studied my old Mossberg 20-gauge pump. I received it new when I was twelve. 

It is something to behold after all these years in the field.  Rust pits the barrel and there are plenty of dings in the stock from a careless youth.  The rubber recoil pad is as hard as the wood stock and the safety quit functioning a decade ago.  A strip of duct tape holding it in the “unsafe” position is hanging on for dear life and someday I’ll fix it.  Sure I will.

As the sun finally broke the horizon a hazy rainbow stretched across the eastern plains in Oklahoma near where my mom and dad had met.  A rooster crowed down the road in town where they had ended it. 

I continued to scan the horizon for the telltale flitting pattern of a mourning dove and listened for the distinct whistle they make when they flap their wings.  Only one pair appeared within range that morning and we each downed one, congratulating each other roundly.  I think we both knew that if either of us had missed, it would have been demoralizing.  Even worse, if I had missed mine, he would have never shut up about it. 

We cleaned them at the tank and discussed why there had been an obvious decline in birds over the last ten years.  Several factors had us guessing.  The continuing drought was obvious.  Fewer sunflower and milo plots, or maybe the cool weather just hadn’t pushed them south yet.  The reality is Middle America has seen drought and wildfire more consistently as wet years are fewer and farther between.  And the wet years aren’t what most regions would ever call wet

The year before had seen the largest wildfires on the plains in modern history due to temperatures in the 100s that lasted 90 consecutive days or more with zero measurable moisture.  Coupled with a wind that blew trampolines into the next county, the fires decimated homes, livestock, and human lives in their paths.

One fire had hit a portion of my dad’s herds while he and his family outran the fire just in time.  He has kept a reminder of those fires and their devastation.  There’s a five-gallon bucket of empty shells  he collected while killing the cows and calves he had raised.  They had been so badly burned there was no saving them.  Most were skinned alive and blind.  He found them crowded helplessly against fence lines and finished them off as quickly and accurately as he could while they stood there and bawled in agony. 

After the blazes had done their damage there was an outpouring of relief for those affected.  Brandon’s company donated a truck load of fencing supplies while other companies with ties to the region and its families donated hay and equipment.  Cory Halliburton along with our family went down shortly after to help tear out fence and do what we could which could have never been enough. 

It looked like a different planet in the burnt areas.  The fires had been so hot and moved so fast that the fence posts were sheared off at the ground instead of standing and burning.  The wind had cut the country like a hot blade at ground level.  The scene was unnerving.  Hearing the firsthand accounts that week was like listening to war stories.  The soot on everyone’s vehicles and faces made us all thankful that we weren’t missing any family members. 

In today’s world we tend to believe in science as long as it tells us what we want to hear, and a human aided warming planet isn’t one of those listening points.  I’m still shocked to see people pray for good weather just like the Greeks, only to newer, less interesting gods.  Yet there are others that understand by living on the plains you take uncalculated risks and make peace with it, not needing to point blame, or thanks, in any direction, up or down. 

The buffalo will never rule the plains again but the understanding of crucial biodiversity and good ole fashioned listening to the earth is slowly seeping in.

It always takes a noticeably out of control problem for us humans to pull our heads out of our rear ends, and I hope the decline of the Mourning Dove isn’t one of those things. But who am I to judge?  My ignorant ass is sitting here watching nonrenewable natural gas literally go up in flames.  Maybe I was right all along about the wood burning stove.

Published by willbarch78

I grew up in the middle of nowhere Texas. The nearest Walmart was a full two hours away. My family still runs a ranch back home that I grew up on, but at some point in my treasured youth I hung up the idea of becoming a cowboy, and pursued my passion for architecture. Today I still find myself trying to fit in to a life that has treated me with the average ups and downs one can expect after a certain number of years. My wife and I moved to Denver after attending Texas Tech School of Architecture in Lubbock as we needed a grade change from the Llano Estacado. We camp with our three growing girls all summer and into the fall while I write and create and fly fish to maintain sanity. Life is moving fast as our careers and children progress in all areas, so being outdoors with each other keeps us mostly grounded.

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