by Terry Wieland
For autumn chorus and string orchestra.
I – Wind Section
It stirs you more than any love of country, the master wrote, yet it has never been described in print, not adequately, and we’ve all tried. It’s a whir-hr-hr, or a brth-rth-rth, maybe, but letters on a page don’t begin to do it. It stops the heart, freezes you in midstep, and starts your gun in the slowest of slow motions without a prayer of catching up. And when it dies away, you slump and tell yourself, next time, next time. That’s the ruffed grouse, monarch of the northern woods, as mythical as a Valkyrie and twice as fast.
Ten years old I was when the first one dropped in out of nowhere and changed my life. I was doing something out behind the cabin, funny that I don’t remember what, and yet the day and the spot and the sound are alive, if I will them to be. Something I do less often, since I’ve found that you can remember things many times, but reliving them—having them happen all over again in your mind, as real as driving rain—there’s a limited number of those relivings and one should always keep a few in reserve.
There was a fluttering, plunging sound, then a scatter of twigs as the grouse landed, pulled himself together, and began to peck around in the leaves. They were that year’s leaves, freshly fallen and crisp, and they rustled as he moved. The sound of a grouse flushing, and a grouse landing, are two vastly different things—the one a staccato drumbeat of strong wings in a hurry, the other a little thoughtful, a little hesitant, air released in a series of gentle whooshes. At least, that’s how it sounded to me.
Six years passed before I heard that landing sound again, and this time I was carrying a rifle, hunting deer. The grouse landed on a log a few yards away in a spray of fresh snow, then cocked his head, listening. It was late, I was lost, snow was coming down and night was coming on. I took its head off with the .35 Remington, telling myself I might need food, and carried the still-warm body inside my coat, and found my way back to the cabin, eventually, long after dark. That was the only ruffed grouse I ever shot on the ground, although I can’t tell you how many I’ve missed flying through the trees.
Most spectacular was a bird that rose from an overgrown logging road and just hung there, in the air. Three of us fired two shells each at a bird no one could miss but we managed to. You’re not a grouse hunter if you don’t have tales like that. And I’ve been a grouse hunter, for good or ill, in sickness and in health, through years of plenty and years when the woods were silent, since the age of 10. And the age of 10 was a long, long time ago.
II – Chorus
The sandgrouse of Africa is no more a grouse than the ruffed grouse is a partridge, but that’s how he’s known. You don’t walk endless miles for sandgrouse: You find a waterhole and station yourself along the flyway they use, once a day, when they come to water. There are many types of sandgrouse, and they’re found in most of Africa—where there’s water, anyway—so it’s no wonder they love the Okavango Delta. There were two types where we were, Burchell’s and double-banded, and one came to water in the morning, the other in the evening. Through the heat of the day we all napped.
During the flood, there’s so much water in the delta you can’t pin down the flight patterns, but this particular year the flood was light. Clint and I, on a mission to collect guinea fowl for the myriad pots that needed to be kept full, stumbled upon a flight of sandgrouse just near dusk and set ourselves up along the shore. They swooped in and then up and over us, outlining themselves against the quickly fading glow of the sky, and you had to stand with your gun shouldered, like calling for a bird from a trap, to make snap shots in a split second. When we got it right, the bird would fold and tumble, sometimes onto the track behind us, sometimes into the long grass beyond.
During breaks in the action, we gathered up the closest birds. When it gets dark in the Okavango, it gets dark. Clint kept glancing back at the grass. When I started towards it to search for birds, he said, “I wouldn’t go in there.” We piled our quite respectable kill onto a shirt and carried it back to the safari car, up the track. We started the engine, turned on the lights, pointed it back the way we’d come, and were greeted by seven pairs of yellow eyes, sauntering up the track towards us. They parted politely to let us pass. Lions can afford to be polite.
“How’d you know?”
“Heard something, I guess.” “Were they there all the time?” “Uh-huh.”
A sandgrouse is best enjoyed as an hors d’oeuvre, its breast wrapped in bacon and grilled over coals, and eaten around an open fire of acacia wood or something similarly aromatic, and if you have a nice Pommard to go with it, all the better, although a good Pinotage will do.
Ever since that night, I’ve imagined those lions, crouching in the grass, snagging falling sandgrouse like outfielders and gulping them down. No bacon. No grilling. Feathers and all. Now as to whether they prefer them that way, well, you’d have to ask them. I can say for sure there was no Pommard.