In defense of a life with animals

I went home to the country to go hunting last weekend, and I have been thinking about a life best spent with animals ever since. (Arguably the thing I miss the most while living in the city.) For those of you as homesick for critters as I am, here are a few of my favorites, and a TBT to another weekend spent in the country.

12/15/13 I have been fortunate enough to spend a week at home in Goochland County, and as usual, it has refined my thinking, steadied my resolutions, and quieted my lazier impulses. As a child of social media and an adult who makes her living on the computer, let me speak for a moment in the defense of a life with animals.

The soybeans are done at the end of Lee Road, and on a Sunday, I put the tack on my old hunting horse and rode him down to Locust Bend. It’s December, and the tow-headed fields are close clipped in a neat crew cut, washed pale and becoming the flatly beautiful cream of winter meadows. Buckie, named in the tradition of all working country animals (two syllables, tops), walked on a loose rein along the edge of the field.

This field is shaped like a giant “U,” its two arms wrapped around a copse of trees, the kind of spinney beloved to deer and fox. The spinney is down in a bottom, with each of the two arms sliding down into the lower ground in the middle. A person can stand at either of the bottom two corners of the U and look down over the whole of the field, and into the covert.

I parked Buckie at the northeastern corner, getting ready to take one of many “between the ears” shots that we horse girls are so fond of on Instagram.

Alone in the widest swath of the field, I spotted a gentleman in duck boots and an orange stiff-brimmed hat headed towards the covert. A gangly white setter pup cavorted in front of him. The little frill of her tail whipped liquidly over her back as they walked across the tawny field towards the trees. Out in the open like that, the whole pale winter sky seemed to arc over them like a familiar dome.

It was a Sunday, so I knew they weren’t hunting – and the dog was a baby anyway, a wriggling, joyful teenager. When he saw me, he dove down to hook an orange lead on her before she could gambol under Buckie’s hooves.

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “He’s used to having a passel of hounds under his feet.”

We met at the bottom of the U and talked briefly, mostly about his pup, who was 17 weeks old. I don’t know much – anything – about looking at pointers, but she had good clean lines and shined with good health.

“We’re just out here taking a look at everything, for a little experience. I’m real excited about her,” he said.

And I thought: Is there any labor so satisfying as teaching a young animal its task? I am a foxhunter, and while perhaps the goal is to ride mounted after hounds, there is no sight I find more moving than a huntsman on foot amongst his hounds, walking puppies on a day when there is no hunting – biscuits in his pockets, perhaps a fog set down, a morning he would rather be in bed. When the task at hand is labor without its obvious reward, just a deposit in the bank of education. It is like the hours spent in the saddle getting a horse fit – long, slow trots, up and down hills, in the dog days of summer. You are preparing an animal to do a job, the sole end of which is pleasure, but the vehicle for which is hard work and ability.

There is a functional beauty in the muscles and feet and hearts of good animals, a beauty that is tied to the completion of the task they are set. An animal is not beautiful for beauty alone, he is beautiful because he is marked indelibly with achievement. A pretty hound that can’t hold a line is useless; a well-bred horse that sits untouched in the field is of even less use. Our labor prepares these animals to work, and the animal’s labor achieves the end of that work. Lacking either, the task lies uncompleted.

Of course, no one has written more finely of this pact of labor than Wilson Rawls inWhere The Red Fern Grows. When Billy Coleman trees his first coon in “the Big Tree,” his father asks why he doesn’t let that one coon go:

“‘I thought about that, Papa,’ I said, ‘but I made a bargain with my dogs. I told them that if they would put one in a tree, I’d do the rest. Well, they fulfilled their part of the bargain. Now it’s up to me to do my part, and I’m going to, Papa. I’m going to cut it down. I don’t care if it takes me a year.’”

What a life with animals teaches you is the value of undocumented work. It teaches you that your value is tied to nothing more than a job well done. It is a metric that can’t be cheated (unless you’re a Kardashian, I guess). I struggle often to remember this, when I am living in the city without any tangible reminders.

There is no craft, no labor, and thus no reward, to the Internet. There is no purposeful grooming of skill, no blisters raised and earned, no need to rise in the quiet morning hours. An Instagram shot between the ears of my horse is not an accomplishment; spotting a coyote between those ears is. I am as guilty as the next person of the relentless pursuit of self-documentation (perhaps, as a writer, even more so), and all it takes is one day in the barn to feel ashamed of that impulse of self-promotion. To regret wasted hours at work, hours given over to fleeting entertainment instead of the work I am contracted to do.

My friend and I parted ways, he taking his young pup into the spinney, and me nudging Buckie into a steady jog around the upper dales of the field. I hope she is as good as he hopes she is – a Bugle Ann of her kind – and for my part, I hope when I return to the city in a few days, that I have the strength to continue to work honestly, and to perhaps ‘gram a little less.