Springing Free

While a clean slate comes with emerging leaves, renewal comes in a puppy.

Fiddlehead ferns nudge aside last fall’s leaf litter and brilliant pink lady slippers stand out like signal flares on an ocean of green. Buds and blossoms, shoots and sprouts — it’s undeniable, new life is emerging everywhere. Even the pleasantly humid air is suffused with the lush aroma of spring.

Come warm weather, the earth bustles with life and begs to be explored. Elusive morels seem to whisper: We’re out here, come find us if you can! Tom turkeys strut their stuff in secluded glens; robins and grosbeaks sing songs that rise with a sun that’s been absent far too long.

Our time afield planted a seed that would blossom into an unquenchable thirst for a world outside walls.

Appreciation for these subtle, seasonal changes often arrives early in life. Some people learn to love nature through pursuits such as camping or canoeing; others, though hiking or mountain biking.

For me, life outdoors has always revolved around dogs.

Winston illustration
Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

Years ago, a Labrador retriever named Chloe first helped me see the fields and forests through the eyes of a hunter. Our time afield planted a seed that would blossom into an unquenchable thirst for a world outside walls, one we savored and shared until recently when our family lost first Chloe to old age and soon after, our shorthair, Brighton.

During those final, heartrending trips to the vet, my children had insisted on coming along to say goodbye. But their courageous decision came at a cost. Driving past the clinic months past our loss, I glanced back in the rearview mirror to see both kids’ eyes brimming, emotional scars still lingering.

Like earth at winter’s end, we were ready for the warmth of a new season.

Perusing a website one day, the post jumped off the screen: “Free to Good Hunting Home.” A local field trialer had high hopes for a particular English setter, but the way the dog held his tail disqualified him from competition, so he was up for grabs. At the time, I had dibs on a puppy from another litter, but free? Sounds too good to be true, I rationalized.  Then again, what was the harm in looking? The next morning found me, my 9-year-old daughter Autumn and 5-year-old son Wil gathered outside the kennel. When the plywood door opened, 30 pounds of tri-color dynamite exploded into our world.

We named him Winston.

HUNDREDS OF YEARS AGO, setters were trained to freeze, or “set,” allowing hunters to cast nets over game birds.  True to his bloodlines, from the tip of his nose to the end of his feathered, extended tail, Winston’s desire to hunt was apparent from the beginning.  In the field, he’d charge ahead boldly and then slam onto point, rigid as a statue.  In fact, he’d often lock up on songbirds, squirrels and joggers in our suburban neighborhood, to the amusement of onlookers.

Working behind the equivalent to a canine Corvette is a joy in the field, but if that dog spends his off-season energy tearing up the house, he won’t make a good pet; truth is, even ardent wingshooters hunt a comparatively small fraction of the year. So Winston would need the ability to swap roles between field and home.

It’s expecting a lot from a dog who spent his first six months on a cement pad outdoors.

Fortunately, Winston is transitioning easily to his new life as hunting house pet.  Sure, he still ricochets off the walls sometimes and chews a slipper now and then, but patience has been gained with the advent of my own children, and appreciation only grows as Winston blossoms into one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs.

Today we’re in the woods on a training run.

Winston is coursing through the rapidly greening landscape, flowing easily under deadfalls, around budding aspens and through tangles of brush. I catch brief glimpses of white flashing in and out of view behind the leaves as he navigates the dense cover with ease.  As our bond strengthens and feelings of loss melt away, who is training whom isn’t always clear.

But there’s no missing the gift of a new beginning.

Freelance writer and author Jon Osborn lives in Holland. To view more of artist and fellow Holland resident Gary Odmark’s work, visit gwodmark.com.

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