Leopold breaks hunting down into two categories: category one is hunting grouse in Adams county when the tamaracks are smoky gold; category two is hunting anything else under any other circumstances. Leopold believes there is a unique beauty to standing beneath a tamarack tree as its “golden needles come sifting down,” and a grouse escapes into the underbrush.
Leopold loves to hunt, but he takes even more joy in hunting in these specific conditions. This is an early example of the way a single species, or in this case two species—the grouse and the tamarack tree—can have an effect on a landscape that is difficult to quantify, enhancing and brightening it in a way disproportionate to any measurement of mass or economic value.
When hunting for grouse in the tamaracks, Leopold trusts that his dog knows best. He enjoys the moments of uncertainty when the dog has spotted something, but he (Leopold) does not yet know what it is: a grouse, a woodcock, or a rabbit. He advises those who want to hunt with certainty to hunt pheasants instead of grouse.
Once again, Leopold turns to his dog, who he understands has knowledge and skills that are often more useful than his own. Leopold is happy to defer to his dog, who he trusts, and who he understands is superior in certain fields.
Leopold believes that the “sweetest hunts are stolen,” by which he means the best hunts are those in a far-off wilderness where others have not hunted before, or else in a private place close to home, that has for some reason remained undiscovered. Hunting grouse fits into this second category. Most people do not know there are grouse in Adams County, and drive right past the patches of wilderness that conceal them.
Later in the book, Leopold will put forth a more comprehensive sense of wilderness and what he feels it is good for. This is an early example of Leopold’s love of undeveloped, unexplored land. He prefers places that have been untouched by human hands—although, ironically, by being in them at all he necessarily corrupts them.
Leopold finds great beauty in the nearby tamarack groves. Even when he is pursuing a grouse, he will take a moment to stop and observe blue gentian flowers nestled among golden tamarack needles.
Although the grouse, when caught, arguably has some material value, the tamaracks provide only beauty, and yet Leopold values them equally on his autumnal hunts.
Wandering through the wilderness, Leopold comes across an old abandoned farm. He can tell when it was abandoned because a young elm blocks the barn door, and the rings on the elm say it has been growing since 1930.
The young elm blocking the barn door is another example of the way wood can act as an indicator of history—here it tells him that no one has tried to open a certain barn door for years.
Many animals wake up “too early,” and Leopold observes that freight trains and hunters do as well. Leopold believes all early risers feel solidarity with each other, because they all “are given to understatement of their own achievements,” either totally silent, like the stars, or else modest, like the owl. Early mornings require a person to listen, as they cannot easily see the world around them, which helps enforce this modesty. In the sunlight, Leopold feels that everything and everyone is gripped by self-importance and inflated self worth, which is stripped away at sunset.
This is an early example of Leopold’s sense of solidarity with the land and all of its inhabitants. Later he will propose the idea of a “land ethic,” and the idea that humans are part of a community with the land, but here he describes himself as part of a community with the animals on his property, united both by their chosen home and their sleeping habits. He treats these animals with the same respect he’d treat a fellow human awake at a similar hour.
When hunting partridge, Leopold recommends either making a plan, or wandering aimlessly from one blackberry plant (which he calls “red lanterns” because of their red leaves) to another, because this is where the birds hide. Leopold feels pride in knowing that this is where partridges congregate, as it is something few other hunters know, and is a secret shared between only the stream and his dog.
Just as Leopold enjoys hunting in areas relatively untraveled, he enjoys knowing secrets about the wilderness that others do not. Additionally, he finds joy in small aspects of the natural world that many would find no value in at all, for example the red leaves of the blackberry plant, which come after the blackberries have been eaten, and so have no human value other their beauty—which for Leopold is enough.
Leopold concedes that his dog is the true expert on partridges, and he knows he will never know as much as his companion, comparing himself to a dull pupil, and his dog to a wise professor.
Once again, Leopold defers to his dog. This time he compares his dog to a professor, in both a compliment to his dog and an insult to himself, as he teaches at a university.
Hunting for partridges doesn’t always lead to a partridge being shot. It is partially a matter of skill but there is a huge component of chance. Leopold doesn’t seem to mind this, and accepts it as part of life.
Leopold finds value in tracking partridges and being in nature. It does not entirely matter to him whether or not he can take home a trophy—that is not where the value in the experience lies.
On the last day of grouse season, Leopold observes “every blackberry blows out his light.” He wonders how the bushes sync so perfectly to the laws that dictate the beginning and end of grouse season, and reflects that sometimes, the year from November to September feels unreal, a waiting period before the next grouse season begins.
Leopold experiences time in ways unrelated to the standard 12-month, Gregorian calendar. In this moment, he experiences it as grouse season and the time he spends waiting until the next grouse season, projecting that the entire world is waiting with him.