By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
Conversations in the duck blind are the most profound conversations a person can have in life. If the topic is not pertinent or amusing, it doesn’t get talked about in the duck blind. Sound is too precious. If it has to be said in a whisper, it’s got to be relevant or hilarious.
Nothing else rises to the level of communication. If ducks are coming in or over, all idle chatter must cease. It doesn’t matter if you were about to present the punch line to the funniest joke you’d heard all year. It doesn’t matter if you were about to reveal a secret that could cure the ails of all mankind. If ducks are coming in and you’re in a duck blind, the ducks have to take precedence.
For a while, when duck hunting was new to me, it was impossible for me to know that the appearance of ducks in the sky, the sound of ducks on a pond nearby, or even the random thought of ducks that might arise was cause for instant pause. The ducks “have the floor,” is what my fifth-grade teacher would say. Whoever is running the show is the one that gets to talk.
So, if you’re hunting ducks, they have your attention. You’re supposed to be scanning the sky. You’re supposed to be listening. You’re supposed to be using your duck call. And if a duck wants to join the conversation, that’s the best kind of talk.
But I didn’t know this when I started. It seemed like, if the story was good enough, it wouldn’t matter if a few flocks of ducks failed to land on the pond. I was wrong. Those could be the only ducks that fly by all day. In my case, they were.
When the measure of my conversational ability is how well I can stop talking at the mere suggestion of ducks, I had a long way to go. I had to learn to talk in shorter sentences. I had to learn to pick up where the story left off after a 45-minute duck interruption. This not only helped me in the duck blind, it could possibly help me in life.
Duck hunters have something in common with Zen monks. While Zen monks work out mind problems in the temple, duck hunters experience awareness in the duck blind. There’s a Zen story about dialogue that closely resembles the mastery of life exhibited by duck hunters. In this story, there is a smart brother and a dumb brother who only has one eye. Where they live, if you win an argument about Buddhism, you can stay the night in the Zen temple. If you lose the argument, you can’t stay. So one day a wanderer comes along looking for lodging. The smart brother is too tired from studying to engage in an argument, so he sends the stranger to go argue with the dumb brother. But he advises him to argue in silence.
The stranger goes into the temple and shortly after comes out. He had been defeated. The smart brother can’t figure out how this could be possible, so he asks what happened. The stranger says, “Well, I held up a finger, representing Buddha. Then your brother held up two fingers, representing Buddha and his teaching. Then, I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers living in harmony. Then your brother held up his fist, indicating that all three come from one realization. It was clear he won the argument.”
The smarter brother later congratulates his not so bright brother on his win. “Win nothing,” the brother says. “What happened then?” the other brother asks. “Well, first he holds up one finger making fun of the fact that I only have one eye. Then I hold up two fingers, congratulating him on having two eyes. Then he holds up three fingers, showing together we only have three eyes. So then I raised my fist to punch him and he ran out.”
This sort of enlightened dialogue happens in the duck blind all of the time. I don’t know how many times I’ve been representing the teachings of Buddha with my hand signals and my hunting partner is totally confused. The moral of the story is that hand signals are stupid, you should just whisper. If you’re going to spend several hours hunkered behind grass with someone, there has to be some conversation.
My hunting partner could probably never say a word and be content, but I’m like a dumb brother with one eye. There’s got to be some level of conversation to keep things interesting. But, after seven years of hunting ducks, I’ve learned that when he raises a finger it only means one thing — shut up.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.