Rachael Maddux | Longreads | August 2015 | 21 minutes (5,232 words)
The hounds of Shakerag Hounds, the oldest mounted fox hunt in the state of Georgia, are trained as pups to heed every note of their huntsman’s horn. They know a quick double-note means it’s time to head out into the field, three short bursts followed by a sad undulation means they’ve landed on a covert with no quarry, and three long, shimmying notes mean they’ve run their quarry to ground. It’s a fox these hounds are after, in theory—red or gray—but out here, just beyond the furthest reaches of metro Atlanta’s sprawl, they might find themselves on the trail of a coyote, a bobcat, an unlucky armadillo. Whatever they’re chasing, when they hear the horn’s three long, blooming notes, they know what to do. Three means let it go. Three means let it live.
John Eaton, Shakerag’s huntsman, likewise had the horn’s particular vocabulary ground into him at a tender age. He grew up in Somerset, England, the sixth generation of a fox hunting family. His grandfather was a huntsman, too, and his mother was a whipper-in, one of the hunt staff that rides along to keep the hounds (not “dogs,” never just “dogs”) in line. His family did the kind of fox hunting you think of when you think of fox hunting: tall boots, red and black jackets, black helmet, regal horses. The kind about which a character in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance quipped, “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.”
In the Britain of Eaton’s childhood, fox hunts operated pretty much as they had for half a millennium: as a combination sporting event, social gathering, and elaborate means of pest control. Back then, it was unheard of to call hounds off a quarry the way he now does as a matter of course—like a pinch hitter knocking one out of the park and walking off the field, or a fisherman hooking a big one then chucking his rod and reel into the lake. What’s the point of coming so close and giving up at the last moment? Why even bother at all?
But these days, thanks to the U.K. Parliament’s Hunting Act of 2004, that’s one of the only ways British fox hunters can do what they want to do. Legally, at least. Their hounds can chase but not kill, which means always and forever calling them off at the very last moment. (Or not: “The ban,” as it’s called, has proven tricky to enforce, and many hunts carry on as they always have. And after the Conservative upset in the most recent U.K. election, the law may soon be amended, which could mean some of the restrictions are eased or reversed.)
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, American fox hunters have spent the last 200-something years evolving into a bizarro-world version of their progenitors. Here, fox have long been legal game but not populous enough to sustain a bloodsport, and over time American foxhunters have voluntarily adopted many of the same practices their British compatriots now harrumphingly oblige. Here, the sport has dulled its own brutal edge to keep itself alive.
And so now, British and American fox hunters—one by circumstance and the other by law—orbit their quarry like the earth orbits the sun. Which is to say, not quite. The pull is imbalanced but mutual, fixed around some shifting barycenter, an ineffable point somewhere in between.
A writer calling something “ineffable” may be the height of laziness, but as it regards the subject at hand, I’m not entirely ashamed. I grew up in a fox hunting family, or what until recently had been a fox hunting family, but my life-long, low-level exposure resulted in nothing resembling comprehension. For a while, the more I learned, the less I understood. The fox in fox hunting is everywhere and nowhere, both the point and entirely beside it. But if it’s not the fox that compels John Eaton and his forty-something hounds—and the thousands of members and hounds of the hundreds of mounted hunts across America and in the U.K.—then what is it?
* * *
In the hilly farmland of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region, where my father’s family has been anchored since before it was Tennessee at all, the kind of fox hunting favored was a rougher cousin of the traditional mounted style. While hunt clubs like Shakerag set out early to catch their quarry’s scent before it burns off in the morning sun, my people cast their hounds out into the darkness of night, when the nocturnal fox is just beginning its day.
Calling the humans involved in these events “hunters” is a stretch; once the hounds headed out the men retired to a campfire to tell tall tales about other hunts, or talk politics or religion or life. They would listen for the voices of the hounds carrying over the ridges and the valleys and do their own blind running commentary of the chase. Some would stretch out fireside to sleep until the pack returned after running the fox to ground or, more likely, having been outrun in the night.
Our patient zero, far as I can tell, was my great-great-uncle, Bob Lee Maddux, whose relations, regardless of actual relation, all called him Uncle Bob Lee. He began hunting as a child and later roped in my grandfather, his nephew; by the time Uncle Bob Lee gave him his first hound as a birthday gift, Grandaddy was a goner too. One of my grandparents’ early dates, as teenagers, involved hours of walking fields and searching fencerows looking for hounds that hadn’t come home the night before. My grandmother fell for it, too, never minding that she was often the only woman out on night hunts and at the field trials. My father went on his first hunt in utero. In April 1965, he and his brother posed with their parents and Uncle Bob Lee and his wife and seven of their lanky Walker hounds for the cover of Hunter’s Horn, then the sport’s preeminent magazine.
By the time I was born, this was all on the wane: Uncle Bob Lee died, my grandparents were aging, and neither my dad nor his brother ever caught the fever. What remained was Uncle Bob Lee’s big old white farmhouse, which my grandparents’ moved into after his death, and which during my childhood existed as a museum to the recent past: sideboards stuffed with silver cups and platters won as field trial trophies, doors guarded by bronze fox-head knockers, living rooms full of hunt-themed throw pillows and afghans and at least one wingback chair upholstered in a toile print of riders and hounds in the field.
For every family photo framed on the wall there was a print of a huntsman on horseback trapped forever in a graceful arc over a fencerow or steering a river of hounds down a country lane. Like the monarchy and certain u’s, Tennessee fox hunters had dropped their British forbears’ horses and costumes long ago, but the romance of it all still lingered, or haunted.
All over the house, too, were stacked copies of Uncle Bob Lee’s book. In the late 1930s he had begun writing letters to Hunter’s Horn, which the editors published so regularly and to such rapt acclaim from fellow readers that he became an ad hoc columnist of sorts. In 1951 the magazine printed a collection of his pieces as a slim volume called Hill Topping: 30 pages, glossy white cardstock, a drawing of a hound chasing a fox across the cover. The hound is braying; the fox seems to be grinning.
My earliest memories of Hill Topping predate my literacy, and it took me a few decades to realize it was a readable thing and not some ossified relic. But once I began it wasn’t hard to see why he’d been so well-loved by readers. These letters are the sort mourned by those who believe letter-writing to be a dead art: They’re intimate and meandering, unfussed by any perceived reader’s interest or attention span, but born along by a kinetic energy of the sort that either comes naturally or must be fought for in the trenches of draft after draft.
In the book’s preface, Hunter’s Horn editor E. E. Everett commends Uncle Bob Lee’s “chuckley philosophy,” but there’s an occasional edge to how he writes that suggests he considered humanity a sort of tax on the cost of sharing a planet with foxes and fox hounds. My favorite piece in the book concerns the funeral for a hound called Drum, who’d been shot for running sheep.
Uncle Tom was to walk at the head of the procession blowing his squealing horn, while Tuck came just back of the trumpet blower dragging the remains with a borrowed plow line. Next in line was Dan, crying like a woman on her 30th birthday, but keeping an ear cocked for the fine things we were all saying about what a great dog that Drum had been. Prof. Sam Jared, being better educated than the rest of us, walked at his side and gave both moral and physical support while the less talented of our members straggled along behind with handfuls of wild honey suckle that Joe Rollins had gathered as he came over Pilot Knob that morning. We were disputing among ourselves as to the advisability of letting Bro. Jeff Wall sing, but finally agreed that Drum had suffered sufficiently already and might not be dead enough to stand the strain, so we dropped him into a sink hole on Capshaw’s branch without further ado.
My dad loves this piece, too, though he never loved fox hunting. In the winter, he was always getting dragged out of bed for cold night hunts; in the summer, never-ending field trials always preempted the MLB All-Star game. Then the hounds got hold of his guinea pig, Benny Pig. He still nurses a creaky old grudge.
But even my family’s most ardent fox hunters sometimes found themselves at a loss to explain their affection. In the 1970s, Hunter’s Horn published a new edition of Hill Topping. “Fox hunting, hill country style, is so much more than a fox and a pack of hounds,” the introduction read. “At the very heart of this sport are the friendships that are so strong and lasting that that the outsider is often baffled. Many friends mentioned here are gone forever, but for the moment the people, events, and even the hounds come back into focus because the stories were set down while recall was fresh. It is all here, all the wry good humor and tenderness. Thank you, Uncle Bob.” The introduction was signed by my grandfather, but my grandmother had written it for him. He just hadn’t known what to say.
* * *
The 71st season of Shakerag Hounds opened on a Saturday morning late last October. A stringy fog was still lifting when I pulled down the long gravel driveway off Neese Commerce Road, 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, and bumped my way towards the parking lot jammed with Ford F-150s and horse trailers. A mown field stretched out beyond where a bagpiper stood in silhouette, playing against what sounded like an army of furious ghosts howling in the distance.
I had come looking for a cure for my own bafflement. The hunters, already mounted for the ride, pecked around the grass in their hunt attire, the horses’ manes all braided in thick, tight ridges down their necks. I felt like I had pressed my face too close to the glass of a print hanging in my grandmother’s stairwell and fell through to the other side. The main difference was that everyone in this world was drinking: plastic cups of port and sherry, flasks catching the morning light on their way to and from secret jacket pockets. I’d never thought about what must have been running through those painted riders’ veins.
The bagpiper taffied out his long last note and I followed the crowd around to the back of clubhouse, where the riders arranged themselves into two facing parallel lines. The howling continued, and began to grow louder. Soon John Eaton and his whippers-in appeared over a rise in the dirt road that led up from the kennels, the hounds loping along at horse-knee-height. There’s 48 of them, all freckled and splotched—mostly Penn-Marydels, an American breed, plus a few English foxhounds and crossbreds. The canine mass landed like 747 on the worn grass between the waiting rows of horses and riders. Daryl Buffenstein, one of Shakerag’s masters of fox hounds, took up a microphone, welcomed us all, then deferred to an Episcopal priest in full vestments who said a prayer to Saint Hubert, patron of hunters, mathematicians, metalworkers, and opticians. Once the day was sufficiently blessed, Eaton led his whippers-in and hounds out into the field, blew a quick double-note, and they were off.
Horseback riding looks easy but isn’t, and the saddle hours I’d accrued 20 years ago from walking endless circles in my grandparents’ driveway on a geriatric piebald named Sparkplug had long ago expired. So I landed with Shakerag’s social members and other guests of the day on the Tally Ho wagons, three variously rigged-up flatbed trailers hitched to tractors set to follow the general route of the hunt and allow us to look on as the pack passed key vantage points. As the riders followed the hounds out across the field, the rest of us found our wagons and climbed aboard. I took the rear-facing last seat of the last in the train. The ground flung itself away from me as we lumbered down the driveway and back out onto Neese Commerce, then swung left down a road called Sam Swindle and left again into the first field the hunt was set to cross.
We knew where they were headed because opening day at Shakerag is always a drag hunt. Sometimes the hounds lose the quarry or lose the trail or never pick one up at all, which can make a chaotic ride for the riders and lame show for the Tally Ho crowd. So early that morning, a rag soaked artificial fox scent had been tied to the back of a four-wheeler and dragged along an amenable route through the 3,000 acres Shakerag hunts across their own property and that of obliging neighbors.
Out in the field, the tractors pulling the Tally Ho wagons cut their engines and we settled in to wait. Each wagon had its own host and ours was a man named Mark, tall with a tidy silver goatee and a tan cattleman’s hat. He offered us red wine, white wine, beer, and Bloody Marys, and told us all about how few years ago he and his family came to Shakerag as guests, wound up substitute-hosting as wagon hosts, then got hooked. “I only ride once a year or so, but I’m looking for a whiskey horse,” he said. “That’s a horse that’ll get you home no matter how much you’ve had to drink.”
The Tally Ho crowd sat there in the field for a long while, talking and then not talking, until from far off we heard the hounds and Eaton’s horn. And then, after so long of nothing, all of a sudden they appeared at the southeast edge of the field—the hounds and the horses and the riders atop them—all thundering along in a cloud of golden dust. They were coming, they were there, and then they were gone, running so hard after nothing at all.
* * *
Most fox hunters, when asked, can narrow their interest down to a single moment: When the pack finally hit on a scent trail and begins to give chase. Up until that point, there might have been scattered yowls from a hound here or there, but when they land on good quarry, the voices of the pack all rise up into what my grandmother once told me was one of the most beautiful sounds she’s ever heard. Hunters call it “hound music.”
“It does something primordial to you,” says West Hamryka, Shakerag’s other master of fox hounds, who leads the first field on hunt days, right behind Eaton and the hounds. “It gets your heart racing and your palms get a little sweaty and you’re excited and just looking and you’re with your horse that you trained with and you’re running and you’re jumping over these fences, galloping through these rivers, creeks, following those hounds and seeing them go—it is just the most wonderful, exhilarating experience.”
“It still makes the hairs on my back of my neck stand up,” Eaton tells me. “It’s just, I dunno. It’s just bloody great, do you know what I mean? It’s just bloody great.”
As huntsman, Eaton knows the sound of each of his hounds’ mouths and can tell the quarry not just by how the pack is running (coyotes, for one, love to run wide and circle back on themselves), but by which hound is most vocal (Casino, for one, loves bobcats). But hounds come in varying degrees of trustworthiness, and this can be a problem—you don’t want a hound yowling like she’s on the trail of a fox when she’s not, throwing the pack and the riders into a frenzy for nothing.
Uncle Bob Lee had a hound called Mattie who was so honest he nicknamed her The Character Witness. Hill Topping opens with her eulogy. “Many are the times she would come in hearing, running her fox when all the other hounds—good hounds—had given up. She never told a lie in her life,” he wrote. “When she gave tongue hounds came out of their beds in the corner of the fences and went to her. Lame hounds or sore hounds would hobble off on three feet, young hounds would step in your faces, if you had given up, too, and stretched out on a sheep-skin for your forty winks.”
Honesty is prized in fox hounds, but less so in their masters. The name Hugo Meynell often comes up in discussion of the sport’s more recent past. In an 1843 tome called Hunting Reminiscences: Comprising Memoirs Of Master Of Hounds, Notices Of The Crack Riders And Characteristics Of The Hunting Countries Of England, the sportsman Charles James Apperley, writing under the pseudonym Nimrod, cited the Leicestershire nobleman as the “Maecenas of fox-hunting.” This reputation persists, despite Meynell himself never making the claim, few other sources having much to say about him, and Apperley’s own account being suspect. (“Meynell’s reputation is a myth and that fox hunting continued as it began, a medieval practice,” the academic Iris Middleton wrote in her 2006 Sport in History article, “The Origins of English Fox Hunting and the Myth of Hugo Meynell and the Quorn.”) So it may be that Apperley is the legendary originator here, not of the sport itself but of one of its great sub-traditions—that of the generous embellishment of fact.
There’s a story I’ve heard my dad tell about one of my grandfather’s hunting buddies. During one overnight hunt, as the men sat talking around the campfire, this guy spent the whole time bragging on one of his hounds. “She’s out front! I can hear her—she’s running that fox hard,” he kept saying, going on and on about how this was the fastest, most honest hound he’d ever run. After a few hours of this, he stood up to relieve himself, took three steps and tripped flat over a hound—his hound, the one he’d been talking about all night. She’d been there the whole time, sleeping just beyond the edge of the campfire’s glow.
Out on the Tally Ho wagon, I began to understand why all those tall tales get told. After our stop in the first field, we thumped back onto the main road and followed it a ways down to a dirt road that threaded between cow pastures on one side and chicken houses on the other. I hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming sense of elsewhereness I began to feel out there. I was on what basically amounted to a boozy hayride on a beautiful October morning, so it was hard to feel anything like real regret. But I still began to wonder how close I would have to get to feel like I was really in there, like I was experiencing anything essential. At what point would it cease to feel like it was all happening somewhere else? We could trail the action but we would never catch up. Even the riders operated at various degrees of removal, behind the huntsman who was behind the hounds who was behind the fox itself, though today there wasn’t even that, just a nasty old rag tossed out hours ago. No wonder all those tall tales got told. You’d hardly have anything to talk about otherwise.
After a while the Tally Ho wagon train heaved upwards through a field of unmowed grass to the top of a hill that rose from a brushy creek bed—the hunt’s halfway point. The tractors stopped and we all hopped off, stretching in the nearly-noon sun. Mark produced a few aluminum pans from a cooler and began pushing sandwiches: BLTs and chicken salad, regular and buffalo, on tiny croissants. More Bloody Marys were poured and a Port-A-Potty was located under the hilltop’s lone tree. Then a woman yelled, “Everybody, watch! Here they come!” and we waded through the grass for a better look.
To the south of us, Eaton and the hounds had burst from the dark tangle of the creek bed. He was wailing like a banshee, screaming “Cut, cut, cut!” between long blasts on his horn as the hounds plowed up the hill towards us. The other hunters had split off and come up the other side of the hill and now flooded our ranks at the top, everyone still on horseback but bending halfway to accept the drinks and cheese straws soon offered up to them. The hounds spilled up over the hill and into the crowd of humans, eyes and mouths wide, like they just couldn’t believe their luck in finding us out there.
* * *
When my grandfather died, some of his hunting buddies sent my grandmother a massive wreath of silk flowers accented with a toy fox outfitted in full hunt attire, which struck me as perverse even as a kid. What animal would dress up to hunt itself? But the way some hunters talk, the quarry is all but an adjunct member of the club. I heard it over and over again that day: “We’re rooting for the fox.” And I believe them. I truly believe they are as disinterested in killing that animal as any group of humans could possibly be while still pursuing that animal with a pack of trained hounds.
Out on the Tally Ho wagon, Mark told us about a fox everyone at Shakerag calls Rupert. That’s a common nickname for red foxes in general, but here, they mean one in particular. He’s dark red with a splash of white across his breast, and for a few seasons now he’s given the hounds hell. Mark says he once saw him zig-zag across an open field, sit and watch the hounds scramble along his scent, then run off again before they even got close. “We’ll go on hound exercise, and when we come back towards the kennels, he’s had a shit in the middle of our trail,” Eaton tells me later, sounding like a proud parent. “A big old steaming ‘fuck you’ in the middle of the damn road.”
Coyotes are the main exception to the huntsman’s mercy. They eat what red fox eat, and they eat red fox too. The ones that prowl Shakerag’s hunting grounds do not get cute names. A coyote is likely to outrun the pack, but if the hounds have the chance—and the owner of the property they’re on has given the OK—Eaton will allow a kill. It’s one small way for Shakerag to be of use to their obliging neighbors, and it cuts the local fox population some slack. Not that Eaton needs the hounds for that. Once, when he saw a coyote pawing around a den he knew was full of Rupert’s pups, he pulled out his rifle and shot the coyote dead.
Space is is the biggest problem facing American fox hunting—hunters and hunted, both. Like Shakerag, most clubs run on borrowed land, which becomes a problem when developers come calling or neighbors grow weary. Shakerag has moved three times in seven decades, always with Atlanta’s ever-creeping tentacles close behind. If the housing market crash in 2008 hadn’t stalled development in Commerce, Eaton guesses they might’ve had 10 years before having to plot another move. The club throws a barbecue every year for the 100-something neighbors whose land they trample across every Saturday and Tuesday, October through May.
Fox hunting relies on a certain generational momentum, too, which can be a tricky prospect. West Hamryka married into the sport. His wife Helen’s grandparents were early Shakerag members, back when it was the Atlanta Riding Club; Helen and her mother, Lynn, served as club secretary 40 years apart. Lynn had converted Helen’s father to the ranks: He was a football star at VMI, played pro for the Redskins and the Giants, then went to veterinary school and ran the largest equine practice in Atlanta for 40 years. The first time Helen took West on a Shakerag hunt, he rode on the Tally Ho wagon. Amid all the eating and the drinking and the carrying on, he found himself thinking, “This is a bunch of old, fat men—I could do this!”
He went on his first hunt in borrowed tack on a borrowed horse. That was 22 years ago. Helen and West now have a horse farm and two sons, Richard and William, who began riding as soon as their feet could reach the stirrups. Eighteen-year-old William has all but given it up, but seventeen-year-old Richard still rides when soccer season allows. It’s an oddball hobby for a kid growing up in the suburbs, even in the South. “People go, ‘I go deer hunting—that must be the same thing, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Not exactly, no,’” he says. “It’s not just about going and killing a fox. That’s not a sport—that’s not fox hunting. It’s about going out and having fun and being with friends and being with family and going out and enjoying a sport that you love. I don’t know. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s a way of life, really.”
Talking to Richard, I’m struck by the asymmetry: We’re each the fourth generation of our own fox hunting lines, our fathers’ particular affinities having landed us where we are. For his dad, fox hunting was love at first ride and a scramble to make up for lost time; for mine, nothing but hassle and boredom. So here we are.
* * *
The Tally Ho wagons traced back the way we came and beat the hounds and the horses back to the main field, where once more we began to wait. Early that morning, the drag line had been laid so that the chase would end right before our eyes, a grand finale of wild-eyed horses and hounds and hunters. But the sun was now right overhead; the scent had burned off hours ago. We sat, and we sat some more. Finally a lone hunter rode across the field to deliver the news: The hounds had landed upon not one but two real trails—two foxes, a red and a gray—and had run off after them, off to who knows where. He apologized. We shrugged off our jackets and went for another drink.
By this time I thought I had all the answers I’d come in search of. If the fox wasn’t the point of fox hunting, then it must be everything else: The horses, the hounds, the old friends, the October sun, the flasks stashed inside the sharp red jackets, the breakfast spread waiting in the clubhouse at the far end of the final field. “It’s a party on a horse!” I’d heard more than one person say, and that seemed about right.
But later I would turn back to Hill Topping and realize I was most likely wrong, or at least not entirely right. I found a piece I’d overlooked before, “First One Thing, Then Another.” I knew that sometimes Uncle Bob Lee would go out on night hunts alone, just him up on a ridgetop and his hounds running a fox out there in the dark. He would sit and think, or sit and drink, or sleep. But at least once he cast out his hounds to run on the hundreds of wooded acres behind his big old white farmhouse, then went back inside to bed.
I let dark come on then open the kennel gate, jump aside to keep from being trampled and have a fox race going in five minutes or more. They don’t last very long, but another is soon coming up that listens mighty well from a summer seat beneath an arborvitae tree on the front lawn which keeps the dew off. There I sit until late bedtime, then into the house and to sleep, from which I am often awakened during the early morning hours, as the hounds come through the low gap of Terry mountain on their way to the creek, or back, as the case may be.
It struck me then that the source of my bafflement was maybe also its cure. That if I was ever going to understand fox hunting, I would have to understand it as making peace with the outer edges, with always hovering just beyond or beside the center of things. The unspeakable, the uneatable, the unfathomable. I would have to know that I would never be able to get close enough to be satisfied—I have to be a hound, or the fox itself. But it has to be enough sometimes to know that somewhere out there, something is happening, happening as it always has, without having to know what or why.
When the hounds finally materialized at the far end of the field, John Eaton steered the pack towards us and took one long final blow on his horn. The hunt was over. He slid from his horse and produced a faded Deli-Cat jug full of dog treats, which he shook into the air in triumphant arcs. The riders appeared too, horses and humans breathing hard in their own golden cloud, and we all stood and watched the hounds leaping and snapping at the tiny airborne bones, unbothered despite whatever they just spent hours in pursuit of having never materialized in their jaws. Soon they were herded back to their kennels to laze away the afternoon, and the rest of us set off across the field to the clubhouse to stretch out the truths of the day, and to eat and drink some more.
* * *
Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.