Ah, the noble hound: the retriever and pointer, which bring in the game; the bloodhound, which tracks down felons and rescues lost children; the coonhound. which practically qualifies as a drinking buddy. But the basset? The basset? Surely this sad-eyed, droopy-jowled, short-legged, heavy-bodied creature is too awkward and too slow to make a good hunter. Nonetheless, a hunter it is, a lesser-known breed among the "trailing hounds," which include the more popular beagle and dachshund, whose keen sense of smell enables them to track rabbits, foxes, raccoons, deer and even people.
The name basset is derived from the French word bas (low). A cross between the French bloodhound and Hubert's hound, bassets were bred in medieval times for hunting in heavy cover. "Their heads are hung with ears that sweep the morning dew." said Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The breed was imported to North America in Colonial days, and now a dozen-odd basset hunts are conducted in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois.
A basset hunt is like a fox hunt, except there are no horses. That's a big difference. Fox hunters careen through fields, jumping fences and breaking collarbones when they fall. Basset followers casually trail their ponderous hounds, who are great trackers but not-so-great trappers. On those rare occasions when there is a kill, the bassets will wear down their quarry—usually a hare—and quickly devour it.
More than anything, a basset hunt is a social event. The annual Blessing of Hounds hunt, held Thanksgiving weekend by The Timber Ridge Bassets in Westminster, Md., is a case in point. The "field" of 185 guests and subscribers, who support the hunt with annual dues of from $75 to $150, assembled at 11 a.m. Saturday on the rolling property of hosts Herb and Peg Rice. A young Episcopal minister, Rick Lindsey, ecumenically blessed both hounds and hares, and subscriber Bill Holden eloquently recited relevant passages from Shakespeare. Then everyone was off on a two-hour walk following the nine-and-a-half "couple" of bassets (that adds up to 19 hounds) across a Wyethian landscape of plowed-under corn and soybean, milkweed and high grass.
The people were as noteworthy as the pack. Social hunters have long been the subject of overdrawn stereotypes—"The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable." as Oscar Wilde said of fox hunters. Granted, some members of the Timber Ridge crowd had aristocratic-sounding names—M. Warfield Constant, Elwood Boblits, H. Lloyd LeCompte Jr.—but among the hunt followers were farmers and professional people from Baltimore, an hour's drive to the southeast. A random sampling by vocation: insurance executive, college professor, engineer, orthopedic surgeon, computer programmer, retired military officer and one expatriate Russian princess. The field ranged in age from eight to 88 and the eyecatching haberdashery from jeans to tweeds. Philosophically, it was a rather conservative group but one adovocating controlled land-and-game management. To a man, woman and child, they looked askance at a tacky housing development in the distance.
Dressed in white trousers and stocks, black-velvet hunting caps and green coats bedecked with the hunt's official gold and blue piping, a half-dozen "whippers-in" ranged around the pack. It was their job to keep the hounds together, and they did so efficiently, snapping their plaited whip thongs in the air with such force that the whips literally broke the sound barrier.
Master Huntsman Meena Rogers directed the hounds and whips. Every so often she would blow a call on a nine-inch silver-and-copper hunting horn—among them staccato sounds summoning the field and hounds, up and down notes encouraging the bassets to chase a scent and a long lyrical note to bring in the whips. Rogers keeps the pack on her Maryland farm and runs it three days a week, including the weekend dates from October through March when The Timber Ridge Bassets meet around the state. The club convenes once a week during that period, except when crusty ground endangers the hounds' pads.
A fine-arts appraiser by profession, Rogers called to her hounds by name: Reggie, George, Rocky, Fats, Bunky, Jasper, Joker, Rigel, Sam, Mollie, Katie, Carol, Fancy, Coco, Winnie, Sarah, Minnie, Beulah and Ben. Like most hounds, bassets are trained to follow scents. "The new hounds go out with the old and pick up the system very quickly," Rogers says. "But bassets act very bored when there's no scent. They just poke along." That, alas, was the problem on Thanksgiving weekend. Only once was their unforgettable "uhroo, uhroo" heard—and that when a fox broke out of the bushes and quickly disappeared down a road.
Nevertheless, the field celebrated afterward with chili and drinks. "I used to worry about taking care of everyone," says Rogers, who was recently widowed. "When my husband, Charles, was alive I would do the hunting and he'd take care of the field. After he died two years ago I had to greet people, and I'm a little uptight. But when the hunt starts, there are no problems. So many people from so many walks of life come out, and it's amazing how well they get along. I think the country is a great healer."