Michael Combs knows the trajectory of an osprey plummeting to its prey. He knows the silhouette of a heron, haloed in the steamy mist of a rising summer sun. He can tell his life in the cycles of sea lavender or the cacophony of arctic terns warning him away from their young. He spent his boyhood where his father did, and his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father before that, back and back to 1644: in the palette of greens and declensions of purples and blues that color the marshes and bays of Long Island.
Baymen and hunters like the men of Combs’s family spend a lot of time watching. They get to know the fish they fish and the birds they stalk, they study habits and reconnoiter habitats. Long periods of waiting climax in the eroticism of violence. Like Hemingway’s old man they love the fish when they are alive, and they love them when they kill them. In between there are stories to tell, fish stories, war stories. In their down time for the last five generations, Combs men have been decoy carvers, translating observation into tools of the trade. Decoys are a kind of bait. They ride the waters to entice real ducks within gunshot range. Somewhere along the way, decoy carving became a folk art, and, like all arts, it has collected collectors. They prize the work of Captain George Combs (1848–1930), Captain Alvin “Jack” Combs (1883–1959), Captain George W. Combs (1911–93), and Captain Jack Combs Sr. (born 1935) and could care less about what a decoy is actually meant to do.