Thursday, December 27, 2007

Apres Ski?

Even with our mild weather this week, Maine is still nearing record-setting levels of snowfall and cold. It’s a great relief after last year, when we spent the last month of the year in wet and balmy air. The first snowfall of the season didn’t fall until late January last winter: long after even skeptics began to think Al Gore might be right; long after one of my favorite nature writers, Janisse Ray, made the news when she and a few friends floated down a Vermont river with large placards asking “where’s winter?”

This year, no one needs ask. It arrived in November and has been doing its beautiful thing ever since. We have nearly thirty inches on the ground right now; Ari and I have been trying to make good use of it every way we know how. So far, that’s mostly been snowshoeing and hiking, but I’ve been itching to get back on my cross-country skis, which didn’t make it out of the cellar more than once or twice last year.

As I lug them up the stairs, the caninaturalist flattens her ears and skulks into the other room. Too much noise and too many long, sharp angles for her taste. And even after we make our way outside, she still seems leery of the entire operation. I worry she has forgotten that she loves to ski.

We cut through our backyard and out into the forest behind our house, where we can connect with our neighbor’s elaborate trail system. It’s beautiful here, but Ari still seems reluctant. She trots behind my track, as if concerned that she’ll be run over in front. That may be a fair concern, given it’s been a while since I’ve used my Nordic skis--and it shows.

After a few laps in all the glorious snow and sunshine, she begins to relax. We’re still far from the quiet power of a skijoring dog, but at least the ears are back up and the smile has returned.

We stop periodically to admire the foliage. Only the conifers and beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) still have any leaves; the latter sounds like a concert of ancient rattles as the brittle leaves rap in the wind. The beech has particularly long and fragile buds, and it has evolved to keep its leaves throughout winter as a means of protecting and insulating these buds. This adaptation gives a welcome spot of orange to an otherwise gray landscape.
Even though dogs can see far more of the color spectrum than humans once thought, it’s the movement of the leaves Ari really loves. She stands below the tree and cocks her head in wonder, or pounces on every—and I mean EVERY—leaf that crosses her path. Most of the time, this results in one very clumsy skier catapulting into the snow, still tethered to the leaf-catching dog.

Ari spends her own time writhing in the snow on this adventure. Not because she’s fallen or been dragged down (she’s far too graceful for that), but because she’s discovered scat from the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) buried deep in the snow. Each pile she finds sends her scooching and squirming, hoping she can manage to wedge some of the pellets into her fur to be used as social currency later on. Luckily for me, they’re too frozen for that kind of job.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Peace on Earth

At long last, the Winter Solstice—and with it, the return of the sun. The ancient Celts get a bum deal this time of year: all their very best traditions, from carving melons in October, to illuminating conifers with candles in December, get appropriated by our interloping religions.

Personally, I prefer their approach to the winter season—particularly if it means an excuse to be outside.

We decide to celebrate the day by taking a snowshoe hike on Hogback Mountain, near the coast. The snow is deep here—at least two feet in most places—but Ari leaps valiantly through the piles. Along the way, we stop for views and an excuse to catch our breath. We also leave apples and tiny handfuls of seed as holiday offerings to the mountain inhabitants. The caninaturalist picks the locations for these gifts: she buries her head in the deer and fox tracks, breathing deeply and recreating their paths. Her preternatural gift for finding hidden creatures has not been muted by the snow. As we walk up the hill, she leads us first to a group of pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) and then a series of hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus), tucked high above in the uppermost branches of preternaturally large white pines (Pinus strobes). Not much other animal activity these days: if Ari’s heaving chest is any indication, it’s just too hard to push in and out of all this snow.

As we near the summit of the mountain, Ari stops and sits firmly on the trail, as if to say no further--not today! This is unlike her--even with the difficulty of travel. Greg and I both stop, listening for sounds of another animal. Maybe a Canada lynx? A newly-woken blackbear? We toy with whether or not we should continue. Greg offers to take the lead, and Ari seems content to walk behind him. Another hundred yards or so, and we see the cause of her consternation: enormous moose (Alces americanus) tracks, the sizes of small plates, cross immediately across the trail. Ari sticks her snout in each track and inhales down to the tips of her toes. She doesn't even notice the large pile of scat the moose has left: she's just too inebriated over this new, musky scent. It takes us nearly ten minutes to pull her away.

My science colleagues tell me that moose often taken to the mountains during winters like this: packed up coyotes and even rumored wolves in the area are adept at hunting these massive creatures, often by chasing them out onto the ice, were the moose's hooves are no match for canine prowess and slick surfaces. But our lone representative of that set seems more wary than she does predatory today, and she sticks close as we make our way back down the mountain.

Back home, the two cats have taken up residence under the Christmas tree. They live down there most days lately, which makes me wonder if they are tapping into previous their feral existence--or something even more primal. For Ari’s part, she seems envious of their close conspiracies under the boughs. She yawns and stretches as long and lean as she can make herself, eventually depositing her front end half under the tree. The three of them have become our own nativity scene.

We’re all waiting to see if animals really can speak at midnight on Christmas eve. If these three can, I’m sure they’d have a message of pure joy. Until they find their own voices, I’ll serve as proxy and wish you all a season of peace and happiness.

All our best, Ari and Kathryn

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ancient Greeks

I love this picture; it seems like the perfect representation of our lives as caninaturalists.

There is a wonderful painting by Raphael (the Renaissance artist, not the ninja turtle) called “The School of Athens.” In it, Socrates and Aristotle stand side by side, each depicting his ontological view of the world. The wizened Socrates, barefoot and tressed in long white locks, points upwards—towards the heavens, or more specifically, the transcendent forms. The much younger Aristotle stands next to him, his auburn hair full and his feet clad in thoroughly modern sandals. He holds a hand outstretched, palm flat, as if to embrace the earth.

I certainly don't claim to be a great mind, but I do see something similar happening in this picture of me and Ari.

While I mug for the camera and the attention of the photographer, the expert canine naturalist looks upwards: not in search of the Socratic forms, but rather, concentrating on what is happening around us. She doesn’t care that her picture is about to be taken, or that I’m trying to get her to smile at Greg. Instead, she’s watching the snow trickle down from the branches as a red squirrel races from bough to bough. That, she seems to be saying, is what life outside is all about. Not posing, but experiencing.

I think this lesson is one of the most important we can learn from philosopher dogs. They remind us that there’s a time to be self-reflexive and contemplative and even performative. But they also tell us that, much of the time, we’re better off throwing that aside in lieu of the immediate and the external.

Who needs a photograph, when you can have the memory of a chickadee ruffing its feathers on a limb? Why posture, when you can pursue every last red squirrel through all this glorious, wonderful snow?


Saturday, December 8, 2007

Snow Day!

The storm arrived sometime after midnight. As the pre-dawn light began to grow, Ari rose from her dog nest, gave her tags a good shake, and trotted to the bedroom window. There she remained, sentry-like, cataloguing each flake as it landed on the sill.

Meanwhile, Greg and I feigned sleep—hoping to buy a few more minutes of still warmth before joining the day. The clock radio had clicked on several minutes earlier, and we lay quietly as we listened to the round voice of the announcer making his way through the school closings: A Hug-a-Day-Daycare, Creative Kids, Little Lambs Christian Academy, Messalonski High, Mt. View. With each pronouncement, I pictured little throngs of Dickensonian children tossing top hats into the air and shouting at the thrill of their unexpected vacation. And, as they did, Greg and I were both transported back to our own childhood, as we not-so-secretly pined for a day of sanctioned truancy.

Ari had little patience for this waiting game. Before the radio voice had reached his Ps and Qs, she left her post and leapt upon the bed, bleating a wake-up call. I pretended not to hear. The bleat became a high-pitched, short bark: Get up! When I still didn’t answer, she picked her way across our bed hummocks and stretched long across my torso, tapping my nose with her paw. Get up!! Get up NOW—there’s SNOW out there!

Do huskies and other cold-weather dogs have a genetic connection to snow? They’ve certainly been bred to love the stuff. As soon as we step onto the front porch, Ari reaches the height of frenzied pleasure. She dashes through the powder, sending up plumes of white. She porpoises from deepest drift to deepest drift, pausing only long enough to bury her snout or burrow deep into a mound of crystalline white. When that no longer suffices as an expression of her joy, she springs high into the air, attempting a half-gainer and landing, belly-up, in the biggest pile of snow she can find. There, she wiggles and schooches and insinuates herself into every edge and crevice. This is no snow angel: this is a fallen creature, made drunk on its own hedonism. She shimmies deeper into the pile, snorting and wagging, until only a single foot and thick tawny tail are visible in the snow.

A muted chortle comes out from under the drift: Wahh-wahh-wahh-wahhnn.

Find me, this gurgle of a bark seems to say. It’s a game!

It’s a good day for games. I dig down, pulling back armfuls of snow until I am met by a sugar-coated snout and steely blue eyes. She yips with pleasure. I bend down closer. Grinning, she tosses a husky-sized paw of snow into my face. Ha! Ha ha!

She flattens her ears and smiles, politely averting her eyes. Has she gone too far, so brazenly starting a winter battle? She pats her tail, still mostly submerged. I'm friendly, the tail pulse says. No offense intended.

I laugh, shaking away the melting snow from my eye lashes and nose. This noise is all the confirmation she needs: our relationship, if not our feet, is still on terra firma. She rises, and flicks more snow, grinning widely as it cascades down my jacket and gets caught in my hair. I can’t resist. Before I know it, I’m in an all-out snowball fight with this juvenile dog—and I’m losing. Badly. I haven’t felt this triumphant all year.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Food for Thought

November is hunting season. Hunters fascinate me: not only do they embrace the ideals of slow food, but they also assume the role of predator; they come face to face with the life—and death—of what they consume. It’s tempting to ally human hunters with animals like wolves, who also employ elaborate strategies to bring down prey. But the analogy only goes so far. Human hunters are ecological visitors—sometimes participants who venture in long enough to take part in a biological cycle, only to step out again.

Still, it’s not always a blissful union between human, canine, and firearm. Just this November, an Iowa man made national headlines when he was shot in the leg by his hunting dog. The man had set down his gun and climbed a fence in order to retrieve a pheasant. His dog stayed behind and somehow managed to accidentally pull the trigger, releasing over 100 shot pellets into the man’s calf. New media outlets ate up this new rift on man-bites-dog journalism: the story was covered by dozens of newspapers and t.v. news shows, ranging as far afield as Seattle, Vancover’s CBC, and even the BBC in Europe.

I doubt Ari’s likely to pull a trigger anytime soon, but that doesn’t make our excursions into the woods all that safe, either. Beginning this week, thousands of armed men, women, and children will disperse across Maine. Most have spent the past several months practicing 1) how to be invisible and 2) how to shoot at moving targets. Last year, 873 deer were shot, killed, and tagged in our little corner of the state alone. Considering that the general equation for legal hunting in Maine is 1 hunter = 1 deer, that means that at least 800 armed hunters will probably begin sharing our woods tomorrow. The odds are not in favor of a tawny dog and woman who wears earth tones.

Ari and I need more information about this culture and its practices if we’re ever going to find a way to be outside for the next month. In keeping with my nubby food/death equation, I settle on the perfect opportunity. Each year, the deer season begins with gluttonous, pre-dawn meals across the state. Called “Hunters Breakfasts,” they are as much a staple of the season as camouflage and pick-up trucks. In the pre-dawn hours, hunters and non-hunters alike roll out of bed beginning at 3:00 a.m. to wolf down ambitious plates of home-cooked food. Nearly every town in New England has one, and they are usually advertised on big banners sponsored by Miller Light, or on homemade paper flyers tacked to convenience store bulletin boards. It's time for us to figure out what this is all about.

The next morning, we rise in the dark and the chill. The two cats are perplexed by our movement—this is usually their time to run about the house undisturbed. Mouse scampers onto the kitchen counter where she is safe from the rude jabs of a puppy’s muzzle; Leila Tov beats a hasty retreat to the tiny spot underneath the living room coffee table. For once, however, Ari pays them little mind. She’s too curious about what we’re doing awake so early in the morning.

Trying our best to play participant observers, Greg and I don thick workpants and fleece pull-overs. No one in their right minds would mistake us for local hunters; still, we won’t stick out too much in Carhartt pants and bright stocking caps. Hunters are required to wear at least one article of blaze orange clothing: although the deer can’t see the florescent shade, other humans can. It’s kind of like hanging a sign around your neck that says, “don’t shoot me—I’m not an ungulate.” With that in mind, I tie a blaze-orange bandana around the groggy pup—just in case. We stop in the yard long enough for her to pee, and then the three of us are off, driving down dark, windswept roads littered with oak leaves.

Half an hour later, we arrive at the neighboring town’s Knights of Columbus Hall, which is lit up like a party on an otherwise dark street. The parking lot is crowded with pick-up trucks and mud-splattered Jeeps. Greg laughs at my diminutive Honda with its bike rack and “Wage Peace” bumper sticker. We decide we should park somewhere inconspicuous.
As we prepare to go inside, I tell Ari that she’ll have to wait in the car while we eat, and I promise her a piece of bacon in return for her patience. She is confused by this change in our routine, but she settles into the driver’s seat and looks like she’s prepared to hold down the fort.

Greg and I make our way to the hall, passing a group of about ten hunters who loiter outside the building, gnawing on toothpicks to hide their excitement. They’re not allowed to take their first shot until the official sunrise, and it’s clear that a year’s worth of anticipation and a few early morning cups of coffee have made them irrepressibly impatient. They stand in loose formation, shifting their weight often and laughing nervously. These are people who have spent months studying the movements and patterns of deer; they have built stands in trees and taken countless practice shots. Every second of this day has been mapped and plotted—except for the agonizing hour before the sun breaks the horizon.

I want to ask them what all of this means—and what they know—but I don’t have the nerve. The men seem too imposing in their expectancy, and I worry they will respond to my questions with distrust. So instead, I drop my head and pass by silently. They look at us curiously as we cut through the middle of them to get to the front door. One tips his hat to us, as if glad we’re sharing in the day with him. I smile nervously in return but say nothing. This is his territory—not mine.

Inside, cheerful women offer us plates of baked beans, biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, pancakes, French toast, donuts, bacon, sausage, and canned peaches. Giant carafes of hot chocolate, cider, and coffee stand at the ready nearby. The woman serving us seems amused that I only want a small spoonful of eggs and one piece of bacon. I promptly wrap the latter in a napkin. The woman looks on with a perplexed smile and whispers to Greg that he can come back for more as way of compensation for my lack of appetite. Her voice says we are welcome here, and I appreciate her consideration.

A handful of eaters sit spread out around the dining area, which is still garishly decorated for Halloween. Greg and I take our seats at a table underneath a picture of Pope John Paul II and a sesquicentennial poster honoring Columbus. On our table are two pumpkins: one featuring a spaceman tableaux, the other made up to look like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
We take inventory of the room. Unable to rise much before 4:00, we have missed the first wave of serious hunters. Instead, we have arrived at the changing of the guard—thick men in safety orange and camouflage are being replaced by senior citizens eager to have an event with which to fill their morning. Still, the table next to us offers a classic New England scene: a father, son, and grandfather, dressed in muted wool and lingering over apple cider before making their way out. The grandfather looks as if this may be his last year hunting, which might explain the lingering.

The conversation around us centers on the logistical problems of hunting. How do you get a 150-lb deer home, once you’ve shot and killed it? Do experts prefer field dressing or disemboweling back home? These are conundrums neither Greg nor I have every considered. But everyone else in the room has. I eavesdrop as the men weigh the merits of heavy lifting and dragging a carcass behind a 4-wheeler. Both appear to have serious drawbacks. They speculate about better alternatives involving winches, ropes and (if possible) army helicopters. They decide such resources are unlikely and return to the merits of dragging.

Wild canids, of course, don’t worry about such things: they simply eat their fill at the point of execution, and leave the rest to scavengers. They also don’t worry about whether they did the executing or were simply the first to stumble upon the recently-deceased. This rankles the men. One of them laments that coyotes dragged off his trophy last year before he could return to it with his 4-wheeler. “Damn pests,” he concludes. I try to hide my concern.

Once home, we set out for our morning walk. The weatherman has predicted another day of blustery wind and rain, so there is no noticeable sunrise to speak of. Still, before we leave our driveway, we begin to hear the reverberation of shotguns echoing off the hills. I count five shots during our ten minute walk, and I’m relieved when Ari has relieved herself and we can go back inside. This is no time to linger anywhere in the woods.

As the week wears on, I find myself inescapably torn between tolerance and resentment. The overwhelming majority of hunters, of course, are conscientious and very, very safe. By and large, they are respectful, conservation-minded individuals securing safe food for their families. Most follow state guidelines and ensconce themselves deep in the woods or on private property. They wear safety orange and take great pains to make only the cleanest of shots. Still, accidents happen. Local lore contains tons of stories about hunters mistaking pets, livestock, and even lawn furniture for deer. There’s some truth to these myths. Each year, farmers and horsepeople take great pains to identify their animals as not deer: dairy farmers spray-paint their cows either with words like “cow” or just with geometric patterns of safety orange. Our neighbor has woven yards of fluorescent surveyor’s ribbon through her horses’ manes and tails. She also insists that each wear a permanent bright orange blanket: the horses look like they are dressed in old-fashioned life preservers. At some level, I suppose they are.

Even still, horses, cows, alpacas, and goats are accidentally killed every hunting season. Recently, a novice hunter mistook a St. Bernard for a deer and dealt it a fatal shot before realizing what had happened. There are human casualties as well. In spite of the requisite orange, reports of hunters mistaking one another for deer begin making the nightly news. Most sustain treatable injuries. Still, every hunting season includes a human death toll. Often, these are heart-wrenching stories of fathers accidentally killing sons or friends shooting friends. This season, a 17-year old girl in her backyard was mistaken for a deer by a hunter trying to get one last shot at dusk. She died en route to the hospital.

The challenge for all of us, then, is this: how can we coexist outside? The entire ecosystem has changed for this month, complicating every possible relationship of predator and prey. We must all redefine what it is to be in nature. This is no longer just a question of ecology. It’s about personal safety—for everyone.

This is especially true for Ari. Her tawny coat and white blaze mimic the markings of a deer, even if she is only half its size. What’s worse, her wolfy nature has put her at particular risk. The anti-coyote sentiment expressed by the man at the hunter’s breakfast is shared by most hunters, who see wild dogs as competition for deer and game birds. Already we have found three coyote carcasses in the forest. With their pointed ears and long, elegant snouts, they look hauntingly like my dog.

It’s too risky to be in the woods these days, so Ari and I rethink our outdoor routine. It’s relatively easy for me: I can run on the treadmill at the gym, or stay at home and grade papers. As for the naturalism, I’m sure there’s a way to do it from afar. If not, I’m willing to take a hiatus in the interest of safety. Ari, however, is far less adaptable. She is a high-energy yearling dog accustomed to big mileage walks and runs. Truncated walks equal excess energy which, in turn, equal destructive behaviors in the house. That’s the thing about primitive dog breeds—you can take them out of the wolf pack, but you can never really take all the wolf out of them.
I struggle over possible solutions. We can walk in town, where there are no hunters, but that necessitates daily car rides, and it will most certainly compromise our naturalism. We could walk at night, but that presents challenges as well. We try abbreviated walks during low-peak hunting times. Like canids, deer are most active around dawn and dusk, so many hunters take a mid-day break to get warm and have a meal. We capitalize on this siesta by trying early-afternoon strolls. Shrouded in orange and sticking to well-traveled roads, we make a ridiculous pair. And Ari is clearly dissatisfied with the compromise.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I Wanna Be Just Like You

Two days later, we leave Ari at home and drive to Cheshire’s Victorian home. Greg is doing his best to be a good sport, but I can tell he’s not entirely enthusiastic.

“Only one,” he reminds me as we ring the doorbell. “We only have room for one more animal.”

Cheshire leads us upstairs into feral cat land. As we walk up the stairs, she warns us that, although they have learned to trust her, the cats will not transfer that trust to other humans. At least not at first.

“These kitten-cats were born feral, and they lived on their own outdoors for five months. That’s about as long as you can go and still hope for domestication,” she says.

We count back the months since they were rescued and brought to Cheshire.
“The cats were born in September?” I ask.
Cheshire nods.
“So they spent the winter outside?”
She nods again.
“How on earth did they survive?”
“I have no idea. But these are tough little animals.”

Not that you’d know it at first meeting. The four kittens launch elaborate crisis drill as soon as we enter the room. Each flies off her perch and scatters about the room, as if moving towards her appointed place of cover. The three humans move their heads back and forth quickly, trying to keep track of the lightening speed and precision movement.

“Well,” says Cheshire with a deep breath. “Here they are.”

She introduces us to the litter. Before I can say anything, Greg turns to Cheshire.
“I really think they ought to at least stay in pairs, don’t you?”
She smiles in agreement. I blink, looking for the husband who accompanied me to this house.
Greg continues. “I mean, I think it’s the right thing to do. For the cats. I wouldn’t want to separate Mouse from the only family she has.”
I remain dumbstruck. And pleased.

Cheshire quietly steps away from the room, leaving the two of us with four terrified cats. I sit down on an overturned chair.
“Two cats?” I smile.

Greg looks sheepish. “They seem so scared,” he says. “I think they need one another.”

But how do we choose? We look at each one, delightful in her own way. We can’t make this decision for them. I go downstairs and find Cheshire, reading a book of philosophy in the living room.

“We need your help,” I say. “Who would be the best choice for Mouse?”

She comes upstairs and surveys the room. “They’re all great,” she says. “But I when I hear scampering up here, I think it’s coming from Mouse and Leila Tov. I can’t confirm it, but I think they’re playmates.” She pauses. “I’m not going to lie to you, though. Leila Tov has come the least far in terms of socialization. I don’t know that she’s ever going to become really domesticated.”

That doesn’t bother me too much. Leila Tov is a mirror image of her sister: lean and black and mysterious in her reticence. I like the contrast. And hopefully we’ll have Mouse to cuddle someday. “Do you think Leila Tov will be hard to place with another family?”

“I do. I’ve had the most inquiries about Cora, and a few people have visited Mavis and Mouse. But none so far for Leila Tov.

That settles it for me. I look to Greg. “Can she be the one?”
He agrees.

Getting the two cats into a carrier is a comedy of errors for the five of us. Cheshire tries to extricate Mouse from her perch on the windowsill, but Mouse has laid root. Patiently, Cheshire tries to remove each of Mouse’s barbed claws from the screen. Her paws are enormous, with several extra thumbs on each hand. She looks like Mickey Mouse with his big, white gloves. Or, even better, like a two-handed catcher for the White Sox.

Leila Tov, who is much more graceful and lacks the extra digits, is no less of a challenge when it comes to getting her in the carrier. Each time we pour one cat in, the other escapes. By the time they are both incarcerated, the three humans are exhausted.

We shake Cheshire’s hand and promise to stay in touch. She follows us to the car with reminders about helping the cats get adjusted to their new house.

“And don’t worry if they don’t eat or use the litterbox. It could take days. When their brother was adopted, he didn’t eat or pee for over a week.”
This does not sound promising.

Greg and I drive home in anxious silence. We have made a mostly impetuous decision, and one for which we have little experience or qualification. As for the juvenile dog waiting anxiously at home, we can only hope she associates our new cargo with Cam and not the lurking feral cats in our driveway. Cheshire’s constant reminders that we could return the kitten-cats provides just enough comfort to persuade us to keep driving.

Once home, we lug the carrier into my back office, where we set up food and water, a litter box, and what we hope will be an appealing cat nest of flannel sheets and thick towels. The set-up looks very much like it did for Cam’s final hours. Maybe this will help chase away some of those residual ghosts.

The two cats have stuffed themselves into the back corner of the carrier, intertwined in fear. Their tiny dark faces point outwards, revealing only four wide green eyes. We open the carrier door and peer in. They try—unsuccessfully—to wedge themselves further back in the carrier. This is going to take a while.

Greg and I leave them alone in the room and shut the door behind us. We take Ari for a very long walk, hoping the quiet house will give the kitten-cats time to adjust. When we return an hour or two later, the cats have disappeared from carrier. I crouch under the futon. No cats. I look behind the bookcase. No cats. Chair, desk, endtable. No cats. Are they Houdinis? Can they, Harry Potter-like, disparate into thin air? I am intrigued by this idea, in spite of its obvious unlikeliness. And I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed when I find the two sisters crouched in the microscopic space created between our T.V. armoire and the far corner of the room. I look through the small wedge of space. The two dark faces turn in my direction, eyes still wide. I coo and cluck. They do not respond.

This continues for the next day or two, as Greg and I alternately pop into the room every few hours to check on the lack of progress made by the cats. On the third day, I contact Cheshire to see if she has any advice.

“You have to minimize their hiding places,” she counsels. “Make it harder for them to seek refuge completely away from you. But don’t be aggressive in approaching them, either. They should still be able to dictate the terms.”

Greg and I puzzle out how to make this work in the back room. Eventually, we decide to pull out the armoire from the corner, thereby creating a bigger space—one that, eventually, could accommodate a human appendage. We do this in quick bursts into the room—just long enough for us to remind the cats that we share this new house with them, but not long enough for Ari to realize something’s up.

Miraculously, this plan works. Although the cats, distraught that their place of residence has been compromised, retreat to the area behind the futon. On the fourth day, I see a flash of black tail scurry back as I open the door. At least they’re wandering in our absence. Around midnight on the fifth night, we hear a mad soccer match taking place downstairs. The rumbling of pouncing cats stirs Ari, who trots over to Greg’s office where she can stand, directly over the back room, with one ear cocked and her eyes as wide as the cats’. Something’s down there! She seems to say. She paws at the carpet and looks at us more intently. Hey, guys. Something’s DOWN THERE!! We tell her she has new friends but that it will be awhile before they are formally introduced. This clearly infuriates the puppy, who spends the remainder of the soccer match lying sphinx-like, following the sound with her wolfie ears and pouncing on the floor from time to time. Each time we make eye contact, she gives us a dirty look: Why on earth are we up here, when something’s playing DOWN THERE?!?! Her expression suggests something between contempt and pity. Humans clearly don’t get it.

The next day, Greg and I decide that our presence isn’t going to make a great deal of difference in the back room. And, to be honest, we’ve begun to miss our T.V. We take the pup with us: the three animals are going to have to get to know one another eventually. For the first hour or two, Ari seems to have forgotten that we have company in the room. Gradually, though, she puts two and two together: Litter box and unfamiliar food, yes that’s very interesting. Humans unnaturally interested in the wall behind the futon. Most peculiar. And what is that? That faint odor . . . it seems almost familiar to me. . . vaguely feline, I dare say. Wait. I think I’ve got it. We have new cats!

At the risk of cliché, I swear I can see a tiny compact fluorescent illuminate somewhere just above Ari’s skull. I turn to Greg.

“I think she’s figured it out.” This is both a confirmation and a warning.

A moment later, we watch with trepidation as Ari trots to the side of the futon and inserts her long snout, breathing deeply. Sure enough, that’s a cat smell. She jostles and dances, trying to get a good look. Greg and I forget about our movie and turn to the back of the couch. The two dark faces dart from us to the pup, who is now whining and yowling softly, desperate to get their attention. We’ve gone too far to turn back—the cats are going to have to meet this canine gadfly.
Forty minutes later, Ari is no closer to wooing the cats. Tired from her vocalization and constant tap dance, she retreats and lies down expectantly. She sighs heavily. We all wait. And then, a few minutes later, a clownish little face emerges from behind the futon. Mouse looks around once or twice, and her compact body follows. She steps gingerly in the direction of Ari. They both sniff the air. Ari looks restless. I say her name in a long, slow tone of warning. But it’s needless. She’s riveted to the floor, waiting to see what Mouse will do next. Mouse responds by taking a quick lap around the room, staying low and nervous on her haunches. Ari lets her explore, craning her neck owl-like to keep this new cat in view. Mouse completes the circle and returns near Ari. The two sniff the air again, then Mouse retreats underneath the futon, presumably to report back to her more reticent sister.

Over the next week, these brief encounters continue—each time prompted by the urgings of our very social dog. She has once again become our ambassador, this time an emissary representing both the human and feral world. Without her, we make little progress communicating our benevolence to these frightened, feral sisters. Somehow, though, she’s able to convey all this and more. Given how notoriously difficult it is to acclimate feral cats to a new social environment, I’m both impressed and intrigued by Ari’s success. Is it her penchant for caninaturalism? Her transcendentalism? The fact that she was semi-feral for her early months?

Of course, that last designation is mine, and I doubt many wildlife biologists would share it.
When they use the word feral, they generally mean those animals who have returned to a wild state after once being domestic. Does this include Ari? Probably not. Her unsupervised life in the shelter was more like Peter Pan’s Island of Lost Boys. I pose this notion to a small group of my science colleagues if this counts. They look skeptical. I ask how closely they guard their definitions.

My colleague, Jim Chacko, an expert in fisheries and aquaculture, admits to a certain capriciousness in scientific identification. He says this low and quietly, as if he might be excommunicated for this admission.

“I cannot say why, but people in my field have started calling all wild fish ‘feral,’” he offers.
I tell him this conjures images of rogue salmon wearing punk clothing or little goldfish throwing satchels over their shoulders and hitting the open road.

“Goldfish don’t have shoulders,” he corrects. He doesn’t deign to comment on the idea of fishy couture. “And I mean fish already in the wild.”

“So what do you call fish that were once domestic and are now wild?”
You have to hand it to ichthyologists. They’re efficient with their language, if nothing else.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Wild Lives

Nature is on the move this month, and Ari’s keeping watch. The pup has become increasingly vigilant since Cam’s death, and she spends most of her indoor time wobbling on the thin back of our sofa, where she can keep watch out our living room windows. Our couch, meanwhile, has taken on an identity of its own and looks far more like an abominable snow something than it does forest green furniture. Thick tufts of white fur undulate in the breeze, giving the appearance of underwater vegetation. Except, of course, for the annoying fact that kelp tends not to adhere to wool pants.

Our new canine vegetation has taught us an important new fact about mature huskies: they shed. A lot. So much so, in fact, that those in the know refer to this twice-annual husky molt as ‘blowing their coats.’ I wish this were merely an evocative metaphor. Instead, it’s the burdensome reality of a juvenile dog turned dandelion top. Thick balls of Ari’s undercoat float through the air in our house, eventually alighted on the carpet, the dining room table, the husband and, of course, the much-suffering sofa.

In another context, this might be whimsical or even picturesque. It might even be ecologically elegant. If, for instance, Ari were Timothy Grass (Phleum pratense) or other late-flowering flora, she’d be dispersing her seeds for germination next year. If she were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), she’d be feeding monarch butterflies and delighting children with her airborne silks. She’s not, of course.

Instead, she’s a half-husky who has inherited her father’s immensely effective insulating fur. Like her close kin the gray wolf, Ari has two coats: a thick undercoat of short hairs close to her body and coarser guard hairs on top. The undercoat keeps her body warm in temperatures as low as -75° F. Part of why this coat is so effective is because she completely replaces it twice a year. And that, of course, means that she has to lose it then, too. This makes her grumpy, and she pulls at the clumps of fur with irritation. She looks awful, and I think she knows it.

Further incensing her is the increased activity around our house. Although the pup has never been all that territorial, the increased movement of animals preparing for winter seems to concern her. She barks menacingly whenever another animal passes through our yard, regardless of whether or not that animal might be a threat. Of particular concern to her right now are three feral cats who occasionally cross our driveway on their way to some secret location. Each time they do, Ari raises her hackles, bares her teeth, and acts as if a massive invasion is immanent. Our brief morning reprieve has been interrupted by the schedule of these cats, who invariably wander down the driveway just before dawn.

Where they are returning to and how they spend their daylight hours remains a mystery to us. Like most of the animals in our area, these cats are too wily to be seen on one of our caninaturalist walks. We must resort, as Ari does, to stakeout positions near the front of the house, where we can watch the kitty debauchers slink home after a long and tawdry night of vole hunting and free love. They are wily and loose, these cats, and far too clever to let us know much about their wild lives.

We’re both surprised, then, when we see a small cat resting on the edge of the street early one morning. I stop us quietly and make the now-familiar gesture of reeling in Ari’s leash tightly around my hand, but the cat does not move. We walk closer to investigate, only to learn that the kitten—no more than a month or two old I’d guess—has become another victim to too much traffic travelling too fast on a dark country road. Trussed in a glossy black coat, she is beautiful and sleek, even lying broken in the middle of the road. Ari forgets to be fierce about this creature, who is undoubtedly the offspring of one of the pup’s new nemeses. Instead, she sniffs the kitten gingerly, then pulls back in alarm when she reaches the kitten’s fractured skull and dislocated eye. Can she tell this was an unnatural death?

Meanwhile our neighbor, Elizabeth, drives by on her way to work. Her car idles as she looks down at the cat and shakes her head sadly.

“Not another one,” she says. Her voice is full of real regret.
“Do you know this cat?” I ask. “Does she belong to anyone?”

Elizabeth shakes her head again. “I’ve seen a new feral family around here the past few days, but I haven’t been able to get close. I’m sorry.”

She apologizes—she is late to work. Otherwise, she would stay and help.

I tell her I understand. And the kitten is so small, I’m certain I can take care of its burial by myself.

“Too bad,” Elizabeth says by way of conclusion. “We’ve had a lot of these accidents lately.”

We agree. Too many.

As I watch Elizabeth’s Subaru drive down the long road, I decide I’ve had enough. Enough death, enough grieving, enough proof of the fragility and fallibility of life in our neighborhood. I turn Ari around and return to the house. Greg looks up from his morning work, surprised by the shortness of our walk and the militaristic determination of my entrance. I tell him about the kitten as I search for a copy of the week’s newspaper, which I will need to collect the broken little cat.

Wordlessly, Greg leaps from the couch and puts on his shoes. He takes my hand as we walk down the driveway and turn in the direction of the cat. We kneel down before her. She is nearly weightless; although her condition requires both of us to maneuver her onto the Business section. We fold the pages in as if the kitten were a package about to be mailed, and then we bury her in the rock wall along the side of the road.

Afterwards, Greg hugs me. He knows I am still smarting over Cam, and I get the sense he wants to allay any grief. But this time I’m not feeling grief. I pull away from him, my jaw set.

“We have to help them,” I insist.

Greg nods warily. Is this the deranged insistence of a grief-stricken pet owner? The messianic complex of someone who has been thinking about animals for too long? His expression is indulgent, as if worried he might further agitate me.

“Okay, hon,” he says slowly. “We can try to figure out something.”

“No,” I insist. “We have to help them NOW. We have to save them.”

The look on my face tells him I’m about to go home and rifle through our closet until I find tights and a cape. The look he gives me suggests clothing of the straight-jacket variety might be more appropriate. Too late: I will not be dissuaded.

I spend the rest of the morning visiting shelter and cat rescue websites. Greg and Ari take turns sighing despondently from their respective corners of the house. They are united in their apprehension over my behavior. I begin sighing too, but more out of despair concerning the current state of the domestic cat than anything else.

Eventually, though, I find an organization called Save our Strays, which places homeless cats in foster homes until they are fully socialized and can be adopted. It seems a wonderfully humane solution to the overcrowding of so many animal shelters, and their success in socializing young ferals seems like an accomplishment worth supporting.

SOS lists dozens of cats available for adoption in our area. I read the bio of each one, looking for clues about who might enculturate the most smoothly into our home. I rule out all tabbies on principle: they look too much like Cam, and I know I will spend at least our first few weeks wishing they were her. I rule out most older cats for related reasons: given Cam’s stress over Ari’s introduction, I worry that an older cat will be equally as distressed by the prospect of living with my ebullient caninaturalist. From there, my decision making becomes far more capricious, as I look for well-written descriptions and interesting cat photos. I feel like I am participating in an on-line dating service. In a way, I suppose I am.

Eventually, I email a foster cat parent named Cheshire. I decide that with a name like that, she must have a good sense of cats. Her email address is that of a local college, and I appreciate the lyricism of her descriptions. In my introductory letter, I tell her about the three of us and ask if she knows of a young cat who might enjoy living with such a family.

She writes back an hour later to tell me that she has the perfect cat for me. Her name is Mouse—a yearling cat who was recently rescued along with her three siblings. Cheshire describes Mouse as very curious, adventuresome, and busy. A real character.

I ignore Cheshire’s coded language about Mouse being “a character,” as well as her more overt warning about Mouse’s fondness for chewing paper. Instead, I take down the website address that features a picture of Mouse and visit the site at once. There, I find the image of a jester of a cat. Not quite calico, not quite tortoiseshell, Mouse wears motley. Her face is a swirl of black and brown, with a bright orange stripe rising from her nose to a point between her ears. She also has the biggest, most speckled ears I have ever seen. I am enthralled and delighted by her carnivalesque appearance. I write to Cheshire and tell her I think Mouse is beautiful. She sends me an adoption application, which I tuck away in my saved email folder. Meanwhile, I slink upstairs to the loft, where Ari is napping and Greg is studiously writing. They both look up and become instantly dubious.

“You’ve found something,” Greg says.
“Not something,” I correct. “Someone.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Living Like Eagles

Inspired by Ari's encounter with the beaver, I find myself wanting my own moment of mindlessness. So the following Saturday, I load Ari into the car and we head to a popular trail one town over. It’s hard, though, to change your mindset in a moment, and I’m quickly frustrated. This trail has none of the charm of the beaver's pool. Instead of thick, undisturbed forest, we wander past brush and an absurd number of discarded appliances. I begin to count cedar trees and washing machines. The latter soon wins out. space—the kind of compromised landscape that exists on the margins of suburb and society. Sure, it has all of the accoutrements of wilderness—trees and insects, running water and blooming flowers, but they are dampened by the obvious presences of humans. A few candy and cigarette wrappers intermingle with golden rod; the sounds of the town raceway clog the air. I’m disheartened. Forget metaphysics; everything about this place is just plain physical—and of the most unimaginative kind.

Ari doesn’t seem to mind the human intrusion—in fact, as far as she’s concerned it just seems to add to the sensory overload of one of our walks. She races back and forth along the trail, trying to take it all in. As she does, she keeps her nose buried in the scents on the trail itself. I, too, forget to look upwards. But instead of taking in the scents, I seek further proof that we are not actually in a natural space. I am sulking; trying to find excuses to alienate myself from this place.

And just when I have convinced myself that we can find nothing wild in this landscape, I am stopped cold by a giant roar of water and wings. Ari and I both look out onto the stream, where an enormous bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is rising out of the current. The eagle is no more than twenty feet away from us, and its seven-foot wingspan seems more like seventy. The characteristic white cap and tail tells me that it is a sexually mature bird, but I can not determine the sex or age from where I stand. Frankly, I can’t do much of anything other than stare at this immense expanse of wing and life. In spite of Benjamin Franklin’s protestation that this is a bird of bad moral character, in spite of the overuse of the eagle for everything from homeland security to car dealerships, this is a hauntingly majestic animal—larger than life in every possible sense of the term.

Ari and I are both frozen—in shock or awe or reverence, I can’t tell—but we stay like that for quite some time, long after the eagle has risen above the canopy and out of sight, long after the sound of race cars once again seeps into our consciousness.

And that’s when it hits me: I am experiencing mindful communion. At least in the sense that I am utterly inside this bird as it rises from the water. Is this a sign? The fulfillment of a personal natural theology? Or is it just a coincidence of time and space—of eagle dinnertime and the noise of a clumsy hiker? I don’t know. I decide it doesn’t matter. For the first time since Cam’s death, I am rooted in the very best sense of the word. As the buzz of the racetrack returns, it somehow seems more distant, more muted than before. Nature—at least this time—has trumped culture. And a sense of wonder has replaced my feelings of loss. The pup and I are spellbound—weightless, almost. And we couldn’t be happier.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Transcendent Rodent

The nights are getting much cooler now, and we have awakened to a chilling blanket of fog each of the last several days. By the second week in September, towns 100 miles to our north are reporting their first frosts. At our house, nighttime temperatures still cling to the lower 40s—not cold enough for our first crystalline morning, but chilly enough to push back Ari’s routine several hours.

Each morning, she gently wakes me around 6:00, and the two of us stumble downstairs. As I wait in the warmth of the foyer, she hurries down the steps of the front porch, into the pine grove, and then back inside. The whole process takes no more than five minutes, but her coat still absorbs the chill of the air—and some of its moisture, too. Without even asking for breakfast, she then alights up the stairs and jumps into bed—a new resurgence of her puppy behavior. But on these mornings, she’s not interested in ensuring that we are stirring, or even playing. Instead, it’s our quiet warmth she seems to value most of all, and she works hard to insinuate herself in one of the pockets created by two drowsy bodies. The absence of Cam means she no longer has to vie for space, and we no longer have a reason to eject the pup. To the contrary, I find a kind of bittersweet solace in another furry mammal curled up in the crook of my knees.

Our walking schedule has changed as well. No longer avoiding the heat of high noon or the bugs that arrive a few hours earlier, we linger in the house another few hours: Ari curls up nose to tail in her dog nest; Greg dons a sweatshirt before retreating to his loft office; I settle on the couch to write with a cup of tea and thick wool socks. We all agree: we’ll wait out the cool dampness before traipsing down the dirt road. Outside, a million different organisms seem to be making the same decision. The morning is quiet, save for the tempered shriek of a bluejay. No squirrel chases; no crickets, crows, or barking neighborhood dogs to stir activity in our cozy mammal den.

By 10:00 a.m., the temperature differential shifts, and it is warmer outside than in. Greg and I open a few windows to let in the newly-heated air. With it also come the tunes of an environment stirring: the rising pulse of locust, the dusty sweetness of one last haying. The pup catches both the scent and sound. She raises her head, then cocks one ear and half her nose in the direction of the window. Interesting, she seems to say. She rises with a long, streching bow and shakes off the cool air. Time for a walk.

These days, we opt for the familiar—down the drive and over towards Stagecoach Road. But as we have already learned with the start of spring and then summer, this route is familiar in name only. The sun has moved perceptible degrees to the south, casting new shadows on the drive and illuminating patches of ground and brush we previously ignored. Working in concert with all of that nighttime moisture, it has also created a dizzying display of illuminated spiders’ webs and browning weeds. Ari seems impressed. I tell her it will only get more amazing as we complete the arc towards a frosty winter, but she gives me a look that suggests I might be once again showing off. I recant and return to the silence of our midmorning walk.
We make our way to our usual terminus: Martin Stream. Its pools are quiet and cool in the morning shade. But unlike most days, the pool is inhabited this morning—its uniformity broken by a single object floating on the surface. For a moment, I worry it is another carcass Ari will want to embed in her coat. I wind her leash tight around my hand since neither one of us wants to endure a bath today. But as we get closer, I see that the object is very much alive. And very much an enormous beaver (Castor canadensis).

Our field guide describes beavers as hefty rodents with disproportionately large skulls. Whoever wrote that hasn’t met this particular beaver, whose immense body positively dwarfs his skull. Then again, the guide also insists that beavers are both nocturnal and group-oriented. Either I need a new guide or this lone paddler hasn’t read up on his rodent natural history.

Beavers are impossibly improbable animals. Observed head-on, they seem like over-inflated balloons with whiskers. Their flat, narrow faces are identifiable only because of the whorl of two nostrils and their enormous ochre teeth. I don’t if that’s mythic or comic. Maybe both. Robin Williams once joked that platypuses are proof that God likes to get stoned. If not further proof of this irreverent idea, beavers at least suggest that metaphysics has a sense of humor.

In spite of their strange appearance (or perhaps because of it), beavers exert an almost inconceivable effect on the natural world. In the northeast, their dam building has had more effect on topography than any other naturally-occurring force. Beavers create their own habitat, impounding water and creating marsh or entire ponds where there was once just the trickle of a stream. This process has a radical effect on an ecosystem, altering entire flora systems and, in turn, modifying what scientists call the “biogeochemistry” of a region. This is turn creates a new cycle of chemical compounds that dictate who and what can live within a particular biome.

Ari also seems to appreciate the cosmic sway of the beaver, albeit for very different reasons. Although the one paddling before her has impossibly tiny eyes and ears, both are clearly big enough to hone in on my curious dog. Theirs is clearly a mutual attraction. I give Ari the full length of her leash and try to make myself invisible behind the lip of dirt separating trail from stream. I want to see how the two of them will interact with limited human intervention.

The beaver doesn’t seem to care one way or another about my presence; instead, it is captivated by the pup. They watch one another for a few seconds. Then, after deciding Ari is not enough of a threat to warrant a hasty retreat, the beaver paddles over to the edge of the pool and pulls itself heavily to land. Even with his long bat-winged feet and thick frame, this beaver is remarkably nimble on land and makes his way to Ari in a single heartbeat. They are now just inches from one another, standing nose to nose.

I freeze. Never in our entire project has a wild animal approached Ari like this one is. I watch them closely, ready to yank Ari well away if the beaver shows any signs of aggression or diseased behavior. It doesn’t, and so I hold my breath as the pup studies this new creature. She is pure electricity as she does—dancing from foot to foot and reaching out with her nose, only to quickly reel it back in. Intrigue and uncertainty battle in the mind of this dog. Or perhaps she is merely trying to make sense of this creature by way of comparison: Hmmm, round like the neighborhood pigs, but much smaller. Compact like Cam, but not trying to claw out my eyes. Another red squirrel? Definitely not. And then there is that exotic, musky smell. Pretty darn alluring, if I may say so.

The beaver inches closer. The two animals are now an inch apart from one another. They are entranced, and the rest of the world, including me, has melted away. What they are experiencing is intimacy in its purest form. They are, cognitively speaking, completely within one another.

This interaction—what Annie Dillard calls “mindlessness” and “purity of living.” Both are states dogs and beavers clearly understand. Ari has no qualms about giving herself over to mindlessness. Or perhaps more exactly, she surrenders to a special kind of mindfulness: one that surpasses mere recognition of the moment and enters a more immediate kind of awareness not interrupted by concentration on the self. A kind of rapture.

Almost every Eastern culture has an account of this state. In Sanskrit, it is called Dhyāna; in Japanese, it is Zen. In Ari’s homeland of Korea, Buddhists refer to this state of meditation as Seon. All agree that this is a high level state of existence and communion.

Ari doesn’t care about whether this is elevated consciousness or not. And that’s the brilliance of her state of mind at a time like this. There is no metacognition or thinking about thinking; there is just experience itself. I have no idea what this feels like. I want to, though. And that’s the paradox: as soon as I consciously want this state, I have interrupted it. In the case of Ari and the beaver, my stirring—my elation and surprise over their encounter—breaks the spell between these two animals, sending the beaver on its way and leaving a stunned pup to slowly regain her sense of the surrounding world.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cam Ramsay: 2000-2007

Our cat, Cam, is sick. It came on suddenly, and by the time we took her to the vet's office for a diagnosis, she couldn't even stand up on her own. They give her IV fluids and take her blood. They suspect kidney failure, but tell us we won't know for certain until the tests are returned.

The next day, Cam's vet--Dr. Townsend--calls. It's worse than he thought. At best, she'll live another day or two. And they will be painful days. Just after eleven that morning, Greg and I agree: it's time to intervene. We wrap Cam in her favorite fleece blanket and take her to the truck. On the ride over, she curls herself around my leg and rests her chin on my foot. She wants me to protect her. She feels safe with me. I want her to be angry with me. To fight and resist. But it’s too late for that. For the first time in her short life, she is feeble resignation.

Greg and I sit in the parking lot with Cam for several minutes before entering the clinic. I resist the urge to run away. To wrap this little striped cat in her blanket and take her somewhere else where she can spend the rest of her life in peace. But that, too, seems cruel. There will be no more peace in her life. We walk inside.

They’re expecting us, and quickly usher us past the waiting area and into a private room. Cam burrows into my arm. I cry, telling her it will be okay. The lie makes me weep harder.

Matt Townsend enters the office and introduces himself to Greg. He is considerate and polite. He tells us he is very sorry. I know he means it. He explains what will happen and asks us to sign a consent form, then leaves to prepare the drugs that will end Cam’s life. First, he administers the same sedative she received the night before. This time, though, she resists its effects, raising her head jerkily each time she hears a noise. She does not want to go to sleep. I think she knows it’s forever this time. Dr. Townsend leaves us for a few minutes, then returns with a young, pretty vet tech, who nods her head shyly at us. This is hard for them too.

They shave Cam’s front forearm and swab it with alcohol. The drugs will be administered intravenously and will be instantaneous. Even with the saline infusion last night, she is dehydrated and it takes them several tries to find her vein. “Come on, sweetheart,” Matt whispers. “Don’t make this hard for us.” She consents. A minute later, she is gone.

The four of us stand awkwardly, looking at the floor.

“This is your room,” Matt tells me and Greg. “No one else will use it for the rest of the day. Take as much time as you need.”

He leaves with the technician. They have dozens of patients to see today. Behind the door, I can hear them greeting a new dog or cat. The sound is very far away and yet uncomfortably close. I want the world to shut down—just for a minute.

Cam’s beauty has returned in her death. Her eyes are clear and moist, no longer dilated with discomfort. I stroke her head and ears, then run my finger along her paws. It is inconceivable to me that she is gone. Greg cries behind me. Cam is his cat, too, and he has not seen her worsen over the past two days. Her death must feel even more jarring to him.

After some time, we wrap her limp body in the fleece blanket and take it to the truck. It feels heavy on my lap. Popular wisdom has it that the human body loses 21 grams in death. But Cam feels heavier, as if her life has been replaced by lead. Throughout the long ride home, her body sinks deeper into my lap until I wonder if I will be able to lift it. I remember the weight of that small doe. Cam feels at least that heavy now. Maybe more.

Back home, we leave her in the truck and take shovels into the woods. There is room enough near Kinch’s grave, dug almost exactly one year earlier. We are surprisingly familiar with the routine. I set to collecting stones while Greg struggles to break tree roots and heavy earth. This grave will be smaller and shallower than the beagle’s. Perhaps because of that, or because we are becoming adept at the process, we dig Cam’s in a faction of the time. I walk slowly to the truck and collect her swaddled body, taking it back into the woods. But kneeling before the opened earth, I cannot release it. I cannot place her in the ground, where she will decompose in the dark and the cold.

“Take your time,” Greg says, placing his hand upon my shoulder. “We don’t have to rush.”

I clasp her body to my chest. Even in the weightiness of death, it feels familiar. I will never hold it again, and this thought slays me. I rock back and forth, cradling her as if this will somehow bring her back. For a moment, I think that we don’t have to bury her—that there must be some way to keep her with us. But then I think about the fish and the doe and all of the other dead animals we’ve watched decay. I can’t see Cam endure a similar process.

Tibetan Buddhists have a class of individuals known as bone breakers. Called “domdens,” their jobs are to grind bodies into meal so that they might be consumed by vultures and, thus, transported high into the sky. I want to give Cam the same feeling of liberation. But I am no domden. I cannot break this little body. Instead, I lower the blanket into the jagged hole, smoothing her swaddled form and making sure she is tucked in tight. We spread the dirt upon her—a carnal sweep that cakes our hands and sweat-soaked arms. There is power in this process of burial. I don’t think I ever understood it before this moment. When Kinch died, I was more concerned over the poignancy of Greg’s grief than I was my own sadness. But this time is utterly selfish. I know only the heartbreak I am feeling and the shred of comfort I find from balling my fists deeply in the cool dirt then packing Cam’s body in that same solidity.

We pile stones on top of the earth, building them into a smaller version of Kinch’s warrior cairn. Then we return, briefly, to the sunlight of our yard, where we pick bouquets of daisies and black-eyed susans. One for the new small grave; another for the larger one that has settled over four seasons.

As we walk back towards the house, I spy a triangular face peering out from the kitchen window. Tall, black-tipped ears; thick tawny fur; blue eyes and a grin. She barks a greeting and whines impatiently. We are still excluding her, and she’s had enough.

I do not want to see this young dog, so exuberant and curious. I do not want to feel the thickness of her life, or be reminded of her endless pursuit of my now-dead cat. I resent both: the former because it reminds me of what Cam no longer has; the latter because I worry it hastened her death. I walk away from her when she greets me at the door, then retreat upstairs and fall asleep.

Greg takes Ari on her evening walk and wakes me to ask if I want dinner. I do not. I want Cam—that’s all.

Later that night, I curl into a cat-sized ball on the futon in my office. The T.V. is on, but I do not notice. Instead, I stare straight ahead, watching my own grief. I have always believed in euthanasia—for all creatures. Greg and I swore we would use it as a way to end terminal illness when discomfort outweighed vitality in any of our pets. We’ve even wished for the same in our own demise. But sitting here in the shadow of Cam’s death, I find myself burdened by responsibility and guilt. Who am I to say that, given the choice, she would have preferred a hastened death to another few days of mitigated existence? I worry that I have done the wrong thing. I fret that I have taken a life not mine to take. I beg forgiveness from anyone able to give it, then try contenting myself that I made the right choice. But did I? I don’t know. I return to the original questions.

I had no idea the after-effects of this decisions would be so hard. The circularity of my reasoning continues for hours as I hop wildly through the various stages of grief. When I finally stir, I notice for the first time that I am not alone in the room. Ari has been with me, too—curled up under the desk and observing me nervously. She is uneasy and seems timid, folded tightly in the back reaches of the desk well, where she might be safe.

From what? Me, I suppose.

I look down at her warily. My emotions are raw and short-circuiting right She curls into a tighter ball, as if willing herself to disappear entirely. But she does not leave; nor does she turn her face away. Instead, she stares at me from beneath the desk. She looks hopeful. She is watching my face carefully, as if to anticipate what I am going to do. As far as she is concerned, I am highly unstable right now—just shy of a crazy person, really. Whether or not she knows Cam is gone, she knows that I am—at least the version of me she has encountered for the past six months. Still, we have pledged to live as a pack. She looks as if she might be reminding me of as much. She cannot understand why I am withholding my affection. Has she done something wrong?

I have no way of knowing, of course, if this even resembles her actual thought process at this moment. But the faintest suggestion that she might be entertaining these ideas is enough to stir me from the depths of my grief. I am mourning an animal dead and buried, while a living creature cowers near me. This is not grief; this is cruelty.

I look at Ari again. She raises her head and tilts it just ever so slightly. It’s enough though—I’ve been studying her body language, too. She’s asking if it’s all right—if she has permission to come over and say hello. How could I say anything other than ‘yes, yes, oh please, yes!’ And so that’s what I do. She asks again. Are you sure it’s all right? Are you okay?

I’m not okay—not yet. But I love this dog, all the more because she is here to love. I pat my thigh, and whisper quietly to her. She unfolds her limbs and rises from the desk. For once, she does not resist when I wrap my arms tightly around her. I need to do this. She knows that.

And it’s okay.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Koi Dog Pondering

A posting in the local newspaper advertises a general interest meeting for a new dog park in our neighboring town. The notice reads: “Picture dogs gamboling off-leash, playing joyously in open, public space. For many dog owners, this would be a dream come true. For those who are afraid or resentful of dogs, it would be a nightmare. In a well-functioning dog park, it is a safe and responsible reality every day of the week.” I’m hooked at once. Ari and I both want this to be our reality, so I plan to attend the meeting.

Donning shoes and sunglasses, I meet the expectant look of a young dog now accustomed to daily trips in the car. She cocks her head in the direction of the front door as if to say, good idea! Let’s take a trip. I shake my head no, which causes her to slouch across the length of the doorway—a furry roadblock. I’m not wooed and leave her in the care of Greg and our friend Scott. Dogs gamboling in coastal town halls are not mentioned in the ad. I worry the fearful and resentful crowd mentioned in the notice might also be at this hearing. Even if they’re not, my adolescent pup is no practitioner of parliamentary procedure.

When I arrive at the meeting, I’m both surprised and delighted to see how many other humans in the area have similar fantasies about canines in public spaces. Like their dog friends, they tend to move around and group up in corners, so it’s hard to keep an accurate count. I estimate, though, that at least 30 people have turned out on this gorgeous summer day. The meeting is informal and has a kind of a support-group feel about it. Hi, my name is Kathryn and I want my dog to run free. Hi, I’m Dale. It’s been two months since my dog played outside with other dogs.

Hi, Dale.

The stories I overhear throughout the evening are both gloriously familiar and sometimes tragic: tales of dog antics and escape artists even Ari would admire, coupled with a few horrible stories of dogs hit by traffic or kidnapped. It’s a sober reminder of love and loss. Everyone present seems to agree about the importance of safe spaces for our four-legged friends. I volunteer to help with construction and canvassing, then spend the rest of the meeting fantasizing about safe dog saturnalia by the time the first maple leaves begin to fall. I can’t wait to tell the folks back home.

But when I arrive, Greg and Scott are too busy chasing Ari around and through the house to notice I’ve returned. As far as the pup is concerned, everything is a dog park—particularly this place right now. She’s in no mood to stop and learn about easement permits and new designs in water fountains. She’s in sheer ecstasy—cavorting about and beaming at the two grown men stumbling behind her. Park, schmark.

If asked, I suspect Greg and Scott would have other choice words right now—most likely ending in the same letter, but of the less printable variety.

Both athletic, the two men are physical complements to one another: Scott is long and lean, a dancer turned soccer player and coach. Greg is broad and muscular from years of football and far more diligence at the gym than his wife can muster. They embody wellness. That, of course, is of little consequence when trying to catch a juvenile dog.

Their expressions tell me that they have no time or patience for this game. The two are about to embark upon the last kayaking trip of the season. Scott has flown from his home in Colorado especially for the trip, and the plan is to spend a few days catching up before the two paddlers depart. Scott is an easy going kind of guy. A kindergarten teacher by day, he is well accustomed to the sights and smells of young mammals and can tell you stories about the bodily functions of six year olds that would make even a registered nurse pause. I’ve often joked that Scott’s school district ought to import him into health classes at the high school: a few anecdotes from him, and abstinence may very well become a viable form of birth control for teenagers.

This is all a long way of saying that Scott is not easily put off by anything, particularly anything of the olfactory variety. I can’t understand, then, why he would be exclaiming in loud peals of disgust every time he comes within 10 yards of Ari.

“MAN,” he shouts each time he approaches the gallivanting dog. “I MEAN, MMMAAANNNN! THAT IS WICKED BAD STINK!!” This is followed by one of a series of guttural noises—mostly unique combinations of vowels like “eeeoooooffff” or “uuuuuaaaaaggg.”

Greg, meanwhile, looks as if he is trying to lasso Ari rodeo-style with one of his kayak straps. As a college professor, he is accustomed to considerably fewer bathroom messes than those seen in a kindergarten classroom (though probably more than you’d expect). Regardless, he isn’t about to get as close to the pup as Scott.

I stand next to my car, frozen in amazement. I’m too far away to understand what about Ari is so rank, but the scene before me is so vividly Chaplin-esque, so absurd in its exaggerated chase and theatrics, I find myself looking around for confirmation that this is in fact my home, my husband and friend, my spiraling dog. As I do, the threesome completes yet another lap through the house, then across and over the front porch. While Ari and Scott dart past, Greg stops near the bumper of my car.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said.
I fight the urge to admit I already don’t.
“Ari’s been fishing,” Greg says, struggling to catch his breath. “For dead things.”

Before I can ask him to clarify, Scott limps back up the edge of our yard and towards the car.
“That dog is PUN-GENT!,” he shouts—drawing out the last word as if he were at a pig call in the deep south. “I’m talking RIPE!!”

The two men have both resigned from their pursuit. It is more profitable to alternately reflect and commiserate on their failed attempts than to continue. As they recount Ari’s new adventures in aquatic necromancy, Greg casts me the occasional look, which says—as vividly as Scott’s use of all capital letters—your dog, your problem.

Point taken.

I go inside for Ari’s leash and tin of biscuits, then set out through the yard and into the woods. I clamor over the rock wall, past the yellow “No Trespassing” signs and onto our neighbor Risto’s property. Several hundred yards later, I finally spy my dog. Or what looks like my dog. It’s hard to tell, since all I can see is an inverted quadruped whirling its paws in the air as it flops from side to side. I creep closer, hiding behind a large birch tree.

From my surveillance station, I can see that the object of Ari’s current infatuation is a giant—and once bloated—dead carp from Risto’s pond. As I watch Ari smear its now-oozing decay into her thick fur, flashbacks from the past two weeks came rushing to the surface: Greg mentioning that he had seen something bright and large floating in the center of Risto’s pond; Ari returning from unsupervised woodland jaunts with wet feet and matted fur, smelling of pond water and something slightly fishy; her increasing attempts to bolt from the front door. This has clearly been a project of some planning and initiative on her part.

I can’t say I entirely blame the pup. Before it was mashed by her writhing, the fish was a lovely mix of oranges and reds, and it probably measured about 12 inches in length. Even from her vantage on the edge of the pond, Ari would have seen the appeal of its limp form floating atop the water. She must have worked for days, nudging it towards the shore, before gingerly carrying it to this prime rolling spot, right in the middle of the trail, where it could explode in a pageantry of unthinkable decay.

If Greg’s memory is correct, this fish has been dead for at least a week. That’s a lot of time for it to become disgusting. As a child, I once stepped on a two-day dead sunfish on our beach. Still firm, it yielded under my bare foot with the kind of “pfffllltttt” that has made whoopie cushions famous. The sensation and resulting smell were enough to make me wear flip flops on that same beach ever since.

What’s happening in front of me now makes that childhood memory seem as rosy as a Disney movie. Other than its skin, the entire fish had turned into a thick, greenish-black paste, which my dog is now insinuating throughout her coat. From 15 feet away, I can smell the process as vividly as if I were actively taking part. Ari grunts with orgasmic pleasure as she flops this way and that, coating every inch of fur on her thick back. She is so deliriously happy, in fact, that she forgets to consider escape when I approach. Instead, she rolls her eyes halfway up into her head and shudders with pleasure. I’m shuddering, too, though for very different reasons.

It takes no small amount of effort to right this writhing dog, and she seems dazed as I pull her away from the fish. Forget airplane glue, these fumes are truly far out. I try some of Scott’s guttural exclamations. They seem more than appropriate in this setting.
Koi means love. I try telling myself this as I drag our coydog back to the house. With one hand wrapped around her leash and the other senselessly plugging my nose (as if such a feeble act could combat the stink), I repeat the statement like my own Shinto chant. Koi means love. Koi means love. It doesn’t help.

Scott refuses to enter the house once we force Ari inside. Cam scuttles into the basement. How can we blame either one of them? This smell is so powerful it has mass—a thick coppery cloud that hangs low and thick everywhere the pup has been.

We wash her. Once, twice, three times. The copper cloud in the bathroom begins to dissipate slightly, and we can once again see across the bathroom. Still, the stench is overwhelming. Greg gags violently. I begin to yearn for the common aroma of rotten snakes. That at least had an earthy bouquet to it. This stink, on the other hand, is preternatural. After two hours thumbing through a thesaurus, I still can’t find a phrase in the English language vivid enough to do it justice. Frustrated, I rise from the table and make my way upstairs just in time to see a flailing dog burying her stinking back into my side of the bed, wriggling her way across my pillow. It makes me want to cry, but all I can muster is a feeble “ppffflllttt.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Just back from our first agility training session, where we had a real ball. The class is taught by Sumac Grant-Johnson at the Wagit Training Center: she's very nice, very fun, and has an easy-going, bright way about her that is very affable. Her intro to agility class didn’t make, so Ari and I are actually in an intermediate class. The meant we literally just leapt into the whole agility course/time trials concept without a lot of warm-up. The rest of the class members were very nice about these scruffy, novice interlopers invading their class.

A lot of the agility process reminds me of being back in the showjumping ring; in fact, Sumac told me she trained in equitation for quite some time before starting agility work. That makes a lot of sense to me, and I was happy to see that at least the basic concepts translate. Basically, there’s an enclosed ring (remember that detail; it’s important later) with any where between 10-20 elements like jumps, hoops, seesaws, and big a-frames. The humans get to walk the course and see the order of the elements, then their task is to call the dog through the standards as quickly as possible.

We started warming up on each of the elements. 20 minutes into the session, Sumac had pronounced Ari a real natural. She seemed legitimately impressed with the Wub, who really did take to each of the elements like she had done them before. As Ari ran over the seesaws and serpentined through hoops, Sumac kept saying things like “wow, she’s really smart.” After one or two tries, the pup was even running up and over the steep A-frame (about six feet tall with a very steep pitch), though Sumac had warned us it would take several sessions before the pup would become comfortable with it. I was so impressed and proud of our little blue-eyed dog.

45 minutes into the session; however, everything became a very different (and far more familiar) story. Each dog got the chance to run the course from beginning to end alone in the ring. Sumac was so impressed with Ari she suggested we do it off leash like in a real competition. The pup did a great job and raced through everything. And then, in classic Ari fashion, she turned into a raging coyote. She tore around the ring in those tight, crazy circles she does, and then she found the only hole in the fence and slid right through it. We (and when I say we, I mean me, Sumac, the four other people in the class along with their high-priced pure bred dogs) spent the rest of the session trying to get coydog within striking distance of us. The ring isn’t far from Route 90, and I was scared to death she was going to bolt into the road.

Mostly, though, she just kept racing around like she was on fire, occasionally coming just close enough to make you think you might have a chance to catch her. Sumac, the Ari novice, tried toys and treats—naively thinking the pup could be persuaded by such paltries. Meanwhile, she just kept repeating (and now in a VERY DIFFERENT tone of voice), “wow. . . she’s really smart.” It took nearly 15 very scary minutes to get Ari back on leash. On the way home, I kept glancing at that angular, self-aware profile next to me and I couldn’t help but laugh. Where in the world did we find this wily creature?

Monday, July 30, 2007


Parks across the country are trying to accomodate city-dwelling dogs. In fact, the oldest park in the country—Boston Common—is experimenting with leash-free zones and hours in downtown Boston. The Common, first established around 1634, began as a place for livestock grazing and military encampments. At that time, there were all sorts of dogs around. Later, it was used as a site for public executions. As my mom likes to remind me, one of our ancestors was hung there for being a witch. Actually, she was a Quaker—but Colonial Puritans don’t like splitting such theological hairs. Today, Boston Common is one of the most-visited examples of urban nature in North America. It’s also near Henry David Thoreau’s old stomping grounds. I decide we have to visit.

Ari remains surprisingly subdued for most of the trip. But once we get about 20 miles outside of Boston, she’s alert and eager. She paces between the front and back seat, trying to take in the thickening traffic and tall buildings. Eventually, she drapes herself over the driver’s seat, resting her front paws on my forearm and sticking her snout out the cracked window. We pass a Massachusetts state trooper, and I wonder if we can be ticketed for ungainly dog poses.

The driving directions to Boston Common take us through the narrow streets of Chinatown. We’ve encountered a very different kind of gorge here: the granite rock walls are replaced by sky-scrapers and the white water with a constant torrent of people. There’s much to see and smell, and the pup does her best to catalogue it all. She’s never been in a city before, and I suspect it overwhelms and intimidates her. As if to prove me right, she stays close to me after we park the car, crouching against my legs and looking around nervously. The arrogant teenager has been humbled. It’s my meek puppy here with me now. Still, I hold her leash extra tight and double check the clasp: if she gets away now, I doubt I’ll ever see her again.

As we enter the Common, we are greeted by a deafening chorus of, Oh, look, a DOG!!!, sung by about 200 grade school children. Ari smiles nervously and wags her tail, but she continues to lean against me. Still, she’s intrigued by the kids, who are all dressed in identical orange shirts and bright yellow hats, complete with exaggerated bill and lots of orange feathers. “We’re ducks,” one of them explains. “Quack,” she adds for emphasis. “Quack! Quack!!”

Ari gives one of her half-barks, half-whines. She’s not sure how she’s supposed to respond to this giant flock. They look like pals, but they’re not behaving like any other critter she has encountered. The children quack again and waddle towards the duck pound.

We say goodbye and walk deeper into the Common, passing a group of three college-aged guys. As we pass them, I hear one tell his buddies that a woman just walked by with a blue-eyed fox on a leash. Urban definitions of nature, I am quickly learning, are clearly relative.

That’s even true when it comes to what constitutes a park. Bostonians have a conflicted relationship with their Common. Some scorn it, calling it the city’s largest—and dirtiest—vacant lot. Others relish its verdant fields and shady groves, calling it an oasis in an otherwise crowded metropolis. There’s something to both interpretations. The Common is worn in places, and it’s certainly not pristine. But it’s also lovely in its green coolness and mature foliage. I marvel at the height of its elms and oaks—home to many of the same bird species we have back in our pine woods. And at this hour of the day—barely 10:00 a.m.—there’s a peacefulness to the place also very much like our town forest.

We watch as a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) alights upon a park bench. Ari is momentarily transfixed, but is soon distracted by an enormous gray squirrel (Sciurus niger), who scurries up a tree. Much larger and less bellicose than its red cousin, this squirrel can only be described as succulent with its beefy flanks and round belly. I can hardly blame Ari when she lunges at it. Somehow, the rotund squirrel retains enough rodent nimbleness to race halfway up the tree trunk when pursued. Ari tries to follow, getting about two feet up before remembering 1) she is attached to a leash and 2) she cannot climb. She looks like the Looney Tunes coyote, suspended in midair before plummeting back to the ground. Still, she’s regained some of her confidence: having forgotten about the city surrounding us, she drags us merrily from tree to tree in search other mega-squirrels.

Our serpentining course takes us near the Visitor’s Center, where two unleashed little white dogs frolic in a sunny spot of the Common, chasing each other and a few dry leaves.
“Did you see that,” asks a voice behind me. “The rat population is really growing!”
I turn and find myself facing a young man dressed in colonial attire, including a large felt hat and white stockings. He introduces himself as Patrick Gilson, an 18th-century Irish highwayman turned Boston butcher.

“There’s only one highway in Colonial Boston,” he explains. “So I wasn’t getting a lot of work. The eighteenth-century meat industry is more profitable. But less rewarding.”

He asks if we would like to purchase a tour of the Commons, but I decline and explain our specific reason for visiting.
“I call it caninaturalism,” I say.
“Boston is a great dog town,” he insists, rat comment aside. “We’re really dog friendly—in all the neighborhoods.”

When he’s not a colonial meat man, ‘Patrick’ is Chad Clayton, method actor and sometimes waiter. “We have a lot of certified helper dogs visit my restaurant,” he says. “They’re our favorite customers. You see them all over downtown, too.”
I remind him that we’re here for urban nature. “What about the Common,” I ask. “Is it nature?”
“Nature or natural?” he asks.
A philosopher highwayman. I’m impressed. “How about the first one?”
“Well,” he says. “there’s nature here, isn’t there?”
I can’t argue with that.
He asks what we’ve observed.
I’m embarrassed to admit that my sensitive, astute dog—the one who noticed the first trout lilies of the season, who adores lichens and finds hidden woodpecker chicks—has eyes only for squirrels.
“You mean falcon food.”
Patrick-Chad tells me that the Common boasts a resident peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), famous for swooping up squirrels in front of sensitive tourists. He says he’s also seen owls, turtles, and a coyote while working as a guide.
I ask if he’s had much interaction with dogs in the Common.
“Well-behaved ones can run around off-leash,” he says. “I think that’s good. It adds to the atmosphere. Back in the day, dogs were here all the time. So were sheep and cattle.”
“Do you get many dogs on your tours?”
“Actually, I’ve never had a dog on a tour. But I like to end each one with a little dog story. Do you want to hear it?”
Of course I do.
“Well, leading up to the Revolution, Boston grew so quickly and got so dirty that colonists tried to ban all dogs under 12 inches to keep down the mess. Everyone had to follow the rule,” he says. “Except for Sam Adams. He had a giant Newfoundland named Queue. Queue only attacked red coats, so he was allowed to stay. During his life, Queue was stabbed, shot, and set on fire.”
“Did he die?” I ask.
“Doesn’t everyone?”
I grimace at the would-be philosopher king. He relents. “Eventually. But not from any of those.
His heart went out when he was 17.”
I nod, dutifully impressed.
Ari, meanwhile, has been enveloped into the marketing strategy of Patrick-Chad’s co-workers. A man in a three-point hat and doublet threatens a tourist family that this fierce British cur will gnaw off their legs if they don’t agree to a tour. The family takes a look at Ari and purchases four tickets. We thank the highwayman for his time and return to the greenery.
By now, human activity is in full swing around the Common. A large Mennonite Choir vies for audiences with a heavily-pierced girl holding a guitar bigger than she is. Bands of tourists make their way from monuments to pretzel carts, and dozens of suited workers spend their lunch time beneath the large trees. No falcons or turtles, but plenty of pigeons, sparrows, and squirrels.
And, of course, more recreating dogs.
An attractive gay couple with a poodle approaches us. The dogs hit it off right away. I tell them Ari is a little overwhelmed with this much stimulation around her.
“She’s a country mouse,” I say. “It’s her first time in the big city.”
“So is Sofie,” they say. “She lives in New Hampshire and visits us two weeks a year.” This is apparently a settlement agreement from a past relationship. They’re doing their best to give Sofie a good vacation. “That’s why we came down to the Common today. We were hoping to find some dogs off leash to play with.”
I explain Ari’s belief she is a coyote and apologize—without Greg to help me get her under control again today, I doubt I’ll ever see her again if I let her loose.
A young woman with a baby jogger and a yellow lab approaches.
“They look promising,” I say. But no luck—according to the woman, the lab has caught one too many squirrels to be trusted. Ari looks jealous.
The Common is getting hot and crowded. The pup is panting and is so overwhelmed that even a romp with the poodle isn’t all that appealing any more. We say goodbye and head back to the car.
On the way home, I make a quick detour to the town of Concord. We stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a deliciously cool and shaded knoll overlooking downtown. When it was first established, Thoreau, Emerson, and other transcendentalists imagined the cemetery as more park-like than anything else. Townspeople would stroll, picnic, or even listen to bands there. Now it’s another pilgrimage site for fans of the writers who, along with Hawthorne, Alcott, and others, are buried there. Ari and I walk to Author’s Ridge, where they rest below giant pines and maples. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grave is a giant, uncarved chunk of pink granite—just like the rocks we stood upon at the Penobscot. Thoreau’s is much humbler, just a small marker in his family’s plot. Reverent visitors have embellished it, however, with a bounty of pine cones, maple leaves, and sunflowers. Ari sniffs each offering thoughtfully. To this collection, we add a small stone from the river. Perhaps, I tell him and the pup, it once rested atop the great mountain neither of them has climbed.