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.