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Archive for the ‘deep thought’ Category

They ran Charolais on this rugged green ridgeland.  For forty  years, the big white cattle bellowed across the hollows, and the cows marched with their snowball calves in the greening days of April. The big bulls sat in the last remaining copses of oak trees on the land, chewing their cuds and resting all docile and dowdy through those sweltering days of summer.

But the world moved on. The farm family that ran the cattle was losing its grip on the land. Each generation left fewer and fewer people who were willing to commit to cattle husbandry. Now, there was one son, and he was taking a job on an oil rig in the far Gulf of Mexico. He just couldn’t run the cattle anymore.

The price of the Charolais beef had dropped over the years.They bred them almost entirely as a specialty, as a tradition, and now it was all over. The herd was sold to the feedlots, one in South Dakota and another in Tennessee.  The remaining herd bulls would go to Kansas to be bred as purebred Charolais at a specialist breeding program.

The final days of the cattle were on those green, sweet days of June, when the sun bakes the land and the grass grows perfectly green succulent. This would be the time after the first hay-cutting and before the second, when the rowen started to grow up among the stalks of the fallen first cutting. The rabbits would soon be kindling among the growing stalks, and maybe a litter or two wold be born and raised before the mowing machines came again.

But this year, the rabbits bred unmolested and the hayfield grew thick and green and then went to seed in the sun. No machine would come and cut down the grass, and rabbits would have their green refuge for the season.

And so the cows took their calves into the greenery, and the bulls rested their haunches in the oak lots.

It was sweet and settling, and in any other year, it would be the time when the cattle could be watched and the farm hand could breathe in the air and take a bit of time of ease.

But this year, it was all logistics of cattle trailers and health certificates. Recalcitrant haulers and busy veterinarians were on the phone all through the morning and evening.

It takes a lot of planning to end what had been a way of life. Indeed, the idea of it all being a way of life had already become the cliche of the demise of the family farm. But just because it was a cliche, didn’t mean it wasn’t true, and it was just as painful.

The long days of June were Halcyon days, just as they always were. But the first haulers showed up, and the first batch cows and calves left. 

It was raining when the trailer for the bulls showed up, and they splashed so much mud over their porcelain white hides that one could be forgiven for thinking they belonged to an entirely different breed.

And the haulers kept coming and taking away the cattle. And one day, there just a little scrub band of cows with calves.

And the thunder rolled in that last night before their hauler arrived. The sky lit up brightly withe sheet lightning, and the muggy air seemed to sweat and sweat until the deluge of rain came falling. The lightning cast the silhouettes of cows and calves in a truly ethereal scene. They were like ghosts standing upon the green grass as the sky dropped the buckets of rain. 

And then sky drew silent, and red June sun began its rising. The robins and thrushes and cardinals lifted their voices in song, and the day came roaring in on the land.

The final hauler arrived and the last of the cattle were loaded in the mud, and the cattle trailer headed down the dirt road, casting off to the southwest to Tennessee.

The meadowlarks sang in the pasture grass.  Crows flitted about the scene, and a pair of wild turkey hens came marching through pastures with 21 poults among them. They inspected the cowpies for bits of grain and grubs, and then moseyed on through the pasture in a singing, clucking phalanx of feathers and down.

They could not know that these were the last cowpies to be deposited upon the land. They merely came through pasture land on their wild foraging excursions, and they could not know that what was will never be again.

The sun of July and August would soon beat down upon the old pasture land. The manure would bake in the sun, and the scarabs would carry off what remained.

And the only thing that would remain of the cattle-land would be the deep furrows in the steep hill pastures that marked long years of bovine inertia moving hard upon the rocks and soil with cloven hooves.

And so another cattle farm went away, and just like the bison that once ranged these same ridges, they slipped away into the long draw of history.

And thus ended the final days of the cattle, and the grass grew thick and lush.  The wild multiflora rose run riot through the pasture in the coming years, and the Virginia and white pines would come to take the land. Then would come the aspen colonies and the drumming grouse.

Back to the forest the land would return, no longer a Jeffersonian farmstead of legend, but a bit of land left feral for the bears and the bobcats and the squacking squirrels. 

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belgian horse

November’s chill winds scored the valley. The last of the October glowing leaves were knocked to the ground, and the finally stalks of summer corn were cut and set up as silage for the long starving season.

Men were thinking of meat now. The coming gun season for deer loomed as heavily as the November frosts, and those who still kept swine were preparing their scalding tubs and sharpening their hide scrapers.  The Angus steers that hadn’t been sold were similarly being prepared for the freezer.

The nights now drew in early and heavy winter dark, and Old Farmer Wilson seemed to know the score. Yes, he had a barrow or two in the back to take care of before the coming great deer hunt, when his meat gambrels would be hanging with musky venison to be skinned.

But his concerns were now in the nearer pasture, whose only inmate was Dan, the stolid old Belgian horse that he had inherited from a long-deceased great uncle. The great uncle was one of last of the horse-drawn men, the kind who cursed the roaring of the internal combustion engines on his fields and cropland and still held onto the old heavy horses. He held onto them as stubbornly as a barnacle, and when he passed, he left 200 acres to Farmer Wilson and a good horse to work it.

Wilson never much used the horse to work the land. He kept the great beast as a sort of novelty, a relic from an ancient time, and he fed him the finest horse grain and pellets and let him pull a wagon at small town parades.  He loved to groom out Dan’s flaxen mane and fetlocks and smooth out his golden hide with a currycomb, and he would pull that little Conestoga facsimile through the little towns of the valley and look so elegant while doing so.

But the years took their toll on the man and the horse. Dan’s condition had worsened over the long summer. He would eat all day on good green forage, but he would still get a little more gaunt each day.

The old horse’s teeth were wearing out, and Wilson knew that the kind thing to do would be relieve the old gelding of his suffering.

But he couldn’t be made to do it all through that summer and even in the waning days of September. The gentle old horse still touched a man who could off a pig with a single shot to the head.  The horse wanted to be good. He wanted to feel a man’s hand upon his neck and shoulders.  There was dignity in this old beast, and no man who ever knew such an animal could deny it.

And the horse reminded Wilson of the old men on the land that he knew so well. Their farms were now mostly left to go fallow then turn to brushy filth before growing up in the gray twig forest that now covered much of the countryside. Horses and men worked the land, as did many women and children.  But their farms were now forest, and their horses and mules were lost to the ages.

But Wilson knew the time was near. In another era, they just would have shot the old horse with a deer rifle, but Wilson believed that such a beast deserved a proper death.

He made an appointment for the vet to come the Friday before Thanksgiving. The big horse would fall out of his mortal coil, and the weekend would be for the pig killing.

The vet came that eerily sunny Friday morning. The sun cast that yellow pall of waning light that comes in November and December, and the trees stood naked as gray skeleton against the azure, cloudless sky.

Wilson whistled for Dan to come for his morning feeding, which had had brought in double helpings– and added half dozen golden delicious apples.

The great horse nibbled and nuzzled at his repast, and Wilson stroked his mane and neck, offering up the tender loving words  of “Good boy” and “What a fine horse you are.”

And the vet came with his big syringes, all filled with the elixirs of gentle death, and then approached the man and horse.

The vet asked, “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” was the solemn reply, which came only through the deepest of man sobs.

And so the vet came and injected the big horse with the thick needles, and the great animal dropped down to the muddy ground.

And a Farmer Wilson wept and sobbed as he never done before. Here was a man who offed pigs and chickens without thinking twice, but something was very different here.

For in that felling of the great horse, the last tangible piece of those old rheumy memories was extinguished upon the muddy ground.

And a truly noble and sagacious beast was no longer among the living, and anyone with half a soul would weep at such a thing passing.

The crows called in soft wind. A blue jay screeched from the hickory trees beyond hte pasture. A pileated woodpecker chattered madly in the sky.

And the last of the turkey vultures coursed the sky, casting their bills into the breeze to catch the scent of the dead.

The dead horse’s flesh probably grazed their olfactory systems a bit, but they carried on the sky, looking for morsels of meat that weren’t guarded by two men.

That night, Wilson ate a dinner of store-bought sausage.  He didn’t cook it as thoroughly as he normally did, and the blood gushed a bit from the center, oozing out into the plate in a scarlet trickle.

Normally, he would think of nothing of his mistake, but this time, he sat and stared hard at the blood.  Blood would be coming in the morning, when began his annual pig killing, and the blood would run harder and darker than it ever would on his plate.

He considered his odd position as a man who cared for his animals and then killed them, He gave them good food and lots of good care, but the end was the same. The animals died. Their flesh fed him and his friends and family who would take the meat.

It was that problem that he always buried, but this time he had to consider it more.  It was not enough to make him a vegan, but it was enough to take him aback. He had to consider his monstrous self once again, and that consideration is never comfortable.

Some tears eased their way down his cheeks, and he pushed the plate aside for. He sipped his evening coffee and stepped out into the dark sky. The stars were twinkling against the black sheet of night, and he stared up into their infinity.  He breathed in the cold air.

A great horned owl’s hooting rose from the forest in the far end of the property, but then it fell silent.

And the land was all silent all around in the darkness of a November night.  The frosts had killed off all the crickets and katydids of the year, and their stridulations no longer rose in the blackness.

It was just the blackness and the silence and the infinity, and the simple fact that all beings are alone, after all, when the end finally comes.

Be they men or old work horses or katydids or barrow swine, their existence comes to an end, and yet life goes on.

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anka posing with green collar

Mankind what eventually became our domestic dogs could have been running together for over 30,000 years.  This early date is questionable and hotly contested in the literature, but no one thinks that the dog is younger than 14,000 years old. Even in that time, our species and theirs were living as wild hunting beasts, tearing at hides and the flesh of the great deer and wild and horses and occasionally engaging in dangerous hunts for mammoth.

Over the intervening years, man has forged new useful dogs out of that derived stock, selecting for all sorts of behavior and capabilities.  New forms of working dog graced the stage as mankind began to form new cultures and then civilizations, and all would have gone on much like this.

But the nineteenth century came,  industrial production put so many people out of traditional tasks.  It did the same with dogs.

Anka’s line begins to shift from its traditional role as German crofter’s sheepdog at about this time. In 1871, Germany became a nation out of all those principalities and fiefdoms, and then set out on a long industrial march in hopes of surpassing the British Empire. Unified under Prussian auspices, the intelligentsia of the new German Empire began to think of ways to beat the British lion.

One thing that set the British apart from all other nations at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a strong national promotion of agricultural improvement.  By the beginning of that century, massive livestock shows were promoted to encourage the cattlemen, shepherds, and swineherds of realm to engage in selective breeding of their stock. Much of this breed improvement was done through extreme tight inbreeding, and it became such a popular activity that dogs got swept up in the whole zeitgeist of improvement. That sweeping up of dogs into the breed improvement movement in Britain was the genesis of the modern dog fancy, and those ideas are what largely drive our concepts of a dog breed in the West.

It was not long after German unification that middle class Germans began buying collies from England and Scotland, and this development irked the chauvinists of the new nation.

But it was not until 1891 that the Phylax Society was formed. This society was a breed improvement and standardization club that sought to standardize the working sheepdogs of the nation. However, this club lasted only three years, because the members were constantly at war with each other about whether looks or working ability mattered more.

It wasn’t until 1899, when a retired cavalry officer named Max von Stephanitz and his friend Artur Meyer founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, which begin a systematic breeding program for the creation of what became Anka’s tribe of dogs. The founding “type specimen” sort of dog was called Horand von Grafrath, a Thuringian sheepdog with a sable coat. He was born Hektor Linksrhein to a breeder with the last name of Friedrich Sparwasser, who lived in Frankfurt.

Stephanitz had spent at lot of time at the Veterinary College of Berlin during his career as a cavalry officer, and there, he learned much about scientific breeding methods. The British were making a lot of hay with tight inbreeding, and so the early true German shepherd dog breeders did a lot of inbreeding off Horand and Horand’s offspring.  Dogs from Franconia and Württemberg/Swabia were also crossed in. These dogs were very often black and tan variants or recessive black, while the Thuringian dogs were usually either sable or solid white.

By the early years of the twentieth century, a breed was founded. Yes, the modern German shepherd dog is among the most modern breeds, and when one realizes that it was only 15 years between the founding of the modern German shepherd breed and the outbreak of the First World War, where these dogs served so admirably,  it becomes evident that these breeders achieved something rather remarking.

Yes, all this inbreeding at the base of the breed has left the population struggling with certain inherited defects and diseases, but it created a high quality strain that one could argue is possibly the most useful dog of modern era.

So Anka, despite her wolfy pelage and countenance, is of a new tribe of dog, and her specific part of the tribe, as far as I can tell, is the type that was bred for police work. She looks very Czech to me, though of course, I will never know. This is the type that gets imported from the Czech Republic and Slovakia in pretty high numbers to become part of police forces.

Her exact kind, if I am right, really got its start after the Second World War, when Czechoslovakia became part of the Eastern Bloc. This nation, forged from bits and pieces of the defeated German and Austro-Hungarian Empires,  had a strong connection to the German-speaking world. German shepherd dogs were fairly common in the nation in the interwar years, but after the war, they were in high demand by the state as working animals.

The communist government encouraged citizens to keep and train German shepherds for defense work, and like East Germany (the DDR), the borders to Czechoslovakia and West Germany and Austria were tightly guarded. The most famous strain of Czech German shepherds were the ones designated Pohranicni Straze or “Border Patrol.”  These dogs also patrolled the wild back country of the nation’s interior, and they were bred for athletic bodies and sharp minds.

Czechoslovakia is no more. The Czech Republic and Slovakia now stand as part of the European Union. The dogs are now sold in the West, and dogs of these communist strains are now quite common in the US.

So when I look into Anka’s soft, intelligent eyes, I see the sagacious beast, the one that started hanging out around the campfires of those megafaunal days, then became the pastoral dog Central Europe. Later, that beast was forged into the working dog the new German Empire and then became the dog of the New Socialist Man in Czechoslovakia.

And as we skitter on into this new millennia, where mankind once thought he knew it all and now knows nothing as he is lost in a sea of information and misinformation, the beast come with us, brown-eyed and willing and loyal to a fault.

We can hope the future holds a era of enlightenment and peace.  We hope that possibility, despite evidence that all seems wrong and topsy-turvy.

But we do know that man in his final hour on the planet will gaze deep into the dog’s eyes and weep. He will weep for the sadness of having committed enough atrocities upon the planet and the creatures and ecosystems and knowing that only the dog stands by him now.

But it is the dog that grounds us in the electronic age to the world of nature from which we descend but battle so hard against.  They remind us of that essential animality, that side of us that is still wild beast of prey.  It is this side with which we modernes struggle against but still deeply know when we look into a dog’s eyes.

The beast that stares back at us with soft eyes reminds of what we were and what we should never forget. Even as enlightened as we think we are, we must never lose that understanding that we are not above nature. We are merely forged from it.

And the dog tells us every day that we should not lose site of this immutable fact.

 

 

 

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shackleford ponies

I used to go to those islands all the time. When I was a kid the Southern Outer Banks were my summer isles. We used to drive down across the Alleghenies, the cut through the Blue Ridge, and then wind our way around the North Carolina Piedmont for what seemed an eternity.

And we’d get all giddy and silly when we crossed the first causeway that went over saltwater. Children from the interior are certainly easily amused.

The sandy isles are made to weather and contort with the currents and the wind, but they aren’t likely going to withstand the king tides of climate change.

And this coming hurricane, which they are calling Florence, will be a disaster, of course. I hope the Neuse and the Cape Fear Rivers don’t swell up in the storm surge and decimate all those little cotton and pulp mill towns.

I hope those old banker ponies will still roam Shackleford Banks, and little kids will fight over who saw the first feral horse when the family drives over to Beaufort.

Blackbeard used to use the islands as his pirate haunts, and The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on a sandbar near Beaufort. And the old pirate met his demise at Ocracoke.

But when you listen to that Jimmy Buffet music on the beach, you feel that pirate’s presence in the hot salty air.

And you feel the hospitality of these saltwater people, whose lives are made during the tourist season if the shrimp and oyster boats don’t bring in a good profit.

They know the storms, but the bad ones are still pretty bad.

And I cannot tell you much but a piece of me aches for what is coming.  I hope that all will be okay in the end, but I know that every one of these storms takes a bit away. It takes life. It washes away a whole beach. It floods out a little town.

Nature builds the hurricanes over the warm late summer seas. We just now help in the process by making the seas stay a little warmer a little longer.

Those island towns have made fortunes off of West Virginia coal miners’ vacation funds. The carbon released from the burning of coal has made the earth retain the sun’s heat, as did the burning of petroleum in air-conditioned cars of all the tourists coming down  And so the force that made the islands ultimately will bring them down a peg.

Nature gives. Nature takes, and humans can never accept the unjust mismeasure.

But the storm is coming to the islands and coast, and let’s hope when this passes we can think about the warming seas and burning of fossil fuels.

I hope we can, but I wonder if we will do anything about it.

Because it may not happen this time, but someday– and someday soon– the Outer Banks will slip and slide away into the frothy waves of the Atlantic.

And I will have lost a bit of the happy times of my childhood, and we will all lose the tern-filled beaches, the nesting grounds of the loggerhead sea turtles, and the place where the waves crash and the dolphins cavort.

A bit of America will be gone, another bit that we squandered away in our stupidity and ignorance as the cars and plants churned up the carbon into the sky.

 

 

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The Flinty Rain

anka eager

Friday night, I took Anka out for her final run out. The wind was blowing a bit, and every so often, I felt a few raindrops splash against my skin. The week had been unseasonably hot for September, but on this Friday night, the air had a chill to it. And the rain that hit me was cold and flinty.

The whole weekend was a torrential downpour, and the temperatures dropped low and autumnal.

Yes, it is about that time everyone realizes that summer is about to ease its way off the scene. Sure, there will be still be a few days where the sun beats down enough that one will wish for cool drink, a cool breeze, or a nice little rain, but the ordinance of time says that those days are more finitely numbered.

I do remember what day this is. I remember distinctly having these exact thoughts on this same date in 2001. On that day, the air was cool and crisp in the morning. The sky was as pastel blue as I have ever seen it. The leaves on campus were starting to turn, and I knew then that summer was going away.

I had just started my third week of college. I was a freshman, and I was even more unsure of myself then than I am now. My schedule on Tuesdays (and yes, that was a Tuesday) was to be in class almost the entire morning.

I walked from my first class, which was my American government class, to my psychology class, and I let my mind roll around in the reverie of a what could turn into a lovely September day. I watched the robins on the campus lawn, and I made note of the lazy city squirrels that loped around without any fear in them.

When I made to my psychology class, one of my classmates said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought it was just a little private plane that some idiot had accidentally flown into a building.

It was beyond my comprehension that anyone would use commercial planes to act as weapons of mass murder. I had come of age in the roaring 90s. Those were the days of the great tech bubble, but at the time, it felt like the good times would go on forever. Clintonian technocracy had solved the problems of the world, and the election of George W. Bush was an anomaly, a simple accident of the electoral college. All would be made right soon enough, and the world would make sense again.

Every single one of those delusions was crushed on that day.  George W. Bush would use those terror attacks to recast himself as a war time president, and even the most mild of Democrats would be harangued as “soft on terror,” just for offering the softest critiques. Bush would lead us into the mess of Mesopotamia, and then he would be re-elected, foul up the response to Hurricane Katrina. And the sugar high of his tax cuts couldn’t put a band-aid on the casino economy that eventually came crashing to reality.

And so my summer ended with those terrorist attacks, and for the first time in my life, I began to think about my country differently. I became disillusioned by most of it, and I still pretty much am.

I also remember on this day that the plane that hit the Pentagon flew a course right over my college.  I bet if I looked up into that clear sky, I would see the jet trail pasting a white line in the blue sky.  I would see only the banality of airplanes in the bright sky, and I would think nothing of it. I would not know of the murder coursing the sky above me.

The sky above is like a dome covering us from the seeming infinity of the Cosmos.  It is a shelter that gives humanity a veil from which to hide from the stark realities of being so profoundly alone on this planet.

We don’t expect death to come sailing down upon us from the sky, especially in this country with it nuclear weapons and technically-advanced military.

But this time it did. This time we were vulnerable. This time we were scared, terrified, and bewildered.

And on that day, my 18-year-old brain was struggling to come to terms with it all.

So the past weekend was the falling of the flinty rain and not the clear skies of 2001, but the coolness of the air puts me in the right mind to wonder and mourn and take stock of what is to come and what has truly happened since then.

My life will be forever measured on 9/11s.  It is a date more profound for me than my own birthday, for even though I lost no one on those attacks, I feel that I did lose something, my own sense of invincibility.

And I also lost my sense that the world had been figured out by those in power. The next 7 years would prove to me that no one power really knew how to fix or manage anything. They were either too incompetent or too corrupted to do so.

I tried my hand at being politically active, and I still am in my own way. But the deep disillusionment meant that I would turn to animals and nature as my opiate to ease my suffering a bit. That’s why I have a blog like this one, and I don’t have my soap box blog, where I tell you how I would like the country run.

I’d rather revel in animals than wallow in that self-righteousness and in that idealism again. Both of those are a mud too redolent for this hog.

To write about animals is a luxury for some, who feel to compelled to write about the world in its horrors to avoid the very issue, but for me, it is the balm that keeps me sane enough to exist.

A robin on the lawn, a lazy loping squirrel, and an eager German shepherd wanting her ball thrown are all better to things for my prose to consider and dissect than the crumbling, broken world of man.

It is how this cynic keeps his romance of life going, and it is this romance that makes life so precious and sweet. That, and true love, of course.

 

 

 

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The Old Man and the Dog

neo mastiff

The Old Man didn’t know where the time had gone. All he knew now was that six years had passed since he drove home with a Neapolitan mastiff puppy, which he had named “Brutus.” And the little cropped-eared hippopotamus of a puppy had matured into a massive creature. It took the beast three years to reach 146 pounds, and for two years, he was a fell stallion among dogs.  But in his sixth year, Brutus was starting that ascent in old age, which comes awfully early for dogs in this breed.

In his prime, Brutus was slate gray and wrinkly.  He woke with the Old Man each day, and after his morning turnout, the big dog would trundle back into the house. The Old Man would prepare a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage, and he would talk to the mastiff dog as if he were human. For as an old bachelor, now living fairly well on his pension, he had little company to entertain him, so he allowed his big dog to be his comrade at arms, his confidant, and his dearest friend.

The tunnel of the years was growing closer and closer on both Brutus and his master.  And the master knew it was coming sooner for Brutus than for himself.  So he knew now was the time enjoy the dog as best he could. He doubted that when the time came that he would be able to get another dog.  It took two years of hard core obedience training to turn that sloppy pup into something that society would deem a respectable dog, The stubbornness of Neapolitan mastiffs, especially plucky males like Brutus, meant lots of leash pops and shouting. The Old Man was not an expert at dog training, but he was an expert at exerting his will. That’s how he’d made a killing in the insurance business, and how he’d also gained many admirers and enemies– and not a single true friend.

He had owned dogs all through his life, mostly poorly-bred over-sized and oversexed male Labradors, but when that time came to collect his pension and go off and lounge in the world, he felt an aching for a real dog. He bought a few books on dog breeds and then became infatuated with the lore of the Roman Molossus, the dog of legend that is said to be the ancestor of all the European mastiffs. “Said to be” is, of course, dog world speak for a wondrous flight of fancy. But the Old Man was not an historian or a dog expert. However, he loved movies and novels about the Roman Empire, and he thought that somewhere along the line he might own a piece of Old Rome.

Within four months of retirement, he was on a breeder’s waiting list. Six months after that, he picked up Brutus and brought him home, and the two had begun their six year odyssey of training a ham-headed mastiff into a civilized guard dog.

His neighbors thought he was insane for bringing such a beast into the leafy green neighborhood. They feared for their children, their carefully manicured lawns, and delicately cultivated flower gardens.  But the Old Man made his dog obey, and he never left him outside to bark booming warnings at traffic or passersby.

He knew that he had a real dog on his hands, and that he had better make that beast listen.  And so he did.

He made civilizing Brutus is full-time avocation, and for a man who was used to working long hours, this project was the perfect thing to keep his life occupied. Twice a day, he marched the big mastiff down the quiet suburban lanes, popping leash corrections if the big boy stopped to sniff the grass or even hazarded an attempt to growl at barking dogs that cursed the pair as they passed by their fenced yards.

And Brutus responded with all that work by becoming intensely loyal. Indeed, the two began to develop a relationship of such intensity, that the big mastiff came to respond to clicks of his master’s tongue and the casting of his eyes. They were bonded man and dog, and no one could separate them.

So tightly were they bond, that the Old Man decided against taking that big European vacation that he’d always dreamed of. He couldn’t find anyone who could care for the big dog anyway, and what’s more, he couldn’t bare leaving his best friend.

So the Old Man lived out the first years of his retirement as a full-time dog keeper, and he felt better than he had in all those years of selling insurance policies, setting up new insurance offices, and generally being a successful businessman but a failure as a human being.

He smiled more. He laughed a lot.  He lost weight and gained muscle.  Brutus’s had given him so much more than he ever could have dreamed.

But now that Brutus was turning six, the reality of owning a dog such as this began to set in. Brutus began to limp with a bit of stiffness on cool October mornings. The vet put him on an anti-inflammatory medicine for arthritis.

The next month saw the Old Man get surgery for his cataracts.  Then a colonoscopy revealed a few nasty polyps that had to be excised.  The Old Man wasn’t that ill, but he wasn’t getting any younger. That realization was hitting him harder than before.

And then Brutus started becoming more tired on his walks, and the Old Man cut them shorter. And big dog gained weight. Within two months, Brutus tipped the scales at the vet’s office at 163 pounds.

And it was at that point that the vet intervened and told the Old Man to cut back on the daily ration of scrambled eggs and sausage.

But the first day he cut back, Brutus glared back at his master with sad but rheumy eyes, and the Old Man knew he couldn’t do it. He gave him his usual ration.

He knew intellectually that he shouldn’t do it, but he couldn’t refuse the old dog. He knew the dog’s life wouldn’t be too much longer, and life was too short to be rationing away all the goodness.

It is this sort of rationalization that leads to so many fat old dogs, but it is one that is hard to argue against, even with all the facts and reasoning on one’s side.

So Brutus grew slower and fatter all through the winter. The Old Man did much the same. His belly hung back out over his pants, just as it had done when he worked ten hours a day at the office.

Very little snow fell that whole season, so all Brutus and the Old Man woke up to was the decaying grayness of winter all around them. The sallow rays of the winter sun cast ugliness upon the skeleton trees. It frosted hard enough that one would worry about the plants, but the temperature would soon rise in the daylight to make the land nothing but ugly mud.

In late March, when the trees finally showed signs of budding, Brutus collapsed on the kitchen floor. The Old Man let the dog out for his morning urination and defecation run, and when the dog sallied back into the house for his daily rationing of sausage and eggs, he dropped to the floor.

And he would not rise.

The Old Man called the vet’s office, and the receptionist told him to bring Brutus in right away. The Old Man wanted to, but Brutus could not get up.

What is a man to do when his dog is too big for him to lift on his own?  The first thing most would do is call out to the neighbors, but he didn’t know any of the neighbors.  And he didn’t want to trouble them.

But in his panicked state, he realized that he’d have to swallow his introversion and ask for help.  Within a half hour, he’d assembled a crew of neighbors, including one particularly macho man whose main hobby was body-building and used to work for the local high school as a strength and conditional coach for the football team. They lifted the big dog onto a thick sheet of plywood and then hoisted the beast on this makeshift litter into the back of the Old Man’s SUV.

And off he sped to the vet clinic.

For two hours, the Old Man waited in complete silence in the reception area. He watched the various people passing back and forth with their golden retrievers and Labradors and pit bulls. He could not make a smile grace his face as he sat there staring into the foreboding, for he knew that nothing good was going to come of today’s events.

A receptionist called his name, but he did not hear it. She called it ten times, but the sound did not register upon the Old Man’s ears.

But then he heard his name, and it pierced him like a knife.  And he rose and entered the examination room. He waited there for twenty minutes, when a young veterinarian with closely cropped black hair and slender build slid into the room. His face was stubbly and grim, and his eyes had that look of sorrow mixed with professional dead seriousness of a medical professional.

Cancer of the spinal chord, probably quite malignant. Brutus would never walk again, and now was the time to have that serious talk about mortality.

The Old Man wept as he had never wept before. The tears rushed down the sides of his face and the skin of his cheeks flushed deep red. For twenty minutes he cried and cried and tried to catch himself.

And when he finally reached that level of composure to talk, his only words were.

“It is time.”

He then asked to see Brutus off on his final journey, and he was led to another room, where the great gray mastiff lay prone and still.

He stroked the old dog’s wrinkled head and sobbed out some goodbyes and a sweet little musing of “good dog.”

And then came the euthanasia, and Brutus’s hours of not being able to rise were ended.

The Old Man wept deeply, kissing the dead dog’s brow as he held the beast’s head in his lap.

And so the Old Man’s six year tenure as a mastiff keeper were ended.

A month passed, and the Old Man made arrangements to travel to Europe. It would be a six month vacation, traveling all over Europe.  He did make a special point to see the Coliseum in Rome, where he stood still and wondered if Brutus’s many, many greats grandfather had grappled with a lion there. All through Italy and especially the countryside around Naples seemed to sing the song of that old mastiff.

He couldn’t quite let go of the majesty and love that he had once known, and feeling such sadness when he finally left Italy for tour of the French Riviera, he didn’t know much what to do with himself. Sure, the sunny seashore should have raised his spirits.

But it didn’t.  At a simple French cafe, he met an English woman, a lecturer of literature who had a simple country home in the Devon Countryside.

A bit reluctant to talk to her, he suddenly felt at ease, and spoke to her about his life, about his hopes and dreams.

They met every evening for a week, and then she invited him to come and visit her in Devon. He spent a month there, and in his odd way, he fell in love with her. She fell in love with him.

And he fell for the lush countryside and for this wonderful woman, who somehow assuaged all his sorrow and made him feel complete as a man for the first time in his life.

And he knew the next step would be to move. He returned to the US, sold all his property there, and moved to that Devonshire cottage to be with his love. She was in her 40s, and he would be 70 next year. But it didn’t matter.

He was in love, and he knew it.

Every day, he walked along the country lanes of Devon, eyes open for the spying the hares and pheasants that popped out along the hedgerows. He walked every day, and some times he thought of Brutus and his old life. He missed that old dog so much. He wondered what he would think of walking freely in the beautiful countryside.  He figured the dog would have loved it so much.

One rainy April day, about a year after he had moved to England, the old man came trundling down one of his favorite country lanes, when a dog suddenly came bursting out of a hedgerow.

It was lurcher, blue merle and short-coated, and so gaunt even for being a lurcher that it was obvious that he wasn’t being fed well.

The dog approached him cautiously. It sniffed his hand and wagged its tail. Its eyes possessed that silly sighthound seriousness, which was bit offset because one was flecked with blue.

It was a female dog, and the Old Man didn’t know what to do.  He could take her to the animal shelter in town, but that would mean a long hike back to his car.

So he continued his walk, half hoping the dog wouldn’t follow and half hoping that she would. She followed. Indeed, she followed so closely that it almost appeared as if she had always belonged to him.

And when he turned to go back to the car, she followed him just as closely, and almost without thinking, he let her in the backseat, and drove back home.

At first he thought he would take her to the animal shelter in town, but as he drove, he felt strangely good to have a dog back there.

And by the time his wife arrived home from the university that evening, the lurcher was sprawled out on a blanket by the fireplace. There was no real discussion about what needed to be done.

The lurcher was to stay, and his love pretty much had to accept it.

And so the lurcher was named Bracken, and every day, she and the old man walked the countryside of Devon. She might have been a poacher’s dog, but she was now the pet of a transplanted country squire.

In her smooth flowing paw steps into the grass, the Old Man could sometimes hear the whisper of Brutus passing by. No, she wasn’t a Neapolitan mastiff.  She wasn’t broad-headed beast that needed to be made to obey.

Bracken was easy and light and soft, the perfect dog for an aging man who missed exquisite existence of being a dog keeper.

And so the two marched along those sweet country lanes. Man and dog together as one team.

Just as it once was, it was to be again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Insecurity

scottish-terriers

A tremendous amount of insecurity exists among dog people. Certain reasons for this insecurity exist, but the main reason is that dogs give us some kind of ideological framework and community organization that humans instinctively crave.  Most Western societies are quite isolating, and in the United States, this problem is quite epidemic, as Robert Putnam noted.  We are a species that longs to belong and to know what to believe, so we are lost without this organization and society.

Dogs can give us everything like that. It doesn’t matter which angle one takes into the world of dogs, there will be a community of people and a set of ersatz gurus that will point us down the path that appears to be correct. These gurus may be the most insecure people on the planet, but they are fed by the simple knowledge that they know something, that they have power over someone, and don’t want anyone questioning anything that might lead to the guru seeming foolish or losing power.

I fully confess that I have these tendencies as well. I am a profoundly insecure person. But I also recognize how unhealthy it is, and I will do my best to fight my insecurity. But I don’t think I’ll ever have it fully beaten back.  It is just something I will recognize that I must struggle with.

The other problem that causes great insecurity in the world of dogs is that we ultimately expect too much from the animals. The fact that so many of them meet and even excel at being superior companion animals is a testament to how supremely adapted to life with us.

But the truth of the matter is countless dog trainers and dog people are so insecure in their abilities to get a dog to do something.  A constant fear of judgment or being discovered as wanting looms deeply in their psyche. These people might be superior dog trainers, but their insecurity holds them back.

And part of this problem is that we have elevated certain people to high levels of status in these communities that we feel as failures next to the Apollonian dog heroes. Our popular culture around dog trainers see them as infallible, coolly rational experts, who ask just a few questions and do a few little dramatic training moves. And the dog is suddenly cured. That’s how these experts are portrayed on television. Almost all of it is nothing more twaddle and good editing.

But those bits of artifice that slip through the ether onto our television and computer screens also slip into our psyches and make us truly doubt ourselves.

You can rationally tell yourself that something is fake on television, but you will still believe it. That’s why commercials on television work so well. You will tell yourself that those advertisements have no effect on you, but you will buy those products when you’re at the grocery store.  That’s why companies spend so much money television advertisements. You will tell yourself you’re not being sold something, but in reality, you actually are.

Dog people are very often living with an outward shield. We appear cool and collected on the surface, but deep down, we’re lost and lonely and insecure.

And we don’t want the world to know. I think that this tendency to make sure the world doesn’t know explains some of the horrible behavior that we can sometimes see from dog people, especially online, where one never has to mouth nasty words and feel that bile charge up your neck and leave a foul taste on the tongue.

Maybe the most important thing is to keep an open mind and love your dog, and do the best you can with what you have and what you know. And try to understand that we’re all ultimately in the same boat. We’re struggling to find meaning and community and to feel smart and successful, but we’re adrift in a world that is constantly changing, constantly bickering, and never fully satisfied.

And let’s go easy on the dogs a bit.

And if we can do it with each other, maybe that would be a good thing, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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