Sunday, April 25, 2010

Murdoch and the wind

The day after the wind storm it is extra quiet. Clear blue skies look down on still forests, as though the raucous tantrum of the day before had never been. I look for evidence of the storm as Murdoch and I pick our way along the walking trail, gazing into the woods on either side trying to remember which trees had always been leaning at steep angles against other, bigger, trees and which ones lie newly on the ground.

When the real wind finally arrived mid-morning the previous day, it roared over the mountains then tore through fields and forests, powerful gusts that swept one way before turning and swirling abruptly to push off in another direction.

What came before was tame and friendly and cleansing.

The wind started out playful, swirling around trees causing them to sway gently in ever increasing arcs. Currents meandered through bare, skeletal branches and the pointed tops of pine trees, choosing individual crowns or wooden creaky arms, like large grey elephant trunks, to shake and bend.

But as the wind grew, becoming more reckless and calamitous, it set entire stands of trees rocking wildly from side to side. Looking out our second story windows into the heart of the forest, enlivened with wind, it felt like our house was at sea, rolling with the towering swells.

Waves of wind crashed through the trees and buffeted the side of our house. Inside it sounded like the ocean had tumbled violently to our door. The very air was alive and as darkness fell, the battering wind kept us connected to the world, making the invisible tangible, not at all like the silence of other nights when the darkness is so complete there may as well be nothing past the edge of light that pools outside the window from within.

I love the wind. When it comes, gentle breeze or great squall, everything it touches is made more real somehow, life itself becomes thrilling as though anything is possible. It is the very breath of the Earth and when it washes over you it connects you to everything in that moment.

A large tree lies across the path in front of us. Small branches are scattered around it as though they are made of fine glass and have shattered into a thousand shards. The trunk looks old and dry, it could have been there a long time, except I know it hasn’t. I pick up a larger branch that had snapped from the tree on impact and toss it for Murdoch, it flies over the fallen tree and lands somewhere amidst the brush several feet away.

Murdoch instantly leaps into action, already at top speed before the stick has left my fingers. He reaches the tree and his long skinny legs act like springs, propelling him straight up into the air, without any discernable effort and much higher than seems possible. He gathers his feet beneath him and soars for a moment, then hangs there above the tree. It’s as though he actually slows down time as he reaches the apex of his jump, feet tucked up tight to his body like that of a jumping horse, his neck stretched as far as it will go so he can have a casual look around from this new vantage point before unfurling his legs for the landing when time speeds up again and he continues his fluid flight across the ground.

I am instantly jealous of him. I wish I could move like that dog. He is completely at one with the space around him. His boxy, blocky head becomes streamlined when he runs, his ears flapping back from his face, the wind running its fingers through his hair from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail.

He is transformed from a gawky buffoon into a graceful creature, sleek and beautiful. I throw the stick again and again, Murdoch’s eyes are focused, the rest of the world has disappeared for him, his body trembles in anticipation. I wind up to throw it and he is already off and running. The stick leaves my hand and arcs over his head. He sees it, twists his body in mid air and snatches the stick from its flight, then turns triumphantly and rushes back to where I stand. He moves like a river flowing over and around everything in its path, shaping the landscape as it goes.

I think I can see a smile on his face as he runs towards me, joy sparkles in his eyes. I can imagine him leaping into the air then and never touching down, just zooming higher and higher, weaving himself through the puzzle of branches entwined in the forest canopy, and I want to go with him.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The most fearsome creature

One early summer evening, a short time after we moved into our new house, the dogs became very restless. Bear marched purposefully down the stairs after pausing at the top to look out the window, then puffed herself up and stomped around the kitchen with her ears perked up and eyes focused on the door. Murdoch stood rigid in his kennel and even Max sat up and seemed to be straining his ears. A moment or two later I heard a concerned howling bark coming from our neighbours’ house.

It was dusk, the sky had turned a muted grey-blue and the world was bathed in a pastel light that made nature itself seem completely relaxed, as though the very trees were settling down for a nights sleep. I looked out the window as the howling became louder and through the trees I saw a lumbering black shape move casually along the road. It’s leisurely pace and relaxed posture told me the bear was not bothered in the slightest by the loud, mournful protests of the howling dog, in fact I could almost imagine the bear slowing down a bit more, really taking its time, because, really who else would that time belong to?

The bear made its way up our driveway and then picked out a path through the forest where it disappeared among the trees. Our neighbours’ dog walked stiff legged up and down the middle of the road in front of that patch of trees and continued sounding the alarm as though he was performing his sworn duty to his neighbourhood.

A silence thrilled through me as I stood and watched the pitch black form until I couldn’t see it anymore. I marveled at it’s ability to alter the very atmosphere around it, absorbing every stray bit of light as though it were a walking shadow without an owner.

More bears have rambled into our lives since then, coyotes have traipsed by outside our windows, their fox-like faces casting nonchalant glances back at the cacophony of barks and protests emanating from our house, wolves have stood, looking like impossibly big dogs, with their long and sinewy bodies poised to dash into the bush. I have a healthy respect for those animals and walk in the bush everyday with the knowledge that I share their space. I am constantly aware of their presence somewhere out there, but in a comfortable sort of way.

The thing that strikes fear into my heart and weights my stomach with dread each year as the snow melts and the days grow longer, sending warming breezes to awaken slumbering weeds and grasses, is the tiny, hard-shelled, parasitic tick.

It’s not necessarily the fact that ticks suck blood that causes me to be so completely disgusted with them, I mean mosquitos and black fly suck blood too and I can dismiss them most of the time as merely a nuisance. They get in, get the blood, then get out, sometimes before you even realize it, leaving in their wake an annoying itchy red bump that in short order fades away to something a few notches below a memory.

Ticks on the other hand hang around for hours, if not days. They actually submerge their entire heads beneath skin and gorge on blood until their once flat oatmeal-flake sized disc-like bodies of shiny dark brown become a sickly beige colour and blow up to the size of a large, taut grape. Morgan once aptly described the fully engorged tick as looking like a toe you might find protruding from beneath a white sheet in a morgue with a tag tied around it.

Plus, ticks have eight legs, making them a member of the creepy crawly clan arachnid.

From the first sighting each season I am transformed into an adrenaline charged nerve ready to snap at any moment. My heart is set at a constant race and my lungs tie themselves up in a tiny, tight knot. I jump at everything. A piece of lint caught in the light a certain way can make me leap clear across a room. A stray hair tickles my neck and my hand flies up to claw at the skin, I feel a bump beneath the fur of one of the dogs and I reel back in horror, gasping loudly and involuntarily as though I’ve just come up for air after a long, deep dive beneath the cold water of a northern lake.

I cannot hug my dogs with reckless abandon in the summer. I approach them cautiously, steeling myself for the inevitable lump beneath fur, hoping it will be tiny and therefore newly acquired and easier to remove without leaving the head embedded in the skin while the body is pulled away.

Ticks are covered by a protective armour which makes them maddeningly resilient. The only way I am able to kill one is to smash it between two rocks. The fatter they are, the grosser this becomes.

Mostly I spend those clear warm days of summer wishing I was encased in a bubble. I tiptoe around trees and stick to well-worn paths in attempts to sneak past the vile creatures skulking in the long grass, beneath fallen leaves or in the treetops waiting to cling to any warm-blooded animal that has the misfortune to wander by.

Just standing in the forest mid-summer, or watching my dogs dash off through the trees or frolic in the grass, makes my skin crawl. The very air feels alive with a thousand wiggling legs and my sanity teeters ever closer to the edge.

Give me a bear any day.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fate steps in

Max was an easy second dog to add to our family. He moved in seven months after I started walking him and a year-and-a-half after Quincy disappeared. By then Bear had survived sharing her space with another dog and weathered the intrusion of two cats - whittled down from the original six kittens - for well over a year. Max was a piece of cake.

He and Bear had already worked out the logistics of toys, namely, everything was hers unless she said otherwise, and the time they’d spent together walking everyday let them establish their respective roles before they shared a living space; Max took the role of observer while Bear agreed to call the shots. The transition to him living in our house was easier than we thought.

He was so agreeable. For the first week he lived with us we shut him away in our spare room. There were a number of reasons for that, not the least of which was to try and contain the junkyardy smell streaming off his grey, dusty coat, but we wanted to introduce him slowly to a new home full of curious creatures in a tiny space when he was used to his own area with minimal socializing. Mostly, though, we contained him because of the maggot-infested wound on his neck.

It was spring when Morgan and I headed out on a road trip south with Bear. At that point we had already talked at length about adopting Max and agreed we would do it before the following winter. He had spent too many lonely sub-freezing nights outdoors and we couldn’t leave him out there for another season. We figured by that fall we would be ready to bring him into our home. But, while we were away, Max got into a fight with another dog. The dog bit Max on the neck and his wound was left untreated for at least seven days before we returned home.

I didn’t go and see Max right away after our trip, I wanted to wait until I had time to take him for a good walk and not just a quick visit. Morgan headed next door before I did, to see our neighbours, and when he came back he said Max didn’t look very well, though Morgan had only glimpsed him from afar. I ventured over later that day to see him. His chain disappeared into the dark, square opening of his dog house. When I saw that, my heart sank a little and I tried to shrug off the bad feeling that threatened to tackle me then. I had never seen him use his ramshackle dog house before, not even after Morgan and I had repaired it and moved it to higher ground, above the spring flood.

When I called his name, Max poked his head out from the shadows and then stumbled forward into the daylight. He seemed smaller somehow and I believe I saw a great relief in Max’s eyes as he trotted towards me. He didn’t look right, he seemed pale, his fur washed out and dull.

The stench hit me like a wall when Max was still about ten feet away. It was the smell of rotting flesh. I covered my nose and muttered a few “oh my god”s under by breath as I closed the distance between us.

He put his head against the side of my leg like he always does in greeting and I ran my hands along his face and ears, asking him what was wrong. As I leaned over top of him I saw the other side of his neck was soaked. I parted his great fluffy mane in a panic and at the top of his neck just behind his ear I found a hole about two inches in diameter and half an inch deep, that revealed torn, webby membranes of grey, dead flesh.

After our experience with Quincy, I recognized it as an abscess that had burst and spewed its slimy contents all down the side of Max’s neck.

Morgan and I took Max home that day and cleaned up his wound the best we could with leftovers from Quincy’s medicine chest. That’s when we first saw the maggots, tiny ones on a red-raw abrasion on the base of Max’s ear and fatter ones inside the gaping wound. It seemed like Max was in a pretty bad state and when we found out his owners were not going to be able to take him to the vet the next day, we said we would go instead.

Max never went back to his chain after that. His wound looked a lot worse than it actually was, according to the vet - maggots and all. She wasn’t overly concerned about it as long as Max was kept indoors with someone to keep the wound clean and give him antibiotics. We didn’t hesitate to adopt him on the spot.

Max didn’t seem too bothered to be living in a new space so suddenly. He spent chunks of time alone in our spare room, relaxing and healing. His wound closed up quickly and within a couple of weeks we were able to have him professionally scrubbed clean by a woman who came to our house in a big red van that housed her grooming station.

The Max that emerged from the van an hour after he’d entered, was a completely different dog. He smelled like a fresh breeze blowing across a deep blue lake and his coat glistened as the sun’s light picked out every nuance in his fur, from the lightest caramel to the deepest copper. It was as if he shone from the inside out.

Max slipped into life with us as if he’d always been there. Even Bear never complained about him moving in, at least not until Max decided sleeping on the couch looked way better than sleeping on the floor. Every night he hauled himself up beside Bear and settled in so that each of them had their head pushed against opposite armrests. Bear embarked on a quest to scrunch ever smaller onto her half of the couch, making her disgust known with a symphony of grumbles and grunts, while Max stretched out a little more, surprisingly pushy for such a gentle, sweet-natured creature.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A perfect match

Although I met Max not too long after we moved to Thunder Bay, Bear got to know him before I did. When Quincy was still around, he inadvertently taught my impressionable Bear that invisible barriers are really more of a notion than a hard and fast reality and it wasn’t long before she had learned to wander off. I soon realized both she and Quincy made a beeline over to Max’s house where he let them eat his food and where, not too far from Max’s well-trodden piece of land, resided the neighbours’ compost pile.

I discovered this one day when I headed outside after noticing a glaringly absent Bear and wandered next door calling her name. I found her, snout-deep, in Max’s half-filled food dish while Max sat nearby quite content - indeed almost eager - to share. Her name snapped from my mouth as I marched towards her. She hung her head low, swung it in my direction and looked up at me with giant brown eyes through tiny black eyelashes that in the moment seemed extra long and her eyes extra dewy.

Another time I found her munching on the hollowed out half-peels of old grapefruit, freshly picked from the compost.

While I was completely unimpressed with Bear’s increasing lack of discipline, her befriending of Max made it easier when he later joined us on walks. Although I suppose it was really less a friendship and more a case of Bear taking advantage of Max’s loneliness, still, her nose was not put out of joint when our daily jaunts began to include him.

The only issue Bear seemed to take with Max was his inability, in her eyes, to play ball properly. When we met him, Max had an old football, it seemed to be his one and only possession, and he loved it. It was deflated and soft, just perfect for Max to pick up in his mouth and carry around. If he caught the eye of someone passing by he would drop the ball at his own feet and stare meaningfully at it as though trying to communicate telepathically to the observer that they should kick the ball. If anyone made a move to do just that, he would snatch the ball up in his jaws, flash a mischievous glance at the thwarted kicker, then spit the ball out again and start the routine from the beginning.

For Bear, a ball lying idly on the ground is a complete waste of a good ball. Either it should be flying through the air begging to be caught or grasped firmly between her paws being ripped to shreds. I don’t think she ever really understood Max’s game and frequently would steal the ball and parade around with it clenched in her jaw. She would throw her head about in what looked like erratic arcs, but was probably a perfectly choreographed performance in her mind, before dropping the ball expectantly at my feet and stomping hers on the ground while fixing me with a look of sheer excited concentration as though announcing to Max, “This is how it’s done!”

I believe it was almost painful for Bear to watch Max’s pathetic displays of playing ball. Bear is a professional when it comes to such things.

She is a big barrel-chested dog, not really streamlined for running at top speed over great distances, but when she plays fetch, she is transformed. Bear becomes the most graceful of creatures. She is light on her feet as though carried by wings and leaps effortlessly through the air, becoming weightless. She dances on the wind, turning pirouettes mid-jump, and gently plucks the ball from the sky then swishes back with it clasped triumphantly in her mouth, celebratory strings of goober flowing behind her.

She doesn’t really like to play with other dogs so much as compete against them. Many times she has been part of a group of eager dogs chasing one ball, and while she is respectful of her fellow gamers, she clearly takes the event much more seriously than anyone else.

If another dog catches the ball, she seems to acknowledge it with an expression that says, “Good catch, but enjoy it, it will be your last.”, while scurrying back to whoever threw the ball in the first place, her energy level bumped up to the next notch. If the dog that caught the ball does not return as promptly, Bear makes her frustration quite clear by following the culprit and making meaningful full-body gestures that look like she’s trying to explain “You’re going the wrong way, the thrower is over there.”

If Bear does catch the ball, she snatches it from the air with a satisfying “thock” and returns to the thrower as though attached by a zip-line, spits out the ball and focuses her entire being on the slobbered, rubbery orb. I have never seen a dog exude such determination in anything.

Lucky for Bear, Max never seemed to mind when she took his ball, though I was continually offended on his behalf and admonished Bear constantly.

When Max moved in with us, the ball came too and Bear was more sure than ever that it was hers. It wasn’t long before Bear reduced his football to a five-inch-square scrap of dusty brown rubber, which she still insisted that I throw for her. Max seemed to shrug it all off and somewhere along the line made peace with the fact that while Bear and he shared a home he would never again have a ball of his own.