Monday, November 29, 2010

Following the river

The little square house we lived in when we first came to Thunder Bay sat on the top of a steep hill that abruptly fell away to the river below. It was January when we arrived and the river was frozen and buried beneath a thick downy blanket of snow.

We watched the season change from our giant picture window looking down the river valley. The snow slowly receded, pushed back into piles shrouded in shade by the sun’s intensifying heat and the river turned from white to silvery gray. As the ice melted, moving out from the middle of the river in ever-widening circles, the silver deepened to pewter then black as the water coursing along beneath the ice was finally revealed.

Swollen by the spring melt, the river tumbled swiftly below, speeding along its length and climbing a little farther up its banks every day. Trunks of weathered dead trees sailed past the house, swept away from the water’s edge by the extended, greedy grasp of the river.

Other tall trees whose roots grew sideways into the hill while their gray trunks stretched straight up towards the sky framed the river outside our window. If we ventured closer to the rushing water and looked past the trees we could see where the river disappeared around a bend. It then cut a mildly meandering course past homes with manicured lawns, homes hidden behind trees, and other spots where trees and brush filled the landscape.

Bear and I later found the river again tumbling and churning along the edge of a conservation area where it burst its way over jumbled boulders strewn in its path. We could hear the water from every trail that webbed through the forest as it roared and frothed white energy down troughs cut sharp and slick in the rock.

We stood on great slabs of flat rocks that pushed the river into a narrowed band and watched the water gush like a waterfall down jagged stair steps, feeling its vibrations in our chests. On our rocky perch, water gathered in small pools around us in dish-shaped gouges and reflected the sky, some of them catching the black silhouettes of trees.

Bear and I walked those trails often through the trees, narrow dirt paths snaked over by tangles of roots. The sun, high in the brilliant blue northern sky reached down to us through the canopy, dappling our path in green and gold.

We walked mostly in silence, Bear easily filling the space at my side, her body swaying casually to match my relaxed gait; the sound of the river a third companion. As we moved through the trees, the surging water became an anchor of sorts amidst the endlessness of the woods, its white noise urging us on and always calling us back.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Murdoch is my best friend

Cleo’s round body makes me think of a lumbering armadillo as she picks her way through the jumble of boots and shoes that spill out from the corner of our entryway.

She tiptoes along the wall throwing sideways glances at Murdoch who lies stretched out in his kennel, deceptively despondent. I would think Cleo is trying to sneak past undetected to sit on the low sill of the bay window that looks out into the forest yet is still within the warm glow of the wood stove, except with every other step she utters a plaintive little high-pitched squeak.

I begin to think the sideways glances aren’t so much a safety precaution as Cleo trying to discern whether or not Murdoch is noticing her. She stops mid-stride, her front paw raised to step over the toe of one of Morgan’s shoes, and squeaks again. I hear the familiar rustle and clang of Murdoch moving around in his kennel and know he has pushed himself to a half-sitting position. Cleo’s paw hits the ground and she squeaks again, looking away almost coyly.

There is an explosion of clattering metal and feet skittering across linoleum as Murdoch launches himself from his kennel to stand, tall and stiff-legged over the cat.

“Murdoch,” I say with what I hope is a mildly threatening voice. “You be nice. I’m watching you.” From where I stand in the kitchen I can see his tail curves up rigidly over his back while his neck cranes to almost twice its length, casting a shadow over Cleo. She looks suddenly very small.

Murdoch towers over Cleo in an intimidating pose that calls to mind the Big Bad Wolf leaping out from behind a tree, gleaming teeth sharpened and unsheathed. There was a time when witnessing that would have resulted in me jumping up and down in a panic while rushing to Cleo’s aide. I would awkwardly scoop up her balloon-like body, clamping my arms tightly around her wriggling girth, and whisk her away before Murdoch could turn her into a pre-dinner snack. But I have since learned their relationship is a complicated one; Cleo actually seems to enjoy these, often times violent, little skirmishes.

A peep escapes her throat as she tries to turn around. Murdoch lunges with scrabbling paws and a guttural huff that sounds like a battle cry, then stabs her roughly in the side with his nose.

“Murdoch,” I say sharply. “That’s enough!” He lunges again and clamps his giant jaws down over her neck and shoulders.

“Hey!” I holler in a voice that doesn’t sound at all like mine. “In kennel!” I am halfway down the stairs when I say it and he lets go of the cat. The pressure that began to pile up like a storm cloud in the house and made Murdoch’s body tense with potential mayhem dissipates as though it was never there. Murdoch wanders back to his kennel with a casual fluidity, if he could shrug with the haughty disinterest of a teenager, he would do it now, “Whatever.”

Cleo dashes up the stairs. The hair on her back is stuck out at strange angles, slicked into clumps with dog slobber.

I glare at Murdoch. “That was not nice,” I say. He looks back at me, completely relaxed, not an ounce of malice in his face. Does he think they’re playing? I wonder. Does she think they’re playing?

The problem is Murdoch is by nature a rough-houser. He doesn’t consider it a good day unless blood has been drawn, while Cleo can’t seem to fathom a world in which everyone doesn’t love her, making her instinct for self preservation a little sketchy.

I truly believe if she were to get outside and meet up with a real wolf in the woods she would try and befriend it. “Hey, you’re a dog!” she would say while running eagerly towards the bewildered creature. “So am I!”

It’s understandable the line between species may be a little blurry for Chestnut and Cleo, the pair have mingled with dogs since they were three weeks old and at one time even thought Bear was their mother, much to her mortification. But somewhere along the way Chestnut realized he was a cat and when Murdoch showed up, a wild giant jaw that threatened to eat anything smaller than itself and maim everything else, he developed a healthy fear of him, while Cleo found him fascinating.

I’m not sure she gets it. But then maybe she understands far more than I do. About an hour after Murdoch tried to inhale her, I look over the railing to see Cleo back in the entryway snuggled up on the edge of a blanket in front of the woodstove, her eyes half-closed in utter contentment. Two feet away Murdoch is sprawled languidly on the floor, basking in the heat of the fire.

Monday, November 15, 2010

First snow

Murky gray sky, the colour of dirty steel, settles itself over the day. It is so heavy, it cannot be contained by the upper atmosphere and instead seeps down to the ground, clings to trees, hangs limply over the gravel road, deadens daylight. It carries with it a cloying damp that presses down on everything, absorbs colour, and light, an invisible mist.

The grayness pushes at the windows, an endless twilight, but I stop on my way through the kitchen, drawn to the cold panes by a familiar feeling. I know what I will see before I see it. White flakes move diagonally past the window, sifting gently yet purposefully through the invisible mist, disappearing into the ground.

“It’s snowing,” I half whisper to myself as my stomach does a happy skip. These flakes, falling deliberately from that menacing sky, look like they could mean business. I hurry to get ready and take Murdoch for a walk.

Outside the whiteness of the flakes seems out of place in the gray wash that covers everything, it almost seems unnatural, but in a wondrous way, as though the weighted sky carries a lighthearted secret.

The world is wet beneath this slushy fall that can’t quite decide if it will be rain or snow. Our feet squelch a bit and crunch over the dark brown road as we walk through flakes moving hypnotically downward. The air carries an icy, crisp smell of coming snow and as we wind our way along the trail through the bush, the falling flakes hiss in the grass and make gentle kissing sounds as they patter onto the hood of my jacket.

Mid-walk I am soaked through. My jeans are coarse and cold against my legs, water drips off the edge of my hood. For a moment Murdoch is sprinkled with crystal white flakes that melt slowly to great globes of luminescent water droplets.

By the time we return home we both look like we’ve been swimming. The air is colder and the snow has decided to be snow, quietly clinging to blades of grass. It’s not long before the sun, setting somewhere behind the thick wall of cloud, steals away the suggestion of light it brought to the day. The sky darkens to a murkier gray as the snow flies more seriously past the windows. Individual flakes flash like sparks from a fire as they pass through the yellow beam cast by the light outside our door.

In the morning it is as though clouds fell to Earth overnight. The sky is a flat, shapeless gray while the world below seems illuminated from within, a soft, white glow. Snow covers everything. The world is solid, all reduced to basic shapes, empty spaces filled in. Pine trees draped in heavy white cloaks become looming frozen ghosts, while the black branches of bare trees are defined like sketches by their white outlines.

Soft, muted light brightens the morning. It bundles quietly yet deliberately into the house; windows and walls prove to be no barrier as it moves effortlessly into every dark corner. It should feel cold because of its starkness, but it doesn’t it’s a warm glow as though someone has wrapped a great cozy white blanket around the forest and the light that filters through is quite diffused by the time it reaches our house tucked away comfortably somewhere in the middle.

Stepping outdoors there is a sense of relief in the air, of something anticipated for such a long time finally realized; a release of energy that has left the world calmer somehow.

Even Murdoch can’t completely destroy the serenity of the forest transformed. His black shape moves like an escaping shadow through the bright, muffled silence. He disappears under low hanging branches heavy with snow. Muted snuffling sounds reach my ears instead of the usual snaps and cracks of him crashing through underbrush. When he emerges, his beard has turned white. He buries his nose in the snow and sniffs about almost frantically as though investigating each and every flake that fell.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pure Murds

I stand in the forest on a thick blanket of burnt orange and brown leaves jumbled together below a tangled bare canopy of skeletal fingers like umbrellas blown to bits in a wild storm. I can feel a dry, brittleness through the toughened outer skin of the gray-brown stick I hold aloft and wave over my head to get Murdoch’s attention.

“How about this one?” I yell, trying to be heard over the loud rustling and snapping sounds of Murdoch attempting to wrestle free a small tree from a tangle of underbrush. It’s like an elephant is crashing through the forest.

Moments before, as we crunched our way through the leaves laid down amongst the forest that encircles our house, I watched Murdoch, free from his leash, slowly widen the gap between us. He leapt over fallen trees and rotten logs, head down, nose buried in the leaves. I could see the wanderlust emanating from him as he weaved his long, black body around trunks of gray and white.

Walking in our woods is different from walking the trail at the end of the road. Our forest is crisscrossed with thin, barely distinct paths that inspire a sense of adventure. Traversing our woods feels more like a pass to freedom than walking the well-defined, one-track road into the mountains. I am more concerned about Murdoch’s great escape from our woods than I am on the walking trail.

“Murdoch,” I shouted ahead to his retreating shape. My voice bounced off his back and I could feel the line fast approaching that would render me completely invisible to him as he careered off through the trees. I wouldn’t see him again until he was good and ready to be seen.

I shouted a little louder with a hint of desperation, “Find me a stick.” If anything will slow him down it is this magic phrase.

Murdoch stopped mid-trot and spun around to face me. “Find me a stick Murds,” I shouted again and could see the spark of excitement ignite his eyes as he lengthened his neck and scanned his surroundings before pouncing, predictably, on the biggest stick he could find.

I watched for a minute as he clamped his teeth around the end of the fallen tree. Every ounce of strength and pent-up energy shimmying through his muscles amalgamated, morphing into an ocean of power funneled through his compact frame to gather in his jaw. It was as if he had wrapped his entire body around that tree to heave and yank and pull on it, a giant tooth being wiggled loose.

In his intense struggle with the downed tree I witnessed Murdoch fulfilling some deep-rooted primitive part of himself. That power, concealed in his slim, wiry body was pure energy solidified. It came not only from shear strength but also a deeply felt stubbornness and determination. Those things that make him so challenging to train and even love, are the same things that make him so impressive and, at times, awe-inspiring.

I heard the splintering of strained wood giving way and marveled again at his focus, his fortitude, his power, and then I rolled my eyes. “I’m not throwing that for you, you know,” I said and began looking around for a stick of a more manageable size.

I have to wave this new stick right in front of his eyes before he releases the tree. The preceding battle has only served to rev up his energy and I hold the stick above my head again for a moment, his full attention now on me, the woods suddenly silent.

“Are you ready?” I ask. Brown eyes flick to my face then back to my arm, widening as though defying the stick to try and elude him. Anticipation shivers through his body and sets his leg muscles quivering beneath black hair that can’t quite decide if it’s shaggy or sleek.

I wind up and he lunges, then I throw the stick in a perfect arc through a maze of trees. Murdoch springs after it and snaps it up in his jaw with an almost angry authority. As he barrels back towards me, he lets the stick fall from his mouth and changes course at full speed. A sneak attack. When he pounces on the downed tree again I imagine the muscles in his body turning to malleable steel as he gives two powerful yanks with his jaw that reverberate all the way down to his toes. I shake my head as I pick up the forgotten stick and begin walking away into the trees.

I hear a snap and a crack and then Murdoch is by my side. He glances up at me and I see an almost sheepish satisfaction flash across his eyes before he glimpses the stick in my hand and I send it flying through the air.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bear in the woods

In the early evening, those last moments before true twilight, the sky is washed of almost all colour; its face of palest blue is lit by an afterglow. Light emanates from its great expanse as though each particle of atmosphere holds a fragment of the suns light after it has slid behind the mountains but not yet dipped below the horizon. In the woods, that light becomes almost tangible.

I stand in the middle of the clearing outside our house and watch Bear weave her way slowly up one of the barely discernable footpaths through our forest. In the flat, gray light that seems to be a solid thing descended from the sky to fill the vertical spaces between a battalion of spindly trunks, she’s a shadow come to life. Her blackness absorbs everything.

One minute, she doesn’t seem to belong there, her inky black shape looks foreign beside the grays and flat browns of trunks standing watch, but with her next step everything shifts and she, turning just slightly this way or that, slips effortlessly into the spaces between the trees as though the forest has finally recognized her and envelopes her with invisible, welcoming arms.

I’m about to call to her, but I pause to watch her move comfortably, familiarly through the trees. This is her forest. Surrounded by that gray light I could reach out and grasp, Bear is solid one minute, the next I imagine her flickering out of this existence, stepping into the grayness, disappearing.

Her shape amongst the trees is like a secret whispered to the bare branches overhead. She becomes a mythical creature on a silent passage through the forest glimpsed from the corner of my eye. I know the sounds of dry, crumbling leaves beneath her feet, the swish of her gently swaying tail, the rush of air in and out of her nose, but they don’t reach me. That heavy light absorbs sound as well as shadow.

During the day, with yellow beams slanting through the trees colouring the woods in gold and bronze, silvering Bears fur as it glances off her back, she is small beside these towering sentinels. In this opaque light that seems to spring into being from every pore of nature, she becomes larger, part of the forest before my eyes.

When she is on the brink of disappearing behind that curtain of trees and light in the distance, I finally call to her. She turns to look, craning her neck around a leaning trunk to see if I can actually see her or if I am blindly calling her name.

“I see you Bear,” I say and point to her to prove it. “Come on.”

She seems to consider for a moment, then turns and wanders slowly back down the trail, purposely taking her time.

As she gets closer I can hear the leaves crunching under her weight, kicked up in little crackling clouds around her feet. She looks like she is about to break into a run and I have to tell her, “No”. I’m worried about her leg injury worsening. A look of confusion brushes over her face and, conflicted, she trots awkwardly to my side.

I reach down to smooth my hand over the silky, black fur on her head but she dances to the side and stomps her feet. Her ears pulled up towards the top of her head accompany the question flashed at me from the depths of her brown eyes.

“No Bear, we can’t play,” I say with a genuine sadness in my voice. “I can’t throw anything for you.”

I turn to walk back to the house, gesturing for her to join me. Bear prances at my side as though her leg is healed, but I know it’s not and it won’t take much to make it worse, she will be limping again in a minute.

A warm cushion of air greets us as we enter the house, becoming a solid barrier to the dampness pushing at our backs. Its dry welcoming warmth makes the cold flare brightly on my skin for a moment and sends a giddy shiver through my core.

I kneel down and hug Bear. She smells like the woods. A cold, crispness has clung to her, she has gathered the outdoors around herself like a thin cloak. I can feel her heat seeping through and inhale deeply before the fresh smells of burnt leaves and green wood and pine melt away like a dream dissipating in a morning mist.

As she settles down on her bed by the fire, I gather her cold ears in my hands, kiss the top of her head and breathe the lingering sweet minty scent of balsam on her fur.