Monday, August 29, 2011

Caper in the woods

Jack and Murdoch traipse ahead on the trail as we return from our walk. We move slowly through the cool shade after a long trek over sun-drenched land with barely a breath of wind. I look ahead to the dirt road for signs of vehicles. It is a white line in the glaring sun rising up and away from the green grasses of the trail.

We are still a distance from the road when the fox appears at the trailhead. It skips into view as though it hasn’t a care in the world and at first I think it is a cat out for a romp in the wild. But then I notice its gangly legs and large ears and the way its tawny coat glows golden in the sun.

“Murdoch come,” I call as I watch the fox bounce sideways with its long bushy tail streaming behind it, poking its pointy nose leisurely into the raspberry bushes that line the trail.

The dogs don’t see the fox and return to my side as though they are truly obedient. I hook Murdoch to his leash, talking loudly and stomping my feet trying to alert the fox to our presence, give it a fair chance to escape. It frolics along the edge of the trail and I wonder if it is just young, unaware that it should be mistrustful of strange creatures. When it looks up, it pauses mid-skip, then begins walking towards us before it finally turns and runs back the way it came, disappearing into the woods.

At the spot where the fox has played in the shadow of the raspberry bushes Jack and Murdoch are seized by missed opportunity. They dart about the trail, frenzied and erratic yet focused, sniffing loudly and I wonder what a fox’s footprints smell like.

We stop at the swimming hole and I convince myself Murdoch is distracted enough by the stick I wave in front of his face that I let him off his leash. He plunges into the water after the stick, shattering the still surface of the pond. Then he is leaping up the steep slope and running past me, a soggy black blur streaming water behind him. I call after his retreating form as he bolts up the road and watch, deflated, as he veers sharply into the bush.

Across the road from our usual walking trail, there are other pathways into the woods, overgrown and forgotten. I stand up to my knees in weeds as the dogs flash past, half-seen like ghosts, around gray trunks and through rustling green foliage. I shout their names to the trees, then wait and get nothing but silence in return.

I pick my way back to the road and begin reluctantly to walk towards home, Murdoch’s empty leash clutched in my hand. It would be ridiculous to try and follow the dogs through the thick of the bush, I decide, but perhaps I could head them off if I join the trail that snakes through the woods of my neighbours’ property. It is a favourite route of Jack’s and I have found the dogs wandering there in the past.

I throw glances over my shoulder at the empty road as I march onward, the walking trail shrinking to a small point in the near distance. Each time I hope to look back and see Murdoch’s tiny black shape. With every step my stomach drops a bit more as I imagine him emerging from the woods in pursuit of passing cars or ATVs or bicycles.

I slip around the great metal gate that marks an entrance from the road into my neighbours’ forest. Not too far in a tangle of trees lies across the trail, marking the path of the violent windstorm that tore through our forest last summer. I tie the leash around my waist and am about to hoist myself up unto the first trunk to scale this wall of horizontal trees when I hear thundering footfalls.

I turn just as Murdoch comes flying around the corner. He is panting heavily, a great wide smile on his face. His sides heave in and out furiously and I think his lungs might burst as I clip on his leash and rest my hand on his head.

For a moment I am speechless, imagining him running down the road, a black figure against the bleached dirt, sending up plumes of dust behind him as he pounded the gravel, following my scent, choosing me over the fox. But in the afterglow of my brief flare of ego I realize it is far more likely that he lost Jack on the trail, had no idea where the fox went and decided the human, plodding in mostly straight lines, would be much easier to find.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Joyful spirits

A pair of hummingbirds visits my garden every day. They show up around the same time each morning when the sun moves across the gap in the canopy of trees that opens the forest floor to the sky. The lilies glow orange and the bee balm flashes rich fuscia and the hummingbirds shimmer green.

I watch from the window as they dart about from bloom to bloom and hover in place. Their bodies dip and dive and flick like fish swimming against a current.

One perches on the auburn center of a freshly opened coneflower and slides its beak along each pale pink petal as though drinking beads of dew. The other sits weightlessly on one of the skinny leaves that ladder up the tall slim stem of a bee balm flower while it sips nectar from another.

Their movements are otherworldly. They are tiny joyful garden spirits; their wings whir about them, smudges of the softest brown. Flowers sway gently at the touch of needle beaks, while the greenery below rustles turbulently and flattens beneath the wash of their wings, like tiny helicopters coming in to land. Soon they are dashing off again into the woods after an occasional peek in at the window.

I am standing amidst the flowers one day taking pictures of the orange wild lilies that hang upside down and curl their petals almost completely around themselves when I hear the deep drone of the hummingbird’s wings. She appears beside me, two feet away. I hold my breath and watch as her long, thin beak disappears into the fluted pink crown of the waning bee balm.

I barely dare to move, angling my camera as best I can. I am granted one picture before she darts up and stares me in the eye for a moment. I can feel the gentle wind from her wings before she zips away amongst the trees and blends in with the leaves.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Forest garden

Our house sits in the midst of a forest. Trees stalk up to the windows, shielding it from the heat of the sun. In one spot the roofline dips in, accommodating the straight gray trunk of a poplar tree.

In the summertime when the trees are rustling with leaves and the wild flowers and leafy undergrowth fill in spaces between roughened trunks, the house becomes almost obscured from the road.

By July, the forest floor is a riot of green. Plants grow at a calamitous rate beneath the trees, climbing and clinging and rolling across the ground like a great wave. This year we let it tumble right to our door.

Our decision not to cut back the wild plants around the house this year, to give the forest its head so to speak, was part laziness and part curiosity. What would happen, we wondered, if we let this greenery go without checking it, without snipping or clipping or interfering?

Where the tree cover is thinner just off our driveway, flowers grew this year over six feet tall with giant spiky leaves and great white heads that tracked the sun through the trees. Thistles with bright purple tops and thorns the length of darning needles stretched just as tall. Winding their way through it all were monstrous daisies and determined buttercups.

Just off our front deck Bear disappears daily beneath leaves that grow the size of dinner plates. I once thought these plants were a type of wild rhubarb, until they grew to five feet tall and flowered with spiny purple-tufted globes and then I recognized them as the burdocks that always get stuck to Bear’s tail.

Obscured by the leaves, Bear’s black shape winds through this forest in miniature and then stops. I can hear her digging through the debris of brown leaves, pine needles and choked-out grasses, shuffling them this way and that as though she is looking for something.

“What are you doing Bear?” I ask. She peers up at me from under the ruffled edge of a giant leaf and then resumes her search.

I watch her reach out with first her left paw, dragging clear a swath of forest floor, and then with her right before she dips her head and carefully picks up a stick in her teeth. She settles down under the leafy canopy to shred her latest find. The snapping and splintering sounds of wood being torn to bits mingle with the low buzz of bees floating busily from one flowering plant to another.

In mid-August the burdocks are bending precariously towards the ground and we’re feeling hemmed in now, overwhelmed by these plants. But I can’t cut them down until the bees are done. They are still heavy with flowers; just starting to brown, while thistles are turning to seed and sending out fluffy white wishes on the wind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My nose doesn't lie

The clattering sounds of breakfast fill the house. Dishes clank and shuffle across the linoleum floor, kibble crunches between teeth, tongues lap noisily around bowls already licked clean, searching out every last crumb.

Murdoch is a power-eater. He hoovers up the food in his dish as if challenging some kind of time record, then scoops up his food ball in giant jaws and disappears with it into his kennel. Bear trolls the area, padding quietly, looking for any dropped morsels. She swipes her tongue around Murdoch’s empty bowl in case he left something behind.

Satisfied for the moment, Bear settles onto her bed with a grumble and watches as Murdoch bangs about in his kennel, extricating the rest of his breakfast from the bright orange ball. Kibble rattles and tumbles about inside as he rolls it around with his paw.

It is supposed to keep him busy for a while, solving this puzzle. But it isn’t really a challenge any more. He has become so adept with the ball, one turn to the right, two back, another to the left, and food pops out of the hole, is instantly inhaled. I’m sure he doesn’t even taste it.

Morning sunlight filters through the trees and seeps gently into the kitchen as the feeding frenzy in the entryway ends. It is quiet but for the ticking of the clock and I pour steaming tea into my cup.

A few minutes pass before I hear a rustle and then click, click of claws and Bear appears at the bottom of the stairs, fixing her gaze on me, something very important on her mind.

“What is it Bear?” I ask. “Do you need to go out?”

She backs up eagerly as I descend the stairs but instead of turning towards the door to go outside, she marches over to Murdoch’s kennel and looks back over her shoulder at me.

“What is it?” I ask again, though I already know. “Show me."
She stomps her foot on the floor beside the kennel and turns her head abruptly to look at me again, her ears swishing about her face.

“Bear, I don’t see anything.” She steps forward and stomps her foot again, more forcefully this time, more insistent as if to say, “Right here! Can't you smell it?”

Murdoch emerges with great urgency from his kennel and appears behind Bear, scanning the floor. He knows Bear is almost always right, so there must be something.

I crouch down and peer along the edge of the kennel. There is nothing there, but I know pieces of kibble have somehow slipped beneath the blankets, wiggled under the metal tray to become lost between the thin metal bars that make up the very base of the kennel.

I sigh and look at Bear. Her brown eyes stare deliberately into mine, her brow wrinkles, she stands with her shoulders square and her tail wags faster.

“Really Bear?” I ask. She stomps her front feet again: one, two. I know Bear will not rest until the food is retrieved.

With the dogs poised on either side of me each ready to be the first to rush in and scoop up anything they find, I lift up the back end of the kennel and slide it forward along the floor. Bear and Murdoch descend like vultures, plucking up the few lost pieces of kibble, then snuffle around in a race to find more. But that’s it, it’s over before it’s barely begun and I shove the kennel back into place as the dogs walk backwards, noses stuck to the leading edge, sure there must be more than that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When a tree falls

On the walking trail, I let Murdoch off his leash and he runs ahead, his black shape disappears in the grasses that grow tall down the center of the path and along its edges. His tail becomes a flag to let me know where he is. I listen too; focus on the sound of his movements. Once out of sight I am sometimes able to tell where he is by rustling grasses, crashing underbrush, thundering feet over packed dirt.

This trail we walk every day used to be a logging road. In some spots it is still wide enough for a large truck to rumble through but mostly grasses and weeds have grown over the path, reclaiming the gray patches of exposed earth. Where grasses don’t grow, the ground is dried out by mid-summer, pale beige beneath the bright sky and zigzagged with cracks.

There is still some forest left, areas thick with trees and cooling shade, but in the spaces between are large tracts of land that were once plucked almost clean. These areas are filling in again with tiny trees and underbrush gone wild in an endless bath of sunshine.

I catch up to Murdoch when he stops to drink from a mud puddle on the edge of a slice of forest. The land opens up here, becomes a tumble of underbrush that rushes away towards the distant hills patchworked with green foliage. Odd trees still dot the landscape; they stand around like forgotten children on an empty train station platform. These remnants of what came before look a little lost, a little out of place. They are thin and tall, balsam mostly, with bottlebrush tops, broken and wind-worn. They seem brittle to me, sickly. I can’t believe they are still standing, these stragglers, but they sway in the wind and endure.

Murdoch trots ahead again and I am struck by the silence. Something has changed here. I walk slowly along the path, scan the landscape, and then I see it. A tree has fallen. Where once two trees stood, side-by-side, there is now only one.

I always heard those trees before I saw them, creaking and squeaking across the open space. They stood maybe an arm-span apart at their bases and leaned in to each other until they almost entwined near the top. Long yellow gashes stretched about a third of the way down each trunk where the bark had worn away. It always struck me as kind of funny that these two trees stood right on top of each other when there was such an expanse around them and I wondered if they were fighting for space or holding each other up.

I stop and look at the empty spot where that spindly tree stood. The tangled underbrush has swallowed it up and it is as though that tree has just ceased to exist. The sky looks bigger. A breeze rustles across the waist-high brush, perhaps the remaining tree sways, but I can’t tell, the creaking conversation is glaringly absent, and the landscape is completely changed.