Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mud's Season

Pete and I always find this time of year in the high country a challenge. Although we, in many ways are thrilled with the warming of the days and nights, what comes with the thaw is a deep, mucky mess. Pete particularly deals with a great goo in the corrals, the arena takes longer than he would like to dry out and once again become usable for riding and training; and I find the mudroom and kitchen floors I just swept and cleaned yesterday now once again littered with dirt and tracks of humans and canine friends.

So, as a salute to the mixed blessing of spring, here's an ode to mud season.

Mud, muck, and cool
Slip, slide, and goo
Snow sugar sinks
And slinks away
Leaving pools and puddles
Along the way
To home, barn
Meadow, corral
Muddy paws, dirty paws
Sandy under bellies
Showers, towels,
Wet shakes
How long this dirt in this muddy room?

Mud, muck, and cool
Slip, slide, and goo
Is that you spring?
Soles waiting for dry ground
Under foot
Toes waiting for grass
To tickle and free
Treasure hunt for crocus
The draw of evening’s light breath
Deep night giving way to
Earth’s softening fallow ground
Releasing, seeping, mud, muck, and cool
A mud’s season, slip, slide, and goo.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Sacred Ribbon of Road

My days are no longer taken up by mothering and motherhood. Both of my children are adults and living their independent lives. But I felt an old familiar mother bear come out the other day. As I walked the dogs down our county road, a dark pick-up with a camper shell passed by going well over the speed limit without moving over or making any attempt to slow down. While I’m not familiar with the driver, I have come to the conclusion she now lives someplace in our rural neighborhood because this wasn’t the first time we’d been dusted off. Whatever the driver saw ahead of her on the road, she didn’t register a human being with dogs waiting carefully for her to pass by. I suspect she experienced a one dimensional view –something like blank paper dolls that had no meaning, context, or connection.

This ribbon of the road that heads west from our ranch has always been the place where I move out of the chatter of my daily life and into the physical landscape of the Elk River Valley. Each time I step onto the road, I know my round trip will be about two to four miles. When I head out these days I’m usually accompanied by my dog, Emma, Pete’s dog, Griz, and frequently our daughter’s dog, Brody. All the dogs know when they hear or see an oncoming vehicle they are to return to me, sit, and wait. We are a safe and congenial group journeying down the road to Long Gulch and Deep Creek.

As we travel we are often met by Bill, the mailman; contractors in pick-ups sometimes hauling low boys with heavy equipment; Art, the UPS man; and in the summer, ranchers driving tractors and bale wagons. Then when friends drive by they often stop to share some news. My neighbor, Ann, used to drive one of her sons to town every day for work in her maroon GMC. One February afternoon she stopped me on the road to say, “I just had to tell you I spotted the first Blue Bird the other day. I think it’s the earliest I’ve ever seen one here.” When a sage Subaru SUV approaches I know it’s my long-time neighbor, Jerry, a physical therapist and mother of a daughter who was born the same year as my son. Her friend, Larry, grew up just down valley and when he passes by in his little black pick-up or his diesel truck and horse trailer, he always slows way down. When I thank him for watching out for us, he says, “I know when I’ve got dogs in the truck, your dogs might want to jump in, so I’m very careful. I wouldn’t want anything to happen.” And then there’s Harriet, who co-leads our local writers’ group. She always slows and sometimes stops, like she did recently to inquire about Emma’s cataract surgery. Then as easily as the conversation began, she smiles and with a wave, she carries on home.

In the mother bear’s protest my angry words sailed silently down the road behind the speeding truck. I entertained the idea of reporting the license plate, make, and model of the pick-up to the Sheriff’s office. And then after I returned home, I imagine one day stepping out into the middle of the road and waving down the dark pick-up. As the driver gathers her bearings, I imagine introducing myself and my three dogs. I’ll ask if she has heard the neighborhood news: CJ got a new job; Jo broke her back; there’s a birthday party at Travis’s; Van forgot his shovel when he headed out for a day of snowmobiling and shyly and uncharacteristically confessed to having to go back home to get it; or did you hear that the Fair Cookbook committee needs your recipes for their 100th Anniversary Cookbook?

After sharing the narrative of our neighborhood landscape, I’ll step back from the cab and encourage her to slow down, “You never know what news you’ll hear as you pass by. I hope you’ll stop now and then and say, “Hi!”

Although I imagine the mother bear’s fantasy will never come to pass, I believe in those briefest of moments when we see and we are seen, when we know and we are known, we acknowledge each other's presence in the physical and material world. And within the daily ritual of the smallest of communications on a ribbon of road, a simple narrative forms and contributes to the sacred fabric of our of communal and relational lives.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Emma's Ruse

With the ranch quiet, aside from feeding chores and winter maintenance, I scheduled Emma’s cataract surgery for mid-January. Now, six weeks after her surgery, Dr. Chavkin, a veterinarian ophthalmologist, has prescribed a medicated eye drop twice a day and has given Emma permission to be off-leash. He said, however, “Emma shouldn’t get into it with other dogs or overdo any of her activity.” Standing across the examining table from Dr. Chavkin, I just smiled to myself. I knew the thought that Emma could be free but not seriously rambunctious was actually a paradox he could not entertain.

After a preliminary visit before her surgery, Dr. Chavkin came out of the examination room and said, “She is the coolest dog. She’s so well-mannered. She actually waited in a sit for the door to open.” I beamed momentarily. I am proud of Emma when she is well behaved. She comes to attention like a young, eager military recruit. But the idea that Emma leads all of her life in this way, while enticing, is misinformed.

It is easy to see how her social strengths in interacting with humans might divert the unsuspecting. Those who experience her in a positive light and setting are inclined to believe that Emma’s personality is consistent and reliable: If Emma is sweet, polite, and cooperative when I see her (in the office), she must be sweet, polite, and cooperative outside the office. But as tempting as it is to conclude that behavior comes in simple and predictable patterns, Emma has never been a simple matter.

She has the energy and drive of a high level rugby player; she has the endurance of a Kenyan runner; she has the loyalty of a large watch dog; and she has the competitive instincts of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Club) fighter. Yet, she wants nothing more than to be with me. If she could speak, she would ask to “play” with me all day whether I threw balls to her or led her as she obediently performed our repertoire of tricks or sent her through an agility course. When I raise the garage door she is at the ready to load up in the car and yet, when I leave her, she quietly walks to her bed and accepts my decision. Upon my return, she enacts what feels like a scene from the resurrection, her face beyond delighted, her body wriggling with unbridled joy.

I’ve concluded that Emma, like any child, has strengths and weaknesses. Her social skills with people are quite good and successful. She is well liked. Her social skills with other dogs are poor, perhaps bordering on anti-social. Her need for territorial dominance is fierce and unforgiving. Once outside the house, Emma immediately looks for fast action with the other dogs: a furious chase or a game of retrieval and consequential tug of war. On a summer afternoon she may sneak out to the roping chute and make a mad sprint after one of the roping steers before she’s in trouble with Pete and sequestered outside the arena. In the winter, as we head out for a walk, she strikes tauntingly at the other ranch dogs, Griz and Brody, challenging them to race in which she’s already communicated she’ll win. And if it’s warm enough when she helps Pete with feeding chores at the barn on a February day, she hunts down anything remotely qualifying as an item for retrieving. This item can be as inconsequential as a piece of trimmed hoof, a twig, or a piece of an old rope; or a more formidable object like a branch or remnant of a two by four.

This was the case when our daughter’s best friend dropped by for a visit a couple of weeks ago. A photographer, she spent some of her time at the ranch walking the grounds catching images of the horses, Hercules the goat, and by chance, a few pictures of the dogs. While walking through the barnyard, Pete said, “Kathryn, quick, you’ve got to get a picture of Emma. Look!” To her surprise, she turned in time to see Emma crossing the snow-packed barnyard with an eight-foot top rail in her mouth. Did she really think Pete and Kathryn would actually toss an eight-foot pole across the barn yard for her to retrieve? I believe she did. Aside from wondering how in the world Emma managed to balance a top rail in her mouth, I couldn’t help but wonder what Dr. Chavkin would think of the practical reality of Emma’s recovery protocol now.

I’m not surprised Emma has Dr. Chavkin, and every other veterinarian she’s ever seen, fooled. She is the perfect patient and the most polite canine that ever padded into their offices. She cooperates with every test or procedure a vet has ever conducted; she sits to wait for a treat for good behavior; and then she sits to wait for the door to be opened. So when giving me instructions to keep Emma quiet and just this side of truly free, I know Dr. Chavkin cannot imagine the Emma who lords over “her” ranch when newcomers arrive; takes up more than her share of space in the world of canine relationships; and makes every game a contest worthy of World Champion designation.

So, in a few weeks when we visit Dr. Chavkin for another follow-up eye exam, I plan to take a copy of the accompanying photo as a confessional gift: evidence of Emma’s ruse.

*I'd like to thank Kathryn Britton for capturing this great moment - Emma being Emma.