Sunday, August 30, 2009

Time With Puppies

A friend asked me to check on her litter of six-and-a-half-week-old puppies while she went out for a few hours. These are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, the breed I fell dramatically in love with last New Year's Eve ( so I was honored to be asked.

For a Cavalier litter, this is a large one: three males and three females. Five are black-and-tan, marked like miniature Rottweilers, and one is the rusty-red that Cavalier devotees call “ruby.”

The minute I arrived I scooped them up and deposited them on the grass outside, where they promptly did what good puppies do and were praised for it. Then I scooped them back inside (it was a windy, cold afternoon) and sat down on the floor.

You remember Gulliver and the Lilliputians? You've watched those documentaries of divers beset by Great White sharks? That's how it was for me, except these sharks were small and mostly black. Six pairs of tiny jaws fastened on six of my fingers. When I gently pried them off, they immediately found six toes. When I hid those away, they made for my pants, my shirt, my hair.

And as they chomped they looked at me with their big, round , wide-apart eyes set in big, domed heads with tiny noses and blunt muzzles—the full set of neotenic features shared by most mammal babies and designed by Nature to trick any other mammal, no matter what species, into nurturing behaviors.

Every once in a while a pair would break off to do miniature alpha-wolf rollovers on each other, complete with growling and eye-rolling. And those who lost hold of my clothing or skin would instantly find a fraternal ear or paw to gnaw on. High-pitched cries would ensue, sudden shifts in position, more alpha-wolf rollovers and then, in the blink of an eye—utter silence. The Sensational Six were asleep in my lap.

No, that's wrong. It was only five. A sixth girl (properly known as a bitch, but that seems a bit harsh at this point) was toddling about looking lost until she found my fingers. I picked her up and cradled her in my hands, like an almond in the shell. I rubbed her tummy and she kept her eyes on mine, and then her eyelids drooped and she was asleep. I set her down among her brethren and got up quietly.

And somehow I managed to leave them all there, every last one, when it would have been so easy to put one under my shirt and run.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Master Class

A shepherdess from Nebraska came to teach at my herding instructor's place today. Not a powdered-wig-and-roses, Watteau-style shepherdess, but a white-haired, weathered-faced lady with a gravelly voice and a herding resume as long as Wolfie's tail.

After eight lessons, I must confess I still have little idea of what herding is about. It involves too many moving parts—the sheep, the dog, the instructor, and my own clueless body. My difficulty comes from the fact that, by the time we analyze who did what and who went where, everybody is in a different place and doing something else.

The basic premise of herding is that a good dog already knows what to do—you just need to give him a little guidance. That is certainly true in Wolfie's case. I've been told over and over that he has a superb inborn sense of how to handle sheep. It's the “little guidance” from me that is the problem.

Take today. The sheep are in a corner of the pen. Wolfie is on a down-stay in front of them as the guru from Nebraska explains some finer point to my instructor and me. The guru is barely even facing Wolfie, but at one point she interrupts herself: “You see that? He just got the sheep to turn.” Wolfie is still lying down, he's done nothing that I can tell, but by golly, suddenly the sheep are facing the other way. “He didn't want them to go in THAT direction,” the guru explains, “so he just moved his head a little.”

My dog moving his head a little, six sheep changing direction—this is the new planet on which I am learning to tread.

Sometimes during a lesson my teacher takes over, and then I can see him--my own Wolfie whom a raised from a floppy-eared pup--serious and determined, working those sheep, putting them where they need to be.

What have I done to deserve his? I fed him well, loved him dearly, took him to obedience classes which he found a little boring and did not excel in. But obedience is a long way from herding, where he's thinking on his own, making decisions, acting responsibly. I don't know where Wolfie gets what my father used to call (relating to violin playing) his “conditions,” the sense of tone and timing that cannot be taught.

I lean on the fence, just another stage mother. How did I end up with this herding dog? I was only looking for a pet—a smart pet, of course, but just a pet...

A sheep breaks away and Wolfie firmly leads it back. Good boy!

By the time the hour is over, he's shooting me looks. I can tell that he's mentally exhausted, like a teenager who's just taken the SATs. “Let's get in the car!” I don't have to say it twice. Panting, he lies down in the back of the Subaru, then naps most of the day at home. But for the rest of the day he sticks close to me, lies down at my feet, looks me in the eye. “Thanks,” I can hear him saying, “thanks for letting me do that thing with the sheep.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Dog's Breakfast

I made cheese a couple of days ago, and saved the garlic- and rosemary-flavored whey. Then I froze a few quarts of broccoli, and saved the greenish blanching water. I dumped the whey and the green water into my five-gallon pot and added a bunch of roughly cut, unpeeled carrots. I turned the burner on high, grabbed a basket and went into the garden.

The zucchini did not disappoint. Poking out from under the raspy leaves were three that had grown thicker than my arm. The kale, looking like broccoli with a permanent, was at its peak. In the kitchen, I emptied the basket into a sinkful of water, scrubbing off only slugs and other major offenders. I cut the zucchini into egg-sized pieces, tore the kale with my bare hands, opened four cans of mackerel, and dumped it all into the pot.

I was working fast, trying to produce a maximum of food in a minimum of time. But I wasn't stressed, the way I get when I have to fix supper in a hurry. I knew what I was making would be well received.

When the pot came to a boil, I threw in some rice. Twenty minutes later, I had seventeen quarts of a smelly, heterogeneous gunk that, combined with some kibble and a raw chicken leg, will be the highlight of Wolfie's and Lexi's days for the month to come.

“A disorderly mixture, a hodgepodge,” is how the dictionary defines a dog's breakfast.
But if my dogs had to write a description for a restaurant menu, it would read like this: “A textured melange of fresh, organic garden vegetables and herbs highlighted with the aroma of wild-caught seafood and enlivened with undertones of pastured goat's whey on a base of sushi-style rice.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lending Books

Some people love to cook for their friends. I like to cook for my friends too, and did so just this morning, in fact. But what I really like to do, is to lend my friends books.

A friend is going to the seashore for two weeks, and asked for a couple of reading suggestions. Not fiction, she specified, and not animal-related. She's a serious animal lover/breeder/husbandrywoman (?) and wants a vacation from all things furry, woolly or cuddly.

Well, I thought, that doesn't leave me with much to work with. Ninety-five percent of what's on my shelves is either fiction, or animal-related. But I looked anyway, and came up with a stack for her to choose from.

There's Scott Elledge's biography of E.B. White (my friend likes E.B. White), and David Lodge's biography of Henry James. (James, to whom nothing much ever happened, must have been a challenging subject.) There's Updike's painfully honest memoir, “Self-Consciousness.” And a couple of How I Survived My Mother autobiographies by women: Jill Ker Conway's “The Road from Coorain,” recounting the path from the Australian outback to the presidency of Smith; and Ruth Reichl's “Not Becoming My Mother”--her mother served moldy food to guests; Ruth grew up to become the editor of Gourmet Magazine.

I pulled out Kathleen Norris's “The Cloister Walk,” about a Protestant woman's discovery of monastic life and spirituality somewhere in the Dakotas, and added it to the pile. And because my friend is a sailor, I picked Steve Callahan's “Adrift,” about being lost at sea (I hope it will make her want to be prudent). I suspect she already knows Anne Morrow Lindbergh's “Gift from the Sea,” but I put that in just in case.

I found crazy, fabulous Anne Lamott's “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith,” another of her accounts of her lurchings through life, writing, and spirituality. What I really wanted for my friend was Lamott's “Traveling Mercies,” the first and best of her spiritual odyssey memoirs. But I couldn't find it anywhere. It was gone.

This is the dark side of my passion for lending out books. Some of them—usually the best ones—don't come back. (Please note that the friend for whom I'm compiling the present stack has promptly returned everything I've ever lent her.) People forget that they borrowed books. I forget I lent them out. This is what happened to my favorite David Lodge book, “Therapy,” and to many others.

But what can I do? The pleasure of lending out books far outweighs the regret of not getting them back—if I'm ever aware of not getting them back. I love pushing books on people as they're walking out my door: “Here's Konrad Lorenz on dogs. And he actually has little drawings on the margins! Here's A.S. Byatt”s “Possession.” Can you believe she's Margaret Drabble's sister? And Barbara Pym? She was popular for a while, then nobody would read her. Then she was rediscovered and was a wild success, and died soon after. Her novels have the smell of damp English wool in them...”

My friend will have to do with Anne Lamott's “Plan B.” But if she comes back from her vacation saying she loves Lamott, or Reichl, or any of the others, I will feel just as good, just as pleased and satisfied as if she'd smacked her lips after a serving of my chocolate mousse.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Vermont Scorcher

No, that's not an oxymoron. We're dying here. It's 89 F.

Remember, all things are relative. We've had an amazingly cool summer so far, with temperatures barely reaching the 80s, so this heat wave comes as a shock. Also, we don't have air conditioning. Some people around here do, but a lot of us consider air-conditioning in Vermont an abdication. After all, why do we live here, if not because we're tough, and in touch with Nature, and not afraid of the weather.

All the same, as my fingers stick to the keys, I remember with nostalgia the rumble and the frigid blasts of our Maryland air conditioner. It went on in May and stayed on through mid-September. I crawled indoors in spring and pretty much stayed there until fall, venturing out for evening walks as I held my breath against the “code orange” air. It was a kind of reverse hibernation, and I hated it. That's why we came to Vermont.

Since weather-related discomfort is a fact of life on earth, it makes sense to pick the kind of discomfort you're most comfortable with. Me, I'm more comfortable with cold. I can always put on an extra sweater, long underwear, even a hat if things get really bad. And after five minutes of tromping through snow, I'm no longer shivering.

In hot weather, though, there are only so many layers I can peel off. Any kind of physical exertion makes things worse instead of better, and the heat makes me incapable of mental exertion as well. Inexplicably, some people love this. They smile as sweat and swelter. They look healthy and relaxed, like something from a Gauguin painting. They are the ones who screamed with horror when we told them we were moving to Vermont. “Are you crazy?” they said, “do you know how cold it gets?”

These hot days, I spend a lot of time in our bed, which is conveniently positioned under a large ceiling fan. I can nap there, and read, have a little lunch, write on my laptop. Note that these are all activities that require almost no movement. After the sun goes down, I take Wolfie out for some exercise. This is the moment he thinks he's been waiting for, but after he's retrieved a few balls, he's panting and slowing down and glad to come inside. Scratching my mosquito bites, I retreat to my oasis under the fan.

Soon it will be time to go to sleep, and tomorrow we'll be one day closer to the first frost.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Prayer To The Dog Star

Lord Sirius, who shine at night above the panting planet,
Have mercy on the dogs, in these your days.
Take pity on the ones chained up in barren yards;
Let them have shade and water in a clean bowl.
Succor the ones left inside parked cars;
Let them be remembered before it is too late.
Give strength to those who, leashed to fitness lunatics,
Must trot along as the sun beats down.
Cast a loving eye upon the little lapdogs,
Sweltering under their swaying silky coats;
Protect their tender pads from burning tar.
Have mercy on the dogs, Lord Sirius, in these days.
Let the canine tribe follow Nature's ways,
Lie in the shade, sleep, and take a drink of water.
And grant us the sense to do the same.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some More Uses Of Zucchini

Stepping into her hollowed-out Zucchini, She floated away into the Night.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Frog! A Frog!

A medium-sized frog has taken up residence in my little tub garden. She hangs on to the edge of the tub with her hands, like a swimmer holding on to the edge of the pool. It's difficult to describe her color—a sort of greeny-bronze, depending on how the sun is shining and what parts of her are above water. Her eyes are big and they stick out of her head. Nevertheless, she looks remarkably relaxed, and the two Shubunkins, Alpha and Omega, don't seem to mind her.

A frog in a pond, in the middle of summer, or a honeybee in the lavender, or a bat at sunset--—what is so amazing about that? When my field zoology professor, not so terribly long ago, said that we were the last generation to see animals in the wild, I thought he was crazy. The world in those days was overrun with bees that we swatted, frogs that kids hunted, bats that we hated. Who could imagine their demise?

And here I am now, that selfsame biology major, taking note of the fact that in this entire summer, in my not inconsiderable plantings of lavender and melissa and chamomile, not a single honeybee has buzzed. Taking note of the fact that I did one evening in June see a bat, but none since. And rejoicing that a frog, a seemingly healthy frog with no extra limbs or obvious deformities, has come to stay in my pond.

My field zoology prof was a prophet, or nearly so, after all. What can we do, in a reasonable, realistic, practical way, to prove him wrong?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The New Girls

They are blond and trim and lively. Their combs haven't fully developed, so their heads look disproportionately small, even for a chicken. They stick together like a gaggle of eighth-grade girls at the mall. I have named them Do, Re, Mi, and Fa.

No rooster, you ask? No successor to Charlemagne? No bridegroom to greet the sun, to point out worms, to watch for hawks, to lead the way to the roost at night, what bridegrooms do?

It's the last that is the problem. Roosters do it so indefatigably that they need at least eight wives to (in the words of the Catholic Church regarding the secondary function of marriage) “allay concupiscence.” Otherwise you end up with a bunch of bedraggled, de-feathered, freaked-out hens. So no rooster this time—just the virginal quartet. There is a kind of conventual peace about a rooster-less flock, and I am looking forward to that.

I am also looking forward to eggs, lots of eggs. Young hens lay an egg a day, even in the cold and dark of winter. And that time of year is not far off. For weeks now, ever since the solstice, I've watched for the yellowing of the tips of certain trees and bushes. In our field the Saint John's Wort (so named because it blooms on Saint John's feast day, June 21) has given way to goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace. The sunflowers are in bloom, and there's a melon-sized pumpkin on the vine.

But there's still plenty of time for Do, Re, Mi and Fa to fatten up on bugs and snails before the first frost. Right now the pullets are locked up in the shed, but tomorrow I will move them to their summer quarters, the portable coop in the field. Kept from going astray by a movable fence, they will dig dust baths, feign alarm at imaginary dangers, and generally disport themselves. And one day, when the foliage has begun to turn for real, I will look in the nest and find the first small, dusty-pink egg.