Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wrens, Etc.

From the frantic "zicking" I hear all over the yard, the house wren babies must have left home this morning. The parents are going nuts under the tall mint, under the rosebush, then near the lilac where the snake resides: "Over here! I'm over here I said! No, no, don't go that way! O.k., I'll bring you some food. Be right back. Don't move!" I remember that feeling.

The little wrens picked a fine day for fledging, sunny and crisp. Fresh from my husband's hands, one of the raised garden beds now stands where the spinach used to be. Today I added a load of compost to the topsoil, and planted beans. It felt strange, this gardening without stooping.

When the peas are ready to come out, I'll install the second bed in their space, and plant beans there as well. The remaining seven beds will have to wait until the end of gardening season sometime in October, since all the other spaces are taken up with tomatoes, broccoli, kale, chard, eggplants, peppers and zucchini. Then I'll have to race to fill them before the mountain of topsoil that the patio builders left for me freezes solid.

It's been raining a lot lately, and the earth is pushing up veggies faster than I've ever known it to. I froze ten quarts of chard the other day and didn't even make a dent in the stuff. On the other hand, the (ostensibly) edible-podded peas are a disappointment. For the second year in a row, no matter how early I pick them, they are as fibrous as S.O.S pads. I guess the thing to do is to let the pods mature and then shell them like regular peas. But that's a lot of work.

We have our own mini version of the Gulf oil spill in our yard. The patio builders' truck leaked transmission fluid all over the grass, leaving big wet-looking dead spots. Hoping to avoid having to dig it all up, I covered the spots with topsoil and will throw some grass seed on them and keep my fingers crossed. Don't I sound just like BP?

I dragged some big flower pots to the edge of the pond under the watchful eye of the resident frog, who was sunning herself on a lilypad. Wolfie has been peering at her with that sharp look of his, but I have looked him in the eye and told him that she belongs to me.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My Mother And The Archbishop

When my sister went to check on my mother at the hospital yesterday evening, she found her sitting in an armchair by the bed, propped up with pillows, knowing who and where she was, and eating dinner on her own.

The last several days had been utterly discouraging, my mother's encephalitis keeping her nailed to the mattress, helpless in every way, oscillating between stupor and delirium. So the sight of my mother out of bed, eating and making sense sent my sister's hopes sky high.

"I had a visitor this afternoon" my mother said.

"Oh yes? Who was it?" Over the last week my mother's visitors had included her long-dead mother, a mysterious male child, and some unidentified but disturbing entities. On this promise-filled day my sister was hoping to hear of some real-live friend who had dropped by.

"The archbishop came."

My sister's spirits plummeted. But she thought she could bring my mother back to rationality by asking precise questions. "And which archbishop was it, the new one or the old one?" (The Mobile diocese had just been assigned a new archbishop.)

"The new one," my mother said, spooning mashed potatoes into her mouth. "He didn't have much to say, but he seemed nice."

Reminding herself that recovery from such a serious illness was bound to take a long time, my sister started getting my mother ready for the night. She went to get a nurse's aide to help with the chair-to-bed transition and asked, "Did my mother have any visitors this afternoon?"

"Yes Ma'am, she sure did," the woman answered. "The archbishop came by."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pond Inhabitant

The crew who made our stone patio and put in our fish pond left this morning, and this afternoon there's a frog in our pond.

It's just a little frog, but it looks fabulous doing its perfect frog kick in the water, like a lone swimmer in an olympic-sized pool. And that's what our pond looks like at the moment, with just a single water lily on its submerged plant shelf. The articles I've read say that, for a pond to function as a viable ecosystem, 60% of its surface needs to be covered with water plants, so I have a long way to go.

But the little frog is such a welcome sight! My husband was concerned that he or she might not be able to crawl out of the pond, might drown in fact (wouldn't that be an awful omen, to have a drowned frog in one's new pond?). He found a piece of Vermont marble and set it up on the plant shelf as a ramp for the wee creature to use at her convenience.

Can't quite explain it, but that frog showing up so quickly makes me feel blessed somehow.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Buddhism To The Rescue

As my mother careens from lucidity to hallucinations and stupor,
as her family is flung daily from optimism to despair,
as her release from hospital draws near and the decision about continuing care (rehab, nursing home, assisted living, hospice?) grows no clearer,

I try to remember
to tolerate ambiguity,
to not attach to outcomes,
to stay in the present moment,
to cultivate spaciousness of mind.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bisou's Menopause

With a single exception, every dog I've ever owned has been spayed or neutered. Bisou, who just had the surgery yesterday, is the eighth. Until my last two dogs, I never gave the procedure a second thought.

But recently the prospect of neutering my puppies has been tinged with melancholy.
It's sad to think that when great galumphing Wolfie and sweet wild Bisou are gone, no child of theirs will be left behind to remind me of them.

But I did it anyway. Yesterday I bundled Bisou into her crate and drove to the vet's, gave her a kiss and handed her over. Today I paid the bill and picked her up and listened to the vet techs' accounts of her lightning-fast recovery. "You'd never know she'd had surgery," they said, their eyes round with amazement. But then, Bisou does everything fast.

My job during the coming week is to keep her quiet. No jumping, no running, no swimming. I have already failed at this. On the way out of the vet's office I was fully focused on the need to not let her jump up into the car. I had her on a leash, and was completely intent on picking her up and depositing her gently into her crate. This was not difficult. I was prepared, and I was going to do it right.

But then I must have blinked, because next thing I knew she had leaped into her crate.

Now we are home, and I have tied the other end of her leash around my waist, hoping that this will give me some control over her enthusiasm. How can a little animal who has just endured a total hysterectomy have such bright eyes, such shiny fur, such desire to run and jump and carry on? Except for her shaved belly, which exposes her weird keyboard of nipples (she has a couple of extra small ones on her left side) she looks terrific. Her long wavy ears give her a melancholy Victorian air, but the mind that lurks between those twin ruby cascades is anything but melancholy.

In a young woman, a total hysterectomy would be considered catastrophic. She would immediately be put on a regimen of hormone replacements to keep her from experiencing the troubles of a sudden and premature menopause. In years past, as I breezily took my adolescent bitches to be spayed, I was never troubled by the thought of what the removal of her ovaries might mean to a dog. Now, with Bisou, I wonder, will she have hot flashes? Will she have mood swings? Will her sleep be disrupted? Will she feel old before her time?

I will not repeat here all the benefits that veterinarians attribute to neutering. And I believe that it is my responsibility not to allow yet another batch of puppies to come into this world. Plus I certainly wouldn't want to go through another heat with Bisou, let alone a lifetime of them.

But still it makes me sad to think that when Bisou gives up the ghost (many, many years from now) there won't be a little red daughter of hers following me from room to room, hurling herself on and off every sofa, bed, and table in the house, letting me believe for a moment that Bisou is not entirely gone.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Doctors

My 92-year-old mother is in a Mobile, Alabama hospital with encephalitis. She is being attended by: an infectious disease specialist, a neurologist who has been in a wheel chair since age twelve, a GI man who looks like a college sophomore, a GP, and a surgeon who visits because he's a friend. There is also a nutritionist and a physical therapist, and swarms of nurses and aides.

It's the doctors that interest me. Every day, one by one the doctors come to my mother's bedside. If she's alert and speaking English, they chat with her and then walk out of the room with a spring in their step. If she is unresponsive they gaze at her pensively, then turn reluctantly to meet our questioning faces.

I have never seen such concentrated doses of medical humility. They make no bones about it: not one of them has any idea why she can be lucid, witty, reflective, and asking for lipstick before lunch, and completely unresponsive to speech or touch after the food tray is taken away. The rhythms of her struggling brain have got them baffled, and they seem almost as buffeted as we by the swings in her condition.

What is her prognosis, we ask. It's been two weeks since her diagnosis--what should we plan for--rehab, assisted living...a nursing home? We've had affirmative answers to all the above. One doctor, after being instructed by her on the differences between Catalan and Castilian, predicts a complete recovery. Another one, having gotten no response from her two days in a row, advises us to find a nursing home. One specialist says, push the envelope, see if you can get her out of bed. His less optimistic colleague says we're risking a fall, and orders a catheter.

Every afternoon at five the thunderstorms come over Mobile, and wash away the worst of the heat.

I feel no anger towards these doctors. Standing with us around my mother's bed, they look worried and a bit depressed. Like the rest of us, they are waiting to see what the next few hours will bring. I like them this way. In this extremity, they shed their hubris and become good company. Just another presence at the bedside, watching and waiting and there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Coming Hiatus

Dear Friends and Readers,

My 92-year-old mother is gravely ill, and I will soon be leaving Vermont to help take care of her. Even before I do, however, my heart is too full to be able to post here.

I appreciate your readings, and your comments, and hope to get back to you before too long. In the meantime, I wish all of you a joyful and serene solstice.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Lament For Gulf Shores, Alabama

People used to call it "the Redneck Riviera." Its wide beaches and fine white sand, however, were nothing like the pebbly coves and varied vistas of the Mediterranean. And when I first went there, Gulf Shores, Alabama--unlike the Mediterranean--had not yet been spoiled by money and people.

I associate Gulf Shores with the early chapters of my love life. I went there on a couple of college "house parties," feeling every bit as thrilled by the absence of my parents (I lived at home during my college years) as by the presence of my date. I remember being dismayed at the effects of the wind and salt air on my carefully arranged hair. But the beach was not without its beauty benefits. We girls would baste ourselves with a mixture of olive oil and vinegar--I never understood the reason for the vinegar--and bake to the very edge of sunstroke. After showering at the motel we would emerge for the evening festivities practically phosphorescent from the sun, and feeling gorgeous.

When my husband and I got married, his Alabama grandparents gave us a week in Gulf Shores for our honeymoon. We drove straight down there in our VW bug, with rice grains still in our hair.

We stayed in a small, musty-smelling cabin right on the beach. Every day we went swimming in the matching white bathing suits that his grandmother had bought us because, she said, they would make us look "all bridesy and groomsy." At night we would walk out onto the long pier and gaze down at the manta rays, the sharks, the jellyfish. We ate enormous quantities of fried shrimp. And we told each other every single thing that had ever happened to us.

In subsequent years, Gulf Shores changed. Hurricanes came and went, destroying the cabins where we had stayed. In their place were erected strings of cheek-by-jowl high-rise condos, right on the beach. The long pier that we used to walk out on washed away and was never replaced. On the highway behind the condos the traffic roared day and night.

The water was still clear, though, and the pelican squadrons still flew past the high-rise balconies, and if you went out on a boat the dolphins would follow and play in the wake.

Now it's all gone. The beach, the water, the pelicans, the fish are all dying their long brown-coated deaths. The windows of the empty high-rises look down on the devastation. Only the sun shines on.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pruning Away

There is a lilac bush on either side of our front door. Although I am anything but a symmetry addict, I realize that it would be good if the two bushes were, if not identical, at least similar in size and shape. But they aren't. The one on the left is lanky and woody; the one on the right is bushy and full. The lanky one makes dark-red blooms; the bushy one makes regular lilac-colored flowers.

For a couple of years now I've been trying to coax the bush on the left to be more bushy, while restraining the exuberance of the bush on the right. As a result of my efforts, they are marginally more similar than they used to be. But they are nowhere near the symmetry of a pair of beefeaters flanking the doors of Buckingham Palace.

My goal today was to shorten both bushes, and to clip the one on the right so it doesn't obscure the (never used: this is Vermont, after all) front door. That was a bit like trying to shorten the legs of your dining room table--you take off a bit here, then a bit more there, then some more...and before you know it, you have a coffee table with a wobble.

I had enough sense to give up after a while, and proceeded to the two big lilacs around the side and back of the house. This was not a good lilac year. A late hard frost nipped the buds even in our south-facing quasi-tropical micro-climate. Nevertheless, today all the lilacs got their annual hair cut (I aim for a feathered, informal do).

Before I could stop myself, I was at the little apple trees again. I have a vision in my head of a 15th century German woodcut of the Virgin sitting in an enclosed garden under a perfectly shaped, almost spherical apple tree. And that is what I want mine to look like. I figured that, even though the official pruning season is over, it couldn't hurt to snip off a bit here and there, so I did. The trees didn't seem to mind.

Is it a Catholic thing, this obsession with taking away what doesn't belong and leaving only what is right and proper? Is it a control issue? Is it a genetically-transmitted European fondness for pollarding? Is it just another, faster version of subtractive sculpture?

It may be one or all of these things. But there is no doubt what my favorite garden tool is: the secateurs.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Nose Report

Blame it on my Mediterranean origins, but to me a garden, to be a garden, has to smell good, and it has to smell strong. Wild marjoram, lavender, rosemary--the hardy, humble-looking plants that cling to the rocky hillsides above the sea and give off their pungent resins in the heat of the sun are the very essence of "garden" to me.

There is nothing like an arid climate to concentrate smell and flavor. In the relatively water-logged eastern U.S., plant life is more visually flamboyant, but pales in the smell department. And that's o.k. with me. I don't envy Mediterranean gardeners their need to water constantly. And at this time of year, a walk through my own slapdash garden makes me feel olfactorily satisfied.

Take the peonies, for example, which are at their peak right now. The previous owners of our house had planted them in a shady spot. Although they bloomed well, they had no smell, and I assumed they belonged to an unscented variety, possibly developed to avoid attracting ants. But I like the look of peony plants, even after the blooms have gone, and when I had to fill some space in a sunny flower bed, I transplanted those bushes. In this, their first spring in the new spot, not only are they loaded with blooms, but they have developed that divine peony scent. All they needed was a little sun.

In the back garden, the mints--apple, spear, orange, and melissa--are knee- and chest-high. I have to step on them to get to the water spigot, and the dogs are forever crushing them in their pursuit of the chipmunk who lives under the stone steps. But the mints forgive these maulings, caress us with their lovely cool smell, and keep on going. Thanks to them, there are no weeds (or much of anything else) in the back garden.

The chamomile has colonized the spaces between the slate slabs of the patio. At noon, when the sun heats up the stone, the chamomile oils from the hundreds of little daisy-like blooms float up to your nose. On either side of the back door, a bush of ornamental sage gives off its curious musky smell. I can't decide whether it's a good smell or not, but I pay attention to it every time I go by. Next to the sage is the huge semi-wild rose bush that I rescued from the edge of the woods and that rewards me with sweetly-scented pink blooms all summer long.

I planted two climbing roses and one rugosa rose against the wall of the chicken shed a month ago, and the rugosa--barely eighteen inches tall--is already covered in blooms. It's a Blanc Double de Coubert, and its flowers--the same morbid white of Southern magnolias--smell spicy. The two New Dawn climbers are also in their infancy, and also covered in buds. I like plants that try to earn their keep.

Finally, sheltered by the stone wall at the side of the driveway, my dozen lavender bushes have survived the winter and are coming into bloom. I'm not sure there's anything better than lavender for generosity and persistence. Pick it and not only do you have a basket full of scent, but the oils will linger on your hands for the rest of the day. Hang it in bunches to dry and it will perfume a room. Put it in your dresser drawers or in what the English so quaintly call the "airing cupboard," or stuff your eye pillow with it, and it will comfort and refresh you every day of the year.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Laundry Issues

This is the time of year when I dry our laundry outdoors, on one of those umbrella thingies that we put up and take down each laundry day. (Laundry day chez moi happens every two weeks.)

I like hanging out laundry. I've written about its peculiar pleasures before, but boy, is it a lot of work--not, perhaps, in comparison with scrubbing floors on one's knees, but much harder than throwing clothes in the dryer and pushing a button.

Our laundry room is on the second floor, which means making five or six trips down the stairs carrying baskets full of wet clothes, and as many back upstairs carrying the (thankfully, lighter) dry clothes. Hanging out laundry means spending many minutes on tiptoes, with my arms stretched to the sky, pinning clothes to the line, and doing many forward bends to pick up clothes pins and clothes, and then again to take them down. It means making supplementary trips to the back yard every couple of hours to check which clothes are dry. And on days when it suddenly starts to rain it means rushing out to rescue the clothes before they get completely drenched.

I'm sure this is good for me--all that stretching and bending and carrying--and it's good for the clothes, which smell lovely, and it's kind to our poor bedeviled earth. Plus, it gives me a pure feeling that I enjoy. I'm just saying, it's a lot of work.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book Burning

Well, not quite.

But it's winter here again (temps in the 50s) and raining, and as long as there was no way I could be out pruning lilacs, I thought I would have a book purge. Since coming to Vermont, my book collection has increased considerably. This is because the small villages around here have proportionately tiny public libraries, so if you consume books at the rate I do, you have to buy them.

Fortunately, there is a mammoth used-book sale to benefit one local library every July, just after the solstice. People show up with shopping carts, and you can tell that, even though the days are still long, there is already that tiny shift that points the way to autumn and to the darkness beyond. And Vermonters are getting ready for the long nights by the wood stove. I show up too, minus shopping cart, and buy armloads of books, most of them good. In addition, the local independent bookstore had started carrying an excellent selection of used books, where I have recently purchased, just to name a few, the complete Mapp and Lucia set, several novels by Penelope Lively, and Trollope's Palliser novels.

The same independent bookstore will buy your used books, or at least the ones they deem acceptable. They are so overwhelmed with offerings, though, that they ask that you bring no more than three boxes at a time.

That's what I did today: filled up three boxes from a single bookcase, and dropped them off at the bookstore. It didn't take me long to fill those boxes, but if I had to defend my choices as to what I kept and what I eliminated, I would be hard put to do so. For example, I kept almost all the books by English women writers, a lot of whom I am devoted to. But I kept my two novels by Margaret Drabble, whom I'm not crazy about, only because she's the sister of A.S. Byatt, whom I love. Why did I hold on to nine books by Anita Brookner, who bores me to death? On the other hand, I did get rid of all the Rumer Godden books, except for The Battle for the Villa Fiorita and The Greengage Summer.

I was more ruthless with contemporary American women writers: Mary McGarry Morris, Elizabeth Berg, and Gail Godwin mostly bit the dust. I kept all the Jane Smileys and the Annie Proulxs--the former because she's funny, the latter because I'm scared she might find me and shoot me if she heard I'd gotten rid of her books. I parted with Sexual Politics, which I once devoured, but kept The Feminine Mystique, even though it always seemed a bit pedestrian compared to The Second Sex. I kept The Hite Report, but I suspect its days are numbered.

This, as you can tell, was the bookcase dedicated to women writing in English. But at the bottom I found a whole shelf of health-related books. The Power of Self-Hypnosis, Listening To Prozac...nothing ages faster than a health book. I did keep my well-worn copy of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care--in the original version where the baby is always "he" and the parent always "she"--for sentimental reasons.

My three boxes are gone, but I have barely scratched the surface. There is the bookcase of French books, the one of Spanish and Catalan books. The bookcase of dog and animal books. The bookcase of art books, and the bookcase of gardening books and spirituality books. The living room bookcases, full of as yet unsorted books. And the bookcases in my husband's study, which he will not let me touch.

I keep trying to come up with some criteria for making book decisions, but I can't do it. I know only too well that, of the books that I kept today because I once enjoyed them, there is less than a one per cent chance that I'll ever read any of them again. This bothers me: I am not a hoarder. If I haven't worn a piece of clothing in the last two years, I give it away. I have parted with porcelain demitasse sets and hand-embroidered guest towels without a second thought.

But books are a different story.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Summer Afternoon In The Kitchen

We're having what I call "hurricane weather"--low barometric pressure and high humidity that makes temperatures in the low 80s feel tropical. Not my kind of weather at all. Certainly not outdoor weather, or even cooking weather, either, but the chard was crying out to be harvested, and I had ten cups of chopped up rhubarb in the fridge that needed to be made into rhubarb bread. "If I get it done," I told myself, "at least I'll have a clear conscience the rest of the day." God knows there's nothing worse than a guilty conscience in hot weather.

While the six loaves of rhubarb bread were baking, I picked a basketful of chard, the technicolor kind that comes with stems of five different shades: white, yellow, orange, pink, and deep red. Along with the chard came a whole tribe of lightning bugs. This must be the year for them. At night the flashing in the front field is enough to give you a headache. Between the lightning bugs and the lightning storms, the owls and the Luna moths, the nights have been full of drama lately.

Three hours later, I now have three quarts of chard and six rhubarb loaves in the freezer, and a semi-clear conscience--semi-clear because I should have also frozen spinach and kale....

I tried a different way to bake the rhubarb bread: I put the pans in the oven without preheating it. I read that food tastes just as good that way, and you save energy. Normally the loaves bake 60 minutes at 350F. Today I put them in a cold oven, turned the dial to 350F and started timing when the beeper let me know that the set temperature had been reached. The bread was done 50 minutes later, and looks fine.

This is a very tolerant recipe, however, and I vary ingredients and proportions all the time, so I'm not surprised that it turned out o.k. I don't think I would want to start with a cold oven for things like meringues and souffles (should I ever feel inspired to make a meringue or a souffle).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Taking Stock

Even around here, gardening season is in full swing, and the vegetable garden is starting to look threatening--meaning that it's about to overwhelm me with its bounty.

The lettuce plants are getting big, but still taste good. The arugula bolted, and I pulled it out today and planted my yearly zucchini plant in its space. For many of us zucchini has acted strangely the last couple of years, with a lot of the fruits shriveling up in infancy. At least we haven't had to worry about locking our cars in parking lots to keep people from throwing their extra zucchinis in. The late spinach, the chard and the kale are screaming at me to start harvesting and freezing them--once we hit the solstice in a couple of weeks, winter will be just around the corner. The broccoli plants are starting to form heads. I'd better put freezer bags on the grocery list.

The hot-weather crops are all in, though not producing yet: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and acorn squash. The only thing that remains to be planted is the beans, but they'll have to wait until the peas stop producing and vacate their space. My vegetable garden consists of nine 4'x4' squares, intensively cultivated, so some crops have to wait their turn until others have finished. I believe the technical term for this is "succession planting."

I wish I could stop Bisou from running full tilt through the garden. True, she runs on the paths, and not on the beds themselves, but both Lexi and Wolfie know what "out of the garden!" means, and wouldn't go in there if their lives depended on it. Bisou likes nothing better than to entice Wolfie to chase her, and I think that she has figured out that if she runs through the garden he can't catch her, and so she does. Still, there is something about the sight of that little red dog running at top speed, her long ears trailing behind her, that gladdens my heart. She's probably figured that out, too.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Story of Theo, Bisou's Brother

Last December, as we prepared to welcome our descendants for the holidays, I felt disaster looming. There would be eight of us humans in the house, and three dogs. The dogs included one cranky geriatric grande dame--Lexi; one well-intentioned but large and boisterous young male--Wolfie; and the so-called Red Baroness, Bisou. Two German Shepherds, one Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy. Snow and sleet outside. Meals and creature comforts to be seen to inside. And Bisou needing round-the-clock supervision lest she disgrace herself on the rugs.

I decided that, if worse came to worst, I could always board Bisou, or Wolfie and Bisou, or Wolfie, Lexi and Bisou, for the duration. But first I would see how things went.

In fact, it all went swimmingly. The children liked Bisou, because she was smaller than they and didn't knock them over with her wagging tail, like Wolfie does. And my Montana daughter and her partner quietly took over the monitoring of Bisou so that she did not once mess in the house. "Truly," I said to myself, "it takes a village to raise a puppy," and cancelled my just-in-case reservations at the kennel.

In the course of that Christmas season, I noticed that, between house-training trips to the frozen backyard, my daughter and her partner were never too far from Bisou. They sat by the fire and read with Bisou on one of their laps, her red ears fanned sweetly across their thighs. They napped on the sofa with Bisou snoring in their arms. And periodically I would catch one or the other of them just sitting there, stroking that soft red fur, with a far-away Madonna-like look on her face.

Three days before they were scheduled to fly back to Montana I said casually "You know, one of Bisou's littermates is looking for a home...." A while later I added, "He's a male, and Cricket would love a puppy to play with" (Cricket is their elderly mixed-breed female). I scanned their faces and went on, "I could call the breeder and see if she'd let you have a look...."

The next day, at the breeder's, I watched the faces of my daughter and her partner as Theo--black with tan markings and infinitely sweeter and mellower than Bisou--took turns on their laps. Sure enough, the Madonna look was there.

Now if it had been me, I would have stuck Theo under my coat and flown with him to Montana the next morning. But these are rational, deliberate women, and they went back home and thought about it, and conferred with vets, and corresponded with the breeder. And a couple of months later my daughter took a week off from work and came to Vermont to fetch Theo.

Theo is now a dog of the wide open spaces. He gets along with Cricket. He attends obedience class. And he goes to work every day.

My daughter is a clinical psychologist, and Theo is her co-therapist. He sits on clients' laps, letting himself be petted while my daughter asks the hard questions. He listens well, and if he yawns in the middle of a session, nobody feels offended. He gets Wednesdays off, to stay home with Cricket and be a dog.

Here in Vermont, a lot of people ask about Theo. They want to know how he dealt with the plane trip, how he adjusted to Montana, whether he is o.k. The reason for these questions, and the reason that Theo was still looking for a home at Christmas, is that he was born with a rare heart problem--sub-aortic stenosis--not the genetically transmitted cardiac condition that threatens so many Cavaliers, but a problem that affects many different breeds. The average life span of a dog with sub-aortic stenosis is five years--that's the bad news. The good news is that Theo will be able to lead a normal life until one day--two or five or ten years from now--he will suddenly die.

The thing about this problem of Theo's is that it makes him seem so extraordinarily fragile, even as it reminds those of us who know him of our own fragility. We all--dogs, cats, humans, the Gulf of Mexico--are hanging by a thread, and there are no guarantees. Learning to love Theo despite the likelihood of his sudden disappearance is a lesson for learning to love anybody and anything in this world--a lesson that we can never afford to stop learning.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Counting Chickens

This morning we moved the hens to their new pasture in the field in front of the house. First we set up the portable fence in the new spot, then we moved the chicken tractor, the shade shelter, the pullets' food dish, the hens' food dish, and the water dish. Next we went to herd the hens, who by now were wandering all over the field, into the enclosure. The four fat Buff Orpingtons clustered together and ambled serenely towards their new home. By the time we went back for the three pullets, however, they were nowhere to be seen.

The last time we had herded chickens the grass was short and sparse. Now, however, it was thick and, in spots, chest-high. The pullets, being small and less tame than the hens, had simply vanished into it. My husband and I waded fruitlessly through the field a while, and then I said, "it's time to get Wolfie."

Wolfie has helped me locate chickens before. He finds them under bramble and thicket, pins them down with his mouth and holds them for me. It's a pretty fraught scene: the chicken, with good reason, screams bloody murder, and I scream "GENTLE! GENTLE!!!" at Wolfie. Although he's never broken the skin, he's no Lab, and a "soft mouth" is not necessarily in his genes.

This morning, I let him out and gave the official command, "CHICKENS! Find the chickens!" He dove into the grass where the old enclosure had been, ate a couple of hen poops to get himself in the mood, and went looking. Pretty soon he flushed the two Rhode Island Reds. My husband caught one and put her in the pen, and we watched in dismay as the second one fluttered off in the direction of the woods.

"Wolfie, with me!" I called, "find the chickens!" and plunged into the woods. I like to wear dresses in the summer, and that is what I had on today. Remember that scene in Walt Disney's Snow White where she's lost in the woods and the trees reach out and grab her dress? That was me this morning, stepping through brambles and over fallen logs, looking for that chicken. But I couldn't even tell where Wolfie was, much less the chicken.

Eventually Wolfie lost all interest in the woods and took off in the direction of the new chicken pasture. "No, Wolfie!" my husband and I yelled from across the driveway, "over here! Find the chicken!" And he, being a good dog, came to us, and sniffed around a bit more and suddenly gave one of those leaps and nose-dives that wolves do when they're catching mice--and there was the Barred Rock. I persuaded him to let me have her and deposited her, none the worse for wear, among her sisters. Wolfie followed me over and circled the pen a couple of times, looking intent.

But the Rhode Island Red that had taken off towards the woods was still unaccounted for, so I made Wolfie go with me in the direction where I had last seen her. His heart wasn't in it, though, and he kept running back to the pen, and circling it. "Yes, I know. Those are chickens. But I need the other chicken. Find the other chicken!"

Poor Wolfie. As I led him yet again towards the woods, I remembered what I had read in a book about search-and-rescue operations: "Trust the dog" the book said, and proceeded to tell several anecdotes in which the searchers, sure that the lost kid was going north-northeast, kept scolding the dog for going south-southwest, until they gave up and followed the dog, and found the kid.

"Trust the dog!" I told myself as I followed Wolfie once again towards the pen. While I was there I tried to check on the two rescued pullets to see if they were o.k., but the grass was so tall inside the fence that I couldn't see them.

I called Wolfie off from circling the fence and made him come with me towards the woods. By now the sun was high, my legs were bleeding, and Wolfie was panting hard. It was clear to me that he was through. "Maybe he's not a high-drive dog," I thought, and scolded myself for being disappointed as I watched him go to the front door and ask to be let in the house. After all, I told myself, what can I expect of a dog that is only asked to find chickens once every couple of years?

For the next couple of hours, I worried about that pullet. Our woods are rife with carnivores, both furred and feathered, and I knew she would not survive if she stayed out all night. After lunch, I wandered down the driveway, looking with despair at the tall grasses on either side and at the woods beyond. As I passed the chicken pen I stopped to say hello--and there, under the shade shelter, looking perky, were all three pullets!

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that we and Wolfie flushed the missing pullet out of the woods and she ran to the field next to the pen, where Wolfie forced her to squeeze through the bottom of the fence (which doesn't sit exactly flush with the ground) and into the arms of her sisters. That would explain his persistence in circling the pen, and his lack of interest in searching elsewhere once all the hens were together. It would also confirm my belief in his natural brilliance.

The other explanation is that, after we gave up the chase and went into the house, the errant pullet came out of the woods and, like a heat-seeking missile, crossed the side field, crossed the driveway, circled the fence until she found an opening, and pushed her way in.

According to Occam's Razor, the simplest hypothesis is usually the correct one. So which is the simpler explanation: the intelligence, persistence, and homing instinct of a pullet, or the intelligence of Wolfie? You tell me.