Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU look into the eyes of a nonhuman mammal? How different is that experience depending on whether the animal is domesticated or wild? I held a stare with a coyote fifteen feet away that lasted a minute and it’s a gift I can unwrap to this day. I still envision the grey fox looking back over its shoulder at me as dusk descended years ago. That fox is inside of me.
These are wild animals, and while the gaze is intensely evocative, it’s difficult to fathom what’s going on within them. With the dogs I’ve been close to it’s easier to speculate, yet it’s only an educated guess. But it sure feels like my dog and I know something about each other when we share a softened gaze, our heads slightly tilted.
Now I have a new beast in my house. Benny. A four-month-old Australian Blue Heeler puppy who came into my life right as COVID-19 Shelter In Place descended. I’ve been yearning for a dog for three years, ever since Shadow died, but my practical side kept saying, not yet. However, California’s stringent guidelines changed the playing field. March 16th I woke with two thoughts: Dog! Now! No travel, no work outside the home, no need to find good day care. Lots of time for training and bonding. Then the radical thought crept in – it could even be a puppy!
Puppies are definitely wild creatures, still unburdened by human guidelines and expectations; they are ruled by innate drives and wolf-derived instincts. Australian Cattle Dogs (another name for Blue Heelers), like other herding dogs such as Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Shelties, have been bred for high-level intelligence, incredible stamina, and an independent streak. The Cattle Dog was crossbred with the Australian wild dingo to make them hardy and fearless enough to drive cattle across vast distances. All of these herding breeds are often referred to as “working dogs” - whether they live on a ranch or in a suburban neighborhood they require a job that challenges them physically and mentally. If not, their lives and their owners’ can be miserable. So what am I thinking? But as Emily Dickenson said, “The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care.”
But let me back up a bit. While my coronavirus driven decision may appear impulsive, there’s a way in which this relationship has felt pre-ordained. It all began on an acupuncture table a few months after Shadow died. In that wonderful hypnogogic state mysteriously induced by needles, I had a vision. I suddenly experienced myself sitting by a lake, deeply content, petting a herding-type dog that was clearly my companion. The image eventually faded but the sense of joy remained.
I picked up my mail after the session and did a double take. The cover of the New Yorker, whimsically rendered, was of a lone little dog peering across a shallow lake to the land on the other side. Unlike the typical black dogs I am generally drawn to, this dog was grey, with erect ears and a pert tail sticking up. I could sense the little dog’s longing, or was it mine? I tore off the cover and propped it on my dresser until this dog was imprinted in my psyche.
WHICH BRINGS ME BACK to my morning epiphany of Dog-Now-Puppy. After getting up, I search for the magazine image and place it on my dresser once again. Then I dive into Petfinder.com, the canine version of Match.com, and peruse the photos and profiles of shelter dogs in Northern California. Four hours and 1000 dog images later, I have just two potential matches – both eight-week-old puppies from the same abandoned litter. Adorable, fuzzy Australian Cattle Dogs.
Momentarily I clench. The big question resurfaces - can I really raise a Cattle Dog pup? With the world crumbling around me, I say, Yes!
I call the Fresno Animal Shelter and speak to Nicole: “Are the pups still there? I’m jumping in my car, it will take me three hours. Can you hold them?” “We aren’t allowed to hold them,” Nicole says, “but I’ll keep you posted while you drive.” I throw a leash, a crate and a water bowl into my car, then run back inside to gaze at the dog on the cover. Wish us well, I murmur.
Soon after I leave home, the first call comes. The little black pup has just been adopted. I step on the gas, ignoring my body’s impulse to make any pit stops. Fifteen minutes before arriving at the shelter, Nicole calls again: “Now the second one is being looked at.” I walk in as a happy couple is filling out the paperwork, holding their adorable new puppy. I’m disappointed, but strangely calm. This search feels beyond will or effort or even luck – that little dog and I will find each other when we are ready.
As I’m about to leave, Nicole approaches. “I asked my supervisor if I can show you another puppy from the litter - he was just returned this morning. He’s on a week’s quarantine so you can’t hold him, but I can let you peek at him.” Quarantine has become a familiar word by now. I walk in the back room, keeping my social distance not only from the worker but also from this little dog. He is even cuter than the other two. He looks right at me, crawls inside just like the fox and the coyote.
A week later, I drive the six hour round trip once again, returning with an energetic little canine with a furry black patch around one eye, a mesmerizing mix of mottled grey over most of his body, and pinkish brown markings splattered on his lower legs. I can't believe how beautiful he is. Standing on the grass, with his erect ears and tail sticking up, he could be the little grey dog on the New Yorker cover.
IF YOU’VE BEEN READING my blog this last year, you know I’m committed to the wild: wild animals, wild habitats, and the wild streak in myself. I prefer to let the natural grasses take over my property. I volunteer for Native Animal Rescue rather than the Dog Shelter, because I want to return animals to their natural habitat. I spend hours observing pine needles glinting in the sun and rabbits scrambling into the Manzanita thickets, yearning to merge into nature.
When I look at Benny, I see glimpses of a fox and coyote. It's wonderfully eerie. Part of it is his body type and coloration, but it’s also his manner and the feral choices he makes. His inclinations are to pee where he likes, chew or bite whatever moves within range, and to turn into a frenzy of relentless energy each evening. I see his essential sweetness and I also see a wild glint still unmediated by human expectations.
Mary Oliver captures the canine paradox in a loving essay called “Dog Talk.”
Some things are unchangeably wild, others are stolidly tame. The tiger is wild, and the coyote, and the owl. I am tame, you are tame…But the dog lives in both worlds. Dog is docile, and then forgets… promises, and then forgets, blame him not. The tooth glitters in the ridged mouth. The fur lifts along the spine. He lifts a leg and sprays a radiant mist over a stone, or a dead toad, or somebody’s hat. … They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward.
Now my ambivalent job is to wean, rewire and refocus these instinctive inclinations. To teach him to control the bladder, bypass the food on the counter, inhibit the bite and resist tackling the four-year-old down the street. A coyote or fox won’t mix well in human company. But it’s hard to swallow that my job title is The De-Wilder. I’m relieved and saddened as I watch the feral fade.
LIFE’S QUESTIONS AND CHALLENGES are often embedded in contradictions and manifest in microcosms. In Benny and Marilyn. A urine soaked hat is not the end of the world, but it is annoying. A wounded child, mistaken for a wayward cow, or even further back into the DNA, a bounding deer, is not acceptable. An impulsive dog running under the wheels of a car is a failure to protect. On the other hand, an obsequious dog that is never unleashed is, in Mary Oliver’s words, as a chair is to a tree. How to hold it all?
These are very hard times. People dying alone, businesses going bankrupt, unemployment reminiscent of the Great Depression. People are fearful of what the future will look like. However, in the midst of being required to shelter in place, many people are re-discovering the pleasures of domestication. People are baking bread, gardening, clearing out closets. Families talk to each other over home cooked meals. While this domesticity may look anything but wild, this is part of human nature, our deepest essence. Essence is the cradle of any creature’s wildness.
Unable to go to movies, restaurants and gatherings, many people are spending more time outside, noticing bird song, blooming flowers, the drama of passing clouds and brilliant night skies. This connection with the natural world is also our essential wild nature.
Holding the paradox: the wild and the domestic, safety and freedom. And now that I write these words, I realize this is what we are juggling as we try to live with a very wild virus in our midst. How to balance our need to be safe with our need to feel free and engaged with the world? How do we chart a path that takes multiple needs into consideration: individuals and the community, physical safety and financial survival, human strivings and a natural world that is finally getting a chance to breathe. My dilemmas are being played out on a much larger, more serious scale.
When Benny comes running to me and rolls over, offering his soft belly, legs gently folded, I feel maternal tenderness. When he relentlessly pursues my striding calf, or obsessively snaps at my hands, piercing my skin with his razor sharp baby teeth, I identify with cowering prey, or have to suppress my own ferocity as I yelp in pain. All my reactions evidence that I too am a mammal, modulating instinct.
When he’s ambushing me, I want him tamed and the sooner the better. When I watch him discover a lush grassy meadow, bounding and racing in circles with what would be hard to call anything but wild abandon, I too feel unfettered, released.
Given the current social restrictions and my “parenting” responsibilities, my world can feel smallish right now. Yet, like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. Paradox and contradictions shelter in place within. In my household, they are playing themselves out in one dog and one human, all in the course of a day.
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If you want another take on the wildness question, check out my November blog, "Small Wild."