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Under The Big Sky
by Richard Stanford
2012-02-11 09:58:00
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Heading out on my first walk with Nell, I did not think my wife Janice and I had adopted a dog so much as a gazelle.  Her frame was so narrow you could wrap your two hands around her body at her hind-quarters.  Her head was shaped like a bullet.  The rest of her was all legs – four, of course, and each the thickness of a stick with a lose bend in the middle.  It puzzled me how she could keep herself upright, thus defying the laws of gravity.  But she did.

Nell made it very clear that first morning she was not a runner – she was a flyer.  We stood together on the slope of a rail bed near Rigaud, Québec, and I introduced her to her new life: a hay field stretching out before us as far as the eye could see without a solitary obstruction between here and eternity.  Her legs quivered.  Her nose quivered.  I had to find out what she would do and risk losing her in the bargain.  But the big sky open before her was too much to deny.  I unsnapped her leash and let her go.  Within three strides she had hit full speed, straight ahead down the tractor path accelerating like Secretariat.  I whispered good-bye when she was about ¼ km. away.  I had made a terrible mistake - or so I thought.

Then Nell at full speed, angled off into a wide, gentle arch, blowing through the low grass.  Her arch came around wide until she completed the turn and headed in a straight line right back towards me.  As she drew near I could see her face beaming with unabashed joy.  She arrived at my side, gave me a firm bump on the leg, barely panting, ready for more.  I never had to say, “come here!”  We set off along the tractor trail, at my speed, and so began our first walk together under the big sky.

This was the beginning of our second companion dog journey.  Our first with Cloud lasted almost 13 years and we hoped, with any luck, our time with Nell would be just as long, if not longer.  That’s a lot of walking I can call to account: 2 walks every day, 1 km. minimum per walk, every day of the year come rain, wind,  heat, bitter cold, snow - and some freezing rain just for good measure.  It is in these distances I can say with certainty that I’ve learned a few things about Nature and a hell of a lot more about the unique bond that forms between a human and a companion dog while exploring the world together.

Before risking the ire of all ‘cat-people’, let me tell you that Janice and I have had more cats than we’ve had dogs.  Each has been and continues to be cherished members of our family.  So I’m not writing this to enter any debate about the comparative experience between cats and dogs.  This is not about anything like that.  A relationship with a cat is unique unto itself, as is that of a relationship with a dog.              But we don’t take cats for walks and that may be too bad.  Nevertheless, the relationship formed walking with a companion dog each and every day of the year into the vastness of Nature is a truly unique endeavour.

After that first walk – or should I say, flight – Nell and I walked together through forests and wetlands, train lines and prairie fields, over swamps and streams, attacked by howling winds and ravenous mosquitoes.  There were many times we returned home with some combination of mud or insect bites or pre-frostbite, only to go out the very next day and do it all over again.  No walk was ever the same, and for Nell, no scent was ever boring.

The Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan expresses it best for me in his poignant song Sinatra and I.  In the song, Keelaghan tells the story of  being on the road “feeling quite lonely and out of my mind.”  Instead of seeking human companionship he “rolled to a stop at the SPCA” to adopt a rescue dog, Sinatra, “because of his eyes.”  It is a remarkable leap for Keelaghan to think that the cure for his loneliness could be found with such a creature.  But it is, and as their relationship grows: “We’ll go for a walk old Sinatra and I/ His nose on the ground sniffing out possibilities/ Me looking up to the dome of the sky/ I ask him to sit but he’ll pay me no mind/ He’ll do it his way and I’ll do it mine…”

When business or pleasure would take me into the Montréal, I would regard critically the people who walked their “sad dogs” in an anonymous sea of unknown faces, on hard, hot pavement, taking in polluted air, their ears upright desperate to weed out the overwhelming cacophony.  I thought it a form of cruelty.  I was wrong.  These companion dogs were happy because they were not alone – they were with the most important person in their lives and if this was to be their forest, then they would live in it to the full. I began to see these dogs and their human companions as living in a world of their own, seemingly floating above the fray, taking in the sounds, the smells, the hardness as part of their forest and their happiness of simply being together. In the end it is all that truly matters and I could see it in their furry faces: completeness with oneself and with the other.

Cloud, our previous companion dog, was a majestic creature.  He was noble, kind, brave, stunningly handsome, and possessed of a subtle charisma. I do not exaggerate when I say when Cloud came into a room all conversation ceased and all eyes went to him.  Walks with Cloud were an adventure because he often wasn’t with me at all, in the strictest sense of the term.  He was off, out of sight, seeking out his own world.  When he did make an appearance in his own good time it was with an air of impatience.  I would learn over time that he was never really that far away and that he always had us in sight.  It was a relationship that was always on his terms.

One day while on a walk through an arboretum, I found myself hopelessly lost.  Like a good ex-Boy Scout, I had not brought a compass and I had ignored the trail signs, having lost myself in the rare trees and birdlife along the way.  Cloud, however, was not lost but he sure knew I was.  He was never big on taking orders so he was never trained to obey much of anything – he never lowered himself to such a level.  So I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere with him by doing the Lassie-thing.  All I could say was, “I have to go back to the car,” and hope he would take pity on me.  Cloud didn’t like circles and back-tracking even less but he recognized the situation, sighed, wandered a few feet into the forest to check-out one last scent, then strode off back down the trail with the certitude of a guide dog, in this case, truly leading the blind.  Over the years with Cloud, I realized he would be watching over me more than I over him.

With each flying leap over a log, with each squirrel pursuit, with each hill climb, with each stream bath, Nell grew in strength and character and elegance.  She became less of a gazelle and more of a dog – what kind of dog we were never quite sure; she was just a Nell.  (In truth, she was a bizarre concoction of shepard, golden retriever, husky and greyhound.) Her legs grew stronger, her body filled out and her mane thickened.  One day as we stood together on a Mount Rigaud lookout, taking in the panorama of the Ottawa Valley below us stretching into the horizon, I looked at Nell: her moist nose pointed high, quivering into the wind taking in the smells of a thousand years.  She had reached a pinnacle.  We had reached a pinnacle.

Because we went to a different environment almost every day, Nell, Janice and I were given the opportunity to experience everything from a growing family of Canada Geese to the magical nesting site of Great Blue Herons; from watching beavers build their mega-dams to deer gently nibbling on dew-laden grasses.  Through it all, Nell never passed up a chance to chase down a squirrel and after 11 years she never gave up.  Secretly, I think the squirrels enjoyed the chase as much as she did.

Nell died last month: 12th January.  Something, we’re not sure exactly what, had blocked up the entrance to her intestine and thus her ability to digest food.  Medication managed to open the blockage for a while and so her time with Janice and I was extended for three months.  In that time, we were able to take our long walks and each second of those walks became a gift to be held forever. Whatever was going on in Nell’s body, it did not diminish her curiosity, her enthusiasm, or her sense of completeness with herself and with us.

Nell’s world, however, began to get smaller, the big sky began to fade and it was time. I don’t have to repeat here what thousands of companion humans have had to endure at times such as this.  To face the time of death as well as the power to wield it, is utterly gut-wrenching.  Suffice to say, Nell left her big sky peacefully, in her home, in our arms, without pain or suffering of any kind.  In the beginning we promised her a big life.  In the end, we owed her a good death.

As Janice and I continue our walks as kind of rite of passage, the big sky is emptier and quieter – it has lost its blur of golden fur.  As I retrace our trails together, I feel “quite lonely, quite out of my mind”, with a pain I can physically feel in my gut or my soul, I know not which.  Sometime soon, we both know that the only cure for such pain will be “to roll to a stop at the SPCA.

It was March of our first winter with Nell.  For a week it had been snowing and as often happens after a snowstorm, the first clear day is always bitterly cold.  This day was especially so: -30°C with the wind chill and we were heading out to the big field with not a tree line windbreak in sight.  As always, Nell was eager especially after several days of cabin fever.  With begrudging thanks to the snowmobiles laying out a straight, packed trail, we made it out to the open space of pure white.  Even the big sky had lost its blue and was shimmering whiteness.  The wind cut like razors.  Breathing was strained.  But Nell was in full running mode, the wind tickling her golden fur.  She thrust her head into the howling white and sucked in every molecule of it.

Nell was still of such slight frame and little fat back then, I was always worried of her getting frostbite.  Intuitively she knew this, of course, which is why she never stopped moving.  I finally coaxed her from our ‘Arctic getaway’ and we set off for home.  I put a log on the fire, heated up a cup of coffee, and gave Nell a bowl of warm milk.  She lapped it up with sighs of pleasure.  We sat on the couch in front of the fire, the heat restoring our bones, then Nell curled up beside me, laid her head on my lap and fell asleep.  


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heather2012-02-13 03:19:46
a beautiful story that moved me deeply. Thanks for making Nell and Cloud so utterly real.

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