Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How I Know a Dog Has a Soul

“Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory.”

          -William Hazlitt
          “A Farewell to Essay Writing”

Gus died today a year ago, and the approaching anniversary gave me a moment to think about what a dog’s life means.

Some people treat their dogs like children, call them people, and seem to have trouble distinguishing between a human’s life and a dog’s life. I love these people, but I am not one of them. Some people think a dog is just a dog, and I don’t count myself in that camp either, nor do I feel so much warmth for those in it.

I love my dogs precisely because they’re not people. A dog does not envy nor boast; he is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. A dog only desires food, something to chase and chew, and some small kindness from friends. They may be less than we, but if a human’s soul is a light capable of great brightness, a dog’s light is at least a steady one.

I don’t know if I have a soul or not. I’ve heard that I do, but I’ve heard many things. I think I prefer the mystery. Nothing of moment resolves itself into satisfying packages and assimilated truths, and if there is something beyond what we can see and taste, then the important truths were meant to be unreconcilable. And if there isn’t any such invisible intent, well then that unreconcilability is part of how things are.

Still, if there’s any way to measure our souls or perhaps our humanity, it must be in our gentleness and our ability to love. In that respect, I would be lucky to count one half as much soul in myself as my dogs have.

Life has meaning, even if I can’t set calipers to its source. Therefore, according to any definition that matters, though not necessarily any of matter, life means, and a dog’s life means too.

“Why do I not hang an image of this in some dusky corner of my brain, and turn an eye upon it ever and anon, as I have need of some such talisman to calm my troubled thoughts?” (Hazlitt)

Some trust to saints to save their souls. What’s measurable in mine is made of memory, and the prayer I’ve learned is just for gentleness, love, and gratitude.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

For Thanksgiving, we headed down to New Jersey to my parents’ house, which gave us another opportunity to reunite Jax with his brother Ojo. Andy and I were busy handling dogs at the crowded woods and beach, so all the pictures were taken by my mom.

Ojo’s on the far left in this picture, and his tennis ball instincts are clearly just as well developed as those of his brother. For those of you who can’t tell our dogs apart as well as I can, Comet’s in the middle, and Jax is on the right.

(Photo credit: Donna Tippy)

It was a bit of a challenge to get three dogs in frame, especially with the mediocre lighting the dull Thanksgiving morning gave us, but my mom gave it the ol’ college try. There may be a little blur on Ojo here, but honestly, who wouldn’t be running at top speed with a vicious dog like Jax in pursuit?

(Photo credit: Donna Tippy)

Ojo also got his first swim in today. His family doesn’t have the same easy access to safe waters that we do, so he hasn’t had the same chances to get wet in the cold weather. To his credit, though, he crashed into that cold lake like an old hand.

(Photo credit: Donna Tippy)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Matched Sets

Put all four dogs together, and they look like some kind of advertisement for the breed, or for collars, or for good wholesome living. This entry is a second for that big walk at the beach. I took something like four hundred pictures, so one entry just wasn’t going to cut it.

It’s no mean feat to get a dog to sit and stay on a busy beach with birds, people, and other dogs all around. It’s even harder to get four in a row. It’s yet harder when one of the dogs isn’t even a year old yet. You’ll have to excuse a little pride on my part that they all held their stay for several pictures and only broke on command.

Jax and Finn were a matched set. As we found out later, both Tally and Comet were suffering from the early stages of tick-borne illnesses, so they weren’t quite as feisty as their normal selves.

Uncle and nephew, though, made it their business to check every stone, to chase one another through every promising shallow, and to race each other to every subsequent seagull.

Indeed, sometimes they chased birds far too far out in the waves and had a very long trip back together. Don’t be fooled by this photo; they’re out on a sandbar, and this is a cropped shot taken with a telephoto lens. Those dogs are far away.

The beginnings of Comet’s illness didn’t prevent him from enticing Jax into a game of chase. Comet’s special guilty pleasure is to convince another dog to chase him, and Jax’s innate willingness to be the chaser has meant that these two dogs are a particularly good fit for each other.

Of course, Jax does catch Comet from time to time, and he shows us that his ultimate goal is to deliver a big chomp to Comet’s butt. It may not be the most elegant game, but it sure looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

Young Old Friends

A month after our last trip to Maine, we found ourselves there again, this time visiting our friend Jill and her dogs, Tally and Finn. We visited Jill a year and a half ago, and we enjoyed a frigid walk then.

The weather and cast of characters was different this time, though. Tango, who was a puppy then, was off visiting a friend of Jill’s for the weekend, and Gus, who made so much of his first walk on this beach, couldn’t be there either. And, of course, Jax made his beach debut.

Comet was just a puppy last time, and his coat wasn’t up to the frigid March water. Today, though, was surprisingly temperate, though Comet’s grownup coat would have handled just about any temperature.

Finn is Gus’s brother, and he’s just a few days shy of his seventh birthday, despite his white face. When you see him still, he looks like a healthy dog of some years.

When you see him in motion, though, he’s a lean young dog who has just come into his full strength, a wave crasher and a bird chaser, a streak across the water’s glitter.

When I see Finn move, I consider, for a moment, giving into a fierce jealousy that I can’t have my friend back on this beach on this day, on this perfect border between sand, sea, and sky. But joy crowds out jealousy, and no green eyed monster can compete with the simple pleasure of running vicariously through the waves with an amber eyed dog.

I cradled Finn as a puppy; I helped gently teach him to keep all four paws on the ground during a greeting, to choose a toy to chew instead of a hand, and now he’s a young old man jumping from the top of one wave to the next.

Finn plays like a puppy too. Tally, another of Jill’s dogs, is much younger, but when you see the two of them romp, you really can’t tell. Tally is, of course, not howling in pain here, but rather trying to swing his head around to playbite Finn back.

It didn’t take long for Jax to interject himself into this playfight, and soon it was sand flying, teeth flashing, and the full range of Golden colors all wet and dirty in the sun.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life Indelible, Stick Inedible

We let the guys play in the lake every morning we stayed at Lynn’s, and they never seemed to grow tired of their hijinks. Perhaps if we lived there year-round (I’m considering buying lottery tickets), they’d grow blasé about having a whole lake to play in, but as it was, each morning was like Christmas for dogs, unlike actual Christmas, which, if you think about it, is rather boring for dogs.

At the end of the summer, I posted a quote from an E. B. White essay about returning to a lake. It included a lovely phrase about the “pattern of life indelible,” and here we are returning to a lake again and again each day as if it’s the first time.

Of course, part of that joy, part of that indelible pattern is, of course, chewing the inedible. Only a dog’s wisdom would choose the sticks that drop like manna over all costly vanities.

On behalf of all four of us, Comet would like to thank Lynn for giving us free run of her cabin for the weekend, and he would like to make reservations for a future date sometime soon, oh pretty, pretty please.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Family at 4,802 Feet

Lynn’s cabin is in Bridgton, and about two hours’ drive to the west is one of our favorite spots in the whole world: Mount Moosilauke. I was introduced to this mountain years ago when I was taking classes at Dartmouth. The college owns the land, and an old friend of mine who went to Dartmouth as an undergrad showed me the trails and let me know that well-trained dogs are specifically allowed to be off-leash.

Andy and I did this hike a few years ago with Gus, not long after we first met, and we’ve been longing to head back up the mountain.

Moosilauke has perhaps the best views in the White Mountains. The main peak has 360˚ views of the surrounding landscape, and it’s 4,802 feet at the peak. The dogs took the climb completely in stride, even though it’s probably the single greatest ascent they’ve done in their lives. Even so, I think it was harder on me than on either Andy or the dogs.

I’ve blown up the picture below because it just sums up the day for me, and I don’t think it translates in a smaller size. Neither Jax nor I am capable of flight, but when he sails across the mountain grass so high up, it’s hard to do anything but get lost in the air with him.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Warm Chill

Our friend Lynn bought a cabin in Maine a few years ago, and with great grace and generosity, she has mentioned to us a number of times that we can make use of it.

So, this weekend, we finally did. I’ve split the trip into three posts, so this first just deals with that first glorious morning when we woke up lakeside.

Lynn’s cabin is on Highland Lake, three miles away from the lake I spent a dozen summers at as a kid and as a young man. For me, a return to a Maine lake has a special significance, a weight of memory so vast that the air has a cool molasses quality, as if everything is slowed just a little. It gives a bright razor clarity to the smooth stones at the lake’s bottom and a sweetness to the dust of dry pine needles.

The dogs, of course, don’t indulge in this kind of nostalgic savoring of each slow detail. As I stood on the lakeshore in the cool air and the warm sun of the early day, they made whitewater and furfire out of the stillness and the yellow morning light.

I have learned to savor the slow creak of joints and the fog that follows me for the first few minutes of a precious day, when there’s no work to be done, no traffic to beat to the highway, no counting of quarters for the cup of cheap coffee that chases off the fog.

Instead, I stood on a lakeshore for an hour in the Maine fall and let air that was just a bit too cold for comfort blow through my bedhead and carry off that sleepy fog. I was jealous for a moment that the dogs could splash into a Maine lake as I have loved to do so many times, and I even considered jumping in myself for more than a moment.

It was enough, though, to watch them, to be chilled by the air and thawed by the sun, cooled by the water they splashed as they ran by, but warmed always by the sight of so much joy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


There’s something about late afternoon light that makes a red Golden light up like he’s on fire, and as the days grow colder I still feel a warmth tingle through my limbs when I see those streaks of flame light up the woods.
My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons, most wondrous;
Existing, I peer and penetrate still,
Content with the present—content with the past,
By my side, or back of me, Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same.
              -Walt Whitman
                “Leaves of Grass (17)”
A few days after that late afternoon picture, we visited my folks in New Jersey and took a quick walk around their local lake. My dad obligingly threw sticks for them so I could try to get some classic action shots. The beach drops away slowly, so the dogs get several leaps in each time before finally swimming.

This is the same trip we took a little less than a year ago with a younger Comet and a healthy Gus. I was struck, as I always am, by the idea of cycles and circles, of losing and gaining, of how our endeavors are sometimes as silly and as satisfying as chasing a stick.

Comet showed excellent reach and great athleticism in getting through the water. He’s developed into quite the muscular young athlete.

In fact, Comet’s vet spent a couple of minutes admiring his musculature at a checkup the other day. I was oddly proud.

Jax, for his part, really learned how to maximize that last contact with the sand in order to fly back out of the water.

Comet’s not too shabby either. I love that you can see the divot from his last leap even as he’s well into the next.

Swimming season for humans is well over, but the dogs will swim until the water is completely frozen over.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Temperate September

September in Connecticut brings temperatures that preclude human swimming, but it’s at this time that we see the return on our investment in all-weather dogs.

September is fetch-time, when overheating isn’t as much of a danger, sticks fall willy-nilly on the grass, and even the fishermen aren’t quite as common on the lakeshores.

September, coincidentally, is also the month in which Jax began to offer Comet some serious competition in the game.

Currently, though, Comet’s more experienced and wily in the game of mid-water keep-away that inevitably results when they both get to the stick. He’s also just a bit faster in the water. Some pups might be turned off of a game they rarely win, but Jax’s drive is a little extreme, so he never seems to tire of chasing a blazing Comet.

Fall Guys

Though it isn’t yet technically fall for another week or so, Andy and I decided it was time for mums, gourds, bales of hay, and even some Halloween decorations.

The dogs go rather well with the fall colors, so once we were done, I posed the dogs in front of our new seasonal wares.

Unfortunately, the yard slopes off precipitously towards the street, which is nice for motorists’ viewing of the gourds and not so nice for the photographer as he attempts to capture his dogs in their fall colors while he slides gently down the slope.

I know I’m biased, but Jack really is turning out to be a handsome dog. I love that you can see the blue sky reflected in his eyes.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Flour Power

Andy made Chicken Piccata last night and the dogs, who usually have to wait outside the kitchen doorway, were not subject to our typically strict enforcement.

As he dredged the chicken to the dogs rapt attention, he flicked some flour into their eager faces. I thought the results were so adorable that I went and grabbed the camera.

I find photographing the dogs indoors at night to be nigh-impossible, since the flash always makes their coats look strange and results in incredible eye glare. For this picture, I held a single layer of paper towel over the flash. The results were a bit red and required a little post-processing to get rid of the remaining eye glare, but the moment was certainly captured with its silliness intact.

The next morning, we headed out for a hike in one of our favorite places, and the sunshine made some crisper, better-colored pictures possible. The dogs take to the grassy trails with even more gusto than they stare at raw chicken.

The goofy anticipation in the last photo is replaced by a goofy joy in coming back to a beloved whistle that has always meant affection and occasionally means cookies.

I knew I had taken a photo at a spot that had also given me one of my favorite pictures of Gus and Comet together. I liked this photo a great deal when I originally posted it back in October. What I didn’t realize, though, was how deeply I would be struck by the similarity of the actual photos.

This is from last October, only two months before Gus died. We had no idea, of course, what was about to happen, and even though Gus is gone, I can see him in Comet, the dog he helped train, and in Ajax, the dog who shares more of his genes.

The continuum of Gus’s life is both broken and unbroken, just as he is gone and is right here in the grass, running beside his brothers, always just around the corner but ready to race back to me the moment I whistle up a memory.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


This entry is a bit cumulative, since I’ve been hiking plenty with the dogs since my last early August entry. However, I haven’t taken any pictures since we left Vermont. This dearth of photography isn’t due to a lack of interest on my part but rather to a fundamental fact of the local ecology.

The August mosquitos have made an extraordinary showing on our favorite stomping grounds. So, we had two choices: give up hiking altogether for a few weeks, or hike incredibly quickly and without taking breaks. We chose the second option, so photos simply weren’t realistic.

Hikes in August, then, became a kind of an intense steeplechase of swift walking and jogging over rocks, streams, and muddy swamps. The dogs were rather enthusiastic about this development.

We did, however, stop and pick wild raspberries and blackberries on one hike, which resulted in a thorough mauling by the mosquitos and a horrible case of poison ivy on my legs.

Today, however, was just cool enough to calm if not eliminate the little biters, so I did stop briefly to try to get a couple nice shots of the guys as they practiced “stay.” In terms of the lighting, I picked a substantially better spot for Comet.

Photographers call the first and last hours of light in a day the “Golden Hour.” The sun picks up that mellow, diffuse hue that lights up certain kinds of subjects. It was late in the day when I took these, and while it perhaps wasn’t technically the last hour before sunset, it seemed like a pretty Golden hour to me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Once More to the Lake

As the end of the summer term approached, Jax and I stole one more afternoon to head up to the high lake. At the base of the hike, there’s a waterfall, and as you head on up, you periodically cross the streams that join up to feed the cascade far below you.

One of those streams comes out of Abbey Pond itself, and it’s home to dozens of Black-winged Damselflies like this one. Generally, I’m no good at identifying insects, and damselflies are particularly problematic. However, the Black-winged variety is easy, since it’s the only species with, well, black wings.

“Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end.”

              -E. B. White
                “Once More to the Lake”

We stopped off a few days later for one last romp through the mountain meadows before we went back to Connecticut for the fall. We were sad to leave behind the beauty of the places that welcomed us like home, but we were also overjoyed to reunite our little family and to visit the familiar Connecticut woods, meadows, lakes, and sofas that have treated us both so well.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Air, Water, Mud

In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge proved that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground for an instant at a certain point in a gallop. Dogs, too, are creatures of the air for the briefest intervals of time when they run.

It’s not surprising, considering Comet’s joie de vivre, that he would prove to be particularly buoyant as he runs. And it’s not surprising, given how many pictures I take of the dogs when we’re out and about, that I would catch him at the point that his paws no longer touch his shadow.

Jax, too, is similarly free to challenge the laws of gravity. There’s something poetic about having just two toes in contact with concrete before you abandon yourself to weightlessness for a moment.

Air, soil, water, fire—those are words,
I myself am a word with them—my
     qualities interpenetrate with theirs
     —my name is nothing to them,
Though it were told in the three
     thousand languages, what would
     air, soil, water, fire, know of my

          -Walt Whitman
          “A Song of the Rolling Earth”

The air dogs are also water dogs. Here in the salt marsh, there’s opportunities to run, spray water, and splash around in the mud. We go places like this, and I think to myself, “this is dog heaven.” I realize, though, how often I say it, and it came to me today that a dog can find heaven just about anywhere.

After a swim, it’s time for a chase through the grass and mud, fiery blurs in green grass, muddy legs, wet coats, and that moment when neither dog is touching the ground at all.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

High Up and Wet

“The water, indeed, reflects heaven because my mind does; such is its own serenity, its transparency and stillness.”

                -Henry David Thoreau
                “Solitude in Concord”

Usually, I keep our hike locals a bit of a secret, since I don’t like the idea of our favorite secret places getting exposed on the internet. I have visions of dozens or hundreds of dog owners with different levels of commitment to dog training and the environment showing up and ruining the place.

It may be a bit elitist of me, and it may be an entirely unfounded fear, but there it is. This locale, however, I’ll mention, since I got it myself from a book of dog-friendly hikes of New England.

This is Abbey Pond, a small lakelet nestled in the Green Mountains, twelve hundred feet above and two miles out from the trailhead.

I actually came up here three times this week: once with my folks, which resulted in the entry “Keep Encouraged;” once with a friend; and once with just Jax. I was just so happy to find the place on that first go, and so enthralled by the wild, secluded feel of the mountains around us, that I wanted to go again and again.

Today finally graced us with better weather and a reliably blue sky, and Jax was happy enough to pose for me here and there, after he had his chance to swim and dig a bit, of course. I realize that I have a real shortage of pictures in which Jax is dry. Perhaps in the fall, I’ll endeavor to snap a few shots of him as he plays in the fallen leaves, but for now, I just don’t have the heart to keep him out of the water just to suit my photographic fancies.

But anyway, for now, I’ll be happy that he’s so happy, and I’ll continue to hold the camera high and away from him when he comes over for a check-in and shake-off after he’s been chasing frogs and burying his muzzle in the black mud.