Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Two Species, One World

I owe my faith not to my Catholic upbringing, which was learned and programmed into me – just as my political preferences were – when I was young, but to those great minds throughout history I have felt a kinship with. Emerson wrote, “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Nature to Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and other pantheists, was God.

I’m not a churchgoer, for I am not a joiner, but I’m forever seeking an authentic relationship with something greater. I seek out that which brings me closer to nature and I judge my days not by money made, things I’ve bought, my accomplishments, or who I know. It’s why I hike. Each journey up a mountain is a renewal of my faith and there are some days when it is easier to make that connection than others.

This past week, in spite of the horrors that took place in Japan, the constant angry bickering of our national and world leaders, yet another war, and the continuing struggling economy, was a good one for me. For nature brought me back to myself and gave me something to hold onto. More than that, it lifted me up, as it always does. Atticus and I went on three hikes where it was just he, me, and the woods. The first was up Middle Mountain in North Conway. When we reached the summit we enjoyed our lunch, took in the views, and I played Mozart. (If you’ve never listened to Mozart on a mountaintop you’ve never lived!) On the way down the trail spring revealed herself to us with a warm sun and I hiked across the white woods in snowshoes but only had to wear thin tights and a t-shirt.

A couple of days later we enjoyed the sun again. This time it was along the Boulder Loop Trail. We soaked in the warmth on the ledges high above the Kancamagus Highway. We took our time climbing, enjoyed our lunch, and then took a peaceful nap. We woke up to the sights of mountains named for some of the great indian chiefs that once traveled through the same woods: Passaconaway, Chocurua, and Paugus. I felt refreshed and we made our way down the snowy trail with a gentle sense of bliss and connection. On the way home we looked towards a snowy Mount Washington and I was so moved by the site of a gigantic, lone lenticular cloud floating in the blue sky above the summit that I pulled over to the side of the road. Atticus and I got out of the car and sat for quite some time watching that cloud move across the sky. It was immense and rich with definition and we were transfixed by its flight.

When the weekend came my plan was to hike on Sunday, the last day of winter. But we are a fluid pair and our plans are open to change. Upon taking a roast out of the oven I looked out at the darkening sky and thought of the full moon and how special it was supposed to be. I wrapped the roast in tin foil and left it on the stovetop, grabbed my backpack, and Atticus and I headed to South Doublehead. The last time we were on its summit was also at night when we watched the Fourth of July fireworks exploding over Jackson below us. It was an incredible evening, but it was nothing compared to what we saw this weekend. The moon, the closest it’s been to our planet in years, was enormous as it rose over the mountaintops. It was so stunningly beautiful I could feel every fiber of my being tingle. My legs, my arms, my heart – none of them were free from the pull of that extraordinary full moon. In the opposite direction, even under the blanket of the night, the snows on Mount Washington, lit by the moon, made the mountain appear as though it were some heavenly beacon. That’s when I had to sit down. And we stayed there, Atticus and me, watching our highest, most mysterious mountain in breathless awe.

Whenever I see Atticus enjoying the mountains like this I find myself smiling and realize that in spite of all our differences, we have a shared existence that thrives somewhere between the human and canine world. It’s a separate world we’ve made for ourselves, one not everyone can appreciate.

A few years ago, when my father died, one of my brothers never said anything to me but he let others know he was upset that Atticus was ever present – even at the graveside. What he didn’t, and never will, understand, is that there is nothing this little dog and I do not share. We never make a spectacle of our relationship; we are simply always together. It’s a seamless, leashless natural existence. We share the authentic experiences I longed for in a family that dissolved long ago. We’ve shared so many miles and mountains, so many triumphs and heartaches together, that the bond has become deeper than anything I’ve ever known. In three separate hikes over just a handful of days this past week he and I shared far more than I can ever remember experiencing with a family that doesn’t share much of anything.

Nature has the ability to bring all of us closer to each other, closer to ourselves, and closer to the natural world. It even has the ability to reveal a shared world between man and dog. Watching the shimmering moon and that luminous mountain on a night I’ll never forget with Atticus by my side was yet another stitch that connects the two of us.

I’ll not pretend to know what Atticus thinks when he witnesses such things but I’m aware that he appreciates them. For he sits and he watches, he breathes deep and he sighs. His face tells the story with how he used his expression. It’s in the movement of his ears, his mouth, eyes, and body language. So sitting next to him on South Doublehead the other night I recognized what he was feeling because I was just as spellbound.

He may be but a dog, and I but a man. But our experiences together in nature and a gentle respect for one another has given us something genuinely special. Why should we let the simple fact that we are of two different species get in the way of an appreciation of this one world. “Why should not we,” as Emerson wrote, “also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”


cooperhill said...

Wonderful and engaging post. Those "wow" moments on a summit or trail is really something I can sink my teeth into. Or just being in my woods or fields - or in my trail-work - caring for the land. The world would be so much better I think if we could all be in better harmony with nature and other species.

I'll take your word on Mozart. Not much of a Mozart man myself. It's Copland, Satie, Edgar Meyer (contemporary), Ravel, and Debussy for me! Or the sound of my dog snoring (Maggie is doing that right now as I write this comment).

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks for the comment Chris. Yeah, I'll go along with many of those other composers as well. And Maggie's snoring as well! It's a comforting sound I know well.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, so few understand the connection that can exist between dog and human. I'm so glad that I am fortunate to have that experience like you have so eloquently stated in this post.

Ellen Snyder said...

Tom (and Atticus)

I watched the huge, orange, full moon rise over a nearby field (while listening to woodcock peent at the field edge). Nice to think about you and Atticus sitting atop South Doublehead watching the same moon rise.

Seems so natural and right that Atticus would be at your side at your father's funeral. Our canine companions bring such joy in good times and comfort in sad times. A nice post -- thanks.

1HappyHiker said...

Tom, your posts are always an enjoyable and fascinating read, and this one is no exception.

There is empathy for your relationship with Atticus. Anyone (including myself) who has ever had a pet (for lack of a better word), can easily understand how such a deep relationship can develop.


Tim said...

Tom and Atticus,

Thanks for sharing these times with us. We too enjoyed the big super moon while camping. It was definitely awesome. It's amazing what our natural world reveals to us if only we pay attention.


Jess said...

Nicely said.