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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Muffins, and a World Off the Edge of the Map

We are inside now, but not long ago Atticus and I were stretched out on an island of shade beneath a tree in the backyard, looking like a couple of sphinxes.  We were catching the scents of summer, luxuriating in the soft breeze while watching Will meander slowly - circling, sniffing, occasionally jumpstarting himself with a front-legged hop. 
A crow rested on a branch not ten feet above our heads.  He too was watching Will. 
A few minutes later, atop a two foot high rough hewn stone wall that serves a the base of a gravel patio for the rarely used downstairs unit, a chipmunk sat up on her hind legs.  She kept her eyes on Will.  The 'munk wasn't afraid, I could tell that much, or else she would have skittered away chirping her little head off. 
I don't pretend to know what animals are thinking (heck, I've discovered it's dangerous to pretend I know what people are thinking), so I don't even try when it comes to other species.  But if I had to guess, I’d say the shemunk was curious, perhaps even amused.  It's not the first time a member of our local chipmunk community has taken the time to watch Will from less than five feet away.  Nor was it a first to see one of our neighboring crows cocking his head in Will's direction and sitting silently.  The rarity lies in the silence of one of our crows. They are a rowdy and chatty bunch who wear their emotions on their wings.  (Last year, Butkus, our resident senior bear, a fellow bent and grizzled by the years, was walking across the backyard, saw Will circling not ten feet away, and paused to watch him doing his little Will dance, before going off to do whatever old bears do.)
It was a pleasure to watch all of this for half an hour this morning, putting aside what "needed to be done" to fill myself with what is actually needed in life.   I only interrupted when Will appeared to tire, his pink tongue flagging out of his mouth.  But even as I approached, put my hand in front of his blurry eyes so he could see me and I wouldn't stun him with a sudden touch, the shemunk and the crow didn't budge. 
I like that our life has reached this level of simplicity and peacefulness.  When I carried Will upstairs like a drunk tossed lovingly over my shoulder, Atticus came with us.  I put Will down and retrieved some sunflower seeds and brought them outside. The shemunk walked a few stones away and I put down a handful for her, then tossed some more over toward the driveway for the crow. 
When I was upstairs getting Will some water, I looked down on both our neighbors and watched them enjoying their treats. 

This morning is the first time it hit me that we won't be living in Jackson for several more years.  And it feels surprisingly fine.  This is a pretty town, a quaint town.  It's rarity for small communities up here in that it has a sidewalk to stroll through the village on a one mile loop.  Most places don't have that.  You walk on the road or seek out dirt roads or hiking trails.  But here, a sense of community is found on the small 1.2 mile Jackson loop. 
I will miss that part, the constant waving from passersby in cars who greeted us the very first day we arrived before knowing a thing about us.  But I am excited to be working towards a small farm.
I have thought about the farm for a few years and always gathered information on it.  I've read books, followed other farm sanctuaries on social media, came up with loose plans, and last night when I posted about it, it took a more concrete form for me. And that’s the reason I posted about it.  By putting it out there, I did so not seeking advice, but in writing a public contract with myself.  I wanted to actualize the next step of the dream.
Never one to follow convention, I do my best to ignore unsolicited advice. Oh, I have a few people I lean on and seek out, but I choose to keep it small and I have faith things will work out. It just keeps things clearer for me.  “Simplify, simplify” as Thoreau wrote. 
Besides, while farm sanctuaries are not entirely new and are sprinkled throughout the world, my vision is a bit different since it is my vision.  I like that we live at a time when that's possible.  Where it’s okay to do your own thing, within reason. 
When I started my little newspaper, The Undertoad, from scratch, the experts told me it was unwise and it wouldn't work. When Atticus and I set out to hike all the forty-eight four thousand foot peaks in one summer another group of experts told me all that was wrong with my plan.  They were more vociferous when we took to the winter peaks.  And, of course they could be heard from when we decided to move away from Newburyport, a place I thought would always be my home.  (Hell, even two Amazon reviewers knocked the book because they didn’t like my decision to follow my dream.)
My life has been seasoned by defying convention.  I spent the better part of my junior and senior high school years on crutches and often in leg splints or casts because of problematic and painful growth plates. Two surgeries didn't help much.  I was told I shouldn't expect to do too much with my legs as I aged, but I had a dream to run the Boston Marathon.  Two weeks before the 1986 race I ran eleven miles.  It was the farthest I'd ever run.  I promptly deemed myself ready to jump in as  bandit behind the official runners (joining thousands of others unofficial runners).  The twenty-six point two miles was an epic adventure and I finished in 3:48:49.  It was the happiest day of my life.  I went on to run five Boston Marathons and one Boston Peace Marathon.
Two years later I signed up for an Ironman distance triathlon on Cape Cod.  At the time, the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon was one of only seven Ironman length races in the world.  My girlfriend at the time reminded me that it consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run.  She also reminded me I signed up only five months before the race and I didn't own a bicycle and not only could I not swim, I was afraid of open water. 
I've always been this way with dreams.  A seed is planted and it bursts forth and I throw myself with passion into the next adventure.  That's exactly what this farm is going to be, if I can make it happen.  A new adventure.
I tell you all of this not to toot my own horn, because goodness knows I've probably made more mistakes in my life than most I know, but to say that experts are forever wonderful at telling us what is not possible, and whenever I’ve ignored them it’s been well worth it.  The goal is not always attained, but growth is.  And isn’t that what life is all about? 
The genesis of my farm idea comes not from Atticus and Will, so much, as many have assumed, but from a childhood dream.  Seeing how crazy the world was, I thought about how cool it would be to adopt about twenty kids, all from various nationalities and go live on a deserted island and raise them to live in harmony, no matter their supposed differences. After they grew up they could then go forth into the world and hopefully make a difference.

This was also the first of the seeds that had me wanting Atticus (and later Will) to be not who others thought they should be, but who they were destined to be. It’s also why I’m so turned off by the definition of breeds.  (Yes, I pay attention to physical needs of various breeds, but as for the rest, I toss it out the window.)    
On this farm, I envision animals of different species who get to be who they were meant to be and not mankind's definition of what they are supposed to be.  I like the idea that we currently live in a little green patch of the world where chipmunks don't have to be afraid of dogs and crows leave the chipmunks alone as well.  I like this bit of harmony I've stumbled upon.
So you'll excuse me when I tell you I ignore unsolicited advice and set my own course, throwing caution to the wind and by believing in the infinitude of all souls. 

Our farm will have music playing everywhere.  Not too loud.  And it will be beautiful music.  I also dream of baking the world's best vegan muffins in the crisp morning air, perhaps sharing one or two with a friendly, polite pig who is allowed in the farmhouse on occasion.  I imagine a world where a duck and a goat can possibly become friends, while a cow and llama go for a walk together into a shady corner of the field to have a quiet lunch.  I will continue to hike and explore these mountains I love that have called my name since I was a child, and who knows who my future hiking partners will be.  I mean don’t be surprised to see Atticus and myself traversing my favorite mile in the White Mountains, that stretch of otherworldliness running from the top of Mount Starr King to Waumbek, with an intuitive and bold goat on off hours when no one else is around.

I will have a few trusted professionals who are veterinarians, along with a handful of farmers who know far more than I do about such matters.  But both the vets and the farmers are the kinds who will leave room for creativity and possibility.

I look forward to this next adventure and figuring out a lot of things I don’t know. A study of my life will tell you there have been many such moments.  There’s something that draws me to a life that is unorthodox where coloring outside the lines is not only accepted, but preferred.  Discoveries of the self (and the world) are made, after all, where the maps end and the unknown begins.

Onward, by all means.

P.S.:  Oh, and in case you were wondering, that Ironman distance triathlon on the Cape in September of 1988?  I came out of the water next to last, made up ground on the bicycle, and avergaged ten minute miles on the marathon portion. My finishing time was 12:36 if I recall correctly. The following year the race moved to Sunapee in southern New Hampshire.  I passed out at the sixteen mile mark of the run.  However, the following year, inspite of some crazy internal bleeding, I finished in 11:00.  That was my last endurance event.  Up until now.


Meghan said...

I like that you choose your own routes & that they are unorthodox, Tom. I miss you guys. Hope to see you soon. We're due for a nice fireside chat in that backyard of yours with the bears, crows, chipmunks & Atti & Will!

Nellie Branan said...

Go for it! Do what you do best -- follow your dream. Onward!

Susie said...

And the offer still stands...I do windows.

Shannon said...

I adore the fact that your quest to bake the perfect vegan muffins is included in this new adventure!!!

Cara said...

Follow your bliss, the best is yet to come. We'll be there rooting for you and yours. Our culture must rethink our relationship with the animal kingdom, and rebuild a partnership. You will help to bring new joy to all, both two-legged and four-legged.

Donna Jean said...

Another great blog Tom! I do believe this farm is your future paradise and also a safe haven paradise for all those animal who will enjoy the healing love of Tom Ryan. Onward my friend, I hope to someday visit again and see the magic place you have planned.

Sandy Didner said...

As Theodore Herzel said, "If you will it, it is no dream." I know you will accomplish whatever you envision. I must also thank you for introducing me to Louise Penny and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I, of course, have taught many poems by Mary Oliver, but I would not have read Dog Songs if you had not mentioned it. Many of my students have been so abused and beaten by parents; therefore, I discussed Oliver's poem "Percy Wakes Me" with them for a half hour, and after our analysis all of them said they would nurture their children in quite a different way than they had been raised. Thank you for sharing your dreams, ambitions, and ethics. They have not only influenced me, but also my students.

Janet Taylor said...

Onward and upward Tom, Will and Atti. Looking forward to your nest adventure. God bless

Mi Mi said...

Onward and upward Tom, Will and Atti. Looking forward to your nest adventure. God bless

Sandy Zerbinopoulos said...

An honorable quest awaits you all! Best of luck in finding that piece of heaven in Northern NH to begin your very own farm community of kindred souls - humankind and animals! It will be a blessed spot on earth for all - Sandy Z.

Linda said...

Thank you for sharing your dreams with us. It inspires us to also go for our dreams too. I love the White Mountains and run away from busy Connecticut to my trailer in the national forest of Crawford Notch every opportunity. Hiking many of those amazing summits with my dog, Ruthie, has helped to heal tha deepest parts of my body and soul. I would to one day live there too. It is my dream. It can happen!

Hebrews 11:1 (ISV) Now faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists.

Elsa said...

I wish you success in achieving your dream! A few years ago I visited a local animal sanctuary during their Open House. It was lovely to see 10 aged and special-needs small dogs and a few cats living inside the house. Outside were various farm animals, and many horses, all rescues. Our host told us many humorous stories and insights into the various animals there. It took a lot of work, but it was a beautiful place. You will achieve your paradise on earth, I'm sure!

Carol B said...

I think you should write a fiction book about those kids on an island--that's a fascinating concept!

Carter W Rae said...

Exciting Tom we can't help but be very happy for your journey !!! Thanks for being kind and sharing with us Great fun in seeing your journey!!! From us !!!

Betty and Lenny said...

Hi Tom,

We are always available for family and friends. You never need a reservation, to kiss Lenny's head, for good luck, on this next phase of your life's journey.

Have sweet dreams and peace to you, Atticus, and Will.

Hugs from here to there.

Anonymous said...

I have followed my own heart on many wild life adventures. Some were stunning failures; some were never finished; some were abandoned; some left only bittersweet memories; and some shine forth as the greatest accomplishments of my life. No matter what happens, it will be worth it! Good luck, my friend.

Ursula R said...

How lucky you are! Wishing you the best on your next adventure. Looking forward to reading about you, Atticus, and Will on the farm with all your menagerie. Bless you all.

Anonymous said...

I thought of Henry's quote when I read your blog: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” As your Jackson life winds down I hope your Farm life is a great one, and that you will tell us all about it.


Clay Lincoln said...

Our own ego Is preventing learning the world. We are all animals and yet our understanding of other species assumes we are the top species.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so open with your blog. We have missed you two! ~ Alicia