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.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Stars Aligning

Oh, how the winter night calls to us. Yes, there may be less light these January days than we’d like, but in the darkness, the stars shine brightly.  For me, it has always been a metaphor for my faith. 

The other night Samwise and I were in the forest, having timed our walk so that we were there in the darkness. It’s part of his training, and part of my joy. Slowly I have been introducing my young companion to various aspects of the natural world he’ll deal with when he’s ready to hike without limitation. 

A couple of weeks ago during a talk I gave at the Currier Museum of Arts in Manchester as part of their celebration of the White Mountain artists of the 1800s, I was asked why I was limiting Samwise’s time on the trails. The first answer is a simple one, something I fear is being lost as hikers become more aggressive with their pursuit of hiking goals. A dog’s body needs to mature. He’s just turned a year old, and I won’t feel comfortable getting him out on a mountain and on a trail longer than five miles until he’s eighteen months old. His joints and his bones need the time. 

However, there is another issue. It’s the mental aspect of hiking. Samwise is still a pup, gregarious and joyous with boundless energy. But he doesn’t know yet what he doesn’t know. He needs to be aware of his limitations. His first experience with ice was comical, but it was carefully monitored so that he didn’t fall through it into deep water. He’s still learning about wildlife and he’s so friendly I'm concerned about his encounters with those who might not take so kindly to his enthusiasm. Especially moose and porcupines. He’s also still learning to be a good citizen, to fit in appropriately with people and understand that it is not okay to jump up on folks when he meets them. Or to understand that not all people like dogs. 

I fully respect all of this, and I want him to be a bit more seasoned before he heads up into the mountains of New Hampshire. But that still leaves us plenty of gentle hiking throughout the region. A favorite locale has become Thorne Pond. I’ve written about its lyric setting before, but it is a perfect training ground for him to learn to sit, stay, observe, and be polite. 

Fortunately for me, he’s the smartest four-footed fellow I’ve lived with. He picks up on things quickly. He’s obsessively observant. He’s learned to sit and watch the locals like the lone otter and the lone heron as they live their lives around the pond. He’s done well with bears encountered along the trail, and although he sorely tempted, he restrained himself from running with a fox. (Frankly, I’m not sure the fox would know what to make of my smiling friend as he tried to lick him to death.)

More than any other dog I’ve been acquainted with, he loves to look up. At night, I’ll wake in bed seeing him next to me sitting and looking out the window. In the middle of the evening, he’s drawn to the moon and the stars. When we are in the car and moving down the road, when a bird flies overhead, he watches until it leaves his sight. Recently, when I bought a convertible and while visiting friends on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve down in Newburyport, I took the top down. He was mesmerized by the lights downtown, and the stars when we reached the countryside. 

When we were in the woods the others night, I let him run as he’s wont to do, but I kept recalling him to my side. When we entered the meadow, I stopped in my tracks at the vision of Mars, the moon, and Venus lined up perfectly in a small area. I called Samwise back and asked him to sit with me. As I knelt, he sat. That’s when he looked up and saw the three celestial bodies together. He didn’t move, other than to keep his head craned upward in wonder. I felt his body's weight against mine, felt his warmth and his calm. 

The past year has been one of intense experiences for me. My near death, Atticus’s unexpected death, Samwise’s unexpected arrival, my long recovery, finishing the final draft of my latest book. But at that starry moment, all time and past and future disappeared. I felt my place in the universe with pure understanding. As Emerson would say in his Transcendental way, or Muir in his kinship of the wild, Samwise and I were with our peers out in that snowy field, with stars so brilliant, so bewildering, and humbling, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of all we saw. And that little line that divides man and beast vanished and what we shared was the sacrament of communion. 

Nature has a way of bringing us home. If we pay attention to her ways, if we have reverence for her, and gratitude, the song that emanates in her heart, plays in ours. Every vibration is there for us. Every quaver, every octave, and note. No matter what life throws at us – the good, the bad, the day-to-day – we are always part of the grand scheme of things. All we need do is recognize it. 

That night, with Samwise by my side, both of us intoxicated the heavenly firmament, I recited some simple words from that old New Hampshire farmer, Robert Frost. Perhaps his shortest poem, “A Question.”

“A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”


Lynni OHaver said...

During my September trip last year, Thorne Pond quickly became my fav place to visit. I have never witnessed any place like it. I enjoyed just sitting & listening and take in all that surrounded me. I can only imagine the beauty of the night sky this time of year. Your words are intoxicating, yet provide a sense of calm for me. As always thank you for sharing. Please give a hello to all the beauty of the White Mountains for me.

Candy said...

So enjoy your experiences, both you and Samwise. Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poets, and I had forgotten this short poem; thank you for bringing it to light. It will be interesting to read about Samwise's connections as you both move through the world.

Joan T. said...

I can picture it all. Thank you for your thoughtful and loving words. You paint beautiful pictures with your words. Love it!

Mrs A said...

Another beautiful post ending with a beautiful poem. It's a magical time with a young dog so intrigued with everything around him, and with a wise partner to guide him along the way it's wonderful.

Newfie said...


k kelly said...

Thank you! You help to make us all better people!

Kristin Harmon said...

Lovely post, and thank you for sharing. My parents, Cleo, Molly, Oscar, and I all send a warm "hello" to you and Samwise, and we pray you both have a very blessed and special day!

Pam Noble said...

Your blogs always make me smile

ASLdogs said...

I am a new fan of your writing. Found Following Atticus paperback at a Animal Humane thrift store and fell in love with the story of you and Atticus. A little online research to learn you are writing another book about your life with a new dog. I feel like I missed the 2nd sequel in a series of 3. Reading here in your blog, will you write more about your loss of Atticus and your response to your recent health issue (what ever that was)? How did you come to meet Samwise?
I want to know and read more! Melissa and her 4 rescued deaf or deaf/blind dogs

Dawn Barger said...

Thank you ( again) for sharing! You keep me humbled with your observations and views!

Anonymous said...

It's almost as if the stars do tease us, Tom, into guessing all the questions on an upcoming final exam. You always offer us such beautiful clues to the possibilities. And, I for one, want you in my study group for a long time to come!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing so realistically and beautifully that I could feel I was actually there looking up at Mars, the moon, and Venus in the woods with you. And that night and 3000 miles away, I looked up at Mars, the moon, and Venus while in my backyard. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

shawna ramsey said...

Hi Tom,
Thank you for your beautiful words. I am new to your posts after falling in love with Atticus, and Will. Wishing you all the best for healing and being with Samwise in the new year!

shawna ramsey said...

Tom, thank you for telling the wonderful stories of your life, and having such faith in the world to keep your companions safe while you are following them! I have climbed in the Sierras and love my schnauzers... but I have not thought to combine them. Shame on me! You have set a new standard for thoughtfulness and companionship and each day is bigger with your voice in it. Thank you.

Dick ODonnell said...

I was told I had cancer 2 years ago and today after a surgery to remove my voice box I now breath through my neck. I have been told I am now cancer free. I did a lot of reading while I was sick and the book that inspired me the most was following atticus.I have now started to hike at age 60 to get back in shape the cancer took a lot out of me. At the trail head of every hike in the Belknap range I say this one is for you Atticus. Thank you Tom for keeping the life in me!