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, October 09, 2014

An Unusual Guest On A Wild Night

We have been off center the last several days.  There was an accident in our little apartment and we’ve been left with some water damage.  The carpet in the bedroom is one of the casualties.  Mold formed quickly and because of it Atticus and I have been sleeping on the couch with Will tucked in one of his dog beds just below my head.  We have a small place, but a cheery one, and the kitchen and living room is combined with big windows on the east and west side and a glass door to the north that looks out on a quaint roofed deck where there sits a small table and two chairs with some plants along the railing. 

Two nights ago a wicked storm blew across the mountains and covered the bright moon with fast moving clouds.  When the rain came it was as if the sky exploded and heavy raindrops pounded on the metal roof of the house.  I sat up on the couch to look out from our second floor perch into the backyard to the skeleton of our black ash tree, which had dropped its leaves several weeks ago.  The heavy rain was mesmerizing.  I tucked back into sleep with Atticus behind my knees and Will snoring blissfully below. 

Sometime later I was startled awake by a crash.  One of the ceramic planters must have been blown over by the storm on our deck.  I walked to the door and took my headlamp off the knob and turned it on.  I could see the planter broken into bits but I also saw an enormous bear settling down on the deck, it seemed, to take shelter from the storm.  When the light flashed on him he jumped up and turned around, ready to race down the stairs. 

It was Butkus, who I had not seen in over a year.  He’s the largest and oldest of our local bears and the first we encountered some five years ago. I turned the headlamp toward myself so he could see me and gave him a casual wave.  He stopped, moved closer to the door to look at me, and then he sat down. 

We haven’t seen the bears for nearly two months.  There is a house that is rarely used right next door to us.  You cannot see it because of the trees and the way it’s back form the road.  But for the past two months a young man in his twenties was staying there.  He rode a motorcycle and revved it loudly shaking walls and the peace and quiet.  He came and went  at all hours of the night.  Through other discoveries (which I will not go into) I learned he was not a very nice fellow. Since the time he moved in the bears had stopped coming by.  They are funny that way.  Although they have always come and gone in Jackson as they please, drawn by the sweet and savory aromas of the inns and restaurants here, they watch closely and don’t reveal themselves often when things are different.  Whenever our landlords are up for a visit and staying downstairs they bears don’t reveal themselves.  Nor do they when the landlords let friends use their place.  But as soon as the downstairs is quiet again, the bears return.  Alas, this hasn’t been the case over the last two months. 

But the young fellow next door is now gone and I wondered if we’d see any of the bears again before they disappeared for the winter.  And here was Butkus, enormous and wet and sitting out the storm on our deck. 

I watched him for a few minutes and then pulled the comforter and pillow and my Kindle from the couch and sat with my back against the glass door, drawn by this incredible animal.  Soon Atticus was with me, his head raised up on my thigh watching Butkus.  Eventually Butkus lay down and placed his huge head against the glass next to where my head rested against the pillow.  Our eyes were only the width of the glass apart. It wasn’t long before both Atticus and Butkus were asleep. 

When I woke up, still pressed against the door where I sat with Atticus and Butkus the night before, the rain was gone and so was our neighbor.  Blue skies poured over the valley and the sun danced on the jeweled raindrops left behind.  A gift of a day followed the gift of the night before.

The bears fascinate me.  We know enough to be careful around them and to make sure they have an exit plan, and so do we.  We don’t encourage them with food; they just pass by on their way to other places.  Occasionally they linger for a little while, but they don’t appear to be very comfortable with most people.  They obviously didn’t like the short term lodger next door, and they don't like the family that moved in on the other side of us.  Once when Atticus and I were sitting out back a few months ago Aragorn showed up and sat contentedly with us fifteen feet away for fifteen minutes.  Some of you may remember the photographs.  He only left when our neighbors came outside, unseen due to the summer foliage, but easily heard.  He gnashed his teeth and repeatedly snapped his jaws before growling and running down to the Ellis River. Last year when two of our moderators, Christina and Mike, showed up for a visit while Atticus and I were watching the “Jackson Five” (a mother and four cubs) playing in the yard, the bears abruptly left. 

I’m not certain why they come around us as they do.  I’ve always believed it has something to do with Atticus and how other animals are often drawn to him.  That’s how we met Aragorn three years ago.  He was a yearling and followed us home from a walk. He trailed us for half a mile before showing up in our backyard.  When I reminded Atticus, “Not all dogs are friendly,” Atti sat down.  In the bushes on the border of our yard Aragorn did, too.  When Atticus dropped into the sphinx position, so did Aragorn.  Since that day, of all the bears, it’s been Aragorn who spends the most time around us, always looking to Atticus, and occasionally to me. 

I’m reminded of our third floor apartment in Newburyport where there was a window box without flowers in it.  We couldn’t plant anything because the wind would rise up from the Merrimack River and rush up State Street removing any of the flowers there.  But one year a pigeon built as nest and Atticus, who was very young, stood up on his hind legs with the window open and watched her, his head less than a foot away.  When there were chicks in the nest he was fascinated by them and the mother thought nothing of leaving them behind to seek out food while Atticus watched over them. 

Pigeons are one thing, but bears are another.  Although I’m fascinated by all forms of wildlife, the bears most intrigue me because of how we share this yard with each other.  When young ones come along, I typically scare them away.  But the older ones know their boundaries with us and I let them come and go as they will.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

As Atticus Ages, I Find Myself Growing Up A Bit

Lately I've been keeping company during the late hours of each night with May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude."  I've encountered her poetry for years and whenever I do I appreciate her gift, but her journal is something deeper, more honest and genuine.  The late New Hampshire poet lived down in the Monadnock area and well understood the small towns that dot our state and the land and weather we all know intimately. 
Each night, I read an entry.  I portion it out so that I will not finish the book too quickly.  Each morning, as Atticus and I walk or hike, her words return to me while we pass through the colorful foliage, along earthen paths, by rivers and ponds, to ledges with views more breathtaking than I've ever noticed.  For this certainly has been the best fall foliage I've seen in years.  And just as the colors and the light have been luminous, so are her words.  How fortunate we are to live here, and how fortunate to have poets and writers who understand New Hampshire.  As they reflect this great area and the natural world that surrounds us, Nature reflects who we are as we surrender to her charms.  
There is something in Sarton's journal entries that pierce me.  A stark reality made beautiful.  It's exhibited in the way she sees the trees and her words offer lessons to each of us.  Perhaps lessons we already know, but need a gentle reminder to see clearly once again.  How appropriate she starts off in the fall and notes the changing of the landscape.  Just as we are currently witnessing as we look out the kitchen window, walk the dog, or drive to work.   
As Atticus continues to age I am faced with a new reality. He's twelve now; in the autumn years of his life.  He's not as quick or strong as he once was. His hearing is failing - a bit.  His eyes don't see as clearly as night, nor do they judge depth as accurately either.  But he's still well, still enjoys getting out and about.  If we are not out three times a day he stares at me as I write to remind me we need to be outside.  "Get a move on," I imagine his stern look saying.  "Life is calling."
As Atticus ages, I find myself growing up a bit.  For when dogs are young or in the prime of their lives, we are all children in their company.  But I am learning to accept things that the young may not quite comprehend.  One of them is understanding we won't be returning to nearly any of the highest peaks we've done together.  Not at his age.  And the next time I return to Franconia Ridge or the Bonds or the Presidentials, it will be without him.  Hopefully it will be years down the road.  But still I have been forced to accept the change we all must deal with when those we love turn elderly and cannot get around quite as easily as they once did. 
But amidst the loss, there is a grace to be found.  Look no further than the trees that blaze bright red, orange, and yellow everywhere we look.  May Sarton wrote: "I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep."  Then she added: "Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go."
It seems that is the lesson we are learning in Atticus's old age.  To let go of the past.  Past expectations.  Past performances on the trails.  We both are older than we were when we started hiking ten years ago, but while I'm middle aged, my four-legged friend is now becoming elderly. 
Acceptance has come in the form of appreciating nature whenever we experience it and wherever we can.  So what if we don't go as high as we used to or traverse for as many miles?  In the White Mountains we are blessed with waterfalls and valleys, ponds that are secreted away where the moose go to play and eat, and rivers both strong and gentle.  The air is clean, the wildlife abounds, and we are still free as we wish to be as we make our way into the forest each time we enter one, leaving the car and the rest of the busy world behind. 
Nature calls to us and we still respond.  Our age doesn't matter.  As we grow older we temper our desires and find new places to embrace and different ways of getting lost in nature in order to get lost in ourselves.   
Nature teaches us what we need to learn.  We merely have to take the time to pause and pay attention.  Right now the trees are reminding me that in the autumn they are at their most beautiful.  Looking to Atticus now as I write this, his eyes are a tad bit cloudier, his muzzle has a touch of gray in it.  Beyond that though, he shines as he always has.  Only this morning, in mountain air clean and cool, he bounced along a trail that traces the Saco River like he was a pup again.  Young and free and happy.
The passage of the seasons is much like the passage of life.  There are lessons to be learned and gifts to received, no matter the time of year. No matter the time of life.