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, September 08, 2016

Part of his Education

Watching the ducks, part of Samwise's education, so different than
the one he'll get in the next couple of weeks.

As the sun was setting, I looked to my left. Seated next to me was Samwise. He was alert but calm, and watching a simple scene play out in front of us. A mother duck and her four ducklings were just below us in the water, quack-quack-quacking away. He had noticed them before I did since he was walking in front of me. He stopped where he was, looked from the ducks to me, and back to the ducks. Finally, he sat, and I sat with him. 

For fifteen minutes we watched them circle in the water, never getting too far from us, always turning back to face us, their constant chatter was busy amusement. 

I repeated my mantra to Samwise, the one I always use around others if I’m not sure how he will act, “Gentle, Samwise. Always be gentle, please.” However, he didn’t need those words, for he wasn’t bothering anyone. He was sitting and watching them, curiosity percolated in his rising and falling ears.

During our fifteen minutes, the last five under the softest rain shower, he only looked at me two or three times. Mostly he kept is eyes on the young family, and listened to their incessant noise. Occasionally he lifted his gaze to Mount Pickering and Mount Stanton, whose green coats are showing the faintest of a yellow tinge. 

It’s been three months since Samwise arrived, and I couldn’t be happier for him, or us. He’s fit in nicely, is a darn good roommate who respects my things (other than a couple of instances, which we used as teaching moments), and I enjoy watching him grow toward adulthood. 

We forgo many of the terms of endearment society uses when describing non-human animals, mainly because they don’t fit us. And when people try to put the “daddy” label on me, or the “son” label on him, we sneak away as soon as possible. I like that he’s fast maturing toward equality in our relationship. One day he won’t have to be guided regarding what is acceptable and not, and what is respectful toward others, or safe for him. 

The only familial term I use, and I notice that I’ve said it a few times over the last couple of weeks as he ages, is a word I used last night. 

“What say, brother? We ready to go now?”

It’s a term I used with Atticus, and later Will. With Atticus, the mountains brought out that kinship in us. All those trails. All those peaks. All those hours through sun and snow and warmth and cold. With Will, as he let his temper evaporate and he accepted his new chapter in life, I was honored to feel a brotherhood with him, realizing that he was making a similar journey like the one I had already made. 


I find it is a word that bonds, and it comes naturally. I don’t want him to be above me, or below me. I don’t deify animals, and I don’t look down on them. Instead, I prefer to look them at them eye-to-eye. But that’s just my choice. Rumor has it that a noted author is writing about book about the words we use when dealing with other species. I hear her argument is that words mean something, and can help or hurt. Language can be a bridge that bonds us or one that is burned. 

As society changes and now refers to our four-legged friends and relations in terms that make me uncomfortable, I find that I adhere to a bond that is centuries old. Most of the learning and togetherness is forged through the osmosis of being with one another hour after hour, day after day. 

I’m not a fan of words that separate. Samwise doesn’t have a “forever home,” he has a home. Just like I do. And while he was a “rescue,” he isn’t now. As the world continues to change, the way society looks at non-human animals, I find comfort in being on the edge, further and further away, towards a life I find to be comfortable. It is one of those examples of how being an introvert helps. 

While it works, for us, I realize it doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s fine with me. I’m not trying to change the world, just live happily and peaceably in my corner of it.

I often find social media ironic for me. Part of me embraces it, while I also keep a leery eye on it. It is a contradiction that one who likes to spend so much time out of the public eye posts as much as I do. And soon, our lifestyles will face a dramatic temporary change. 

In less than two weeks, Samwise will make his first trip to a big city. I’m honored that the New England Independent Booksellers Association has invited us to be at their annual fall meeting. We’ll encounter many of the bookstore owners I’ve already met when touring with Atticus for “Following Atticus.” I look at some of them as warm acquaintances, and laughter will rise from our conversation. Atticus handled all those kinds of get-togethers with aplomb. Each event has been a celebration of sorts, and I love them, but after they are done, I seek out the quiet and feel the need to regenerate. I’m not the social butterfly I used to try to convince myself I was. 

I like people, but as my friend Martha says, sometimes she gets “peopled out.” I can relate. Some of us are made for crowds. Others are wallflowers. And then there're people like me, who at an event feels very much at ease and self-assured, but once it is over, I like shrinking off into solitude. 

A few days after the NEIBA function, we’ll participate in the Atticus M. Finch Memorial Walk for Animals. It is the first kind of walk I’ve ever participated in. Leashes are required, and I’ve never been a fan of them, preferring to place my four-legged friends in environments where they can be free. Unlike Atticus, Samwise has no aversion to a harness or lead. He’ll do well, I’m sure, in the big city, and then on the walk a few days later. 

But oh, I’m sure I will be touched by the nostalgia of Atticus walking through various cities by my side, or just in front of me, as naked as can be, while civilized folks on cell phones and drinking high-priced lattes stared at him as if he was a savage beast just out of the jungle. The last time we were at NEIBA, Atti and I went for a walk through the city in the early morning. When we came to a Starbucks, he sat outside by the door as I ordered our drinks. 

A crowd gathered around him. Camera phones out. Some were panicked that he was lost stray without a collar. As people approached him, he ignored them. When I came out, he left the circle that had formed around him. I didn’t have to say a word. He just fell into step with me, and we walked along the busy sidewalks without explanation. When we came to a little park, we sat next to each other on a bench, by a statue with a hundred of pigeons on it and around it. I put out his cup of water for him and drank my tea. The noise of the beginning of the workday faded away, as did the excitement of the night before when we met with all those wonderful booksellers. 

So Samwise is in for a bit of a culture shock. From watching beavers and ducks and bear and herons, he will be in a ballroom with many people who are glad to meet him. A few days later, we’ll stroll with Dr. Rachael Kleidon on a walk named after my dearly departed friend, my brother, as I came to know him. 

After the walk, it will be a quarter of a mile down the road to White Birch Books for an hour of meet and greet. It’s an unusual event for us, one where other well-behaved dogs are invited to. When I knew we were doing the walk, I called Laura Cummings at White Birch and said, “What the hell, since we’re being public that day, we may as well be public for an hour at the bookstore and sign some copies for those who want them. 

It will be fun. But by that afternoon, after we take our nap together, Samwise and I will once again find a lonesome patch of land where the only watchful eyes will be those of the trees and the wild things which live there. 

It is part of growing together, getting Samwise ready for the spring book tour and the long road trip that will follow. From the silence of the forest to the buzz of society - it’s all part of this life we live, and it’s all part of his education. Although he’ll be excitable at first, I look forward to the way he’ll eventually grow calm when we meet crowds. 

We grow together, towards a brotherhood that feels right, onward, we move, by all means. 


Anonymous said...

You two are about to enter a very exciting time!!

Karen Harris said...

Enjoy the trip and the new learnings for Samwise. My heart still hurts that Atticus is not there with you.

Unknown said...

Tom, your thoughts, musings, and comments, as always, are much appreciated and inspiring - allowing me to look inward more perceptively as well. All the best to you and your brother as you move onward!

Chris Pettepit said...

I just realized I refer to my ten year old mix as " my friend", as in, "ready for a walk, my friend?". I am now retired. We are inseparable. We are friends.

Candice said...

I'm with you in all you say, especially terminology. Nice to know someone else says "please" and "thank you" too. I'm looking forward to spending some time in New Hampshire and hiking a bit in the mountains with my four-legged friends next month. Thank you as always for your insights; I do so enjoy.

Newfie said...

I drink in your words each day as I drink my morning tea. Both have become essential and pleasurable!

Unknown said...

I couldn't help but laugh about "Daddy" and "Son". At the moment we don't have a dog, but do have five cats. Can just picture the look they would give me if I said something like "Come to Mommy". And most certainly, they aren't my daughters and sons, but I do find myself calling them "buddy" and that always seems to fit and they seem to know the name.

Anonymous said...

Your words and your lifestyle have been an inspiration. Thank you.

Cynthia said...

Thank you, Tom, as always, for your introspection and for digging beneath the layers to suss out the truth. I am with your friend - I, too, get "peopled out", but I have never been "animaled out".

I am certain that Samwise will do well. He has, after all, been exposed to a pretty wide spectrum of events - caged, a day from death to running, sitting, watching in your countryside and becoming your friend.

So please enjoy the trip. You will be giving a lot of people (lucky folks!) a big dose of your energy, so make sure to get some time to recharge. And many thanks for your posts and blog, a beautiful change from most of the stuff out there. Onward, by all means!

Unknown said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your inspirational words. May you and your brother travel safely on your new journey.

Donna Jean said...

My heart still hurts missing Atti too. I have quickley fallen for Samwise also but Atti is forever in my heart.

Unknown said...

Thanks again for your words of inspiration, In conversation, I use the word "Bud" where you use Brother. All of my canines have been my best "Bud" during their stay on this earth.

Barb said...

Ebb and flow of life. Takes on many adventures in life.
You are a great speaker and delightful to listen too. When I was working I enjoyed helping others but when that hat came off I was happiest when I was with natures wonders

cheza24 said...

Can't wait to hear how the adventure goes in this next chapter of Brother Samwise Education.

Unknown said...

Wishing you and your hairy (LOL) brother a wonderful next few weeks. It's going to be lots of fun. Great adventures lay ahead. It's an exciting time for you both. Sure wish I could be in NH for the walk honoring Atticus. As you always say...Onward, by all means!

Unknown said...

I am continually amazed by my "friends" they have distinct personalities that shine through when you take the time to notice! I am with you they are fellow beings sharing this so called life on earth with us. It is a journey and I pray yours and Samwise's will be long and peaceful!!! And by all means carry on!!!!

pegeston said...

I am looking forward to reading about this trip and how Samwise handles a crowd. I'm sure it will be an awesome learning experience and that he will do well.

Unknown said...

A rich essay with so many aspects to think about. Thank you, Tom; and thank you, Samwise.
Your comments about the need to retreat as an introvert are accurate for me as well. "Peopled out" is an apt way to describe it. Savoring solitude was the best way to restore my soul.
Your comment about the need for a leash/harness in the city reminded me of visiting European cities - especially Brussels - where it was rare to see a dog on a leash. They all ambled along with their humans. Would that we could see more of that in the States.
Finally, watching the ducks tugged my heart as I miss the pond I used to live on where watching a wide variety of water fowl and other animals was a part of every day.
Your essays are universal and much appreciated.

mlaiuppa said...

How exciting for Samwise. I'm sure he will do well.

I think of Ramses as my companion, along the lines of those spinster ladies of the 19th century whose job was to simply accompany ladies of a certain age and position. He's just there with me, unless he's "off duty" and doing whatever he does.

This morning he took it upon himself to snuggle with me, laying down and giving me some licks, then turning into my side for some belly rubs. He doesn't do this often and it's been a few years but he initiated it this morning and I obliged him.

He is like I am. Sometimes craving company and sometimes needing solitude.

I am looking forward hearing how Samwise reacts to his visit to the big city.