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.”