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, August 10, 2017

From Our Time on the Trails this Morning

I don’t spend much time in the past. I don’t wallow in sadness, spend prolonged periods mourning or wishing things were different. On occasion, though, I find myself thinking of those who have left this life. It’s only natural. Memories float to me like the fragrances of wild flowers or the smell of late afternoon shade on a hot summer day. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Aunt Marijane, who I wrote about in “Will’s Red Coat.” 

She comes to mind when I’m ruminating on something, not so much trying to figure things out, but merely digesting a turn of events, a new horizon, or a moving experience. 

We both had the gift of gab and could talk for hours several times a week, but we also knew the importance of listening to each other. It's is one of the reasons our love and friendship flourished as it did during the time we had together. 

What I miss about her is the way she listened. 

Just listened. 

She didn’t feel the need to offer an answer. She didn’t make suggestions. She was present, offering herself completely to me. 

That measure of selflessness is equal parts wisdom and heart. People who want to know what you are feeling and thinking, instead of telling you what you are feeling or thinking, or should be.

Too many listen merely to respond. Like conversation is a tennis match and you’ve served, and they must return volley. But what a gift it is to just acknowledge someone, to offer yourself without judgment, without ego, without the need to be clever.

As we walk in the woods each morning, and then again each evening, my feet move thoughtfully, like the prayers I’m uttering. That’s where my answers lay in wait. In silence, through walking meditation.

One of the attributes about having a quiet partner to share nature with is an animal's ability to be quiet. There is communion between us as we share a trail but still space for our independent thoughts. In the forest, reflections come and go, and before long we’re merely out there together striding in the natural world while filling our souls. 

Lately, I’ve noticed how Samwise has matured over the past year. This morning it was evident as we were striding along an earthen path and came around a bend only to stand face-to-face with a doe and her fawn. They tensed and readied to leap and bound off. Before they did, however, I crouched down slowly next to Samwise, who was fully alert, and I whispered, “Let them be, please. Let’s just watch, okay?”

No leash. No collar. No need for a hand or a firm voice to restrain him. 

He sat next to me; his body was as ready to spring as theirs were. Yet he stayed still, as did they. When he relaxed, so did they. Instead of bolting, they lingered before peacefully meandering on. The fawn, trailing behind her mother, looked back at us curiously as they moved through the undergrowth. The mother seemed to know we were not a threat.

These moments of growth serve as graduation days for Samwise, notches on the wall where I can see how far he’s come.

Were Marijane still alive and I told her about this she would offer no explanations or reasons or answers as to why things occurred as they did in the woods by the stream early in this morning. She would have taken it in, and we’d talk about it. What’s there to say, after all? An experience was offered and she received it.

When people ask me what changes I’ve noted about myself since returning from our trip, I tell them I’m quieter, more peaceful than I already was. Delving deeper, “I don’t feel the need for answers as much. I was already feeling that way before the trip but that sense of experiencing life without having to define it is more prevalent now.”

After Thoreau had died, Emerson memorialized him. In an essay he wrote: “He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.”

I can relate to Henry in that way. The science of being isn’t that important to me. I’d rather just be. 

In the forest, along paths that wind through communities of trees in all stages of life, death, and rebirth I feel the same way. Science is necessary, but I leave the need to know such things to others for that’s not why I come to the woods. 

Marijane hiked right up until the last decade of her life. She was fond of sharing trails with those she loved, but mostly she went into the desert with only a four-legged companion. Sometimes I see her walking that way. Sometimes I talk to her, and I know what she’d say in response to my observations. Her voice rings clear. When we sign off, she joyously offers the same closing she did in life, “Walk in beauty, Tommy.”

I do my best. 

A loving friend often asks me the best part of my day. I fear I bore her because my answers rarely change. It’s typically about our time in the forest, away from the busy world where we are embraced by the natural world.

Last week I climbed my first mountain in quite a while. It was clear that I am still rehabbing, still gaining strength because it wiped me out. It’s the up and down that messes with my blood pressure and my heart. The dizziness stirs, and I pay attention to it. After a break, it relaxes its spell and Samwise and I continue. 

Still, even knowing that climbing up is still difficult for me, I am enthralled with the forests and the streams that nourish them. Slowly I gather strength. A few months ago I couldn’t walk three miles. Now we log between six and seven a day. At the beginning of spring, I could not have crouched down as I did this morning near the doe and her fawn without getting dizzy. 

Just as Samwise matures, my balance and my cardiovascular system improve. Parts of me died last year, and as in the trees that keep us company, there is regeneration within as there is without. 

I don’t enjoy every step, as a well-wisher suggested the other day. Hiking is hard. But I do appreciate the earned ache in my hips, the way my heart beats at a healthy cadence, and how good it feels when I lay down each night with a book on my chest and a cool late summer breeze caressing me from the window above our bed.

The other day, for this first time in years, I bought some new hiking equipment – a backpack. That is a victory itself. 

As I told Marijane the other day, “I’m in the game again.”

In this contented monk-like existence, I feel abundantly alive. In spite of all I survived, I often think of Tennyson’s words at the end of Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


Unknown said...

Oh what gorgeous writing Tom! Thank you for this beautiful missive today!

Unknown said...

Another wonderful, inspirational Blog. You continue to help me daily. For that, I am very grateful. Thank you Tom.

carolyn bonier said...

I hear you. Thank you.

mlaiuppa said...

Samwise is truly extraordinary. Or perhaps just a reflection of his owner. It takes a lot of self-discipline to override your evolutionary heritage. To sit and watch but suppress that need to chase is quite special. How magical that the two of your found each other as you are truly matched.

DebP said...

Such sweet peace I feel reading this! You are fortunate to have such a blessed aunt to share your life with. As always, thank you for allowing us to accompany you and Samwise.

Donna H said...

As your words stir, in my mind, I feel the tears dam up in my eyes. Your connection to perfect peace is spiritual. Your visions of nature and ability to share is far beyond human understanding. You truly are a Spiritual being in a physical world. You invite your friends at your side to join you in that peaceful spiritual presence. Your healing in your body comes from a miracle sent from a higher power of love.

Betty Fagen said...

Hi Tom,

Before my dear husband, Daniel, passed away at the age of 37, he thanked me for being.

My friend I thank you for being.

Samwise has grown into a handsome & loving buddy. I'm so happy that the both of you have one another.

As your strength continues to return - your walks will become easier and I pray that comes soon.



pegeston said...

Your words convey your sense of peace in the woods beautifully.

Unknown said...

It's just so
lovely to soak in your writings.

Unknown said...

Enjoy every word always.

Unknown said...

Truly, walked in beauty ��

Mollie said...

Dear Tom,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You've inspired me to go to the Laguna Mountains tomorrow for a walk. I'm way overdue.

It's good to hear that you are feeling better and able to walk many miles each day!

The part about Samwise & you being present with the doe and her fawn--love, trust.

Your Aunt Marijane--she sounds like a gem. There aren't enough listeners in this world--at least not in my world. I'll have to put it out to the universe that a listener is needed. I love listening to people. The quieter I am the more they share about themselves.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

As always, Tom - Beautiful ! I look forward to your blogs and feel so good when there's a new one to feed my soul. Carry on with your re-hab though it seems slow. Many of us are there with you.
Bea Johnson

Anonymous said...

my book of the month club is reading "Following Atticus". We will discuss it next Monday. I just loved reading it and didn't want it to end.
I intend to purchase the Red Coat book after our discussion. My family vacationed in the White Mountains in 1969. Your writings brought back memories. Thank you. Connie Richards

Melissa B. Martin said...

I just finished the book about your dear Will. It was such a lovely and endearing book and I loved to read about your life with Will and Atticus. Thank you so much for sharing their story. I have always had rescue dogs, some older and with health issues, but I have always felt I got more from them than I ever gave. I am always amazed how they respond to love and care. I hope you are feeling better and that the mountain air continues to rejuvenate you.

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading "following atticus." I cant count how many people Ive talked to on White Mountain summits who have asked if I had read it. I hike with my 18-pound poodle-cairn terrier mix. Willie Nelson Shakespeare is 9 and has hiked for almost as many years. People will say things like, "I can't believe that little dog hiked this mountain." I usually reply, "no one ever told him he was a little dog!" Now I know why so many people recommended your book! Maybe we'll meet on a trail some day. . .!

Newkie said...

Dear Tom,
I returned to the White Mountains this summer, after a long hiatus, to join my cousin in her latest adventure to help fundraise for Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country. Unfortunately we never made it up Agiocochook due to the frightening Sunday forecast (including 65 mph wind!), but just being in the mountains again was glorious.

A day later, I returned to Toronto with a heavy heart. I now live too far away to get back to these beloved mountains as often as I would like (i.e. every weekend), but then I remembered something another cousin said as we were reuniting over a cold one at the Red Parka Pub. "Read Following Atticus". That was all.

I immediately found a copy and as I read, I was transported back to those beautiful musty balsam woods you now call home. What a wonderful tale. I am now 1/3 into Will's Red Coat, and I am compelled to write to you, Tom, and express how deeply moved I am by your writing. It has become softer and more lyrical - your words are literally leaping off the page and into my heart.

I hope you are enjoying your Sunday. It's a beautiful sunny day up here in Ontario.

Sincerely, Gillian

Rohana said...

Hi Tom:

I just read your latest blog two months after the fact. As always, you make me feel better. I love your spirit; you're so connected to the earth in places I only dream about. Not too many mountains in Florida, but my plan is to hike some of the White Mountains next summer or early fall. My White Mountain guide book should arrive soon and then I'll find out what I've signed up for. Then next year I will hike some of the same trails that you and Atticus did so many years ago. I will be following Atticus, and I hope that I can learn to be as Buddha-like as you and your beautiful dogs.

Take care.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading following atticus and I literally cried the last few chapters. I am now going on Amazon to purchase the Wills Red Coat. I often feel that others cannot begin to understand the love between a dog and a human but you have captured it beautifully. I can't wait to read your entire blog because I've just found this and to follow you on Facebook.

Rich said...

I just ordered 3 copies of Will's Red Coat. I haven't been here in a while, but something prompted me to check in on Atticus after my daughter lost her beloved rescue Doberman this week. I was heartbroken to read Atticus had passed away. I scrolled back to your moving eulogy in May. I'm a grown man but began sobbing like a baby at your words. My wife said, "What's wrong?" I could barely utter, "Atticus died."

Our own best 4-legged friend Bailey, past away a year ago. His ashes are by the fireplace where he liked to lay. He died a week after I had total knee replacement surgery and as sick as he was, never left my side. Before the surgery, he used to lick my knee. He knew, and it was his was his way of trying to fix it. I have to stop.

David Oldfather said...

We just finished reading Will's Red Coat and loved it so much we got Following Atticus from our library. I am sorry to read that Aticus is now gone, too. We have an elderly dog so we know each day with her is a gift even as each of your days with Atticus and Will (once the biting stopped) were.