As I generally prefer dogs to people, it’s fitting that I share a few thoughts about Arlo on his birthday.

Now it’s not that I prefer all dogs to all people – some of my best friends are people – but Arlo tends to put most of us to shame in the areas that count.

This guy has never lied to me.  He takes our social contracts seriously and generally holds up his end of the bargain.  IMG_0735Years ago, for example, we came to an agreement whereby if he was called in from the backyard, and he did so, he would get a treat and a “good boy” when he came inside.  To demonstrate his commitment to this pact, he will frequently ask to go outside, turn right around to come back in without me even having to call for him.  Cynics might think this a duplicitous ploy to get a treat, but I know better.  It’s called integrity.  Him doing his part without being asked.

He’s always happy to see me. Me, you, everybody. Always. Very, very happy.

He doesn’t take anything too seriously.  Notable exceptions being squirrels and rabbits.  But even then it’s his selflessness that stands out.  IMG_0338You might live five doors down, but he understands that squirrels and rabbits are a neighborhood problem, one that doesn’t stop at some artificial line separating his yard from yours.   He will go above and beyond (and under and through) to combat this scourge.  Should he trash your flower bed on the heels of a rabbit, he does so with full knowledge that sometimes there is collateral damage in pursuit of the greater good.

He’s not hung up on body image.  Shower him with compliments over how good looking he is and he’ll trot off to find some fresh bear scat or a dead carcass to roll in.  He likes to keep it real.

Arlo is a character with character.  While his public antics elicit smiles and chuckles, there is a side to him few get to see.  He and I spend many days and evenings together away from our family, and he has a keen sense for the state of my mental health, particularly in the evening.  If I am in a funk, or maybe drifting from solitude into isolation, he picks up on it.  But more importantly he acts on it.  He will often rise from his resting place and relocate to my place of unrest.  His paw or chin will go to my lap or his body will cover my feet.  He offers true compassion and asks for precious little in return.

So happy birthday my good friend.  Long may you run.


Breaking Trail

If the function of a writer is to write, which it is, I haven’t been very functional lately.  Feast and famine cycles aren’t new to me, but at least over the course of this latest dry spell I enjoyed the company of my son Graham who had been working with me while on his winter break from college.

We were preparing for a snowshoe event coming up in Eagle River.  Breaking trail, cutting and splitting wood for campfires, hauling straw bales for folks to sit on.  Being together in the January northwoods.  IMG_0995It was a joy to have him up here with me, especially in the evenings.  He’s a good cook, a good companion, and as this time together reinforced, a good man.

It’s been a real January in the north woods.  Working off a long list of tasks with a deadline, we allowed the weather to arrange their completion, or at least the time of day when they might be done.  Sometimes breakfast would take a little longer than needed while the temperature was allowed to rise a bit, and the indoor tasks generally took a morning slot, chains to be sharpened, signs to be built.

And then it was a dad and a son and a dog in the woods and they don’t make weather bad enough to spoil that.

The snowbound woods were silent but for snowshoed feet making our way.  One of us stopped now and again to point at some scene as beautiful as another we’d just passed, or to identify a good spot for a trail marker.  Words weren’t needed but sometimes we’d string a couple together as if we were supposed to.  Together we enjoyed the IMG_1008woodland solitude.  The Germans, ever efficient in their vernacular, call it waldeinsamkeit, and with similar efficiency we placed one foot in front of the other leaving marks in both the snow and our memories.  Arlo scoffed altogether at the concept of efficiency and crossed our trail repeatedly, coming from places we may never lay eyes on.

With another set of tasks checked off we gather our chill and our tools and bring them back to the farmhouse for some warmth and a meal.  Out of the woods the words flow more freely.  A recap of the day between mouthfuls and some thoughts on what tomorrow might hold with the weather checked.  An evaluation of what worked and what didn’t with how we were dressed and what might be changed tomorrow.  Glances down at Arlo who will be licking his paws well into the evening.

On one particular evening conversation went well past when the old man typically retired.  The younger was enthusiastic in his want to discuss all things celestial, the physical universe and the confounding notion that it bears an edge.  Time and space and spacetime, God and physics and questions without answers.  A father and son and waldeinsamkeit.  A dog licking its paws.  A different kind of trail was broken that evening, winding unmarked through mysteries and circling back upon itself.  Each of us stopping at different points suggesting that here might be a good spot for a trail marker.  The bed was soft that night.

Then another January morning and a breakfast that took  a little longer than needed.

Plus or Minus

As I write this in the predawn hours it is -29F in Eagle River, WI and +24 in Eagle River, AK.  So the temperature in Eagle River is -3F, plus or minus roughly 27 degrees.  I am in Wisconsin.

From the window I see the smoke from the wood furnace rising perfectly vertical and new pope white against the black morning sky.  Waiting a few hours to stoke the furnace would mean only a negligible increase in temperature and an opportunity missed.  There is something about the early morning sky, in the darkest hours before the dawn, that draws me in.  It dons a mystical aura when the air is very still and very cold.

So while the coffee brews and with wool socks already on my feet, I slip on tall boots and a few layers of fleece.  Arlo is standing by the door looking up at the handle waiting for a gloved hand to do what he can’t, and is the first to bolt out into the cold morning air. IMG_0366_2 He will dash off into the balsams in an attempt to flush out an unsuspecting rabbit, will take care of his morning business and then eventually join me by the woodpile.  He lives for mornings like this, and for any other kind of morning for that matter.

But on cold still mornings like this while he wanders the area with his nose, I like to stand still for a bit and just listen to the absolute nothing that surrounds us.  Every now and then these very cold morning vigils are rewarded by a loud crack from the ice on the creek below me or from a living tree freezing.  Short of that, the clear black morning sky, the same cloudless sky that allowed the temperature to plummet, offers a tapestry of morning planets and constellations that only the earliest of risers witness.

There was a January morning a few years back, similar to this morning in time and temperature, when I noticed Arlo sitting near me in the snow gazing at the stars.  I had never before witnessed a dog doing this and it confirmed for me that we were born of the same exploding star.

But as with that morning, my reverie is broken by the growing pain of sharp cold on my exposed face.  I open the wood furnace door, rake the night coals forward, and charge it with a tier of fresh logs sufficient to get through the day.  Near dusk I will do the same, a bit more generously and with wood more carefully chosen, to ensure a good coal bed in the morning.  Then back inside to a warm meal, an evening read and a resting dog.  And on the eastern horizon constellations will be rising to begin their night path across the sky, knowing that I will greet them in the morning.