Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Just Thinking About Dogs

There are three pictures on a book shelf across from my desk. Two are black & white and one is color and the color one is of my mother kneeling beside my Springer Spaniel, Gretel. I’d just had Gretel to the groomer and I stopped at my mother’s home for our daily visit and coffee, and to let her see Gretel all groomed and cleaned up. It was the last time my mother saw Gretel alive because two days later a drunk driver hit and killed my dog. The shock of having my dog die in my arms is something I have never recovered from. Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve seen my share of death and some of it has been in pretty large doses, but having that wonderful, loving, spirited dog die in my arms while my wife was driving madly to the vet’s office has never left me and that’s probably why the two black and white photos are on my shelf. One is of Gretel when she was only a few weeks old, hiding behind a pine tree and playing “catch me.” The other is of me leaning over to pet her. I’ve got a shotgun in my hand and we’re standing in water. The look on Gretel’s face tells it all—she’s having a great time.

That’s not the only picture of Gretel in my office. There is one that was taken on a partridge hunt and another of me kneeling beside her, taken the same day that the one of her and my mother was taken. Those last pictures are treasures and every year when I make it back to Colorado I take some time to visit my friend, Al, and while there I go outside to spend a few minutes at the graves of my pets.

Between Gretel and now Cookie I had a third dog—Jenny. She too was a Springer and like all of my dogs was a wonderful part of my world and when I close my eyes I can relive and laugh about her antics. She made the cover of a couple of magazines and was a constant companion, whether fishing, hunting or just being. Jenny was fantastic at finding birds and doing what she was supposed to do—flush them into flight. After we moved to North Dakota Jenny got sick and when nothing helped I finally had to have her put down, but I didn’t have the heart to bury her here in North Dakota so I had her cremated and her ashes are on another shelf. Sometimes I pick up the urn and hold it and read her ID tag. I haven’t had the heart to scatter or bury her ashes, although Al said I could bury her ashes with the other dogs.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t pet and love all of my dogs (I now have three, plus M’s Jack Russell, Rylie and he gets his share of my attention). Each one of them is an important part of my life and that includes my rotten Jack Russell, Rosie. She spends most of every day getting into trouble for one thing or another—although she is sound asleep in my lap as I write this. (Cookie is on my feet and Buster sleeping next to my chair. Rylie is in the house with M, probably curled up next to her in bed.) I try to balance my attention between the dogs because I know there will come a day when all I’ll have of them will be the pictures on the book shelves and the memories of them. It won’t be enough, but it’ll be better than life without having had them in my life.

I’ve always thought that dogs give our world a magical value that pound for pound has a greater worth than all of the precious metals and gemstones humanity has ever mined. Those of us who hunt with our dogs, whether they are so-so hunters or smarter than we are, get the added pleasure of stocking up on memories that give our lives a depth of meaning the non-hunter can never share.

Dogs in our lives sort of make everything else bearable, don’t you think?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Radish Sandwiches and Nature

I remember the summer trips, years ago, when I went with my parents to the family farm near Lamont, Oklahoma to spend the day working in the garden. My parents, Fred and Dora, usually planted a garden that included just about anything that would grow in Oklahoma. I don’t remember how they watered it during the driest and hottest summer days but I’m sure they pumped water from the well and had some kind of hose gizmo or some such thing. I vividly remember that each time I’d accompany them, whether just my father or both my parents, we always worked through the morning; pulling weeds and hoeing the rows of vegetables until it was time for lunch. Before walking over to sit in the shade near the well and the metal pump we would pull some green onions and plump radishes from the garden, sometimes we had leaf lettuce and we’d pick a little of that as well. In the shade of the elm trees we washed what we’d picked, my Dad working the pump handle while I washed away the dirt. When everything was clean we sat down and prepared our lunch—radish, onion, leaf lettuce and cheese sandwiches. We’d buttered the bread before we left home and the bread was thick slices of my mother’s homemade bread. To this day it is a sandwich that I make for myself whenever I have radishes in my fridge, today, however, was truly special because I had radishes fresh from my small garden. I pulled them from the ground and dropped them on a pile of greens that I’d just cut, then I carried everything into the house, washed the harvest and after putting most of the greens (I couldn’t help it, I had to much a few as fast as I washed them.) in the fridge, saving a crisp mustard green leaf for the first layer of my radish/onion and cheese sandwich, which I washed down with strong, black coffee.

Today I know that I enjoyed a small, but still significant harvest, and it is what kicked in the memories of “the farm” and living in north central Oklahoma in the 50s and 60s. The other thing I remember is that about the only wildlife we ever saw on the farm, other than birds feeding on mulberries, was cottontails, jackrabbits and an occasional coyote. I have absolutely no memory of ever seeing a deer, turkey or even a quail on the farm. My parents sold that farm in 1961 and I did not return for 35 years but when I did there was nothing left to mark the place that had been the farmstead, that alone my parent’s garden. Every nail from any out building, the farm house, or a splinter from any fence post, had all been taken away or returned to the earth. In town, however, I talked with a man who told me that in the creek bottom there were turkeys and deer and quail had returned to the area. That was 15 years ago. It’s getting close to time for me to take a trip back to Oklahoma and visit the site of the farm, place some flowers on the tombstones of my brothers buried in Oklahoma and Kansas soil; I'll see how the deer and turkeys are doing, and find out if the quail are holding their own against whatever is thinning their coveys around the country.

I wonder if that’s what we mean about some of us being “nature-based” people. We grew up with our fingers digging into the soil to both plant and harvest our crops, however small or large, and when we look out, at the places where we hunt and fish, we don’t see dividing lines between wilderness and non-wilderness, we just see nature and we know where we fit into it.

I remember that a worm was used for bait to catch a fish we would eat that night and a shotgun and shell we used to kill a rabbit or a duck that would be a meal. Life was all natural and ordered, just like those radish sandwiches. Thick slices of homemade bread with butter spread on them, first a leaf of lettuce then green onions, sliced thin and lengthwise and laid on the bread, then the radishes, cut into slices and spread over the onions and sometimes a sprinkle of salt for flavor and finally slices of cheese cut from a chunk of strong cheddar cheese bought that morning. When the layers were in place the bread was pressed down slightly, to hold everything together for each new bite—start to finish. Finally it was washed down with cold well water slurpped from hands cupped under the pump’s spout. Then it was time to go back to the garden and gather a small harvest before starting home.

Strange, the things we tend to think about, don’t you think? glg