December 31, 2012
I am not one for omens. Actually that is a lie – I am sensitive to omens, but useless in their interpretation. So when I drove through the town of Pettigrew this morning, east on highway 16, and honked at the house of the late Wayne Martin as usual, I had to pull over to watch a Bald Eagle circling extremely low over the place, over and over, making a slight shift in position at precisely the right moment in each circle that would reflect sun off of snow-white head and tail – just in case I was having trouble identifying her species, or the uniqueness of the experience.
I am a biologist through and through. I do not believe in ghosts. I do not believe in reincarnation, I do not believe in messages from another parallel dimension. But, often my solid declarations feel like nothing more than semantics, so it was no surprise to me (or Carl) that I waved at the Eagle and smiled and said “good morning Wayne,” before continuing toward the Buffalo River.
I am sitting at the confluence of two streams. In typical Ozark fashion, I am surrounded by massive bluffs and shelters, Beech and Sweet Gum growing next to and into and around solid sandstone, small waterfalls, and the total isolation from humans that I seek this morning. It would be more appropriate to say living humans, since I have been following an ancient rock wall on and off for an hour or so.
We are deep in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area - two rugged hours deep, Carl and I, and our ages are showing. If we were keeping score, Carl would be ninety-one. I am thirty years his junior. My relative youth is not serving me well on these steeply sloped hillsides; several inches of new snow are complicating things in a most interesting manner.
It is one of those days when a photographer can spend the entire afternoon within ten feet of her truck, stopped by the myriad play of shadows on white snow – trees, rocks, skeletons of flowers, fallen leaves, even mosses and reindeer lichens catching the slanting winter light. And the bluff lines are solid with huge icicles that could kill an adult in the wrong place at the right time. On the north facing rock, the ice cylinders are solid and up to fifteen centimeters in diameter and two meters long. On the south facing, they are melting and dropping with a force that can be felt through the rubber and leather of my Danners, even across the distance of the valley.
Daniel Boone once said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” This area lends itself to confusion. On our last visit a few weeks ago, we nearly had to spend the night unexpectedly because of a serious case of confusion and poor planning. And the confusion is the type that has a person questioning the accuracy of a compass, weighing technology against intuition, knowing that either choice will probably lead to embarrassing headlines.
For most wanderers, a GPS unit or a topo map and compass, or of course, intuitive reckoning are the choices. For me, there is Carl. Never wrong, unless I override his decisions with my stupidity, all I have to do is say “Take me home,” and he puts his nose to the ground and backtracks perfectly to the truck, which has been waiting patiently, thermos of hot coffee hidden behind the seat. It is only when I think I know a shortcut that we go astray, with him pointing his nose to home while I head off through impenetrable under-story, until at last, his call of duty to follow and protect overrides his better judgment.
Today, rounding the end of the bluff line, we ascend to the top to find a hundred square meter section of forest floor completely bare of snow and tossed like a salad. As I was pondering what animal could have done it – bear, herd of deer, gaggle of armadillos, wild hogs, I heard a cluck and caught the tail end of a flock of turkey going over the ridge.
Twenty-two were still visible to me, and in no hurry to disappear. Apparently, Carl and I were not an intimidating couple. That break in routine made me pay attention to the dropping sun and temperature, and the need to return. “Take me home, Carl” and off we went, at his arthritic pace, one that seems to match mine more closely of late.
Twelve years together has made for such ease. Like two old cowboys, we no longer need to speak in complete sentences (although I have been known to talk his head off because of his listening skills). Carl knows when I stop on the trail whether I am just going to relieve myself, and will be right back, or whether I am about to take a photograph, and he had better find a comfortable spot to lie down. He can tell when I really do know where I’m going, or when I’m faking it and he had better be more assertive.
As we plod through the snow, I am surprised to see Carl lose the trail – our tracks clear and deep spiraling off in another direction. I head us back and he looks over his shoulder at me, embarrassed and confused, then takes the lead only to lose it again a hundred meters later. I’m laughing at him, telling him I’ll have to buy a GPS if he keeps this up. He wasn’t laughing with me. We had plenty of light and made it to the truck without incident, drove west, honked a hello at the Fallsville store, but didn’t stop.
One of the wonderful benefits of living in a cabin off the grid is the silence at night. Or not really silence, but an absence of non-essential noise. No refrigerator compressors kicking in, no central furnaces firing up. It allows you to pay attention to things – the woodstove, rain on the roof, the movement of an animal inside. You become accustomed to all the right sounds and sensitive to ones that are off somehow. I can easily hear Carl stand up and walk to the door. If he wants out, he flaps his ears – the loudest non-bark noise he makes. If he doesn’t flap, he’s just looking, and will return to bed or go get a drink. I listen, note whether I need to get up or not, then drift back to sleep.
Tonight, I hear the usual sound of Carl getting up, and wait for the flapping, but instead he falls over, hard, gets up and falls again. By the time I get downstairs he is unable to move and breathing hard, struggling for air. His gums are pale; he is in serous trouble. I comfort him as best I can and ponder options. He signed a do-not-resuscitate document years ago, after he had gone in for a surgery. He looked at me when I picked him up at the Vet’s and said as clearly as if it had been in English, “don’t ever do that to me again, I would rather die at home”
As the hours passed, I decided to go back on my promise, and lifted him into the front seat of the truck and headed for the emergency clinic. When we were half way out of the valley, he sniffed the air, knew exactly where he was, then let the full weight of his head rest on my thigh, and died.
In the opening scene of the film The English Patient, a small airplane is flying over the desert. In the cockpit is a man with an anguished face, next to him is a woman who appears to be sleeping serenely. We will find out later that the woman is dead. What did the people in the pickups that passed me think, I wonder, as I drove slowly home, distorted face visible through the windshield, the peaceful sleeping dog out of sight.
Carl 2000 – 2012
It has been two days since Carl’s death. I woke early this morning to the sound of serious rain, then the flapping of ears. The sound was so clear. I jumped out of bed and looked over the railing to the spot by the woodstove, and was confused by the emptiness. I walked downstairs to put on a pot of coffee, and glanced out the door to see the windows on my truck wide open and funneling water into the interior. I nodded at the woodstove, said “Thank you, Carl”, then ran naked outside, clutching a handful of keys, the freezing rain a welcome distraction.