Lessons from my dogs


On the last day of June 2012, much of Virginia and other states across the U.S. experienced the roaring winds of the Derecho as it ripped through trees and power lines. Days of record heat followed with solar flares intensifying the effects of a hundred-plus degree temperatures. Without power for weeks, people either struggled or learned to adjust to new routines. Emptying my rain barrel and hauling water from a creek to offer thirsty plants and a feral cat, I saw how dependent I’d become, how far removed from the natural world it was to turn on a tap and expect a steady flow of water always at hand.

When power returned and temperatures dropped some twenty degrees so that we felt cool amidst the eighties, my dogs and I set foot again along our beloved trails. Perhaps nowhere more than walking these well-worn trails was the shock so transparent: massive, old trees downed in our paths obliging us to push through yards of leaves and branches or climb over huge trunks, sometimes forcing us to stop and turn around. Trail after trail revealed gaps in the forest ceiling where once tall trees had danced and swayed, now no more than branches and debris across creeks, rivers, paths, fields, an eyesore and an inconvenience.

One day with the dogs gathered around me, I stood quietly in the river. I felt the cool water run over my feet and ankles and saw at once how the river kept on flowing around one large poplar lying in its midst. I looked to the fallen trees with mourning until I realized that they were not sad. For them it was all part of the process: life, death, rebirth. Trees down did not affect the paths of the wild animals, any more than they did the path of the river. All accepted and all passed by or over easily. The deer and the fox and the rabbits were not inconvenienced. Neither were the turtles and squirrels. Or the earthworms and grasshoppers. The snakes didn’t mind; the butterflies floated right over. Already new plants were growing up around fallen trees. We were the only ones struggling and scrambling over logs because we didn’t know the way of the forest just as we were the only ones stressing when the power grids failed because we didn’t know the way of the earth and the sky.

Domesticated into my home, my dogs lie somewhere between their wild ancestors and my artificial life. Yet when they dig up the dirt to lie next to earth’s core, I know on some level they are seeking that connection with Mother Earth that sleeping in a raised bed has taken from them. When they eat grass, intuitively treating tummy upsets, they are acting on an instinct we humans have all but lost.

Interconnectedness: the earth, the sky, the plants, the rocks, the animals all in harmony together. In my own back yard, I witness one beautiful example after another of how nature, when left alone, not interfered with by destructive human forces, seems to function easily, effortlessly. When I stand barefoot on the grass and stare at the towering sunflowers, I see a multitude of bees feasting on nectar. They say that the honey bees’ days are numbered, but standing still in my yard I’d like to think this isn’t so. Then the hummingbird buzzes by from Morning Glory to Rose of Sharon and I see how everything connects. And everything is perfect.John Muir said, “When we tug on a single thing in nature, we find it attached to everything else.”

We are all one. For years I’ve heard the words, but now the knowledge is more than conceptual and I can to feel it. Just as my thumb and my pinky are separate but still part of me, so too are you and I separate but still no more than human expressions of one vast consciousness.

There remain large tree limbs and smaller branches down all around our home. Small copses where once trees stood upright have now succumbed to a ragged, wild look. It bothered me at first and I felt the need to straighten, tidy and chop up wood. Then one day out walking with the dogs, I stopped near a particular group of trees. Standing silently, I could hear the sound of the infinite. And something shifted within me. I saw that our human need for neatness—beautiful cut lawns and weed-free flower beds that I admit I still do love—was part of another human need: the need to control something we can never control. If Nature’s winds wish to blow through this land, ripping through houses and toppling trees, I can do little to stop it...but I can accept. And that, perhaps, is big. As I stood staring into the unruly copse of trees, I saw how it now resembled a forest, ragged and real, and somehow that brought comfort, not the artificial kind derived from manicured shrubs and lawns, but a feeling whose provenance is based in eternalness.

I haven’t yet given up mowing my lawn—three short-legged dogs prefer short grass—but I’m learning to accept a more natural setting and with this acceptance comes freedom and peace.