Diaspora: The Next Place

Morning detail, late April, late life on Goose Creek. You never know, when you give it a puff, where the winged seeds will find fertile soil.

 In the spring of 2019, we acknowledged that the time had come to relocate us from the wild to the tame. Or at least tamer—closer to town, less mowing and weed whacking and firewood toting and…

That we would reach such a Draconian view of What Comes Next is testimony to the common conclusion between the two of us that we are not, after all, going to live forever. 

But to not see the barn-roof frost going up in steam on a cold October morning; to leave in the rear view mirror this refugium of human neighbors, birds, bears and other familiars; then to hear road noise and be in a fishbowl settled and busy place: this is not an easy thing to consider.

And yet, even before we have any solid notion of where or when, we have already subliminally started saying goodbye to the most rooted existence of our lives and the blessing and comforts of belonging in place that many seek but few find. I wonder what the past twenty years will look and feel like in hindsight when we can not look out any window and see the known trees waving to the thrush and thrum of the sparkling creeks. Will all of this vanish into a fog of forgotten decades as we learn to wear a less comfortable new reality in town?

We need to move forward with caution, because we don’t know how either one of us (or the two of us together) will adapt anyplace that will inevitably be so different, so lacking of creek noises and valley echoes in our new self-inflicted captivity in a tamer place, wherever (in Floyd County) that turns out to be. This is risky business.

An animal extracted from its native habitat is subject to failure-to-thrive. A zookeeper doesn’t always know what elements from the native wilds might be missing to account for the downward slide towards disease or disorder for caged Orangs or Lemurs. There are subjective nutrients and essences in native habitat, likely not apparent to an objective Spockian observer, without which the resident pair may suffer emotional, physical and spiritual damage. Relocating highly-specialized species to more controlled enclosures needs to be studied wide and deep before bringing in the nets.

We are hoping that won’t be necessary. 

As movers we will be a realtor’s nightmare. We are looking for those subjective must-have conditions and know it when they are lacking, even while our friends will scratch their heads and wonder what could possibly be missing with this or that seemingly “perfect” place for us. And in this, we envy many of our less-persnickety friends who happily seek out, find and adapt to life in a suburb or brick rancher on two acres in or near Floyd, and contented to be in spitting distance from a busy road. We have certain needs for our downsized captivity, and must keep in mind our odd personal ecologies as they have grown since we were married in 1970. 

At the same time, the challenge of What Comes Next must not approach anywhere near the Matterhorn we faced in 1999, when we saw HeresHome for the first time. There was no indoor plumbing or wiring; no paint in or out for decades; and who knows what behind the hundred and twenty year old walls and under the floors that would need fixing.

The land that is now pasture had been planted in white pines, less than six feet apart and by then almost 20 feet tall, edge to edge and front to back between the ridges that form Nameless Creek valley. There were no trails. Logging leavings from the early nineties blocked the way in all directions, and blackberry ruled the landscape. This was a wild and untamed place.

Our friends and family were terror-stricken for what we had taken on. We knew then that it would take, and that we would gladly give five or more years to turn the house and land into our own. The neighbors at the time expected us to last exactly one winter, as I’ve mentioned before. And here we are, perhaps in place until our twenty-year anniversary in late November of this year. 

Or maybe not.

And so I wonder about the natural history of this place against whatever Next Place we might find around us and under our feet for however-many years ahead we are aware, are truly alive and in any meaningful sense, living, and capable to navigate within our new habitat–with or without assistance. 

The odd nature of this unknown block of years, of opportunities, of experiences, hopes, successes and disappointments came into a kind of bitter-sweet clarity last month when both our “children” visited–for the first time without their own families in tow. Our son, especially, is in the midst of a major life transition–to a new state, new house, new job, new biosphere on the coast of Maine. It will be a time of almost daily AHAs, of discovery and growth, challenge and opportunities grasped and nourished and nuanced into who he will yet become. 

We are happy for him, as we are for our daughter’s potential, to extend their abilities into new realms–personal and professional. That is where our children are in their middle-aged place in life. This is the life we have lived ourselves, until not so many years back. This has been, for the bulk of our adult years, the leading edge of every new year–to expand the reach of our voices, the scope of our understanding, the stride of our hillside climbs, and add to the things we could become a part of; to do more and more, in a wider and wider world. We were the Invincible.

But that was then. This is now. Is there such a word as vincible?

And yet, all is not lost. And as I consider the event horizon, the pressure is gone, the monkey of ladder-climbing off our backs–though in all honesty, that upwardly-mobile mind-worm never drove us forward. 

It has always been our roots that nourished us, not the tendrils reaching towards constantly-larger houses or salaries or cars. And we can be grounded some new place, and settle in. I’ll let you know how all that works out–but only as long as I am granted keystrokes, synapsing synapses and moment. Until then, we live in a white, two-story house with double porches, on Goose Creek. And it is springtime of the year out there, even if it is late autumn for the two lives inside.

NOTE: If you’ve managed to read this far, then maybe it will be of interest that this post in some more polished and substantial form will likely come towards the end of One Place Understood: Field Notes from HeresHome (or some such title) — a book I will likely be working on before and after our zookeepers find us suitable habitat elsewhere.


The footprint of an old tobacco barn, with the New Road beyond

We got to poking around (again) around the edges of this semi-permanent feature down the valley and around the bend from the house. We were told by an long-time resident of Goose Creek that this was once a tobacco barn; and by others that a man and his son lived here, the latter killing the former.

Whatever the story, there was once an old cast-iron stove there, that is now in pieces.

Maybe it was used to keep the cabin’s residents from freezing in the winters of the late 1800s. Maybe it was used to create more heat than our cold valley could muster, to dry tobacco.

Whatever its use, its end was by fire, paradoxically, indicated by the overheated distortions visible in pieces like the one on the right, that identifies the stove as a Woodland, No. 32.

We plan to do more extensive hunting in the fall, when an old blog friend brings a metal detector to the task.

The World: At the Beginning

Housekeeping the catacombs of my desk, I found a reflection from early on. It speaks to my hopes for myself, for my readers, for our world.

Now, more than 15 years later, some hopes are realized, some will never be. If anything, the American masses seem even more untethered from their responsibilities and connections to “the environment” than they were when my writing life began in 2002.

And so this reflection, in hindsight, is a kind of dream unrealized, but not entirely so.

It is too long for a blog reader’s attention, so it is posted at medium.com

How Can I Keep From Singing

Coming to the End of Our Leash

Part Four of Five…

When Gandy died on Valentines Day last year, we vowed we would not have another dog in our lives. At this point, any dog we get is likely to need a foster home before the end of its life and after the end of ours—or at least after we are able to house or care for a dog due to late-life circumstances. It just did not make practical or emotional sense to take on the future pain of losing another one at this point in life. 

And this resolve was firm during the two-week fog of grief and loss, made more firm every time I looked out the kitchen window at Gandy’s grave, covered with new white quartz stones from the creek as we find them, even today. 

But as the sadness dulled a bit, it became clear that this place and our lives would not be complete without a dog—whose short absence since Gandy left us with a missing tooth. You just can’t help being aware of it the loss of a 24/7 presence when it is gone from your life. And so we talked it out, and decided we would look for a female puppy of a breed (if not another Lab) that would be big enough to take care of itself, but not so big we couldn’t manage it in our mid-seventies or later.

And what we ended up with was nothing like that: a 13 month old male dog that weighs more than half Ann’s weight. So much for plans and intentions. It is what it is. The heart has reasons that reason does not know, Pascal said, and this confirmed the claim.

So on April 19, we brought home a late-stage puppy pre-wired with bad habits, almost too old to reprogram, and vastly stronger than the smaller of us could manage even on level ground and good footing—a dog determined to lead the pack and indifferent to bribes or rewards to conform to the rules on Goose Creek. The worst of it was, as I have told, that outdoors he was master of his own choices. He would pull us when and where he wanted.

A turning point came at the very last class of dog classes where I pulled the assistant aside. “We’re learning here how to reward desired behavior with positive reinforcement. How do we extinguish undesired behavior with treats?”

Seeing the problems we were having with Scout in the chest harness and how strong-willed and determined he was to not give up leader-dog control, she suggested we look at a prong collar. I was ignorant but did the homework. They look horrible, and can be misused, and of course, the Internet is well-populated with worst-case images and videos. But we were up against the wall. Scout stood in real jeopardy of being “rehomed” to younger humans with a large fenced yard.

Used properly, a “prong collar” is a crucial and painless tool for training

And so this (Herm Sprenger) collar, from the first few days, worked not so much physically as psychologically to encourage Scout to take his lead from us. A gentle tap on the leash—not a violent painful yank—was all it took for him to look around as if to ask “What is it you want me to do?” Before a pull on the leash only produced a harder pull in whatever direction he had decided to go. And so like some training videos explain, the prong collar  used correctly is a communication device, not a punishment.

The collar never caused Scout any pain, but it prevented pain and injury for Ann, whose back could not withstand the strain of holding a strong and strong-willed dog. She had not been able to walk the dog by herself with the chest harness or regular collar; she could do so with the prong collar. And by the way, we haven’t used it in a few months–because we no longer need it.

The second element in this success story—if not the half the book of Scout’s coming into the family—was the use of a retractable leash with the prong collar. This gave him 16 feet of choice, and more of a sense of walking near us but not in lock step. It gave him the chance to explore and range within limits. 

And yet, after three months of this leash training with the prong collar, when we got to the back of the pasture, four hundred yards from the road, and unleashed him, he was off into the distance, disappeared into the autumn foliage. (I really wish I’d taken a BEFORE video of this heartbreaking pattern–especially now that I know the story has a happy ending.) We’d hear him bark from time to time, but in these deep pockets, it was impossible to tell just where he was.

We were coming to the end of our rope–er, leash. Physically and emotionally, we could not keep doing this, day after day. We only had one last possible thing to try.

See also in this five part series…

1-Outside of a Dog
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male

And I Am Not The Alpha Male

His name would be Scout. This dog just looked like he should have that name. I think the notion came from some old 50s cowboys and Indians TV show stored deep in childhood memory. Forget Coco—a name he must have come with to the humane shelter. What a  sissy name for a studdly dog. Scout. Come Scout. Stay Scout. Scout, Go Find Timmy!

So we got him home, well and good, save for having to lift a reluctant, fearful 55 pounds into the back seat of the car. I do not want to lift this dog ever again. And once in the house for the very first time, he seemed to have been indoors before. That was a relief. (Dingo, not so much. He thought the dining room table was just another place to lie down.) After marking his territory indoors the first three nights, he “got it” that ALL THIS was his territory. Oh you lucky lucky dog!

We’ve always shared our home with the family dog. Not everyone does, but his previous owners must have. This dog had definitely been up and down steps before, like maybe he lived in the basement and went UP to eat or to go OUT. He disappeared to Ann’s room at the top of the stairs before we closed the back door behind us on Day One. We still keep a barrier across the foot of those steps; and Scout discovers every failure to put it back in place.

On that very first day, we discovered that this dog didn’t give a rat’s acetabulum about food; or about treats. He could not care less. He still goes full days without eating, kibble and table scraps on the floor in front of him.

And that single fact set him apart from every other dog we’ve had since the Regan administration; set him apart from every other dog who would do ANYTHING for a mere morsel of kibble. Zack, Buster, Tsuga or Gandy (and the transient Dingo for that matter) would crawl on their bellies from here to town for a bit of scrambled egg.  Scout sniffed it and walked off. Gravy? Meh!

Scout yawned at all that. And this set the stage for a long and unsatisfying struggle to train this dog. If positive reinforcement didn’t mean squat, how would we reward and assure future desired behavior when it really mattered?  Sit, stay, come, leave it! Forget all that.

Flash forward from Scout’s first days here in April 2018 to October. We learned at (dis)obedience school that some dogs respond well to microwaved hotdog bits, and (whoodaThunk) string cheese. It worked sufficient (for a while) to reinforce basic commands. He loved playing hide-and-seek, both of us hiding and calling COME! (He gets a treat!) And back and forth he went. 

And so by October, some considerable training had happened—inside, at least, and in a distraction-free setting. But when other dogs and people were around (June dog-obedience classes in Christiansburg for instance) rules and patterns of behavior in the house totally vanished. We got back home, he became Good Dog Scout again. Indoors, he was affectionate, obedient, fun to be with, and increasingly devoted, especially to me. 

All the more heartbreak outdoors then, where he was NOT a joy. But we confess, in hindsight, to some early mistakes. We’d change this if we ever had it to do over again; but we won’t.

From the start, we wanted control over the dog on walks, where he was prone to take the lead. A chest harness took the pressure off his throat and distributed it through his chest. This seemed logical, but it was a mistake. His strength and drive to lead the pack pulled us like a plowshare behind a draft horse on crack, in then out of the creek and across the pasture. The harness gave him authority to be pack leader. I watched Out the window, Ann in this dance, the water-skier behind the powerboat. Land skiing is NOT a pretty sight.

So morphing Scout into the comfortable, reliable companion dog like each of his predecessors had been to us would mean that we could confidently and routinely have him with us, off-leash, for our walks around the pasture. Eventually, we hoped, he would stay with Ann when she went to gather twigs, go with me to haul wood up from Yucca Flats, be with us every time we went outdoors multiple times every day, good weather and bad.

This, some of you will recognize, is Gandy, from about this time a few years back. Look what she found! I realize now I have very few shots of Scout outdoors. That will change.

Scout would be responsible for keeping up with us, not us with him—and, most importantly, he would sit-and-stay reflexively, calmly, a safe distance from passing trucks, bicycles, horses and motorcycles on the one-lane gravel road, rare though those passers-by might be.

Alas, into November, it never happened the way we longed that it would. We’d walk a bit down the New Road along the pasture margin, with the dog on leash. At some point one of us would say “You think this is a good place?” And very subtly I’d unhook the clasp from the leash to the harness ring, hoping he would get it this time that he belonged along-side US. But the instant he was free, he was gone. Outta sight. His off-leash breakouts averaged an hour and change. 

And so we loved him under a roof and loathed him under the sky. Scout was disturbing my peace, having become canine non grata. And yet, Ann “just knew” that some day, he’d morph into a devoted, intelligent, obedient dog. And when we told him to, he’d go find Timmy.

Read Part One: Outside of a Dog

Read Part Two: Finding Old Yeller