This is a story of what can happen when you ask the birds to talk to the deer as well as how conversations in our minds can seem like they really occurred. It also has something to do with how you can take the girl out of Brooklyn and New Jersey, but you can’t easily take the Bambi fantasies of magical deer out of her so easily.
So on Monday morning, when a hunter Ken made arrangements showed up to set up a blind, all was not right in the disheveled kingdom of our home. Ken had talked about this extensively with Daniel, a friend of ours who’s an expert on the negative impact deer can have on plant life, and in his mind with me. Obviously, I was cordial and agreeable in his head. In real life, not so much. I was flipped out and angry, and untangling the mess entailed some sadness, confusion, chaos, a little crying, a little yelling, and a few “what the fucks.” But Ken assured me that the hunter would only come for one day, on Tuesday. He would only shoot one doe (this is doe hunting season) — no bucks, no fawns — and also, Ken had spoken to the birds about the situation and asked them to tell the does that if they weren’t down for this, they should lie low.
I had been speaking to the birds and the deer myself for years, often telling them (in my mind at least) that they were safe here, that this land was a sanctuary for them, that we would protect them, and hey, deer, if you need to eat some of the garden, so be it. Of course, it wasn’t just the garden: the deer had ripping out some of the oak trees Ken had been nurturing from acorns for years to bring back the oak-hickory roots of the woods. They had wreaked havoc on fruit trees in our yard too, and although Ken had taken pains to protect all these trees as best he could, it is true that the deer population is overly healthy here.
The hunter showed up very early Tuesday morning to sit up a tree behind a blind in cold and biting wind. After two hours, he had only seen five bucks, who leisurely wandered by on their way to shoot the breeze over coffee. He left for a while to warm up, planning to come up about 2:30 p.m. Right before he pulled in, I went outside and had a talk with the birds myself: “Please tell the does to get the hell out of here for a while and also that I love them.” The bad-ass chickadees and juncos stared at me briefly before going back to their sunflower seeds. The blue jays, crows, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers skittered away, but I know they heard me. I went inside the house to work, hoping not to see Ken helping the hunter carry out a dead doe.
Turns out that this time the hunter only saw some fawns, laughing at the base of the tree where he waited, when really they should have been at school at the time. They hung out for a while, but amazingly enough — although there are ample does on this land — none opted to take one for the team.
Ken also sent me a passage from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s superb book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, about “the honorable harvest.” I also believe in and support sustainable hunting and being mindful of the balance of a particular ecosystem as part and parcel of stewarding the land. At least in theory…..it turns out that I still have a Disney-storied deal with the deer, who have continually seem like embodiments of grace and blessings to me.
But for this year at least, no does were harmed in the making of this blog post.
P.S. Ken says to tell you that yesterday he saw three does hanging out by the driveway.
Lying in bed this morning between layers of flannel with a purring kitty under the covers with me, I dreamed in and out of the call of a barred owl, seemingly on the other side of the window. Its call sounded different than the night time “who cooks for you?” call, more like a rooster cock-a-doodling up, then a cat purr-meowing down. Surely it was a hunting call, Ken said, and maybe the sudden absence of squirrels on the deck proved this.
I’m learning to listen to the land with new hearing. Since the eye cancer’s Rube Goldberg-esque antics of cancer leading to radiation in the face leading to extensive dental drilling leading to tinnitus, my hearing has been encased in a bubble of white noise. Sometimes, like lately as I recover from various insults to the sinuses (a cold, mold allergies), the hum-buzz-shush of sound is louder, and sometimes the volume is lowered.
But there’s always something, and I know tinnitus impacts so many of us and it’s not personal to me. Still, learning to hear in this new way is personal. It lets in sound at different volumes than in the past. Words people say are harder to grasp but background noise is amplified. I’m also more attuned to the sounds of the land: the chatter-scuffle-leaps of squirrels on the deck railing, the lift-up of starlings in the field, and the wind clanging what’s left of Cottonwood Mel’s leaves against branches.
I’m also listening to quiet, at least relative quiet (because the sound is never not there) more through my daily meditation when I give myself over to being in this cocoon of the noise of my brain (which is what tinnitus is — we lose some of what filters out that noise). In a strange way, it’s become a comforting sensation of being held in a gentle and constant rocking hush. Other times the pitch gets higher, and it’s just annoying, but I’m trying to befriend even that because it’s also reality.
Meanwhile, just as — to paraphrase e.e. cummings’ poem — the eyes of my eyes were opened in new ways, now the ears of my ears are opening. There’s a big world of wind and rain, cats and owls, and so much more to hear in this land. “Oh, the sounds of the earth are like music,” goes the beginning of one verse of Oklahoma’s“Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” So why not tune in and listen to what this music of the earth is telling us?
For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.
No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).
I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.
Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.
In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.
0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.
My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:
We are living in a world of rain lately, and according to the weather forecast, this is life as we know it into the foreseeable process. It started a week or maybe months ago, yet it’s also not monolithic. Spots of blue sky, small and angular at times, open up in between the humidity and the deluge. Almost-sun almost shows itself, then any hope fades of that big glaring star coming into view.
Meanwhile, the birds. Meanwhile, the flowers. It’s raining for long stretches and the ground is beyond soggy. A small waterfall has opened up across the slope above our driveway through the gravel to the lower fields. It’s hard to take a step anywhere without sinking. The irises can’t stand up anymore under all this water, sherbet-colored ones collapsing on the purple and yellow ones.
The birds, on the other hand, keep at it, a bouquet of color and motion from the cottonwood to feeder to walnut to ground. A pair of blue grosbeaks. An energetic red-bellied woodpecker hanging with his claws off the edge of the feeder. Two downy woodpeckers head-banging each other in the tree before going back to the feeder. A happy pair of goldfinch. Even a rose-breasted grosbeak for a day or two.
I step outside, onto the relatively not-soggy deck, leaning back under the eaves, a camera hiding in my shirt to keep it from getting wet. Or I step out without a camera and lift my arms to the rain, feeling the drops on my face, knowing I will have to clean off my glasses again once inside. Or I step barefoot onto the wet wood in the dark, the curtain of rain parted for a few minutes, and look out, wondering when I’ll see stars again.
But come morning, the birds again and again, their color more vividly saturated in the blur of air and water, their time right here. It’s more than enough.
You just showed up one winter day, nose to nose with our labmatian (lab-dalmatian) Mariah, only the glass of the screen door between you. You were emaciated, sick, and shivering, and we were in a rush to get me to the airport. So Ken and I put you in the minivan, sped off to the humane society, and finding it closed, kept you for a few more hours.
By the time Ken got back to Lawrence, he was already in love with you, but for the sake of making sure someone abandoned and didn’t lose you, we took you to the humane society. There, you were — so wrong! — named Dwayne, and for the next two weeks, which was all we would wait until adopting you, I called everyday from Vermont to ask if any owners surfaced for the dog soon-to-be-formerly known as Dwayne. By the time I got home, the two weeks were up, and we raced to the humane society to bring you to your forever home.
You so weren’t a Dwayne, but since you were called that for a few weeks, we wondered about a name that rhymed with Dwayne. Shane? No, Natalie knew a Shane who was a jerk. Wayne? Cain? None of them fit you. It was Ken’s birthday the day we adopted you, so we left it up to him. He simply shortened Shane to Shay, and that’s all she wrote.
You were a character for the ages from the get-go. Crazy-handsome with long dog fingers and a beautiful mahogany coat because you were a combination chocolate lab and weimaraner (a labaraner, we told people), you were perpetually hungry and extremely crafty about the procurement of food. You could open any cabinet or drawer, and one day I walked into the kitchen to find you had opened the refrigerator and were staring into it, you head tilted to the right as you mused, “What do I feel like eating?” Another time, you were sitting with a big dog smile on you face before the lit stovetop burner, which you had turned on. You would either soon be sauteing an omlette or burning down the house, so we child-proofed everything and even put a lock on the refrigerator.
You would eat anything, and no amount of training made a dent in your constant habit of sidling up to anyone with food, your beautiful brown eyes working greatly to your advantage. One time, to teach you a lesson, Daniel poured sriracha sauce all over a plate of food, put on the floor, and you came bounding over. You ate it in one swoop, then looked up, grinning, asking if there was more. But what’s food is in the eye of the beholder, and you didn’t limit himself to animal or vegetable. You ate, over the early years, half of a pair of Ken’s pants, numerous leather belts, Bill Remmers’ favorite cap, boxes of crayons, eucalyptus-scented candles, and a big handful of coffee beans.
Most of all, you were a Ricola man. You’d do anything for Ricola cough drops, even unzipping hidden compartments in my purse, carefully extracting the cough drops, unwrapping them, and gulping them down with glee. One day I found my purse in the side yard, everything intact, but nearby, there was a stack of Ricola wrappers, and your breath did smell particularly fresh that afternoon.
You were also a wanderer at first, unsure as to whether you could and would stay with us. This wasn’t helped by your ability to open just about any door. Your walkabouts were legendary, sometimes for hours, and once for three days. The only way I found you was to place an ad in the paper after publishing your disappearance every other way I could. I drove almost ten miles to find a kindly older couple had you in their garage until they could find your owner. Somehow, after a year or so, your wandering slowed down, and you circled your wagons around our home although you were vigilant about running a wide circle in the field every night, barking away any would-be predators.
You were stunningly beautiful, the most handsome dog I’ve ever seen, with silky ears you loved us to stroke. In fact, you looked enough like a small brown horse that Daniel, in his college years, would often take you to town to walk about Mass St. because you were such a chick magnet. I’ve witnessed many a time when teenage girls and young women would line up to pet you, marveling at your friendly sleekness and shine. You especially liked when, on Halloween, we put you in your tuxedo outfit with a top hat and bow tie.
What did you love? Everyone. Only once, when someone of ill temperament, approached the house did you snarl. You greeted most people with enthusiasm, and we had to train guests to turn around if you tried to leap up to get face-to-face with them. You rolled on your back to show you were a lover, not a fighter.
What did you hate? Thunderstorms. Extensively. Even a hint of lightning was a PTSD trigger of immense proportion for you, and given that we’re in one of the thunderstorm capitals of the world, this was a hard trauma to navigate. We tried a thunder shirt and CBD oil, but nothing worked except drugging you into oblivion. The day afterwards, you were groggy and sometimes your legs shook when you stood up, but we learned this was a better alternative than you being so terrified for so long, often trying to climb onto my head for comfort. Did I mention that you were 90 pounds?
Before you showed up, we thought of getting a second dog to help Mariah, who was ancient by the time you arrived. You nudged her on and always let her be the alpha canine, walking slowly behind her slow gait. You went out when she went out, came to us for help when she lost control of her bladder or was in pain, and you mourned — sleeping for hours on the couch — after we had her put down. We’re sure your presence gave her another year or so of life. Likewise, we got Moxie, a border collie, a bit over a year ago, and she was your nurse dog, waking up to escort you outside multiple times each night, even when it was sub-zero, then waiting until you were ready to come back so she could herd you to the door.
You were primarily my dog since we were together almost all the time. With me working at home, you took up being my administrative assistant, body guard, escort for any trek — no matter how short — to the bathroom or the car, and co-worker. While I typed on my laptop, you typed in your clickity-click pacing or you lay near me, revising a piece of rawhide while I revised a poem. You were exactly the right height for my right land to land on the top of your soft head as we walked down the hall, and you were always at my side.
We also had many adventurous walks together, often with Anne, who called you Shayby while I called you Shashay. We walked throughout many parts of Lawrence and drove even more miles, the windows wide open for you to feel the wind in your fur while you leaned out to smell the world. I started using what we called a Medieval collar to control you on these walks, but long after you needed any pulling back away from speeding cars, you loved that collar, doing a little Shay dance whenever I picked it up because you knew a walk was on tap.
Somehow and somewhere along the almost decade together of Shayness, you got old. Like most labs and lab mixes, you developed wicked arthritis, your hips aching and your gait slowing. Your muzzle grayed, and over time, you started having some kidney enzyme imbalances, and in the last three or so months, long stretches of dog coughing. It turned out there was a mass, likely a cancerous tumor, at the base of your good-boy heart. You were too old and fragile — likely 15 or so years already — for us to find out more or treat the mass without likely killed you in the process, so we waited.
A dog’s demise is impossible to measure, especially since a dog like you isn’t prone to complain, just walk with more and more difficulty and pain, sleep for longer periods, and take so much longer to eat. Your eyes were glazed over, and not just by cataracts, and your hearing was going too. With the kidney issues, Ken and I became adept at leaping up from any movie we were watching to grab the mop and a towel right away. We put in a long runner of carpet to make it easier for you to navigate from your food bowl to the blue couch, where you spent most of your time.
Of course we tried lots of remedies and medications, long talks with the wonderful Dr. Bayouth, your vet, and with friends. The question of how to know when it’s time is an impossible thing to hold because with dogs, and especially a dog like you, the answer is swimming and drowning in love. You would have stayed as long as we let you. In recent weeks, however, it became painfully clear how hard your life was becoming. Each breath, each step, each awakening each morning became more strained.
“Are you miserable all the time?” I asked you about a week ago. You lifted your head, stared into my eyes, and said with your gorgeous and heartbreaking eyes, “Yes.” I then asked you if you were ready to leave us. Suddenly, you leapt to your feet and did all you could to look alive. Ken and I kept talking to each other and others, trying to discern when was when.
Then Thursday night, your coughing fits (caused by the tumor) escalated until you were coughing continuously all night. You had to go out to pee every few hours for weeks, but now each step hurt, and you were doing all you could to propel yourself forward. You were trying so hard, and you were so tired. At 5 a.m. Friday morning, all of us awake a lot of the night, Ken turned to me and said, “Today is the day.” I stayed awake frozen and scared for you and us.
There’s never a good time. There’s never a right time. Yet we have this privilege and responsibility of sorts with our pets to make a decision to put them out of their pain and exhaustion. We called the vet and set an appointment for 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile, throughout the day, I fed you what you loved most: a whole packet of sustainably-harvested smoked salmon. Chicken tenders. A can of tuna fish. You even, when I left the room, managed to snag a bag of Wheatfields bread off the counter and eat some of it, then collapsed to sleep in the crumbs. Both of our sons and our sister-in-law came over to say goodbye while Ken dug your grave for hours. By the time we left for the vet, you in your Medieval collar and us lifting you — your front half and then your back half — into the car, Daniel took over the shoveling, and we drove to town.
Your death was more loving and gentle than we could have imagined. Dr. Heeb brought great compassion into the room where she, Ken, and I sat on the floor around you, sitting on a plush blanket. She wrapped her arms around you, and you leaned into her as she gave you the first injection to help you relax. No resistance, no fear, no hesitation. As you sunk to the ground, we held you while she did the rest. Then she left us for a few minutes to talk with you, your body still so warm and your presence so palpable, it was impossible to believe you were dead. When she and Ken carried you to the car on a dog stretcher, the whole staff of the Animal Hospital of Lawrence stood and watched us, most of them tearing up as I cried and couldn’t get out the words to thank them.
We brought you to the deep hole in the field, close to where you loved to run and near our home. We sprinkled dog treats into your grave after we lowered you down, wrapped in a fuzzy brown blanket. I dropped in a Ricola, unwrapped, for you while Ken stopped Moxie dog were jumping down to steal your treats. We had a brief Jewish service, the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) and the Shehecheyanu (prayer for the season and time we’re in), plus all of us – Ken, his sister Karen, Daniel and me — saying how much we loved you.
This is a long letter to you, Shay, because I don’t want it end. I don’t want you to be gone. I don’t want your dead lovely body to be buried in the ground just beyond our vegetable garden. When I woke today at 5 a.m., the gulf you left seemed to fill the house. I wouldn’t want you suffering and alive, but it’s also impossible to have you out of pain but dead. As an Olympic medal-winner at second-guessing myself, I’ve circled through the what-ifs dozens of times, always arriving back where I started. But still.
You are one of the great loves of my life. My gratitude is bigger than my grief, but this grief is a big place of seemingly no return. Maybe I’m just having a walkabout myself through this loss, but I also haven’t gone anywhere, and when it comes to loving you, I never will. Thank you, sweet dog. Thank you forever, Shay.