Home > Mutating the Signature > Walking the Dogs Between Blizzards

Walking the Dogs Between Blizzards

February 19, 2009

snowy trail
(Click on all images to see larger versions)

We walk, Gilgamesh and I, in preparation for the storm, twenty-five inches predicted. Weeks below-zero and chilling winds solidified feet of snow already fallen; finally,
we can walk, skating across surface, only occasionally breaking
through. Gilly runs for sheer pleasure, throws himself forward, compensates with sheer velocity
for uncertainty of ground. He hurls his body into space, ahead, ever
ahead; plants his face suddenly into snow when he falls. He always comes up laughing, black fur dusted white, ears crinkled. This is what dogs do. We haven’t walked enough lately;
snow too deep, crust too unreliable. I want to check on the beavers; it’s been many weeks
since we’ve walked enough, in the back field and the woods by the stream. So we pass
Shalom’s grave, a circle

spirit tree

of stones and a Japanese Maple surviving its second winter under heaps of snow. In a few months, the leaves will appear, scarlet, determined; yellow Narcissi will rise around the small tree and shout aggressive, happy color at the sky.
I invite the dead on my walks.
Gilly leaps
gratitude for our Northwesterly direction: behind the house, no stacks of wood to fuss with, no barns in which we do mysterious, officious human things
—sorting recycling, trying to get the damn mower to work—
no mailboxes to check, no boring cars for grocery shopping. To the Northwest, only trails; the ones I built with an ancient pair of garden shears, with bleeding, blistered hands while I grieved

one tough, fibrous goldenrod stalk at a time,
for miles. Gilly bounces me repeatedly; I shove him off, but he doesn’t stop, because I’m laughing. He knows that if a joke is funny the first time, it’s even funnier the next
twelve times. He bounces, I laugh. He bounces,
I laugh. This is what dogs do.
We pass the old shed full of ancient farm equipment abandoned
by the hippies who built our place, the dairy farm family before them. Manure spreader, enormous steel carrot washer, old sleds, hay rakes with snapped handles, detritus from ramshackle greenhouse. The piles irritate. We have history enough


of our own, the interesting nature of the machines notwithstanding. They threw nothing away, ever, and everything left is broken, it weighs
a ton, it has to be dug out of the ground where they let it rot. One person’s history;
another person’s litter. We crunch through the stretch of trail that is marsh in spring; quails and pheasants nest there, sudden explosions of wings when we pass
the Christmas tree I dragged out to the property line, barricading the gap that invited hunters from the next farm. Gilly pees on it obligingly. Do not pass, no killing
here, the yellow snow says; this land is a territory belonging to the living, and to certain ghosts who are in that condition because of the likes of you: you who are not welcome
here with your gun and your beer can and your ‘he came out of nowhere,
he died within minutes.’ Here
is what dogs understand about time:
now. Or:
forever away from now. For a long time now I have walked, understanding what ‘minutes’ means to a dog who is dying,
Good boy, Gilly, I say. You have a nice, big pee right there. There is other pee around the Christmas tree, too; coyote, probably. Good coyotes. You mark that territory line. Mark it
well. We pause

sycamore sky

at the choice of trails: left into the lower field and a short-cut to the beaver lodge, or straight toward the woods and stream, the long way ‘round. The sumac canopy over the track into the woods beckons. Gilly looks at me, I look at him, and we break
for the woods. I lecture him: stay off the ice! He dances ahead, happily
ignoring me. At water’s edge we see tracks and follow them to summer swimming hole, a convergence of streams. The small pool is frozen
now, swift waters bubble under ice. Dry Brook—named for miles of course that run underground—rises ice-cold, even in August, from the South. From the East,
Unadilla Brook runs warm through the swamp where trunks of dead trees rise gracefully, sometimes home

convergence (stream in snow)

to eagles, herons, hawks. The tracks to the pool are large, but dusted with new snow; I can’t tell who made them. Gilly tests the ice on the swimming hole, of course. I cringe
at creaks under his feet, his spread-wide toes, the light from below makes his webbing purple, his claws scrape for purchase. Convinced he will break through,
knowing he won’t, I have to look away. I inspect the deepest mystery track, shout: ‘I thought so!’ Gilly hurries over to see
what’s so exciting. ‘Look,’ I say, squatting down, pointing into large pad impressions and the outline of claws. ‘Bear.’
Gilly plants his nose in the print, snuffles enthusiastically, inhales snow, sneezes it back out in an explosive
burst. His eyes water. I laugh, so he does too, ears crinkled, teeth half-revealed. He slaps my knee with his paw. Another good joke. This is what dogs do. Back through the woods,
we skirt frozen stream, through maple and birch, under giant sycamores’ thick, mottled, white trunks that rise like enormous
bones overhead. The lodge: a white heap at a bend in the stream. Ice unbroken around it; no tracks. Utterly silent. I wonder if it is warm
in there, under the ice and snow, in the muddy heat of bodies, snacking on stored branches. I guess it is, if you’re a beaver.

homemaking (beaver-chewed tree)

We back away from the water: I don’t like to intrude
at the lodge for long. We never see the beavers. We eavesdrop on summer cannonballs into water, felling of trees. We spy on smooth impressions of teeth everywhere. We admire amazing feats of engineering. We sneak glances at the living, as unobtrusively
as wonder allows. Above the lodge, the field we mow into a rough circle each summer is smooth, a white ballroom floor now. Gilly races to the center
and does a gavotte.
I used to come here with Shalom, renovating the abandoned house; before trails, before carrying furniture, boxes, his body, shovels to dig
his sudden grave. One day, Shalom and I stretched out in this wildish ring of field grass and milkweed, goldenrod, buttercups. We cloud-busted
together, for an hour; each chewing a piece of grass, on our backs. My arm around him. His head on my shoulder. His heart beat on my ribs. He smelled like grass,
Shalom did: even in winter, he had a grassy smell. I buried
my face in his fur during February cabin-fever and March doldrums and breathed deep summer. Gilly’s smell is more floral, especially
when he’s hot. His little armpits reek of flowers. His breath smells like mushroom soup. Right now, he has his first cold, so his nose is running
in the chill. The sky has a laden, leaden look all too familiar this winter. The light the soft-focus of imminent storm; edges softened, outlines blurred. It’s warmer than it’s been. Gilly and I follow tracks:

tracks in the snow

rabbit, then squirrel, chipmunk, deer. Rabbits and deer move in purposeful direction. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and dogs run in circles; they leave intricate swirls and knots of passage in the snow. We follow them all, winding
home past sleeping pear and cherry trees, cluster of pines, winter-berry brilliant red, we avoid hawthorn spike, drink land. Near the house, mulberry trees tangle messy and delightful. In summer, their berries turn bird guano the most alarming shade of fuchsia.
goes and lies down in his grave. I wonder if it is warm in there, under the ice and snow, with his buried bed and his toys and his


emerging bones. I guess it is, if you’re a ghost.
Ducking under tree boughs, treasure: ‘Gilly!’ I point. He looks up at the branch above my finger, where a single, frozen apple hangs. Apple,
one of the first English words he learned. He apple-dances every summer, tossing them over his back and leaping to catch them
before they fall. His first autumn, he ate so much fermented fruit he got drunk. Dog Farm Apple Wine, we laughed, sitting at our fuchsia-streaked picnic table under mulberry.
Gilly sits for his apple. I jump
for it, hand him treasure he carries inside to thaw by the wood-stove. Later, he’ll throw it around, smear it all over the couch and the floor. This
is what dogs do.

snow storm

The storm arrives.
Chinese pear a lemon-summer burst on my tongue as outside the window fine, small flakes fly in diagonal sheets, the kind of snow
that isn’t fooling around. Shalom’s grave looks snug, and lonely, a white heap beyond glass walls. ‘Come in
by the stove, love, if you want,’ I say, through ice, through silence. Gilly, in his bed by the stove, looks up at me, bleary, already asleep. I wink at him. He goes back to sleep. The wood hoop is full, the covered shed stocked,
the stove-flue seems to be working again. I have candles, kindling. My favorite tea, cream. A working flashlight, another pear in the fridge. Vitamins, St. John’s Wort, good dark coffee. Andres Segovia and Yo-Yo Ma,
split pea soup. We are settled,
in for the duration.

winter berries

by Jessamyn Smyth and Anne Morrison Smyth

Download the MP3 (reading by Jessamyn)

Process notes

This is a walking collaboration. A collaboration of loss and witness. A mother handing down particular vision of love and love of place, a daughter handing it back transmuted through a different life and a separate sensibility.

This is what happened when the daughter said: help me keep this place, help me document its magic, the bones of it, the love buried here. This is what happened when the mother said: this is convergence, this is the blood of those we’ve lost on cold and frozen ground, this is some of what home and history is.

In January of 2007 and December of 2008, a mother and daughter walked in storms, bearing witness to loss and history through separate sensibilities.

It shouldn’t be literal, necessarily, the daughter said. I mean, some of them might be, but not all — I want your interpretations of these words, your wholly separate vision of these themes as they exist for you. I know, the mother said. She doesn’t like to talk about her photographs.

Look at that, the daughter said, on these walks.

I did, the mother answered.

Sad, fierce, true: something universal emerges through unshared particulars. A fundamentally shared experience of love, loss, and complicated history blows in sharp, diagonal sheets.

  1. February 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    (Apologies for the crackly sound on the recording! My mic is on its last leg, apparently.)

  2. February 19, 2009 at 1:56 pm


  3. February 19, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    *Extraordinary* – beautiful, sensitive writing and images – I can’t wait to share this with my current creative writing class on “a sense of place.” Thank you so much!

    • February 20, 2009 at 8:14 am

      Thank you so much, it is lovely to get such a responsive comment.

  4. February 20, 2009 at 1:38 am

    This is what a lifetime of companionship with animals does: it turns the singular of the now to the plural of the eternal. This is what dogs do: they paw at us whether alive or not.

    This is such a powerful, powerful gift, Jessamyn and Anne. I suppose I could count the times this piece provoked tears or goosebumps or both, but that would be pretty silly, because it’s really, when I think of it, only once: throughout.

    If I taught composition instead of Astronomy, and if I wanted to show an example of what “cross-genre” works look like, I’d choose this one: your writing, your voice, your mother’s photography, all work together to carry us along and evoke “Yes! I know!”

    He slaps my knee with his paw. Another good joke. This is what dogs do.
    Kelsey just did that to me. And Zeke did, too.

  5. February 20, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Beautiful, they make me so envious of you – though perhaps the reality would not. Whatever, thanks for sharing!

  6. February 20, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Beautiful shared pleasures, shared graciously. Applause

  7. February 20, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Thank you so much Jo, Katherine, Sherwood, Dave, Allan – much appreciated comments. Glad it spoke to you.

  8. February 21, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I echo Allan thoughts about the beauty of sharing a shared experience.
    I love the gnawed tree, beavers have just been reintroduced to Scotland as an experiment, maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to see something like this on a walk.

  9. February 21, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    thanks so much Anna – we call it “beaver art” and they really do a fantastic job of gnawing.

  10. February 23, 2009 at 8:59 am

    Just wonderful, I really loved it, though I feel tearfully, furiously sad about Shalom.

    (I never cottoned on before you were mother and daughter…)

  11. February 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Thank you Anna & Lucy – may there be beavers and long-lived dogs for all of us.

  12. Kim
    February 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    This is both powerful and lovely, the writing and photographs. As a dog person, I confess to being teary even as I anticipated the next sight on the journey. Thank you for this guided walk and touching homage to good dogs, past and present.

  13. February 23, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    thank you for the comment – there is always a piece of the heart gone with
    them and although the pain abates it doesn’t leave.

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