The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.7Hal Borland
I have heard it said that man-dog relationships are always those of master and slave. I have heard it argued that the dog, as a species, forfeited its own birthright when it submitted to man’s taming. And I have been told that man originally tamed the dog to prove his sense of mastery and that he persists in the ownership of dogs to bolster his own ego. The grain of truth in all these arguments is just big enough to be galling to me when I would answer them. Fundamentally, they seem to me to be an indictment of the men who make the statements rather than of dogs. Furthermore, I doubt that any generality applies, since dogs are as various as are human beings.
I have known a good many dogs, and they have been almost as widely assorted in character as the people I know. As a smalltown boy, I had a whole series of pups—none of them seemed to grow to maturity, thanks to poison, distemper and accident. But they were even more varied than the town’s assortment of small boys. Some were sneak thieves, some were quarrelsome, some were cowards, and two of them were affectionate, well mannered and self-respecting. Then I became a farm boy and grew up with a collie, who was the best of everything anyone could expect of a dog.
Grown and living on the edge of the country, I had four dogs, one after the other. The first was a wire-haired terrier. He was the only complete coward of his breed I ever knew. And he was the only dog I ever had who sickened and died from distemper shots. Life was just too much for him. Then I had a cross-bred terrier, wirehair and fox terrier, a rough-coated little troublemaker who took a vicious dislike to the mailman and finally had to be taken to the dog pound and given away. After him came Redge, an Irish terrier and as beguiling a character as ever wore a collar. Redge was grown when I got him, and I should have been suspicious of his immediate acceptance of me. Any grown dog who vows loyalty at the first introduction probably is as fickle as they come.
Redge made himself at home immediately. He was mannerly, friendly, liked children and neighbors, always was ready for a romp or a walk. He was an almost perfect dog for three weeks. Then he vanished. He was gone ten days and he came home with a terrible hangover, starved, disheveled, lame—and apologetic. He was so apologetic that I gladly fed, groomed and salved him. But in less than a month he was gone again, that time for almost two weeks. And again he came home, hungry, scarred and full of apologies.
This happened four times in six months. I wondered if there wasn’t some organization called Vagabonds Anonymous in which I could enroll Redge. Then I had to make a business trip, by car. I wanted company and Redge was a good car dog and a comfortable companion when he was in his domestic mood. I took him along. The second day out I stopped in a town in western Pennsylvania for lunch, and when I had finished I took Redge on a leash for exercise. It was winter and a group of youngsters were coasting down a side-street hill. I stopped to watch them and Redge jerked the leash from my hand and dashed down the hill among the whooping boys.
I searched for an hour on foot, then for half an hour in the car, but Redge had simply vanished. Nobody in town had seen him. So I went to the police station, left a reward and said I would pay shipping charges if he was returned to me. A month later the reward money was returned to me, unclaimed.
After Redge, Ricky was both a relief and a disappointment. Ricky was a Sealyham about a year old. A friend gave him to me, a city friend who had bought him from an expensive kennel as a gift for his wife. His wife turned out to be acutely allergic to dog hair.
I never cared for miniature dogs, but Ricky had the terrier’s sturdy vigor and independence that I admired. And he had the courage of Kipling’s mongoose after which, in an ironic whim, his previous owner had named him. The only thing Ricky lacked was experience and a sense of life’s perils. He never learned that automobiles were juggernauts. I kept him in a fenced yard, where the neighborhood youngsters came to play with him. Inevitably, despite my warnings, one day the youngsters left the gate open. The driver who hit him probably never saw him, for Ricky wasn’t much bigger than the crumpled page of a newspaper.
After Ricky, I gave up trying to have a dog. I decided I had known my dogs. Besides, my life acquired complications and my job demanded more and more traveling. But eventually Barbara and I moved up here and settled down. And Pat arrived.
And here I was, this May day, sitting on the mountainside, Pat beside me saying in his own way that life was good and life was ours, his and mine, whenever we chose to go out together and savor it. And I thought how stupid were those who said that man had made the dog his degraded slave, how completely they had missed the essential relationship of man and dog.
We were only a little way from the springhouse, so I went over to see that all was well with the water supply, which is piped far down the mountain and across the home pasture to the house. Then we followed Springhouse Brook down its rocky gully, I working my way from wet stone to stone, from moss tuft to tuft, Pat exploring the brush, the woods and the old stone walls nearby.
It was that rich time of mid-May when the seasonal overlap of wildflowers was at its best. The damp gully was lush. Late bloodroot bloomed beside columbine just opening flower. There were a few late hepaticas in the deepest shade, and in sun-speckled spots the wild geraniums showed pink in their urgent bud clusters. Early fern fronds spread fine green lace beside late fiddleheads. And violets throve in the brook’s misty moisture all along the way.
On the last ledge before the tumbling brook calms itself out across the pasture there is a massive gray ledge worn smooth by the spill of water, which fans over it in a thin, misty waterfall. At the foot of the fall is a small grove of tall, slim white ash trees, and beneath them is a deep bed of rich leaf-mold soil. The sun beats on this small, rich natural garden until the trees are in full leaf and nurtures a thick carpet of early green, bloodroot and wild ginger and anemone and the inconspicuously flowered toothwort. I had found this place in April and thought it should be an ideal place for showy orchis, Orchis spectabilis, one of the most beautiful of the wild orchids in this Berkshire area.
I began looking for orchis leaves, which are like darker, shinier copies of the leaves of the moccasin flower or lady’s-slipper, the big, showy, woods-loving cousin of the orchis. At last I found two clumps of them, half hidden among the big, smooth bloodroot leaves and the hairy heart-leaves of the wild ginger. There were about a dozen orchis plants in all, and half of them bore flower stalks lifted above the twin clasping leaves. The buds were tightfurled at the top, but most of the stalks had one or two open flowers at the bottom, like hyacinths first showing color. The blossoms were not much bigger than those of garden peas, but their contrasting milk-white and deep lavender made their dainty loveliness altogether beautiful. They were like miniatures of those small spray orchids that delight Barbara at the florist’s.
I felt triumphant, the pleasure one has in guessing where a certain wildflower should be and finding it there. I was momentarily tempted to pick one spray for Barbara, but my conscience said a stern “No!” It would wilt within an hour. None of the wild orchids are picking-flowers, and all of them, from the big lady’s-slippers to the inconspicuous, single-leafed green adder’s mouth, resent picking. Left alone, they flourish. Robbed of even one or two flowers they sulk for a season or two, then vanish. Instead, I picked a few of the strong-scented, brownish-purple three-lipped cups of wild ginger bloom, together with their leaves. The wild ginger has a fragrance that bites the nostril as ginger itself bites the tongue, and the flower is exotic rather than beautiful.
Then we cut across the home pasture to the house.
That afternoon when Barbara and I went for our daily walk Pat ranged ahead of us as usual. But now he merely looked back from time to time instead of coming to nose my hand. He looked back and wagged his tail and went on, no longer needing the reassurance of the physical touch. And he had a jaunty air, a young, lively look and motion that I had never seen before. He seemed at last to be out from under some deeply worrisome burden.
When we turned back toward home, Pat left off his explor
Back in March, when she occasionally took morning walks alone, she had asked me how to persuade the dogs to go along and stay with her. I suggested that she take tidbits and reward them if they came when she called them. She tried chocolate bits and soda crackers, both of which Mike gobbled greedily and both of which Pat spurned. Then I bought a box of puppy biscuits. Mike, greedily omnivorous, would eat those biscuits as fast as you handed them out. Now and then Pat would accept one, but he made it quite clear that he was conferring a big favor if he ate it. One day when I ran out of dog food I offered them a meal of those puppy biscuits, but Pat nosed them, looked at me in disgust and walked away. He wouldn’t even eat them when I had softened them with warm milk.
This day he nudged Barbara, and practically demanded that she dig into her pocket.
“I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed. But she reached in her pocket and found two puppy biscuits. She offered one, and Pat took it, solemnly ate it and asked for the other. He got the second one. Then he strutted down the road ahead of us, a dog who owned the world.
The Mike chapter in Pat’s life was closed.
OUR VEGETABLE GARDEN HAS a fence around it but, like every garden fence I ever knew, this one has a gap in it. A small brook which flows until mid-July, then lies dormant until the fall rains, cuts across one corner of the garden and I have yet to find a way to put a woven-wire fence across the brook that will not trap all the floating trash and become a dam that will divert the whole brook right across the corn patch. So I go along with the fiction that the fence encloses the garden, and I rely on the stupidity of rabbits to insure that only occasionally will one find the gap at the brook. Most of the local rabbits are cooperatively stupid. But some other residents aren’t.
Frost can, and sometimes does, blight a garden here as late as June, but we have always gambled on the weather. Barbara plants her peas early, since they tolerate frost, and she puts out a bed of lettuce in early May. And we chance a row of beans, a row or two of corn and a few other things before May 15. Thus, about one year out of three, we have a very early garden.
That first year we were experimenting, and we were lucky. By Decoration Day Barbara’s lettuce was ready to thin and transplant. Beans were four inches high. Peas were in tendril. Corn was up. Beets made a fine showing. There was only a deceptive green dew of weeds that could be discouraged with a hoe. The garden was all promise and we were full of smug satisfaction. Life was good. The rabbits hadn’t found the fence gap at the brook, and the crows hadn’t thought our sweet corn worth the bother, with twenty acres of field corn sprouting just down the valley. And the insects were still to come.
On the morning of Decoration Day Barbara went out to survey her domain and talk to her pretty green rows. I was upstairs in my study. I glanced out the window, saw her open the gate, go inside, and stand aghast. Then she yelled, “Hal!”
I knew, from her voice, that there was a bear or a ravening wolf in the garden. She isn’t afraid of snakes or minor mammals, including mice and rats, and though she does respect skunks she thinks they are rather amusing—at a proper distance. She yelled again, and I dashed downstairs, picked up the shotgun and ran outdoors. There wasn’t a feral beast in sight.
I hurried to the garden gate. “What’s the matter?” I demanded. “Where is it? What is it?”
“Look!” she exclaimed. And she pointed to her lettuce rows. One whole row was eaten to the ground, and half the next row.
“Look!” she repeated, and pointed to the row of peas, now a row of light green stubs.
And she pointed to the decimation of beets and green beans.
“Something,” she said, “has been in here. Something ate the whole garden!”
I went with her down the ravaged rows, looking for tracks. A deer, maybe? But deer leave unmistakable hoofprints, and there were no deer tracks. Birds wouldn’t do a job like that. Cutworms would merely sever the stems at the surface of the ground, leave the withered plants. It must have been a rabbit, I decided. Half a dozen rabbits; one rabbit couldn’t eat that much.
I started down the center path toward the fence gap at the brook. And suddenly a brown animal burst out of a clump of grass at the corner of the fence. A woodchuck! It dashed along the fence, looking for an opening. I lifted the shotgun and fired, and the woodchuck went head-over-heels, then tried to get to its feet.
There was a yelp from the side yard, then a flash of black and white. Pat, who had been napping on the front steps, raced through the open garden gate, down the path and at the woodchuck. He had it and was finishing the job before I could reload the gun.
The job done, Pat picked up the woodchuck and started back up the path. I intercepted him, and Barbara came over, and I took the dead chuck away from him. Barbara praised him as though he had killed a lion. I said, “Good dog,” and let it go at that. After all, I had shot the beast, and another shot would have finished it off. Pat hadn’t done much more than pay the tip.
So I took the woodchuck and buried it out beside the big chicken house, and Pat watched me with particular interest. Then he went back to the garden, sniffed the woodchuck’s trail, followed it out through the fence gap at the brook, and across the pasture. Barbara got her hand tools and set about repairing what damage she could, and I came back to my typewriter.
An hour later I heard Pat barking down at the lower end of the home pasture where there are the remnants of an old stone wall. I had never heard him bark quite that way before, insistent and angrily excited. I looked out the window and saw him, a couple hundred yards away, dancing about and making a rush from time to time at something I couldn’t see. Then Barbara called, “Pat’s got something cornered down there in the pasture!”
So I went down, picked up the gun again, and started toward the old stone wall. Before I had gone fifty yards I saw Pat make another rush, saw a flurry of action, and a minute later saw him turn and look at me. Then he picked up something in his jaws and skirted the wall up to the brush bordering the pasture. He had killed some animal and was taking it on an errand of his own. I walked on over to the scene of the kill and found nothing, but under a big stone in the old wall was a den with fresh earth at its mouth. It looked like a woodchuck den.
Pat had disappeared in the brush. I came back to the house, told Barbara what I had found, and returned to work once more.
When I went downstairs for lunch, there was Pat, asleep on the front steps. He heard me, looked up expectantly, and lay there, his tail wagging. I asked, “Where have you been?” and he looked away, and sighed, and went back to sleep.
We ate lunch, and we read the mail, and I went out to the garage. There beside the driveway I found a dead woodchuck. It was neatly laid out on the grass in the sun. I glanced at Pat, who was watching me from the porch. He looked expectant. But I was suspicious. I went out beside the chicken house. The place I had buried the woodchuck we killed in the garden was undisturbed. I got the spade, carried the woodchuck from beside the driveway, and buried it alongside the other one. Pat watched me, and if there wasn’t an amused and even smug look in his eyes there should have been.
When I had put the spade away I told Pat that I thought he was a very commendable dog. I did mention that there must have been an element of luck in his achievement, but I added that I would appreciate any help he could offer in keeping down the varmint population, particularly in and near the garden. And I hoped that his luck would continue. He listened gravely and seemed to agree with me, at least in principle.
When Barbara heard what had happened she not only praised him extensively but offered him a whole handful of puppy biscuits as a reward. Pat accepted one biscuit, then walked away and resumed his nap.
The next afternoon I found another dead woodchuck in the front yard, and Pat blandly accepted my congratulations. Then there was a day with no woodc
But that was only the beginning. In ten days he brought in eight woodchucks, and only one of them was an immature young one. It was incredible, for we did not appear to be overrun by the beasts. I had found only two dens in the pasture, both of them some distance from the house. And I had seen only three woodchucks in the open, all three clear across the pasture, at the edge of the mountain. They appeared there in late afternoon, wary and suspicious, and ate grass and clover in the far edge of the pasture. If I stepped outdoors, or even opened a window on that side of the house, they scurried for cover.
Yet Pat had somehow killed and brought home eight woodchucks.
It wasn’t until late June that I had a chance to watch him in action with one of them. I was in my study, working, when I heard him bark that morning. He was not far from the house, fifty yards or so back of the woodshed. I thought I recognized the way he was barking, excited but not frenzied, and definitely not summoning help. He had something cornered.
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