Earlier today I stopped by a place that carries my cards and larger images in Missoula, the Bitterroot Flower Shop on South Higgins Avenue. I didn’t expect to be seduced then and there, but it didn’t matter. I was entranced and immersed in one sweet intoxicating moment that lasted an eternity.Who the hell cared anymore that it was hovering in the upper 20s outside, with skiffs of fresh snow accumulating on north and east facing aspects of buildings? I sure didn’t.
What hooked me? Orchids. Their fragrance, their vibrant and vivid colors, they got me good. Eight hours later I still have that primordial scent and image on the brain, reminding me that spring is surely coming, that it’s a good time of year to leave behind some things that no longer serve or fuel me, and to let those things become fodder and sustenance for all that is beautiful and wonderful that is to come.
The following entry is a bittersweet and timely one, given the slow but sure transition now underway from winter to spring in the northern hemisphere. This is one of the hardest things I have ever written and also shared, yet I find great comfort from doing so in the closing words of Christian Huygen from his poem “Five Easy Peaces”. Simply put, “Everything is food”.
It was early April. I rambled through a remnant pine and oak forest in a place called Deep Run Park, with my good friend Beau, who was a little over nine years old at the time.
Damp, rotting earth and the smell of new, green growth reawakened childhood memories of growing up in central Virginia, when trees and forests and creeks and fields appeared so vast and untamable that they went on forever. But in these remaining woods, it was hard to tune out traffic snarling along suburban parkways marking its perimeter.
This is what struck me most about visiting this place, after not having lived here for nearly a decade. Peace. Quiet. Being fully present and focused in one’s natural surroundings. Things easily accessed and experienced growing up here, yet now hard to find. The woods still had a palpable and primal pull on Beau. His entire 120-pound frame suddenly energized and captivated by a scent, he pulled harder and faster on his leash, lurching toward the source of the smell. Before I could intervene, he discovered and proceeded to roll over a no longer identifiable dead animal. After his bonding ritual with the carcass, he sniffed, then sneezed, and waded chest deep into a briny creek. Beau crawled out and dropped to the ground, rolling in mud that clung in large clumps to his dripping, auburn coat. I laughed and smiled and shook my head, knowing he would equally relish a garden hose bath back at my Dad’s house.
I saw Beau one more time, when visiting family in December the following year. Beau was nearly 11 years old. He had lost 30 pounds and grayed considerably, his arthritis preventing him from getting up or walking much anymore. It was crushing to acknowledge we would no longer journey to our suburban sanctuary together, to walk, to fetch small logs, and to soak up the senses of what had first brought us here, when Beau was a big-footed, unruly and exuberant four-month-old puppy.
My solo walks that December were lonely and inward, mirroring the early winter landscape of soggy leaves and barren trees. It felt empty and strange not being tugged to investigate something along the wooded trails.
I walked more slowly than was ever possible with Beau, and paused more often, as if collecting fresh experiences, memories and scents to take home to him to remember.
The last walk before returning home to Montana was the hardest, knowing that the next time I visited, Beau would likely be gone. As with Beau’s impending death, I did not want to face what had happened to the spirit of these Virginia woods, which had ignited and fueled my passion for untamed places. I cried, not only for Beau, but for the loss of a once beautiful place, where kids and dogs could run and play in a landscape wild enough to inspire and enlarge their imaginations. I did not want to face the future, a future without Beau, without these woods.
I stopped to sit on a decaying oak log where we had often stopped to rest, wiping the tears from my eyes. A sudden flash and whoosh of red and brown and white caught my focus, as a red-tailed hawk landed on the top branch of a dying old oak tree. She perched there silently for several minutes, scanning for field mice, voles and rabbits, intently ignoring suburban distractions on the edge of her home territory a few hundred yards away.
In that instant, in watching that age old ritual, I felt a grain of hope. Beau would never return to these woods, but other rambunctious dogs and kids undoubtedly would, if we protected and connected what was left of them. I drove back to my Dad’s house and sat beside Beau, and told him about my walk and the hawk I had seen that day. I think he was listening. I think he understood. I think it made him happy.