Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Friendly Fire

A couple of months ago Lily and Tamar got into a terrible fight. It was Saturday night. We took them, in separate vehicles, to the animal emergency room, driving the 20 miles into town with all kinds of fear and trepidation that the vast amounts of blood spread all over Mama and Daddy’s deck and laundry room were an indication of horrible, horrible injuries.

As it turned out, though they both had to stay the night, the only serious wound was one on Lily’s left front leg that required stitches.

Once we got them home, we undertook a complex logistical effort to make sure that the two of them had no contact with each other. One got to play in the yard in the morning, the other in the afternoon. After years of sharing a bed, the two were banished to not just separate rooms, but separate houses. It was exhausting.

And emotionally draining. These two dogs have been bosom buddies for nearly six years. With the exception of four or five incidents involving bared teeth, otherworldly growling and bites that drew blood, they were completely simpatico. They cried for each other when they were separated. They chased deer and rabbits and squirrels in tandem. They began each morning licking each other’s faces as though to reassure themselves that all was right with the world.

When I took Lily back to Saint Buddy to get the stitches removed I asked him what we could do about the problem. He presented me with a copy of a scholarly article on "intraspecies female aggression" and warned me that what I was going to read would not make me happy.

He was right. The experts say that IFA, as I’ve come to call it, is not an unusual problem. There were explanations about canine society and the necessity of an alpha dog, warnings about trying to treat dogs equally as one would people and suggestions about behavior modification.

The experts’ conclusion was that IFA is not easily solvable. In fact, they wrote, it is unlikely, once IFA has been introduced into the relationship, that the two dogs can ever be trusted with each other again.

It made me sad.

And it made me even sadder to think of the human application. It didn’t take me long to thing of more than a handful of relationships, mine and other people’s (and not limited to females, thank you very much), that had gone from close and loving and attached-at-the-hip to distant and cruel and vicious. And, like the veterinary experts said, most of those relationships cannot be healed.

With dogs the aggression is instinctual and arises from fear. We humans, with our advanced brains and social connections, are supposed to live beyond the reach of instinct and, yet, it occurs to me that the source of all those broken relationships can, in one way or another, be traced back to fear. Fear of loss, fear of separation, fear of fear.

We’re working with Lily and Tamar, carefully reintroducing them to each other. When I take Lily up to Mama and Daddy’s each morning I hold her leash tightly and allow her and Tamar to touch noses through the wooden gate on the deck. We’ve even taken a couple of long walks, one on a leash, one loose, making sure that a safe distance between the two is maintained.

Neither one gets so much as a pat on the head until she responds to a command of, "Sit!"
Will it work? Will they somehow figure out the parameters of their relationship and learn the behavior that will allow them to once again run freely over hundreds of acres together? I don’t know.

What I do know is that every time I look at them, separated by barriers that they created themselves, I see not just their faces, but human faces. And it makes me want to cry.

Copyright 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Deed of Gift

Just the other day I was headed cross country toward Valdosta – one of those places in our wide and wonderful state to which it is difficult to find a straight shot from here. Having gotten widely varying estimates of time and distance from three different internet mapping services, I decided to play rabbit and head out in what I knew was the general direction, the back roads known as the Woodpecker Trail. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a drive more.

It was early Saturday morning. There were few other cars on the road so I could watch the landscape skim by. The yellow autumn light came through the trees at such an angle that the changing leaves all looked as though they’d been plated with precious metals. Acres and acres of cotton spread out on either side of the road and were so thick with fat fluffy blossoms that I couldn’t help but hear the voices of my childhood preachers singing out from the pulpit about the fields being white with harvest.

Rounding a curve I saw a neatly-painted sign dangling from a limb on a tall oak tree: Fresh Eggs - 1 mile. I was half-tempted to take the detour down the narrow dirt road just to meet the kind of folks who still sold eggs from their back porch.

At a county road crossroads, three shiny new pick-up trucks, each one with a grill as big as a cattle gate, were parked on the gravel outside a cinder block store. Men dressed in various degrees of camouflage leaned against the fenders, hands in pockets or crossed over their chests, soaking up sunshine and swearing to the number of points on the buck that had been just out of range.

I passed a sign that told me I’d entered the Big Hammock Wildlife Management Area, 7000 acres of flood-plain habitat owned and managed by the state of Georgia. A few miles further down the road I drove into Appling County and the road widened, took me over a new concrete bridge. Underneath ran the Altamaha River. It is the largest river of the Georgia coast and the second largest river basin in the eastern United States. It flows for 140 miles through southeast Georgia toward the Atlantic Ocean.

On this day the water was low, barely moving, and the sand looked like cake icing, creamy white and spread in gentle waves along the edges of the water. All was silence and stillness and I was suddenly struck with an instinctual protectiveness toward the river and all it represents. It was as though by being there at that particular moment I’d been vested with an ownership interest in that particular piece of creation.

I’ve experienced it before – at the foot of a waterfall in North Carolina, on the banks of a creek that runs along one edge of our farm, under an oak tree too big to circle with my arms, on top of the Temple Mound in Macon – and each time I’ve found myself breathless.

What is it, I wonder, about untouched nature that speaks so deeply to our souls? Do we hear our own breath in the wind? Feel our own pulse in the current?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past 30 years or so about preserving our natural heritage and cleaning up the environment. We’ve spent a lot of money as a nation to do just that. And, yet, I’d bet that the majority of Americans don’t see themselves as the owners, much less the caretakers, of a single square foot of dirt on which they are not paying a mortgage.

We have become so distanced from that which we didn’t create that rain is just something that delays a baseball game and wind only something that interferes with the satellite signal. And 7000 acres of nothing but wetlands seems like a lot of wasted space.

Until you see it. Until you feel it. Until you own it for yourself.

Copyright 2006.