Category Archives: Zeke

Orion rising

In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.

I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.

It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.

We walked together again, the four of us.

I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.

It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.

Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.

For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.

It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.

One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.

I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.

And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.

Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.

When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.

And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.

orion

Photo by Kronerda, some rights reserved.

People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.

A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”

One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?

I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.

“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”

She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

Seven years on

zeke-happy

Once upon a time there was a six-legged beast with two heads that ambled around the hills. One head was arguably smarter. The other head, as all who knew the beast agreed, was wiser and far kinder.

One day the beast split in two. Only a lesser part was left, and it tried to wander the hills as before. Eventually, after a few months of practice, it no longer seemed completely wrong to stagger around on two feet instead of six. It wasn’t the same, though, and the two-legged fragment knew it never would be.

Seven years on, the lesser portion of the beast that had been went out at night to walk in the desert. Its too-clever, too-stupid head tried to imagine how the wiser, kinder head lost seven years earlier would see the night, moon two days new behind a distant cloud, patches of stars shining faintly. Orion and Canis Major showed to the south.

The half-beast had never expected to live so long after the amputation. A mile into the desert it turned off its light, made its way home by scent and starlight the way it thought its lost better half would have done.

The coast redwood is endangered

Redwood forest in Oakland

tiny squeeworthy baby redwoods

You didn’t misread that title. In a groundbreaking reassessment of the world’s conifer species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, as Endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species. The redwood’s condition has thus been down-graded from its previous prognosis, “vulnerable,” which it was assigned in 2006.

That’s not the only bad news for California conifers in the IUCN’s conifer assessment. I wrote over at KCET today about another species that was added to the Endangered Species section of the Red List, the whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis. Also joining the list were the giant sequoia or big tree, Sequioadendron giganteum, similarly moved from “vulnerable” status, and the Monterey pine, Pinus radiata.

None of those other three were a huge surprise. Whitebark pines grow above 7,000 feet in an era of global warming. Big trees grow in a few scattered relict groves in the Sierra Nevada, and there aren’t enough young trees growing to replace the ancients as they slowly die off. Monterey pines may be the single most planted pine tree in the world, displacing native trees on tree farms in the Antipodes, but in its native range — a sliver of the California coast, and a couple islands off the Pacific coast of Baja California — the species is declining.

But redwoods? There are tens of millions of redwood trees in the world. Cut one down and a dozen new trees grow back from its stump like the hydra. In Oakland, the story famously goes, there were a pair of redwood trees in the hills so tall that mariners used them to align their ships 15 miles west to avoid the rocks in the Golden Gate. Sometime between 1850 and 1855 the Navigation Trees were cut down, and every other old-growth redwood tree in Oakland but one followed them in the next decades. (That one, in a steep canyon near Redwood Road, was too inaccessible for  loggers and still exists. It’s 500 years old and 26 feet wide at breast height.)

American settlers cut down the trees illegally in the 19th Century to build houses. Stump sprouts grew back, got to remarkable size in 30 or 40 years, and then were cut to rebuild cities after the 1906 quake and fire. We decided to protect them in 1934, and now the stump sprouts that grew after the second bout of logging are 150 feet tall or so. In Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, which now covers the site of much of that original forest, you can find good-sized trees growng in rings 25 feet in diameter. They are ghost assemblages of the massive tree from whose stump they sprouted.

Zeke and I used to walk among those ghosts, sit and nap among them.

Zeke is blurry

Zeke is blurry in the dappled redwood shade, with western sword fern

They were redwoods in training at best.

Entomologists have a term, imago, that technically means the last stage of the process of metamorphosis. The egg hatches into a caterpillar, the caterpillar pupates, the sexually mature adult — the imago — emerges from the pupa. Imago is, of course, Latin for “image.” The implication is that the final form into which the insect morphs is the proper image of the organism, that life stage that most fully represents what the organism really is.

The century-old redwoods in Oakland are already huge. Left to their own devices, they could reach a thousand years of age,  or two if they’re moderately lucky. Left to their own devices, they would spend at least 70 or 80 percent of their lives as old-growth redwoods. The scrawny saplings with trunks just two feet thick are but going through a phase. The redwoods you can still get your arms around are squee-worthy youngsters. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is 26 feet across at breast height. It has side-branches as thick as oak trees a hundred twenty feet up. The imago of Sequoia sempervirens is so big it holds whole forests aloft on those branches, Sitka spruce and huckleberries that germinate in the moss and lichen, habitat for the marbled murrelets who lay their eggs in the moss atop those branches without fear they’ll ever roll off.

Three hundred years ago there were 2.1 million acres of that kind of redwood, the real redwood, the imago of the redwood, growing between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Chetco River. We used to say that five percent of it remained, but that was in the 1990s and there was an orgy of junk bond financed liquidation logging going on at the time. A quarter of the remaining old growth redwoods are unprotected: they could be cut at any time.

And yes, the sprouts grow back, and within a century they will start to have limbs big enough for salamanders and spotted owls to perch on, and they will start to call the rains out of passing fogs as their elders did before them. And then we will cut them down again. Logging once a century seems fair. It seems sustainable. The century-old redwoods get bigger than we are, and we are the only frame of reference that matters.

A fungus blight struck the American chestnut a century ago, and there are no more adult chestnuts in the forests of the East. Every now and then one will stump sprout, grow a spindly sapling a few feet high that puts out a few reluctant leaves, and that sapling does its best to become a tree for a couple of years. And then the fungus gets it, inexorably.

No one challenges the notion that the American chestnut is extinct, at least in an ecological sense.  Somewhere on the spectrum between 10 months and a hundred years, and somewhere on the spectrum between the fungus and the chainsaw, is the point at which our frame of reference betrays us.

Foresters will come and cut the sapling redwoods down as sure as fungus. They interplant Douglas fir among the redwoods, weakening the redwood stands. They try to suppress fires in the woods, saving those out-of-place Doug firs at the expense of the fire-tolerant redwoods. One by one the ancient redwoods in the private groves, the parks and the BLM snctuaries, will succumb. And like their cousins the Sierran big trees, there will be fewer and fewer worthy young saplings only 300 years old to replace them.

It is a stealth endangerment, to be sure, with all these young ephemeral redwoods a mere century old to mask it. But the coast redwood — the real coast redwood — is endangered, and its prognosis is getting worse, and it took the IUCN, a body relatively insulated from the politics of American resource extraction, to say so.

Deadman Creek

[Thinking of this piece because of something I wrote that will show up soon at KCET. I wrote this about 20 years ago about a day that happened before even that. It first appeared in Terrain, the now-defunct publication of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, in a Sierra Nevada theme issue. I’ve edited it lightly from its original form as I’ve learned a few things about words in the interim.]

It’s the Third of July, and we’re enjoying the traditional Third of July picnic. The campground, “improved” by the Forest Service so you can back your 34-foot RV right into your wilderness campsite, is surprisingly uncrowded. Maybe it’s the mile of washboard between here and 395, easy to drive but with a chilling effect on the pilots of $90,000 campers like those lined up outside Mammoth Lakes. Or maybe it’s the name of the campground, commemorating some forgotten 19th-Century miner double-crossed by his business partner. Whatever the reason this place is nearly abandoned, we’re glad to have it mostly to ourselves. We’re not looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Zeke, tied with my bearbag rope to one of the abundant Jeffrey pines, loudly regrets that he’s just out of reach of the barbecue. Becky tosses him a piece of watermelon rind, which he devours with gusto. Every few minutes he spies a chipmunk testing the borders of our territory and he forgets the rope is there, lunging for the critter. He reaches the end of the rope, and a loud twang like the E string on Paul Bunyan’s pedal steel fills the quiet air as he flips backward. He doesn’t seem to mind much, and is on his feet and wagging his tail before the dust settles. Matthew tosses yet another piece of melon. A fragment breaks off in midair, landing a few feet out of the dog’s reach. A chipmunk spies it and grabs her windfall snack. Twang.

Though it’s a beautiful day, and we’re nearly alone here, I’m not in the best of moods. Tomorrow Matthew and I leave for a week of backpacking along the John Muir Trail. Perverse beast that I am, I dwell not on the wonders in store for us along the route, but rather on how much I’ll miss Becky while we’re gone. I’ll be out of touch for a week, there are very few phones in the high country, and anything could happen while I’m gone. What if a meteor hits Oakland? Matthew is amused but tolerant of my sentimental foolishness, and quietly makes himself scarce as Becky unties Zeke and we stroll up the pumice slope into the forest.

This is the largest Jeffrey pine forest in the world, stretching from near the Nevada line to just below the crest of the Sierra, from Long Valley to the shores of Mono Lake. It lies leeward of one of the lowest parts of the Sierra crest, the environs of Mammoth Mountain. While the tall peaks elsewhere in the Sierra catch most of the moisture blowing off the Pacific, here wet winds are funneled through the range to dampen the excellently-drained pumice soils. Though the humidity is similar to that of the west slope, the temperatures resemble that of Bishop or Reno. The result is an ideal nursery for Jeffrey pine. It’s no accident that the largest ski resort in the Eastern Sierra is nearby. The moisture that quenches Jeffrey’s thirst falls partly as fat white flakes. Mammoth gets more snow than most other places on the East Side. It is this convergence of soil and weather that makes the forest possible, here in the rainshadow of the Sierra.

Place a huge, healthy old-growth forest in a region of plains and low hills with mining and ranching nearby, and you find some of the trees will disappear, made into fenceposts, houses, flumes, and charcoal for smelters. Run a railroad and then an all-weather highway through the woods, and the timber companies show up to send the trees to exotic locales like Los Angeles. The forest here has been logged and logged again, enough that it’s likely the collapse of the old-growth ecosystem here cannot be prevented. It may have already collapsed, for all we know; ecological axioms that hold true in forests of the Pacific Slope may not hold for East Side forests. Where the ecology of the Redwood Forest is abundantly researched, from marbled murrelet above to mycorrhizae below, most of what we know about the East Side is how to grow a nice straight Jeffrey Pine. We know what birds you can find here, but we don’t know whether they depend on being here.

Unfortunately for this forest Timber Harvest Plans make no provision for untested ecological hypotheses. The burden of proof is on the forest dwellers; if they can’t prove sufficient harm, they get evicted. And so the logging continues to this day, carving the heart out of this queen of the Jeffrey Pine forests.

The trees here, though, are as yet unmolested, and they give welcome shade as we follow Deadman Creek, a fork of the Owens River, upstream. The banks are lined with wild rose and an incongruous hedge of Artemisia tridentata, Big Basin sagebrush, which I’ve never before seen near fresh water. The creek is narrow — Zeke can easily put two feet on either side — but the water is filled with 8-inch rainbow trout. We’re without tackle, so my thoughts of fish steamed in bitter Artemisia go unrealized. The fish are hatchery stock, planted in season by the Department of Fish and Game. The DF&G truck plops thousands of fish into the creek here each year. Being hatchery trout, they’re much stupider than wild trout, and all of them tend to stay pretty much where they’re planted. Of course, even stupid trout are smart compared to fish in general; while catching these guys may be, literally, a picnic, it isn’t exactly easy.

There is some evidence of tree-cutting here, though it may be due only to the efforts of campfire-builders. Becky runs to a four-foot-wide Jeff pine, sticking her nose between the plates of bark, and savors the vanilla smell of the tree’s resins: her favorite East Side pastime. Zeke finds a baseball-bat sized branch and worries it, tossing it in the air, raising a big cloud of pumice dust. His coyote-colored fur makes him look like he belongs here. I lean against a downed tree and gaze toward the crest, at the line where the grey-green of Jeffrey pine gives way to the darker shade of red fir. If I were one of the fish in Deadman Creek, I’d forsake my fellow hatchery graduates and swim upstream to the Owens River headwaters. There, under the protective gaze of Two Teats and San Joaquin Peak I’d eat the small, drab fir seed moths as they emerge from the red fir cones and flutter onto the dark cool forest waters. Let the other fish fall for Velveeta and Power Bait.

That red fir forest, in the San Joaquin Roadless area, is little-traveled considering its location. Next to Reno-Tahoe, this is the most crowded spot on the East Slope, but people tend to stick to the roads and well-known trails. The red firs are seen mostly by chickarees, also known as Douglas squirrels, who eat the scales of the cones and heap sciurid calumny on the few passersby. There are pine martens there too. They feed on the more unwary portion of the chickaree population. Porcupines eat the bark of the few western white pines scattered through the forest. Fishers eat the porcupines. Until recently, only a few humans have hiked off-trail into the forest. The approach is too steep for logging trucks, and red fir isn’t the most valuable of timber. Campers tend to avoid red fir forests too. Red firs are prone to branch dieback, and dead branches will plummet to earth at the slightest wind. I’ve seen the falling branches described both as “windowmakers” and as “widowmakers”, depending, I guess, on whether or not one sleeps in a tent.

Lately, though, more humans have been visiting. The local Sierra Club chapter has led groups of hikers into the Roadless Area, so that people can gain a more intimate knowledge of this special place. Surveyors have been here, too, plotting the layout of a proposed Alpine ski resort, which is why the Sierra Club has become interested in publicizing the charms of the area in its pristine state. The resort, with its roads, clear-cut runs, garbage, and loud groups of skiers, would disrupt the forest and disturb the reclusive furbearing animals. But local environmentalists are hampered by the reluctance of their West Side counterparts to notice the problem. It’s as if activists in the Golden Gate drainage had arbitrarily decided that Tuolumne Meadows lay on the edge of the world. Drop down behind the “Sierra Curtain” and you cease to exist.

Night falls; it’s time to plan for our strenuous day tomorrow. There are sleeping bags to fluff, water to drink, carbos to load. Coyotes yip from the Inyo Craters a mile to the south; Zeke bristles and stares into the blackness. Matthew tends the fire, which reflects in Becky’s dark eyes. The excitement of the pending hike builds in me. After a century of abuse the World’s Largest Stand of Jeffrey Pines is still a beautiful place.

I am the master of all cows!

I have been unspeakably tired the last few days. I’m getting enough sleep: between six and eight hours of it a night, and I can get six hours’ sleep a night for weeks on end and feel fine. I’m not sick, at least not enough to notice. I’m not sad, despite an abundance of reasons to be sad. Becky and I are doing great, and the animals are a constant source of joy and mess.

But by ten in the morning, I’m ready for a nap.

So I only hiked about seven and a half miles yesterday, with a long loafing break about three miles in as a special indulgence to celebrate my 45th birthday. I was at Sunol Regional Wilderness, a startlingly rugged former ranch east of San Jose, and a favorite spot of Becky’s and Zeke’s.

The ground was thoroughly saturated and dotted with cow pies. I snoozed on a bench hidden among the oaks, in a spot where I’ve camped with Becky and Matthew. The hills were verdant, and their bones poked through in licheny outcrops: greenstone, fossiliferous Briones Formation sandstone, basalt. Moss was thick and flowering.

There’s a steep rocky canyon marked at its base, where it joins Alameda Creek, by a large sycamore in the shape of a “W.” A decade ago Becky and Zeke and I descended the “W Tree Rock Scramble” over the course of a day, losing 600 feet in half a mile, hanging on to flakes of rock as we lowered ourselves down dry falls. One twenty-foot drop about mid-way seemed impassable: we went up and around on a crumbly bank above, holding for dear life onto poison oak branches. Zeke tunneled through the poison oak, and I shoved him into a deep pool at the bottom of the canyon to wash some of it off. I think he might have finally forgiven me for that just last month.

Yesterday, that dry canyon was a chain of roaring waterfalls. I stood at the head of the canyon — after rousing myself from my little nap — and grinned like a fool at the music.

From the bottom of the Alameda Creek canyon, I had looked at the ridgelines, felt that deep bone-level fatigue, and quailed. After an hour or so of patient, weary plodding I was surprised to see that I stood at the highest point I’d seen from down below, high enough to see the Bay glint over the shoulder of Mission Peak. Cows blocked my path, moving only after I warned them that I ate their kind.

Heading downhill toward the truck in Indian Joe Creek canyon, I came to a fallen tree across the path. Half the tree was fallen, I should say: the other half stood tall and healthy, a good hundred feet of canopy above my head. I saw the tree’s whole life play out before my eyes: a deer browses the top bud of a sapling, and two shoots grow from the wound. They are both vertical, and when they widen they press together, forming a weak bond of rotten bark and old dead tissue. Disease takes one shoot, leaving the other to grow a collar of new bark around the wound where its sibling tore away. Eventually the tree stands with an odd flaring at its base, six feet wide and three across. There was a moment halfway through the tree’s life where the dead shoot had just fallen, bridging the creek, and an odd beast in pile clothing slouched up to it, traced a row of yellow shelf fungi with a finger, placed a paw on the healthy section’s bark, and went off to find his truck, stopping along the way to stand in mid-creek to see if his hiking boots were still waterproof.

That beast had just reset his hiking odometer, it being just after the new year. At the end of the day I was up to sixteen miles for the year, a cumulative walking distance — as one commonly-repeated and hard-to-verify statistic would have it — the average American will not reach until mid-March, even including trips between the television and refrigerator.

Then Becky took me out to dinner, where I ate part of one of the cousins of the cows that had blocked my way, and then fell dead asleep in my chair at 8:30. Happy birthday to me.

Cathartes aura

Three of them in a plum tree this morning, turkey vultures, shivering after a rainstorm and spreading their wings to dry out.

Mallards again, and surfing the rapids again. Becky and Zeke and I watched from the bridge. Another vulture circled down in from the hills, broad white chevrons on her underside wheeling against blue sky. The mallards, about a dozen of them, dabbled upended in the slow eddy. The males waded onto the bank, stuck bills into the muddy grass.

The creek was café con leche, and it flowed steady. The air was moist with past rain.

Earlier we had let the rabbit and guinea pig run loose in the backyard. They were glad for the sunshine, which lasted only a few minutes. A rainbow formed to the west against a backdrop of dark gray. With the first few drops, Harley shrieked to be brought inside. Thistle waited until he was wet, then streaked for the shelter of the coffee table.

But the rain stopped again and we went down to the creek with the dog. The female mallards’ loud cries echoed off the far trees, off the walls of the senior center. The males’ call was a low quacky murmuring, a grumbling to themselves. One after another, turkey vultures spread their wings in the pale breeze.

My mother’s pacemaker installation went well. She was resting happily if irritably when I called in the afternoon. A routine surgery, and yet what a marked relief not to have to freight those morning vultures with heavy familial import.

Last hike of the year

We three — Becky, myself and Zeke — walked slowly up the canyon of Alhambra Creek. At first, the sun was bright and glinted off the wet grass. A half mile into the canyon, clouds gathered and finally loosed rain on us.

We walked a mile and a half up onto a ridge, and then back down. It was a thousand feet of climb, more or less, and put me at just over 165 miles hiked since September began. On Tuesday I walked eight miles through redwood forest in the Oakland Hills, passing site after site that Zeke once loved, stopping to eat jerky in a small shelter, saved from profound guilt over not having Zeke along only by the eight miles’ hike. He’d never have made it.

So today’s hike was for Zeke. We walked slowly, a mile or two per hour up steepest parts of the muddy trail. Zeke panted up the inclines, caught his wind and pranced ahead on the level. Other dogs passed us, wagged hellos, vanished out of sight up ahead. At the crest the rain had started in earnest. Orange newts headed for the lagoons. We judged Zeke a bit tired, his back legs buckling a bit, so we headed back down. He was tired and happy when we reached the car. We were soaked.

He sleeps now on our bed. The rain is really beating down. We ate pizza for dinner, topped with chicken from the smoker. Zeke ate the crusts. A hike with our dog and pizza shared three ways: an exquisite, ordinary day to end the year.

Singing for Zeke

On my hike today, I watched a pair of red-tails circle on a thermal, keering loudly to one another. A hundred feet below, Steller’s jays called back and forth: raucous cries of alarm when the hawks came too close, their joyous staccato chip when the danger receded. Further down the road, I was sure I heard a Swainson’s thrush — until I remembered the time of year. Orange newts walked the roads in search of mates, and the nearest Swainson’s are in Central America.

I love so much to listen to the songs of birds. I wondered whether they might want to listen to me. I began to sing: a Kate Wolf song, Unfinished Life. Predictably, the birds nearest me flew away — I expect out of fear of humans rather than critical disregard for my skill or Kate’s catalog. Or maybe that line about the “wounded bird” scared them.

I sing to Zeke every day, just about, and have for almost fourteen years. Nonsense, mainly, about the squirrels as we walk past them or about his bad breath or dirty feet or general fuzziness, little childish jingles that half the time I don’t even think about while singing: Clarke emulates lark. Aside from those people that happen by without my seeing their approach as I sing to Zeke, and at whom I blush crimson, few people generally hear me sing. Twenty-four years ago, I stood on stages with a cheap guitar and sang angry folk songs to barrooms, coffeehouses, and the occasional demonstration. These days, I sing with Becky in the room about twice a year. That’s about it.

Which is why Becky raised an eyebrow about eight years ago when I took my guitar along on a day hike with my friend S.

S. was a writing colleague who volunteered a fair amount of work on the magazine I edited. We were sympatico. We hit it off. Far too well. I fell into a hole, spent far too much time with S. for a few years, Becky waiting less and less patiently for me to come to my senses. A weekend would arrive, and the phone would ring, and I would suddenly have plans with S. for the day. I neglected to sustain my relationship with my wife.

In short, I was a jerk.

Even ignoring the fact that I was married, there was something about my too-deep friendship with S. that was profoundly wrong for me. A harsh word from her, and a few days of silence after, and I would crumple into profound, intoxicating depression. Once in a while I’d weep. Zeke would get up, sidle away, find another room to be in. He has never been able to tolerate either of us crying.

My time away from Becky was time away from Zeke as well. He saw very little of me those years.

Five years ago next week, S. met a handsome, talented artist, fell in love, and told me. I was livid with jealousy, to the point where S. suggested we not speak for a couple of weeks. Hearing the news, Becky suggested it must hurt a great deal, as I’d obviously been in love with S. for years.

I admitted it to her. She was right. I was in love, and I was grieving. My admission brought years of Becky’s suppressed hurt to the surface, and in those next few days our marriage nearly ended.

The crisis was over remarkably quickly. We spent the last hours of 1999 in a remote cabin in the Trinity Mountains, watching bald eagles and fog play about the forested slopes. I put my friendship with S. to an end. We saw a shrink. We talked things out. We are stronger now, and Becky has forgiven me, and I have almost forgiven myself.

But it is those first few days I want to talk about, when Becky and I would sit in our bedroom and rage and weep and scream and grovel. It went on for days, four in the morning and three in the afternoon, gentle teary reconciliations followed by great gales of wounded fury, me moaning in abject shame as sobs came out of the shower to which Becky had retreated… and our timid dog Zeke, who would hurry out of the room when I cursed after stubbing a toe, reacted in an astounding manner to all the raw emotion.

Already an old dog even then, it was as if he had waited his whole life for this chance to prove himself. He was stalwart. He was brave, and he was steadfast. He stayed between us, some part of him touching us at all times as we argued, and though he trembled at the angry words — oh, how he trembled — he did not falter.

Without him, our hurt might have spiraled, our words turned bitter. But we sought to still his trembling as we fought. We kept our anger in check. We owe him our marriage, as surely as if he had raced into a burning building to drag it out by his teeth.

I sang to him in earnest the next few months, cradling his head in my lap.

The problem with dogs is that they live just long enough that one day you can no longer remember your life without them. This year has seen Zeke fade a bit. His hips, his back legs grow weaker, his eyes misty. He is surprised when we walk into the room: his hearing has faded, and he cannot hear our footsteps. In the mornings he is still his old self, bright and ready to go to the park. Within an hour, though, he is asleep, and stays asleep all day. He no longer accompanies me on long hikes. The climb up the hill to our house is too much for him, some days. He was always surefooted and precise of step, a tree-climber. Now his back feet trip over curbs as often as not.

We walked in the rain the other night, me singing to him about the puddles and his muddy feet, and he was opaque, preocccupied with the meter in front of him. I called him, still singing, and he didn’t respond: no glance, nor flicker of ear. I realized he had not heard my singing to him, and that he may not have for some months.

I knelt: he came to me. I buried my face in his fur. There is always a bright side. He could not hear my choked sobs.

This is the last in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Going with it anyway

Rain, and an unwalked dog
get the fedora from the top shelf
pull on the brown leather jacket
wind blows cold wet onto the back of my neck.

The creek is up. The street is a creek.
In barren plane tree branches, six crows
face windward, shudder, complain.

Chorus frogs sing late in the wet morning.

Songs borne by the wind, which shifts
crows in one ear, frogs in the other
and I laugh. I cannot write this today
without being suspected of pandering.

Wing

This morning, frost delineated each vein in each grass blade. Dead plane tree leaves scuttled across the park like Prufrock’s ragged claws. Zeke’s breath steamed.

Framed in rimed plane tree leaves, a mourning dove’s left wing lay palm up. The grass frost had melted away just a quarter inch from its margins, a perfect drop-shadow. A chain of bone, humerus and scapula, emerged from the wing and bore a bright red bead aloft.

A perfect image, and an evolving one: a bright, happy dog put foot on phalanges. The snap of bone echoed. What a cacophony of smell it must have been! I pulled him off the wing. He forgot it within seconds.

Fluffy Bunny!

This afternoon we climbed Eagle Peak, a ridge running north from the summit of Mount Diablo. I followed Becky up and up through head-high chamise and manzanita, past fragrant sage and crumbling rocks covered in lichen, up and up beneath oaks and pines shot through with mistletoe. We sweated and huffed and scrambled over steep rocky places with treacherous footing, traverses with just enough exposure to raise the hairs on the back of my acrophobic neck, though one would need to be somewhat persistent to actually plummet to one’s death from any particular point on the trail.

We reached the ridge crest and followed the trail south along it, a thousand-foot drop ten feet to either side. After an hour or two, we made the summit at 2,369 feet, about 1,800 more than we left at the truck.

We sat and drank, water and vantage point both. At our feet lay the head of Mitchell Canyon, 1,500 feet down. Beyond the Oakland Hills, The Bay, Mount Tamalpais, Japan. 

The sun arced lower; the shadow of our ridge crept upward in the valley to the east. A coyote, then two, then a half dozen started a chorus of lament. Becky turned to me. “They just got the election results.”