CRN readers have begun to weigh in on the merits of my book Walking with Zeke, and as I am going to have to get into the habit of selling my writing if I want to eat, I thought I’d share some of their kind remarks with those of you who have not yet bought all the copies of WWZ you can afford. It’s all about persuasion!
First, there’s your friend and mine kathy a, who says
i finished the book last night…. thank you! your story of Zeke is so powerful.
Joy delurked (sort of) to offer this kind note:
I got your book yesterday and have already read it (I’m a fast reader and didn’t put it down). It’s a wonderful tribute to your best buddy. I found your site just about the time Zeke died and I cried along with you then as my own dog had died not too long before that. It’s a moving and beautifully written tale and I’m glad that you decided to write it.
CRN stalwart jmartin pulled out the stops in her feedback, in a very flattering and detailed review. I’ve pasted it below. Enjoy reading, and if you find yourself curious as to whether the praise for Walking With Zeke is warranted, please consider buying your very own copy.
I here swallow the last remnants of my false modesty and turn this post over to jmartin. Thank you.
Walking with Zeke
I admittedly had two worries about the book. How could the last years of a dog, no matter how cherished, fail to seem slight in comparison to Clarke’s masterful CRN essays? How could material initially contained in blog posts be ordered or shaped?
Both concerns were unfounded: I love this book, unalloyed.
First and perhaps shockingly: this is not a dog book. Rather, Clarke has written a memoir on his enmeshment, his overlapping boundaries with the natural world. Clarke himself admits only that he writes “about wildlife, family, paleontology and Zeke through the lens of how I feel about my relationship with myself.” I submit that Zeke is not truly a subject at all, but rather a joint-venturer and co-author. His royalties, one presumes, were paid in advance, in filet tender.
Clarke (with Zeke) walks through landscapes—the Bay Area, the Mojave, Northern New York State—with an unmatched ability to inhabit the growing and the breathing, the fossil and its stone. His writing is umami, and so triggers those newly-discovered receptors. The reader tastes the savory, the yum.
There are the careful observations, which you want to carry away and sleep with, as Freda the rat does with dollar bills from Clarke’s wallet. After a Christmas tree is sacrificed, “[t]he shredder smells of conifer sachet.” A fire in the Oakland Hills spews “[l]ive embers the size of chickpeas.” Soaproot leaves are “frozen splashes around imagined points of impact.” Gardening on a hill of diatomite (fossil Miocene plankton) is like “walking on very stale halvah.”
There are the pervasive seams of esoteric knowledge: botany, gardening, corvid behaviors, paleontology, geology. Clarke displays the world’s workings: the mechanism of cholla barbs; co-evolution of dogs and humans; how soaproot’s saponin-filled leaves suggest assignment to the Agave family; Mayan legends of the coyote; the altitudinal range of the Joshua Tree. Clarke obviously loves the physical world with his head as well as his heart. Each detail flows seamlessly from the narrative, yet lends freight and authority.
There is throughout, one must note, a witty, inimitable authorial voice for which Zeke is blameless. A vet suggests opiates for pain. The author fears that Zeke will write “senseless fever dream poetry,” and riffs a “Kibble Khan” Coleridge parody. Clarke finds a tail shed by a Western Fence lizard, likely under feline duress. He uses it to boost the growth of a potted cactus, in hopes that the plant someday will fall on a cat and effect “the revenge of the tail.”
Musing on a Buddhist approach to environmental protection, Clarke opines: “I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of bird song, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel.”
Do we hear Clarke speak about his dog? Absolutely, his book sings just as he sang to Zeke on every walk: “nonsense, mainly, about the squirrels as we walk past them or about his bad breath or dirty feet or general fuzziness”. But Zeke is but one strand of Clarke’s braided love of the physical world. On hands and knees in January, Clarke grazes the miner’s lettuce of the California hills: it “tastes like home, and spinach.”
We also read, of course, of Zeke’s decline and Clarke’s grief. At book’s end, Zeke’s world is his bed; the author’s world-gaze is similarly blindered. This is exactly where Clarke made an unerring decision: to maintain blog-post order.
The posts themselves had not been journal snippets, but rather had knit past, present and future. Posts meditated on memories, current events and anticipation of loss—“[a] long life is a landscape of holes where things once grew.” Clarke marries these layers of the human temporal with observations on geologic time. The result is a deep earth perspective of aging, death and grief.
This perspective wrings out tears and self-pity, and instead impresses a dry but detailed story into the land. The sorrows of life on earth are the earth. Passages like this preserve our brief human lives, and the even shorter lives of the dogs who leave us behind:
“Green serpentine from the earth’s mantle, sand laid down on the bed of a Miocene sea, shale made of silt washed down from the Sierra, diatomite from a deep trench off Monterey: all mix as pebbles in the bed of Pinole Creek. All of them will wash out to the bay, eventually. A gravel delta runs fifty yards out from the creek mouth now. It was not there last year. At quarter to three tomorrow morning, the tide will wash over it again.”