I've always been a pragmatist, a product of my late 20th century American upbringing and a college education grounded firmly in the scientific method of collecting and analyzing data. But as I’ve grown in experience, I now realize that discounting everything that cannot be verified by science is as illogical as betting on lucky numbers.
Last year in the space of four months, I lost two dogs who had been faithful companions of me and of each other for over a decade. Otter -- so named because only a few days after she joined our household I found her playing with three otter pups, the four of them virtually identical in size and age -- was the first to go: she’d been suffering from anemia for several months although the vets could pinpoint no specific source. She went out on her own terms, on the mountain that she loved more than any place in the world.
Otter had always been the quiet one: on the other hand Trooper, a black lab with a 42 inch chest that barely contained his even more massive personality, was everyone’s best friend. He never met a creature that he didn’t love. His personality admitted no dark side: he dedicated himself totally to happiness, his own and others. He lived large and he lived love.
Trooper's sense of humor was quirky: he loved plunking his hundred pound frame square onto my chest, effectively pinning me to the floor. One of his favorite games was sneaking the hat off my head so discretely that I wouldn't notice that I'd been robbed until I saw the fabric dangling from his mouth.
A small percentage of domestic dogs display a peculiar behavior where the upper lip is pulled back as if in a snarl, but the head is lowered, the tail wags, and the body language is playful, almost submissive. Researchers have reported seeing this "smile" expression in wolf pups when they greet their parents. Trooper would display his smile in social situations where he was unsure of himself: I could always depend on a big smile from Trooper if I found that the garbage had been raided -- or my hat filched.
After Otter died last summer, Trooper stopped eating. At first, everyone assumed that he was grieving, but after several months, when ribs wash boarded through his barrel chest, a vet finally agreed to x-rays. In the stark, half tone of the photographic image, the cause of Trooper's problem became obvious: a tumor in his lungs so large that it had displaced his heart.
Trooper's spirit never faltered. The last thing he did in the vet's office before that final injection was sneak the hat off my head.
The day that Trooper died -- a stark morning in late October -- I fled up the north shore of Lake Superior to a trail I'd hiked dozens of times with my two now dead dogs. The trail angles through the hills that rise up from the big lake, skirts one small, wilderness pothole, then drops down to the shore of a another lake. We -- the dogs and I -- would always stop at the second lake for lunch. Trooper loved this lake, not just for the promise of food but for the water retrieves that invariably followed. Trooper and I had hiked this trail not a month earlier, in the copper glow of a glorious fall day, when cancer was a word I never would have associated with Trooper's sturdy and seemingly indestructible body and spirit.
Alone on the shore of the lake, surrounded by boney, naked trees and coldly lapping water, I felt more bereft than I had ever been in my life: no big chested dog to share my granola bar, to bring back the sticks that I tossed, to spangle me with water droplets when he shook, to support my soul with his rock-solid body. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. I swiped a tear from my cheek.
A sudden snort startled me. I jerked my eyes toward the water, the direction of the sound. Ten yards from shore, a head protruded above the choppy surface of the lake: a smooth gray head with bead black eyes, a whiskered muzzle, and a finger-sized fish bowing down from either side of its mouth.
The otter stared at me for at least half a minute. I felt a connection like electricity: this creature had deliberately attracted my attention with its snort and was now -- fearlessly -- confronting me. It was as if it desired to communicate with me. I studied the otter's face, attempting to take in every detail possible, to find some clue as to why the animal had demanded my attention, but before I could solve the mystery the otter's head sank below the surface, leaving only a slight irregularity in the wind-ruffled chop of the waves.
I told myself that my seeing this otter was a mere coincidence: the otter had been taking advantage of the last few weeks before ice closed the lake for the winter and had been startled by the presence of a person on shore. But as I hiked back to my car through the gray trees and gray hills that foretold November, I couldn't help but feel that I'd been sent a message.
Grief can distort feelings, can forge connections that have no basis in reality. But naked sorrow can also render a person more observant to the immediate sensual world: muted by emotion, the intellect has less power to edit observations and their interpretations. Instead of saying, "This can't have any meaning other than a chance occurrence," the grieving mind longs for explanations, for connections. I saw an otter -- the same creature that gave its name to one lost dog -- the day after another dog died, and I interpreted the sighting not as coincidence but a message: Otter the dog and Trooper were now together again.
I was sent a second message a week later, in the early November dusk as the sky spat sleety snow. I'd driven to the vet to collect Trooper's ashes, bringing with me the puppy that I'd adopted in the rush of loneliness that had followed Otter's death. The new pup was a troublesome soul who couldn't be trusted alone in the house. The road was slick, the gloom impenetrable even with the headlights on high beam. Tears didn't help clarify my vision. The puppy had mastered Trooper's hat stealing game but added his own twist: after the hat was in his mouth, he'd then chew it to bits. Distracted by the weather, by the passing traffic, by the gray plastic box on the floor that held all that remained of Trooper, I didn't realize what the puppy was up to until I heard the sound of fabric being torn. I screeched with anger and slapped the little guy -- hard.
At that precise moment, in the muddied haze of the headlight beams, a black form materialized. In an instant of recognition, I saw a bear: a yearling or a big cub. The bear was almost identical in size, shape, and color to Trooper. I swerved into the oncoming lane, stomped hard on the brakes. The vision shuffled through the twin cones of light and vanished in the surrounding darkness as quickly as it had appeared. I pulled onto the shoulder and killed the engine, shaking, blotting my tears in the soft yellow fur of the trembling puppy's back.
Another coincidence: another event where the timing and the content seemed much too significant to be dictated entirely by chance. It wasn't hard for me to interpret the message of the little bear: grieve, but do not ignore the life that surrounds you.
Trooper died on the full moon, and the final messenger came to me with the next full moon, though its light was shrouded at dawn by fog and clouds. I'd taken the puppy for a walk along the Lake Superior shore despite the bad weather: the water was angry and roared as it piled against the beach while wind-whipped sleet stung my unprotected face. Two weeks earlier I'd scattered Trooper's ashes here, now the thin strip of sand was eroded by the sharp-edged gnawing of waves. Through the gloom ahead of me, I spied movement: something large and dark and indefinite. My first impression was of a black plastic garbage bag billowing in the wind but as I approached the vision clarified into a grounded eagle with outstretched wings. A retreating wave revealed another eagle, dead or severely injured, lying in the sand before the standing eagle. Another wave washed across the beach. The survivor huddled over the prone body, cupping its wings above the other as it to shield it from the sleet, from the wind, from the stark and unforgiving future of the coming daylight. I called to the puppy, a too-sharp edge in my voice, and hurried home.
Unlike the first two messages, this final one proved hard to interpret. For several days I mulled over what the eagles had been sent to tell me. Notice now I was no longer a pragmatist, a doubter: I fully believed that there was a purpose to the heartbreaking scene I'd witnessed on the beach.
The puppy had been such a troublemaker that I'd decided not to get another dog after Trooper died, but after searching my soul I settled on this interpretation of what I'd seen in the predawn gloom: like the eagle that grieved its lost mate, I would never be happy until I found another dog to replace Trooper. Two days later, I drove to an animal shelter in northern Minnesota's Iron Range. There I met a tall yellow dog with kind eyes and horrible, open sores on his legs. The dog had been picked up as a stray: I arrived on the first day that he became available for adoption. I asked the handler if I could see the big yellow dog outside of the run it shared with an aggressive Rottweiler that charged and barked whenever I approached. The handler slipped a leash over the yellow dog's head and led him toward me. As he approached me, the dog lowered the front of his body and raised his hips, wagging his tail vigorously and pulling his upper lip away from his teeth in a perfect reproduction of Trooper's smile.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources