Grace Kelly is our dog. She is a 52 pound husky mix, the color and size of a small wolf. She survived the blizzard of ’93 in the Kingston woods as a runaway puppy. Roaming for so long in that big white world, she probably killed a rabbit or a bluejay, though it’s hard to picture this feisty little starving puppy under a moonlit night flying at a defiant warm bird, burying her sharp little teeth in its feathers and winning her first battle to live. The puppy we took home from the pound with the big black ears and sharp pointed muzzle only chased butterflies with any real zeal.
We first saw Gracie after she had been trapped by a ranger, having run wild in the woods for three months. She was less than ten pounds, trembling with anxiety and indignation and hiding under a chair in a small visiting room. When we finally got her home, she immediately ran away into the woods surrounding our house and was lost for two weeks. Finally someone called and said they had captured our dog. It was pouring rain when I picked her up, a bedraggled skinny miserable hungry little animal who hated me and hated living inside a house. Eventually, she learned not to be afraid of doors or of male visitors and once we brought home some dog toys and taught her how to play and gave her a little ice cream now and then, and taught her how to cuddle, her real dog instincts surfaced, a surrendering vulnerable quality emerged, her tail started wagging, and she bonded with us forever.
Very few animals on this earth are so helplessly sincere as dogs in their love for people or so generous in trying to please us. It took a few years but Gracie finally learned what the wonderful English trainer Vicki Hearn once called the courage of a good dog. In other words she committed herself completely to all that was important to us, to all the virtues and behaviors necessary to live in a house with human beings.
Gracie is almost ten years old now, older than I am in dog years and her muzzle is gray but she has not forgotten the woods and that she once belonged there. When a fire truck or ambulance races by on Route 32 sirens screaming, or when Joanie comes home from work, our dog settles back on her haunches and howls like a wolf. Several times in the middle of the night she has howled the wolf song when there were no sirens outside.
She has always been wild at heart. I have always respected her longing for freedom and rarely put a collar on her. When we walk in the woods, she never utters a sound and never chases an animal. Even if we see deer or wild turkey close by, Gracie will only pause, one front paw held up and look back at me, tail high, absolutely still. Don’t move, she seems to be saying, knowing I have never lived in the woods. If we ever meet an aggressive male dog and I get anxious and confused about what to do, she will ignore my insecurity, calmly lie on her stomach, forelegs outstretched, ears flat against her head instinctively protecting her throat, and wait for the stiff-legged dog to come up and touch her nose. After this communication and what for me is an excruciating moment, they chase each other and play.
When Joan and I drove across the country to Colorado, Gracie sat in the back on the fold-down seat, a plaid handkerchief tied around her neck, panting with happiness. At Wolf Creek Pass, the highest point on the Continental Divide at eleven thousand feet, a gust of wind blew the loaded jeep across the road. It was time to take a break so we entered one of the many trailheads into the San Juan National Forest. I got out of the car with the blissful dog and we sauntered down the dirt road, high dense forest on both sides of us. It was a Colorado moment I will always remember. Cold white puffy clouds racing across a deep blue sky, Gracie’s soft ears alert and forward in front of me, ecstatically nosing the trail, tail wagging, hind quarters wriggling with excitement. We never saw a mountain lion but we both dreamed she was watching us from the boulders above. When Gracie stopped to take a casual drink from an icy puddle and then raised her beautiful head to smell the balsam and the lodgepole pine, she was looking out at life as she had always wanted to live it, so at home in this wildest of places, a little sister to the wolf. Although to my knowledge she has always been a very delicate animal who loves pizza crusts and has never confronted even a groundhog. Later, in Pegosa Springs, very proud of our dog, and having survived the mountain lion, we stopped to give her a couple of hamburgers which she ate ravenously while we enjoyed the hot baths.
The great husky dogs of the North are legendary creatures, partly because very early on they learn a spiritual lesson that they never forget. Humans learn this lesson too but they always pretty much forget it. Disappointment. When you’re a puppy dog in the north woods under the stars, you come across owls, bear, moose, elk, caribou, fox, badger, and wolf. All of these animals will seem bigger and more important than you. You soon learn that you and your parents are nothing special. And there is thunder and lightning and freezing temperatures and days and nights of heavy snow to further confirm how ordinary and even frail you are. You are so small in this great universe. All hope and expectation that you are very great disappears and you are able to see the world in a spirit of humility and modesty without too much thinking about it. A mature husky of the north is perfectly clear about one thing. The animal lives calmly with the knowledge that it is nothing special, which even Zen masters agree is the most disappointing feeling there is, as well as the most basically intelligent attitude one can have. Although the Kingston woods cannot be compared to Alaska’s wilderness, Grace Kelly has never forgotten what she learned under the stars as the most wretched and free puppy in the world. There is a certain deference and sweet harmlessness in her gaiety and dashing spirit. She’s nobody and she knows it.
Only once have her teeth snapped perilously near another dog’s throat when that dog, having bossed her and bullied her all day, was arrogantly preparing to spend the night on her bed. Mostly, she loves to play and brings all her toys into the kitchen early every morning when I’m making breakfast. I’m supposed to grab the toy dangling from her jaws and then throw it into the living room. She has developed terrific feints and lunges. Her other favorite game, she must have learned while living in the woods. She pretends one of her back feet is a captive animal and grabs and mauls it, growling and spitting ferociously and pulling back her lips in a babyish snarl. She often does this on the living room rug making a great commotion and then, having killed her foot many times over, runs up to have her ears rubbed.
Joan and I had to leave our dog to go into the city recently. It was quite a shock to go into Manhattan, land without trees. The astonishing abundance of food and books and movies, the strange magic of a space loaded only with human dreams. The one natural thing I saw was a family of white seagulls flying through the empty canyons of midtown, their wings reflecting an orange-gold sunrise. We took a taxi down to ground zero early in the morning and got out at Trinity Church which is closed to everyone but emergency workers. The dead and the sense of the dead are gone now. Along the black wrought iron wall in front of the old church are poems and drawings, teddy bears and candles, flowers, thousands of flowers, many bouquets a few months old, letters from the children of other states and other countries, identification tags of lost firefighters, chains of origami peace cranes and old tattered posters of the disappeared. Walking down to the actual site takes a long time because we read every poem and look at every flower and broken candle. We take in everything. It is all we can do. Traipsing back uptown the terror seems old and stale, another lifetime, a memory. Holiday stars glitter from the lamp posts. Office workers and construction crews rush into Starbucks. Police guard the do not cross barricades, their faces impassive. Life is becoming routine. People stop and stare and take out their cameras, some weep. Now and then a small family is allowed to hesitantly descend into the actual firepit of ruin standing black in the background, the children wide-eyed and timid. Piles of torn and tangled wires and walls seem very empty and still except for the constant moving cranes. Wind from the ocean blows through the hole in the sky. The smell of burned steel is in our faces. In all of the north woods, no lost puppy dog or elk or bear or wolf ever experienced what now prevails on this site. The disappointment here one could never find in nature.
© 2001 Linda J. Clarke Volume 3 Issue 10