Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.Mary Oliver
I had been in our new home in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington for only about a week. My husband had remained behind to take care of moving business, so my only companion was Lulu, a standard poodle puppy we had acquired just two weeks earlier. No, it is not the best time to acquire a puppy while getting ready for a major move, but I had made the mistake of asking to see the litter when they were only three weeks old, barely crawling about. The one with the blue collar managed to crawl into my lap and into my heart, and there she has remained.
So Lulu and I found ourselves together in a log home, surrounded by ponderosa pine forest, with a view of the Kettle River Mountains from the living room window. It was not such a bad way to start our lives together. I had not yet had the dish installed for internet service. There was consequently no television, no land line, nor did I have cell phone service at this remote location. In other words, it was rather like being on a solo backpacking trip, the kind of trip before there were cell phones, just the kind of place for Lulu and me.
We had gone outside in the evening to watch the sprinkler go off in the garden. I had set it on an automatic timer and was inspecting to see that it was working properly. It was better entertainment than television. The evening air in August was soft. A light breeze rustled the leaves in the aspen grove. Yes, it was rather like being on a solo backpacking trip.
The sprinkler went off with a thunk. Lulu was patrolling the fence for chipmunks, a mission that had given her a new and profound purpose in life despite her tender age. I gazed across the garden at the edge of the trees when I saw a low brown slip of an animal making its was along the periphery. With my poor vision, I thought at first I was looking at a deer, then it turned to show me its length, and there was a long tail, darker, and curved upright at the end, moving cat-like. At ten weeks Lulu weighed about as much in pounds. She would have been a tender morsel for a cougar, barely an appetizer. I scooped her up in my arms and walked back to the house.
A satellite dish along with television and internet have long since arrived at our house, but I still do not spend my evenings watching television, nor do I spend them outside at dusk. I am more likely to be absorbed in a book next to the window with the view, sometimes on the deck, depending on the season, but always with Lulu at my side. We will not be walking outside as the light fades when cougars are more likely to be hunting. Lulu has become a much loved member of our family, and even the thought of losing her in that manner is more than I can bear, nor do I want to be the main course at such a feast.
I have never again seen a cougar in the yard, but like the bears, I know they are out there, and I am happy about that. Lulu and I frequently find kills, usually deer, as we wander about near home. She is good at finding and digging up the bones, which are often buried under a cover of pine needles. One time she happily displayed the articulated spine of an animal, prancing off with the vertebrae clacking, waving it like a flag, tossing her head in the air.
One year later we have made it through our first winter in our new home, more difficult than I had anticipated because of COVID restrictions. When the snow had finally melted and the mud lost its grip on the earth, Lulu and I started going for daily walks on the abandoned roads near our home.
There were more interesting sightings. A wolverine crossed in front of me on the road last spring as I was driving home from town. I was so excited I could barely believe what I was seeing, but it stopped in front of my vehicle to show me its dark mask, as if to say, “Get a good look. ” And so I did.
On a walk not far from home last summer Lulu stayed close by my side, unusual behavior for her, for she usually likes to run ahead, maintaining a distance of about ten to twenty feet in front of me. We rounded a curve in the trail, and I understood why. About twenty-five yards ahead of us came what appeared initially to be a large German shepherd walking toward us at about the same pace we were keeping. The markings were dark gray. It had an unusual gait with its forelegs appearing knock-kneed, a feature that allows the gray wolf to maintain speed in deep snow.
I feared that Lulu, upon seeing another dog, would react as she usually does on the rail trail or in town. She would wag her tail and run off to engage in some friendly butt sniffing. But being a poodle, she is both smart and cautious. She stayed by my side, even leaned into me a bit as if seeking reassurance. The wolf paused briefly to take a closer look at us, then turned off the trail, heading down the hill. When we got to the point where we had last seen it, Lulu gave the brush and the grass a good sniff, then squatted and urinated.
On backpacking trips I sometimes wonder how many animals are watching me as I pass by on the trail. Are they above me on a ledge? Watching from behind a tree? How many times has a cougar or some other predator wandered into my camp at night, looked around, moved on? How many animals like this walk by my home every night, even wander onto the deck not far from where I sleep?
It is a wild world, one with cougars and wolves in it. I love that I live in the middle of it all, that I regularly am reminded of my own wildness, that I have encountered bears and cougars and wolves and that we walk the same paths. Listen carefully. That howling you hear? I’m finally getting it right, howling at the moon.