Although I lived in a rural area at age 20 I worked at a theater in the city about 20 miles away. It was a good job for a student commuting to a nearby University because my workplace was open at night and on weekends; precisely when classes at the big “U” were not being held. I disliked working in the city and didn’t spend much extra time at the theater despite the fact that a couple of my friends also worked at there. There was one great amenity to the place. There was a large pond, some might even call it a small like, behind the theater; about 50 yards across the parking lot and over a steel guard rail.
On weekends while at work I used to go back to the pond during my break and stand or sit by the gravelly shore over looking the water body. On the other side of the pond there was a public swimming area. There were also a few cottages along the shore line but most of them were terribly run down. Quite a bit of trash adorned the edge of the lake; a common malady of any urban water resource. Despite the obvious negative aspects I still found the area somewhat uplifting; especially as compared to the rest of the busy city that surrounded my work place.
There was one particular day when I was walking behind the theater across the hot, black asphalt parking lot when I noticed an old beat up 1960 Chevrolet speeding away. The car and driver took a precarious path out of the parking lot and on to a cart road. This cart path was located on the west side of the parking lot. I had never explored the path but presumed it lead to an adjacent road; the same road that the nearby beach was on. The odd part was that the car sped off from the parking lot, wheels smoking and screeching as it left the seen, and I didn’t think too much of the entire incident. My general feeling was that there were many strange happenings in this city that necessitated no further investigation.
I walked over towards the pond, jumped over the guard rail and sat on the gravel beach. I was only there for a moment when I noticed bubbles boiling up in the water at the edge of the lake in front of me. I stood up and looked more closely. There were more bubbles and I could see movement in the water. This shoreline had a very quick drop off so that the water just off shore was about 6 feet deep. I stared into the water. And then I saw him. I rubbed my eyes not believing the blurry vision underneath the murky water in front of me. It was a dog. It looked as if the dog was walking along the bottom of the pond towards shore. I rubbed my eyes again and wondered if I should have gotten more sleep the night before. And just as I was about to declare my self ready for a padded room the dog surged forward and its nose broke the water’s surface. The dog gasped. It was desperate. It lunged forward again. This time its entire head broke the surface. I could see ropes attached to the dog’s collar. The ropes appeared to be attached to something very heavy that was meant to weigh the dog down.
I jumped into the water in my theater uniform and grabbed the dog by the collar. The collar was tight and the weights on the ropes were extremely heavy especially added to the bulk of this rather large dog. I pulled hard and got the dog to the edge of the shore where I unbuckled his collar. This dog, on closer inspection obviously a large puppy, was now standing in chest deep water gasping and clawing his way to shore. Fearing he would jump the guard rail, run across the parking lot, and leap into heavy traffic I grabbed this frightened pup by the nape of the neck. He struggled for a moment and then collapsed. He had used all of his reserve energy.
I quickly let go of the dog and grabbed the collar that lay on the edge of the water. I pulled on the collar. The heavy ropes and weights remained attached to it. As I pulled the death contraption to the edge of the lake I saw that there were four cement blocks attached to the ropes. It was clear that the occupants of the car that sped away had tossed this poor beast into the lake with the intent of drowning him. His will to live, walking along the bottom of the lake dragging cement blocks, had meant the difference between life and death. That I was there, at that moment to help him out, was something of a miracle.
I untied the ropes from the collar and put it back around the dogs neck so I had some way of controlling him. Having had a dog pal my entire life was training enough to know that this dog would not be a problem. He stood up while I put the collar on him. He was shivering, not from the cold for it was a warm day, but from fear. I put my arms around his neck and hugged him. I told him it was going to be OK. I had tears in my eyes just thinking of the what he had just gone through. He licked me and then cowered down as if I was going to hit him. I put my hand under his muzzle and raised his head. I looked him into the eyes and kissed his snout. That was the first time that I saw a funny smile that would remain his life long trade mark. It was crooked and funny looking but it was sincere and loving as well.
My personal circumstances in those days was that of being a student with no financial reserves. I went to the University full time. I was paying my own way without scholarship money. I worked 25 to 30 hours a week and studied late at night. I had just enough money to take care of myself and my dog pal Max. Adding another mouth to feed seemed both unwise and nearly impossible. With this in mind I took the rest of the afternoon off from the theater and transported him down to the SPCA. These facilities in those days were not as friendly or as compassionate as they are now. When I walked in with the pup he cowered again. He knew I was bringing him there to leave him off. The look on his face and his body language nearly broke my heart.
The receptionist told me I would have to wait for an intake exam. While we waited the pup, a large collie shepherd mix about 8-9 months old, leaned into me. It was as if I was his only security. The idea of leaving him there was already eating at my conscience. After about a half an hour we were led into an exam room. A middle aged man who I presumed was a Veterinarian looked over his coat, inspected his mouth, checked his heart beat, and examined his paws. I asked the man what would happen to the dog when I left him there. He looked at me. The look on his face was grave.
“We’re over burdened with dogs right now”, he explained, “if no one claims him or adopts him he’ll likely be put down in a couple of weeks.”
I was shocked. This dog whose dignity had been thrown into the bottom of a lake by some leech of a human being was now going to be put on death row if nobody claimed him?
“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed.
“I’m afraid not.” said the man in a solemn tone.
“Then I’ll just take him with me!” I responded without thinking of my precarious economic circumstances.
“You can do that, but there will be a fee for this exam.” stated the man in the white medical suit.
“A fee? For what? You looking at his fur, looking down his throat, checking his pulse to see if he’s alive, and inspecting his nails?” I shot back.
“That’s the way it is son.” said the man in a very stern tone.
To which I responded, “Let me tell you the way it is. I’m taking MY dog and walking out of here. Do you understand?”
For a moment I stood there. In truth I was unsure of myself but my 6’3” 200 pound body towered over the Vet. I then picked up the pup in both arms and marched out of there with him in my arms without looking back. Nobody gave chase.
And so this was how I became friends with this wonderful dog who would shadow me in all of my adventures for the next 18 years; pals to the end.
Max became fast friends with the new dog. Max was a dominant lab/hound mix and after he beat the new pup up a couple of times everything was settled. Max was the boss and there were no two ways about it. The new pup was happy to have a home and another dog to hang out with. He was forever grateful. The new pup was a clumsy chap. He’d walk into the door jamb while walking through the opening. He’d fall up steps when trying to navigate his way from the outside to the inside of my country apartment. He’d step into his water dish while trying to drink out of it. Somehow his clumsy ways made him more precious. He was always happy. He was ecstatic to take a walk. He was ecstatic when you fed him his kibble. He was ecstatic to go to sleep at night by the side of my bed. But most of all he was ecstatic when I played music on my terrible sounding portable 8 track player.
One day soon after I had found this pup I was playing a Flatt and Scruggs tape. Earl Scruggs was plucking away on his banjo and singing a blue grass tune. The pup became extremely animated and started to howl. The strange thing that his howl was in perfect harmony with the song. From that day on he became known as Scruggs. Scruggs would love music throughout his very long life. He had two favorite musicians to which he would always join in with his musical howl: Earl Scruggs and Neil Young.
In those days whenever I had any spare time away from the University, studying, working at the theater, and home chores like splitting wood for winter heat for our woodstove I would take long walks in nearby forest. On one particular autumn day Max, Scruggs, and I were hiking up the side of a mountain that was covered with hardwoods. About halfway up the hill I stopped to rest. The dogs were running ahead exploring every nook and cranny they could find. They noticed I had stopped and ran back to find me. I was sitting on a stone wall enjoying the fall colors when the the two of them ran down the hillside looking about as happy as two dogs could possible look. They both settled in, one on each side of me, and leaned against my body. It was at that moment that I became aware of our relationship. We were a pack. I was the leader. Max was the scout dog. And somehow Scruggs was responsible for both of our happiness. He was very happy to give love to everything and everyone. It was just who he was.
The air was clear and cool. The sky robin egg blue. The leaves on the hardwood trees were colored crimson, tangerine, and gold. It was a moment of perfection. As I looked up I saw a wild grapevine. The vine was about three inches in diameter. It had shaggy dark bark. The vine hung from the top of the tree. A breeze moved the top of the tree. The thick vine moved in concert.
In those days I was not yet an ecologist but I was a pretty good woodsman. I was raised around forest and swamps, knew the common names of all the trees and many of the native plants, could swing an axe with the best of them, and was no stranger to the operation of a chain saw. The forest was my natural haven. It was a place I could retreat to when happy, sad, inquisitive, or just tired of the monotony of the civilized world. It was my sanctuary. It was my church. And although I never held a religious service in the forest it held my spiritual self. It was, simply, where I was whole.
I had wondered about these wild grape vines since I first noticed them at about age six. Given they didn’t wrap around the tree and hung like a rope from the top of canopy I presumed they had grown up with the tree. This, of course, meant that the vine and the tree were about the same age. I knew that all the land around me had been almost completely cleared about 60 years ago and so I presumed both the tree and the vine had grown up together when this specific area became reforested. I remember thinking that I would love to see a young tree with a young grape vine growing on it; sort of a confirmation of theory or reality. Perhaps a reward for, what seemed to me at the time, a novel thought.
That day about 40 years ago stands out in my mind as a watershed moment. A time when I began to understand just how precious life is. And not just my own life, but the life of my loved ones, the life of my dog pals, the life of plants and wildlife. In fact, the life of our planet Earth.
These plants that we refer to as wild grapes, the genus Vitis to our botany friends, have a wonderful place in our temperate deciduous forest in these northern climates. They were amongst the first plants to be cultivated by humans from the wild. In fact there is evidence that humans have been keeping grapes as a food product for about 4000 years. Used both for food and drink this delicious fruit has graced the human table for hundreds and hundreds of years; perhaps the best know grape product is wine. As some would say the “nectar of the Gods”.
In New England we have quite a few different wild grape varieties. The most common of which are Fox grape (Vitis labrusca), frost grape (Vitis vulpina), summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), River Grape (Vitis riparia), and New England Grape (Vitis novae angliae). These wonderful plants provide nesting material for birds and mammals (from the shaggy bark sheaths), abundant food for a plethora of wildlife (almost every critter you can think of that is mammal or bird), escape habitat for wildlife where the vines create dense thickets, and temporary swings for children who play in the forest. And while there is no Tarzan to swing from grape vine to grape vine in the northeastern United States there are quite a few animals who enjoy climbing around in and on grape vine thickets including the raccoon, porcupine, opossum, fisher, squirrel, and yes, even an occasional groundhog.
That grape vines and trees grow up together is a testament to forest dynamics; function where one might not expect it. Grapes need tall towering structures on which they can hang. In ancient forests one can find grapes that are 10 inches in diameter hanging from the tops of trees that are well more than 100 feet tall. These natural vineyards are neither groomed or harvested but a valuable asset to the forest ecological system nonetheless. Not only does this tree/vine relationship provide structure for nests, food, and travel corridors but by some strange coincidence it can provide ballast for trees. In unusual storm events, like hurricanes, when the wind blows from just the right angle a solid vine may provide the necessary anchor for a heavily blown tree to remain in place whereas trees that are not fortunate enough to have grown up with a vine buddy may be toppled over. This leads to pause for thought in terms of whether this is coincidence of ecological design. Most would lean to the angle of coincidence, but others, like myself, look for “intent” in all natural relationships. Sort of a combination of purpose and interdependency that has no logical conclusion but is nonetheless persistent.
In New England we live in a largely post agricultural era. As settlers moved west in the early to mid 1800′s farms were abandoned here for promise elsewhere. Interestingly the New England (and general Northeastern U.S.) landscape may have been a benefactor to this abjection of the territory. As a result man made fields succeeded to forests. And as many trees rose to new heights they brought along the dangling grape vine allowing those of us who wander these renewed forests to hold onto a ragged barked vine and give it a solid tug. The sheer experience of this is worth the journey. To pull on an old grape vine is to tug at a forest’s history allowing one’s imagination to run wild.
Max, Scruggs, and I traveled the country together. From New England to Colorado we enjoyed adventures from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. We nearly starved to death after I broke a leg in two places while working in a cranberry bog on the island of Nantucket. We finally settled with close friends on a homestead in the Berkshires. Max died a few years later, run down by a police cruiser on a rural road. Scruggs and I mourned his loss (See “One Last Song” from in previous post in Articles). It was a rough time for both of us. I ended a serious love relationship. Scruggs and I lost our best friend in Max. Our “family” communal homestead broke up; each friend going in separate directions. I was lost. Our grief led to an unbelievable bond. Scruggs happy-go-lucky personality and ever faithful attitude helped me through each day one day at a time. He was for a time my rock on which I leaned. Who would have thought that this dog who “walked” out of the bottom of an urban pond would be the creature that held me up when I most needed it.
Within a year we added a new dog pal puppy. His name was Hickory and he was a black and tan/bloodhound cross. He loved Scruggs showing him the early lessons of life. But he was a hound and needed to be in charge. Eventually he took that role and Scruggs, being who he was, let him assume that position. And the best part? He was happy to do so. The three of us lived in my tipi together for two years. We kept each other warm when it was cold. We kept each others spirits up when times were tough. We rambled about the forest learning, observing, and taking in all the wonders of the woods.
I met Maureen. My dog pals loved her as much as I did. Maureen and I built a house from lumber that we harvested from our land. We started a family. The dogs went along for the ride happy to meet each day with happy barking and wild adoration for the country around them.
Maureen and I had two boys. The dogs accepted them as part of the pack. The boys would never be in serious danger. Hickory and Scruggs made sure of that.
Hickory died at age seven from bloat, a strange ailment where the stomach twists over and traps gas. I was heart broken. Scruggs was getting old now. Another loss seemed like it would take him down. In reality it was Scruggs ever positive attitude that lessened the burden. And even though my main focus was Maureen and the boys, Scruggs was always at my side; faithful, present, and simply happy to be part of the pack.
To keep Scruggs company we brought in a puppy from a friend of a friend. She was part Bouvier and a our first female dog pal. She was black and we named her Ebony. She was nearly as happy and free spirited as Scruggs. Scruggs was old now. He moved slow. He couldn’t keep up with the puppy but he enjoyed keeping his eye on her antics. The family was growing. Life was full and busy. Scruggs held the fort in the background always ready to cheer someone up. As it turned out Ebony had a congenital ailment that kept oxygen from properly circulating in her lungs. Scruggs mourned the loss of yet another partner. It was nearly too much for him to bear.
A few months later in an effort to give Scruggs some company we brought home another puppy. This pup was a blue tick/black and tan hound cross. A hound through and through. There was no doubt that this new puppy brought life to Scruggs. It reminded him of his pal Hickory. And things seemed very good for a short while.
Scruggs died that year at age 19. He died in my arms at a local Veterinarians office. It was tragic accident that ended his long life. I held him tight when the Vet administered the medicine that ended his long and happy run. He was ready to go. I was not ready to let him go.
I was crushed. It was the end of a long run, a long era. Scruggs had been my constant companion for my entire adult life. I was 39 years of age and to go forward without him seemed to much to bear.
Scruggs and I had gown up together. He held me up when times were tough. He had been my anchor in the wind before I met Maureen and we had our family.
We buried my long time friend in a sunny spot on the side of a hill where he liked to hang out when we lived in the tipi. For many years after this meadow, carved from the forest years before with Scruggs at my side, held goats, pigs, cows, and other livestock. When we stopped raising livestock we let some of the area go fallow. A few trees began to grow through the briars that took over that part of the landscape.
Just the other day I noticed that not too far from where we buried our beloved Scruggs there is a young ash tree adorned with a wild grape vine. I remembered sitting with Scruggs in the woods looking up at a vine hanging off of a mature tree many years ago. And I remembered how, back then, I longed to see a young tree with a grape vine growing on it. I remembered the watershed moment when I realized how precious all life is; how precious our planet is. The tree and the wild grape were somehow symbolic of this “growing up together” concept that has helped me through life.
And that this little symbol of a tree and a vine growing up together right next to the final resting place of one of the best pals a guy ever had is almost too wonderful to be true.
Perhaps proof that I should never underestimate the power of a very happy dog.