At the Pond
Preface & Reader Response
Zach is the dog that moved freely from home to farm and reported for work detail with Bob on a daily basis.
Farm-Dog Dominion Heir
RUN OF THE HOLLOW
by Jerry Murley
With fortune still smiling, I live across the road from Bob's farm. Looking west, I face the wide and long expanse of front pasture and forested ridges on Bob's farm and have done so for nearly 30 years. I breathe the air of the combined acreage around me and witness nature's magnificence every single day. The quiet, simple, shared benefit of the natural amenities and old buildings of this glorious patch of ground is something I cherish and respect. It is a divine gift that in the early American Indian tradition is well beyond ownership but full of obligation: that obligation allows transient stewardship with transcendental significance.
Our hollow really consists of several intersecting hollows. For instance, Bob's long hollow widens at the road and the hill lines turn north and south to make the western wall of the mother hollow – a two-mile stretch of hollow through which the county road winds. At the northern end of the hollow, the road climbs steeply and continues for two more miles until its terminus at the main highway. Our county road is the four-mile-long hypotenuse connecting the main east-west highway and an old secondary north-south highway that meet at a perpendicular angle northeast of the hollow.
My house is about one fifth of the way up the hill across the road from Bob. So, it is smack dab in the cross hairs of the intersection of the two hollows. From my daily perspective, the scene is one akin to a huge Roman amphitheatre with the creek, road, and slight dome of Bob's front field in the middle rather than a flat stage. The creek is wide and deep and runs on my side of the road. A little more than half of the stretch of county road on Bob's eastern property line along the front field is shared jointly by the two of us.
The theatre of action, from my front window next to my rocking chair, encompasses about three-quarters of a mile from hilltop to hilltop north to south and one and half miles east to west, with the farthest visible point being the northwest-bending south ridge on Bob's farm. On this stage, many of the most memorable events of the past half of my life have unfolded. It is a daily pageant of birth, growth, decline, decay, and regeneration – of joy and fatigue – and of animals of all kinds behaving in predictable and strange ways.
My dog Zach is a dog to remember in these parts. Zach is the dog that moved freely from home to farm and reported for work detail with Bob on a daily basis. He was a dog who would look you directly in the eyes and calmly note your every inclination and follow your every move – and remember the pattern. That is probably why Bob picked him from the litter for my son after the loss of our first dog Jeb to youthful enthusiasm in the path of a speeding driver on our winding county road.
For eight years, our dog Zach, our most loyal and capable companion, punched the clock to help Bob work with the cows – mostly while we were away at work or school, or spending an inclement day indoors. He jumped on the hay wagon that Bob used in winter as a stage from which to feed the cows, keeping himself and the hay out of the muck below. Zach and Lady, Bob's Blue Heeler, were to keep the cows from getting close to the wagon and pulling hay bales down into the muck in their competitive eagerness to get to the feed. He learned the dos and don'ts of helping with the cattle feeding from Lady. She helped teach Zach a trick or two, as did Bob, and then Zach improvised from there. Zach knew exactly where to draw the line in intimidating cows, when to feign a teeth-baring charge or issue a simple bark and when not.
I don't remember ever punishing Zach. Zach never needed punishment. The only discipline he required was an emphatic, "No!" He learned quickly, but I bet money that Bob occasionally showed him the stick when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bob has had some decent dogs over the years. His last really good one was Lady. Otherwise the last two dogs to follow Lady, in some eyes, were prone to inconstancy and excessively long hair, and they were a bit too skittish, in part because of their being adopted later in life, with anxious, fully-formed neuroses. They tended toward indiscipline and a want of intelligence and grace. I will concede, however, that they were dogs in terms of their ability to bark at strangers, to dig holes, to wag their tails in solicitation of or in response to a rubbing, and to consume quantities of dog food on a regular basis.
The dogs lay about the yard most days until one dog heard or smelled something up the hollow west towards the Natchez Trace or up the hills north or south. Impulsively, they lit out on a furious and noisy adventure. Often Bob leaned forward in his chair by the den window to get a full view of the chase and its direction, partly in amusement and partly in curiosity, depending on the attitude of the pack as it raced off. In later years Zach failed to join the bird gang for the several-times-daily canine excursion to nowhere. He was way too wise and long in the tooth to pay much mind to the half-witted notions of the remainders and part-timers who roamed the farm since Lady's demise.
Zach, we think, was a mix between an Australian Blue Heeler and English Shepherd. It doesn't really matter, though, because we are now convinced that the best thing for advancing a species is to mix breeds. We think a mutt is smarter than a pure-bred dog most of the time, probably along the lines of pure-bred humans.
Among the dozens of dogs in the big hollow, some penned and some not, Zach was one of the few to keep his family jewels intact. We did not have him neutered, perhaps because our thought processes had not themselves been neutered. One has to consider unique circumstances, and circumstances applied to our experience with Zach and his surroundings suggested a path other than the accepted and expected practice. It is a decision that could have been wrong, but I think not. In fact, I think it would have been something of a crime against loyalty and good behavior to have added the extra burden of removing the desire and capability for bad behavior – and depleting natural hormone levels. He was a non-agressive dog with a great vitality and we just could not allow ourselves that level of political correctness.
I say that Zach was not aggressive, but woe befell the dog that threatened Zach's human family. One day in deep winter, our son was with Zach sledding on the driveway when a neighbor's dog came at our son. There is nothing quite as startling a reminder of the true nature of nature than blood splattered over fresh white snow. And when family members were at hand, woe be to the dog that attacked Zach in an unfair fight. Once, a larger, aggressive dog surprised Zach and cornered him. As the dog went at Zach's neck, he was repelled by one of my sisters-in-law wielding a big skillet.
I grew up in small houses with inside dogs that chewed things, including wood trim, and were hard to train and discipline, in part because of deficient mental capacity. I vowed never to have that in my house, but slipped up when I tried to own an elderly cat many years before Zach's life. I learned the hard way when we accidentally adopted a peculiarly neurotic, dim-bulbed, aged Siamese cat and lived with her for five years. The cat became infested with fleas at one point and it was a dear lesson that stuck with me concerning inside pets.
Though too aware, as Zach aged, that it was subject to tut-tutting rebuke regarding proper pet care, I thought it equally acceptable for a dog owner in rural territory to choose not to allow a hardy farm dog into the house, ever. Bob had taught me something about farm animals. I saw a dog allowed in his house only long after his retirement when the dog in question was that of a granddaughter, and it was a toy, finely-behaved house dog at that. One provides food, shelter and companionship, but an animal lived outdoors. In truth Bob had no pets as such until well into retirement with his default last two dogs. He had hunting dogs and farm animals – and that was that. That is unless one counts the rare occasions when he was at great pains to nurse a weak calf, but I view that as pure animal husbandry.
The only animals ever in my house uninvited were mice, ladybugs and spiders. This position of mine did not sit well with city folk who treat pets like human beings. The policy occasionally met with mild disapproval (to my face) of the sweetly suburban or faux-hunting-lodge set. I think among households, each family can choose among several acceptable paths toward cohabitation. My wife was particularly disturbed when the weather got very cold. About twice a year the temperature would drop to about five degrees for a night or two. Zach used to go over to Bob's and bed with his dogs in the hay in the chicken coop. Since his first winter with us, I put a vapor barrier topped with fresh hay on the ground of his house and fastened a heavy, flexible, clear-plastic flap as a door. But in his older years, I insulated his doghouse top and sides, and I built an igloo for him with multiple layers of clear plastic sealed tightly over his doghouse, making a tunnel out past the heavy plastic door flap. After a cold night we would look out and his nose would be stuck out past the end of the tunnel. If we got up too late and the sun hit the igloo, he would be completely out of the doghouse because of the heat. We gave him a vigorous rub down before feeding and he got the full attention of the family all morning – and I got the doghouse looks from my wife, always protective of her "good dogger" and her favorite male on earth.
Often in spring and fall we leave our back door open to the utility room and kitchen. There is no screen or storm door. Zach never once tried to go into the house. When he was older, we once tried to let him in the back door one cold night and he stayed for about two minutes and couldn't settle down, looking uncomfortable the entire time. When we opened the back door he ran out of the house. One time a neighbor's bird-brained bird dog was running wildly around our property and ran in through the back door into the kitchen. Zach was totally flummoxed. He looked around at us in confusion. We yelled at the bird dog, who emerged within seconds and ran off again. Zach liked our consistent normalcy. He didn't like wild-haired frenzy and disturbances.
Zach was also not allowed in our car. We transported him to the vet, tethered in the bed of the pickup, with a family member at his side, or in the pickup cab as the truck got older. To be sure, if Zach was not allowed in the house or car, no one else's pets were welcome either. That always could be the source of awkward friction, but my philosophy is to publish the rules, apply them consistently, and recommend that "when in Rome, do as the Romans" – or go to Greece. We gladly furnished a long stretch of rubber-coated light chain staked to the ground on a fairly manicured lawn for a canine visitor – or the owner could let the pet run wild – always an awareness-building, educational experience for a suburban house pet.
Zach was a jumper, a humorous jumper. He sprang up high with all four legs about the same distance from the ground at any one time. We already knew that he was a climber, when at an early age we tried to pen him and he kept climbing a four-foot fence. After that we just gave up. Zach jumped into the big pickup truck atop layers of hay in the bed. He jumped into the tall truck even when the tailgate was closed. He jumped on the hay wagon for cow feeding. He jumped across the cattle guard.
He would hardly leave the yard when we were home, except to cross the road to visit Bob and Bob's dogs or to follow us on a walk, bike ride or a drive to Bob's. There is something that lightens the heart about watching a boy and his dog walking over a hill in a big field for about three-quarters of a mile to his fondest old neighbors. When we cut firewood back in the hollow on sunny winter days, it was common course for Zach and our son to take off for the woods and the little hollows off the main hollow of the farm. Once they left, we could only hear them but not see them for an hour or so until we were ready to leave.
As far as I remember, Zach only received one bath in the 13 years that he lived with us. That bath was given to him one summer early on by my wife. My wife liked to pamper him and her youngest sister often referred to him as "handsome." Otherwise, he remained in a state of nature, not even having dental work done. His jumping once did him in for about four to six months and he never really totally healed. Evidently he fell backwards while making a high jump onto the truck or hay wagon and injured his rear back or hip. He never could jump as high or as comfortably again. We didn't even encourage him to jump and tried to discourage others from doing so. We would try to provide him with steps or a helping boost with our arms when he needed to get into the truck. At a minimum we kept him from jumping while the tailgate was up, decreasing the height by two feet or so.
Zach loved hikes on the farm or Trace. He could walk past a snarling, barking dog as if the other dog did not even exist or as if to say, "Can you believe this incivility?" He also loved going on bike rides with my son and me to the end of the next hollow and back. As soon as he saw a bike helmet or us taking a bike off the rack in the garage, he could hardly contain himself in anticipation and would set off in several false starts across the front field toward the road. Generally, he led the ride, far out in front, stopping to investigate and mark along the way. Rarely would we encounter a car on these trips. Zach went on the safe bike rides, but we temporarily chained him to keep him from following on more dangerous bike rides, or to keep him from following us to Bob's when he was injured.
The road-crossing worried us mightily, but there was a trade-off. Zach had 13 wonderfully free years and could have been hit at any time darting across the road at our driveway right below a curve in the road or jumping through the fence by the driveway as we drove home and immediately crossing the road above the worst curve in the road. Anyone driving fast on our country road is a totally irresponsible lunatic anyway, because of the curves and wildlife, walkers and bikers. But there are folks that use the road as a four-mile shortcut between two highways. And there are newcomers to the country who don't quite realize where they are in the space-time continuum, losing all sense of propriety when driving outside of the city or off the big interstate and state highways. They don't sense that they are sojourning through sacred territory. I had trained Zach a bit about road savvy when he was a pup and ran with me once a week. I had him tethered to a loose rope and would command "Off!" whenever a car came. And he would get off the road, over to the side and pause. So he did observe cars when walking with us on the road. But as time wore on, Zach paid little or no attention to cars. He just took his chances and was lucky many many times.
Zach never had a half inch of fat on his sleek black and tan-accented body. He was content to sit in the sun and shade on the thick grass on the several slopes in our yard, with hind legs tucked to each side and his front two legs stretched before him, and watch the world or doze with half-open eyes at the panoramic scene that was his habitat. He was just as comfortable strolling in second-by-second investigation of the details as we hiked or galloping across Bob's front field to checkout activity there. Zach was also a runner, but when he ran, he always had a purpose. Whether he was running with the numbskulls in the bird gang – more to watch their antics and play his required part I suspect – or running across the field to beat our car or the pickup truck to the road, he usually had an objective that kicked in without much forethought.
One of our immediate neighbors had numerous cats, and we liked the independence of their half-wild cats, too, except when they stalked our bird feeder. We especially liked the black one we call Frank, who still haunts our field and creek. When these cat-loving neighbors thoughtlessly started feeding the deer in their front yard, we were overrun by deer, who logically continued their eating ways on our hard-earned, struggling young trees, shrubs and plants. Once in early summer, we sicked Zach on a deer who apparently had a fawn hidden in the tall grass between our yard and our garden. The deer proceeded to chase Zach across the front of the house. Zach was smart enough to know what was wasted effort and what was not. But he was loyal and would hop into action to go through the motions of his role if we asked him to. When squirrels raided the bird feeder, we would sick him on the squirrels and he would quickly run the intruders up a tree or back up the hill behind our house. It was a quick burst of response that achieved the immediate objective but didn't last long in its overall effects. Zach was duly rewarded with vigorous back rubs and a heartfelt, "Good boy." We didn't discover until after Zach left us, how effective he was in keeping pests away. Since that time our garden has been attacked by a returning family of raccoons, and skunks venture closer to the house as well.
In later years, when we sicked Zach on squirrels or deer, we would quietly walk out the back door and say, "Get 'em, Zach," while pointing in the direction of the intruder. Zach would immediately give a momentary pause and a look of inquiry, questioning the command, seeking confirmation, as if to say, "Are you sure you want me to do this?" Well, Zach knew a lost cause from the outset, in terms of the attack and chase, but he remained the good soldier who would do his duty nonetheless. That is not to say that Zach didn't have his day as the great black hunter. A friend remembers that on our long walks up to the Trace and back, Zach nailed a squirrel that had just landed on the ground from a tree. The squirrel didn't have a chance to start running. The friend vaguely recalls Zach nabbing that squirrel in mid-air before it hit the ground. (Before fretting too much about the squirrel, know that this area is sometimes overrun by wildlife, that includes deer, turkeys, coyotes, fox, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, possums, groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, bats, field mice, moles, voles, snakes, box turtles, alligator turtles, muskrats, tree frogs, bullfrogs, fish, ticks, oak mites, et cetera, et cetera – as well as the semi-domesticated mules, horses, pigs, llamas, emus and bees, and the aforementioned cats, dogs and cows. One time Bob recalls his corn field being devoured by a scurry of squirrels – dozens and dozens of squirrels – "a squirrel on every stalk." Personally, I have never witnessed squirrels in such threatening numbers, but I am hesitant to doubt Bob's memory, which is usually infallible and not prone to exaggeration.)
I have no idea how Zach survived the tornado that ripped 50 yards from his doghouse on Mother's Day 2003. Out here, when it comes to survival in a sudden, deadly storm, it is every species for itself. Yet, he did survive, but that storm might have been the beginning of the end for Zach in terms of his fear of storms. Another beginning of the end was the sudden arrival of interlopers in the form of younger big dogs that belonged to Bob's grandsons. We could tell that Zach was dispirited by the newcomers and by the declining farm activity once Bob sold his herd.
One stormy spring morning when he was 13 years old, Zach died. There had been thunder and lightening and heavy rain that morning. In his old age, Zach had become terrified of storms and often went to Bob's to get under the smokehouse or get in a barn or the chicken coop. Another next-door neighbor called early that morning after the storm and said that Bob's dog had been hit on the road below the curve at the northwest corner of our property. We did not know until we first saw the body from the road, that the dog lying on the roadside was Zach. With my wife trying in vain to suppress tears, we walked up to Zach. He might have been lying on his right side facing us, as my wife remembers it. But I have deeply etched in my mind's eye that he was in a familiar posture with his head tucked between his extended front legs and his back legs hunched up under him. His head was down, though, and his eyes still. There was not a single indication that he had succumbed to vehicular violence. I suspect that he might even have died on the spot of a heart attack while traveling to Bob's. We buried him immediately in the side yard and there is a lovely grouping of daffodils annually coming from the large limestone rocks that we put on his grave the morning of his death. The exhausting work helped hold back the tears, but only for a while. For us, there will never be a dog to rival Zach for intelligence, work ethic and congeniality. Though tempting, we have not yet been able to subject another dog to the test of being our companion in the shadow of Zach's legacy.
Every time we went to visit Bob, Zach would sit by Bob's back door and watch us through the big, low window in the back. As he got older – and probably a little hard of hearing – Zach would sometimes forget that we were still there and walk back home across the county road by himself. Bob says that even today, four years after Zach's death, he expects to see Zach out that back window looking in.
Zach was – is still – a part of our family. He is as good a representative of our way of life as any of the human members. I am sure that most people with close attachment to a particular animal feel very much the same, but I can only speak to what I know, what I feel and what I have seen. He never did anything stupidly funny, rather his enthusiasm, energy, insight, and hyper-normality made him humorous at times. Zach's exuberance, confidence and calm were infectious. Those characteristics accompanied by the strength and smarts to carrying it off, made him an ideal farm companion.
From his perch on the slope in front of our house, Zach was 80 yards from the road and 50 yards from the neighbors' property on our left and right. From there he daily watched our field and garden, the creek, the road, the expanse of hay field, pasture, farm buildings, trees, hills, and other animals at home and at Bob's. Skies permitting, he could gaze on the sunset over the western hills at the back of Bob's farm. He had no inclination to bark incessantly at or even go down to greet or challenge passersby on the road. He watched and he studied his wide world through the seasons, year after year.
This respectful and beloved creature gracefully balanced dignity with life in nature. He made ground, sky, buildings – a farm, a hollow – his place. For the prime of his life, taking life forms and ways there as he found them, he somehow shaped them, by his presence and daily action, into his domain.