Writing and Presence: A Beagle's Work
Dogs hide their bones under the softness of chenille pillows. They circle their nests in fleece blankets, and devour their food without expectation that it will still be there later that evening. Hound breeds have traversed this boundary between instinct and domestication with particular trepidation. Often bred as working dogs, they exist amidst a world that is increasingly disconnected from its food source. Their hunt has largely become the leisure of their humans. The “work” of hounds was never more poignant for me as when I adopted my beagle and read the quickly scribbled notes on her paperwork. The owner who surrendered her—to whom I will be forever grateful for taking the time to bring her to a shelter—wrote very few words on her record except her name, “Belle” and the reason for surrender: “Won’t hunt.” To my naïve city-bred perspective this hardly seemed reason to abandon a dog, even if at some level I sensed my limited insight. But it was clear from her over-bred, skin and bones body and afraid-of-the-world temperament that for this beagle, not hunting had consequences, certainly neglect and possibly abuse. It also meant that our paths would cross during just my second week as a volunteer at the shelter and that this almost forgotten hound would spend the next decade teaching an obstinate human, who tries to be many things, and on some days a writer, how to be in this world.
Effective writers, those who reach an audience in a way that creates meaning, practice empathy. The indulgence of the writer’s life is that she creates time to imagine a character’s heartache, to recall the hesitation of a dialogue that only exists in memory, to feel the chill of the wind of a different time or the uneven footing of a distant terrain. In the same way, if as humans we truly seek to live with animals not as “people with fur” but as a distinct species, with their own ways of interpreting and knowing the world, ways of experience that evade human cognition, then we are invited each day to imagine how these creatures we call pets, and who share so many hours of our lives, understand the world. My husband lovingly called my attempts to interpret my hound’s action, and inaction, my “beagle radar.” They were my meager attempts to understand her instinctual responses to what was for her a peculiar and frightening world. Such as why during our first months together she would run and hide when anyone other than me would enter my apartment; why hormone levels from a recent birth drove her to gather socks and toys around her and protect them like her young; why this twenty pound being of gentleness would turn into a ferocious aggressor when there was any threat to her bowl of kibble; why she would summon a deep harmless growl when humans came at her with even moderate force or volume. Although she never lost her trepidation entirely, in time she began slowly finding her way to be in this world. She learned to walk up to new people to sniff their hand. She cautiously greeted guests to our apartment, and she even fully embraced the very patient man who is now my husband as a permanent presence in our lives. She, in fact, eased into a life of gentle love.
But my relationship with this hound is intimately defined by a writing life, as a teacher as much as a writer. I had her to thank for drawing me away from my desk. As an ecocritic, I was often writing about the human relationship with nonhuman nature. She forced me to experience this interaction on another creature’s terms, and time. Because of her I walked into the depths of falling snow, I looked into a midnight sky to see a full moon, I entered a field of fireflies or the hum of dark city streets as the pavement glistened with rain–moments that my own inhibitions or schedule would likely have kept at a distance. When she was young and agile, our hikes would be guided by her nose, and when we reached the depths of the woods I saw this seemingly dependent creature transformed into a confident follower of deep instinct. In fits of scent-inspired scavenging, she stayed completely oblivious to my presence until after miles of romping she would find rest on a grassy field and look up at me as if to say, “wow, are you are still here?”
And yet these moments of wildness were tempered by her trained dependence on domestication. Once, while walking in a city park we came upon a discarded bagel that was equidistant to a baby rabbit that froze at our presence. I watched Belle as she quickly surveyed her options, but it was the instant carbohydrate fix of the bagel that she lunged toward, leaving the rabbit to scurry away. “Won’t hunt.” This became increasingly clear when we moved to more rural land, and I begged her to scare the groundhog away from our shed and vegetable gardens that had become his Bed and Breakfast for the summer. She would merely sit and watch, with interest but without statement, as the chubby rodent munched away at my cauliflower. Negotiating the line between wild and domestic, between her natural history and present, between existing both within the world and out of it.
On good days, these are the same balancing acts that I bring to the blank page, surrendering to all the forces that make the narratives of mind and life simultaneously impossible and necessary.
It was how this creature experienced her senior years that taught me the most about writing. She endured two strokes and suffered a degenerative spinal condition. Some days she would wake up, take two steps off her bed, and then fall to the floor. Medication and changes to her living space helped us to manage her illness, but there were still days when she felt the grass beneath her paws and eagerly sprinted across the lawn only to fall to her belly. Never had her instinct been so amplified as in her final year. As she nuzzled under my neck when I carried her in from the icy snow, or when I ran to catch her as she fell from the garden steps, she was teaching me not to get lost in the possibilities but to see what is right in front of me. This is a good lesson for writers, one that keeps us putting the words on the page, not imagining the voices of question or response before we even see what is before us. Belle’s response to the world reminded me that I too have instincts, if I had the courage to honor them, but also that there are ways of knowing the world that evade my perception. On some days, after long committee meetings or devastating news reports, when all the messiness and limitations of human existence seem too much with us, as Wordsworth says, I was restored by Belle’s reassurance that there are other ways of being in this world.
When I talk about the writing process with my students, I talk about the importance of ritual. Whether it is the warmth of the same old sweater, a favorite chair, the shelter of a tree, the windowpane of a cottage, or the scent of a candle, writers develop rituals, material embodiments, to anchor them in the face of the blank pages and screens. The piecework of writing occurs outside of these rituals. Ideas emerge on scraps of paper in the middle of the night, on napkins in coffee shops, in our tiny notebooks on airplanes and busses, but when the real work of writing happens—when we sit down and imagine an audience, try to weave together our moments of insight, a purpose—rituals root us to our senses. Over the past decade, frequent moves have changed the scene of my writing, but my anchors remained the same. A mug of tea within hand’s reach and my beagle at my feet. Sometimes we would be at what once was my grandfather’s wooden desk, other mornings outdoors in the garden or in the evening by the red brick of the fireplace, but the room did not matter so much. Belle was my writing space, my shadow when I moved through the house or across our land. She was my sense of place when I sat down to do the work of words.
She was a presence. Her lapping-up of water, her deep sonorous snoring that my husband could hear even a floor beneath us, her dream-induced howls and contests of the night. And as a teacher who spends a great deal of time in solitude, reading students’ words and trying to listen for my own, this presence is more than companionship. It is process, the daily routine of existing against this simultaneously unified and unfamiliar work. Even her gentle lick on my leg unknowingly served as the necessary reminder that my work is but a small part of the universe that I hope will receive it. As someone who puts words on the page and tries to guide students to do the same, if I am to honor the privilege that comes with such creation, I would do well to understand this place.
My husband and I had to say goodbye to Belle at the start of the summer months, just as I was about to settle into the most solitary, writing-filled season of my work year. The steam still rises from my mug of tea, but I miss her snoring at my side, her cold nose, her heartbeat on my foot. I still gaze up from my screen and hope to see the rise and fall of her belly as she sunbathes by the window, and despite her lesson that the world invites us to be in it, I still sometimes find myself watching the summer storms from the window rather than walking through their thunder as she would call me to do. I see myself as a spiritual person, but my faith comes up blank when I imagine what comes beyond death. All that I know for certain is that what remains of the lives that inhabit this earth, both human and nonhuman, is the way that they might change how those left behind continue to dwell, to live in ourselves and with one another.
In Belle’s final days, I abandoned writing deadlines, campus meetings and professional correspondence with hope that colleagues, both near and far, would somehow forgive my selfishness, and I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They somehow knew what this time meant. They sent notes. They gave me solitude. And after she passed, they left a rosebush on our doorstep. I cannot help but think that their own sense of the writing life played a part in their understanding. Dogs model and inspire empathy. They don’t know it as such, of course. But without choice they surrender themselves to the trust of their caretakers, with the consequence that we enact it, not just for their sake, but also for each other.
Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” When I met my beagle, she was a nervous, skinny, almost forgotten little hound shaking in the corner of an urban shelter, and I was a solitary, rootless, teacher of words cowering as I recovered from my own losses. Over time, we taught one another to be less afraid of this material world. She taught my stubborn self to listen to the sounds beyond my headspace, to find liberation in the reality that my human perception is a mere piece of the game, to experience the world through scent, through sight, and through touch.
All of this from a hound? Not quite. Her canine life is a thread in a larger patchwork of heartache, healing and grace, including both humans and nonhumans. But she did teach me how to be there, and for this writer, that is sometimes the most difficult step.