EXURBAN TALE #1: LESSONS FROM CHELSEA

chelsea We live in something called an exurb: neither rural nor urban, nor suburban. It’s a hilly subdivision with 24 houses, each on roughly 2-acre lots abutting an 1100 acre semi-wilderness “conservation area”, with mostly farmland and forest on the other three sides. It’s nevertheless only 40 minutes (if you avoid rush hour) from the centre of Toronto. The whole area is protected from future development, since the Oak Ridges Moraine on which we sit is an essential source of both oxygen and groundwater for the six million people that live in the metropolitan area to the South. It’s a sanctuary from the noise, pollution and crowding of the city – one of our neighbours even has The Oasis hand-painted on their mailbox. Perhaps due to its isolation, it’s a remarkable community: everyone knows everyone else, neighbourhood parties and spontaneous get-togethers are commonplace, and we all look out for each other. Never in my life have I lived anywhere where I consider so many of my neighbours to be good friends.

In the evenings, our pound-rescue dog Chelsea alerts us when it’s time for the ritual after-dinner walk. Although it’s only a mile around the entire neighbourhood (the street circles back on itself), it can take as long as two hours. This is partly due to Chelsea’s suffering from both hypothyroid and arthritis, but is mainly due to long and serendipitous stops to visit both human and canine friends.

After the evening walk, and after the mandatory affectionate and ecstatic dog-greetings back at home for whoever happens to be there, Chelsea immediately goes back outside, and sits on the back hill, the highest and quietest place on our property. Sometimes, like tonight, I go with her. In summer evenings the air is full of at least a dozen types of bird-song, the alliteration of the last of the Spring Peeper frogs and the first of the bullfrogs, as well as the sounds of crickets and bees and the drumming of woodpeckers.

In the winter, however, it is astonishingly quiet, and on this night Chelsea and I sit in silence listening to the wind, and the occasional train far to the South, and wait. Soon there is a bark, coming from far away to the West, one of the farm dogs, possibly Sally the golden retriever who often joins our longer weekend walks up along the Bruce Trail, and drops off when we get to her favourite swimming pond. Then, after a pause, Rusty, who lives eight houses South, chimes in. Soon after from the East, tiny Rocky, blind but still passionate about his daily walks, pipes up. Emmy, the mischievous Yorkie escape artist who lives across the street, barks her high-pitched response, probably from her second-story balcony. Chelsea becomes the fifth dog to join the conversation, followed by Duke’s forlorn and mournful wail.
winter scene
What is remarkable about these exchanges is that they never overlap. Unlke human conversations, there is always a polite pause between barks, and rarely does any dog hog the discussion. Suddenly, after an exceptionally long pause, there is a different sound – a coyote, probably up in the conservation area, utters a howl that builds in pitch and volume, then breaks into a staccato series of yips and descends to the starting tone. The six dogs are silent. The coyote repeats, this time joined by a chorus of comrades, their howls flowing over each other in a cascading crescendo before fading into the quiet night. Again a long pause, then Rocky replies, a short unexceptional bark, as if the joining of the dogs’ wild cousins to the thread of conversation were nothing special. Three other dogs take turns, and then the coyotes chime in almost hesitantly, as if they had been waiting their turn. The vocal exchange resumes as before, with the coyotes participating as a group just like one of the dogs. After a few minutes, the barking stops, as Rusty and Emmy, the last two to speak up, find no takers for its continuation. This chat room is now closed. There is silence again. Unless a deer should happen to wander down to the North pond within Chelsea’s hearing (which happens often but not tonight), Chelsea turns her attention to other senses: scents in the wind, clouds passing in front of the harvest moon, the task of extracting snow from between her freezing paw pads. She will stay out, sensing intently at first and finally lying down and even falling asleep out there, as long as I am with her. But if she goes out by herself, she comes in every half-hour, as if checking in with us.

I have learned these things from Chelsea and her canine colleagues, and from observing and studying geese (not at all deserving of the adjective ‘silly’), beavers and ravens, all of which are plentiful in our neighbourhood:

  1. The tribe is everything.   A tribe (in beavers called a ‘colony’) is more than a family (in every sense) and nothing like our human culture’s towns or ethnicities or nations. The tribe teaches you most of what you need to know to live successfully.   You (plural) are the tribe; without the tribe you are nothing.  
  2. We developed senses to exercise them, but now we spend much of our life in abstractions. Look until you really see what’s happening and why it’s happening and why it matters. These are important learnings, not minutiae. The devil isn’t the only thing in the details. If you stop listening, seeing, learning, you are no longer really alive.
  3. Know your place. We are all part of a web, a mosaic, and we all travel, but ultimately we have our own place, our ‘home’.  If you’re not totally connected with everything and every creature that is part of your place, then it isn’t your place. If you don’t have a place, then you don’t yet really exist. A house is not a place, though it can be part of one. A mind is not a place.

Fellow Slogger tribesmen, may your howling into the blogosphere always elicit a chorus of friendly, informed and polite replies, may your senses always be open to the magic of the world around you, real and virtual, and may your ‘place’ be full of love and learning.

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2 Responses to EXURBAN TALE #1: LESSONS FROM CHELSEA

  1. The Raven says:

    Feeling inspired, I see. A nice read, Dave. Regards, – R.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks. I used to be very good at these kinds of stories, but after writing almost exclusively business papers and #%&%# powerpoint presentations, my creative prose has become very rusty. Still way too wordy, analogies forced, images vague, too many hackneyed adjectives, overlong sentences, etc…*sigh*. Well, thanks for the encouraging words. I take solace from reading the Friday Five lists, showing almost all bloggers’ #1 objective in blogging is to become better writers.

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