alpaca Our neighbour raises alpacas. Our dog Chelsea likes to go over to visit them, sticking her nose through the fence. Alpacas are insatiably curious, and today they charge over to see us, babies in front, adults warier, moving to surround the youngsters, protect them, until they’re all bunched up, eighteen of them, right in front of us, lovely graceful creatures with enigmatic smiles, as if the world were not a terrible place.

In the back pen, the alpha alpaca cries out its warning, with the improbably high-pitched squeak of the species. The alpha is always kept separate, apart from the rest of the alpaca community. The keepers know that, unlike in the wild, the bullying leader of the herd is a liability, not an asset, unnecessarily trying to steer the herd out of non-existent danger. In captivity, the aggressive leader is just a nuisance, best kept away from the flock in the interest of peace. I wonder, though, if the alpha’s forlorn cry is maybe not a needless warning, but instead a plea: “Hey, me too, don’t forget about me…”

The visit complete, Chelsea and I meander on, into the hills, the thousand acres of semi-wilderness behind our farm-surrounded subdivision. The trees aren’t yet in bloom, so I get careless, paying too much attention to avoiding thorns and swamp and not enough to where we’re going. Chelsea is in sensory heaven, the odours in every twig, every tree-trunk telling her stories of who was here, when, and where they were going. She keeps looking back at me, knowing I can’t be trained to bend down and inhale the scent, share the story. At the top of a hill in a clearing we sit and rest, looking down over a pondful of squawking Canada geese, the much more skittish ducks, and the hopeful chorus of Spring Peeper frogs.

chelsea And then I realize I’m not sure of the way back. I try to go in a straight line, but in the forest it’s easy to get off track, and soon I find we’re back on the hill where we rested. In desperation I tell Chelsea “Let’s go home”, and look to follow her, but Chelsea knows her place and waits for me, the leader of her tribe (at least in the absence of my wife) to show the way. She would follow me all day, around in circles, yards from the path that would quickly take us home, and still she’d wait for my direction.

We do, of course, get home at last. The conservation area’s criss-crossed with colour-coded walking trails, and once we reach them I sheepishly follow the arrows until the familiar turn-off home looms into view. Disheveled and exhausted, I tell my wife we felt adventurous and took the long trail around. During the greeting ritual, Chelsea goes along with the incomplete story, though I’m sure I see her cast a sidelong glance at me and wink.

(Link to Exurban Tale #1: Lessons from Chelsea)

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