Her Feet Weren’t Muddy, Then They Were

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Monday this week, like the two days before it, was gray and drizzly. It was also the Feast of St. Francis, that cheerful, optimistic 13th-century Italian friar who’s most often pictured with birds on his shoulder, animals around his feet, and a halo about his head. The day before in church, we’d observed the Blessing of the Animals: everybody who could, brought their mobile or portable pet to be blessed. Kiki and I generally sit in the front pew, so we were first up to answer the call. By the way the priest held his hands, she assumed he was dispensing earthly treats, stood up, and came away blessed, but confused. I silently thanked God her feet weren’t muddy.

In mid-afternoon next day, gazing out the window at the gloom, I decreed that once again we were skipping our usual walk in the park. She seemed to handle that news equably enough, but would I mind letting her out back for a pee. Not at all, I answered. Matter of fact, I’ll even join you.

A few years back, in a deal with the Devil, my wife and I swapped the cost of removing six large white pines that, falling in a storm, could have reached the house, in exchange for the logs to be harvested from out behind. It was a huge mistake. The piles of slash left behind were an eyesore. But this summer my son-in-law, with his excavator and bulldozer, buried it all and smoothed over the roughest parts of the yard.

It’s recovering nicely. I left it all to grow up as a fallow meadow and planted half a dozen hardwoods – red oak and weeping willow that seem to be doing well. Then a man with a brush hog came, and while I wasn’t paying attention, laid my meadow flat. No great harm done; it’ll revive in the spring, plus he let the new trees be. He also mowed out an old road that leads from the yard up to an abandoned beaver dam about a hundred yards back in the bushes.

As I stood there in the yard watching Kiki nose through newly cleared hunting territory, I realized I hadn’t been up that road for some years. How was the old beaver dam doing? Last I looked, it was teeming with tiny, darting minnows. The road looked easy enough; probably no need to take my emergency beeper along. Off I went, picking my way over a soggy pavement of small chips from the logging job, with my little shadow eagerly scouting around me.

How quiet it was! I could hear the hidden brook bubbling, and the little fwit-fwit of the wings of tiny migrating birds, too small and fast for me to identify, disturbed by our passage. The mosquitoes and flies of summer were gone. All around us was new green life, springing up where the canopy of larger trees had disappeared: two kinds of spruce, white pine, balsam, soft maple, birch, popple, and a robust young beech I’d never seen before. There was standing water here and there, crying out for some tamaracks, my favorite tree. A few of them up here among the other natives, bright copper in November, would be the jewel in the lotus

It occurred to me, as I stood there in that thriving thicket, that it was a perfect metaphor for the State of Vermont: quiet; cornfields and pastures growing up to popple and birch; partly hidden out of sight; green and doing pretty well in the middle of environmental and political devastation. When television graphics depict the United States, there we are, tucked up in a tiny wedge and almost invisible. Newscasters in the Midwest often refer to Vermont as if it were Bhutan or Nepal.

My wife, who was a game gal, nevertheless often crumbled under the cruelty of March in Vermont. “I’ve had it!” she cried. “We’ve got to go someplace where it’s not winter for eight months of the year!” And where would you like to go? I always asked agreeably. Invariably, she was stymied for an answer, admitting tacitly that if there was a better place, she couldn’t think of it.

So the terrier and I stood in the misty silence of the fading afternoon, I leaning on my cane, she snooping and scratching wherever her nose led her. A crow flapped by, high up; the brook bubbled. Eventually, concerned by my stillness, she came over, stood, and leaned against my leg. This time her paws were muddy; but I wasn’t wearing a surplice. “I know, I know,” I said. “Time to go have our snack. But this right here, right now, is as good as it’ll ever get.”