Atta Boy!

The other day, I collected Sam’s ashes from the vet.  They are in a “spreading tube” inside a box which is now sitting on top of a desk.  At the foot of this desk is a rug where Sam spent many hours sleeping each day.

Two weeks ago while I was away, Roger called to tell me Sam had collapsed at the bottom of the hill and was unable to stand.  His back legs failed and his quality of life rapidly diminished.  We made the difficult decision to put Sam to sleep the following day.

To know Sam was to know that he was a good dog.  He was a Border collie mix with long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes were a golden brown and could will you to open the treat jar.  He was a Jedi warrior!  Well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and in his earlier years, an all-around amazing athlete able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it.  He could negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   Sam ignored the sheep, watched over the chickens and loved his walks.  He also welcomed and protected Millie and her endless supply of puppy energy.

He wasn’t always like this.  Before we rescued him eight years ago, he had a rough life.  He was found on the street and was scheduled to be put to sleep because he wouldn’t let anyone near him.  He had a long scar on the side of his body, and an insecure, cautious approach to meeting other dogs, people and situations.

When we moved to Crockern, Sam grew in confidence.  He loved his walks across the moors, and the open landscape helped him settle.  Just this summer, he took two ribbons in a local dog show.

We are intending to have our own ceremony to release Sam’s ashes.  The when and where are yet to be decided, but certainly on a dry and still day.  I don’t wish to be standing upwind as ashes swirl about on a strong breeze.  Roger and I need to decide whether we release all of him in one location?  Or, will we have several locations over several days?  Twenty years ago, I scattered the ashes of my dog Scratch in the bay at Provincetown.  He loved it there, having spent several summers swimming in those waters.  Even now, I remember my “ceremony” was all over too quickly.

Nothing prepares you for the loss of a pet, even as the eventuality of it creeps upon you with their decline.  This next step of planning how we will release Sam’s ashes is heavy as it will open our grief again.  As I walk past the box on top of the desk, I know that tube does not contain soft ashes as if from a campfire, but instead it holds a plastic bag of coarse sand with shards of bone.  There is nothing romantic nor the least bit comforting in this thought; but, that doesn’t stop me from saying “Atta Boy Sam!” each time I pass.

 

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Best in Show

Roger and I don’t have children.  We have dogs.  We have chickens.  We have projects. We have different activities.  We have fun.  Never before have we taken the dogs to a dog show, but when our friend Ann came to visit from Taiwan with her six-year old daughter Luna, the local village dog show seemed a fun way to spend an afternoon.

“Everyone’s a winner!” has got to be the theme.  It’s a village dog show, not Crufts.  It’s a fundraiser, so I’m feeling relaxed about Millie and Sam’s performance.  Still, to up our game, I give them both a little brushing before we head out for the afternoon.

Scanning the village green, we see some friends, a handful of dogs, and the day ahead looks relaxed.  There are several categories, and I start our day by entering Millie in “Best Dog Under 18 Months.”  Millie is friendly when greeting the judge who looks at her teeth, eyes and ears. Millie doesn’t jump up, but she doesn’t stand up either; instead, she snuggles into the judge for a little cuddle.  I feel my heart swell with love for our little dog and think, “Way to go Millie, that’s how to score points with the judge.”  But, when we go to do the required walk around the ring, Millie jumps up on me, tangles my legs and we are nothing less than a disaster.  I console myself: “It’s just a village dog show.”

There are several dog breeds and sizes competing. The people – known as handlers – also vary.  Some of these people hold the leads up straight and do a little trot with their dogs, just like they do at Westminster.  Who knew we were supposed to do that?  I notice a woman providing treats as she moves through the ring, which borders on treasonous cheating if you ask me.  A feeling of competition is seeping into my relaxed approach and I’m questioning our game plan, or lack of one.  Why did we go first?  I should have observed, taken notes, copied a few of the more seasoned competitors.  Should I have spent more time teaching Millie how to walk while attached to the lead?  Why are there suddenly so many dogs in this competition?  Still, Millie is cute and well behaved, so we’re surely in with a chance.

That is, until a butterfly makes itself known.

The judge has now met all the dogs, she looks around at each of the competitors.  Several are sitting up straight, looking directly at the judge.   One handler, adjusts her dog’s front legs and tail.  I’m trusting our honest, down-home approach will prevail and Millie will walk away with one of those ribbons.  Before making her final decision, the judge scans the ring giving each dog one last look.  When the judge considers Millie, she turns her head and looks AWAY to watch the butterfly.  What is she doing, trying to blow her chances?

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Millie distracted by a butterfly.

Evidently yes.  Moments later, the first dog – a handsome and well behaved retriever – is called to receive his award.  Then the next dog, and another until all six places are awarded.  Mille, still watching the butterfly, is blissfully unaware of defeat.

All who meet Millie say she is beautiful and well behaved.  Such unsolicited endorsements have us believing she must be exceptional.  As Millie and I exit the ring with the other losers, I’m convinced this entire village dog show is rigged.  How could so many people who meet Millie be so wrong?  Still, it’s a fundraiser, and part of that word is FUN, so we press on.

Next up, Sam.  I enter him in the “Best Re-homed” category.  He’s clearly going to win something having had an unknown and difficult start before he landed on all four paws with us.  I look around, and there are just two or three rather average looking dogs in the ring.  My competitive nature in full swing, I tell his back story to the judge.  “He was scheduled to be put to sleep when we rescued him…. scar on his side body…took him a while to gain in confidence….”  Lilly well and truly gilded, I’m feeling quietly confident.

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Sam doing his best to be excited.

But horror of horrors, what was a ring of four or five dogs, is now about fifteen!  Where did all these other dogs and their handlers come?  Can you enter the ring once the competition has started?  Isn’t there a cut off?  And what’s with this little dog wearing a sweater to cover up its skin condition from being in the pound?  Where was that three-legged dog hiding?  And the one with the missing eye?  Still, we were in with a fighting chance.

Sadly, not.  Sam didn’t win anything.  We have two dogs who haven’t claimed even 6th place.  Deep breath.  Notes to self:  It’s a fundraiser.  Bigger purpose.  It’s not about the winning, it’s participating that’s important.

Next category: “Best Dog Over 7 Years.”  Since Sam can’t walk well these days, we stay in place and pay another pound coin to enter this round.  No need to repeat anything to the judge as she has just heard it all.  Now gone are those other rescued dogs with harder-luck stories than Sam, replaced by a range of dogs over seven years old.  Unlike Sam, the other competitors easily walk and stand.   At this point, I too am watching a butterfly and resolved to having donated another pound to charity when Sam receives second place.  Second place!

Before I know it, there is someone asking me all sorts of questions about Sam.  What’s going on, am I being interviewed?  No, Sam takes another prize! “Oldest dog in the show.”  Well I’ll be damned, my old boy dog just jumped ahead in the medals table.

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Oldest dog in the show!

Resting on our laurels and crafting a strategy to build on our successes, we sit out a few rounds:  best pedigreed sporting dog, best groomed, and best movement (This is about gait, not poop).  Up comes, “Cutest Eyes” and I enter Millie.  She takes second place!  We’re on a roll now, eh?  She next takes a respectable fifth in “Pedigreed Non-Sporting”.   I don’t even know what this category is about, but who cares, two dogs, four ribbons and I’m feeling proud, proud, proud!

I was wrong about everyone being a winner.   We tasted loss and it wasn’t as sweet as the rosettes we received which will soon find their way into a box.  With or without these ribbons, Roger and I know our dogs are best in show.  And in my hot pursuit to have our dogs reign supreme, we supported a local charity.

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Hey, look at our ribbons!

Teaching Millie to Swim

We don’t get many hot days on Dartmoor, but recently we had one.  Twenty-four degrees, no clouds and little to no breeze.  Sitting in the shade and reading a good book would be an ideal activity; but equally, it is a terrific day for doing some outside projects.  Unless wisely chosen, I risk melting in the heat.  Fortunately, we have a long list of possible projects:  filling potholes, jet-washing loose paint from the outside of the house, gardening, washing windows, mowing the lawn, or pointing the shed.  But a bonfire at high noon with no breeze was my choice.

The pile of rotten and useless old posts, left a few months ago from when Roger finished re-fencing the south side of the property, was calling to me.

I lathered on my sunscreen and covered most of my skin in bug spray.  Millie and I headed out to the lower field and commenced to building a fire.   Sam elected to exercise his old boy rights and snooze on the kitchen floor for the better part of the morning.  Meanwhile, Roger was tending to a leak in one of the pipes under the stairs.  This was not on the day’s to-do list, but when he went to grab a screw driver from his tool bag, it was swimming in water.  Yes, a slow and steady drip from the pipe above had filled the canvas bag below.  Roger’s plans were changed.

But not mine.  In our spot for bonfires, I piled some wood and cardboard and set it alight.  Those old fence posts – rotten and soggy from exposure – went up in flames as if they had been saturated in accelerant.  On went a few more post, and then a few more.  As the fire raged, I sacrificed the picnic table which was beyond repair.  After a few hot and sweaty hours, the pile of wood was nothing more than a circle of hot coals.  And my ankles, where I missed patches with the bug spray, were aflame with bug bites.  The itching was agonizing.  As the heat was growing both with the sun and the bonfire, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.  Looking around, I found Millie near the stile which leads to our river access.   It was time to cool off and get refreshed.

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West Dart River, Dartmoor

With complete joy, Millie jumps from rock to rock.  She stoops low to the river and bites at the water as it passes.   She wants to jump in, but swimming is not her thing, preferring to paddle no deeper than her belly.  It’s not that she is afraid of the water, it’s more, she’s not comfortable with having her feet lose contact with the bottom.  That slimy, slippery, rocky, river bottom.  More than once, I have stepped too quickly and found a boot full of water.  But, Mille is sure footed and will happily skitter up and down the river on rocks.

While Millie is darting about, biting at the water and gathering her ball as it floats past on the current, I have carefully clambered out to the middle of the river.  The water is cool and refreshing.  Dragon flies skitter past.  They too manage to play in the water, but not swim.

Millie drops her beloved ball, and with a focused look, tells me to throw it.  I give it a high Federa-esc lob and it lands up river stalling in deep water where there is little current.  Millie waits and watches.  If it were bobbing down river, she would surely station herself atop a rock and wait for it to float nearby.  But this is something altogether different.  She must be thinking, What am I to do?  How do I get that ball? It’s not moving.  Surely, it should be moving.  There is no way I’m going to SWIM to it!

I issue encouraging words, but no amount of coaxing seems to get her to release the contact her paws have with these stones.  So, I slip off the rock where I’ve been sitting and begin to dog-paddle toward the ball, “C’mon Millie, you can do it.  This is how we swim.”   She barks with excitement.  Running up and down the reedy shore line, trying to get that ball before I do.  My hands and knees are sliding across the mossy rocks below as the water isn’t that deep.  “See Millie, this is called dog-paddling.  You can do it.”  She barks in response, sizing up her options.  Moved by her competitive nature, Millie takes a tentative step off her underwater perch and takes her first splashy strokes.  Catching the ball in her mouth, she quickly makes it to the other side of the river.  It’s true, dogs know how to swim.  Some, however, swim with grace.  It is safe to say, Millie does not.

On terra firma, Millie shakes the water from her coat and clutches the ball in her mouth. She is not giving it up anytime soon.  And, despite the heat of the day, this is enough wild swimming for this little collie.   The bonfire is burned down.  The leaky pipe is repaired.  Dinner awaits.  Millie has learned how to swim and Sam is taking an early evening stroll about the garden.  Roger is heating up the hot tub, and me, well, I’m sitting on the new bench on Gin and Tonic Hill.  Bliss.

Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.

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Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.

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It Feels Like Butterflies In My Stomach

“Millie sit.”  “Good sit.”  Poised on her back haunches, her head drops and ears flatten as she focuses on my every move.  If I twitch a finger, she begins to stand. “No, sit!”  “That’s a good girl.”  I stay still as an old oak, slowly moving my palm out in a stop position towards Millie and give the command,  “Wait.”  Her head tilts.  I say it again before throwing her beloved toy about twenty feet away.  As I begin to turn and take a step in the direction of the lifeless tug toy, she lifts her rear and I quickly must utter  “Eh, Eh, Millie SIT.”  “WAIT!”  I take a deep breath.  “Good wait.”  Millie tightens the coil of her body’s spring.  Moments later, I release her from her wait with an enthusiastic “Okay!”  And off she runs, full pelt towards her toy.

Every day our training regime includes work on sits and waits.  As often as not, Millie does not want to abide by these commands, viewing them as optional.   Naturally, I disagree.  “What’s the point?” our little teenage puppy must be musing.  She is a party girl who is simply on the move and wants to have fun.  She loves to bound across the ground, run through tunnels, jump over obstacles, and return as quickly as possible with her toy for a good game of chase or tug-of-war.

When her toy is not to mouth, she’s happy to follow after and catch leaves, snowballs, or Sam’s tail.  Anything that moves is fair play.  It isn’t possible to sweep the floor or rake leaves without Millie pouncing on the broom or rake. Fortunately, her chase impulse does not apply to birds, rabbits, sheep, horses or cattle.  We don’t know about cats.

As a gentleman dog, Sam is happy in his senior years to have a nice slow walk, preferably without hills, followed by a meal and a snooze by the fire.  Even as a younger dog, he was never one to pursue anything, except cats.  So imagine the surprise to all of us when Millie started spinning and twirling around the kitchen channeling her inner Stevie Nicks singing “Just like a white winged dove” as she followed the latest discovery, a butterfly.  “Ooh Baby, Ooh, said ooh.”

It’s January and cold outside, so what’s this butterfly doing inside?  During this time of year, we daily light the wood burner in the morning and cover the veg beds at night to keep the frost off the plants.  This is not the time of year for a butterfly.  While Small Tortoiseshells can turn up almost anywhere, from city centres to remote wildernesses, they do like it where nettles grow.  We have nettles in abundance, but not in the kitchen.  So hibernating in the barn, the wood pile, or one of the outbuildings makes sense.  But our kitchen?

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It’s too cold to implement our usual catch and release approach which we utilise regularly with moths, bees, butterflies, bats and birds which find their way inside during warmer months.  Sadly, we don’t have any flowering plants inside for this butterfly to find nectar.   It’s lifespan is significantly reduced by choosing our kitchen as its launchpad. To calm and distract Millie, the dogs and I head to sit by the fire while Roger places a small ramekin filled with sugared water and a ball of tissue paper near the window where the butterfly has settled.  The least we can do is feed it while it makes its home inside our house.

Armed with glasses of wine, Roger joins me and the dogs by the fire.  Sam has found a comfortable spot and drifts into a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming of his younger days when his back legs had him jumping over stiles.  But Thoroughly Modern Millie has sneaked out of the room unnoticed until we hear a gentle clinking of ceramic on stone.  Getting up to investigate we find Madam in the window, drinking the homemade nectar.

The Small Tortoiseshell may be one of the most common butterflies in the UK, but it is also the national butterfly of Denmark.  Sure, it is mischievous and disobedient of Millie to be in the window, but more shocking, and perhaps treasonous, is that she ate the butterfly!

Hey Santa!

Santa Claus (A.K.A., Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas),  Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland,  North Pole,  Somewhere in the middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

What a year, eh?  What happened to it?

In all of the hullabaloo, I believe I may have neglected to send you my annual note last year, for which I am terribly sorry.  Rest assured, despite this oversight, Roger and I are thinking of you and hope you, Mrs. Claus, the Elves and all the Reindeer are happy, healthy and ready for your upcoming big night of global gift giving. What a job you have!

While you have been busy getting ready to travel the globe, spreading your usual good cheer (I think you have a rather large task ahead this year), we’ve had our own busy schedule.  Lots of work demands which took me away from Crockern nearly every month.  I did travel to some terrific places like Ireland, the USA, Paris and Brussels, which made it fun.

Lots of friends and family visited us from near and far, which was a treat.  We traveled to Wales and managed several weekends away to visit friends throughout the UK.  We even spent a week on a canal boat winding through the country-side.  Have you ever done anything like that Santa?  I highly recommend it.

When home, we set about our usual projects and a hearty thank you is also in order for helping us with a good year for our garden.  After making needed improvements to the raised beds to keep the rabbits out, we enjoyed a terrific crop of lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, chard, spinach, kale, cabbages, beets, strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, asparagus and onions. Even now in the midst of winter, the garden is providing us with winter vegetables. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send our thanks to Mother Nature when you see her at the New Year? The weather this summer was great for the garden and we would love to put in our request for another splendid summer for 2017. Along with the garden, we had so many opportunities for BBQs and evenings in the hot tub.

I don’t have much for “the list” this year.  I could use some time to rest and reflect on this past year and focus on my intentions for 2017.  I am planning to use the holidays for precisely this activity.  For Roger, I’m wondering if we might not consider some head protection.  There was that concussion he suffered while laying a fence this summer.  But, after seeing Roger knock his head more than once on a low door frame or beam in the house, our friend Miriam suggested he could use a “house helmet”.  Old stone farmhouses are not easy places for someone his height and I’m wondering if your elves might have some suggestions.  I know they are short, but I’m guessing they may hit their heads on the underside of a work table from time to time.

The chickens have had a good year and in preparation for the holiday season, are taking several weeks off from egg laying.  The one Roger nursed back to health is happily scratching for worms with her mates as I write this.  All six of our hens have recently finished moulting, so we are anticipating their winter break is soon coming to a close and we’ll be back into having too many eggs.  If that happens when you are flying past, we’ll make you an omelette or a soft boiled egg.

We think you’ll enjoy a few improvements since your last visit.  We finished the floors and walls by the wood-burner, making that room cozy as can be.  We still have to work on the ceiling, but we’re not in a particular rush.  Of course, if you or the elves are looking for a short working holiday, let us know and we’ll move the furniture out of that space and you can help sand the beams.  You’ll like the staircase we refinished and now that the water system is up to date, you may have some thoughts about whether we carry on with the work in the kitchen, finish the office, or start the small bathroom next.

When you arrive please be aware Sam is moving slowly and can’t hear as well these days, so you may need to bend down to give him a little scratch behind the ear.  When you do, be warned that Millie will thrust her chew toy into your hands and insist on a game of tug.  She’s not met any reindeer yet, but likes meeting other dogs.  She’s shown no interest in the Dartmoor ponies, sheep and cattle she’s encountered, so we’re guessing your team of eight reindeer plus Rudolph will be a welcome set of friends.  Warn your team, she does enjoy a good game of chase!

Bit of a non-sequitur Santa, but can you vote?  I received my British citizenship this spring, and with my new dual citizenship, had the right to vote in both the UK referendum and the USA presidential election.   You have such an unusual address, it’s unclear where you cast a vote.  And, does your system of democracy involve electoral colleges?

We are excited for the holiday season. The tree is up, decorated and ready for your arrival.  We hope you’ll have some time to visit when you come to Dartmoor.  With all of its history and adventures, the projects and quirks, the visiting critters and various challenges, the coziness and the beauty, both inside and out, Crockern continues to captivate and enchant us.   As you’ve always told me Santa, with the right attitude, each day can be filled with wonderful adventure and discovery.  Boy oh boy, do we have that here.

Safe travels Santa. I hope the weather will be clear and bright for you as you take your sleigh across Dartmoor.  Maybe there will be one of those super moons to guide you!

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine

Crockern Farm,

Pretty much in the middle of Dartmoor, UK

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Finding my Way

Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out:  http://www.twoblondeswalking.com).  The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me.  But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!

How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill?  Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts.  As a family, we frequently went camping.  And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.

Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so?  Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”.   When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger.  It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself.  And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?

But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas.  The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor.  Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment.  Then what?

Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here.  The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent.  Forests change due to cutting.  Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over.  Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me.  Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril.  Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.

Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes.  Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there:   “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.”  “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?”  “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.”  I was in good company.  All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.

Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams.  We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations.  All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps.  I love them for their detail and history.  These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system.  This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass?  That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key?  Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.”   But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me.  Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.”   At last!  And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.

Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about.  Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics.  He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year.  My mind drifts.  Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close?   It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument.  But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses.   And it is so easy and fun!  I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.

 

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After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk.   Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing.  We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor.  Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map?  Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can.  And what a find!  This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path.  And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna.  The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like.  But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems.   We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs.  What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.

Oh, I’m hooked alright.  I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill.  I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction.  I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof.  When I got home, I told Roger all about my day.  He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass.  I had no idea we had this little treasure.  He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential.  Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science.  In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.