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.

I Found My Thrill On Gin & Tonic Hill

To the back of our garden there is a small hill, an odd bump nestled in the corner of two very high stone walls.  The top of the hill spans approximately two square metres and is scaled via a two-metre high steep slope.  This little hill is covered in grass, nettles and a few wildflowers and virtually impossible to mow.  Also, a small Sycamore tree stands at the top.  Happily, each spring, a few Primroses poke through announcing the changing season, but there aren’t enough to declare this mound a gardening success.   I can’t believe this hill is a natural occurrence as the ground surrounding it is relatively flat.  Jutting out of the ground in the corner, it seems likely it once served as a dumping ground for broken bottles and other rubbish.  Or, perhaps it is where a pile of rocks was placed in anticipation of a future project.  Nature being what it is, the rocks and bottles have quickly over grown with grass and moss.

Whatever its origin, getting rid of this heap of dirt and rocks, with its tangle of tree roots, would require a good amount of digging and there is no certainty as to the gain from such effort. Applying my personal conservation of mass theory, any rock or bucket of dirt I manage to dig, will need to be relocated somewhere else.  I currently have no need to fill holes, or build walls, so for now we’ve left it.

But the idea of transforming this hill nagged.  When, our friend Hilary was visiting, she and I sat on two camping chairs atop of the hill.  It was lumpy and rocky, but the view was nice and the tree sheltered us from the sun that day.  As we sat sipping cocktails, her boys trimmed a few neighbouring tree branches to enhance our view up the valley.   It was at this moment the little hill became more than a hill.  It had purpose.  It had ‘project’ written all over it.  It would become Gin and Tonic Hill!  A fine place to repose in comfort – and to drink.

You won’t find this location on any OS map.  And few will ever know this little mound to be anything so fabulously whimsical.  In centuries to come, people will scratch their heads and wonder why on earth this hill was left behind.  Archaeologists may stumble upon it and think it perhaps an ancient burial mound.   Could my original theory explaining this hill as nothing more than a pile of rocks covered by grass was wrong?  Did previous Crockern residents from bygone times perhaps sip their end of the day cocktails here, too?

With a distinct goal now to hand, I set about clearing a few large rocks from the top.  Attempting to make a rocky hill “level” is a joke.  It can’t be easily done with huge lumps of granite stone hidden beneath the surface like icebergs, and tree roots jutting here and there.  “Never say never” I told myself and instead opted for “level enough” as my new goal.  Roger encouraged my madness by strimming the top every time we mowed the lawn.  Last summer, it became a good little place to sit on a blanket and enjoy the view.

But a few weeks ago, a similar madness took hold of Roger.  I found him outside studying our little hill.  About an hour later, he was digging and setting large stones into place.  Roger was constructing a fantastic, rocky, seven-steps-leading-up-to-the top-of-our-little-hill staircase.   Never one to do anything “good enough” Roger put the finishing touches on the project with a touch of inspiration.  He secured a bench.

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After stepping up the hill, I sit upon my new bench.  Roger arrives with G&Ts on offer and joins me.  We pause to take in the view across our field toward the river and the valley beyond.  The birds are chirping in the tree above.  The river is making those relaxing babbling noises that rivers do.   We clink our glasses and discuss our ideas for transforming our fields into wildflower meadows.

Cheers!

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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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Treasure Island. A Different Tale.

On some level, all of us love stories of buried treasure and tales of lost fortunes.  Whether the riches are inherited or pirated, they lay hidden in locations known only to those now long dead.  Let’s be perfectly clear, buried treasure is not the same stuff found by archaeologists and metal detector users the world over.  No, buried treasure is just that, it’s treasure, and in my mind the singular domain of pirates or criminals who for whatever reason left their booty behind, well hidden in a remote place, to retrieve later with the aid of a map.

There are many accounts of lost and found treasures and the idea of uncovering unimaginable wealth is seductive.  Many of these supposed fortunes are likely to be myths, or, have been slowly and discretely spent.  Take, for example, the German gold that went missing at the end of WWII.  It is possible that this gold was smuggled to South America and introduced into the market?  Or could it still remain locked in private bank vaults where it is impossible to claim.  Is it not likely that the gold reserves of the last Tsars of Russia are now in the hands of new governments?  And the Titanic?  I’m thinking those treasures never existed in the first place – even though they did recently auction Wallace Hartley’s violin.

Still, you can’t help but dream.  Imagine stumbling upon those Lost Faberge Eggs!  Or uncovering the Treasure of the Knights Templar, especially given the hype from Indiana Jones movies and The Di Vinci Code?   Sure, Long John Silver, Blackbeard, and even Captain Kidd may all come to mind when one imagines looted treasure being buried for later retrieval.  What we do know is that any map worth its treasure, whether tattered or tattooed, has an “X” to mark the spot to locate those hidden gems.

More commonly in fiction than in reality, these maps are often hand drawn and contain arcane clues to aid the user in finding the loot.  One of the earliest suspected instances of a treasure map is the copper scroll, which contains a list of over 60 locations with detailed directions pointing to hidden stores of gold and silver.  It was written between 500 and 100 AD.  But is it real?

I can’t help wonder how do you get your hands on one of these maps?  Who among us hasn’t longed for a crinkled map to fall out of the back of an old dresser or Grandmother’s photo album?  And, what about the crazy luck of the Scooby-Doo Gang finding a treasure map in their pizza box?

I have a standard for what I consider to be treasure, and I suspect I’m not alone.  For example, most, and I solidly place myself in this camp, would NOT consider a bottle of Gallo Rose to be a treasure.  Gold bullions?  Absolutely!  And yet, recently, a treasure hunt has presented itself to us involving a ghost, a pirate and some buried stash!

Here’s the back-story:  Many years ago, a cheap bottle of Rose wine appeared in our house, left behind after being re-gifted by a party attendee.  Hey! Party-attendee! Thanks for that!  When friends called one night to invite us over for a drink, we could hardly show up empty handed so we did the only thing available at the moment and showed up with a half empty bottle of a lovely wine we had started earlier and the re-gifted bottle of plonk, the now infamous Rose.  Not a particularly high-class move on our part, but it was at least an honest gesture.

Since that evening, this bottle has made the rounds between our houses.  Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up unexpectedly:  one time standing proudly in a refrigerator; another time mixed into a case of wine; another, left on a front door step.  When we moved, our friends smuggled it into our house on their first visit, leaving it behind in the shower only for us to discover it as they drove off down the track.   However, Dartmoor magic prevailed and this same bottle made its way to their front door, over 200 miles away, just a few days later.  Back and forth, back and forth, the now speckled-with-paint-from-a-house-decorating-project bottle of Rose joined our friends on a ski trip in France, but failed to make it across the Atlantic to join us in Montana for a birthday celebration weekend with friends.  The cunning deception, detailed planning and execution of this bottle traveling between our two households continues and escalates.

The Bottle itself.  Notice the paint splatters.

The Bottle itself. Notice the paint splatters.

Until recently, I thought the idea of coming across a treasure map was the stuff of legends.  But the other day an email arrived in my inbox entitled ghostofcrockernpast@gmail.com and attached within — a treasure map!

In addition to landmark clues, the treasure map we received contained a helpful message, Treasure buried under large rock. Good luck treasure hunters. Wooooo oooo ooo.”  Honestly, look for yourself:

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard.  But, aren't these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Not a precise map as there are now two horses in the field and nine chickens in the yard. But, aren’t these maps supposed to have cryptic clues?

Feeling a little like Nancy Drew, I suggested to Roger we head out in the dark in search of this missing treasure.  We donned our wellies and fleeces, grabbed flashlights and invited our faithful hound, Sam, to join in the hunt.  We committed the map to memory and headed out into the dark.  No self-respecting treasure hunt would be complete without ample atmosphere and we had it in spades.  The clouds obscuring the moon made for an eerie glow and the surrounding mist mostly ate the light from our flashlights.  We took each step with care across the rocky and boggy path indicated on our map.  To add to this atmosphere, a Tawny Owl hooted in the distance as if cueing a spectral ghost, or more to the buried treasure plot, an evildoer hell-bent on stealing our map and thus the buried treasure, to appear and lead us to our doom.

At the end of the trail, we located the large rock, moved it aside and unearthed a cylindrical container swathed in plastic.  Inside was the bottle of Rose.  What is one person’s hidden treasure is another person’s discovered poison.  Now, we await the return of those who entombed their valued goods, securing the memory of its location with a well-drawn map.  We are prepared to happily return this Rose to its rightful owners.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.

The pirate who will return to collect her buried loot.