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.

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A Little Bird Told Me

Thirty minutes of looking through binoculars made me feel nauseous, but I couldn’t stop as I watched an elegant bird, cloaked in grey, white and black feathering above unmistakably long legs, hunting for fish.  I can appreciate the Grey Heron’s studied quest in the West Dart River, because each time I spot a small brown trout dashing from cover to cover, I feel happy.

West Dart River, Dartmoor

The West Dart River, where I did not capture a photo of the Grey Heron.

It’s nearly May and I’m still waiting for the leaf buds to open unfurling the new foliage.  While I bide my time, our visiting birds are returning.  Two weeks ago, we put in our asparagus bed and as we buried the root crowns, we noticed light catching the long tail of a small bird diving and swooping overhead.  Once again, this familiar, but long absent bird, was in our sights.  After nearly six months, we welcomed the return of the Swallows.   Miraculously, the Swallows appear to have no loss of energy or grace as they carry on hawking for insects, after their long travels from Africa to navigate back to their ancestral homes, under the guttering of our house.   I can’t help but wonder how do they travel these incredible distances with such ease?

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

The dawn chorus is fully amplified now with Blackbirds and Robins waking up first.  A bit later, the sounds of the Dunnocks, Wrens and Blue Tits layer in additional voices.  Recently, I’ve made a challenge for myself to learn our local birds by their call.  This is no easy task as I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type.  My learning tool is the RSPB website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/) with its recorded birdsong library.  When I see a bird I recognize, I look it up on the website to listen to its song.  I then try to commit to memory the birdsong with the bird so that I might one day ID the birds without seeing them.   I may never fully achieve my goal, but that doesn’t stop me reveling in the privilege of bearing witness to all this singing.

There are a few sounds that I comfortably recognize:  The syncopation of the Great Tit or the cheery songs of Skylarks, Robins and Blackbirds.  A distant laughing call from the Green Woodpecker in the trees across the river is easy to identify, though I’ve yet to see this happy bird.  In any community choir there are likely to be found those voices that carry the melody, the counterpoint harmonies, and sadly, the “honker” who lets out a sound that only family can love.  In our bird song chorus, this unpleasant barking noise is incongruent with the striking beauty of the Heron who emits it, one of whom I watched wade up the river in search of food.  Each time I hear them, I am reminded of the cry made when missing a nail and instead accidentally hitting a thumb with a hammer:  “Ow!” (Pause)  “Damn!”

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Lately, the air is filled with another easily identified sound, that of the Cuckoo, who returns in spring and summer for a short stay.  This dove-sized bird, with its sleek body and long tail, makes a familiar call and I am instantly taken back to my childhood home, which was filled with clocks.  Over the years my Dad has amassed an impressive collection:  Grandfather, Banjo, Grandson, Regulator, Anniversary and, of course, the Cuckoo clock.

One of the Cuckoo clocks hanging in my Dad’s house has family history.  In 1907, my maternal grandmother, Pauline, her sister Louise, and their parents immigrated to the United States, through Ellis Island, from a small village in South Western Germany near the Black Forest.  Pauline and her mother kept in touch with their extended family in the village, sending care packages of food, clothing and small toys to her cousins who were experiencing food shortages during the war.  As a thank you years later, Pauline was sent a handsome Cuckoo clock made by craftsmen in The Black Forest, near her birthplace.

Pauline’s Cuckoo clock is made of dark brown wood in the shape of a chalet with a peaked roof and is decorated with intricate carvings of leaves and animals.  Its most distinguishing element is the Cuckoo bird that jumps out of a trap door to sing its song on the hour, belting out enough calls to denote the time.  There are two pinecone-shaped weights hanging on chains beneath the clock to wind its cog-driven timing mechanism within the chalet.  An additional decorative touch is a carved oak leaf hiding the regulating pendulum swinging below.

Like the Swallows, House Martins and Cuckoos, we all return to our ancestral homes, those places that gave the initial shape to our way of understanding the world.   It may be a return to the actual place where we can touch the walls, smell the air, and in the case of some of the birds around Crockern, repair nests and hatch young.  Or perhaps, our migration is nothing more than a return journey through memories triggered by a simple sound.  “Cuckoo.  Cuckoo.”  I’ve moved a good distance from my formative years in Ohio, but can quickly be enchanted and transported back to the familiar when I hear the song of the Cuckoo in our valley.  The call of this highly secretive bird declaring its territory and hoping to attract a mate, makes me feel as though I will soon see my Dad, as I did every day when I was a child, winding his clocks and coordinating their chimes as he sets to conduct his own dawn chorus.

Chaffinch at Crockern

A little Chaffinch at Crockern.