I am being trained.
By a dog.
Every day or two Leo takes me for a walk down by the river. He lets me think it is my idea. He is thoughtful like that. He keeps his superiority quietly to himself. After all, he has twice as many legs as I do. He is younger and fitter and faster. And a Zen master. Leo understands mindfulness and the power of the Moment.
It is a time for us to be together. For my next training session.
I watch him cock his head slightly to one side when I mention the word “walk”. Lately Susan and I have taken to exploring the upper echelons of the English language to avoid using the W-word. There is ‘perambulation’ and ‘promenade’ and even ‘locomotive translocation’ (we don’t think he has got that one yet, however he may just be allowing us to believe we have one over on him).
The word is mentioned, and he looks at us. Then, somehow, as if has changed places without moving through space, he is by the door. I swear that dog has also mastered teleportation. One second, he is there and then he is …over there.
We go outside, and he is waiting by the rear door of the car. I open it and he surfs the air effortlessly up into the back.
Then we are off.
Leo is a hybrid, mostly black Labrador, with a healthy smattering of Great Dane, rather like a Labrador on stilts. And being a Lab, he always needs to have the window open, so he can smell the soft curls of scent carried on the wind. I have heard it said that a Lab male can smell a bitch on heat 8 km away. Leo had a trip to the vet at an early age, so he has no interest in hot bitches. Leo is really 45kg of nose on legs. I often wonder what he smells and what his nose tells him. I would love to know how the world appears with that amount of smell-power. On the other hand, given his fascination for dead and rotting things, perhaps I wouldn’t.
We drive through town, and around the edge of the lake towards the ugly concrete control gates which strangle the natural rhythm of the river’s outflow from the lake. Then we park the car, with him leaning over my shoulder while he supervises, and I open the door for him. He ignores me as he checks around the rocks at the top of the hill, reading the peemails and occasionally sending one himself. I am fascinated by the fact that he seems to have a bottomless bladder. There is always enough in his tank for such ritual communications.
The track drops down through the slow green energy of the beech trees, and we wander down across the bronze carpet of decaying beech leaves and slumbering earth. I am walking in a direct line down through the trees, but Leo is his doing his usual rambling, from here to there and back again, as he is led by the nose he has almost-pinned to the ground and the stories he is following.
As we slide further down in to the cool green, small flashes of the river pry the trees apart and peer through the gaps. At the bottom of the hill, where we rejoin the cycle trail built along the river’s edge, there is a place to look out across the warmer green of the river’s surface, at the lazy slide and curl of the water, at the teal-green layerings of current as the river slithers southwards. This is pure, clear water, a place for Imagining and connection. I reach out with a finger and draw the patterns of the water in the air, following the small whirlpools turning back in on themselves as they conform to the commands of the current. Perhaps the river is a metaphor for our passage through Life. For all our attempts to turn against it, we are being carried on a one-way journey towards a predetermined conclusion most of us would rather not acknowledge.
There is a snort of impatience. Leo is perhaps 20m away, looking back over his shoulder. Well? Can we move on now? He is like that. He will get ahead by no more than 40m, then look back to check if I am OK. Sometimes I feel like being a bitofashit and hide myself behind a tree, then wait for him to find me Not There. After less than a minute I will then hear the pad of paws as he lopes back to find where I am. The look of disgust and disdain he gives me makes the prank even more worthwhile.
He veers off-course briefly to check out a desiccated opossum carcass, but we are on course for the highlight of the walk, his Water Time. We get down to the water’s edge, to a corner on the inside elbow of the river, where the stream graduates slow and shallow from gold to green, where Papatūānuku, Tane Mahuta and Tangaroa whisper softly to each other in a secret conversation.
Somewhere in our slide down through the trees, I have picked up a stick and kept it hidden. I don’t know why I bother. Leo knows I have one anyway. By the time I reach the water’s edge he is already looking for the Magic Stick which will fly out over the water for him to rescue. Sure enough it miraculously appears, spinning slowly through the air until it slaps onto the surface of the river. By then he is on his way to rescue it. The first few times here, he would slither gingerly out into the current. Now he launches himself up and out into a joyous belly flop, crashing down into the water, and swimming after the stick. He makes a U-turn without pausing and pulls his way back through the current towards the shore. As he comes in I can see how his paws are slightly webbed, like built-in flippers, pulling him through the current. Little wonder he swims so well.
He lopes jauntily out with the Stick between his jaws and come s straight for me. Then, just as he is about to reach me, he turns away and drops the stick perhaps a metre away, so I am forced to go and fetch it myself. He is making a point. Who is running this game anyway?
Another five, perhaps six times until he has had enough. I know he is done because he carries the stick away and goes out of sight behind a bush. I get the message and carry on walking. He reappears and takes up pole position, following his nose and the story trails there to be read. I watch the silent slither of the river and the small gold explosions of kowhai scattered indiscriminately along both river banks. Perhaps I will bring my camera next time, I promise myself. I never do. This is a time for Being and Seeing. For observing things like the fact that even when he is following the story trails, Leo’s nose never connects with the ground or smashes into a rock, and his feet overtake his nose constantly but never quite collide with it.
Being, Seeing, Observing. Learning.
Observing that it is a Beech Mast Year. The beech trees are flowering prolifically. The whole mountainside is covered with a rusty blush. Soon the seed will fall. Then the mice will feast, and their population will explode, until the forest is seething with them. The rat population will soar as well. And the stoat population will rocket, as they feast on the mice. This summer trout will give up their delicate sipping of larvae and stoneflies and gorge themselves on mouse, until their stomachs are lined from end to end with head-to-tail mice. They will increase in weight and size, as they Supersize themselves.
Then the seed will run out, winter will spread her cold cloak across the land and most of the mice will perish from starvation. The trout will go back to a sparse diet of insects and nymphs. The stoats and rats will, in desperation, turn upon the birdlife. And the traps scattered across the park will fill up.
Then a snort and a tail batter at my leg, breaking my reverie.
Come on. It is time to go.
That is enough for today. Get back into the moment.
I mentally tug my forelock.
Coming right away.