Friday, December 9, 2022

Best girl

It's taken me a week to write this—a week and sixteen years, really—and it will still be an imperfect, though heartfelt, appreciation of a sweet, beautiful, and beloved dog. Always a presence, she made herself known again when I made this morning's tea: as I lifted the lid on the electric kettle, there was the fill line, a metal tab inscribed "MAX". Even now, this dog finds ways to make me smile.

Sweepstakes winners

I know the prescribed method for obtaining a hunting dog: meet the breeder, pore over pedigrees, see the parent dogs in action, and so forth. That's not how I met Maxine. She was an advert in the classifieds section of the Journal Star, a lone dachshund puppy off a farm somewhere down near the Kansas border. We met the breeder in the parking lot of the Tractor Supply store in Beatrice, handed over fifty dollars or some such paltry sum, and were on our way back to Lincoln in minutes. To an outside observer, had there been one, it might have looked like a drugs deal but for the happy eight-year-old girl in the back seat.

In fairness to me, the new puppy was intended primarily as a family pet. I had just bought a home after years of renting, and the aforementioned eight-year-old and her mother were pushing hard for a miniature dachshund. Believing that dogs are happiest when doing what they've been bred to do, I agreed to a dog on one condition: that she be allowed to chase rabbits with me.

I began Max's training by playing scent games with her. A plush toy rabbit, quail, or pheasant would be anointed with a drop of an appropriate training scent, dragged through the house or across the lawn, and hidden; then she would be released to find the toy. She usually gave the rabbit a good thrashing, but surprisingly was inclined to retrieve the birds to me. (Later, we discovered she enjoyed fetching lacrosse balls as well.)

I was two years into a sharp-shinned hawk when Max came to us, and when the autumn rolled around I tried to get her out in the field as soon as I could. Predictably, the passage sharpie was having none of that, but after a short third season, and about the time that most of the migrant passerines were departing, I released Talkeetna to follow them southward and subsequently trapped a red-tailed hawk, Stekoa.

Maxie was present at every stage of Stekoa's manning and training—until one day, as we entered the mews, the hawk launched from the perch and bound to Max's face. Fortunately no serious injury resulted, but this behaviour was repeated a few days later during a creance session. Because she was still a shy dog, I was concerned that Max might be ruined for the field, and reluctantly continued Stekoa's training without her. 

After Stekoa had caught a half-dozen rabbits, though, I cautiously reintroduced Max on a weekend hawking trip, with several companions available to intervene in case something went wrong. As it happened, nothing did. A few minutes into the hunt, both Stekoa and Maxine found themselves chasing the same fox squirrel across the forest floor, and a partnership was forged beneath those bur oaks as hawk and dog realised they were supposed to be working together. We never had a problem after that.

I may have gone about acquiring a hunting dog all wrong, but after that first outing there was no doubt that Max was born to hunt, born for falconry. I wore jeans almost every day, but she quickly learned to distinguish my Cordura-faced brush jeans, and eagerly anticipated the donning of my hawking vest as the prelude to adventure. One of the few verbal commands to which she was always ready to respond was "Outback!": her cue to jump into the Subaru. (A nice parallel to Stekoa, who is always happy to fling himself into his travel box both before and after a hunt.)

I can't honestly say whether Maxine made a major difference in Stekoa's head count. Eastern cottontails spend most of their time above ground, and are abundant enough most years that I flush plenty on my own. But falconry is an aesthetic pursuit, and it was a beautiful thing to watch Maxie flowing through the landscape. She didn't use her nose very much, so far as I could tell, but she had a strong sense of where rabbits would be. And after the flush, if Stekoa made a catch deep in cover or on the opposite side of a creek, I could count on Maxie to sit quietly but alertly, guarding her hawk, until I could make in.

Maxie's inherent respect for her hawk, and her joy in hawking, extended beyond Stekoa. Years later, she was pressed into service as a spaniel, flushing sparrows and quail for my merlin, and could be trusted alone with the little falcon hooded on her perch. Not bad for a fifty-dollar dog out of the classifieds... While I had undeniably been lucky, the luck ran both ways. Maxie and I won the jackpot when we met.

Adventures, misadventures, and ordinary Tuesdays 

Max became world-famous—well, known to some, anyway—when I wrote a profile of her, Karl Linderholm's beagle Houlie, and Mike Cox's Jack Russell terrier Gypsy for a 2007 issue of International Falconer. (Sad to think that the beagle, the JRT, the magazine, and Mike all preceded her.) A gifted athlete, Maxie took second place at the Plattdeutsch Society's Running of the Wieners in 2008, then first in 2010. 

She might fetch plush quail and pheasants for me, and she loved to play ball—my lacrosse stick excited her about as much as my hawking vest—but Maxie's Labrador tendencies only went so far. I once made an ill-advised attempt to enter her into a Dock Dogs competition, but while she would swim an icy creek for Stekoa, nothing would induce her to jump into the Dock Dogs swimming pool, and I remember apologising to her for putting her on the spot.

Another apology became necessary the day I left her behind at Davis Creek Reservoir in the Sandhills. I had driven out for the day with Stekoa and the dogs, Stekoa had flown a rabbit flushed from the switchgrass and taken it under a red cedar tree, and we were leaving the WMA when I stopped to retrieve something from the cargo area of the wagon, or to fix something loose back there—I don't recall the exact circumstances, but I was only out of the car for a minute, and then we were back on our way. We were nearly to Farwell, some twenty miles down the road, when I was petting and talking to Anya and suddenly noticed Maxie wasn't there. Realising she must have slipped out with me while I was fiddling in the back of the car, I turned around and set a new land-speed record for the Farwell-to-Davis Creek run. Halfway down the gravel access road to the WMA, about where we had stopped, there was my lost and perplexed dog. She seemed glad to see me, but couldn't possibly have been as relieved as I was. 

A family dog. At various times, she hiked with us, camped with us, kayaked with us, gardened with us. She was there for road trips, Christmas mornings, ordinary Tuesdays...just a part of our lives. And she was a hardworking, blue-collar hawking dog, flushing rabbits day in and day out for years on end. But by the winter of 2018-2019—her thirteenth season—she was starting to slow down, and to feel her age. On some days, she got as excited as ever to see me gathering my gear for a day of hawking. On others, though, particularly the coldest days, she opted out; while Anya ambled toward the back door to go out with me, Maxie would pointedly stay in her bed in the corner of the kitchen, thumping her tail when I petted her goodbye but making no move to join us. And I was glad to see her taking care of herself; God knows she had earned some time off.

The colour of sunlight on fallen leaves

By the autumn of 2019, her vision and hearing had both deteriorated to the point that she simply couldn't keep up with the hunt. One day at Pawnee Lake, Jessa and I heard her whining from a patch of gooseberry and other briars; though we were within a few yards of her, she didn't know where we were. Her retirement started from there. 

As Maxie aged—and especially, it seemed, after Anya passed away—her mobility decreased as well; she lost strength in her hindquarters, and sometimes toppled over, or struggled to get up after a nap. My own struggle was with misplaced guilt: I had known her in her prime, and this half-blind, half-deaf, fractionally infirm dog seemed diminished, and it must somehow be my fault. Max herself, though, didn't appear to be embarrassed or frustrated by her limitations. Like a Zen master, she accepted challenges gracefully, and I eventually made my peace with the fact of her aging, confident that she still enjoyed her life. (I took heart, too, from watching her feet twitch in her sleep, knowing that in her dreams she was still chasing rabbits and lacrosse balls.)

In her old age, Maxie became very fond of warm weather, and her last summer was a good one. She spent long days outside, alternately patrolling the back garden and napping wherever the mood struck her. She could be difficult to find while sleeping under the oak tree; her red coat, now fading and dappled with grey, Jessa described as "exactly the colour of sunlight on fallen leaves". She also became the unwitting proprietor of "Maxie's Sidewalk Café", as first the robins and later the blue jays discovered and pillaged her food dish. With hungry chicks to feed, the robins must have thought of the kibble as protein berries, and we sometimes saw them queuing up behind Maxie, who may have been unaware of their presence but wouldn't have begrudged them in any case; she was accustomed to sharing with birds.

A couple of years ago we built a zigzag bridge leading down the slight slope toward the mews; Max occasionally napped on the bridge, especially when it was in sunshine, and this autumn we'd noticed some depressions indicating that the rabbits sometimes sheltered or at least traveled underneath. Jessa and I spent the better part of an October day working in the back garden, raking and mulching leaves, chainsawing a dead apple tree into manageable chunks of firewood, and so forth. Along came Maxie, who had been napping on the patio; she stuck her nose under the bridge, and a rabbit who had evidently been there for hours bolted out. Two humans and their power tools hadn't fazed the bunny, but one sniff from Maxie was enough. It was her last hurrah.

Once the weather turned cold and Max was confined to the kitchen, her condition declined rapidly. Previously a "good relaxer", she now had difficulty falling and staying asleep on her own; her pacing began to seem neurotic and then neurological; and she began losing weight she could ill afford to lose. I eventually made the call I never wanted to make, to the vet clinic where Ellie works.

Maxie's appointment coincided with her usual evening nap; she was asleep when I picked her up from her bed, and fell asleep again in Jessa's arms as we drove. At the clinic, she woke briefly, but seemed utterly relaxed: she boarded here when we travelled and were unable to bring her along, and was always popular with the staff. Even though Ellie lives with her own dog now—a goofy shepherd mix named Rocky—everyone at the clinic knows "Eleanor's dachsie", and she spent as much time "helping out" at the front desk or napping in a receptionist's lap as she did in her kennel. On familiar ground and amongst friends, Maxie fell asleep again even before the sedative was administered, and passed in her sleep with Ellie, Jessa, and me smiling and crying over her, our hands finding one another's as we stroked Maxie's soft fur.

I'm thinking this time not of Winston Churchill and George VI ["Farewell, Anyabelle"], but of Chingachgook and Uncas. "Great Spirit, Maker of all life, a warrior goes to you, swift and straight as an arrow shot into the sun." Not a warrior, this one, but a hunter, and the rabbits of the Happy Hunting Grounds had best be ready. After a romp with Anya, Maxie will be seeking out a hawk and getting back to her life's work.

Go get 'em, Maxwell, and thank you for everything. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The gales of November remembered

On this date in 1975, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with all hands on Lake Superior.

Your local radio station will likely play this today, but just in case...

Lyrics and music by Gordon Lightfoot, who rightly considers this his best work; electric and pedal steel guitars by Pee Wee Charles and Terry  Clements.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022


Google celebrates stickball today! I'll let USA Lacrosse provide the details; enjoy!

Monday, October 31, 2022

A visit from the Queen

We're no strangers to monarch butterflies here at Teach Éan, and do our best to attract and support them on our tenth of an acre; at last count, I believe Jessa's garden list was up to 97 species of Nebraska- or at least regionally native wildflower species, including at least six milkweeds. We've had several wildflowers blooming well into October, but the most popular with the monarchs were goldenrods and asters, especially aromatic and New England asters.

This butterfly showed up about two weeks ago and appeared at first to be a late monarch, but both Jessa and I noticed some differences, and (thanks to her smartphone photo) were able to identify it as a queen butterfly, Danaus gillipus. (The proper monarch is D. plexippus.)

The queen is not a rare butterfly, but a rare find here. The queen is a predominantly tropical species, more typically found in the southern tier of the U.S. So an "accidental", but a nice bonus for Jessa's gardening efforts. 

Bon voyage!

Friday, September 30, 2022

The muskrat of contention: a study in envy

I already wanted the house, beautifully situated, built circa 1815 in a style straight out of the English countryside and already a century old then.

And then we saw the foxes: four of them lounging on the front lawn, like a scene from a Disney movie. (Note also the two fawns in the background, still retaining their spots in late summer.) Those bastards perfectly nice people, I thought: a gorgeous estate house, close by the Bay, an osprey nest in view, and they have foxes just lying about like lawn ornaments?!?

But I was not the only one feeling envious, for the house sits next to a marsh, and there one of the foxes had secured a muskrat... 

...and whilst things looked peaceable enough when we first came upon the scene, rivalry within the family group soon became apparent. No matter where the fortunate fox carried the prize, the others were always watching with a view toward stealing it away, and with possession came not contentment but anxiety.

Occasionally the tension spilled over, leading to conflict amongst and between the other foxes—"off-ball" action, as it were.

After a while, the possessor of the muskrat was left to eat in relative peace, though far from unobserved.

Eventually hostilities broke out again, and in the flurry of action possession may have changed hands—it was difficult for us to keep track, one fox looking very much like another from our vantage point.

In the end, to the victor the spoils.

For the loser, only the mask of resentment.

In light of which, I am happy to report—no, truly, I am—that Sandy Point Farmhouse is owned by the people of Maryland but continues to function as a private home for its resident curators. Under a program administered by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Historic Trust, the resident curators have a lifelong, rent-free tenure on the house, in exchange for restoring and maintaining the property for posterity—a good deal for them, the public, and of course the foxes.

And speaking of na sionnaigh, here are some more of Jessa's photos—less dramatic but more peaceful than the ones above.