Telling the Bees…

“Do you know who I am?” she said, “I’m the one who taps you on the shoulder when it’s your time…” – Tori Amos, Beekeeper

There have been a lot of bees around lately.

Sure, the fall flowers are putting on their last display and overripe apples are irresistible. Still, a couple of times now bees have buzzed lazily around incense I’ve been burning outside and landing gently on my arm before floating away again. Not bee behavior I’m used to.

In Ireland “telling the bees” is the tradition of informing the hive when a family member has passed, and the belief that bees can carry messages to our departed for us.  If this is the case, then I will need many bees…and with the cold coming there isn’t much time…

After a rainy, humid summer – the air at last cools, the nights are clear and starry. I took the pups into the upper paddock last night to watch for the Draconid meteor showers. While I watched for shooting stars they played in the tall, dewy grass, racing in and out of the ring of light from my headlamp, growling at the impenetrable dark of our backwoods. An owl called close by and I turned to shine my light into a nearby tree, just in time to see her silently lift and glide into the woods, her hunting interrupted by the dogs’ playing. I did see a few meteors before going to bed. Just being outside for a little while looking at the stars settled me after a long week and I slept well. Soon it will get dark earlier and I will enjoy autumnal night hikes. The woods become a different world at night, old magic surfaces – it is a privilege to be out there to witness it.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year, from the first faint thrill of it in August right up to the first snowfall. This year we have already had snow on Mt. Washington, but further south the trees are just starting to turn, gaining momentum with each chilly night. Our puppy Lifa is 9 months old now, filling out and maturing into a wonderful partner and friend. Quinn and Piper settle into the new pack dynamic and connect with Lifa in a deeper way now that her puppy antics are fading. With the passing of summer and the approach of winter it is hard not to think of those who have gone before, my parents, friends and teachers who have shaped my path along the way. There is so much I want to tell them. And so I ask the bees for a favor…

“When you lose the teacher you become the teacher,” I’ve heard it said. This year I myself am the teacher, working not just with my dogs but with 8th graders.  Working with kids is not all that different from working with dogs or horses, it is all about communication and patience.  Finding ways to convey something in a way that the individual in front of you can understand. And we are all wired differently, we all see things in a unique way.  As a teacher you need to be able to see things in a multitude of ways so you can work with a variety of approaches until you find the one that works for your “student”.

With my dogs, while I have used the same essential introductions and methods, I have not trained any of them the same way. They have each learned in their own unique way and showed me what they are most motivated by. Quinn never did take to searching, but she loves to herd. Piper loves to search but needs lots of support and encouragement, he lacks confidence in his own abilities. Lifa is just now showing us what she likes to do. She may be a “late bloomer” but has immense potential when she does settle on the work she loves the most.  For me, the most important part of being a teacher is laying tools before a student and stepping back to see what they will do with them, not imposing my idea of what should happen.

My teachers have all gone on to the ultimate journey and I remain to assume the role. I am aware of the potential to influence and shape another life and do my best to “be the person my dogs think I am”. Not always succeeding, but nurturing an awareness of my intentions, my motivations and the way I need to move through the world.  I am getting older myself, there are more of my loved ones beyond the veil than on this side of it. But there is no denying the austere beauty of this season and the veil thins so maybe, just maybe, I will be granted a precious glimpse of them.

Maybe the bees will tell them “Thank you” for me.

“I did not believe because I could not see. Though you came to me in the night. When the dawn seemed forever lost. You showed me your love in the light of the stars.” – Loreena McKennitt, Dante’s Prayer

Yesterday David and I took the pack up into one of our favorite meadows, a gentle hike with one great hill that rewards you with a glorious view of the Monadnocks. In late summer this meadow shimmers in a sea of goldenrod flowing down to the horizon, meeting the sky, and creating an exquisite frame for the mountains. As you work your way up, you are immersed in the wildflowers that herald the coming brocades of fall foliage that will be woven with plants passing by. The air was crisp and cool, a wonderful breeze caressing us from the west. After days of intense humidity and heat it was like falling into your favorite lake for an invigorating swim. Hawks rode the westerly thermals, practicing for their October migration. Monarchs and dragonflies visited each blossom, flitting about without concern for the shortening days and chilly nights ahead. Some color brushed random treetops already, but the wild grapes are still unripened green and the days still get very warm towards noon.

I have always loved the time from August to first snowfall. I have always been passionately in love with autumn, something about its grand flourish before the short, dark days of winter is intensely poignant to me. As a child, August was when we took our family vacation to a lake in the Belknaps and that place ignited a deep and slow-burning magic in me that lives to this day. It was where I could see my true self reflected in the clear lake water, images I would hold onto fiercely the rest of the year. There is something about this season, with all its nuances and foretelling, that is captivating. August signals the waning that quietly follows the waxing of spring into summer.

Yesterday was particularly touching to me, as I hiked through chest-high goldenrod and asters, I remembered that this meadow was one of the last places I would hike with Casey before she became too ill to venture out with us. She loved it here, leading the way as always. I felt her with us yesterday, watching little Lifa navigate tangles of wildflowers and charge joyously down the overgrown path. Life is a spiral, curving around but never touching the same spot again. There have been so many tectonic shifts this past year, I curve around to a spot that is familiar but forever changed.  We are once again wading through fields of gold, with a new pack member…also with a new purpose and direction in life overall.  

As with the meadow around us, some things in my life have passed already, some are dying and some will overwinter to emerge in the spring. My focus shifts (comes full circle in fact) back to a creative life, one I had to make somewhat dormant to go out into the world and do things that I needed to do. Now, I have seen those things through, and my reward is being able to “come home” to the life I always wanted in the first place. As a result, NorthSAR will shift and become something new, incorporating this creativity into a new kind of service, one that will also honor Casey’s memory as it supports new endeavors. This blog will expand in scope, this website re-branded with new offerings.  I’m catching a thermal in a sense, and letting it carry me to where I need to be.

So keep an eye out, as the light changes, the leaves turn, the nights grow chilly, the constellations shift to map a winter sky…the journey is far from over, but we are off the edge of the map now…

“listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” – e. e. cummings

My husband and I went kayaking last weekend and being out on the water again was deeply soothing.  There were the wild swans, the huge bald eagle nest (with juvenile in it), Great Blue Herons and assorted ducks of course, always wonderful to see. Then the smaller, no less wonderful observations- the snapper swimming just below the surface, the thousands of iridescent damselflies and dragonflies, a clump of wild iris hiding behind cattails, curled feathers floating by.  I am planning to train Lifa to be in the kayak with me to share this peaceful drifting and observing. Casey used to go with me and would sit watching the world go by as we bobbed on gentle currents. She would nose the air, picking up the smell of water and all the scents it carries with it (quite a lot in fact). It wasn’t on land and she wasn’t in a car, I can only guess how this altered her perception of what was around her.  From what I could tell, she enjoyed it. I know I did. I hope Lifa will too, if she decides she likes changing her view of things it will be one more special thing we can share (Quinn and Piper just like swimming too much to stay in the boat). But there is nothing quite like bearing witness to the life going on around you and having a skipper to share that with. It is all about perception, which can often shift perspective leading other aspects of life to become more of a calm, attentive exploration.

One of the stranger training sessions I had with my first search team involved old bones being scattered in a dirt parking lot and we had to locate them. It is fascinating what the mind does when asked to do something odd, it either “doesn’t see” the objects or decides they are something else, a piece of wood or cardboard. Because, after all, it isn’t every day you are asking your brain to find bones in a parking lot.  As one of my tracking instructors is fond of saying “you have to learn to see what is there not what you think is there”. This is most definitely a learned skill for most of us, we have lost the art of seeing what is before us, details, subtleties and nuances that would have informed our ancestors many generations ago what the landscape had to tell them. Therefore, it is quite possible to walk right past human remains because your mind, needing to label things in a context that makes sense, decided it looked like a pile of leaves and not a plaid lumberjack shirt. It takes a fair amount of practice to start re-mapping how you see the world, in that sense it is like meditation. Your mind needs to be quiet and calm, open yet attentive.

I think of all the skills I had to learn in doing search work, learning to “see what is there” tops the list as the one skill that has had the most impact in every aspect of my life. Navigation being a close second. As you re-wire your brain towards focused mindfulness something magical happens, “there’s a hell of a good universe” out there for those who learn to pay attention. Once you start that process your way of thinking changes, your perceptions, your instincts and ultimately – your way of moving through your world. Partner that with solid navigation skills and you are never going to be confused, caught off guard or lost again – physically or existentially.

Well, most of the time…

I am still shattered by the loss of Casey, but I see aspects of her in Lifa and feel like she is still with us.  I still miss my Da, but the peace and openness I feel when hiking brings him close. He was an avid hiker when he was a young man and I inherited that from him. I need to hike and be in the wild as much as I need oxygen. The losses are what throw me in life, but the rest…incidental, annoying details of a world reduced to soundbytes, pixels, noise, opinions and free floating angst – not so much.

When you have learned to see what is there naturally your interpretation of what is there will be correct. For me this has been profound and very grounding. Life has not ceased hurling curve balls at me, or being whimsical, infuriating or just downright ridiculous, but I can read it for what it is and make decisions accordingly.  You learn how to navigate your way out of the maelstrom and find the quiet, secret spaces. There’s a hell of a good universe next door, just around the bend in the trail, just over that ridge, or deep into that estuary… so let’s go!

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” – Mary Oliver

Despite some strange weather (even for New England) the trees are budding and the landscape softens.

A dozen shades of green, mixed with pink, white and yellow blur the harsh edges of winter and we have warm days to bask in the sunlight. The deep breath of winter lets go.

Lifa has also been a breath of spring in our home. A new life, insatiably curious and enthusiastic, adds whimsical, affectionate energy to the house and no one is immune to her charms.

Yet, despite all the shenanigans and lessons of puppyhood, there is a depth to her that hints at an “old soul”. Her gaze can be measured and intense, she is composed and confident- an unusual trait in a 12-week old puppy. She learns amazingly fast and loves being challenged. Keeping up with her and continually raising the bar for her will be almost a full-time job!

Quinn and Piper are devoted (if sometimes annoyed) and play with her constantly.  A new pack dynamic forms and it is clear that as she matures, Lifa will assume leadership of the group.  She has all the qualities of an Alpha, she is intelligent, measured, devoted, even protective.

The other night we had a bear in our yard, Quinn and Piper were barking wildly at the windows and instead of joining them, Lifa jumped up on me and faced the window, growling low and soft. This little 14 lb puppy was not seeking me out for reassurance but staking her claim to her person and warning off the intruder outside! I told myself when Lifa came home that I would not compare her too much to Casey, but I couldn’t help remembering when Casey charged bears on two occasions to protect me. A 40 lb redhead challenged a 300 lb bear without hesitation. 

The following morning I took Lifa out to scent where the bear had been and we were lucky enough to find some scat, which I also showed her. She sniffed it, then grew very quiet and looked around growling softly again. The attitude of a mature, strong female.  Suitably cautious and assessing, but not afraid.

As she gets older I have long hikes and explorations to look forward too, training and nurturing our relationship as we learn to work together, and having a new, bold partner at my side. But for now, I’ll take the teething, belly rubs, stealing my socks and all the other escapades that come with raising a puppy. It is a role I cherish and am in no rush to get past.  Even old souls need to experience childhood.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” – Lewis Carroll

Spring has arrived.  The sun warms us, the light lasts further into the evening, and the snow is just about gone. It was a rough winter, inside and out.  Finding that “invincible summer” Camus wrote of was next to impossible.

Then Lifa was born.

There are those who believe in karma or destiny, and those who believe in mere coincidence. The series of events and signs that led to Lifa becoming part of our pack is hard to dismiss. The most poignant of these was meeting her on the very same day that I first met Casey 11 years before. This happened without planning or even the realization until the day of (thanks to a FB memory). But it felt important once it was discovered. What are the odds? That 11 years TO THE DAY after meeting my Red Queen I would meet yet another spirited redhead and make another connection, having lost my Red Queen. It was a beam of light penetrating my grief that I could not ignore. I couldn’t help but feel that some kind of universal balancing was creating this opportunity.  Or that maybe Casey had something to do with it, that beam of light was her illuminating my way out of a dark place.  Pointing the way home, as she had done so many times during her life.

So, we welcomed Lifa – whose name is the Icelandic word for “Life” – a week ago and have not been disappointed. She is bold, intelligent, and loving. She is also well ahead of any curve she should be on at 8 weeks. Within days of her arrival, she mastered the stairs to our 2nd floor (all 13) up and down, knew her name, and bonded with Quinn and Piper, forming a new pack that is lifting them out of their sadness and giving them new purpose. Their playing is spontaneous and joyous, though they are also vigilant and protective of their new charge. It means everything to me to see Quinn and Piper re-engage with their world, assume new roles, and become light-hearted again.

It will be a year of firsts, at both ends of the spectrum. Our first year without Casey, our first year with Lifa. We took her on her first hike Sunday. Dwarfed by Quinn and Piper she did not hesitate to run down the trail with them, exploring all the strange new scents and sights that her world has to offer. As with children, having a puppy encourages you to see these things anew yourself, triggering a deep sense of renewal and wonder.  Hikes with my pups are where the real bonding takes place, as we share discoveries back and forth, romp and nurture the working partnership that is priceless beyond measure.

It is with deep gratitude and relief that we embrace the coming of spring. Healing a little each day as warmth and color return to the earth, basking in the beauty of a new life in our home. Whatever Lifa and I end up doing together, that journey has just begun and is full of promise.

There will never be another Red Queen, but what we have now is our Shieldmaiden. Wherever we are headed, any road will get us there.

“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” – Mary Oliver

The past year for me has been full of successes and sorrow (very likely true for all of us). I obtained my Professional Dog Trainer certification, took courses in wolf behavior, participated in K9 training webinars and virtual tracking conferences as we all tried to stay connected in cyberspace.

Going over my first post, I can see a foreshadowing of what lay in wait around the corner for me personally. Over the summer my beloved Red Queen, Casey, developed a wound on her neck that refused to heal. By late summer we knew something was very wrong (but still held out hope we could treat her) and by November confirmed what I feared the most. My amazing redhead had inoperable cancer and we were going to lose her.  I swung between disbelief that such an epic personality should be snuffed out and wanting her remaining time with us to be as peaceful and loving as possible.  This is not the way I envisioned her life concluding. Certainly not what I wanted her to endure. I am not ashamed to admit I was a complete mess.

Casey, however, followed her daily agenda almost until the end. Walks around the property, toting one of her precious tennis balls, Even modest search problems. My sister made fleece jackets for her as winter closed in, I learned acupressure and massage to keep her as comfortable as I could. We all spent every possible minute with her, soaking it up like you do when the first day of warm, spring sun spills over your face.

She left us in January, peacefully and on her own, during the full wolf moon no less. My partner of 11 years, dozens of searches, endless hours of training and exploring, finding the lost. Now I am the one who is lost. I focus on Piper and Quinn, confused and thrown by their own grief. I move forward as it is the only direction open to me. I mourn and try to think of the best way to honor her memory. Most of all, I am simply at a loss for the right words to convey her intelligence, spirit, devotion and the unique life she had. The quote on my first blog is now engraved on the beautiful cherry box that houses her ashes. “What is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”

And yet…spring is coming again, the light is stronger, the birdsongs have changed. There is another redhead who may enter my life (I hope). I think Casey would approve. I think perhaps the best way to honor her memory is to share my life with another spirited little Bhanrion Rua (Red-Headed Queen). We shall see…we will heal…and we will continue to embrace our “one wild and precious life”.

“Tell me, what is it you intend to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

The other day I got the dogs out early for a hike down an abandoned rail bed to the quarry where they love to swim.  I like to hike early, especially in the summer before the heat knocks the wind out of my sails, and when trail traffic is at a minimum. This morning was cool but humid, you could smell the promise of an afternoon thunderstorm in the damp air. A delicate mist hung off the trees and swirled along the cinders, hushing morning sounds. The ethereal echo of the Wood Thrush penetrated the dense air like a siren song, beckoning one forward, always just a little further.  A few Eastern Newts warmed themselves on the cinder bed, breakfasting on tiny gnats who gathered on clumps of horse manure left by riders over the weekend. A peaceful morning, contemplative and solitary.

My three dogs, Casey, Piper and Quinn always take point on the way out.  Sharing discovered scents and performing general reconnaissance. Casey is the oldest of the three, she just turned 11, and was my first K9 SAR partner. She is retired now, mile upon mile of hiking, training and searching have left their stamp on her still fit, but older body. She will walk quietly beside me on our way back, letting her younger pack mates run ahead to clear the way back to our jeep.  But for now, she is up front as usual, though lagging a bit behind the others.

I notice the stiffness in her left hip, how she doesn’t dart off the trail much anymore after some interesting sound or movement. I also notice how she is still supremely alert, her senses and awareness of her surroundings not diminished by age or discomfort. We’ve been together 10 years, she was 9 months old when we met and the connection was immediate and powerful.  She came with some “stuff”, which we worked past with love and mutual respect. She is, without a doubt, the most intelligent dog I have ever met. Her ability to understand the slightest nuance, problem solve independently from me, and communicate where she stands on things has always made me feel like her assistant, not her handler. She is a feisty redhead with strong opinions, and equally strong loyalty to her chosen people (which isn’t just anyone). I get her and she knows it, she has given me her trust, amazing work ethic and most importantly, her love and regard.

How swiftly 10 years go by. It seems only a couple of years ago Casey and I were training together for our certification exams. She was with me as I learned to navigate, hike at night, build an impromptu shelter and make a fire in the snow. She rode beside me in our Tacoma pickup with the bench seat, curled up calmly while we drove into the White Mountains or Vermont for a search, waking when we got to base, searching obsessively through the night and sleeping beside me on the way home as dawn lightened the sky.  She took to searching as if she was born to do it, she certified in 14 months (we are given 24) and moved quickly on to more and more sophisticated work – older, smaller, fainter. Between her intellect and intensity, there was little that escaped her and she loved her work.  Her longest time in the field was 8 hours of non-stop searching, her quickest find was 18 minutes. All the things we encountered together – good, bad and just plain weird.

Then, earlier this year, she let me know she needed to be done. It wasn’t the older, stiffer joints, or not being able to do the distance she used to.  It was more of a mellowing, she wanted to have her walks and her ball, but also wanted to just be with us. She began to come into my music room while I practiced, falling into a deep sleep to the sound of my harp. She would spend time with my husband while he read, or just find a nice shady spot in the grass.  She was ready for a more peaceful phase to her life.  After all the adventures, it was nice to just be home.

Piper is in his prime, living in full high-octane adventure mode at 6 years old and has taken over the search work.  Quinn never took to searching but herds livestock like a boss. Casey lives secure in her rank as Matriarch in our little pack, adored by Piper and Quinn (and us) and, as dogs exist completely without guile, unaware of the influence and impact she has had on my life. How her presence and partnership has shaped my life choices and decisions. How one little red dog made all the difference in the world to me when I needed it the most.  Everything I do from this point on, is dedicated to Casey.