Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Losing Montana

"Something's lost but something's gained
in living every day." --Both Sides Now

I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the far northwest corner of the state. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever I could. It sat at the top of a serpentine gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. I shared the place with the bears, and the mountain lions, and the less intimidating but still mischievous skunks, coyotes and, toward the end of our time there, wolves.

I trained Thomas there, a small pup learning how to live with me on trails through a pine forest.

Montana was the place I've been chasing since childhood, a return to a land of giant, snow-capped peaks my parents took me to see when my mind was still new. One spring day a couple of years ago I left it, loading the dogs up in the truck, closing and locking the gate behind me as I always did, and driving down the mountain.

I had no idea I'd never see it again.

I didn't know it as I closed the last gate behind me, but my life was about to blow apart. It would be the most terrifying, painful thing ever to happen to me. It would be the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the beginning of my own Phoenix Process.

But still -- still -- I ache for Montana. It's an enduring loss, a heavy price I paid to gain something profoundly valuable -- myself and my life. But I still chase the mountains. I know I'll find them again. I just don't know where, or when.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nature of the Beast, revisited: The literary edition

"What? An out-of-the-ordinary dog book? I'm all ears."

Truthfulness in animal-human relationships has long been a hobby horse of mine, along with my unyielding belief that the best avenue to them runs one way: These relationships are most likely when we interact with animals on their own territory, instead of on ours. We have the capacity to reach across that divide, across that river of rationality we crossed so long ago. They do not. As a result, relationships with animals on our terms tend to center around what we want animals to be, and not what they really are.

Domesticated animals, by definition, reside deeply within the human world. When we refrain from projecting too many human anxieties, feelings or needs onto a companion animal, we honor their animal nature and allow them to live their lives. I believe the same is true with wildlife. The documentary Raising Sancho, and my good friend Carolina Vargas, who immersed herself in the giant otter world to raise – and then lose – the orphaned cub Sancho, offer an example of a deeply truthful relationship between a human and a wild animal.

Can a work of fiction accomplish this? Can a work of fiction be a truthful exploration into the nature of a dog? Can a work of fiction enter the animal world and allow its canine protagonist to be herself, instead of merely what people want or need her to be? These are the questions raised by Rose in a Storm, a book I began reading a few weeks ago after an interesting exchange with the author. (I won’t offer a synopsis; there is an excellent one at the previous link. I’ll wait for you.)

I follow Katz’s blog via Facebook, and have read many of his books about life on Bedlam Farm. Indeed, much of my thinking on animal-human relationships has been deeply influenced by Katz’s work. So I was aware he had a new book out – a novel, told from the perspective of a dog. One day, I followed a link on his blog to find that Rose in a Storm had received a somewhat weary-sounding review in the Washington Post that devoted its opening paragraphs to snarking about the extreme competence of the book’s protagonist, Rose, a workaholic border collie. The review then proceeded to its chief complaint – the essential stoicism and humorlessness of both Rose and the entire book. I had not read the book yet, but I did notice in the closing lines of the review a final criticism: “…Katz’s occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration.”

My brow furrowed on cue. I thought Katz had been writing that way for a long time. As long as I’d been reading him, he had been wrestling with the tension between mysticism and logical rationality. I first wrote about it here in 2007. To me, that was the beauty of so much of his work. Far from “clashing”, I felt it represented a willingness to grapple with complexity and paradox. I left a comment to that effect on his post about the review, which spawned an interesting dialogue between author and reader.

I wondered at the time if what we were really talking about was not rationalism or mysticism, but the tension, co-existence and interplay of the two. In his book A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, that tension is prominently on display. In A Good Dog, Katz relates the rational yet crushing decision to euthanize his beloved dog that had become a danger to people, and by extension, every other dog. But the very rationality of that decision honored the mysticism of dogs, and Orson’s own canine nature. In this way, we see that rationality and mysticism aren’t at opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather complementary orientations: Projecting human needs onto dogs and emotionalizing our relationships with them crushes their mystique just as surely as thinking of them as nothing more than meat computers. Rationality, which arguably stems from our instinctual animal natures in the first place, is thus what protects and honors the mystique of those animal natures, by preventing human overreaching. We all emotionalize our animals, at least to some extent. What I appreciate about Katz is that he never allows himself to become really comfortable with it, and he doesn’t allow it to interfere with his animals’ lives.

Anyone who cares deeply about animals, and lives with them closely, is going to have to wrestle with that tension. It’s here that Rose fits in. It seems to me that Rose in a Storm, despite its “occasional forays into doggie mysticism” – and more likely because of them – first and foremost attempts a genuine exploration of the nature of a particular dog, and of the larger canine consciousness. The story’s most powerful actors are canids of some kind -- domesticated, wild, and even apparitional – and those categories are fluid throughout the story. This tale of an extraordinary human-affiliated dog, with one paw still in her wild legacy, lives at the intersection of rational and mystical. But then, doesn’t all of nature?

The result is not a happy-go-lucky doggie tale. It is not goofy or humorous. It is not sentimental, and is at times deeply unsettling. (The narration of the story from the dog’s perspective taps so well into primitive, old-brain consciousness that I had to put it down several times to take a daylong break and re-center my forebrain.) I don’t mean to denigrate the goofy/cuddly/adorable dog genre, or even to suggest that those stories can’t reflect the kind of truth I hold dear. Dogs are often all of those things, and I love that about them, and I love what that does for people. I often love those books. But that’s only a slice of the world of dogs – and a frankly overrepresented one. This is not your ordinary dog book. Rose is much more powerful, and more like whole life, with its moments of darkness and its full complement of feelings.

The notion that "dog lovers" will be the most reliable fans of this book is far too simplistic. Rose is very much Rose in this book, and may not fit the emotional needs of dog enthusiasts accustomed to, as Katz put it, writing their stories on the blank canvasses of dogs. I think the biggest fans of this book will be readers comfortable dipping a toe or two into the realm of myth, who are easy with paradox and complexity, and able to honor what we cannot see and do not know.

Though not at all sentimental, Rose in a Storm is deeply emotional. In that respect the story speaks also to my other deepest interest, the defining personal battle. Anyone who has undergone what Elizabeth Lesser calls a “Phoenix Process” will recognize a familiar arc in Rose’s epic – her struggle through a relentless battering of misfortune and challenge unfolding into a Zen-like surrender to the forces opposing her, near-destruction, recovery, and finally, new growth and peace.

But is it good? you might ask. Of course it’s good, I’ll reply impatiently, with a wave of my hand. Of course it’s entertaining. All of Katz’s books are delightfully and engagingly written. But there is far more to it than that. This work of fiction, by definition not “real,” is nonetheless deeply truthful, because the story takes place on her territory, and not ours. So beware. This story is about Rose, and not what we want or need her to be. This book will place you squarely into her mind and her life. It’s a remarkable place to go, if you have the courage.