When she adopted Ari, an exotic Jindo dog, Kathryn Miles steeled herself for the usual disruptions that come with a new puppy. But she didn’t realize how transformative her relationship with Ari would be. As the two of them began to explore the outdoors together, walking through the forest near their Maine log cabin, she realizes that a dog sees the world quite differently from a person (for starters, he or she is much closer to the ground)—and that looking at things from Ari’s point of view was a way to truly take in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
Determined to let Ari lead the way and live life on her own terms, she set some basic ground rules, then took the leash off her dog and the blinders off her own eyes. In this memoir, she recounts the experience. She and Ari explore a backyard landscape of grass, mud, snow, trees, and the occasional fox. They find the scent of a northern wind, the footprints of a startled raccoon, and other secrets of the natural world. The puppy’s free-spirited outlook teaches Kathryn to see more when she might otherwise have seen less, while adding a certain excitement and clarity of vision. Soon, Kathryn begins to give up control and know the world as Ari does.
Adventures with Ari makes compelling reading for dog lovers as well as anyone who’s been out and about in the woods. Like most projects of discovery, this process forces Kathryn to uncover much more than the physical—it allows important insight to her thoughts and feelings and her relationship with her entire family, all thanks to a puppy named Ari.
“Some discover nature through gardening, others through camping, and a rare few—such as Kathryn Miles—by gripping the end of a leash as the family dog reveals the great outdoors.” —Hannah Holmes, author of The Well Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself
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Spring. In ancient Greece, this was the time when Persephone would rise out of Hades to decorate fields with wildflowers and new wheat. It's when members of the Bear Tribe in Washington State say good-bye to the white buffalo of winter and greet what they call "the season of clarity and illumination" by burning tobacco and blessing gardens with cornmeal. In Celtic mythology, the start of spring is called Imbolc, or "in milk." The season ushers out Faoilleach — the wolf month — and the world is reborn as a young bride brimming with her own fertility. I can think of no better time for me and Ari to embrace our new project than this, when the whole world seems filled with hope.
Even the stars are aligned for us. The Chinese New Year began recently, ushering in with it the year of the dog. Dog years (which occur one in every twelve) are ruled by compassion and attention to family; these years are further divided by the four elements. This year — the first in sixty — the element will be fire. According to Chinese astrologers, this means that compassion and kin will be flavored with a particular vivacity and emphasis on intense activity. I take this to be a positive omen for me and my fiery little dog.
Closer to home, we are beginning to see the usual commercial signs of the new season. Cartoonish Easter bunnies and daffodils grace bakery packaging and school windows. The local classical music station seems to play nothing but Vivaldi's "Spring" over and over again. That's okay — we're ready for it. Eager, even.
These visual and cultural markers exist for a reason, and they tap into a primitive, almost instinctual response to the natural world. As the Northern Hemisphere again tilts toward the sun and the ground begins to warm, our energy returns. So, too, does our food. Both mean that chances for reproduction improve as well. It's a great time to have — or be — a kid, whether that kid has two legs or four or a hundred. It's also a perfect opportunity to act like one. Pop-culture motifs like egg-bearing rabbits are a good reminder of that fact. So are the lengthening days and shrinking snow piles.
Bolstered by ages of tradition and a newly balanced planet, Ari and I determine to begin our experiment this week, and we couldn't be more excited. The pup has been a part of our family for nearly two months now. For the most part, we're starting to get adjusted. Greg and I have given ourselves over to sleepless nights and a constant process of washing towels and blankets. We have learned the sound of the puppy's different cries and what they might mean. We understand, at least in part, the trials of new parents. We also feel some of their joy.
Perhaps most importantly, we are establishing something that almost looks like a daily routine. Each day, Ari wakes us up around three or four in the morning by yowling like a creature ten times her size; we take her outside to pee, then she gets to nestle at the foot of the bed for an hour or two until we wake up for real. After that, it's a walk, breakfast, nap, walk, lunch, nap, walk, dinner, walk, and (some) sleep.
At least, that's what it is on paper. Like any good artist, though, Ari understands the virtues of improvisation. Sometimes lunch needs to come right after breakfast, especially if I've left an English muffin unattended on the coffee table. Sometimes getting outside for walks just isn't part of her plan, especially if there is any paper to chew. Earlier this week, she decided to change our protocol when I raced home in between meetings to let her outside. We romped in the yard for fifteen minutes without a bathroom break. Nothing. I hooked her to her leash and took her to her favorite places for peeing. Nothing. Finally, late for my next appointment and wondering if she really even had to pee, I brought her back inside. The minute she was off her leash, she raced into the living room and squatted. I swore she was smirking as she did.
It's easy to write about these little acts of creativity with bemused detachment, but when they happen, they can really be frustrating. I keep trying to remind myself that they contain a lesson — a kind of Taoist gift of reflection that I ought to appreciate. Here is an opportunity to learn patience and to be reminded what it is to be a child. It's difficult, though. Especially since, in truth, I'm no more formally Taoist than Ari is. Still, I continue to believe it's a valuable lesson when I can remember to view it as such. Most importantly, it's a reminder that I'm supposed to be restructuring my life to make time for such moments.
Spring, then, represents the opportunity for a new existential approach. And why not? We have literary and cultural antecedent for such a choice. Plus, we have all this new sunlight and temperatures in the upper twenties — downright balmy by our standards.
I tell Ari that it's time: to turn over a new leaf, to become real canine naturalists.
Time, also, to get down to the brass tacks of our project.
I am beginning with a basic hypothesis: Like most dogs, Ari maintains an enviable relationship with the natural world. She is closer to the ground, to the uncivilized world, to the genetic makeup of the critters leaving tracks in my snowy yard. Her species has evolved with eyesight capable of spotting prey in a heartbeat — particularly at dawn or dusk — or making sense of smells as if they were a Zagat's guide to nature. She can find routes in the forest I would otherwise miss. She knows what animals have walked a path before us, along with details like their sex, health, and age. With such skills, she can be my ambassador to the natural world and reveal more than any printed page. I've already seen this happen a hundred times in our yard. I firmly believe it will happen a thousand more, particularly if we commit to a year of this kind of inquiry. But how to go about it?
I begin with location. Our house — a small log cabin — is located at an appealing crossroads where nature meets culture. It is abutted by a long dirt road called Stagecoach that, despite its humble appearance, is far from your average gravel thoroughfare. A hundred years ago, Stagecoach Road was one of the major routes in the state of Maine. It once carried Henry David Thoreau up north, where he would gather the research needed for his book The Maine Woods. John James Audubon was said to wander this way with his canine companion — a giant Newfoundland — by his side. When they and countless others passed this way, they were traveling through a real hub. At that time, our town served as an important hinterland for the mid-coast ports, and it was filled with dozens of farms, creameries, schools, and taverns. As the years progressed, industries changed, taking the dairy boom farther south. Then the Great Depression struck, taking many residents farther west. Houses were abandoned and eventually crumbled in on themselves, leaving only errant cellar holes and cultivated fields that were slowly reclaimed by the forest.
In response to the Depression and its diaspora, the town leaders organized their own version of the Civilian Conservation Corps and planted thousands of pine trees where the dairy farms once stood. Lumber, swore the town elders, was much more reliable than money in the bank. Foster it, and you'll foster economic stability for the town.
The plan worked — at least in part. Pine telephone and electrical poles, once part of our forest, now stretch from here to Turkey. And the hundreds of acres that were once the town center persist as thick coniferous groves. As for the once famous dirt road, it's currently more recreational than functional, providing routes for snowmobiles and hikers instead of cream trucks and transcendentalists. In short, nature has returned, reclaiming much of the land and leaving only hidden clues about what had come before.
That's good news and bad for the people of this small inland community. Population numbers here have never recovered from their peak in the early twentieth century, and it shows. We have little infrastructure and not much more than a handful of persistent hardscrabble farms alongside smaller residential plots like mine. Ours is a modest village, both in terms of appearance and resource. But it is also one in possession of what few American towns can claim: a wide expanse of publicly held forest accessible by anyone who cares to. Does that help our community pay its tax bills? Not really. But it certainly offers metaphysical perks for its residents.
The town forest will serve as the official classroom for our project. There, Ari will eventually be able to run off leash if we choose, and we will have plenty of uninterrupted space for play and exploration and even contemplation. You couldn't ask for a better location really.
Of course, the real success of this project depends less on the forested landscape and more on my willingness to hand over control. I have resolved that this tiny toddler of a puppy will make most major decisions for us. She will dictate the pace of our walks, the amount of time spent outside, the daily topics with which we might concern ourselves. For my part, I will not feel pressed for time; I will not impart my sense of getting and spending. William Wordsworth is right: The world is too much with us.
Ari doesn't know about my personal revelation or the centuries of vernal myth and local history backing my decisions. Still, she has learned that the appearance of my hiking boots signals a trip outside, and that's exciting enough for a three-month-old dog. So, too, are the new promises I've made. Already they've meant extra long walks and fewer baths. Both appeal greatly to the pup, as does the increased time we play outside.
And why not? This is a dog who desperately wants to be outside. More than that, she needs to be out. A member of the Canidae family, she shares her DNA with wolves, coyotes, foxes, dingoes, and jackals. All are omnivores, capable of wearing down their prey over long distances or undertaking protracted scavenging missions. All are also digitigrades, meaning they walk on their digits (fingers and toes) but not on the soles of their hands and feet. This physiology allows them to lengthen their strides while remaining efficient movers. Meanwhile, their brains are programmed to spend the better part of their day seeking food — a mental challenge that keeps them from getting bored or restless, so long as they are moving. Ari's ancestors thought nothing of traveling up to fifty miles a day, and then waking up and doing it all over again.
They are not alone. Regardless of breed or species, all Canidae were built for physical work, and their bodies expect to get it. The irony, of course, is that few dogs do. In the United States alone, there are fifty-two million domestic dogs; the overwhelming majority of them are pets or "companion" animals who have their food handed to them pre-killed and processed. At best, many of them get a quick walk or two a day. That's a real problem for any animal with the pent-up energy of a coyote or jackal, neither of whom we want lounging around our living rooms while we're gone at work. Still, we love our domesticated canines, and so we try to accommodate them in our busy schedules with varying degrees of success. This is often not an adequate substitute for a wild existence — at least by the dog's way of thinking.
Life in my house is no exception. Ari has the boundless energy of others in her family and genus — and then some. Half of her genetic pool — the husky — is legendary for unfathomable endurance. Sled dogs run upward of a hundred miles a day, and the elite of their breed tackle the annual eleven-hundred-mile Iditarod race, continuously running at speeds of fourteen miles an hour for ten days straight. The other half of her gene pool is no less active. An article in the Los Angeles Times — one of the only published pieces on jindos in all of North America — warns that this primitive breed is known for an ability hunt independently over a range that can include hundreds of miles, sometimes running at speeds as fast as thirty-five miles per hour. Jindos possess a cat-like agility that allows them to leap six feet in the air, and if an obstacle (like a fence or a wall) is too high to jump over, they scale it.
In other words, this puppy is definitely not a stay-inside dog.
As if to prove her lineage, on this bright Sunday morning Ari dances crazily around my feet, stopping only to chew on my fingers when I try to lace up my hiking boots. Today is the first official day of our project, and my plan is to commence it with a short expedition in the town forest: just an hour or so out in the sun and snow, then we can return to the warmth of the house and the work I must complete before my classes tomorrow. I mistakenly assumed that the hour would mostly be spent somewhere other than the foyer of our house. My canine teacher obviously has other ideas.
Just shy of four months old, Ari is small — about fifteen pounds — and her proportions remain infant- round. One of her ears stands up wolfishly; the other flops over like the RCA dog's. None of this, however, makes her any less of an opponent when it comes to getting things done. Ari's teeth are still the temporary ones allotted to baby animals — jagged little numbers that pierce the skin with little effort. They hurt. A lot. As she bites at my hands, I pick her up and set her on the floor near the kitchen table, wrongly thinking that she will stay seated there. She doesn't, of course. Instead, she springs up again and beats me back to where my other boot rests, eager to continue complicating my attempts at getting dressed and tumbling over our other shoes in the process.
I try reasoning with her and am rewarded with a play-growl and more pouncing. I suggest that this is not helpful. She gives an even bigger, goofier gurgle: Come on, silly! We're having a ton of fun, right?
"You may be, but I'm not," I correct aloud, as if to cure the puppy of her naïveté. My response rouses Greg in his office upstairs. His voice wafts down, asking playfully if everything is okay. I assure him that it is — I am in perfect control. My voice belies this assertion. It also prompts Ari to offer an even bigger play-growl, then to topple over onto her back like a clumsy bug. She looks first alarmed and then pleased with this inadvertent floor show, and soon tries it again for the amusement of us both before ducking for cover under a chair.
Like just about any mammalian toddler, this baby dog is nothing short of a rolling ball of contradictions. She vacillates between fierce and terrified with a speed that would dizzy an Olympic ping-pong player. Also like other kids her age, she clowns and tests limits and seeks maternal security all in a single instant. Her attention span is limited to a few bursting seconds; her confidence is as much predicated on mine as it is anything else. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, then, that biting shoelaces, clamoring to go outside, and flopping onto the foyer tile are all equally interesting to her right now.
Further complicating her child-like tendencies is Ari's life before moving into our house. Animal behaviorists tell us that a puppy's cognition begins in the womb and reaches its first crucial peak at around twelve weeks. What happens along the way has a lot to do with how that dog views — and responds to — the world. Puppies birthed by mothers under a fair amount of stress can exhibit more timidity and emotionality. Those who spend their first weeks without a lot of human contact can grow to be fearful or at least unsure of humans and what they want. Both factors can affect things like trainability, ease of entering domestic life, and ability to bond with a caregiver.
From what we know of Ari's life at the shelter, her early days were far from a doggy Head Start program. Prior to our arrival, she had never left the four-foot-by-four-foot enclosure that was home to her litter. Once they were weaned from their mom, the only contact they had with other creatures was their time together as siblings and the occasional attention of an overworked shelter employee. They had never been inside a house or on any surface other than concrete, nor had they been given the space to distinguish between where they slept and where they pooped. Factor in the DNA of her two primitivebreed parents (both of whom were under plenty of shelter-induced stress during conception and pregnancy), and what we have is something a whole lot like a feral dog on our hands.
Does this affect our feelings about Ari? Only insofar as it makes us want to love her all the more. We want to give Ari the kind of affection and security she should have had from the moment she was born. We would probably want this for any animal who had endured such an experience, but it doesn't hurt that this particular one is beyond adorable in just about everything she does. Like other infant dogs, Ari is a perfect example of Mother Nature's warranty program: She is just too cute in her boxiness, her floppy ear, her curious blue eyes to elicit a reaction other than love, particularly at times like this, when she wags a little puppy tail from under the nearby chair. Momentarily suspending my project to get my hiking boots laced, I reach down and stroke her tawny coat — more fleece than fur — and am rewarded with a warm lick of my palm. Sheer bliss.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Adventures With Ari"
Copyright © 2009 Kathryn Miles.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Getting Started - [march],
On Whelps and Wolves - [april],
The Great Chain - [may],
The Ties That Bind - [june],
A Walk in the Park? - [july],
Grief - [august],
The New Transcendentalists - [september],
I Wanna Be Just Like You - [october],
Food for Thought - [november],
Lost Dog Reward - [december],
In My Backyard - [january],
Final Exam - [february],
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Feel good story that makes me want to tightly hug all of my furry friends
This is both a joyful and inspiring read ( albeit a bit graphic in parts)! It causes one to stop and indeed 'smell the roses' and reassess the true influences and priorities in ones life. BRAVO, Ms. Miles!!