When I inherited a pure black Lab puppy a few years ago, I wasn’t sure if I was blessed or cursed. She was my faithful companion, whose greatest joy was to accompany me on my walks., But as she got bigger, I rarely got to see any wildlife anymore, unless it was hanging freshly dead from her jaws, before being laid at my feet for approval.
“Do you have to kill?” I would scold her. But what is the use of criticizing an instinct? Besides, a part of me recalled my ancestors, for whom, in some seasons, that squirrel or groundhog might have made the difference between eating or going hungry.
Though we lived only a mile from town, Katy and I could start out my back door and walk 10 miles without crossing a single road. We had our regular rest stops, which she patiently indulged me. One favorite was an Indian burial site on top of a cone-shaped hill overlooking Mill Creek Valley. Here I would sit on a mound of rocks and pet her sleek black coat. I would tell her there wasn’t a dog in the whole country as lucky as she.
Rested, we would follow a chain of such hills to a high ridge where the Mill Creek and South Branch valleys join. We could see Johnson’s Run flowing into Mill Creek and Mill Creek flowing into the South Branch, waters that would eventually join with the Potomac along the Maryland border, and finally empty into Chesapeake Bay. “What a blessing to live upriver from the cities,” I’d tell Katy, reminding myself, as well, that such unobstructed views were becoming exceedingly rare.
Katy wasn’t always a hunter. Sometimes it was her herding instinct that was activated. For example, further along our walk, on top of Gap Mountain, there’s a herd of wild goats. Formerly domesticated, they have recovered, over a series of generations, their independence from ropes and fences. I love to observe these intelligent animals, but they are wary and generally spot me before I can get close. With Katy along, however, it was another story. With a whirl of black energy, her belly low to the ground, she circled the goats, as the billies in turn instinctively formed a protective circle around the ewes and kids. With each pass, Katy brought that swirling mass of reclaimed wildlife closer and closer to me, until l could see the whites of their eyes.
Tired of her game, it was Katy’s turn to rest. From the top of Gap Mountain, in one direction we could see town, looking like an anthill. Then, turned the other way, we could overlook 20 miles of rural and wild scenery, all the way to Old Fields, the valley’s first community. It was a view worth all the more because it took some climbing, some sweat, to have it.
Once I said to Katy, as we watched the hawks circling around Baker Rocks on the adjacent mountain chain: “I hear that West Virginia is dropping its slogan, ‘Wild and Wonderful.’ People think ‘wild and wonderful’ is degrading now, uncivilized. I guess next to go will be our state motto: ‘Mountaineers are always free.'”
When her wild side was activated, Katy was stubbornly true to it, as in those hours one winter morning when she held a deer at bay up and down a hundred yards of Mill Creek, and finally, over my shouting protests, brought it down. Or her instincts could express themselves more tenderly, as in the time she brought the fawn home by the scruff of its neck and covered it with her blanket as if she were its mother.
Katy explored life in every direction that was available to her, and, unfortunately, one that wasn’t—the direction of town. Town was her forbidden fruit, and straight to the leash she went if she ventured that way. But meanwhile she had discovered a whole new world, with dogs and cats and people aplenty; and even two weeks on a leash could not make it clear to her why she shouldn’t enjoy such abundance.
Twice she got picked up, but both times she returned home a few days later with crazed eyes and dragging a loose rope. So a few weeks ago, when she disappeared again, I was hopeful that she would turn up as before. But with each passing day, then week, I knew the chances grew remote, and now, most likely, non-existent.
I tried to tell her, “Katy, we don’t live in a primitive world now, but this country life is good, do you understand? If you get too infatuated with town, you’re going to end up inside a fence or on the end of a rope. Forever.”
Sometimes when I’m walking, maybe resting on the Indian burial ground, I think about what surely is her more limited life, perhaps tied up in someone’s barn, or watchdog on a chain, or even a house dog. I suppose she makes the best of it, though I suppose, too, she remembers her open field life of the past, those long walks we took through all eternity. I suppose she suffers.