Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Irrigation Ditch Runs Through It

It must be springtime in AK: The ravens are courting.

Lately there've been a lot of pair-flights in my neighborhood, little duos of ravens wheeling and dipping over the treetops, flying their swirling, romantic, aerobatic courtship displays, grace on the wing. This is, for me, an unmistakable sign of spring here. Even though I have that brain perversion that makes me think spring happens about the end of January, I think nearly everyone would agree with me that the juice is rising now. There's daylight both on my way to and on my way home from work, I've decreased the heat in my house, and things buried for months in my back yard are starting to emerge from under the snow.

Mind you, at a casual glance, one might be decoyed: It's the season of brown.

Summer here is unrelentingly green, and fall is often gloriously golden. Winter, of course, is white - at least in the daytime - bracketed at dawn and dusk with the most glorious shades of red and gold and peach and violet. But early spring (which in my mind is mid-spring) tends toward brown: the snow is disappearing, but the green-up hasn't started yet. Even MY twisted little brain can't make it look green... yet. That's coming - along with the return of the swans, the swift bullet-flights of the ducks, the evocative calls of the cranes and the haunting songs of loon and grebe. Then my lake will be open water, glimmering in the long light of summer, a thing of peace to be found, always, at the slightest glance out my windows.

I like living on the water. There was a time when I lived literally ON the water, in a boat: a 40-foot 1960 Chris-Craft yacht, to be exact. Now I live more metaphorically on the water, in the sense that my house is situated on a peninsula into a lake. Back in vet school, though, I had to make do with an irrigation ditch.

I lived on a property that had a small acreage, two frontages, several mature apple and cherry trees, a small house, a detached garage (which I rented out to a friend) and an irrigation ditch running through the fenced pasture area. Mind you, this was really quite pleasant and much prettier than it probably sounds. I'll grant you than in the winter the ditch was dry, which wasn't as pretty, but did have one advantage: It allowed my mustang mare to go across the ditch to a part of the pasture that she would not dare approach in the summer. The thoroughbreds would cross at will, fording the fast-flowing water without the slightest concern, but the mustang would not even consider this behavior, no matter which side her best friends and pasture-mates were on.

The down-side of the winter-dry ditch became apparent one day when a trio of adolescent boys came trundling down the ditch, evidently using it as their own personal highway, without regard to property lines or trespassing. They appeared unexpectedly from under the bridge that spanned the ditch where it passed under the adjacent road. I happened to be outside at the time with a classmate, Jean. We were treated to the experience of seeing all three horses in my pasture startle and bolt at the appearance of the boys. They ran down the fence-line, two of them crowding my mustang against the fence. Trapped tight against the wire, she leaped over it into the neighboring pasture, taking down the top wire as she did.

I bolted after the horses, hopping the remaining wire to catch up my mustang and inspect for damage. Jean, who had at one time been a Sheriff's deputy, took several brisk strides toward the ditch, calling in a deep, authoritative voice, "You kids are trespassing! Get off of this property!" It was quite a transformation: Jean is normally soft-spoken and rather gentle in her body language, and all of a sudden she's striding along like a colossus out to bust some heads, and her voice had dropped an octave and risen in volume by a factor of ten. The kids all leaped a half a foot in the air and turned, scrambling, to run back the way they had come.

I never saw them again. Quelle suprise. Not.

Meanwhile, my mustang, blowing and snorting, eyes wide and ears swivelling madly to catch any hint of threat, consented to pause by the far fence of the neighbor's pasture as I approached her. She held her head high and tense, surveying the ditch, but when the boys disappeared under the bridge she dropped her head a little and allowed me to sort through her dense winter coat for the source of the blood I could see streaked against her grey dapples. Nothing too bad: three parallel cuts, not quite full-thickness through her skin. Lucky it wasn't one of the two thin-skinned thoroughbreds, in which case I was fairly certain I'd be doing stitches.

Ah, well. That was the worst of the things that came of having an irrigation ditch run through it.

Most of the time it was rather a delight to have the ditch there. It meant I didn't have to worry about water if I decided to empty out and scrub the stock tank, and it was home to a family of muskrats and one of ducks. It was a delightful thing, of a morning or an evening, to go down and sit by the ditch with my notes and perhaps a cup of coffee, studying and sipping and enjoying the quiet sound of flowing water and the antics of the wildlife... well, sometimes studying and sometimes not. The muskrats would generally disappear when I first arrived, only to venture forth again a few minutes later, after I had failed to do anything frightening. They would swim up and down the ditch, sometimes emerging on the far bank, sometimes paddling along against the current, diving now and again with a little flash of their long bare tails. Once in a while one of the babies would climb out on the bank and huddle there, peering nearsightedly at me and sniffing the air for a while - until my evident boringness caused them to lose interest and they disappeared amongst the grasses on the bank, or slid seamlessly back into the water.

Most of the time, if I was sitting by the ditch, Cassie the mustang mare would come join me. Sometimes she would nuzzle at my coffee cup, attempting to taste the contents, or else sniffing deeply and then turning her upper lip up to funnel the aroma into her nostrils. Sometimes she would riffle softly through my hair with her thick velvety lips, blowing and snuffling gently at my skin, twitching her upper lip side-to-side to give me a companionable scratch. Sometimes she would lay down nearby, taking advantage of my guardianship to have a little lie-down. Sometimes she would simply stand next to me, head drooping companionably to the level of mine, her eyelids half-mast and blinking sleepily. Every once in a while she would poke her nose over my shoulder, peering at my notes and trying to turn the pages with her nose. She was insatiably curious, and relentlessly social - both useful traits for a wild horse, I imagine. Having been caught at approximately a year of age, Cassie had had the lessons of the wild to reinforce her own natural temperament - a lucky thing for me, given the number of times she devised a new means of escaping from the pasture. She was always to be found a few pastures down, visiting the nearest neighbor horses, but the moment I showed up she would turn away from them, bright-eyed with interest, to walk up to me. You could almost see her thinking "Hi! What are YOU doing here? Got anything to eat?"

Most fortunately, I could walk Cassie back home without benefit of halter or rope. All that was necessary was to reach under her throat-latch and pinch about 18 of her mane-hairs between my thumb and forefinger. This seemed sufficient lead by which to convince her to walk home with me, the other horses trailing in her wake. As she was always fascinated with whatever boring thing I was up to - and there was every chance she might be rewarded with food for accompanying me - she was more than willing to walk along home with me. I sometimes wondered what passing motorists thought of this odd little parade: Me (usually dishevelled, having been woken out of a sound sleep at 6 in the morning by some helpful stranger pounding on my door and yelling "Hey! Your horses are out!"; walking at my right shoulder, a sturdy and beautifully dappled grey mare wearing a bright, interested expression but nary a halter nor rope nor anything else; and two chestnut geldings clopping happily along single-file in our wake.

The pasture was a peaceful refuge for me on many an evening when I'd driven my brain hard all day and needed a little mental break before putting it back to work for the evening's studying. Quite often my little old dog Merrik - then 12 years old and missing one eye as a consequence of cancer, but still tough and active and otherwise bursting with health and energy - would accompany me out into the pasture, wandering around and sniffing things, sifting through the feed dishes for stray bits of sweet feed, milling peacefully amongst the horses, all of whom tolerated her presence without the slightest animosity. It was a lovely, restful, soothing ritual, often repeated throughout vet school.

Except for the day Merrik saw the ducks.

Merrik was pathologically fearful of water. Like many dogs, she dreaded being bathed, and spent the entire time attempting to escape the tub (or sink, or wherever I was bathing her). She was a relatively small dog (only 20 pounds) but she had the magical ability to gain twice her usual weight - not to mention several extra limbs - whenever I tried to pick her up to put her in the tub. Outside, she would skirt all but the smallest puddles. She would certainly go up to the irrigation ditch for a drink, but she was careful to place her front feet on the bank where she could balance herself securely without risk of getting wet.

One day, though, while walking around the pasture with me, Merrik happened to notice the duck family on the waters of the irrigation ditch. Well, this is an enticement not to be ignored: There, right in front of her, is a large mallard with four or five babies trailing in her wake. Who could resist chasing that?

Merrik takes off, growling low in her throat, darting at a shallow angle toward the ditch. The duck babies immediately begin paddling rapidly for the far shore. The mother duck begins swimming fast against the current, but hugging the near shore to decoy the dog away from her babies as Merrik (ignoring me as I try to call her off) closes in. At the last minute, the babies all having made the safety of the far bank, the mother duck churns it into overdrive, angling sharply across the water to follow the babies. At the same moment, Merrik - focused now on nothing in life but that duck - makes her leap.

She missed, of course.

The rest was like a cartoon. Merrik, on hitting the dread miasma of (gasp!) water, leaps strait up in the air. It's like watching a rocket launch, spray flying everywhere as she explodes out of the drink. Somehow, about two and a half feet above the surface, she manages to change direction and comes down on the bank rather than falling back into the ditch. This is rather a relief to me, because the laminar flow in the ditches - deceptively smooth and calm on the surface - is swift-flowing and powerful under the surface, capable of drowning adult humans. Apparently the shock of landing in water is enough to completely short-circuit Merrik's brain, and she races madly about the pasture for the next ten minutes, making wide, swift loops and zigzags and barking incessantly the entire time. Meanwhile I laugh helplessly, unable to catch my breath long enough to call her to me to reassure her, and slightly unhinged by the relief of not having my beloved dog sucked into the undertow to her death. The horses look on in bemusement, their heads turning to watch Merrik's progress as she criss-crosses the pasture at top speed. Cassie, excited by the activity, trots a few strides, tossing her head, but then stops again to watch the show.

Eventually Merrik outruns her shock and horror and slows down, and I am able to catch my breath and call her to me. She is panting and muddy, and her one remaining eye is wild with excitement. I take pity on her and decide not to bathe her; instead we hang out under the apple trees until she dries and I brush the mud out of her coat.

Merrik is many years in her grave - she lived to be fourteen, and the four years we had following her diagnosis and treatment for cancer were the best of her life. We did everything together, every fun thing I could think of for a person and a tough little terrier mix dog to do together. I suppose I will always miss her; but I can't help but smile when I think of her. She was the perfect sidekick to me for many years, and (bless her heart) saw me through vet school and into internship. She was everything charming and delightful and engaging and sweet, everything tough and cheerful and good-hearted and adorable a dog could be. She made me laugh more times than I could ever count, and makes me smile to this day whenever I think of her. I don't think I ever saw a dog more conscious of her dignity, yet more willing to abandon it when the opportunity presented itself. I'll have that afternoon always in memory: the sun slanting golden in the late afternoon, the green of the pasture, the muddy brown of the water, dappled with sun... the horses wandering about, copper and smoke drifting over the grass, and my little silver-black dog, racing wild-eyed through the mix, barking hysterically the while.

It might not have been quite as good as having a river run through it.... but the irrigation ditch was a pretty decent substitute.


Holly said...

"I think nearly everyone would agree with me that the juice is rising now."

Indeed. I went to the barn to ride this morning. Between the warm up of the weather and the longer daylight hours, my mare is beginning her shed-out. A small pile of hair to be sure, but more than I had even 2 weeks ago.

Love the story of Merrick, what a character and a blessing to know such dogs.

Holly said...

Ahh, one more thing. I thought of you this evening. My son and beloved almost-daughter-in-law (just love that young woman) were watching The Proposal with Sandra Bullock. It takes place in Alaska, very very beautiful. Made me think of my fav online vet and storyteller.

Dragon43 said...

Once again you bring memories flooding back, a tear to my eye and the feel of Tony, his shoulder sometime bumping me and his breath on my cheek as we walk along the dusty path that was so new to this 17 year old and so familiar to the 21 year old horse who was still eager to show it to me.

Anonymous said...

Your Merrick and my Maxine were evidently cut from the same cloth. Little terrier mixes are the best dogs ever.

MaskedMan said...

Merrick the bat-dog. :-)

You have the magic power to draw real characters to you, and Merrick was their queen. As well as their jester.

When I think back to all the stuff I used to get up to in those irrigation ditches - some deep, some not so deep, but all so *very* dangerous... :-0 Reflecting, I think that sitting and gazing over them with a cup of coffee and a horse over your shoulder is a far, far finer way to enjoy them, as much fun as I had.

AKDD said...

Holly, I LOVE that thing where you start to be able to rip the dead hair out of your horse's coat by the handful. I also loved "The Proposal" - gorgeous setting, and that house...! Thx for saying I'm your fave vet writer, BTW. That's nice to hear. As far as Merrik being a blessing... truer words.

Dragon, Tony sounds like one of the good ones. I just love an experienced old horse who knows how it's done and is willing to show you.

Anissa, I'm with you... love those littler terrier crosses. Is there anything more charming?

Okay, MM. You have to dish. WHAT exactly WERE you doing in the irrigation ditches?

Della said...

I lived it... again... Thanks so much for stories that come alive! Great horse, great dog, great writer! (and great vet, I'm certain)

PS. Sometimes the captcha words are so funny... "pooporsh" on this one... lol

AKDD said...

Thanks, Della! My favorite stories are the ones where they come alove... where just for a minute you feel the chill air on your own face, or smell the bitter-sharp tang of leaf mould underfoot.... just love that. I'm very flattered to think I've managed this feat.

Okay, I have to ask... what's a "captcha" word...?

Della said...

Captcha... I think it's called that, at least some places. The word verification thingy that makes sure it's a human leaving a comment. Sometimes they're just funny.

AKDD said...

Ah, I get you. Oddly enough, I've noticed that myself from time to time. I wonder how they're generated...? Random letters? Bored computer geeks? Trained monkeys trying to write Shakespeare?

MaskedMan said...

Hmmm. Ditches.

Well, you know all those times I'd vanish for 12, 14 hours, or longer? Out poking around the countryside by myself, or with friends.

Often, I just crossing the ditches back and forth, to get to intersting places. Wet *or* dry. Sometimes I was riding my bige down into them - not only were they like highways to places the roads don't go, but they also made pretty awesome half pipes. I was BMX Extreme *long* before anyone ever thought to call it a 'sport!' And I was doing it on a bike with a banana seat and a sissy bar! :-D Or a crusier, or later, on a tall touring bike. Came home bleeding more than a few times...

Sometimes I was just swimming in the wet ditches. Occasionally, I'd get in fights with the neighborhood boys... Benny, or Roy, or whomever. Sometimes in the ditches; again, wet or dry.

Hell, if something had gone badly wrong, there'd have been half the county to search, 'cause most often, NO ONE knew where the hell I was. Atop Horsetooth resevoir dam, or climbing its face? In the arroyos and drywashes among the Front Range lower slopes ? In the wheat fields, or down in the ditches? Wherever my mood struck me, that's where I was.

CottonLady said...

Ah, such memories! I married a cotton farmer that row irrigated. I had lived in Colorado awhile and loved to sit by the streams-well, if I sat on the water pipe and closed my eyes I could 'hear' the mountain stream. So refreshing and calming. Thanks for your story-it was. It made me think 'Spring' might come one of these days.