1 July

Rose And Red: A Tale Of Two Dogs

by Jon Katz
Rose
Rose

Almost every powerful animal story has two elements to begin with, loss and gain. Animals are not like us, they do not live as long, they come and they go, they come as they wish, they leave when they are done. In our arrogance, we struggle to accept this, we are always shocked when they go, disbelieving. What, I wonder, did we think would happen?  That they will live forever because we wish for it to be so, and because we need them? In our world, we have no respect for death, so death makes us respect it. For any animal love story, for every animal gained, there is an animal lost.

Many people write me wondering about Rose and Red, comparing them, wonder what I see as their similarities, their differences.  Most people tend to think they are much alike, because both are so competent. But that is not so. They are quite different. Rose died more than a year ago, Red has been with me about a year. They are alike only in that they are both remarkable animals, possessed of great strength, intelligence, loyalty and focus. They are both creatures of great heart. But they were really nothing alike.

Rose and Red came to me at different times in my lives, there was different breeding,  different needs, different environments, different things for them to react to. When Rose came to Bedlam Farm – she was in New Jersey first for several months – I was in chaos, bewildered, enthralled and overwhelmed by running a 90-acre farm with sheep and donkeys and goats and steers, four barns, paths in the woods, a beautiful old farmhouse. Rose sensed this void and filled it. She had lots of decisions to make, plenty of work to do. In terms of intellect, she grew and grew, her mind had a chance to learn and grow.

Rose was brave almost to the point of being reckless, throwing herself at belligerent rams, combative ewes, wandering cows, coyotes. She seemed to find her focus in watching me, accompanying me, and protecting me. She saved my life more than once, extricated me from many messes, kept order. Rose took responsibility for the entire farm, she watched every inch of it, noticed when anything was new, amiss, in need of attention.

Rose never slept in my bed, or even in my bedroom. It was a year or so before I even found her sleeping spot, the guest bed above down the hall in the farmhouse (photo above). Mostly, she moved from window to window at night, watching for lambs, coyotes, disturbances, escaped animals. She kept going up and down the stairs for better views. When something was up, she came to the side of my bed and got me up and moving. Red sleeps on the floor beside me, he could not get any closer.

Rose kept watch on the entire farm. If I lost a key or cell phone, I would re-trace my steps and Rose would go to it, every time. She had a map of the farm in her head. Red has no interest in finding my cellphone, he would never notice a key on the ground, his interests are the sheep and me, in that order, and he does a good job of herding us. They both were extremely intelligent, quick to learn.

Rose was not a loving dog in many ways, even though she had a great heart. She did not want or need attention and affection. As frightened, distracted and confused as I was, Rose made me feel safe and accompanied, although she never substituted for human companionship for me, she was too remote, so businesslike. She hated cuddling or cute dog talk, did not go near the people who offered that to her, or tried to bribe her with treats. People can be overly familiar with strange dogs, Rose did not permit it. She hated bookstores, crowds, strange people coming up to her. She had no friends in vet’s offices, and when people came up to her and saw “awwww, pupppy,” she growled and walked away. I loved her for that.

She was a determined and undeterrable dog,  a tremendous force in my getting through the first winters in one piece, it is hard for me to imagine surviving without her. Nothing frightened her, she never quite a job. As I became more organized, as the farm took shape, as I confronted my problems, as I understood how to manage it safely, as Maria came into my life, Rose seemed to fade, lose her purpose, and then, she got sick. We could never figure out precisely what was wrong with her, she just withered. She had taken some terrible poundings over the years – torn up by barbed wire, run over by ATV’s, worn by miles and miles of running through tall grass and brush, pounded and butted by sheep and rams, kicked by donkeys.

She was ready to leave, I could see it. My love for her was profound, but also respectful. I could say we were very close, yet in some ways you could not get that close to Rose, she didn’t permit it. Yet I was the center of her universe, her purpose, and she never failed me.

Red has less courage than Rose in a way, although he is also very businesslike and not distractable. He is not  about heroics, he is not dramatic. He will sit and watch while sheep plow into me, it is not his business, he doesn’t even seem to notice when I am sprawled on the ground, it has nothing to do with his herding sheep.  Rose never let an animal come up behind me or knock me down, not more than once.  She often anticipated danger – animals rushing towards me – she always intervened. She always had my back, and this gave me considerable confidence with animals in the pasture.

Out of the pasture, Red is many of the things Rose was not. He is my pal, my companion, my shadow, he is always near me, we are always together, he wants to go everywhere, anytime.  Rose never liked the car, had no interest in making friends in hardware stores or farm stands, she was only at ease watching her farm, taking care of the sheep and keeping an eye on me. It was love, for sure, just expressed in a different way.

Rose was a farm dog, not really a herding dog. When I got here, I was new to sheep and herding. Rose became popular – she was on the cover of several of my books and videos and photos of her on the blog were widely seen. But that wasn’t the case at first.  Some elements in the border collie world were upset at the way I trained her, and she was frequently attacked – along with me –  on some websites, in some book reviews and magazine articles. The videos quieted her critics. I understand why some people are bothered by me, but I have never quite grasped why people would attack a dog. She was only doing what she was asked to do and trained to do.

Red was well-bred and well-trained as a herding dog, and also as a trialing dog, he is whistled trained, hand and voice trained. He even responds to whispers. He moves precisely and responsively. He had a wonderful breeder.  I have done some work with Red, he needs slowing down sometimes and can come on too strong, but I could never have trained him to that degree. Rose and I figured things out together, we had an effective but decidedly hybrid style of working together, I was never big on the formal herding commands but we understood one another and she always got the job done.  Instead of “come bye,” I would yell “get the damned sheep,” and it seemed to work.

Red is the most responsive and eager-to-please dog I have known. He is also the most trusting, Rose trusted me, but not too many others. Red trusts everybody.

If Rose needed little in the way of human affection and attention, Red cannot get enough of it. He seems to love everyone, happy to be noticed, talked to, cuddled. He loves it when people say “awww, puppy,” he melts right into the ground.

I have often said you get the dog you need. The dog, if he or she is instinctive and alert, becomes what you want them to become, what you need them to become, that is what they do, why they survive and prosper in our world. And when they become what we need, we pretend it was all their idea. They are mirrors, they reflect who we are at different points, they show us what we are like, what we want. Rose sensed what I needed, and so does Red. In that sense, they are much alike.

Isn’t it strange how love works, such different dogs, I loved (love) each of them fiercely. My wish for Rose when she died is the same, then and now. I hope she is not awaiting me over any bridge, I hope she is running in golden fields, sheep to the horizon, running and running without ever getting tired. If Red makes it over the bridge, he will be the heavenly therapy dog, greeting everyone who comes across.

I am so lucky to have loved and known these two remarkable creatures, and I celebrate their differences, each great in their own way.

1 July

Dreams And Reality: What I Am, Not What I Want

by Jon Katz
Who I Am
Who I Am

I am haunted sometimes by dreams and their grip on me and my imagination, on their impact on other people, on their place in our lives. Dreams are so important. They are so dangerous. They can be so misleading and elusive. They can be so selfish and self-absorbing. I am especially concerned with the difference between dreams and reality, and the painful realization that the most important dreams are not about what I want, where I go, what I buy.

They are about who I am. They are internal, not external, they are selfless, not narcissistic, they are difficult and complex to sort out and face. They have more to do with truth and reality than they do with heroics, acquisitions and adventures. In a way I have been writing about dreams for years. Running to the mountain. Buying Bedlam Farm. Searching for love. Conquering fear. Living with animals. Finding courage and strength in the beautiful mountains.

One of the dangerous things about sharing dreams is that one can so easily manipulate people, especially people who are struggling with their lives and work, disconnected from nature, frustrated in their lives. It is always simple to find people who will tell you to do what you want and praise you for it. Your dreams become their dreams, and writers are inherently manipulative people, it is so easy to present yourself as heroic, brave, fearless and determined. People love dreams that are implausible, beyond reach, too expensive, challenging. If they can’t have them, they can live through yours. They love dreams so much that they sometimes support them blindly, as I came to do.

Dreams can be as false as they can be inspiring.

More and more, my dreams became questions.

Is it noble to want things I don’t need and buy things I can’t afford?

Do dreams promote narcissism and self-absorption, the idea that everything I do is

noble and worthwhile?

Are dreams that pulled me away from human connection really noble and admirable?

What is the line between dreams and reality, things that are worth pursuing, things that are not?

Which is nobler, to pursue what you want, or to understand who you are, even if it often means not getting what you want?

Is is nobler to live your life, or to leave it behind?

I have a friend who decided to pursue his dream at all costs, sailing across the South Seas in a sailboat, even though it meant leaving his family, buying a boat he couldn’t afford, side-tracking a career he had worked hard to built. Everywhere he went, he was hailed as a hero, some people gave him money, he got letters urging him on, telling him how brave and wonderful he was. It is easy to find people who will cheer you on your dreams, harder to find people who will challenge you. I cheered him. Follow your heart. Find your bliss.  My friend came to believe his dreams.  A year later, the boat was gone, damaged in a storm, and so was his marriage, the trust of his children, all of the money he had gotten, and his career.  His amen chorus was gone too, off on another dream chase. Was this dream noble, worth pursuing? I don’t know, he will have to decide that for himself. Was it noble? I don’t think so, any more than I was.

This is close to my heart as I spent a lifetime pursuing dreams. My cabin. My farm. A life with animals. Photography was a dream, too, in many ways and so was writing. When Ieft my family to live on Bedlam Farm, I was hailed as a hero, in interviews, e-mails, letters. People sent me more gifts than I could store, TV crews came from all over the country to ask me about my brave life, they made a movie about me.

But it wasn’t so simple. My dream was beautiful, powerful, very destructive. Like my friend, it ended my marriage, took my money, left me alone and surrounded by all sorts of enablers who helped me delude myself about my life long past reason. Those dreams are gone, I am happier than I have ever been, and, I hope, more honest. My life is real, it is not a dream. It is good, it is not a crisis or a drama. There are no heroics in it, unless you consider living a life a brave thing.

So what is the point?  It is this, really, dreams are beautiful, dreams are wonderful, my heart stirs at the very mention of dreams. But dreams and reality often conflict, collide. The people who tell you how wonderful you are are not always your friends. Your real friends might try to tell you things you don’t want to hear, and listening to them is painful and difficult. But important.

I see dreams differently now, especially as so many dreams I never even thought of or pursued have come true for me. Dreams are not about what I buy or where I go.  They are not about being heroic, taking risks, living a disconnected and fragmented life. They are sometimes those things for sure, but for me, the most significant dream was inside of me. It was about learning who I am. Learning to see reality. Living within the boundaries of a life I can sustain. Standing in my truth. Finding out who I am. Finding human connection, and love, and yes, living in nature, living with animals.  I don’t need to be heroic or brave. I don’t need to dream impossible dreams, I don’t need a life that requires the support of other people.

The most powerful dream for me was one I wasn’t aware of. A meaningful life  is about honesty and simplicity, love and connection, peace and contentment. You need to know where you are in life and who you are. For me, this is the most powerful dream of them all. And I don’t need anything but my own mind and soul to chase it, day and night, everywhere I go.

 

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