My dog Finn is a 14-year-old black lab mix with a broken front leg. He was born that way under my ex-mother-in-law’s front porch. Either in the womb or during labor, his left front paw was broken all the way backwards, so that it forms a v-shaped fin – hence his name. I used to crawl under the porch and feed him baby food, because he couldn’t push his way in with the other 10 puppies a stray dog aptly named Mama Dog had produced.
Finn was born just three months before my daughter Cassie. I didn’t know at the time that I was about to adopt a newborn. They’ve grown up together. Now she’s a feisty teenager and he is a gentle old man. As a young dog, his back legs were so strong that he was the only one of my dogs who could jump over the fence. He could run as fast on three legs as any dog I’d ever seen on four.
But I never thought he’d live to see 14. A few weeks before we moved to the farm, he seemed near death. In fact, he went out in the side yard and with his one front paw dug himself a hole and lay in it. The vet said sometimes dogs do dig their own grave.
But he lived through the move, and once he got to walk around the farm, he seems to have decided he is going to stay a while. Every morning we walk to the far pasture, maybe an eighth of a mile each way. We walk along the field where the cows are grazing. My miniature collie mix Ashley crawls under the fence and herds the cows, ecstatic to finally have the job she was born for. My grouchy terrier Max rolls in cow poop. And Finn hops along beside me.
At first I thought I shouldn’t let him walk so far, since he has to flop down and rest six or seven times over the course of the walk. But I realized that he lives for this walk and that he might as well live to the fullest for the time he has left.
Past the pasture, we climb down to the creek. Lipscomb Branch is only about six inches deep in most places, flowing over and under big flat boulders, shaded by willows and sweet gum and white oak trees. In the morning the sun sparkles on the creek and the wind riffles the branches so the shade flickers on the water like the quick small fish beneath.
Finn plops down in the middle of the creek, lets the water flow around him. He’ll lie there for a couple of minutes, cooling down and resting.
Walks are better with a three-legged dog. While he is resting, I look around. I slow down in a way I normally would not. That’s how I saw the fish (I need to find out if they are endangered Cherokee or Etowah darters). That’s how I saw the mating turtles, floating vertically belly to belly. That’s how I saw the blue heron rise from the small pond further up the creek.
Time itself slows down and everything becomes more vivid. When the flock of pigeons takes off from the roof of the barn, the flap of their wings is a loud whumph of feather on feather. The flock rises and swoops like a musical notation scrawled across the air, different every time.
I look at plants close up. In the morning they are wet and catch the sun. The barnyard grass is grainy and lush like miniature stalks of wheat. The long seedy bristles of the foxtail look like furry caterpillars. Even the thistles and nettles glisten. I remember as a child looking at plants this closely, but no time since then. I remember as a child having the same impulse to gather and glean, the same sense of abundance.
I looked up some of the names of the plants I didn’t know. Those seedy pods of purple flowers are called ladysthumb. The tiny white flowers along the creek are called catchweed bedstraw. It seems important to know the names of the plants, just as it seems important to know the names of the people who once lived here. To name something is to say that it matters.
Everything isn’t pretty on the farm. There are piles of cow shit in various stages, from fresh to dessicated. It’s interesting, though, how air and rain and sun and time clean everything. There are fifty cows and it doesn’t stink. Except when my dog Max rolls in the fresh cow patties.
Finn and I are not in a hurry. We both know that our time will run out. Nothing seems more important, though, than this. If we had one day left, this is what we would do. Be here.