Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


Citizen Wiley

THIS IS A STORY OF MONTANA but without horses and cows. The romance of place is not its subject. It will contain no comparisons to Paris in the twenties or Tangier during the era of Paul Bowles. A river doesn’t run through it. The horses and cows belong to other people’s Montana stories, not mine; place itself, not the romance of place, is what I want to evoke; and though rivers have in fact been extremely important to my own life in Montana, they aren’t the point here. Most of the state’s landscape consists of mountains and wide valleys and sage-covered hillsides and high plains transected by long empty stretches of two-lane blacktop, true enough, but this story takes place in town. Its moral, if it has one, is probably “You never know where you’re going until you’ve been there quite a while.” Its central character is a large gray dog of indeterminate lineage and advanced age. But he doesn’t make his entrance until later.

Thirty-three years ago I arrived in Montana in a Volkswagen bus, into which was crammed most of what I owned, or anyway most of what seemed to me valuable: a fishing rod, a Smith-Corona typewriter, and many paperback books. I settled in a town just over the Idaho border, where three rivers converged, and found myself an apartment. It was a college town, eclectic and libertine compared to other parts of Montana at the time. For instance, you could buy a cup of espresso. I thought this might be an agreeable place to live, given the things that I cared about (trout, mountains, snow) and the other things (cities, Ohio, august universities) that I hankered to escape; and I assumed that it should be as good as anywhere, or almost anywhere (no, one friend told me: New York) for a fellow who wanted to become a writer. I had already published one book, but I hadn’t learned the first crucial lesson about a literary vocation: Don’t quit your day job, not yet! I’d never even had a day job. Now I discovered I needed one.

Montana wore on me well. The winters were long and severe, which suited the Norwegian side of my genetic predisposition; the people were friendly and trustful; children would look a grown man in the eye, a stranger, and say hello; shop clerks and workingmen harbored prideful affection toward the state in which they happened (or chose) to live, and that mere geographical dimension of contentment seemed to help make their lives rather more happy than hard. Very soon, I felt it too.

That’s not to say I fell into a life of ease and frolic. There were some years of groping, dues-paying, wage-laboring, writing and writing but not publishing, frustration, rethinking, adjustment. There were relocations from one part of the state to another as opportunity, necessity, or whimsy decreed. There was one job, in Butte, that involved reporting to an office. When that ended abruptly, I decided henceforth to scratch out my living as a free-lancer. I moved again, this time to a fishing village on another river, an enclave for getaway artists and remittance men. I adopted a cat. I got married. I spent a brief exile in Arizona and returned. Then, in 1984, I fetched up in a town called Bozeman, population about 30,000, in a broad honest valley between the Bridger Mountains and the Gallatins. A year later I settled onto the small patch of land where I remain anchored today: a narrow lot in a tree-shaded neighborhood just a few blocks south of Bozeman’s Main Street.

My life here is quiet. In winters I ski, shovel snow, and play hockey with a town-league team composed of wonderful men I wouldn’t otherwise know—a roofing contractor, a gun dealer, an insurance adjustor, a surveyor, a truck driver, a software designer, a civil engineer, and others. In summers I race bicycles with retired but dauntingly fit academics. For part of each year I travel to faraway places, on magazine assignments or for book research; then I come home and sit in my office and write. That’s a change from earlier years, when I intended to be a novelist creating books by sheer force of imagination, and when I had no money for plane tickets anyway.

Other things too have changed, more cataclysmically, since I came to Bozeman. After thirteen years of feeling happy but increasingly cramped in a ramshackle bungalow, my wife and I dismantled the original house, board by board, with skilled help, and built a new one on the same patch of dirt. It’s a handsome structure of recycled wood, craftsman style, with a turret, which cost moderately in dollars and egregiously in other ways. During the course of that project, the marriage became dismantled too. My ex-wife has gone on to a new career, a new situation, in which I’m glad to see her thriving, and I’ve held on to the house. Or I should say, it has held me. Much of its wooden tissue, old two-by-eights of long-grain fir and floorboards of oak, is the same wood I’ve lived amid since 1985, now reconfigured and repositioned unrecognizably, like flesh from a thigh grafted onto a burn victim’s face. That feels weird but good. The mountain ash tree growing snug to the new house is the same mountain ash that hugged the old house. Its root structure survived the excavation. The elm in front is also the same. The original cat, long since buried in back beneath the old apple tree, lies there still—her remnant molecules, anyway—now shaded by a new apple tree. The tumbledown shed, where I store a lawnmower and two dusty kayaks, is likewise unchanged. In twenty-one years, I’ve never quite gotten it cleaned and organized. And many of those tattered paperbacks that came with me in the VW bus—including the two-volume War and Peace in a slip-case and the Catch-22 inscribed by Joe Heller himself—are still here on the shelves.

So much for doddering continuity. I can also report cheerful news of vibrant renewal: Three years ago I married a woman who carried her own style of joy, her own large and irrepressible heart, into this half-empty house. I won’t try to describe all she has added to my life and to the place where I live it, since that too isn’t the point, and this essay is short. I’ll mention just one crucial thing: She brought with her a large gray dog.

His name was Wiley. She had adopted him years before, when he was a roguish young stray who crashed an Earth First! picnic, made himself popular, and was rewarded with burgers and cake by the handful. For a while he ran with a rugby team. He was so badly behaved that several times in the early years he nearly lost his life to irate ranchers incensed at this overgrown cur who was stampeding their livestock. Although his parentage was unknown, from the look of his burly build, his fluffy tail, his thick gray fur, his floppy right ear, and his burning orange eyes, he seemed to be the love child of a Great Pyrenees and a wolf. When pressed on the subject, though, his mistress usually passed him off as a “malamute-golden retriever cross,” not wanting to add to the misguided vogue for wolf-hybrid pets. (He did show some golden blond highlights, on which basis I later framed my own answer to the recurrent question about lineage. He’s a malomino, I’d say: half malamute, half palomino. Have I mentioned that he was large?) He entered my life when she did, almost five years ago, and like her, he changed it.

I had never been what you’d call a dog person. That’s an understatement. I had felt, spoken, and written some scurrilous things about the canine race. But this Wiley was different from any dog I’d ever encountered: more joyous, more handsome, more dignified and laconic (very disinclined to bark), more confident and commanding, yet peaceable. Children could tug at him with impunity. He’d never start a dogfight, but he’d gladly finish one. I’m utterly biased, of course, because he became my stepdog, and then simply “my dog” (insofar as one can say “my dog” about any half-feral foundling) as well as my wife’s. Notwithstanding my bias, other people seemed to recognize Wiley’s unusual charms. He had a face that made folks happy from merely gazing into it. He enjoyed trotting up to say hello. He worked crowds like a candidate for Congress. People around town knew him by name, I noticed, who didn’t know me and whom I didn’t know. He retained his enthusiasm for crashing parties, especially those at which steaks were left unattended on low tables. He was horribly unqualified as a watch-dog because he loved everyone; Saddam Hussein or Richard Speck could have snuck in our back door, with or without raw hamburger, and been met with a lick on the hand. Wiley would have done better as a greeter in Reno.

He slept at night on the floor of my office. During cocktail hour he slept on the living room carpet, between my wife’s chair and mine. He slept by day in the backyard, and if the weather was wintry, all the better. His fur was so thick he seemed incapable of feeling chilled, and he liked especially to lie out there during a snowstorm, nose to tail, letting the flakes coat him like rime.

Soon after he joined the household, Wiley and I began to walk the neighborhood together in a way I’d never walked it alone. My old solitary morning trudges, usually before dawn, had looped eastward from the house and involved deep concentration, a furrowed brow, no socializing with anybody. I was gathering thoughts for a work day. Now with him I fell into a new habit, going westward three blocks to Cooper Park, a grassy space much favored for the (illegal) leash-free cavorting of dogs. The dogcatcher doesn’t patrol this park; it’s a scofflaw zone by default and consensus. Here I would unclick Wiley from his leash and let him gallop off to socialize and wrestle and scratch and pee and sniff and defecate (yes, I always had a bag) as he pleased. Meanwhile I would stand jawing with the other dog people—such as Bill, the president of the local Optimists Club; or Marty, the fishing guide who summers in Alaska; or Dave, the retired neurosurgeon with the white pony-tail; or Henry, the tall film student; or Barb, the nurse with the broken leg—as they too killed time while indulging their animals: Rosie and Dusty, the hyperkinetic goldens; Kvichak, the Samoyed; Merlin and Diesel, black Labs; and Frieda, the doleful Saint Bernard. These were good people and good dogs I wouldn’t have known if Wiley hadn’t dragged me into their company.

After a few minutes of romping and tussling, Wiley would return to my side and sit, listening patiently, as though to say: All right, the doggy games are fine, but ultimately I prefer the company of grownups. Then we’d go home. My wife used to tease us about these very regular morning sessions. My god, she’d say, now I’m surrounded by two males addicted to routine.

So we became part of the Cooper Park scene, he and I. And when someone hatched the idea of donating a water fountain to the park for both humans and (by way of a lower dish) dogs, we became part of that too. The fountain was bought with monies gathered from dog-owners, each of whom paid fifty bucks for the privilege of having one canine name engraved on a memorial brick, those bricks to form a cobbling around the fountain. One of the bricks, as eventually laid, said “WILEY.” I took him to admire it when the work was done. He was blasé.

Now that he’d settled into domestic life and stopped chasing horses, there was just one problem with Wiley: the problem of time. He had passed his eleventh birthday. He acted young but wasn’t. And so one day he died.

It was sudden, and therefore merciful to him and shocking to us. It happened six weeks ago as I write this, the day following our annual hockey-team party, which he had attended in full vigor with his usual keen attunement to the presence of friendly humans and loosely guarded meat. Next afternoon he went to sleep in the backyard during a snowstorm, one of his favorite things, and didn’t wake up. I found him limp, looking peaceful, going cold. Tears streaming, I wrapped him in our best blanket and wondered how on Earth to tell my wife when she returned from an evening out.

She mourned him with a depth of pain that put me in mind of Greek tragedy—maybe Hecuba over the corpse of Hector. He’d been with her, like a child, but also as protector and closest confidant, for ten years. I’ve never seen anyone love a dog more than she loved him. And me, I mourned him in sidelong, bashful ways of my own. We knew that we weren’t the only people who had ever cried over a dead dog they’d considered the finest and noblest creature in the history of canines. We knew, yes; but this was our turn.

For the first few days, we hunkered. Word of Wiley’s death spread to our friends and acquaintances somewhat faster than we had heart to spread it ourselves. Cards of condolence arrived. One of my hockey teammates and his wife sent flowers. In the hockey culture, that’s bold sensitivity. Meanwhile I avoided Cooper Park, at least during the usual hours. I had to leave town on a weekend trip to California anyway. Before departing, I made a brief visit to the park, almost furtively, and did a corny, sentimental thing—I laid a daffodil from our garden on the brick inscribed WILEY. I figured the flower itself would disappear quickly amid bustling people, bicycles, baby carriages, and dogs, but the gesture felt right.

Another week or more passed before I steeled myself to revisit the park. I was driving by, noticed a cluster of familiar figures, and on impulse I stopped. It was Dave the neurosurgeon, Bob the optimist, and Barb the nurse, along with Merlin and Rosie and Dusty and Frieda. As the three people saw me walking up, alone, their faces went long and grim. And now I have come to the point of this essay: the point when I recognized as never before that I don’t live just in a house and a state and a town; that I live in a community. We saw the flower, Dave said.