Tonight was a gorgeous spring evening in the Catskill Mountains: clear sky, full moon, 60F with frequent, strong gusts of a humid breeze washing over our ridge like a warm tide coming thick and fast as if a storm was on its tail. Alfie nodded his nose up delicately into each wave and followed it through to find out who was where and what they were doing. Coyotes yipped faintly in the distance and I whispered: “do you hear that”?
“Yes!” he barked. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but now you’ve heard it!” He barked. Then he barked some more of his deep, throaty commands, holding his body rigid against the wind as if it might blow the coyotes straight up to our feet. As the yipping and howling died down, we marched across the brush, dried and flattened by another strident winter, listening to the bare trees creak and squeak – like (very tall) old ladies getting their hair messed up and complaining about it. Alfie was slightly hesitant and wanted to turn in – coyotes! What’s next? – but we stuck together, fur and hair ruffled by the strong, balmy air that pushed grassy, spring smells in our faces and I led the way under a dome of midnight stars. Bare trees allowed us a panoramic view of the mountains in the bright moonlight. Alfie’s attuned to my every mood by now, at my side like my Pullman daemon, able to explain everything with one look, sensitive to every gasp or concerned expression after five years together, but it wasn’t always like this, especially when he was a puppy and insisting on leaving the house at 4am.
“My party days are over!” I would shout. Yet, he would insist, staring at me with the flinty determination that got him through the time he was a stray on the streets in his formative years. And so out we would go into the darkness so he could take his fifth dump of the day. It was winter when we brought him home from the ASPCA five years ago in 2014, and after a few days, I was sleeping in my snowboarding pants, shuffling out of the house at all hours to watch this puppy seek out the absolutely most perfect spot to drop a load.
But I’m not here to complain about that. I’m here because it’s been four years since I wrote about my beloved Alfie in a piece we’ll call Part One. Here’s Part Two:
Dog ownership means that you can’t let time go by like a flash because that’s how long their life is: the blink of an eye. You thought you had more time, but you really don’t with a dog, who teaches you to try and live in the moment, to not worry about petty insignificances, to be patient, and most important, that exercise is VERY important. Ball-fetching might look meaningless, but it is not about the ball, is it? It’s as meditative as our country life: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, fetch ball. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, fetch ball. Alfie and I have come a long way together and sometimes whatever he does is what I’m thinking on the inside, which is helpful for strangers and friends alike. He’s a conversation starter, ice-breaker, diplomat, sniffing out new friends, literally. Only last week, he sniffed a woman’s butt so thoroughly I thought he had shoved his nose up there. Alfie has brought me out of my introverted self and out of the house and he brings comfort and joy to everyone he meets. We should be worshipping our dogs because without them we would be nothing. Read here and here about how modern man has evolved with the help of a dogs for protection against predators in camps and agriculture, and for aid in hunting. This National Geographic article from 2013 suggests that our connection to dogs is “embedded in our genes”.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see Alfie everywhere on this website. He has his own Instagram account and you’ll find him in many Daily Catskills pictures. I have hundreds, if not a thousand photographs of him over the years and he hasn’t changed much because he lives a good dog’s life, but doesn’t take it for granted. When he runs across a field of snow, his beautiful black body looks like a stroke of animated Kanji gliding across a blank page.
He has the run of our six acres and only goes out of bounds if he’s feeling really cheeky or if he simply can’t let the turkeys get away that day. We used to have a fox in the area and it was Alfie’s morning routine to chase off the fox and one my earliest memories is of the fox sprinting away down the hill with Alfie on his tail. If only the fox knew that Black Labs only want to play, I would muse. He’s smart enough to only try and persuade the local porcupine to play – he can tell that creature is sharp – but he’s persistent. Once he played for a few seconds with a deer until I came along and ruined it. He had chased it right across the field until they disappeared into the glade of conifers and as he stopped at the property line to let the deer go, the deer paused and they played for a while. I heard Alfie bark playful barks and ran over there with my camera like a true killjoy, catching the deer turn on its heel – moment over.
To wear him out when he was a puppy, I began the Catskills 35 list: all the peaks over 3500 ft in the Catskills, most with trails, but about ten of the them trail-less hikes, or “bushwhacks” and we have eight of these peaks to go. This early orienteering training on and off trails, together with a sense of smell sharper because of the mountain air in which he lives, plus superb instincts, gives him a kind of proud confidence. Off-trail, when it’s only him and me, he regularly takes me to the summit of mountains by following the scent of previous hikers and when I get vertigo on ledges and sheer drops, he returns back down the trail to me and sits admiring the view while I sweat, giving me a few nudges and face licks. “It’s only a sheer drop,” his look says. “Nothing to panic about”.
On one hike, I began to veer off-trail and couldn’t figure out how to get over a boulder. After a few minutes I looked around to see Alfie, ahead by a ten meters, having stayed on the actual trail, trying to catch my eye.
I work mostly from home and when it’s warm enough, Alfie sits out on the deck waiting for his walk. If there’s something to chase, like a deer, bear or a turkey, he’ll give a little growl first that lets me know he’s off, but he always comes back within minutes. The first time he saw a bear walk through our property, he was almost apoplectic, and when I saw that he was barking at it and approaching it, I ran out of the house and started screaming at Alfie to return. The combined decibels convinced the bear to take off.
By now, he poses for the camera on command, which is why photographers love him so much. I was recently in New York City and reminded of how long it had been since Shannon Greer had taken his first portrait (four years) and how long it had been since I’d written about him.
He’s an extravert who also loves city visits and all the chaos involved, handling the bedlam on the streets like a pro. He frequently visits other cities like Portland, or New York City. In the summer, we would eat sushi together outside at Sushi D on Dekalb Ave in Brooklyn. Police in the toll booth on JFK Bridge used to light up when he poked his head out of the car window and my first account of his life was published by Mrs Sizzle, run by Suzanne Donaldson, the former Executive Photo Director at Glamour Magazine.
“Did you know you were famous, Alfie?” I asked him a few weeks ago, and he returned my loving gaze only because I was holding a roasted chicken leg, using it like an index finger to make my point, and his eyes darted from my face to the leg and back several times as he drooled, employing a look that said (loudly): “does that mean more chicken for me?”
“Yes, it does,” I responded. “Work means money means more chicken,” I said.
We were in the Brooklyn apartment of friends sharing a hot bird that sat between us on the wooden parquet flooring and although the chicken was tasty, he was dying with anticipation for Fort Greene’s witching hours, that period of time from 9pm until 1am, where you could be off the leash in Fort Greene Park in the shadow of the Prison Ship Martyr’s monument, kicking up dust that looks like a stand storm under the street lights, on the worn turf of the soccer field. Dog owners loiter on the outskirts of the soccer field, watching their dogs chase each other and barking with excitement (not the owners), swapping notes on dog-related subjects.
At six years old next week, Alfie is slower now than he used to be and he got a limp over the winter until a test told us he had been exposed to a Lyme-associated disease called Anaplasmosis that has been cured by a course of antibiotics. As a Labrador, he is prone to hip pain anyway, so the vet has advised to keep him lean, down to 75 pounds, so any pain he might be experiencing would be alleviated by remaining on the skinny side. Weight loss can be accomplished by replacing 10% of his food with steamed vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and carrots, which is working well because he gets nice and full. Plus, he loves the vegetables, going for those first. Alfie eats like a prince because I just can’t help it, regularly giving him scrambled or boiled eggs, chicken, venison – my husband once gave him the back straps lightly sautéed. We share packed lunches at the windswept summits of mountains, and we’re not going to be able to do this forever.