Last night, Alfie and I were up until 2am at a Wednesday night party on our 80-acre mountain top that has seen a motley assortment of fabulous neighbors move in over the past few years. It used to be quiet around here with only one other full-time neighbor, but no more. Finally, some more people to drink Scotch with and howl at the moon. There’s the artist and his partner/manager; a bunch of young, hip photographers from Philly; two hilarious European adventurers; a South American and her daughter who, last night, shook a fierce cocktail at 1am like it was our last party on earth: “blood and sand” with Scotch, vermouth, orange juice and cherry liqueur. Up here, we know what’s important.
The host’s female dog, Victoria, took a shine to Alfie, because he’s a ladies man. Ladies love them some Alfie. The only problem was that her big brother didn’t approve the match and he’s much bigger, with a head as big a bowling ball looking like he could ram his way through a stone wall without much trouble. There was much tentative nibbling and furtive kissing between the two lovebirds, followed by Alfie diving under the dinner table with big brother on his tail, using a wall of guests’ legs for protection. Alfie’s a lover, not a fighter.
Alfie and I jogged home in the crisp night air, under a star-crusted, inky black dome, but before that, there was much fun debate over whether I should walk – about 1000 feet – home alone. Most people on the ridge have had an encounter with the visiting bear, but the bear avoids me since I screamed like a banshee at it last time it came near the house. It’s possible that he’s been around before, but didn’t like the look of my machete. Regardless, the episode in which Alfie went after the bear and started barking at him, and then me running out of the house screaming at Alfie to stay away from the bear, now makes him literally take the high road instead when he passes by. The bear is not scared of us, but he must be keenly aware that we’re just bonkers enough to get him into a spot of bother and there are no sutures in the forest – only bleeding out.
I’m unsure as to why Alfie’s braver with wild animals and strangers than our neighbors, but perhaps it’s because he’s just being polite. He’s a southern gentleman, after all and doesn’t want to make any trouble. Out in the open of our windswept ridge he can run away and, although he becomes slower with age, he can still catch a chipmunk and give a deer a run for it’s money. Most important, he realizes his luck and can be trusted alone outside with a few exceptions. Some of our visitors’ dogs have rocked up on a neighbors’ porch at the first smell of them frying bacon. When Alfie was a puppy, we would walk – and pee – the property line together, doing this for a few months with him on the leash. When the leash came off, his behavior didn’t change. This saves him having to suffer the electric collar of an “invisible fence”.
The way dogs deal with disease is a revelation. Alfie has “been exposed” to Lyme and Anaplasmosis, but after antibiotics and a sugar-free diet, he’s bearing it well. Im not sure if the occasional snack of deer poo is a help or hindrance, but we would all live longer if we were sugar-free.
Lyme disease is big in these parts and a growing problem all over the country. In some people, it’s like the ghost of a thousand diseases, causing havoc in the body with a laundry list of symptoms including seizures, bells palsy and heart arrhythmia that’s only just now being taken seriously by the medical profession. Poor souls in years past have had to suffer being ignored, or mis-diagnosed. Some physicians speculate that a lot of mental illness and neurological disorder diagnoses like MS, could possibly be Lyme instead.
This makes foraging a death-defying endeavor, worse than the white-knuckle drive into New York City. Trousers should be tucked into socks and frequent tick-checks are a necessary part of country life. Rumor has it that ticks only like Type A blood and in the spirit of good journalism I run this theory by everyone I meet. It’s thus far holding water, with all the people with Type A blood telling me that it makes sense.
Is country life worth this burgeoning risk? When Alfie and I are disappearing into the neighbor’s forest on the way down to his rushing stream on a balmy spring morning, listening to the black-cap chickadees sing their solemn two-note hymn, yes, it’s worth it. It’s also worth it when we’re out under a thick, milky sky all creamy like an ice-cream sundae with light smears of blueberry ice-cream bobbing in it, just begging you to stick in a spoon. Misty mornings are the best: walking through the fog at 7am as it rises out of the valley is like meditation.
Manhattan and the Hudson Valley used to look like a rain forest four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson, painter Thomas Cole and Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle, sailed up the Hudson, and one day these mountains are going to look like Rio De Janeiro with skyscrapers towering over Slide Mountain. Alfie and I will be dust by then, just like the 100-year agricultural easement on our neighbor’s farm, but on a still night in that future world, you’ll still find the ghost of me and my dog strolling through a phantom of the forest at midnight over this ridge. We’ll be like the apparitions of Roman soldiers who regularly march through the basement of London’s buildings.
Until then, I’ll record life in the Catskills at this time, as other parts of the earth that look just like ours get used up: built on, churned over or turned into the latest phone. It hurts even more that products for which the earth is used are disposable or temporary. Nature is essential, is literally our natural state; it changes your brain. At last night’s gathering, after a few glasses of wine, we had a jolly discussion about how we’d like to be buried. I’d like to go straight in the earth and be composted under a tree with my bones probably being found by the architects of the future skyscrapers. Perhaps they’ll test them to find out what I ate. Food is a full-time job here in farm country and so is foraging. Over the summer, people of the Catskills supplement their diet with carbon-neutral foraging. Everybody has their favorite spots where they go to harvest greens, mushrooms, roots, seeds and bulbs but you’ll never find our sacred spots on this site.
Food here is unique and varied as its occupants. 20 minutes away you can buy authentic dandelion kimchee made by a second generation Korean farmer; a half-hour away there’s fish and chips at the Arkville Caboose; 45 minutes away you can find Tibetan dumplings, Persian tea and snacks. In our village, there’s Mexican and Moroccan food over the summer. And where else can you have a philosophical discussion with a farmer about how he kills his animals? One day in the future though, eating animals will be as strange as eating your own dog would be now.
But back to Alfie’s social life. I don’t want to say that he leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake, but the ladies can sense that he’s a gentle soul, even though his patience for exuberant puppies is fast on the decline. Milly from Philly, one neighbor’s soft yellow lab puppy, who bounds around at him likes she’s on a trampoline, gets frequently growled at by him and I suspect he’s just being fatherly, letting her know she’s too much for him. Alfie used to have incisors that snipped through a leash like a hot knife through butter. He once bit through his tether and almost wrecked a New York City film set, an event which precipitated the decline of the relationship between me and my client. He’s middle-aged dog now and Milly’s owners, the aforementioned photographers, are gracious about it. Alfie’ll get his comeuppance when she grows as big as he is.