|Christmas Day, 2016, somewhere in Rhode Island. Geoff's got the goods.|
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
My friend Alan Poole had a couple of visiting bird people on his hands, and an apparent desire to dazzle us with winter beach beauty. Erin and I were up for that!
Alan and his daughter, Phoebe, a flower farmer with Weatherlow Florals, right handy by Dad's spiffy new digs in South Dartmouth, Mass. They both know how lucky they are to be near each other. Alan called Phoebe to come join us for a little birding. I love this photo. Phoebe has made a little bouquet of sea lavender and grasses. Right out of a catalogue, those two.
Alan's first call when I threatened to land on him was to his friend Geoff Dennis, who, because he's out every day and misses nothing, knows where the birds are, even the ones who shouldn't be there.
Like blue-gray gnatcatchers in the dead of winter.
We met Geoff on his home turf, at Goosewing Beach in Little Compton, RI.
The sun was playing peekaboo with the beach and the clouds.
Geoff had a dog with him, a big black Lab mix.
Koda had kind eyes and a good smile. He registered me, and I registered him right back. We made an impression on each other.
I felt that instant connection that you get with some people, and some dogs. Geoff and Koda were two of those types. We had common ground. I snuck a couple of muzzle smooches on this lovely boy.
I could see by the look in his eyes that this dog, now 12, had a story to tell. He was telling it with every glance. I overheard snippets of conversation between Geoff and Alan about how Koda had come into his life. It sounded pretty unusual.
I figured I'd get the whole story later. For now, I wanted to watch the birds, this dog and his best guy. Geoff is a clam fisherman; he goes out in a boat and rakes them up in every weather condition imaginable. He is cheery, rugged; built for the outdoors, and he pays attention to every nuance of sea and sky. His persona and voice are straight out of Central Casting for a New England waterman. It's little wonder he finds the birds nobody else knows about. He doesn't chase many rarities. He finds them. On this day, he had a flock of more than 30 snow buntings, with a Lapland longspur included. And me without my camera. Geoff says this photo he sent is a "terrible" picture, but it shows the snow buntings we saw that December 7. Oh, they were magic! What could be better than living snowflakes, swirling around in the late golden light of a December evening?
And he sent me a photo of the Lapland longspur! (rightmost bird, with the dark cheek pattern--the rest are snow buntings.)
It was a cold day, not as cold as it could be by far, but I wouldn't have wanted to wade in a salt pond. Koda was all for it. Besides, Geoff was throwing things in the water.
Koda hasn't always been Geoff's dog. For the first ten years of his life, he lived with a family with children. And then there came a divorce, and the wife, J., who loved Koda dearly, took an upstairs apartment on a busy street with the kids, which wasn't a good situation for him. Koda stayed back at the house where they'd been living, and most of the time he was chained in the yard. Things changed there, too, and one day J. got a call from her ex-husband that he was going to have to move, too, and he'd have to take Koda to the pound.
J. talked with her landlord, and he agreed to let her take Koda into the apartment. He is a good dog, and wouldn't be a problem. At this point, Geoff and J. were working together managing endangered species along Rhode Island beaches, and she asked if she might keep Koda in his barn during the day. Geoff said, "He's not going in the barn, he can come right in the house!"
Geoff and his wife Emily had always had dogs, but by 2006, they'd lost two beloved dogs in a row to cancer, at the ages of only 10 and 9. It was very hard for them, and Geoff said, "That's it. No more dogs." He felt he just couldn't go through that again. And along came Koda, ten years old, needing a part-time home. Well, maybe just for awhile...
"We just fell in love with him. He’d stay with us during the day and J. would pick him up and bring him home. Something came up and she asked if he could stay with us and we said sure, no problem. He stayed with us for a week. He was sleeping on the floor next to the bed. We bought a dog bed for him. I started really fallin' for him. It was all new to him, running in the woods, running on the beach. J. might have him for two weeks straight and I’d go pick him up and bring him down here, keep him for a few days and bring him back to her.
"I walked into her house one day and Koda went nuts on me, crying and barking and licking me. She said, 'Oh my God, I’ve never seen him do this with anybody.' I don’t know how it segued from her house to (staying with us). Finally she realized it was too much for her to make him happy. And she saw the connection with me. He ended up moving in with us. When J. got Koda from her ex, when he was about to go to the pound, he weighed 101 pounds. He was chained up all the time. He got fed a lot. He was a barrel on four pegs. He’s now 78-80 pounds."
Ack. I tried to imagine Koda with 30 more pounds on him, and forced that vision away. Yet it's one we all see far too often, when dogs are fed ad libitum and given no opportunity for real exercise.
I hunkered down and watched this gorgeous gentleman self-actualizing, doing exactly what a Lab mix is supposed to do. I found him so beautiful, his eyes so clear and bright, his step so springy.
He emerged from the marsh with a long stick and commenced chewing it up while we birded. Keeping busy, doing dog things, while the people did people things, looking through tubes at distant specks (which turned out to be wigeon, pintails, teal, scaup, black ducks, ruddies, black and white-winged scoter...)
He had this whole beautiful place to himself, yet he orbited happily around Geoff, the center of his solar system, his new Sun. He'd range out and find something to investigate, but he was always within earshot and sight of his best friend.
Twelve years old, and now, in the autumn of his life, finally able to become who he was meant to be. This is the gift Geoff has given Koda.
"If it’s two beaches (the distance we walk each day) could be up to two miles. He’s probably doing twice the distance I am. He has never shown reluctance to go out when it’s super cold. He’s panting at 10 degrees. He goes through the water, he has ice pellets on him—salt water freezes instantly. I love going there when it’s like that. It makes you feel alive when the wind’s howling and it stings your face. I don’t wear a face mask. I’ll walk with my hands on my face to bring the temperature back up. You get the screaming northwest winds after the storm will pass. And all the snow is blowing off the pond onto the beach. He comes out of the snow looking like the Abominable Snowman. He loves it."
Geoff sent me this photo, taken by Koda's beloved J., just yesterday. He's getting in touch with his inner Arctic wolf.
The light got lower and the shadows got longer. Erin watched scoters just off the breakers, photographed the cloudbank rolling in.
The sun dipped toward the horizon and we realized the show would soon be over.
I thought, and have been thinking, about the generous soul of this New England fisherman, opening back up to another soul in need. Even knowing what he knows about aging dogs and broken hearts. Going against his better judgement and going for it yet again, adopting a senior dog.
"That’s the only thing about Koda that bothers me. I’ll lay on the floor with him in the living room at night and I'll start crying, because it’s just such a tease, to have only a few years together."
If I have learned anything, it's that our time with good dogs is never long enough. If ever there were a reminder to savor the now, it was this golden December evening at Goosewing Beach, in the presence of those who know how sweet and short life can be.
We said our good-byes, nabbed each others' contact information, shook hands. And then Geoff said, "You all go on. I'm gonna put a few more miles on the dog."
I chuckled, having said those exact words myself. My heart gave a fish-flop
watching them get smaller and smaller, headed back toward the snow buntings and the last sunlight slamming that beautiful dune.
It would be hard to decide who was the bigger gift to whom: Geoff to Koda (immense), or Koda to Geoff (just as great).
As we drove slowly away, the potholes lit up, punching sky into sand, and I reflected too, about love and loss and how the human heart will dive in, over and over, toward the unknown, sure-to-be-rocky bottom. Love and loss, it seems, are always in cahoots.
Bright-eyed, beautiful, wise, lucky Koda, long may you splash and run.