In 1994 I lived near Woodstock, New York, with my Golden Retriever, Wordsworth. I’d called him that because, at the last minute, the shelter where I found him wouldn’t release him without a name. The only name that came quickly to mind was that of the Romantic poet whose verses I was reading those evenings, William Wordsworth.
Wordsworth found Beau, a 90-lb. black Malamute mix living a lonely, isolated life in a doghouse nearby, chained forever to a wire. Whenever Beau saw us coming through the woods he’d leap up to the top of his doghouse, whimpering, and jump Wordsworth as soon as he came within reach. The two played nonstop till it was time to go, and Beau would chase Wordsworth till the wire pulled him short, causing him to go smash on the ground, howling so loudly that I could still hear him when I entered my home.
I felt sorry for the lonely dog and often asked his “owner,” as we say, to let him off. It took a year for the man to finally agree, and whenever he freed Beau the dog would come down to my cabin and scratch on the door (having first destroyed the screen door), and the two dogs would play till it was time for Beau to go back to the wire.
I loved sitting on the steps outside and watching the two together because they were so different, the Golden serious, easy, and confident, Beau younger, more playful, funny, and completely inexperienced in the ways of humans and homes. But mostly I was fascinated by the image of two dogs, one free, the other tied down. What makes us free? What makes us slaves? Is it just external forces, or is it something deeper? I began to imagine how this might play out in a world without humans.
I began to write a sketch entitled The Adventures of Wordsworth and Beau, where the former teaches the latter the true meaning of freedom. Five chapters later I put the book aside and returned to work with the Zen Peacemakers and the man who would later become my husband, Bernie Glassman, in their projects in Yonkers, New York. Returning to Woodstock for a weekend half a year later, I found Beau thin and unresponsive, chained back next to his doghouse.
Ten years later I went back to the book, not as a sketch but as a challenge to create an entire world of dogs, wolves, and even a few surviving humans after humans managed to destroy themselves and much of the world. Once again, I began with the image of two dogs, one free (and a poet!) and the other bound. I had no intention of writing a trilogy, but one question led to another question, one character to the next and the next, and finally–over a long time– the true focus and scope of the story emerged.
That focus has to do with something called human exceptionalism, the sense that we humans are at the center of life and all other sentient and nonsentient beings are the environment that surrounds us. I write about dogs not just because I love them, but because it’s my anthropomorphic way of invoking Donna Haraway’s restatement of the sixth of the Ten Commands: Thou shalt not make killable
The first book of the Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills trilogy is now out, called Hunt For the Lynx. At some point I’ll have a better selling platform (support your local independent bookstore!), but for now you can buy the book on Amazon.
And Wordsworth and Beau? A year after I left Woodstock I received a call. Beau was ill. I drove up to Woodstock, picked him up, and brought him straight down to a couple in Peekskill who loved and took care of him—along with the rest of their menagerie—to the end of his long life. Wordsworth and I traveled cross-country (in more ways than one) and he died in June 2002, ten days before my return East.