This morning Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life rebroadcast “Sunday Morning,” a short radio essay I recorded for them back in 2012. It’s about a warm night (or rather, a very, very early morning) when our terrier Josie woke me up, asked me to let her outside, and then refused to come back in. Instead, she darted around her pen, evading my grasp, ignoring my pleas, patrolling the “grounds” as her not so fine breeding compels her. I finally gave up and sat on the deck, watching her. (She’s only 12 pounds and there are stories here in the Arboretum neighborhood about owls or coyotes carrying small dogs away.) WPR had asked me to write something about Wisconsin for them and I’d been having a hard time coming up with anything suitable. Then I heard a not-so-distant roar, and the next day I came up with this little piece.
by JUDITH CLAIRE MITCHELL
It’s two a.m., and the terrier can’t sleep. Raccoons and possums are prowling. The terrier wants to go outside, guard our farm, protect our crops.
I’d welcome her vigilance were we actually farmers, if we truly had any crops, but we aren’t and we don’t. I’ve explained this to her, but she just tilts her head, and continues to wheedle and whine. What part of raccoon do I not understand? She must save the (nonexistent) wheat, the acres of (invisible) corn. She must save them tonight. Now.
In fairness to the terrier, our neighborhood does seem rural. We live adjacent to the UW Arboretum in Madison. While we’re in walking distance of the state capitol, our home is in the woods.
We love it here. We never tire of saying: We live in a small forest inside a big city.
We thought the terrier would love it here too, would spend her time frolicking and perfecting her Frisbee skills. Instead she’s always on duty, always on edge. All these insolent trespassers: the rodents, the deer, the gangs of wild turkeys, blue and pre-historic. She paces, yelps. When I coo at the chipmunks or am charmed by the bunnies, I can tell what she’s thinking: I live with the worst farmer ever.
Tonight, two a.m., sleepless myself, I indulge her. Outside now, she peers into the woods, rigid with watchfulness. I’m watchful too, looking for owls and hawks, for coyotes.
The coyotes are hungry and angry this year. I’ve seen them at the forest’s edge at dusk, hunting for housecats and small dogs like this one. The terrier guards the land; I guard the terrier.
Sometimes I wish I could disconnect the hard wires that make the dog think the world is one giant cornfield. I wish she could stop her endless patrolling, her worrying.
Then again, I wish I could stop worrying too. We’re blessed, my husband and I say, but lately the depression I thought I’d vanquished through meditation, medication, and willpower, has returned. At night the reflection in my kitchen window is of a gray-haired woman who appears less wise and serene than she’d hoped. I don’t like how old looks on me.
Or is it just my own hard-wiring, that just as this terrier comes from a long line of possum-chasers, I come from a long line of hand-wringers? That just as the dog doesn’t need a farm to protect a farm, I don’t need a problem to fret about life?
Tonight’s vigil ends with a lion’s roar. This is no metaphor. A lion at Vilas Zoo, is also up late, unable to sleep.
The terrible roar actually calms us. The terrier thinks a bigger dog has come to spell her. As for me, the roar takes my mind off myself.
Upstairs now, in bed, the dog by my side. Then comes another enemy: the clash and clatter of thunder, the report of rain on leaves. The dog again grows agitated. She looks at me. I whisper to her: Enough.
For once she agrees. Outside, raccoons may be dancing in the rain, but finally, three a.m., a terrible farmer and her stalwart dog close their eyes. Tomorrow, we’ll be back guarding against the unseen and unnamed. Tonight, though, we’ll let ourselves sleep.