Writer in Residence

On Walking with my Dead Dogs as Writing Practice

Submitted by Angélique Lalonde

How should we think about the torrents of interaction that occur between organisms underground? How should we understand these spheres of more-than-human communication? Perhaps running after a dog hot on the trail of a truffle and burying my face in the soil was as close as I could get to the chemical tug and promise that fungi  use to conduct so many aspects of their lives.  — Merlin Sheldrake

Two of my dead dogs are buried underneath the birch tree down the bank from my garden. I cannot see their graves from my writing chair, but I can see my garden, and the birch tree. It is fall so the leaves are beginning to rust, and yellow, though they are at this moment still mostly green. There are orange sunflowers in bloom, and another yellow clump of flowers six feet tall that was planted by the landlord, whose name I don’t know. There are some tall stalks of Painted Mountain Corn in various colours that I have grown for the first time this year, a spire of scarlet runners mixed with a few other varieties of pole beans, and squash forming an understory, vining all over the expired strawberry patch and walkways. Borage plants have spread all over the garden this year, and I have let them. Because bees go crazy for borage, and the flowers look like blue stars. The dogs are in various stages of decomposition, interpenetrated by various microorganisms and mycelium — one buried last fall, the other in late spring, but I cannot smell them through the thick mat of soil, rocks, and now plant life that grow on their graves — substrates we placed over their bodies to keep other animals from smelling their flesh returning to earth, and digging up their graves.

One of my dead dogs does not have a grave site because she died in early January a few years back when the ground was too frozen to bury her, so we brought her body out to the woods, on the bank overlooking the river, and we left her body there, near a big old spruce tree. For weeks afterwards, I imagined her being consumed by coyotes, ravens, and wolves, bits of her dragged away by mice and her woolly fur collected by squirrels for nesting material. I thought of her scattering through the forest in bits and pieces, somewhat disturbed, and somewhat grateful to know she was feeding hungry beings who she would have once chased through the forest. Two years after I left her there I tried to find the site where we had left her, to find some trace of bone I might take home, but I found nothing. No trace at all. It is possible though that I wasn’t in exactly the right place as the brush grows so thick, and there was no path worn through where we left her. Our winter trail looked very different than the spring trail I tried to follow in.  

I am writing about my dead dogs because they are always with me when I walk, even though their bodies are now lost to me. And walking is a vital part of my writing practice. For five months this year, for the first time in twenty years, I did not have a dog to walk with me. Therefore I walked differently in the world, and this affected my writing — frazzling my embodied ways of moving through the stuck places, walking with the grief of their absences.

My elder dog died in October after a life of almost fourteen years. His hound body slowly slowing, giving me hints for the last year, that this would be his last year. He died a beautiful death. And though I grieved him, I was gifted a process of saying goodbye, years of shifting my walking to fit his aging body. No longer venturing with him into the alpine, but rather, taking shorter strolls through the tamer forest trails with him on a leash, so he would not run after the scents he picked up and end up facing off with a bear or wolf, injuring his already injured back legs. Legs that had worn out over time, that were no longer as eager as his nose to plunge headlong into the titillating scents of the forest world.

He scented everything, and gave warning barks that I learned to read over time as relating to different creatures. His deer barks were different then his bear barks, the way his bear reading body would shift into a sort of excitement tinged with fear. And then I would know to turn back, turn around, go back home another way. He gifted me peace of mind to walk and work through my stories and not always be heightened to the potential dangers of trespassing into another creature’s forest doings that I should not have been disturbing, allowing my mind to process through parts of stories or questions or blockages that sometimes arise when sitting and not knowing where to go. Lines through the forest like lines on the page stringing between interconnected points.

When I am writing and I find my body tense up, my breath shallow, when the words stop flowing, then I know it is time to get up from my chair and go outside, to walk in the forest, move my body, pay attention to other things, and often I find as I do this, the questions shift into other questions, or other possibilities that seemed impossible when I was sitting still.

When my old hound dog died I still had my four year-old Australian Shepherd crossed with all sorts of other things that created an exuberant, lively, wild kind of dog creature who had her own plans about a lot of things that did not always correspond to my own. She always disappeared in the forest, and this affected how I walked, the qualities of vigilance I walked with. I could not think as freely as when my hound had been with me. In March this year our neighbour shot and killed that young dog when she wandered across his fence line, so now she lays buried next to the old hound under the birch tree. And then I walked the forest alone. Less confident out there with my children, especially in the month of the black bear walking moon, when hungry sows emerge from their winter dens with new babies, and it is important to give them space.

I am now training a chocolate lab puppy to walk with me. I keep her leashed or beside me, not being so naive as to give her the same kind of freedoms the last dog had. Understanding boundaries differently than I did before I lost a dog who did not understand fence lines and an angry man with a gun. The puppy doesn’t seem much keen to wander very far, checking back after 10 feet to make sure I am following. Watching her scent the forest is a new kind of learning. How she learns to differentiate between new scents, not having an older dog to guide her. We pause for her to consider different pieces of information, the pauses have me walking differently. Because we are in training I don’t have the same kind of openness to walk and let my mind wander, I pay attention to her instead of to everything else that I am able to perceive, so when I want to think through a story, I play with her a bit at home, and head into the forest alone. She has not yet learned how to be my writing partner in the forest, but last week she came with me to the river, and sat quietly on the moss as I spent some time with grandmother cedar, and I felt blessed to know that soon I would again have a dog to walk with, whose perceptions allow me the space to write walk through the kind of learnings the forest has to offer.

Fall has its particular mixes of scent in the forest — decay and the fruiting bodies of fungi. It feels simple to allow myself to be completely transported elsewhere by walking there and attuning myself to scent, a whole intercommunicative network of beings carrying out lives that are otherwise invisible to me. Lives I can’t break down into constituent parts. As I walk I think about the complexities of life and how to weave that into story, these deep intertwinements that might just look like a jumble of words inter-threaded on a page, a non-sensical heap, and how to make sense of sense through language.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Angélique Lalonde was the recipient of the 2019 Journey Prize, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and was awarded an Emerging Writer’s residency at the Banff Centre. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Victoria. Lalonde is the second-eldest of four daughters. She dwells on Gitxsan Territory in Northern British Columbia with her partner, two small children, and many non-human beings.