Reading the Creek | Susan Schorn

MacGregor is a Border Collie, mainly. Some wayward chromosome, from a terrier perhaps, has shortened his muzzle and padded his ribcage, making him a more compact version of a rangy Scottish sheepdog. But he has a Border Collie’s mind and obsessions; he oscillates with nervous energy and is burdened with a sense of duty that he, being sheepless, can never quite fulfill. The only time he is at peace is when we walk at the creek.

Our creek is a deep limestone cut filled with briars and pecan trees and fireflies. Some months it is dust coated and dry; other times it flows with clear water and sycamore leaves. A network of trails runs along the creek, roped off by wild grapevines, and almost every day I take our dogs to walk there.

For MacGregor, the creek is an experience I can only guess at—part spiritual, part scholarly. In the car en route from home, he bounces gently in his seat, his ears rising at every stoplight. This is not his usual nebulous anxiety about nonexistent livestock. Rather, his brain is busy imagining what he will find on this trip, what he might discover and what it will mean. Like a Shakespeare scholar on a bus to the Bodleian, he can scarcely contain his intellectual anticipation.

Not having a dog’s nose, I’m unable to appreciate the messages MacGregor finds at the creek. I can’t read the gossipy bulletins that other dogs have left on the bushes, the stories in the dirt and the mold, in the footprints of rabbits, around the edges of the holes dug by mysterious, invisible residents. MacGregor is either unaware of my illiteracy, or can’t be bothered to pity me. The moment the car door opens, he plunges into a process of inquiry so absorbing that I all but disappear.

A thorough-minded dog might smell every branch on every bush. For MacGregor, that would be mere skimming of the material. He whiffs his way gently and carefully along the entire length of each bough in our path—every leaf; his eyes glazed, distracted and dreaming. If I, at the other end of the leash, grow impatient and try to catch his eye, he stares straight through me, the black ruff around his neck standing up like the collar of a Victorian frock coat, adding to his abstracted elegance. He is immersed in a conversation I cannot even comprehend. His expression is that of a Classicist mulling a quote in ancient Greek.

We walk slowly, as MacGregor pores over the dispatches of other dogs. He gives his full attention to every note, every memo, and he leaves his own precise, thoughtful marginalia along the sides of the trail. I can at least read his body language, and thereby detect a small fraction of the nuance he is expressing in these glosses; his comments are sometimes indignant, sometimes approving, sometimes evocative of doubt. He authors them with the calm assurance of an expert in the field.

When MacGregor was young, he read the creek as an adventure story, a comic book, to race through and act out all the parts of. He chased squirrels and ate bugs and threw the bugs back up, and this gratified him. Now, at age twelve, he has learned to read for deeper meaning, to value the criticism of his peers, and his greatest joy is to argue or agree with them, within the redolence of this deep, rich place. The stories I can’t read make the creek, for MacGregor, precious, welcoming, challenging. This is why he loves the creek and loves to be there: It is a living, growing repository of wisdom, and anyone with the right nose and a working bladder is allowed to contribute.

MacGregor is one of many dogs we have brought to the creek over the past three decades. Each one has read it differently. Abby, who was part Greyhound, part Great Dane, walked the creek for almost fifteen years, until her black muzzle was silver, the frostiness of great age extending up the straight line of nose, almost hiding the white streak she was born with. In her youth she rocketed through the creek’s shallow water in twenty-foot bounds, leaving a jet ski wake behind her. Back then, the creek was a map she memorized as she covered every inch of it, chasing deer and armadillos, finding treasure at every turn. But toward the end of her life, Abby’s relationship with the creek changed. Watching her then, you were reminded of a sweet elderly lady who knows her Bible back to front, but has her favorite verses she loves to return to over and over. When Abby stood beneath the pecan trees at her favorite wading spot, water dripping from her jaws, and looked around her, she emanated joy—joy in the simple knowledge that this place was here, that it had always been here. That she was of this place, and always would be.

MacGregor and I were with Abby as she read the creek’s verses through her final years, and now, when we return to her favorite places, MacGregor will lie down of his own accord, and be still for a while. We see the same rocks, the same pecan branches, the same water, and we can feel how much she still is of this place.

Now Freya has joined us at the creek. She is a bizarre alloy of Mastiff and Labrador Retriever whose early life involved homelessness, heartworms, and several litters of puppies. Freya initially regarded the creek as she did all inedible things: with suspicion. MacGregor tutored her in the basics of creek discourse, and she learned to read the news and to second his opinions. But her own understanding of the creek remained unformed until late spring rains and early summer heat combined to teach her the wonders of swimming. Or, more accurately, of floating.

Freya worked zealously to regain the weight she lost as a stray and she is now, as we say, Rubenesque. Her delight upon experiencing buoyancy for the first time was visceral. Even now, when she has swum at the creek almost daily for months, her skeptical brown eyes light up as she reaches chest depth in the water, and she savors the feeling of her tiptoes being lifted from the gravel. She paddles about like a hundred-and-eight-pound duck, biting the cool green water ecstatically, giddy with this new understanding of her body. “Eureka!” you can see her thinking, like Archimedes in the bath. What pure elation, to suddenly realize how much gold you have in you. What a gift.

Watching dogs at the creek, you learn what it means to belong to a place, to be completely at home somewhere in the world. To lose yourself, and thus find yourself, within it. On the rare occasions when I encounter that feeling, I can recognize it instantly. Sometimes in a library, or a certain city, or a wild place. I felt that way one day last summer, bouncing around the back of an ATV on a limestone ridge south of Austin. I leaned back and looked up into a brilliant blue sky a million miles deep; at clouds so white they hurt my eyes. Why I had come there didn’t matter; what I had to do afterward was of no consequence. Like a dog at the creek I understood, for that moment, all I needed to know. That the universe was so vast, and my place within it so precise and so perfect. I knew, to the ounce, exactly how much gold there was in me.

Susan Schorn is a black belt and self-defense instructor whose writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Aeon, Jezebel, The Awl, The Rumpus, and other literary outlets where angry vulgarity is prized. Her memoir Smile at Strangers was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is also on Twitter, @SusanSchorn. Her favorite beer is Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout.