God bless us, every one

20171126_115603One of the first things we hear on BBC Radio 4 every morning – after our beloved shipping forecast that is – is ‘Prayer for the Day’, a surprisingly diverse two-minute slot, presented a week at a time by a wide variety of professionals drawn from all kinds of religious denominations. Unlike ‘Thought for the Day’, which is broadcast before the 8 o’clock news during the stations’s flagship news show, Today, the earlier slot is a true prayer, sent out into the ether on the wings of a carefully considered personal reflection, and all the better for that.

20171130_180249This week’s presenter is Jonathan Wittenberg, in whom we first became interested when we heard him on a previous stint on the programme. Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in this country, Rabbi Wittenberg has a warmth and a breadth of vision which is expressive of his ministry. He loves, respects and draws strength from all of the natural world, but especially from his collie, the inspiration for one of his books, ‘Things My Dog Has Taught Me: About Being A Better Human‘.

20171226_103025It was a delightful surprise to hear our doggy selves placed at the centre of yesterday’s prayer; what an honour to be the Rabbi’s inspiration; to be publicly acknowledged for our natural goodness and how this can draw those who live alongside us to a more numinous way of being. Do listen, or read the transcript available on the BBC’s iPlayer, available here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qnfhc

If you would like to read more of the Rabbi’s wise words, his website, Heart and Mind, can be found at: http://jonathanwittenberg.org/

 

A bit of radiant joy

20180119_081934Early Saturday morning, we were met at the end of our run by a bonny seal pup, resting on the beach between fishing expeditions. As the unaccompanied Kemo Sabe approached him, he turned and snorted, then returned to his laborious struggle towards the unhelpfully wave-less sea. Even when the water kissed his nose, he was reluctant to take to it, but there was no doubting he would be safer at sea than on land once the sun was up and the number of curious and interfering dogs running on the beach increased. Recent news reports from around the British coast have highlighted the plight of record numbers of seal pups – brought ashore by the wintry storms – where they’ve been troubled by the public and their pets. This has all too frequently resulted in pups being abandoned by their mothers.

20180119_082246.jpgDay by day we up here are unsure which season we are meant to be in, even though country-wide – and not too far south of us, either – the winter has been making its presence felt. On the ground here, in our little corner of north Northumberland, we were until yesterday afternoon’s bit of a blizzard snow-free, and all that excitement had completely disappeared by evening. Mostly, despite varying wind strength and direction, things remain calm, though every day is different and, prevailing over us, is Jack Frost. The intensity of the cold varies from day to day; it has been bitter here but, more often, the brightness of the sun is a joy and, this coming Wednesday, we are once again in for temperatures in double figures. And so the days rumble by, giving us a bit more light as they do so.

20180113_092949A few days ago on an undistinguished morning – certainly un-spring-like, the sky grey, a bearable chill in the air – one of our local blue tits stopped his back and forth from the nuts and fat balls and flew across to the nest box in which he was born. He sat at its entrance, comforted perhaps by happy thoughts, and pulled at a few tufts of retriever fur which Kemo Sabe had stuffed inside on top of last year’s bedding. He then paused for several minutes on his perch, poking his little head inside a couple more times.  There, in the depth of Winter, it was as if one tiny creature among countless others  could contemplate something distant yet fateful which we cannot begin to comprehend. Some glimmer of a future back and forth; as though rehearsing a part for which he is as yet un-cast. Truly, ‘the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,’ as someone famous once said.

He left no footstep

Tommy 2As the old year passes and the new year begins, we remember things about the Old Guard: those wonderful Dickens dogs who have done their bit and gone ahead to join the great Newman Noggs, who himself died at the very beginning of January several decades ago. The day he died the earth was frozen so hard that it took two days to excavate his grave, under mature, majestic trees.  Left briefly alone to carry the banner through a long, harsh winter was Wilkins, the gentlest of bears but never a natural leader.

Tommy 1Shortly thereafter into the clan came young Tommy Traddles, seen here with Uncle Willie in front of Noggsy’s springtime grave, bedecked with daffodils. Were he still alive, Tommy would be twenty-two tomorrow, which is worth recalling, in view of the arc as long as a rainbow  – both familial and magical – which stretches back from Barnaby today, through our own Newman (Uncle Noggsy) to Jack (Uncle Johnny) and thus through Wilkins to the Great Noggs himself. The line of fun, frolic and foolishness remains unbroken to this day, a small but real comfort given that dogs like us live such short lives and our passing causes such pain.

Tommy 3Tommy – or Tonto as he came to be called – was an obedient, gentle creature, emotional and highly sensitive. You can see from his expression here how he hated the sensation of walking on the big pebbles at Brighton with Uncle Johnny, mainly because the unevenness hurt his arthritic joints; he preferred the smaller stones at Southwold, into which he would dig himself a cool scrape to avoid the sun. The palest of the Dickens Dogs, and at a time when it was unusual and not bred for, he had a ghostly, other-worldly air, which made him a sweet companion. As a pup he was a persistent chewer (an uncommon trait for our family), demolishing table legs, plaster-work (a particular favourite) and shoes, all without embarrassment. Greatly loved, his end was made more dreadful by his having two conditions, necessary medication for which conflicted, with dire results. He died at the vet’s, under emergency circumstances, which saddens us all even to this day. He alone of all the Dickens boys has no earthly resting place.

But what we always recall with joy was that Tommy had some time before he was born that January, so many years ago, to learn from the august Noggsy, who to this day maintains an eagle eye on all aspects of the canine afterlife. As we write, friends of ours are mourning their beloved terrier, Alice, recently recalled by the spinner of the years. And we learnt the other day that our dear friend, Bailey the shar-pei, has but a couple of months to live, beset by a terrible cancer which only noxious pills can keep at bay a little while longer. Only eight, she still delights in chasing me madly about, as she has always enjoyed doing when she gets the chance. We are truly indomitable creatures, which in itself makes our passing, when it comes, so much the worse. Dear Tonto, dear Alice, dear Bailey: God bless us, every one.

 

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance . . .

20171111_213346.jpgIt is almost as if Ophelia is advising whenever dinner’s being prepared now – there is so much to consider; not so much about symbolic significance as what harm potential ingredients might do. We Dickens Dogs have always benefited from having all kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs as extras on our meals: apple, banana, orange, coriander, mint, cabbage, carrot, blueberries, rice, porridge – as long as it is wholesome, it is fine with us and eagerly consumed. Things are now more complicated; separate administration is required.

For the three bigger boys there’s still no problem but, in the light of Nicholas’s results, suddenly precise knowledge of the world of herbs, plants, grasses and fungi has assumed great importance. Now everything from which Nico might eat has to be examined in order to avoid the foodstuffs to which we now know little Nico is definitely allergic. On careful reading, we now know that nearly every tin of Lily’s Kitchen, every bag of high quality or even specialized dog kibble, every packet of hypo-allergenic snacks, or otherwise super-duper dog food seems to contain something or other on his banned list. And it is quite a list, so Kemo Sabe has to be really careful and refer to its contents every time a meal is prepared which might casually include a few tasty spoonfuls from a source innocuous to the rest of our gang.

20171112_145757.jpgThe expanded results from the testing laboratory reveal that, when it comes to meat, only chicken, turkey and venison – as well as white fish – can be eaten by the little soul without any risk of reaction. But salmon, whole milk, eggs, soya, and oats all produced a positive reaction. Potato is one of the most common fillers used in prepared dog food, whether wet or dry, and we now know it’s one of Nico’s real nasties, as well as its close relatives, sweet potato and tomato: deadly nightshade family, all. As for the lilies of the field, so to speak, it’s as though the very greensward itself was determined to wage war on Nick’s immune system: bluegrass, perennial rye grass, timothy, English plantain, mug-wort, ragweed, cockle-bur, dandelion, golden rod, nettle, pig-weed. These carpet the heath we walk on every afternoon behind the castle and there are more plants there which adversely affect him than do him no harm, though right now their pollen is no problem, of course.

But Nico himself is in fine form, and his skin has settled down well. His kindly vet will see him again in a few more weeks and then we will decide what, if anything, to do next. Mr Pip will keep you posted but, in the meantime, meal preparation remains a protracted affair, with lots of fiddling about and rumination and reference to lists behind closed doors: unendurable for one as excitable as I!

 

 

 

Signify this to the doctor

20171021_091654Tiny Nico’s skin problem is still very much under investigation, which has kept everyone busy over the last few weeks. Quite apart from regular visits to the vet (who calls this business a saga) to see the effect on his symptoms of different antibiotics, and subsequent medications, everything we eat has come under scrutiny and, as a result, we seem to have waited extra long for the bowls to be served up.  Feeding time is always complicated in our house, but it has become  still more deliberative now that sensitivity to something or other  – and it may well be food-related – is affecting Nico’s health.

20171021_091754.jpgAs far as the little fellow himself is concerned, he is as cheerful and full of beans as ever, though the return of the odd sore spot to the back of a paw means he is no longer with us on the morning beach trundle until we get to the bottom of all this. Now Autumn is here, he’s missing the excitement of completing our run entirely in darkness, but we greet him and Uncle NuNu at the end when we are all reunited, swathed in our fluorescent suits of lights, illuminated by Kemo Sabe’s head-torch. Apart from seeing one very pleasant holidaying husky a couple of times this week, we see nobody else at all, only the curlews crying at the shoreline, and we see them only with our ears, as it were.

20171021_091923 (3)What to give us dogs to eat has become a hot topic in the last few years and one on which Kemo Sabe finds herself frequently consulted, whether it’s about avoiding allergies, preventing weight gain or whatever. Innovative dog food manufacturers have cheerfully joined the grain/wheat/gluten-free/raw-food band-wagon  (perm any one from whatever angle you like) and many dog owners – perhaps most – now think seriously about what they put on our plates. Over all the many decades Kemo Sabe has been feeding dogs, only the great and original Newman Noggs ever suffered from a skin complaint, and that only temporarily as a young pup and it was easily treated. The Dickens Dogs have eaten widely and well. Every day we are given a variety of food; a mix of dry and wet; cooked and raw meat; complemented by raw and cooked vegetables – it’s quite a palaver! Now we are getting supplements as well: fish oils and sardines, things to keep our joints as well as our coats happy, too.

20171021_091638Nico is off the medication now and we all are curious to see what might flare up and when. For three years he has been perfectly well, without so much as a hint of allergy, but he this week had a skin test which will tell us much more about any allergens he has taken a dislike to. For what it’s worth, we all tend to think this is something to do with the summer flowering plants on the heath behind the castle. We await results: if infection isn’t involved, there has to be another way forward. In the meantime, it is almost lunch preparation time and I can barely control my anticipation. As she writes, I gaze up at the one I love most in all the world knowing she really does everything she can to keep us all on an even, healthy keel. Now, where’s my dinner?

Comings and goings

20170920_065540.jpgNicholas, three next Monday, has been really unwell lately and has made three visits to the vet on account of a mysterious skin condition which, tests reveal, is caused by two bacterial infections. Worrying as this has been for all of us, apart from this Monday –  when his demeanour nose-dived as a (thankfully short-lived) depression developed – he has been his usual buoyant self. That day the vet found he also had an ear infection, and a temperature of 103 degrees, which must have made him very miserable indeed but, once he started treatment for that, his old indomitable character returned and, by bedtime, he was full of beans once more. Another couple of antibiotics to go and then, we hope, his irritating patches and sore pads will, we hope, gradually fade forever.

20170920_064806It has been a challenging and mysterious syndrome, which has intrigued the vet and will lead to allergy testing once he is fully fit. Most striking of all is the resilience shown by this tiny creature as his feet have borne blisters and his beautiful conker-brown coat has lost fur in tiny round patches. Despite everything, he has remained a very shiny sausage and, thank heavens, a hungry one: surely nothing is so worrying to those who love us as when we cannot bear to eat. My brush with that awful abscess early this year rendered me wholly unlike myself, unable to think of food as the pain and sickness racked my overheated little body. We are lucky that our human loved ones read us so well and, speaking the wordless language of love, intervene in time to bring us careful help. Every time we see a rainbow – like this extraordinary one, which recently accompanied the most amazing sunrise – we are reminded of the covenant between us.

20170908_162416All the swallows and martins are now well on their way south. We said goodbye and bon voyage to this last family, who remained a while after their fellow nesters had left, braving some miserable days in order to give the little ones extra flying and feeding practice around Bamburgh.  We wonder how they are, and the local swallows who gave us such a splendid aerial display only the day before they too disappeared. A bientot! And welcome pink-footed geese, crying as they traverse our coast and settle on the stubble, even as I write this.

When God closes a door  . . .