My dog is a practitioner of nonviolent resistance. I know you dont believe this, so I will explain. Last Thanksgiving, at the age of six weeks, she came to live with me on the 13-acre farm in the North Carolina mountains where I rent a small garage apartment.
I knew from Day Two that Savannah was more than just a blonde pup with long eyelashes and a perpetual smile. On her first venture down the porch steps, she fell on her nose and rolled. On her second day, she backed up, took a running start, and spread all four paws out as she lept off the top stepas if to convince herself that if she couldnt walk down, she would fly. With great aplomb, she picked herself up and trotted on. That was the moment my love for her was sealed.
She has been a source of endless delight, gracing me with an abundance of giftscompanionship, affection, chunks of horse manure, dead snakes. With great pride she set at my feet one day a large, decomposing catfish head, the odor of which reached the far hollows of the county (emanating as it was from her fur, since she had joyfully rolled in it before sharing it with me).
But, sadly, despite her talents, Savannah quickly learned that she was not Miss Popularity on the farm. The horses stomped at her; the geese hissed at her; and the goats menacingly lowered their horns whenever she came near. The grumpy old cocker spaniel who lives in the farmhouse next door growled at her whenever she licked his face (which was several times a day); still, she lavished her unconditional love on him, unable to accept that anyone or anything could find her anything but absolutely lovable.
She began playing a game with Nanny, the goat, teasing her by running toward her and then backing up just out of reach of Nannys tether. Then one morning I watched out the kitchen window as Savannah sat down close to the old goat, a look of mild panic on her face as Nanny flashed her horns. But Savannah held fast, trembling a bit as Nanny slowly raised her head and began sniffing her. From that moment on, Savannah and Nanny were pals (a friendship solidified by their mutual ability to eat food, food by-products, and anything vaguely resembling food). I observed Savannah the next day sitting face to face with Nanny, moving her lips (do dogs have lips?) sideways like a goat, munching grass.
Over the weeks, Savannah followed the same approach with the horses, gradually winning them over with her patient charm. I began bragging to my friends about her gentle, nonviolent spirit.
Then came Spring. Suddenly the farm was teeming with small creatures. Savannah, who was the Mahatma Gandhi of the animal kingdom in the fall, took on all the charm of Attila the Hun. I regularly rescued baby rabbits, moles, birds, and once a small turtle from her clutches. When I lamented to a friend about it, he said simply, "Shes a retriever. Its her job."
When the female Canada goose took to a nest at the edge of the lake, I went to work building a protective thicket of blackberry brambles around her. At first she hissed at me, her long neck extended and waving agitatedly in the air. But after a while, she seemed to understand. She relaxed and let me finish the work, watching every move carefully.
Honky, the farms domestic goose (I would like to point out here that I named neither the goose nor the goat), was suddenly banned from the lake by the father gooses persistent hissing and wing-flapping. (It has been a tragic year for Honky, whose mate was killed last winter by a dog.) As Honky wailed from her lonely exile in the pasture, I reminded myself that its the nature of things. And the nature of things is sometimes cruel.
When six balls of yellow fluff emerged from the nest some weeks later, the proud parents herded their babies away from dogs on the shore and snapping turtles in the water. Meanwhile, the ponds multiplying frog population gulped delicate dragonflies, and birds swooped at the lake, snatching fish for their dinner.
I suppose the miracle is that anything at all survives. Instincts of protection and nurture somehow win out over reflexes of destruction. And the world goes on.
As for Savannah, shes teaching me about my own waverings between Gandhi and Attila. We are all more of a mix than we like to admit. We humans just seem (most of the time) to cover our animal instincts better than most other creatures.
I was away last night and came home this morning to discover a delicate spider web, draped with dew, across my door. In a matter of hours, a creature had crafted an intricate home. To my dismay, there was no way to enter my apartment without destroying the web.
It is my nature to live in the place that I am renting, and nature is sometimes cruel. As the web unraveled and the insects trapped in its threads fell free, I wondered if I was the great bug liberator, or the destroyer of a home. And I hoped that in the battle of instincts, nurture and nonviolence will win outin my soul as well as the world.
JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina.