ode to pearl
pearl. livestock guardian dog.
a ridiculously cold monday night. january. darkness sets in early, as it does midwinter when spring feels like an idle promise from lying lover.
for some reason, barking perhaps, our attention is drawn to the pasture and we survey the situation in the field by colemanlanternlamplight.
in shadow and flicker we see four goats, as we had left them moments before, and two more bodies, running in whiteghost through ink, drawing lines in the night with their bodies.
mark, the bolder of us, screams, runs– arms flailing, bansheelike– zigzagged frenzied. two white bodies, one big, one small, clumsy and climb their way up a field fence and over barbedwire strand.
hearts racing, we consider everything we know about the mix of dog and goat, which is, according to any farmer who knows anything, summed up entirely in one word: death.
goats are prey. dogs are predators. the deepgenetics of coyotewolf surging into action when the fleetfooted goat attempts escape. the frolic fun turns into bloodshed with one nip to a back leg, and one dog easily destroys several in a herd. two dogs is a pack and deadly just got deadlier.
we are fortunate, we think; big dog is out and little dog is out, too. we sigh relief and seek warmth inside. in a few hours, we travel out, by car. miles down the road, we see the big ghost dog walking, slowly, away from our farm. we are grateful to still have four goats alive.
but when we return home and to the pasture, lamplit and bundled against chill, the big dog is there, crouched low in a corner. she looks as if she’s settling in, i think.
what if she belongs here, i wonder.
it’s 2006. the internet is an amazing thing even then. i search for dogs that like goats. dogs that lead sheep. dogs that connect to livestock in some way. there are pictures that confirm the ghost dog is a great pyrenees, a breed specializing in guarding livestock in wide open spaces and without help from any human.
i scurry to the pasture, calling off the banshee cries of my husband, intent on saving four goats from the treacherous jaws of canine-inflicted death.
this is this dog’s job, i tell him. this is what this dog must do, i explain.
the rest of the story is long. the owner is found. the dog had protected her livestock, but ate the special turkeys saved from thanksgiving meals by a group of new york city school children who had been given in return for their donations beautiful, 8×10 glossies of their birds, now dead. so the owner moved the dog away from all livestock and the dog broke free of its bondage and left for greener pastures. or four goats, which happened to come first.
the owner comes over and identifies the dog, who will not come near us and shies away from the camera in such a way that i cannot take a clear picture. the owner brings paperwork and surrenders the dog to us. the dog patrols four square miles. every night she climbs out of the pasture, leaving fur and skin evidence on barbed wire, and makes her rounds, protecting anything in the area from whatever the predators might be.
morningtime, collections of fast-food bags and dirty diapers, newspapers and old shoes are piled in front of whatever section of fence happened to be her doorway the night before.
we call her pearl. she allow us to stroke her white coat, her noble, square head. she does not wag. or smile. she is dog. we are human.
we install an electric fence. she understands that two acres is easier to patrol than the entire neighborhood and she stays in the pasture with her four goats.
the coyotes go to other pastures. prey on other goats. the little dog does not return.
we learn what it means to be loyal, to protect without expectation of appreciation, to be ever vigilant for creatures who do not understand danger. pearl teaches us so much, this ghostdog sentinel who traveled so far to show us the way.
note: as a former teacher, i love the call and response of artistic conversation. mark, my husband, has always found pearl to be a source of inspiration; she is so steadfast and stoic in her dedication to purpose. after my first photography showing of ‘goatballad’ in july 2010, mark was saddened that i did not have a piece of writing about pearl, so he wrote the following piece, from his perspective. i share it here in homage to the conversation we can all have about the places where our lives meet. (if anyone else out there would like to ‘continue’ this conversation with another piece of writing, i invite you to email me.)
Pearl, shared by Mark Durfield
as I prepare for bed
I hear Pearl barking
and I wonder
is she facing an onslaught of coyotes
all by herself
with no help from her charges
who treat her with little respect
though she could easily
slay them all
if she were so inclined
is she barking in warning
as the predators climb the fence
to encircle the helpless herd
requiring Pearl to make
lightening fast decisions
regarding life and death
is she calling me out to help
clean up the carnage
there is only success
and if the latter
she would not be barking
is she barking to discourage them
to make them think twice about
entering her domain
implications that the risk is too great
that if they dare cross the line
they will be met with a hurricane
of teeth, white fur and fearless rage
and so the coyotes
stand there thinking
goat would be tasty
but a rabbit would be easier
does she bark
just to let the world know
that she is there
she is at work
she is alert
she is prepared
her borders are secure
is she just letting me know…
I do not know why Pearl is barking
but I trust her to protect
what I cannot
to see smell hear
what I lack the senses (or sense) to detect
to guard her charges unfailingly
(in spite of their indifference
and occasional headbutts to the side)
simply in exchange
for a pat on the head
and enough food to eat
Pearl is constant
Pearl is my hero