Friday, January 20, 2017

Socks, hygge and Elfie

Tom's Christmas leftover socks, made not from cold cuts, dry sage and onion stuffing and petrified Christmas pudding, but from the ends of sundry sweaters, bits of tapestry wool, hats and other socks. Leftovers, store cupboards and stash, the best of things.

This seems to me the kind of picture used to illustrate the concept of hygge, narrowly beaten by Brexit as the neologism of the year. While googling around, I found this Slate article, well worth reading if rather disturbing to quietist stay-at-homes like myself - 'Responding to [the events of 2016] in any meaningful way will mean dousing the log fire, leaving the house, and feeling a chill'. Also a lengthier, rather less abrasive, analysis in the Grauniad, and an amusing last word ('hygge is byllshytte') from the Daily Mash, of course. Personally I find the conviviality aspect of hygge rather offputting* but reserve the right, at this stage of the proceedings, to maintain necessary levels of warmth and comfort, and indeed, to turn inward and give up on the world sometimes as we make our sad way through this ever darkening vale of tears.

We do brace ourselves and get outside. Elfie is a perpetual delight, though she continues to behave in a decidedly non-hyggeligt manner towards many forms of wildlife, and cats. Letting her off the lead on the old rail track, she trotted along amicably with me for a bit then suddenly picked up something, probably the trace of a roe deer, and in a trice was over the drop of the wooded escarpment, a couple of metres at least though soft with undergrowth and leaf mould, and rapidly bouncing off out of sight and hearing like an orange and white springbok. I stood on the edge whistling and swearing, out loud.

'Bonjour, Lucieee' from behind me.

It was our former insurance agent, neat and poised with her dear little pedigree westie on a neat red lead at her side, a woman I truly like but who seems to have a knack of making demands on me at the wrong times.

'Oh, bonjour Simone, c'est ma vilaine qui est partie...'

'Oh yes,' with clear what-can-you-expect sympathy, 'that hunting dog you got from the SPA. Will she come back?'

'Uhm, in general she comes back. It might take a few minutes...'

She went on to regale me with the details of her daughter's career, punctuated by rather unhelpful remarks and questions ('Aren't you afraid for her? How long have you had her now?) which I tried to listen and respond to while still whistling and swearing, inwardly.

I finally shook her off, climbed a nearby bank into the wood, whistled a couple more times and a few moments later Her Predatoriness came crashing back, pushing through brambles and over branches in her eagerness to return and share her joy in her adventures with me, as always. I'm happy to say I've never poisoned such recall as she does have by showing her anything other than delight, praise, treats and much whooping on our reunion, most of which is genuine, coming from pure relief.

Yet it is a bit more than that. The love we bear one another, and a pocketful of tasty treats, won't quite stop her running away after something irresistible, but I'm beginning to think it will make her want to come back, and there's nothing like her eager wild face coming towards me, or the extra-affectionate cuddles we have the evening after one of her rasher exploits. And her acute, intense awareness and perceptions of the natural world (even if she does mostly want to chase, kill and eat it) are infectious: I never knew before in which spots in the bank the field mice lived, or in which flooded ditches the water voles had their holes, that there was a family of partridges that lived around the hamlet of le Boissy, or indeed that the roe deer sometimes graze in winter in that low lying wet paddock by the farm below Quengo or in the long fields beside the mirabelle hedge; I knew these places, of course, but not their finer, more living details, albeit prompted by my need to be one step ahead of her whenever possible. I am curious as to why blackbirds get her going and are fun to harry and stalk when they rustle around in the hedges, yet their fieldfare cousins in the open are put up in only the most lackadaisical manner, and why crows are given a wide and respectful berth, even an injured one in the middle of a field was left alone with very little calling off from me.

I am torn; I want her to express her nature and the behaviours which make her what she is, but I also need to restrain, intercept and control them, for her own safety and for the sake of the poor struggling wild creatures who are persecuted enough - when spring comes and they have their young I know I must constrain her even more. I hate the whole business, in the modern world, of humans hunting with dogs and killing for fun, I'm squeamish about dead and injured things, but I also find myself wanting to know more about why she does what she does, how much is nature and how much training, as well, of course, as wondering why someone with a dog fine-tuned to respond to pheasants, hare and partridge, and fairly indifferent to pigeons and rabbits, simply let her get lost and never reclaimed her, which we'll never know. Her buggering off isn't always rebelliousness or ignorance, I'm sure, but that she thinks that's what we want her to do, what a dog like Elfie is supposed to do when out in the countryside with her humans. Her predatory impulse towards injured and lame things (toads on the terrace get no more than a perfunctory sniff unless they are trapped and floundering in puddles in black plastic, wagtails always catch her attention because their long-tailed bobbing movement looks like the trailing flight of something damaged) is repugnant to us, but natural and in fact quite kind in hunting terms, both in man-made hunting and in nature; wounded, damaged prey needs to be pursued and finished; trainers and hunters on épagneul and American Brittany websites I've researched pride their dogs on their ability to track, tackle and bring back crippled quarry.

It seems to me I could sometimes work with her impulses, rather than confuse her with aversion. The live (though presumably not well) blackbird she dived into the leaf litter and pulled out was not killed but only shocked and winded, it fluttered off apparently undamaged when Tom took it away, probably if I hadn't panicked and shouted when she did it so that she tensed and held on to it and had to be forced to give it up it might have fared better. One day, after her nerves were jangled and her mind distracted by coming across a number of hunters and their dogs (whom she hates and reacts to with volleys of uncharacteristic barking and growling) out and about, I took her out on the terrace to brush her. When I'd finished and we turned to go in, she broke away from me, rushed over to the edge of the terrace where the birds feed, and picked up a dead sparrow, which I'd not seen but she evidently had, and brought it back to me in a perfect retrieve. Another time, running around in a pasture some way from me, she picked up something large and grisly looking; instead of running at  her shouting 'leave-it', I called and cajoled and encouraged her to bring it over, which she did, with some effort, as it proved to be an enormous, ancient thigh bone of an ox, very grubby and much chewed (lord knows what it was doing there). She was a little reluctant to give it up but with much praise and laughter and lots of treats we sealed the bargain very cheerfully so I took it from her and led her away from it.

It often seems to me a rather wonderful and mysterious thing that we have this strange, wild, golden-eyed creature in our home, lying by our fire or on our couch, eating from a tin and a packet, snuggling our feet and soaking up endless love and affection while very visibly dreaming, and enacting, her dreams of flight, pursuit,bloodshed and mayhem. A dog the like of which I haven't had before, and the source of much joy.

*As I've said before, I can do conviviality, but seldom find it reassuring or conducive to complacency.


Zhoen said...

A rather catlike quality, I think. Our cats live with us, but they have their own lives. The semi-feral trait that demands respect and takes nothing less.

How wonderful, such generous love, on the parts of all concerned species.

the polish chick said...

i love the idea of hygge with or without the conviviality. and the latter only on my terms and limited in duration. that's one thing that this texas winter isn't particularly conducive towards. hard to hygge when it's 26C!

your detailed narrative about elfie is quite beautiful and thoughtful. i love that you don't merely "have a dog" but look at her as a living, breathing being separate from you. she is lucky to have you and tom as her humans!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Oh Lucy, you have an innate understanding of animals - dogs especially - which is quite rare and admirable. I've never come across it to such a degree before. Lucky Elfie.

Avus said...

I enjoy so much your ruminations about Elfie. She is so like my own Roxy, who has lurcher in her makeup. But really your very last sentence sums up exactly my feelings about my own dog.

I thought we had reached a level of control whereby I could release her from her lead on a safe path (hedges either side and no road near). However a cat ran across in front of her and she was gone through the hedge. No amount of calling, whistling or treats will retrieve her in these situations. She had taken off into the adjacent housing estate and I spent half an hour quartering the many closes trying to find her. Eventually I ran her to earth in a close bounded by an iron railing, the only trouble being that I was on the "road" side of the railing and she could not get through (the reason she had stopped, no doubt). She saw me and came to the railing. Luckily she is a small dog and I was able to reach over and lift her bodily by her collar to me. I couldn't have done that with one of my old German Shepherds, but they would have returned on command in the first place. She is permanently back on a lead now!

Roderick Robinson said...

"former insurance agent". I feel you've mentioned her before, even explained why she became "former" but can't be sure. Not that I'm fishing for this sort of thing touches on one of the agonies of being middle-class.

We hire service suppliers, often on a continuing basis and then find the need to sever the relationship. Embarrassment rises and chances are we fudge it. Most recently for us it was the man from whom we pre-ordered DVDs delivered on a weekly cycle. As DVDs started to be replaced by streaming, the choice of titles became worse and worse. Also it meant we always had to be in on Tuesday nights. It was clear his business was failing, a classic instance of what Occasional Speeder is wont to call "squirmy". We wanted to cancel but worried about our £3.50 being a bulwark between him and starvation. Finally he arrived one Tuesday to say the work was "no longer viable". Sympathy and joy fought a knock-down battle in my mind as I shook hands with him for the last time. But perhaps your insurance agent's departure wasn't equally squirmy, I hope so.

I think one of the reasons why we wouldn't have a dog (apart from those already mentioned) revolves round the matters you speculate on in this post. Mankind intervened, tinkered with the nature of previously wild animals, and now mayhem, red in tooth and claw, occurs on the doorstep instead of remaining decently hidden in furrows and copses. Aeons ago Elfie would have been a wolf and you would have been competing with her over the availability of red meat. Alas, in the interim, Elfie's forebears took on charm and became rewarding companions. The result is not even a dilemma since Elfie and her descendants could not realistically revert to wildness. Elfie is what she is and you, cursed in this case by introspection, must make allowances. An opportunity for a poem tinged first with sadness then with fatalism? Or you could watch The Crown - amazing that we should be doing just that (I should mention it costs us nothing) but it is as good as the critics say. And unlike Shakespeare you don't have to work out who's who.

Rouchswalwe said...

I kept this post for the weekend, for when I could brew a good cup of coffee and dive in. Elfie's definition of hygge differs from ours! I'm so happy you found each other in this world.

The Crow said...

Missing you terribly, Lucy. Hope you and Tom are doing well; Elfie, too, as always.