ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

TRIBAL HOSPITALITY AND INCREDIBLE JOURNEYS: Sometimes the most important journey we make, is the journey that takes us home.

Last Thursday, Larry and Debby, neighbors in our small mountain community of less than 100 homes, sent out a plea to help them look for their lost dog. Molly, a beautiful Golden Retriever they had rescued when she was 6 months old, had apparently wandered away from home the day before. Snow had fallen that evening, blanketing the dirt roads, the yards, and the thick forest in white.

I set out that morning on a walk in search of Molly, as did several other neighbors. We saw Larry on the road. He’d been searching for hours—along the snow-covered hiking trails, near the picnic grounds, down to the meadow, among the wild grasses and groves of aspen that grow among the pines.
This neighborhood was my childhood home—my first introduction to real community. When I moved back a year and a half ago, I was greeted by neighbors who had known me for fifty years. Many, like me, had journeyed away, only to return home.

Mountain lions and coyotes also call this landscape home. The big cats prowl and hunt here.  The coyotes den and raise their young on the same pastures on which our small community herd of horses graze.

Children gather wild onions and build tree houses; dogs greet each other on the road with wagging tails and occasional snarls. Neighbors quarrel and make up, sharing the community log splitter and July 4th picnic duties. Sewing clubs, and book clubs, thrive.

When the plea to help find Molly was sent out, it brought to mind one of my favorite stories. When I was 10 ½ years old, my father gave me a copy of Sheila Burnford’s classic novel The Incredible Journey. You probably know the story.  Three beloved house pets--a doughty young Labrador retriever, a roguish old white bull terrier and an indomitable Siamese cat--travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness in search of their owners, facing starvation, exposure, and wild forest animals to "finally make their way home to the family they love.”

At one point in the journey, the three animals wander into a small community of Ojibway Indians gathered around their evening campfires. “The scent on the evening breeze was a fragrant compound of roasting rice, wild-duck stew and wood smoke.” Ravenous and exhausted, with the old white dog severely wounded, they stay for a few hours, long enough to eat the food kindly offered them, and to rest beside the warmth of the fires.

When the restless urge to find their way home strikes again, the threesome moved on. The small Ojibway community watched them as they “passed out of sight and into the blackness of the night.” The people believed that the “Spirits had sent the old white dog to them, hungry and wounded, to test their tribal hospitality.”

Two days after Molly was lost, Larry sent out a sad announcement. “We found Molly this morning. Apparently she passed away of a heart attack or stroke. She was in our front yard the whole time, the Wednesday evening snow covered her up…”  

She had died in the palm of her home, in the heart of her community. Larry wrote that he had been “humbled by the emails and phone calls from neighbors offering sympathy and warm thoughts. “I realize now,” he said, “that to have this kind of support is what defines community. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

I don’t think the Spirits were testing our small community, but I am glad that our hospitality poured forth and that we kept the flames of hope burning for Larry and Debby. I’m glad that a mountain lion did not venture into their yard, and that coyotes did not tempt Molly from her home. I’m glad, too, that I found my way back here, where tribal values still warm the hearths of my neighbors' homes.