tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: dogs

A Path, A Creek, A Snake

There are so many ways to move through the world. I see the folks who’ve chosen to be oblivious. I wonder about sweet oblivion. I can’t do it. I am a natural born wonderer, for better or worse. I dream and create, sometimes obsessively, in my head. Lately I’ve made it a point to look around me and see. I have to make it a point to do this because humans generally drive me nuts and, even though I’m one of us, I’m tired of us. Given the choice of being infuriated or detached, I usually choose to be detached (which is close to oblivious but not quite the same, to me at least). This is a phase. I’m sure. I’ll find my way free. I think. How many bitter old men have I known? So many! It isn’t any wonder that a thinking man might become tired of the way of things and turn inside, arrange his inner being, and watch the world fall to pieces. It’s an option, albeit a sad one.

My favorite people are the Observers. They are the ones with the curly smiles and the secret light in their eyes. They not only see the fly in their soup, they are laughing about it. Yes, we are messy, the entire lot of us, but we are here and life is what we do. So I’ve been looking around and here’s what I see. Here’s my non-video, non-photo show. I am the filter. You are both participant and recipient. The world is the stage. We are dancing and tumbling and flinging our arms while the stars spin fire and the whales sing hymns under the wild and wondrous sea.

At the bottom of the grade from high desert to low there’s a creek that sometimes runs, it’s running now. It comes off the reservation and runs itself to death in the desert. I like to stop and climb down below the highway, take my clothes off and sit in the hole where the water swirls deeper. I’ve added rocks for the last 20 years so that this hole will hold enough water to be chest deep when I’m sitting. I think others, probably kids, have added rocks too. I sit and think about the small society of creek sitters, those of us who would sit and listen to the cars as they rocket past above the creek and the concrete and the graffiti that says Mikki loves Cody and then medicated. I don’t think the words were from the same person and I would assume that it didn’t mean that Mikki loves Cody to be Medicated. But maybe.

The desert is big today. Even the giant airliner looks small as it tilts and shows me it’s silver underbelly like a fish gliding past with the sky as it’s sea. There are the big white props generating electricity from the wind and they are standing where they stand and they are turning in unison, now and then a broken one sits, ashamed. I can see every crease in San Jacinto, every possible passage to the summit. Miles of granite and buckbrush and juniper and finally ponderosa. There are a thousand years of wandering in those folds, I think of all the rocks that will never feel human touch. I wonder if the rocks are lonely or content with solitude. I hope they know I think of them so that when I turn to dust, they will recognize my particulates and welcome me. Rocks have been here for a long time. They’ve seen a lot. Rocks hold the ground down.

There’s an old black guy that walks along the path that I run. Or maybe I run the path that he walks, I don’t know which. He’s got a beard and wears a hat, he’s probably 62. He looks fit and light. He always raises his hand to me and I do the same back. I feel like we’re friends. I’m glad we meet in that little space on the trail where we nod and smile and see one another. I wonder what makes him walk. Sometimes I see him twice, out and back, and yesterday he raised his arm and made a fist when I saw him the second time. It was like he was telling me that he liked that I was running. It made me happy and content to be in the world and to be running and to have a common path with a maybe 62 year old man.

They cut an old tree down near Brian’s house. It was probably 75 years old. A desert ponderosa, short and squatty and thick and healthy. There wasn’t a reason, it was just not a part of the plan anymore. Beetles and bugs have been passing for days, migrating out of the tree that was their home and the home of their ancestors for as long as any of them can remember. I hope they find another home. It will be tough here in the desert to find a spot before the onset of summer. I hope some of that old tree’s pinecones get dropped along the way so that she can live through her children. It’s not smart to be a tree near humans; you never know what we’re gonna do.

Several years ago I found a weasel that had been hit by a car on the side of the road. It was so amazing. It was a little male mustelid with the sharpest teeth ever known. It was open-mouthed and looked dangerous even though it’s guts were out on the asphalt. I picked it up and took it about a hundred yards to a big pepper tree in the field. I set it down in the grass and looked at it a little more. That tree is gone and the field is plowed now. I guess they are going to build houses there in that space. I wonder how much water it will take to fill all the swimming pools.

This morning is quiet. My running partner, Scout, is looking at me with yellow eyes. If he had the power to get whatever he wanted we would have been running at 4:30 this morning. Right now he is trying to figure out how to speak human so that he can convince me that it’ll be so great to run. He is young and powerful. He’s a Malinois breed and he was bred for war, I just run with him and that seems to be fine. I’m glad he’s not at war. A while back we came across a huge gopher snake that was beginning a treacherous journey across a busy road. I saw a big truck coming and I couldn’t help myself (cars are not fair to animals), I stepped out with Scout at my side. The truck had plenty of time to stop. The snake was hot and in a powerful mood. I touched it’s tail and it hissed and moved out. Scout watched intently but quietly. He is beautifully behaved because of his owner and my good ol’ buddy, Brian, and the training they do together. The big snake moved. The truck waited. Scout watched with a tilted head. For whatever reason the driver of the truck liked what I had done. He waved. I waved back. The snake went his way and I began to run again. So did Scout. It was one of those days when I am simple and happy.

Prologue: One of my favorite writers died recently. He often wrote about death and grief and what they mean to us, how they affect us. He died. Just like that. He wrote a piece about hearts and hummingbirds and whales and banana pancakes and I read it everyday for a month. When my sister was in a coma from a terrible car crash, I read that piece to her. I sat next to her hospital bed in a tattered orange shirt that I wore like a uniform at the time. Later I found out that she remembered everything and she asked me what I had read to her. Joyas Volaradas by Brian Doyle, I replied. It’s so beautiful is it not? I remember the part in that bit of writing that I cannot read aloud without feeling the tears come into my eyes. It’s near the end and it is as pretty as the sunrise. Brian Doyle did not know me, but he was an observer and a story teller and a human that felt what humans feel. I will visit his thoughts in the words he wrote and I will attempt to tell stories with his level of compassion and wonder. Rest in peace, Brian Doyle, and carry on.

honoring the hound

dogs. they really do have it pretty good for the most part. even in the countries where i’ve seen them running loose in big packs, some of them with mange or missing eyes, they are living it up, tails wagging to the end. i grew up around dogs. most of the time we had more than one and sometimes three or four. my favorite was a staffordshire terrier named brewster who had more handles than a mini-van; brew, brewskie, rubber dog, pinkie, etc.  Brewster  was in the breed of dogs considered “pit-bulls” and he was a pretty awesome specimen. i don’t know how he managed to be so incredibly muscular by laying around in the sun begging for a scratch behind the ear, but damn he was awesome to look at. with five of us kids around to play with, he saw every trick in the book. i never saw brewskie snap at anyone, dog or human or cat. i did however see him try and jump up and sit in the 6 inch wide window cill next to pumpkin the cat on christmas morning. the result was that he landed upside down in the middle of the christmas tree and all us kids laughed to tears at his weirdness. how many times did we build tremendous obstacles in the hallway and then knock on the door only to bring the ol’ hound out of his nap in the back bedroom so we could see him do some miraculous leap over a chair and five cushions? this all because he so loved visitors. he was afraid of spiders (i’m sure he was pinched once and assumed that they were all capable of inflicting the same pain), rubber-bands (there were 3 of us ornery boys so you can figure out why he might not like rubber-bands), and the dark. when he had a bad dream he would come running with his ears pealed back and bury his pink and black nose in your lap. his love was impossible to push away. he didn’t beg for food because it didn’t seem to be a part of his nature (i always thought that was strange about him) and he mostly wanted to be in the room with you, not in your lap. my mom was the one who was smitten by ol brewster. she just adored him and with good reason. when us kids were at school, brewster was stretched out in a sunbeam watching my mom plant flowers, listening to the frustrations and dreams of her beautiful mind. he never spoke and his ears moved like satellite dishes snatching every change in tone, his eyes went from her working hands to her face, his eyebrows showing the concern of the moment, his tail, thick as a shovel handle, giving a thump against the ground whenever their eyes met.

brewster lived a wonderful life. he did so love to take a nap in the summer sun under the mile high air of colorado.  he was a pink-skinned, short-haired dog and after he got skin cancer on his belly, he lived less than a year more. we tried to keep him out of the sun but he was such a trickster, he would find it and he would damage the same area over and over. when he died, my mother was very quiet. oh my, she shed some tears, but they were not sobs, they were the big tears that roll out from the soul like the tide. she made it clear that she did not want another dog, she just didn’t think her heart could take a similar loss, and besides, “he was the loveliest of them all.”

three days ago i sat outside the keys cafe in lake tahoe. joe and azzie have made their little restaurant a “spot”. i sat there and chatted with a new friend. he was about my age and i liked his way of moving and communicating; he was slow and consistent like a tug boat. come to find out, that’s kinda what he does; he works on a boat that rescues other boats on the lake. as we were talking some people walked by with a young german shepherd. my friend broke off from his sentence and watched the dog sniffing and listening with ears too big for his body. without looking at me, i heard him say that he just lost his shepherd a couple months before. when i saw his eyes i could see that look, the same as my mom from 20 years ago. our conversation waned and he excused himself, i’m sure to escape the obviously uncomfortable possibility of crying into a cup of coffee. i liked that guy and i was sad for him.

i have wondered at the connection. dogs and humans. there certainly is a good amount of symbiosis between our species. it takes so little to have a dog’s undivided attention. we as humans are so busy with our ego that we often aren’t so good at taking the time to listen to one another. i’m guilty of it for sure. let’s face it, a dog doesn’t check his texts in the middle of a meaningful conversation. dogs will wait for you and are excited to see you even when you’ve neglected them for weeks. i don’t own a dog, don’t want one, but i get it. whenever dogs are acting up or acting out, i simply look at the owner and wonder what the deal is. those four-leggeds have been running on the outer edges of our tribes for thousands of years. whatever is weird about them they probably got from us. but really, i do love what they are and their resiliency. and so i wrote this little piece…about hound dogs and that slow swing of the tail as they watch and wonder what we’re gonna do next.

a dog fight on the farm

i don’t know if i ever would have been involved in farming if it weren’t for two distinct influences; one was a fellow marine, Brian Foster, and his lady, Summer; the other, Nick Mahmood, a dyed-in-the-wool wildman and his lady, Elizabeth. the personalities involved here are books in the making. i have the knowledge in my gourd but i don’t know if i have the skill to bring their stories to life. for now, i’ll stick to story-telling which is my favorite cop-out.

i lived with brian and summer for years. one year i lived in a tree in their backyard…yeah, i’m that guy. i’m the guy wives usually do not want around because i can live on a square meter of space in the backyard and be smiling with coffee at 4:30am. i’m the big, stinky, hairy dog in the window. and so i must pay homage here to both summer and elizabeth for not only allowing me to be in their lives, but also for wanting me there. so much love.

i will write about brian and summer in time. i will tell about how brian owns a successful tattoo business and how he has been a professional fighter all over the world and how summer rocked his world and how they made a baby (maybe not in detail, but…well, you know what i mean.) but for now i’ll tell you a story about nick and elizabeth….

i don’t know who’s tougher, nick or elizabeth. i sometime wish they would just duke it out so that i could know, you know, like a scientific experiment. they don’t really fight though so it’ll just have to be a tie. i learn a bunch from both. i’ve seen nick grow tomatoes on a plot that other farmers had given up on. they had said the soil wasn’t good. nick mended it and grew tomatoes for the town. he knows dirt. he loves it. he spots manure from a mile away. last year, elizabeth and i made huge compost piles together and i learned so much. making good, lively soil is an art and is so, so important for life. elizabeth raises goats and i got to help them mate, which is stinky and hilarious and very, umm, goatish. she makes cheese and salve and mead and wine and pottery and wonderful drawings….sheesh, what a show-off.526066_3487923635901_1461821758_n

nick and i met years ago in the mojave desert. we were both spending huge amounts of time haunting the same area and climbing the same rocks. i never wondered if i would be friends with nick after i had met him; i was completely sure of it. i can laugh with nick for days. one year, for elizabeth’s birthday, we asked elizabeth what we could do for her. “whatever you want that we can do!” i stated boldly. she asked for 24 hours without any nonsense from either of us. we did our best to comply…i kinda failed, but it was nick’s fault.


the farm we worked on had three, huge anatolian shepherds. the two biggest one’s were so tall that they seemed to look me in the eye. i’m not afraid of dogs, i grew up with all kinds. those big dogs were brought in to guard against the mountain lions that had run off with a pig or two the year before. they belonged to the owner of the property, who was gone a good bit, and they were more than a little unruly. nick and elizabeth took care of them when the owner was gone. thus was the case on this particular day in october when the applegate valley in southern oregon is choked with blackberries and pot farms and wild turkeys and trout. nick and i had just sweated in the dry sauna. we were shirtless and shoeless, which is our preference most of the time. i walked out behind the shed because i heard an unusual sound. Alphy and Ewan, the two big dogs, both males, were locked in mortal combat in the belly of the dried up pond. i shouted to nick.

now, i’ve broken up some dog fights. sometimes they are not really serious and so it’s not too difficult to get them to stop. if they are trying to bite the front legs, it’s a bad sign; it’s an attempt to maim and finish. Alphy had Ewan’s front paw locked in his jaws, Ewan was latched onto Alphy’s neck. there are many opinions among the “dog-whispers” of the world, but i’ve found that it’s good common sense not to get near the business end of the dogs while they are fighting. the best technique i’ve found is to loop a line (preferably long enough to put a bit of space between you and the thrashing dogs) around the low belly, in front of the hips, and pull. when the dogs weigh in at 190 pounds, you gotta pull hard. nick’s cord was really short and mine was good enough. neither nick nor i are huge dudes…we are a buck-fifty on a full belly at most, so it turned into an endurance test for the four of us; the massive, sweaty dogs (that seemed more like polar bears when they were growling and snapping) and the naked, struggling simians. time could have dropped away and the scene could have been reconstructed a couple million years ago when man and dog were moving symbiotically across the shifting land masses. if a helicopter would have flown over, as they often did as a “we see what you are up to” to the pot farmers, it would have looked suspiciously like two guys involved in some kind of dog fighting ring. i guess we were…reluctantly. i vividly remember looking across the pond at nick, who looked almost like he was riding Alphy, and seeing the sweat streaking down his forehead. i imagine he was seeing something very similar on the other side as i struggled with Ewan. as i think back on it, the only thing we both kept yelling was, “elizabeth!”

well, the dogs tired. the fight ended. elizabeth never heard our cries. nick and i jumped in the swimming pool, which was really a holding pond for farm water and so was green and cold. nick, the wildest of the wild, with his long locks matted across a dark and furrowed brow, looked at me with bright blue eyes, “coffee?”

rubber dog

when i was a senior in high school my dad brought a puppy home from the reservation he had just visited. he looked quite a bit like the dog from the t.v. show The Little Rascals, he had a big black spot on his back and a half black, half pink nose. if you rolled him on his back, which he loved, you would see that his belly was as pink as a rose. because of that pink color, and the fact that he would let us kids pick him up from any limb (kids are so bad about mauling puppies) he earned the nick-name rubber dog. his real name was brewster, but in a family with five kids there seems to be an endless flow of name shortenings. brew, brewskie,ski, and on and on…he answered to them all, with a wagging tail. he grew into a 90 pound staffordshire terrier and was muscle from ear to caboose. my mom was his favorite in the family and i know why, she simply loved him so much.

let me break off and tell you about my mama. maybe everyone feels this way about their ma, i don’t know, but i have never met a better human. she has always had the ability to absorb all my bad, and love me just the same. i know dozens of hard-case marines that i’ve taken to meet my ma, many of them have returned just to stop in and eat pie and have coffee…even when i ain’t there! she has a way.

once i took my buddy, Christian, home for christmas. we were leaving on a long trip together and we stopped in to put our gear into order. christian slept in the guest bedroom that had a lacy bedspread and frilly pillows and my ma teased him appropriately. two weeks later my ma was seeing us off on a journey that would last 8 months and cover most of south america. it was the last time my ma would see christian. i guess we never know these things…they seem too unfathomable until they happen. christian would fly back to the states, take the job as a fireman that he had waited on for months, be stationed on the brooklyn side of the brooklyn bridge, ride a firetruck to the base of the twin towers, run in with 4 other men, and be turned to dust.  i went to NYC, i think it was a day or two later…i don’t really remember. i was awestruck by the grief. i felt the hot, terrible sadness as i realized that i would not find christian in a hospital or under a piece of rubble. the big maybe was too big. they never found a trace of my buddy, not a smidgeon. i stayed for his funeral…but i hadn’t called my mom. i was afraid to call her. i wasn’t sure if i would be able to hear her voice and not break apart into little pieces of myself. when i did call, it was her voice that made the damn break free…just the words, “oh, tobe…”. i never did completely come back from that one. i still have some trouble when my mom mentions ol’ boy christian.

it’s that kind of love that makes someone shine a little brighter than others. it’s why rubber dog sighed and posted up with his nose to the crack under the door anytime he was locked out of a room that ma was in; and my, my, did he make here laugh. he was terrified of spiders, rubber bands(i’m sure that’s because us kids shot him once or twice), and the dark. he loved to lay in the sun on his back with his pink stomach to the sky. one day we noticed a patch of angry skin on his belly…it was cancer. rubber dog died within a year. my ma never wanted another dog. i think brewster’s death hurt my ma more that she ever let on. it’s difficult to explain our human attachment to other hearts.

love.  that thumping heart, hurried breath, furrowed brow, kind of thing that comes from losing another being. everyone has their own opinion about souls and eternity. i lean toward the simple…love with all your might and without excuse. love till the stars fall from the sky and the earth cracks into pieces. love most the things that love you back and be careful not to waste it on the trivial. love relentlessly like a river. love…aw hell, love like my mother.