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A Dog’s Garden: Alice in Wonderland

On a hot summer day in 2006, my husband, children and I piled into the car to go “look at the dogs” at the shelter in Rockville. Many families raise children with dogs and/or their dogs precede a child but we are “late bloomers.” For reasons that now escape us, we thought it prudent to wait a while before taking on the responsibility of raising a dog AND twins. With years of sleep deprivation, milestones and more than a handful of emergency room visits, we just couldn’t imagine adding another member to our family – especially one with four paws. We were running on fumes and when/if we had a moment to ourselves, we ached for rest – if for nothing else, than to catch our breath. Caring for a dog, taking more walks, exploring another aisle in the grocery store and/or hightailing it to another doctor for a check up or emergency appointment seemed unimaginable. I admit it now, because hindsight really is 20/20, it was very unenlightened reasoning.

Yet, on that summer day it just felt like “taking a look at the dogs” would be OK. No harm in looking, right? The twins were learning to drive, babysitters were a thing of the past, independence was the focus of our family and we had settled into as much of a rhythm as any busy family possibly can.  Going to “look at dogs” was a harmless afternoon’s event. But you know how that glance ended, how could it be otherwise?

Who were we fooling? Looking at dogs is the same thing as saying, “I’ll just have a bite” of a delicious dessert. Like Lays Potato Chips, there was no way we could stop at one bite. We returned to visit a certain dog at the shelter that captured our attention (and hearts) because she wasn’t a standout. She was not a beautiful lab, a yummy, small, fluffy dog with a sweet disposition nor was she a malleable puppy. The dog that we all – independently – fell in love with was a scrawny, white, quiet, skittish dog that looked more like a fox than a dog.

The sign on the cage said, “be careful of this dog. Skittish and afraid of people.” What were we thinking? How could we not think of her? After all, weren’t we there to find a dog in need? Malnourished and reluctant to be walked, we took a leash to lead her into the back and play. We filled out some forms, within days we had a home study and as they left, they said “you can come get your dog any time now.” So off we went to get Alice. Alice the malnourished, white, skittish, quiet dog in need of food, love, gentle understanding and acceptance.

Alice, it turns out, is a Jindo – an unusual breed in this part of the world. With a little research we found out the breed, known for their intense loyalty, bravery, intelligence and sweet personality were, in 1962, designated as the 53rd National Treasure in Korea.

In South Korea, the story of Baekgu, a Jindo, is so well known it has been the inspiration for movies, books and cartoons. In 1991, Baekgu was sold and taken almost 200 miles away from home but the dog was so determined to return to his original master, Baekgu traveled for seven months to reach home – appearing close to death but, finally, home to its devoted master.

Bringing Alice home and into our lives changed everything but at the same time, we were determined to continue with “life as usual.” We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. We didn’t realize, at first, that she hated being in a closed room. There’s ample evidence of this in our house: chewed doorframes, deep claw marks in the walls and paint scraped off entranceways. Slowly, we began to learn her likes and dislikes and just like all other dog lovers, Alice became part of our everyday activities. She joined me in the garden, we explored the neighborhood, loved taking her for walks along the canal and I often strolled through Locust Grove with her.

family-canal-alice

In her first two weeks with us, Alice was quiet. She didn’t like the crate so we let her wander the house. After being so quiet for weeks, we weren’t sure she knew how to bark. One day, the letter carrier came to the house, opened our mailbox to deposit the mail and Alice let out a loud bark. We just happened to be there, heard her lively, healthy bark, looked at each other and said, “she’s a REAL dog!”

When the twins emptied the house for college I had Alice and her presence to comfort me. She protected me, too. The breed’s loyalty and devotion to their “master” is evident with everyone in our family and in so many ways. Because I have orthopedic issues affecting my movements and gait, Alice observes my movement (and mood) and adapts accordingly. When I returned to the house after having spinal procedures, she sat at the top of the steps guarding me. On gloomy days, Alice would often curl up next to me or sit by my feet. She loves our family’s friends and with them, too, she will sit by their feet as if to keep them company and be part of the “action.” A recognizable face at the door was not a call for alarm – instead, Alice announces their arrival with a wag of her tail and an excited little jump at the window.

alice-near-window

Alice would come outside with me into the garden. Yes, she barked like crazy when people came to work in the yard and yes, it was annoying. But in a dog’s world I guess she was, just like with the stairs, guarding us. She didn’t think other people belonged in my garden and let me know strangers were there. She tried to protect my garden from the rabbits chewing on the greenery and destroying treasured blooms. My twins will happily tell you about the time I was livid with Alice for chasing a rabbit through my gorgeous, lush, red monarda in pursuit of a rabbit. My monarda was trampled, the rabbit escaped but Alice got my wrath. I’m sorry about that, Alice – flowers return, dogs pass away.

monarda

Today, Alice is sick and dying. We found out a few days ago she has an aggressive, untreatable cancer and we’ve brought her home to spend as much time with her as possible. We need to adjust to the news and surround her with love. This adjustment, unlike the one ten years ago, is excruciating. She’s not trembling like a puppy – she’s lethargic and despondent. We don’t know if we have days, weeks or months but we do know we will not let her suffer.

For me personally, this is a conflicting and unsettling month. It has been five years since my mother passed away in March and nature is pushing us forward to a new season, a change in our clocks and reminding us there’s life emerging from what looked like a bare landscape. It’s a time many people embrace and anticipate with relief. As a gardener, I do too, but as a daughter and dog lover, I’m reminded of life’s cycles – including inevitable pain.

Alice won’t see the return of my spring ephemerals this year but in the past, she expressed some curiosity. I can’t attribute appreciation to her because that’s a human trait and I’m not that presumptuous. I will say that much in nature made her sneeze and together, we enjoyed cherry blossom time but paid for it at the end of the day with lots and lots of sneezing and wheezing.

When I started my morning ritual of exploring the garden in warmer weather months, I would leave the door open for Alice just in case she wanted to join me. Unlike many other dogs, she wasn’t into going into the yard in lieu of a walk. She wanted her walks – that’s not what the yard is for (thank you, Alice). Alice knows the neighborhood and has her preferred places and routes. With her, I began finding out about the neighbors’ gardens. Even in snow, Alice wanted/needed her walks and together, we explored. It took a little prodding as she has an aversion to water but there were more than a few memorable snowstorms with Alice – this year we had to shovel a path (and carry her a little) just to find an area where she could walk.

alice-in-snow

Thanks to Alice I know where there are lovely bunches of snowdrops  – we see them on different routes throughout the neighborhood and over the years, we’ve become so familiar with their location and when they’ll appear that I’ll take Alice out for a walk just to look for them. When it’s close to the time I know they’ll be in bloom (the ones in my yard aren’t always a good predictor), I’ll bring my camera with me and Alice waits impatiently for me to snap some shots. If/when it snows, I want a “Snowdrops in Snow” picture but typically, Alice isn’t terribly cooperative about that trek. After all, it’s wet, cold and requires her to stop yanking on the leash so I can try to focus.

snowdrops

Alice and I know which homeowners have taken a lot of time and thought to plant vignettes in the small patch of land by the path to their front doors. I know who has which hellebores, where the first tulips will appear, what color clematis will climb around a neighbor’s wood gate and we watch people fill containers with annuals when the weather settles into summer.  Had it not been for Alice, I would never have found a house behind our development on a dead-end street with a front yard full of fig trees.

hellebores-clematis-figNeighborhood Growth

Alice loves to wander through the wooded area in our neighborhood that will soon be covered with daffodils. When we first moved in, there were a few daffodils scattered in the woods but over the years, as the daffodils spread, it has become a carpet of yellow and new varieties have been added.

With Alice, I watch the change of seasons and notice things I probably wouldn’t bother to investigate on my own. Walking a dog is more than a task, caretaking chore and exercise. It has opened my eyes to the beauty I might otherwise walk right by and merely note, rather than anticipate and deliberately seek. As Alice sniffs her way through the shrubs I check on the pretty camellias planted decades ago that now are hidden by taller trees. I’ve smelled glorious lilacs in someone’s backyard, not visible from the street but I now know they are there. They’re on one of Alice’s favorite routes – near a school where the children, outside during recess, run over to pet our gentle, soft, loving dog.

There are many beautiful quotes about dogs and for those who love dogs, they hold meaning. When people ask me why I named her Alice (and the name was my selection – not the twins), all I can think of is two associations: a favorite poem by A.A. Milne  “Buckingham Palace” (says Alice) and the story “Through the Looking Glass.” Alice and I explored nature’s Wonderland.

This is not a unique story and I know there are millions of other dog lovers who have experienced loss . . . and joy. Maybe my twins will, eventually, have dogs in their own homes but it’s unlikely I will ever have the heart to have another dog. It never occurred to me that a dog would introduce me to gardening from a unique perspective but Alice has done exactly that and I hope to somehow honor her in the garden with a fitting planting. Something white, soft, strong and a little exotic. It will be our family’s treasure. For now, my newly acquired weeping pussy willow seems to fit the bill.

pussy-willowWeeping Pussy Willow

 Sweet, sweet Alice, we will miss you. Thank you for loving us. We could never have loved a dog more than you.

last-photo-of-alice

 

by Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. What lovely, lovely writing! Thank you, Emily, for making us feel close to you and Alice and your neighborhood.
    Best, B.

  2. Thank you so much, Barbara, for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m so glad it resonated with you and your kind comments mean a lot to me. As things are springing to life it makes me that much more aware of how important it is to really look at the beautiful sights (and scents) around us. Hope you are enjoying your neighborhood as we “spring forward.” Emily

  3. Crying! On the wonders of dogs and gardens, growth, love and death. Here’s to Alice! I believe that humans are so fortunate to have coevolved with dogs, they make us more and better humans.

  4. I loved your story so much! I just lost my Phoebe a couple of years ago and miss her every day. She was my guardian, my friend, and the best hiking buddy anyone could ask for. Dogs have a way of making your life a better journey and I am so happy we get to live and enjoy life with them by our side. I promise the good memories helps us move forward.
    All the best,
    Jasmin

  5. Thank you – everyone – for taking the time to read about Alice and commenting. As I begin to explore the season’s beauty, it still feels strange to walk through the neighborhood without Alice by my side. When I go outside to check out my garden, I still leave the door open in hopes of Alice joining me in the yard. In time, the funny stories, her antics and our family’s memories about Alice will became part of our every day language and I’m glad this story resonates with many readers. Alice taught our family more than I thought possible and she brought us closer. We’re going to plant an “Alice Garden” this summer so that she takes on her rightful spot in our home’s landscape. As it should be. My deepest thanks for everyone’s input, comments and support.

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