(In Praise of Farm Dogs Everywhere)
The day was red hot, and you could tell it would be a scorcher at dawn. The sun stung like a bluebottle at 8am, and the birds were silent. Horses and donkeys queued up at the paddock gate for fly veils and release onto the common, which is surrounded by bush and dotted with big shady paperbarks, under which green things still grow.
En route I’d cut my big gelding’s feet, overdue and summer hard, while the shed was still casting a morning shadow on the tie rail. The horn was like hardwood, and even the dog was hugging any cool concrete going rather than snacking on the offcuts.
After that we’d climbed into a lukewarm bathtub and splashed lazily, my darling man and I. We could feel the radiation burning through the blind covering the east-facing window in the bath recess, and the sun must have gotten to our brains because he started impersonating Napoleon, and I a telephone (“Brrrrrr-ing! Brrrrrr-ing!” like the priceless clip from Sesame Street called “The Martians Discover a Telephone”).
The dog did not come running, it’s had a good half year to get used to our theatrics, but when I cooed “Walkies?” she tilted her face to the side with ears as up as they can go – one ear a large triangular arrangement strongly suggestive of a desert fox, and the other with its tip bent over in the fashion of an ancestral Border Collie, from which she also got her colouring, while every other aspect is pure Kelpie. Excited bounds and relentless eye contact followed until she’d shepherded us out of the house in our summer shorts and T-shirts, and we collided with a wall of hot air.
By then it was too late to turn back – you just can’t do that to a dog that is blissfully anticipating a full-tilt run and her first swim in the 48h since her flea treatment. So we vowed to keep it short, and tacked towards the shady forest track, rather than the shadeless main track. An easterly wind blew like a giant hair-drier on maximum, but still offered enough evaporative cooling for me to rip my long-sleeved sunshirt off. By the time I ducked under the fence at the spot where the kangaroos tore out the bottom wires, to cross to our neighbours’ clean-water bush dam, sweat was beading off every square inch of my skin, and had the water been crystal clear, I would have jumped right in after the dog.
Instead, Jess and I had an abbreviated retrieving session. All dogs like sticks, but her favourite thing to pull out of the water is a nice big gnarly root knot at least the size of a pineapple, with a grab-handle of stem on it. The bigger the splash it makes, the more fanatically she accelerates on her way to it.
I grew up with farm dogs, but Jess takes the cake, much as I loved my previous canine friends. She runs like a tornado, the fastest dog I’ve ever seen, all lean, lithe, muscular, tucked-up running machine, a black blur streaking through the landscape. She keeps well ahead of any horse on any ride, and is the only dog I’ve had who outruns me on my roadbike. Once we borrowed the neighbour’s four-wheeler and raced her up the gravel track on it. She was keeping to the pasture, crossing fence lines, jumping ditches, and keeping up effortlessly when our speedo hit 55km/h. Then we had to stop at the property boundary, while she gave us a grin and a tail-flick racing by, and started to chase rabbits without missing a beat.
Her swimming is similar. When I first saw her traverse a farm dam, not even retrieving, just swimming for the joy of it, I was gobsmacked by the keel wave in her wake, spreading out like a cone behind her. A dinghy, sure, but a 22kg Kelpie? Throwing something retrievable into the dam turns her into a hydrofoil as her chest begins to lift out of the water from the burst of acceleration that hurtles her towards her goal. A sharp click signals contact, then follow regular satisfied snorts as she paddles open-mouthed back to the shore with her prize. It’s deposited at my feet, she looks up with eyes flashing. Again?
For less money than a Buddhist course on mindfulness meditation, you can pick up a dog like her from a farm dog rescue centre as we did, and give it a good life, and you will have a resident expert on living in the present and enjoying the world, and a personal trainer and loyal friend all rolled into one. It’s priceless.
On this red hot day we quickly headed home, and the dog wasn’t arguing. There were pumpkins to re-water and a hundred or so establishing native seedlings and baby lavenders around the house to give a little top-up from the watering can for the anticipated extreme midday heat.
After lunch, the outside thermometer hit 45 degrees Celsius. Inside was, blissfully, 19 degrees cooler, even in our not-quite-finished, as yet curtainless, passive solar strawbale house. A ceiling fan is all it takes to keep us comfortable on days like this. The dog lies flat on the coloured concrete floor, and balks at the outside heat when I check the thermometer. When the floor gets too hard, she curls up in her armchair like a possum, nose sticking out between four paws all bundled together in an impossible origami shape.
Aah, the bliss of a weekend of leisure after ten days of work commitments and interior plastering – time for good food made in our kitchen, and reading the books we got for Christmas, relaxing and recharging our batteries. And what a totally different life to the one we lived until a few years ago, when we were both in suburbias of varying descriptions, through tertiary study and then fulltime professional jobs. Our tree change doesn’t mean we are working any less in an overall sense – building this house and establishing the property continue to be a huge task, and we are both in part-time external work – but things are different now, just right for this stage of our lives. It’s really the archetypal midlife back-to-nature, off-the-treadmill sea change / tree change move celebrated by a number of adorable Australian and English television dramas of the past twenty years.
I love life in the bush, and I hope this story made you smile. And maybe think about adopting a dog.