Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Natural Selection

I love going back home. I especially love taking my dog, a two year old Basset Hound, to my grandfathers farm. Although she is a hunting dog by breed, Ellie has long since left her tracking skills with her more aggressive forebears.

On a weekend in Lee county a few weeks ago, Ellie and I were staying at my grandparents. We got in late Friday night and, after a late night snack with my mothers parents, we retired to one of the now spare bedrooms. The room has lovingly been deemed “the boys room” as it once belonged to my uncles. With its wood-paneled walls, olive green carpet, and NFL curtains that may include the 70's expansion teams, this room remains virtually untouched from the days that my uncles slept in it.

One of the best things about going home? The blackness of the night. Once the switch is flicked, the room is pitched into inky darkness. I slept deeper than I'd slept in months that night. The next morning, I rose early and dressed. Ellie was already awake and stared at me with mild interest as I threw a pair of old shoes on and bundled against the impending November air. I attached Ellie's leash, and out the door we went.

When we are in a new place, Ellie will normally proceed with her nose to the ground, fervently exploring every scent that wisps by her whiskers. It's a tedious way to proceed, dashing forward four feet, then slamming to a halt as she smells the remnant odor of some ground squirrel or field mouse. I dropped the leash to prevent the jerking stops and starts of the little hound, and began to plug in my mp3 player. In our normal morning routine, I listen to NPR podcasts while Ellie does her business. Just as I was scrolling to find the next episode of All Things Considered, I looked up to find Ellie in a dead sprint across my grandfather's gravel lot.

The burst of energy sent her brown ears flapping in the breeze. Her leash skittered across the drive, trying desperately to catch up to the little dog's fiercely pounding paws. She ran across the drive way, past the old summer kitchen, the barn, the grain bins, the hog shed, and into the barren field at the bottom of this hill. At this point, I assumed she would pause and renew her exploration. Ellie is not what you'd consider a long distance runner. She's more of a long distance eater.

But the feisty little hound didn't slow when she reached the black topsoil of the field. She gave chase through the silage and crashed into the underbrush at the bottom of the hill. When I caught up to her I found her sniffing intensely through the prairie grass that grows along the creek that cuts the property down the middle.

I stood there panting as she sniffed and explored. As my heart rate returned to normal, I looked around. Over my left shoulder, the sun was sending shards of light through naked trees. The steam from my mouth was cold and wet as it dissipated into the cold, dry atmosphere. I crunched through the weeds, following my dog as she tracked some mythical creature in her mind.

As we trekked about the creek's floodplain, Ellie stopped short. Before I realized what she was doing, she began rubbing her ears, face, and neck in the brush. I was curious as to what she was doing, and caught up with her, only to find that she'd found a steaming pile of raccoon poop, and was circling the dung, rubbing her body on the surrounding ground. Every so often she'd stop and lift her nose to the sky, trying to pick up on the smell she was inundating herself with, but after a few moments, she'd go back to rubbing.

I soon realized that my dog, the domesticated diva of Davenport, was using deep bred instincts in an attempt to track this animal! Hounds are bred for their elastic faces and ears, as the folds in their skin trap the scent they are tracking, making them more likely to find their mark. Although Ellie had had no formal training, she new that this was what she was supposed to do!

My dog is a genius.

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