Lesley Instone, “Lucky and Jasper go missing: or a meditation on more-than-human entanglements”

Where I live in the steep limestone country of the southern tablelands of NSW, Australia, the line between a wild dog and a domestic dog is a stark one: it’s a matter of life and death. Wild dogs in the surrounding sheep country are poisoned, shot and despised. Domestic dogs and working farm dogs are valued. What is it that makes the difference between wild and domestic, and what difference does drawing the line make? What draws a domestic dog to cross that line, the line that turns it from tame and comfortable into an unfettered dog following lines of scent, running kangaroo trails, chasing sheep? What turns it from a pampered pet into a wild dog? Not much, and a lot.

 

Saturday 19th October

It was cold night last night but I didn’t light the fire so I put the jackets on the dogs. Recently the dogs have been quiet in the mornings. They jump onto the bed with me and I cover them in a blanket to get warm. This morning I let Jasper out, and leave Lucky asleep and curled up under the blanket. As I am going about my morning tasks I notice Lucky leave the house and duck under the fence in his red jacket. I don’t worry too much. Even when they haven’t come back after an hour I’m not too concerned as sometimes they go off for a while in the morning. My neighbor and a friend visiting from Sydney are coming for breakfast, so I have a shower and get things organised. We have breakfast in the garden but still the dogs don’t turn up. Concern is rising, and I call and call for them, “Lucky! Jasper! Come!” But, unlike other mornings they don’t come. The fleeting view of Lucky slipping under the fence is the last I see of them today. No farewells, no last pats, no telling them not to run off, not even a chance to take off their jackets. No warning, just gone.

It’s turning into a warm day and I’m worried about them overheating, or getting their coats stuck in bushes. Strange how things coincide, how chance things shape events, how you never know what will happen. Surprise always happens when you’re not ready, when your mind is elsewhere in the busyness of life. But what looks like bad luck – jackets on roaming dogs – can turn, and so it is when we find Lucky’s jacket high up on the ridge on Col’s land. At least we know in what direction the dogs have gone.

Knowing where they have been isn’t enough though. We walk the tracks with increasing foreboding. But no amount of searching, calling, whistling, hoping, Col patrolling the area on his quad bike, is enough. This is steep, wooded country with plenty of undergrowth. There are large blackberry thickets, rocky limestone outcrops, not much cleared land, and scrubby undergrowth. But also, there is a network of tracks that Col has built, so there is hope that the dogs would have crossed one of these and found their way home. But in steep dissected, timbered country, even in an area that is defined by three fast flowing creeks, it’s not easy to find two small dogs, or have a clue where they might have gone. It’s a lesson about the unforgivingness of country. Not to say that it’s malevolent or cruel, but that it is what it is, wild, harsh, steep country that can nurture wombats and kangaroos, birds, foxes, dingoes, snakes, rabbits and others, but that is hard on domestic dogs, humans and others for whom this isn’t their country. The wild/domestic line has its rigid elements, it’s defining edges, limits that work alongside the more pliable qualities. And the dogs show how porous the line can be; domestic but wild, happy to sleep in comfy soft beds, but keen to run off into the bush and chase rabbits, kangaroos and follow scent trails.

 

Sunday 20th October

I feel frantic with Lucky and Jasper gone for over 24 hours. It’s hard to tell how dogs take the world, but we’re a story-ing species. The anxiety and rising alarm of a day of fruitless searching leaves us searching for an explanation. After being lost for a day and a night everyone in the valley has a story of what might have happened. Most assume I’ll never see them again. They’ve been killed by snakes, by wedge-tailed eagles, by kangaroos, or wild pigs, people say. Or they think they’ve lost their way in unfamiliar country and won’t be able to get back home.

 

Monday 21st October

Jasper’s come home! Away for two days, and almost to the hour, Jasper comes home. He cowers a bit, looks distant and traumatised, drinks a lot of water, and isn’t very interested in food. He looks around for Lucky and then curls up and retreats inside himself in a far off Jasper-world. It takes quite some time before he seeks me out, lays his head against my leg, sighs deeply and relaxes a bit. He’s very stiff and sore and exhausted. He’s never laid his head on my leg like this before, he must be so relieved to be home at last. I am so relieved. I sigh too, and allow myself to hope for Lucky’s return.

An eerie sense of foreboding plagues me today. There’s a strange overtone to the missing dogs. Exactly a year earlier, to the weekend, I attended a 2 day workshop in the forests east of Canberra. Late on the Saturday morning we noticed that one of the participants didn’t rejoin the group after morning tea. However, as with Lucky and Jasper, it wasn’t until early afternoon that the realization that she was lost, not just absent, took hold. It took a while of searching, hoping, imagining, and storying to shift into a consciousness of lost-ness. And then the searching really began. We tried to make sense out of the facts and feelings at hand: hints were divined, tracks were followed, ideas circulated as to where she might have gone. When did she leave, did she decide to drive home, who saw her last, which direction did she go, who can we call on for help, what strategy do we use to find a person in wooded dissected country that is vast and that yields few clues? In this case the lost person had a mobile phone, so eventually we could talk to her, know she was lost, and get some clues as to where she might be. In her case the fire brigade, emergency services and police rescue came with maps, experience, helicopters, and modern communications and sprang into gear, progressing through practiced stages of a search. Defining the search area on the maps, sending out ground crews in different arcs, getting helicopter backup and finding a suitable place for landings and takeoffs. Then it was a waiting game as ground crews searched this area, then that, as helicopters flew patterned movements of organized search and rescue, as the ambulance crew and the rest of us tried to stay busy, to stay positive, to not let our worst thoughts take over. Even with the combined benefit of people and technology, it took until the afternoon of the next day for the person to be found. The experience made clear how easy it is to get lost – just a moment’s distraction, a lapse of orientation, not paying attention to place and movement – and it made clear how hard it is find someone once they’re lost.

And so with the dogs, but we have no benefit of mobile phones, there are different motivations and inattentions at work, there are only the neighbours to call on, and we are looking for creatures that can move swiftly, cover large areas of ground inaccessible to us, and for whom senses other than sight are dominant. But the feeling of helplessness, the overwhelming enormity of the task at hand, the sense of a needle in a haystack chance of finding those lost, is the same. The waiting is the same, the trying to stay buoyant, the hope, the dread, the tactics of distraction and keeping busy. But with the lost dogs there is a disconcerting overlay of déjà vu, and the eeriness of repetition as events play out in parallel with the previous year. What alignments of chance, forces, randomness and pattern make for such weird coincidences? What are we to make from it? Do we try to make sense and look for underlying regularities, or do we accept the chance of how things happen, that they just happen, and that we stitch them into meanings and stories later to create a more certain and ordered world? Or are broader forces at work, sending messages, making lessons, letting us know our place in the world, making us think and act in different ways?

What is Jasper’s story of the past two days? Had he been with Lucky? Was Lucky injured and Jasper stayed as long as he could? Did they loose each other during a rabbit chase, and unable to find Lucky, Jasper came home? Or is there another more doggy story that doesn’t make sense in human terms? Life-worlds for each species is different but in some cases like dogs and humans, overlapping. But the degree of overlap is variable and largely enigmatic. We share love and joy, pleasure, closeness, walking, games, beds, houses, urban and country lifestyles, and more. But apart from the life stories we tell on behalf of our dogs, events are shared in very different ways, where we each participate in each other’s life, meeting in the contact zone of mutual love, dependence, and uneven power. In the contact zone we constitute each other, stitching together humans and dogs into a patchwork life-quilt of our lives together as owners and pets. And in good situations, both human and dog enjoying the meeting of hand and fur, loyalty and love, and flourishing better than we could alone.

Jasper and I slept most of the day, both exhausted, both thinking about and waiting for Lucky, both taking refuge in dreams and hope, both subdued and changed a little, different without Lucky’s presence.

 

Tuesday 21st October

Still no sign of Lucky. Compelled to keep looking, I get up early and walk up to the gate on the high paddock and venture back down a new track calling for Lucky and, thinking that he might be dead by now, I look for his body down gullies, under trees, any place that a dog might go to curl up for the last time. At home I try to settle into some activity and get out the knitting to calm my nerves. About half past eleven there is a slight sound at the back of the house and Jasper jumps out of his bed. We rush to the back door. It’s Lucky! After 3 days and 3 nights away, there he is, tired, hungry and thirsty.

We are delighted, ecstatic and relieved. It’s a joy to have both dogs back home. But it’s joy tinged with apprehension. I am left with the conundrum of what happened. Why did they both stay out so long, where did they go, why did they come back a day apart? We know so little of the lives of other animals, even the animals we share our lives with and interact with on a daily basis. We assume their story is our story of domestic daily life, and we forget about their other motivations, desires, worlds. For me the story of the missing dogs is a conundrum that refuses to fold into a neat tale or clear explanation. None of the elements fit together into a narrative that makes rational human sense. Only the dogs know what happened in their own canine way, only they know what the repercussions of this event will be. It is now built into their bodies and it might last or it might dissipate like the scratches and sore joints that mark their time away.

Wednesday 23rd October
I sit in bed with Lucky and Jasper curled up beside me. Life is back to ‘normal’ making the past 4 days seem unreal and dreamlike. Did it really happen that these dogs were away for days? It seems inconceivable now that my small fluffy dogs are looking and behaving as they usually do, curled up on the comfy doona like pampered domestic pets. It is a strange space, this period after the emergency and intensity of the event. Suddenly all the forces, feelings, imaginings and anxieties that tightened muscles, prevented sleep, made the mind overwork with worry and wondering are gone, evaporated, and I am left a bit adrift as mind and body readjust to ordinary daily rhythms. Things are back to how they were, but not quite. The memory of what happened stays around like a sort of virus ready to be reactivated when one of the dog is lost from sight. Then a tension engulfs me, a resonance of apprehension and potential disaster take hold, and I pay attention differently in a heightened, more alert sort of way.

 

Thursday 17th November

Not again! The dogs ran away this morning – missing or lost, who could say? I feel plunged back into uncertainty and distress, but this time I think they’re alive rather than dead.

 

Thursday 24th November

Lucky came back home today, and just like last time, Jasper was home yesterday. It’s curious that the pattern of coming back home is the same as last time, with Lucky coming in about 24 hours after Jasper. Why do they turn up in the morning not the afternoon? Were they sleeping close by? Do they move around during the day or at night? So many questions. I’m curious to know how they live and what they do in their bush lives. How far do they go and how do they find their way home? Do they stay close by or roam far away? What do they eat? Where do they sleep?

The compass points of wild and domestic give some traction to what happened, but only at a rather crude and gross level. Maybe it’s time to undomesticate thought and ask what would thinking about, and living with, what we term domestic animals, be like without the category ‘domestic’? Maybe we could rethink domestication as entanglements of various kinds. The dogs demonstrated a lack of a defining discontinuity between wild and domestic, without which the categories lose their power and meaning. Are they wild or domestic? How can we tell? If they’re both, what does that do to the notion of domesticity? And if we take this step, the step of queer(y)ing the wild/domestic line, then what do we do with the division between human and nonhuman animals? Can we make such a distinction? Rather than a fixed nature we could understand that it’s the context, the situatedness, that shapes a particular dog-body at a particular time. The more we focus on interconnectedness rather than distinction, the more complexity and ambiguity arise. We go from the power and certainty of categorization to understanding how little we really know and towards a realization of how flexible and contingent the world is.

These lost-dog months have been a tumultuous time for me with swings between sadness, anxiety, worry, and a more sanguine space. I have learned a lot going through the emotions and thoughts of thinking I’ll never see the dogs again. I’ve learned not to give up and have tenacity. I’ve learned to accept mistakes, to be more accepting of non-perfection. I’ve learned that going-on requires acceptance, openness and not presuming to know too much.

Tuesday 29th November

It’s evening and the swallow family is sitting together on the telegraph wire catching the evening sun. Two cute babies this year. The tea tree is now blooming and the bush is alive with soft white sprays. The dogs are recovering and Lucky’s wounds are healing. I took them for a walk this afternoon, and they are quite different dogs now. Noses up sniffing the air in knowing ways, waiting, sensing. They seem to have a wider horizon of their surroundings now. They stop and sniff the air, mapping out the animal-lizardscapes that they are now familiar with, alert for any life, any possibility. They have learnt to be bush dogs and their noses and stance have changed. They have materialised in new ways that attune to life on different terms, neither wild nor domestic, but something else more interesting. What their new bodies can do, Jasper and Lucky are not saying, they insist on having that on their own terms.