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26 July 2023

Dog days and shadows of loss

Summer is precious and fleeting. But so, I reflect as I watch the dog I’ve loved for 15 years, is our time together.

By Melissa Harrison

It’s around nine in the evening, a couple of days after the solstice, and I’m sitting under a hawthorn as a red-gold sun touches the treeline in the west. Around me are a dozen or so cows with calves at foot, at least one of which is a bull. They have extended cautious heads to inhale my fragrance of chain oil and Jungle Formula; I have been judged interesting, but not a threat. Now, one or two of the calves are lying down just a few feet away, chewing the cud.

My work has been relentless but I’ve been determined not to let the summer slip by uncelebrated, which means forgoing the numbing lure of prime-time TV. Tonight I tossed a jacket and a flask of red wine into my bike basket and set out to pay a call on an ancient tree which grips in its fisted roots a flint hagstone. I hadn’t bargained on the cattle, but I’m rather enjoying the company – despite their occasional flatulence. Perhaps I’ll never go back to my desk and my deadlines. Perhaps I am part of the herd now.

Week after week of warm, sunny weather: June felt like a dream, felt like a trick. Last year, after decades of gradually mounting warnings, the bad dream of climate breakdown came suddenly true as we sweltered through 400C and a three-month drought – longer-lasting and especially hellish here in East Anglia, already the driest part of the UK. Tonight I cycled to this spot past fields that last August were burned black by crop fires; for weeks on end there wasn’t a drop of standing water anywhere for wildlife to drink. Pastures dried to dust, the trees lost their leaves and even the evergreen ivy carpeting the woods was reduced to crisp, dead flakes. This year I’d like to revel in this spell of what we still habitually call “good weather” – especially as I’ll soon head to busy Brighton. But after the shock of the drought, it’s difficult. I can’t unknow what I learned last year.

I try not to go away in May or June: they are my favourite months, and I like to watch them riot through the countryside. But last autumn Scout, the dog I’ve loved for 15 years, suddenly sickened with acute pancreatitis. She pulled through, but it was close – and, like the drought, a wake-up call. I think of Hemingway’s famous line about bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises, how Scout has become old in two ways: gradually and then suddenly. Too frail now to travel between me and my ex-husband, she lives with him in Brighton, a few minutes’ walk from a vet hospital, and when he travels – which is often – I go and look after her. Summer may be precious and fleeting, but so is our time together. What else to do with something as it fails and fades but love it even more fiercely than before?

[See also: Swifts, the universe and everything]

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For now, though, Scout is still happy: the changes pain us far more than her. She sleeps a lot, is on a cocktail of meds, and takes the stairs like a slow Star Wars AT-AT Walker – this a dog who, once breathtakingly fast and visibly muscled, could clear huge fallen trees in a bound, who would walk (and run) all day on wild camping trips to Dartmoor, who once, having caught sight of a squirrel, raced up the trunk of an oak. Now we amble around Queen’s Park as she stops to sniff each weed and crisp packet; I hear the claws on her hind feet dragging and know that today, her old hips hurt. One circuit of the browning grass is enough, and takes an age – not that it matters. She’s still in the game,  as engaged as she can be with the world around her. I’m so proud of her spirit that it feels like heartbreak. I suppose it is.

Illustration by Cold War Steve

It can be unutterably hard to accept our pets’ mortality, for with it comes the whisper of our own. That Scout should die still seems impossible, even as I watch her death approach. For years, as friends’ dogs grew grizzled and lame, we took pride in her strength, as though, against all odds, this one dog among billions would be spared. Today, I struggle with the knowledge that, during our long years of denial, there were changes we could have made to the way we cared for her that might have helped her now.

July brings the news that June was the UK’s hottest on record: nearly a degree hotter than the previous record, set in 1940. Back at home in Suffolk, summer has progressed a week and I must study the fields and hedgerows to find my place in it again. The last time I went to look after Scout, I returned to find the hay meadows had been mown and baled; now it’s the cornfields that tell the time, the barley bleached to blonde, the wheat in golden ear.

One evening I meet a friend for a walk; I am official “dogmother” to her crossbreed, Goldie. As we cross a narrow wooden bridge over a drainage ditch that has been dry since April, paws thunder past and a barley-coloured blur flies down the steps on the far side as though the ground beneath her feet isn’t even there. It is an expression of such limitless strength and vitality that briefly, I have to turn away.

We stroll on, talking about the weather, exchanging our hopes for gentle, ordinary rain, for the seasons to return to their allotted positions, for the clock to be turned back on what was gradually, and is now suddenly, taking place. Clouds mass on the northerly horizon. By morning they will have burned away.

Melissa Harrison’s “The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary” is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

This article appears in our Summer Special

[See also: Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree on the rewilding wars]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special