Must Love Dogs

Mississippi’s heat, bugs, and Humane Society gave me an unforgettable 2005 Hurricane Katrina adventure.

The adventure looks far on a map, but nowhere near as far as the actual 2700 mile drive from Portland, OR to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In the barn, I was part of a team responsible for 50-60 dogs. The Humane Society got help from FEMA, the Park Service, Firefighters, volunteer veterinarians, and the rest of us dog-walkers and cage cleaners.

With humidity off the charts and the temperature at 95 degrees, both dogs and humans needed a daily splash.

The Sheltie was such a sweet dog, but mats big as baseballs meant he needed to be shaved.

There’s nothing like manual labor to scrub the spirit clean.

When the last dog was placed in the truck heading north, I had a chance to drive down to New Orleans to see for myself the devastation of Katrina. Hit with too much sadness, I passed up The Big Easy. Instead my trip took me west to Natchez and north to Vicksburg. No more Humane Society campgrounds or walking frightened pit bulls. No more love-bugs mating in mid-air. Still, the Mississippi ran red at sundown and the Deep South remained inescapable: plantations, tree branches from which hung memories of a thousand sorrows, a museum that held its own version of the Civil War, confederate flags flying, and monuments all intact. 2005: twelve years and a lifetime ago.

Vantage Points

Tale #1: I’m a teenager in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat–as far away from coal country as you can get. I turn on the 45 RPM and sing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford:

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

I snapped my fingers and sang the words, but so blissful in my ignorance.

Tale #2: Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, taught me literature in 1965 and introduced me to Emile Zola’s Germinal. I lived inside that book with Etienne and Catherine, immersed in the brutal injustices, unbearable poverty, and vivid passions, but most of all, the black, suffocating life underground.

Tale #3: Forty years later, a miner guided us through the Cape Breton Museum, into the cage, and down into the mine. He spoke of his years underground. He showed us a tiny greenhouse measuring three feet by three feet where the men had installed a light and enclosed a flowering plant. “We wanted a reminder of something living, growing green in all this black dust.”

Tale #4: In Sault Ste-Marie we knocked at the door of a bed-and-breakfast and the man who answered the door stood no taller than 4 feet ten–the tiniest man I had ever seen. Over tea he spoke of years spent in Britain’s coal mines and of the inexplicable poverty that kept him small. “I never tasted milk until the age of twelve.”

Tale # 5: The pit ponies, beloved animals of the miners, hauled heavy carts of coal eight hours a day. Born and bred in the shaft mines, stabled underground, the ponies came to the surface only during the colliery’s annual holiday. I wondered, How would you ever get them back underground after they breathed in clean air and felt grass under their feet?

Tale #6: I keep alive the vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.