‘Mercy, then, was everywhere around me’

For Valentine’s Day, Lori gave me a copy of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be a Good Creature, a memoir of what animals have taught her about being. The book is relatively short and quite beautiful, even regarding her close encounters with large spiders, but the chapters about her own dogs get to me the most.

Of course they do, Lori would tell you. The arrival of the dog a year and a half ago and the baby almost a year ago have turned on my emotional spigots like a child loose among functional spigot displays in a spigot store. I find this new style of life strange and repeatedly unexpected. One moment I’m reading a bedtime story about Arfy the dog (who writes letters in hopes of adoption) or Corduroy the bear (searching for his missing button in hopes of a family taking him home). The next moment I am president and client of the spigot factory.

So, in Montgomery’s book, along with a chapter about her time with an octopus, the chapter about dealing with the loss of her dog has special power over me. On a trip to Papua New Guinea, she finds herself on the edge of a cloud forest.

At our campsite, ancient tall trees stood guard over our tents like benign wizards bearded in moss. The moss was studded with ferns. The ferns were dotted with lichens and liverworts, fungi and orchids. But it was the moss that most enchanted me. The world seemed cloaked in its velvet, as if the clouds in these tall mountains had congealed into green and come alive. John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century British art critic, called moss — humble, soft, and ancient — “the first mercy of the Earth.” Mercy, then, was everywhere around me: it covered tree trunks, vines, the ground, forgiving every clumsy step and cushioning every fall.

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