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A One-Dog Day | When a friend takes in a stray dog, Faro struggles to overcome his aversion to the garden-destroying dervish. | By R.E. Faro

She lowers her head and snarls, her canines glistening. “Jenna,” Phil scolds. “Stop it now. He’s a friend.” He cautions me, “Don’t look at her and don’t say a word. She’ll settle down in a minute.”

It takes five until Jenna is pressing her wet snout into the palm of my hand demanding a facial massage, transformed from a three-legged psycho-bitch into an endearing scrap of energy. She’s on the small side, with dusty blond fur; a generic street dog the likes of which are found from Thailand to Timbuktu.

“ Two weeks ago she wouldn’t let anyone touch her,” Phil says as Jenna begins growling. I halt my petting mid-stroke. “Don’t worry. That means she wants to play. C’mon, Jenna. Let’s go play.”
Phil opens the back screen door and Jenna rockets outside. Who needs four legs anyway? I tag along, determined to keep an ironic distance.

I am immediately shocked at how ragged Phil’s garden looks. The ethereal clumps of Stipa tenuissima, lovely (though a bit weedy) grasses that surround Phil’s small patch of lawn like a golden halo, are wrecked. There are holes gouged throughout the perennial bed. Even Phil’s prize collection of vireya rhododendrons has mauled branches. All this in ten days? I can only imagine what else is in store.
Phil appears the stoic but I can easily imagine his dismay. “I’m trying to wear her out before we take off,” he says.

“ She’s coming with us?”

“ I can’t leave her by herself. She’ll chew everything to shreds. Don’t worry. She’ll stay in the truck. I can’t leash her yet.”
A month ago our friend Suzanne found Jenna in a ditch of a dusty Jamaican road, dehydrated and near death, her front leg pulverized. Saint or lunatic, Suzanne took her to a local vet, who amputated the leg and treated the lacerations inflicted by a sadist with a leash. Most of the rest of Suzanne’s holiday was occupied with tending to Jenna and, despite a host of hurdles, making arrangements to have her brought back to Berkeley.

Suzanne’s optimism, invincible heretofore, was no match for the sustained hostility that her resident trio of canines, rescue dogs themselves, directed toward the newcomer. Suzanne had to face facts: retraining the mutt in that environment was impossible, so her thoughts fastened on Phil, whose old dog Rooster went to the Henhouse in the Sky last autumn.

“ Okay, Jenna, let’s go,” Phil says. “Truck. Into the truck.”
Jenna springs onto the seat, and we follow suit. We are bound for Point Reyes.

Before we even cross the San Rafael Bridge all attempts at canine management are out the window. Jenna hurls herself around the cab the way she did in the garden. Phil has to block the steering wheel like a linesman. “Oh, Jenna, “ he croons, “you are such a noodlehead.”

By the time we get to Point Reyes Station I feel thoroughly and inexpertly Rolfed. The second we park, to escape the onslaught, I unthinkingly open my door but it is Jenna who escapes, tearing off in yappy pursuit of rabbits whose ears rise above the grassy meadow. The rangers will love this.

Forty minutes later, after a mostly inept seduction involving biscuits and doggie hypnosis, Jenna is confined to the cab with a big ivory hunk of chew toy. The bowl of water that Phil leaves on the seat will get spilled. Our hike will not be long. I make sure I have everything of mine with me. Jenna’s farewell look—pure pathos—does not move me.

The trail leads briskly into the woods, a haven of bay, alder, fir, and pine. Such a relief. The tension in my muscles starts to drain away, replaced by stirrings of gratitude and reverence. A creek running vigorously trailside underscores our progress. The greenery around is lush, vivacious, thanks to the abundant spring rains. Sword ferns billow their skirts, flouncing like tree ferns. In sunny meadows, snowy white flowers, similar to Queen Anne’s lace, rise higher than our heads. The leaves are deeply lobed, almost leathery. I should know what these plants are, so I remark at their size, and wait for the inevitable disquisition.

“ Cow parsnip,” Phil obliges. “Heracleum lanatum. Named after Hercules. It’s in the carrot family. It’s all edible. My dad used to call it wild parsnip. People in Alaska call it ‘poochki,’ which is Russian, I think. This time of year it’s a third of what grizzlies and black bears eat.”

Tasty bits of knowledge. I Google my hard drive for exchangeable factoids and realize I don’t even know what a typical parsnip looks like. Parsnip, turnip. Are they cousins? I pinch a tip of one of the herculean leaves and give a sniff and chew. More smell than taste, both acrid. I bend a flower stalk to my nose; it’s delicate, sweet. Meanwhile Phil is draining the bank, discoursing how the Cree Indians cooked and ate the new roots.

Not much further along we pause again, this time where the creek takes a tumble into a gully. During walks of a retreat I attended a few years back, a bell would ring at intervals, whereupon everyone stopped and focused on the moment, as Phil and I are doing now. I do an inner scan for the wave of gratitude and reverence felt earlier, but the shimmer is gone. Even here is no haven from the reverberations of bombs falling, the wastelands of fear and greed. Any frogs down there? I read the news today oh boy. Extinction Crisis for Amphibians. Well I just had to look. One hundred percent mortality rate. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.

I want to vent, to blurt out the thoughts in my head, but they feel unsuitable, unworthy of the moment. Phil makes my dilemma moot. “You read about the fungus that’s killing frogs and newts?”

“ As much as I could stand. Do they know why it’s so lethal?”

“ One theory is increased exposure to ultraviolet light. Every day there’s a new study confirming we’re in deep trouble. Thanks. We get it, we get it, already.”

“ I’m not so sure we do. It’s fascinating that the things that will thrive are things that torment us, mosquitoes, poison ivy, jellyfish. Serves us right.”

“ Speaking of. To your left.”

Impinging on the pathway is a thicket of poison oak, draped and camouflaged by brambles. Toxicodendron diversilobum. I know this baby intimately. We’ve had our affairs. “I see.”

“ Just making sure. Once I got it so bad I landed in the hospital looking like a leper.”
“ I’ve been lucky. I’ve managed to avoid it for at least five years. It’s a streak I plan on maintaining.”
“ One thing about it,” Phil sighs, “when you take a hot shower and the water pummels the itchy spots . . . my god, it’s like an orgasm to the tenth.”
“ You should get out of the house more.”

The woods fall away, and we emerge on a grassy hillside that ends abruptly with a sheer drop to the beach. I stand near the precipice, mildly testing fate, imagining this hunk of land giving way. What a ride. I look out over the ocean, and am reminded how small and meaningless my big worries are. I stretch my torso upward, enveloped by the upstart wind, feeling like the masthead of an enormous ship. What a ride.

Phil comes up. His weight doubles the risk of collapse, raising it from minuscule to remote. I step back. “Here’s the truth,” he says. “Nature will tidy up after us and, after a few hundred million years, come up with something else, perhaps with fewer stupid genes. She’s endlessly inventive.”

“ Not exactly a font of consolation.”

“ Take it where you can. Listen, we better get back. Not this second but soon. Jenna has abandonment issues.”

“ Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.”
— H. L. Mencken

The dreaded ride home is not bad at all. After an initial frenzy, Jenna settles down, spending most of the time with her head in my lap, looking philosophical. Can she overcome the trauma of her past? Can she, or anyone, really change?

“ Good dog,” Phil says, as if repeating it will make it so, and maybe it will. I finally understand that this man who frequently professes he’s uninterested in a relationship is now hooked. Till death do them part.

The following morning I notice an itching on my neck and my chest. And my elbow and ankle. By nightfall welts crisscross itch zones, welts that soon are oozing, sticking my T-shirt to my back, my sock to my ankle. So much for my streak. What did I miss? Did I sleepwalk? Noodlehead. Then I put two and two together: Jenna.

I gather all the clothes worn over the past days into a bundle and stuff them in the washer, followed by the T-shirt and jeans I am wearing, and start the cycle. Now it’s my turn. In the bathroom mirror I survey the damage, feeling more resigned than vexed. Unlike Phil’s situation, my torment will last only two weeks. Soaking a section of washcloth in rubbing alcohol I gingerly wipe around the inflamed areas, knowing that bath soap is often ineffective in getting rid of the oil, which can be as persistent on the skin as pine tar. How persistent? Japanese woodworkers use it as lacquer.

I let the water run until it’s steaming, then get into the shower. In seconds all the circuits of my nervous system are in overload. I feel like a gong struck by a humongous hammer.
That’s me you hear screaming.

For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly. We are pleased to announce that Ithuriel’s Spear Press has just published them as a collection, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours. The book is available at, and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R. E. Faro can be reached at

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