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  • Peggy Race

The unfilled space

Updated: May 5, 2021

Like a staunch tree, I stand rooted in the core activities that set the baseline for my day: Dogs, exercise and work. Living across the street from the city park, I take advantage of the walking paths and the open grassy areas. Every afternoon, barring a thunderstorm or icy pavement, I leash up my dogs and take a stroll towards the park. It is a routine that I have adhered to for nearly twelve years.

The muffled sounds of my footsteps tap the pavement as we meander along the pathway through the picturesque landscape. For my border collie Faith, the expanse of green grass provides an opportunity for unleashed ball herding. As Faith lowers her head and stares at the tennis ball laying on the ground, she stands focused on the task in front of her. Between the twill of children on the playground and the crack of a bat as a ballplayer connects with the ball, Faith's breed instincts and pent-up energy add to the atmosphere of the park. For my cocker spaniel Deputy, the luscious blades of green engage his scent receptors in nature's outdoor sport of Nose work. The tree dotted scenery along the paved walking path offers an opportunity to avoid the interruptions of traffic. Whether the dogs and I dart through the park or take a stroll through it, I never fail to notice one distinct landmark. Unbeknownst to everyone but me, one special tree has filled a role in three different lives, three different species. Today, that one singular tree stands like a memorial to Desiree, my rescued Hurricane Katrina dog, a dog who has crossed the rainbow bridge.

The tree stands between a make-shift basketball court and a group of tall pine trees positioned on a sloping hill alongside the walking route. It is off the beaten path, yet because of the relentless prey drive of my beloved dog Desiree, I visited the tree several times a week over the course of nearly seven years. From the thick trunk of the tree, three large limbs extend toward the heavens. The wilted twigs that hang from the branches speak of the tree's poor health. A three-inch circular hole, like a blotch, lives on the fifteen-foot circumference of the tree trunk, a sign that an injury occurred at some point in the tree's life. I think back to the many times I counted the ridges framing the cavity of the tree. Like a spiritual message, the seven ridges align with the number of years I spent pulled by Desiree toward the tree's direction. Whether trudging through snow, listening to the crackling of fallen leaves beneath my shoes or inhaling the crisp scent of a spring rain, I followed Desiree's lead. Whether birds or woodland mammals, tree holes play a role in the habitat of different animals. This tree is no different. The hollow space inside became the home for one lucky gray tree squirrel. I often wondered about the depth of decay inside the tree and the layout of the squirrel's home. Were there separate cavities inside the hollow that allowed for the storage of nuts while a second area provided a cozy resting spot? My mind's eye tried to picture a warm and cozy environment.

While I pondered the living quarters for the squirrel, Desiree's nose searched for clues on the whereabouts of her friend. It was like a game of cat and mouse.

We often watched as the squirrel scampered out of its home and scooted up the tree. The squirrel, perched on a limb, peered back at us. In return, Desiree stood on her hind legs, her body and nose stretched to their limits, hoping to connect with the squirrel. I listened to the noisy chirping of the squirrel as Desiree, like a pogo stick, bounced around on her hind legs. I assumed the squirrel's relentless chatter echoed from the branches as a warning to other squirrels in the area. Then again, perhaps the squirrel was scolding Desiree for her unruly behavior.

Other times the squirrel was nowhere in sight. Whether by habit, a faint scent or unleashed curiosity, Desiree always scurried towards the tree led by the intensity of her prey drive.

Upon reaching the tree, Desiree stood on her hind legs, her front legs braced against the side of the tree and her nose positioned inside the tree cavity. "Anyone home?" I imagined Desiree's nose asking as it searched for signs of life. Desiree's response always showed what lie inside the trunk. One quick sniff from Desiree, told me all I needed to know. If Desiree retracted her nose, I knew no one was home. If she hung tight, jumping on her hind legs as though the extra boost would push her nose farther into the tree, I understood the squirrel sat inside. I fondly recall the one serendipitous instant when the squirrel poked its head out of the hole at the precise moment Desiree approached her favorite spot. I failed to comprehend who was more surprised. Perhaps it was in that moment the tree became my own important landmark. The tree epitomized the beauty of our afternoon walks and played an important role in the life cycle of my relationship with Desiree.

Today, a hollowness lives not only within the cavity of the tree but also within my heart. I miss my daily trips to the tree. Faith and Deputy have no desire to follow in Desiree's footsteps. It's been eighteen months since my Desiree left our world. The tree still stands, and a squirrel still scurries about while the memory of Desiree lives within the tree’s cavity.

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