Winterdance

I’ve never really set myself a reading goal before. I don’t have to motivate myself to read. Left to my own devices, reading is my natural state.

Left to my own devices.

The problem is, I’m so rarely left to my own devices these days. I work full time as the managing editor of a newspaper, devote the hour after I work to going to the gym, and I’m still finishing up the first draft of my second novel, with plans in the works for the third. That doesn’t leave time to breathe, much less read.

Once I realized I was in this for the long haul—this being writing novels—I began to understand that it would dominate my life, meaning that I have to carve time for the things that are sufficiently important. And reading is most definitely sufficiently important.

So I set myself a minimum of 50 new books this year. That doesn’t mean I’ll only be reading 50 books. It means that they must be books I haven’t read before. Unfortunately, I only just set myself this task, so I am already behind and have some catching up to do.

These are the new books I’ve read this year, thus far:

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Winterdance by Gary Paulsen

I enjoyed some of them, a great deal in a few cases, but it is the last book on the winterdancelist—Winterdance—that had the most profound emotional impact on me. Those who know me well are beginning to understand that I am struggling to figure out my place here. I don’t mean my profession or passions or identity or even beliefs. Those I feel quite secure of, for now. I literally mean geographical place: Where the hell do I belong? It’s not in the very small town where I grew up, nor the slightly larger city where I spent my 20s.

Going to Alaska for two weeks a year ago, experiencing dog mushing, fearing the cold, sparked an idea that I had never considered before: perhaps my place isn’t sunny California, but somewhere cold and hard and wild and free, somewhere I could take off with a pack of dogs—my pack—and not see another human being for days at a time.

I don’t think my boyfriend quite knows how to handle my new obsession, and I understand his plight. What do you do when your girlfriend goes off to Alaska for two weeks and comes back talking constantly about dog mushing—a subject you don’t really understand or relate to—and sits at home pining over videos of the Yukon Quest? I mean, really, how are you supposed to react to that, especially if you’ve never even been to Alaska?

He gave me his copy of Winterdance some time ago, and I avoided reading it for the same reason I never watch movies or read books featuring or about animals: They always die, and I go into a deep depression. I’m like that. It’s something I struggle with. If I see a dead animal by the side of the road, it haunts me for the rest of the day. I can’t get the dogs in Sochi out of my head. I can’t get the dolphins in Japan out of my head. If I dwell on them—these innocent, doomed animals—I can’t function. The idea of someone deliberately harming an animal is so grotesque and foreign to me that I can’t even process it.

But the Yukon Quest is over and there’s several weeks more before the Iditarod begins, and I’ve got this delightful task of reading 50 new books, so I picked up Winterdance figuring my boyfriend knows me well enough not to hand me anything depicting terrible violence to animals. He was with me when we watched our first two episodes of Game of Thrones, and he heard the hardness of my tone when I said “Turn it off” after it became abundantly clear that this show would not be kind to animals. It would not be kind to anything, but it was the violence against animals that filled me with bile.

It turned out that it’s been a number of years since Colin read Winterdance, and there are, in fact, a few references to atrocious behavior against animals. It helped that the author referred to the worst of these as “murder.”

That’s right, he called the act in which a man killed a dog in a temper “murder.” And that was the only thing that enabled me to keep reading.  He’s right. I’ve never bought into the hierarchy by which humans are at the top and all other life follows in a sad, expendable chain we torture, kill, harass, and eat for pleasure, sustenance, wanton cruelty, because we can. I don’t express these ideas often, because I’m very aware that they put me in the minority, and though I’m not scared of being the lone dissenter, I can’t bear to hear the pathetic excuses people make for themselves, for their treatment of animals.

I don’t think Gary Paulsen buys this hierarchy either. After witnessing a wolf he named Marge using tools while hunting grouse, he wrote:

“But it was the act of hunting that dazzled me, had me wondering about fundamental values. She had used tools. Chimps use them, make and use crude tools to eat termites, and gorillas have done the same to make beds, but the incredible chauvinism of the human species has demanded that we make differences. It probably has to do with the biblical silliness about the humans having dominion over the earth, but we always seem to try and elevate ourselves above others—within the species as well as without. One of the separation methods has been the use of reason and the use of tools. Humans, these people would say, can reason and use tools to achieve their end. Other species cannot.

Marge did both.”

Compare this to Genesis 1:26:

“Then God said, ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

It’s not difficult to guess which of these views is more moral and empathetic, less proud, less superior. I do not believe that my purpose in life is to subjugate animals, to use them in whatever manner benefits or pleases me. Nor do I believe that the world is better for the way we demean them and pretend we are their betters. I would argue there’s a spiritual undercurrent to Winterdance; how could there not be, given that it’s the story of a man falling so deeply in love with nature, and discovering his purpose, the thing that makes him happy? He speaks of his fellow mushers finding god out there on the Iditarod trail. Not “God” with a capital G and the inherent assumption that he’s right and the rest of us are wrong. But god. An idea, a feeling, a connection to something. Not a religion, but a feeling you get, an understanding you come to when you give up your sense of superiority in order to love and experience animals and nature.

Gary Paulsen loves his dogs, that much is abundantly clear, loves them so much he suffers to become one, aligns himself with them, with nature, with the wild, over the so-called luxuries of civilization. Winterdance documents that transformation, and I read it with this intense hunger; I alternately wanted to experience this for myself and was terrified by his descriptions of the cold. When you’ve lived your entire life in a place without seasons, where 40 degrees is considered pretty darn cold, how can you conceptualize 30 below, 40 below? I don’t want to loose my toes to frostbite, but that seems to be an almost casual occurrence among the men and women who run the Iditarod. But I would very much like to know that, if it came down to it, if it was just me and a team of dogs and a sled, I could survive a night or two in 30 below, whatever that feels like. I would like to know what it feels like to break down and not have the option of calling AAA.

This is what 40 or 50 below apparently looks like, even among people who have lived in 40 or 50 below, whose idea of winter wear isn’t a cardigan and socks from Ross:

“’A bit colder’ will mean one man with frozen eyeballs, will mean steel bolts shearing off and frostbitten fingers and cheekbones turning black with dead flesh, will mean one man, a doctor, having to have his nose amputated because gangrene can and frequently does go hand-in-hand with frostbite.”

It might not sound like a terribly funny book, as seriously as I’m discussing my philosophy about animals and nature, and humanity’s relationship to both. I think I laughed so hard that I broke down crying roughly 27 times reading this book, especially in the beginning when he’s trying to build his team.

“In subsequent runs I left the yard on my face, my ass, my back, my belly. I dragged for a mile, two miles, three miles. I lost the team eight, ten times; walked twelve, seventeen, once forty-some miles looking for them. The rig broke every time we ran, torn to pieces, and I finally borrowed a welder and rebuilt the thing every night. Every farmer within forty miles of us knew about me, knew me as ‘that crazy bastard who can’t hold his team.’ I once left the yard with wooden matches in my pocket and had them ignite as I was being dragged past the door of the house, giving me the sembleance of a meterorite, screaming something about my balls being on fire at Ruth, who was laughing so hard she couldn’t stand.”

And then there’s the starting chute, which is three and a half pages of hilarity. I cried as I read it, laughing so uncontrollably that I couldn’t read the passages I found so entertaining to Colin. I wish I could post it all here, but that wouldn’t be fair to the book, which I highly recommend purchasing if you can, or at the very least, borrowing or hunting down at a library. Here’s a snippet:

“There is a newspaper photo somewhere showing me leaving the chutes, that shows Wilson with his tongue out the side of his mouth and a wild look in his eye as he snakes the team out and away from the starting line with a great bound. (It also shows me apparently smiling; for the record the smile is not humor but the first stages of rictus caused by something close to terminal fright.)”

In theory, it sounds easy. You stand on the runners and the dogs run and everything’s beautiful. Balancing on a sled pulled by dogs who have no desire to stop, ever, is not beautiful if you’re not entirely in command of yourself and the situation.

Here’s the thing, though. There is nothing quite so infectious as dogs that want to run. Need to run. That will take you anywhere you want, so long as you take care of them, respect them. Spend 10 minutes at the starting line of the Iditarod and you’ll understand what I mean. They leap, shriek, tug at their harnesses to be free of the brakes, of the anchor. They need to run. Now. And you can run them 30 miles, and they’ll still need to run. Now. I can’t describe the beauty of it, how moving it is to witness a fellow creature get to do the thing it was born for.

Paulsen got to experience that at the starting line of the Iditaord, only from the scarier, more exciting end of the chute.

“Worse, the dogs became excited. And like the barking, excitement breeds on itself until dogs I thought I’d known for years were completely unrecognizable, were almost mad with eagerness. It wasn’t just that they wanted to run—there simply wasn’t anything else for them. Everything they were, all the ages since their time began, the instincts of countless eons of wolves coursing after herds of bison and caribou were still there, caught in genetic strands, and they came to the fore and the dogs went berserk with it.”

So there I was, sitting on a beanbag in my living room in San Luis Obispo, with a fat, happy cat on my lap, overcome with emotion and longing, coming to the end of Paulsen’s story. In his final line, he asks,

“How can it be to live without the dogs?”

I’m asking myself the same question.

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