Dear Readers, last week, while I was in Toronto, I visited the home of the first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was the grandfather of the former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who lived from 1874 to 1950. Mackenzie King was a a solitary man, with no close relatives and a small circle of friends. He seems to have distrusted his fellow human beings, and no woman could ever live up to his mother. He lived alone with his dog: he had three Irish Terriers during his lifetime, each one called Pat, and wrote about them in his diary. He described his first ‘Pat’, his constant companion for over 17 years, as ‘a God-sent little angel in the guise of a dog, my dear little saviour’. It is said that the dog was often asked about matters of foreign and domestic policy, the enthusiasm of his tail-wagging being a clue to how to proceed. When the dog died, Mackenzie King communicated with him by means of seances and a Ouija board.
Every Christmas, Mackenzie King sat down in his armchair beside a glowing fire and read the whole of the Christmas story to his dog, everything from the shepherds to the Magi to the birth in the stable, with special emphasis on the role of the animals around the manger, so that the dog would feel that he, too, was part of the nativity.
I was touched by the image of this man, so isolated from other human beings, reading aloud to his dog and attempting to make the dog feel that he, too, had his part in the divine plan. I imagine the dog looking up at his master and reacting to his emotions, rather than his words. Who is to say that this is not love of the purest kind? Whatever we pay attention to grows and develops in mysterious ways, but what we sometimes overlook is that this is a two-way process. The man reads to his dog, and the dog repays him with unconditional love.
My cat, on the other hand, had disappeared completely when we got home early on Saturday morning. Sometimes she rushes down the stairs to greet us, wailing the whole way. This time she hid under the bed for two hours before slinking down the stairs and presenting herself to me while I was on the phone catching up with Mum. The cat yowled and demanded to be stroked, tail trembling as she danced in tiny fraught circles. It took a lot of attention to bring her back to her normal state of relaxed indifference.
The cat seems to find me less intimidating when I’m sitting down or laying in bed, which makes me wonder how she actually sees me. Someone once wrote that when they lay down on the floor, their pet rabbit went directly to their hands, the only part of them that was familiar in this new scenario. And Oliver Sacks writes about a man who had been blind from birth, and was then able to have an operation so that he could see. This was not such an unalloyed blessing as you might think, especially at first: we ‘learn’ to see, and to understand the pattern of light and shadow that designates a staircase, for example. But what was most surprising was that, although he could identify his pet dog with his eyes closed, when his eyes were open he had difficulty in identifying his pet from different angles – a dog from the side looks completely different to a dog from the front. So maybe my cat is reacting to my towering, looming height, or maybe she just doesn’t recognise me as the same person when I’m sitting down.
The garden has exploded into green and white. All the bare twigs are clothed, the reeds and purple loosestrife are three times the height of the plants that we left. The hawthorn is clothed from head to foot in white flowers that smell faintly erotic. The duckweed is advancing across the pond as usual, and is impossible to remove without a genocide of tadpoles. Water hyacinth has popped up, in full flower – I planted it over five years ago and it’s never done anything until now. A jackdaw has been feeding from the bird table, and I wonder if it’s the same one that visited in spring last year. He watches us as we tiptoe around the kitchen, his grey eye attentive, his frosted neck reflecting the sunlight. Sometimes he chases other birds, and once he is in turn pursued by a magpie.
A wood pigeon floats up from the roof and claps his wings, once, twice, before drifting off in a great loop.
And on Sunday evening, at dusk, I stand watching a single bat looping around the narrow side return. My climbing hydrangea is just coming into bloom, and I wonder if the bat is roosting in it during the day, but mostly I just watch, amazed, as she works tight little figures of eight in the confined space, sometimes silhouetted against the turquoise sky, sometimes disappearing against the black of the fence. I see a moth rise, the bat fly past it and then turn sharply and catch it. I see it happen again. I watch and watch, afraid to blink. And then the bat leaves, and the sky is empty, and the insects that have escaped this onslaught start to disperse.
It seems to have been a year for bats: in Costa Rica, in Collingwood, and now outside my own window. And of all of these, it is this homely bat that gives me most pleasure, because it implies that for all the failures, I must be doing something right in the garden. My mind moves to things that I can do to encourage the insects that the bat needs: should I plant a window box full of nicotiana, for example, or is it my pale cream rhododendron that is attracting them? All I know is that a garden is never finished, but that if we pay attention and are humble it will tell us what it needs, and how to work with it.
Maybe ‘home’ is whatever and whoever we pay attention to. And maybe attention is just another word for love.