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Live Find

On an unusually warm Sunday morning in January I must walk out into the woods and try to get lost. Sunday mornings in rural South Carolina are quiet, hauntingly so. In our little valley there is no sound from traffic, just red-tailed hawks screeching and bluebirds chirping in the dull vegetation. I had hoped, when I realized the silence meant our neighbors were attending church services, that I might hear hymns ring out between these hills. There are so many churches it seemed plausible. I can hear the mechanic pounding with his air hammer, why not a gospel choir? Five churches line the four-mile road to town. Their names read like song fragments: First Baptist, Old-Fashioned Baptist, New Baptist, Good Shepherd Baptist, Travelers Rest Baptist. Their density suggests a mighty need. I imagine every house is empty right now, every yard vacant.

While everyone else is looking to be found I am trying to get lost. I am tasked with hiding and then being found by our 6-month-old German Shepherd dog. My role in this “run-away” is that of the “live subject.” The puppy is new to this just like I am. He’s learning to find people and I, a chronic mapmaker who obsessives over word choice and specifics, am learning to lose myself again; a skill that came to me naturally as a young girl. Logan has been bred for this role. His sire, Jackson, has been working as a search and rescue dog for five years and has found 11 subjects during 80 search efforts. His dam, Ellie was imported from Slovakia and has been used as a cadaver dog in the Upstate region of South Carolina since 2014. My boyfriend Daniel is the dog trainer, and it is he who holds a bottle of neon tinted powder above his head and puffs an ounce of it into the wind to determine its direction this morning. The powder drifts gracefully to the west.

I have no stamina for obedience training. My dog, Rosalita, a black-lab mutt who has no skill other than secretly cleaning the dishes in the sink is evidence of this. I am Logan’s human during the day while Daniel works at the hospital. It is easy to say I mother him. While I don’t dress up the dogs, or carry them in handbags, I care for them in a way that is unmistakably maternal. During the first month we had Logan, I cut down my hours at work to spend long days with the puppy, watching him roll in the falling leaves, snooze, and chase cabbage moths. I told myself it wouldn’t last, and a sense of present nostalgia tinted that whole season with gold, although the light that month was strange and metallic anyway, due to huge fires in the forests of North Carolina. The smoke drifted down and settled over the bowl of the Piedmont Plain giving every photograph I took an unintentional filter. Sunsets were pink. Sunrises peach. That first month, Logan learned to ask to go outside, to sit and stay, to take himself into his kennel to sleep and I learned to watch, to reward rather than punish, and that some moments are okay to slow down for. Chronic futurist, planning days and months and years ahead, I learned to settle, to note, as I had as a girl, the important routines of insects and birds, the path of the sun, the sound the wind made in each type of oak tree. Now Logan is thirty pounds heavier and full of bombast and inborn confidence that’s explosive and startling in its focus.

When Logan sees Daniel reach for the bottle of tinted powder he knows what’s going on. His eyes change, the pupils grow huge and dark as his brain fills with adrenaline. His long tail straightens. He leaps and whimpers and begs to go out with us into the yard, motivated to work more than anything else. Jackson whimpers from the kennel, waiting impatiently for his chance to search. Daniel has been training Logan to build a drive for this job that overrides anything primal, food, giving chase to deer, fear of darkness or new places, even the desire to play with toys. Watching the puppy quiver with anticipation, it’s easy to imagine him bursting into caves, or scaling the rubble of a bombed building, flooded with the motivation to search.

Daniel charts me a path down the driveway and up into the woods. Like the puppy, he is flushed with focus in these moments, and his dark eyes become warm with passion. Search and rescue is a volunteer effort, so when he pulls himself out of bed, after a long shift at the hospital because a hiker is missing off a trail at Caesar’s Head Park, he won’t get paid for the 15 miles he hikes in the dark and heavy fog or the hour he spends typing up a report. He paid for his own headlight, backpack, outfitted his truck, GPS tracking systems, boots and compasses, maps and first aid kits, not to mention the two German Shepherds, Jackson and Logan, each of whom cost over $3,000. His reward is hearing that hiker, a 60-year old woman, call to him from the dark. After walking her out, back to the parking lot at the trailhead lit with the spinning red lights from the fire department and the flashing blue of police cruisers, the woman turned and bowed to him, embarrassed, thankful but without words. I wonder sometimes how she will remember him, how she saw him that night, first on the trail, and then, in the strobe light of the lot. What does a savoir look like? First, I suppose, it looks like a German Shepherd, bombarding through the darkness.

I can hear Logan barking inside the house as I walk down the driveway; I’m not even lost yet and he’s ready to find me. I turn back and see Daniel on the hill, near the carport, his face raised to the wind like a raptor. He reads the wind for scent; as a farmer and gardener, I’ve learned to read it for weather. It is our shared language. I sit with my poetry books and he with his medical texts but in the open air we read high and low pressure, dew point and jet stream. Today the wind comes up the throat of this small valley (I suppose it’s called a “hollow” by our local neighbors). This isn’t my landscape but I am learning it. We’re transplants here. Through the summer I’ve worked my garden, and found the soil shockingly red, stained like blood. I’ve researched the names of the insects; the huge wasps that pound on the screen at night are European hornets, and they live in a massive hive under the bridge of our driveway. Peaceful vegetarians, they are driven mad by lights in the night. Leaf legged beetles devour my tomato plants. Red, black, white, and green aphids cluster under the leaves of my collard plants. This is my form of searching; cutting down the background noise through specifics, catbird, cottonmouth, magnolia.

Scenting is about focus, about locating one thing in the mess of the world. Logan has the ability to do this naturally; he inherited it from his sire. Daniel decided to breed Jackson after he made a remarkable find in the fall of 2015. Jackson was searching for an autistic teenage boy who’d gone missing in the cold woods of New Hampshire, a boy who was known to wander and then, a particular trait of autistics, to hide. The dog was searching along the bank of a lake, when, he suddenly turned and jumped into the water. He swam 500 feet out to an island. His handler squinted to see him burst through the low growth and up into the tree line of the island but just as soon as the dog vanished, he reappeared and swam back to shore. Shaking off the freezing water he indicated that he’d found his subject. This indication looks different for every dog, but for Jackson, he jumps up on his handler’s chest. None of the search resources had mentioned that the boy might have access to a boat, so his handler hesitated. As if to prove his point, Jackson rushed back into the water, swam to the island, dashed into the bushes, and then returned to his handler. Officers located a canoe and paddled out to the island, where they found the boy huddled in a little fort made of twigs. Online news sources carried the story of Jackson’s find. He was described as a “wonder dog,” a K9 hero. Daniel received pleas through Facebook messages from people who managed to track him down, begging Jackson to come and look for their missing children. One woman wrote, “I Googled ‘best search dog in the country,’ and Jackson came up.”

Jackson works by scent, smelling humans on the wind. He’s been trained to loop and search a landscape, listening, looking, tracking back and forth covering 10 miles while his handler just walks one. Dogs have an average of 220 million olfactory receptors in their noses. Jackson and Logan probably have more than that, while I, as I pick up the smell of fast food fried chicken from a discarded Bojangles box on the roadside and the warm scent of oak leaves crisping in the sun, have just 5 million receptors, making me over a thousands times more numb to the world. It’s hard for experts to pinpoint exactly what it is that dogs smell when they locate humans. Perhaps it is the little flecks of dust we scatter as we move through the world, scraps of hair and flesh. One handler we know says they can smell DNA. Dogs have located bodies under 40 feet of rubble and identified human fingerprints that are over a week old. I’ve wondered what stories Jackson and Logan can read when they stick their noses out of the car window joyfully and inhale information at 50-miles-an-hour. I envy them, breathing in knowledge while I am stuck identifying plants and bugs and learning the history of a place one small fact at a time.

I know that if I walk straight up into the woods from the road, I won’t run into any houses. This tract of wood sits wedged between housing developments. From the stumps, soft with green moss, and the straight mono-species growth of Georgia pine, I know this forest was logged roughly 30 years ago. There are old roads sunk low in the land from long before that. Someone has cut four-wheeler trails through the pines and someone else, maybe the same person, has scattered corn and apples to bait deer and turkey. I’ve found their red shot gun shell casings and discarded soda bottles but it isn’t hunting season, so I don’t walk in fear as I push through the brush along the roadside.

The woods in upstate South Carolina are thick and prickly. If I wanted to run, I wouldn’t get far. Holly bushes have sharp painful leaves. Blackberry choke the sunny spots. Climbing thorns loop up into the trees. Kudzu strangles. Mountain laurel grows dense along slopes and in the wet places near streambeds. I walk slowly to avoid being hurt by this place. When the vegetation grows in the summer, we won’t be able to play hide and seek like this. It’ll be too dense with the snakes out warming themselves and fire ants mounding.

Living with Daniel and the dogs, I am aware of how many people are missing. At any given moment over 10,000 people are missing in the United States, some of them are run-aways who wish to simply ghost out of their lives, while others need to be found. Being lost is a profound statement, a binary existence. It implies a negative, a B-side to being part of some bigger unit. Being found is an inclusive action. Often those who go missing are outside lines already, the young, the old, the sick, suicides, drug addicts, thrill seeking hikers taking a stab at a knife-edge rim in the dark of a winter’s night, each of these types of lost people behaves differently, and Daniel has trained the dogs to search for them all.

Those who seek to kill themselves with pills often head to high places where they can enjoy a spectacular view while they fade into death. Those with dementia wander, but don’t have the strength to take high or complicated paths. Autistics hide in confided areas, like valleys or rock formations, or are drawn to water. People who are blind-drunk or high-out-of-their-minds move very quickly then stop and go no further. And of course, the dead move in their own ways, tumbling off ridgelines or getting washed downstream, caught in deadwood, or getting broken into smaller pieces by animals. This landscape conceals its dead easily, snake and swamp, thick brush, old mills, chain-linked and haunted. Daniel’s search team gets called more to recover corpses than to save the missing.

There are dead everywhere, I tell myself as I hike uphill. Bones in the ground like roots. History thick upon history, so tangled that only the dogs can pick out the important strands. My family’s bones are back in Vermont, in a cemetery that looks into the folds of the Green Mountains. The woods there are more open, the white pine needles are soft as make-up brushes on the cheek. I thought for a long time that those bones made that place my home until I found my heart was stronger than my skeleton and followed Daniel to South Carolina. I’ve been walking for nearly 15 minutes before I find a good spot to hide. There’s a big old stump rotting on a rise that I can sit behind. If I were a lost person I might take shelter here, feeling safer for having something to my back. I sweep the holly leaves away, for they are as prickly as pins and settle down to wait.

During early “run-aways” when Logan was just learning to find me, Daniel would hold him, and I would jog just out of sight behind a tree or the edge of the garden shed. Gradually, I covered more ground, down into the pasture near the bank of the pond where our neighbor’s cows retreated in the summer heat, or up onto the planting box of the grain drill under the shed roof where swallows darted and the last yellow jackets hummed. Then we started over again, but this time, the puppy didn’t see me leave. I’d walk into the woods behind our house and lie down. When Daniel texted me I would yell out “I’m here” and using that single audio clue as an aid to the scent trail, Logan would burst through the underbrush and leap into my lap. His reward, at first, was a jar of meat-flavored baby food that he’d lap from my hand. Slowly, Daniel replaced Logan’s food reward with a toy reward, special rubber balls from Hungary that the puppy now prefers over Gerber’s ham and gravy.

Logan is too advanced now to need an audio cue, so I no longer have to yell “I’m here” into the empty halls of Georgia pine, although there is something so definite and so desperate about that call that I almost miss it. I could open up Google maps on my phone and see myself a red pin point on the landscape but the sentence, hollered at the top of my lungs into the South Carolina woods is so much more philosophical, so much more declarative, than GPS or cell phone pings off the tower behind our house. “I’m here!” is a cry for help as much as it is a statement of being. I don’t really know where here is, maybe a ten-minute walk to the nearest house, a twenty-minute hike down to the state highway, but I can imagine getting lost in these woods of thick pine and low brush. There is just the slightest ripple to the earth, no jutting rock or grand slope, just a smooth wave like a quiet ocean.

I turn my cell phone to vibrate and settle into the silence of the lost person. I lie down and look up into the vanishing perspective of treetops. The wind, still blowing from the west, rocks them gently. I tuck my hands into my pockets, it’s colder here on the forest floor in the shade of the old stump, and I can feel the chill of the January ground under my back and butt. The woods, which I thought before were quiet, start to rustle and crowd with noise. The trees groan and rub against each other. Something scratches in the underbrush.

Above me, turkey vultures spin in their updraft orbits, I can almost hear their feathers rustling. They too are locaters of the missing, spinning like radar needles over the scent of death. I’ve read that they are an under-researched species, slighted by science, still cloaked in their hunched black wings, ugly angels of death. From a distance, though, they are geometric and soft. As a girl I used to try to see the landscape like the vultures did, from two hundred feet above. There was a grassy spot in our field where I would spend long summer afternoons of my childhood watching them glide through updrafts and trying to bend my mind into their little, sharp-beaked heads. I imagined my house, with the garden and swing set, the field where I lay hidden watching the birds, then the woods stretching to the north, the river like a ribbon of light to the west, the state highway black and straight, the steeples of churches rising above the dense trees of high summer, the granite cliffs, the clock tower of Baker Library, the geometric grid of Dartmouth’s green, the streets of downtown drawn like map lines, College and Main and Route 10. I loved maps, they seemed to start all my favorite fantasy books, and I taught myself to draw them as I explored the backyard, but all my maps started as the vision of birds spinning above the earth on the wind.

Lying in the pine woods in South Carolina, I feel again that rush of adventure, a heightened sense of trespassing as I did when I traipsed across our neighbor’s property lines with my backpack full of comic books, a sketch pad and pencils, salami sandwiches, a stolen pocket knife, treats for my dog, and a bottle of water. What if someone found me lying out in the woods? What would they think of a woman who spends her Sunday mornings hiding behind a stump in leaf clutter staring up like a mystic at the hunting of vultures? Church must be out now, because I can hear the crackle of rifle fire as kids shoot targets in their backyards, the roaring of dirt bike engines, someone’s goat baying, a woman yelling, a weed whacker hissing to life.

I would have loved this task as a young girl, a serious child who valued both work and being outdoors. How many days did I spend lying in the woods, listening, I wonder, taking notes as if they added up to something. I grew up with no real religion and have been trying to hammer together a faith ever since. I steal Bibles from hotel rooms, I chant “Om” in the yoga studio, and I watch the morning sunrise through an amethyst crystal on my desk, which is supposed to encourage creativity. Paying attention to the world around me is the closest I’ve gotten to understanding what other people call God. I also create patterns, like a monk fingering prayer beads, even when I am intentionally trying to loosen up.

With Logan, Daniel would call these “behavior patterns” and the type of work we are doing with run-aways, “patterning.” Repeating something again and again until it becomes instinct, until it becomes a singular task that is more than the sum of its parts. The puppy is learning that scent and smell, run and jump, circling, rushed locating is a greater thing called finding. I am learning that paying attention is a type of salvation that starts with surrender. Lying down in the woods. Waiting to be found.

The wind makes strange sounds in the woods, sounds that I can’t quiet locate. The dark smell of fear rises in me with the rush of trespassing and now my senses are heightened. I can feel my pulse swell the veins in my neck. I focus on the treetops as they vanish into sky. I remember my best friend from elementary school, Katherine Blanchflower, who had a British accent and two passports that she showed me proudly, and which conveyed upon her all the mystery and stories of the Old World. We took Sunday school together during the brief year that my family attended to such rituals. One Sunday, after church, we were playing together in a teepee we’d created by wrapping a Little Mermaid printed sheet around a cluster of deadfall pines that formed a triangular heap. The light through the sheet was bright as through stained glass. Katherine whispered to me and there was weight and sincerity in her whisper. “God,” she said, “was just dog spelled backwards.” I nodded like I understood although I knew nothing of faith as a child. It wasn’t until we got a dog that I learned to respect and care for something other than myself.

The first “book” I ever wrote was about my childhood dog, Velvet, so named because her ears were soft like the velvet dresses I imagined the Ingalls girls wearing to church in Little House on the Prairie. I saw in her something I wanted recorded, something notable and holy. I watched Velvet watching the world, and followed her through the woods. We found coyote kills and bear dens, waterfalls, and abandoned cellar holes. I marked them all on my maps. In high school I wrote sonnets to her because she was all I knew of love, and when, finally, I dug her grave I laid her to rest with pages of the comic book I had read with her all those summers in the woods. After her burial, my youngest sister told me that she’d never seen me cry before. I laughed, because I cry often, but always in hiding, and I remembered Katherine’s wisdom, that semordnilap that switched the divine with a pet. Velvet was my translator; through her, I was able to learn the language of the world.

I am always more alive when I have a dog at my side. Shortly after Velvet’s death I purchased Rosalita and again felt that nerve open to the hidden secrets all around me. She dragged me out into the dark of nights as a puppy and as she peed I’d see a full moon or the eyes of a moose tracking through the forest, high and beady. One January, I bundled up and took her out into a snowstorm, and then suddenly, thunder shook the world and lightning shocked the whiteness, a meteorological wonder that I would have otherwise slept through. She found a beaver dam and a marsh dense with spring birds, and now when we walk along the back roads in South Carolina she pulls me ahead, pointing out the junk but also the jewels of the day: a hiding infant fawn, a robin’s egg shattered blue on the blacktop, a pine that plays another pine like a violin’s bow humming strange and full of sorrow.

During November, when Logan was small, I walked the three dogs four or five times a day, on account of the puppy’s tiny bladder, and to introduce him to the world, to leaves, to water, to rock, to road-side, to mailbox, to grass and to garden. All summer I’d avoided the dense woods but as the leaves died and fell away, the forest seemed to open. Right behind our house I discovered two crumbling stone chimneys and an ancient electrical line running through the hearts of mature trees, a rusted carriage frame, a steam tractor’s engine, a well house, and a heart-shaped disk harrow buried in detritus. With the dogs, I saw the old roads’ sunken lines, the cement bridge forms where once, the brook had been forded, and closing my eyes, I knew this place better. I knew a bit of its history. Some nights, looking down into the lot with the two chimneys and the electrical line, I think I might see ghosts but I never have. There are fingerprints in the chimney mortar though, much too old for even Logan or Jackson to identify.

I’ve been lying in the woods for twenty-five minutes and beginning to feel that I might actually be lost. Maybe they aren’t coming to look for me. I check my phone and then take a picture of my view up into the trees. Daniel and I are documenting Logan’s training, Daniel with a video camera and me with my notes and letters. I can’t help feeling that there is something special about the dog. He isn’t a pet, Daniel reminds me. He is a tool, an instrument. He might save a human life one day. He will also be Daniel’s partner, like Jackson is now.

Logan’s existence seems to me something of a miracle. It took weeks of visits to Ellie and then to the vet to breed the two, Jackson being so well trained that he’d lost all interest in the business of sex. The last visit to the vet fell on the final day of Ellie’s fertile cycle. When Daniel and I brought Jackson home we stopped in the yard to watch a huge full moon rise over the pasture. That super moon, closer to earth than any other in 50 years, strawberry red and shimmering in the humidity marked the start of Logan’s life.

After the puppies were born, we spent every weekend visiting with them. I set up a camera and recorded hours of footage as we played with them, ran after them, held each up to the lens. Daniel was looking critically for a certain set of characteristics, choosing the pick of the litter instead of a stud fee. By the time the puppies were 6 weeks old, we had narrowed the list from 7 to 2, a female and a male. For each dog, he wrote pros and cons, and then ignored all that and went with his instinct, choosing the male puppy because he had never worked with a female dog before. Logan cried and scratched at my lap all the way home, stinking of his littermates and only quieted when we opened the window and let the night air blow into the cabin. Searches are best conducted at night, when scent is easier to detect. Moisture rises. The wind settles a bit, and dogs don’t get overheated. That night the full moon was marked with smoke, the Smokey Mountains were burning, Table Rock was burning, and all the smoke drifted down and turned the moon orange as a begonia.

Something crunches in the woods nearby. I shift and try to locate the sound. Two dark shapes move along the ground near me. My heart stops and then blood rushes into my face and neck. They aren’t bear cubs as my eyes had first read them, but instead huge wild turkeys, two toms out scratching corn at a feeding station. I watch them and see them spook, their tails fan out then they tumble into flight, squawking up into a low roost on a pine branch. Something scared them.

I see Daniel first, wearing the red jacket he always puts on while searching. I know it smells like wild places and night air and the metallic edge of his sweat that makes me swoon. He’s scanning back and forth, looking for me. Then, low in the leaves, tumbling through draws and breaking up hanging vines, busting up the very fiber of the forest with his enthusiasm, I see Logan, running back and forth, chasing my skin particles, my fingerprint oil, my DNA. He’s moving faster now because he can tell I’m close. A gust of air knocks the pines around and blows my scent right back into his big, black nose and his circles straighten into an arrow pointing right at my hiding place. He overshoots me first, then pivots and explodes into my lap, barely licking at the jar of baby food before he rushes back to Daniel. With all his strength he jumps and knocks his two front paws into Daniels’ chest, indicating that he’s made his find just like Jackson does and then he sprints back to me.

I praise Logan and Daniel tosses him his toy reward. I show Daniel the video I took on my phone of Logan bursting over the stump to find me and he grins with pride. The puppy is still “on,” in search mode, tearing through the woods, tossing his toy around playfully. Daniel reaches for my hand and leads me out the way I came, ducking under the vines and stepping over the thorn bushes. Logan circles us wildly. He looks like a little coyote, leggy and sharp in the ears.

Walking back through the Georgia pine, I rest my head on Daniel’s shoulder and we two-step around the thorns and vines. All around, the trees are talking; the mushrooms are sending out signals to each other through their underground networks, animals are chattering, kids are climbing into tree stands and forts.

Recently, I’ve been re-learning how to play the piano.  When we moved to this house in the country, we finally had room to take delivery of a large piano, which Daniel’s program director at the hospital had given to us for Christmas. It’s a baby grand Chickering made in Boston 10 years before the start of the First World War. Its keys are real ivory, imperfectly white like my tea-stained teeth. Although my fingers know how to push and glide, my feet to dip like I’m driving the soft clutch of an old pick up truck, I can’t make any sense of sheet music. I call my Mom, always hopeful I’d return to music, and she sends me a beginner’s book of piano tunes for adults. When I open it across the wooden stand the first song it instructs me to peck out is “Amazing Grace,” a tune I know well enough to sing through.

I let my voice guide my hands. The notes take simple steps, up and down. The first few runs through I take slow, breaking up the words into little syllables with the same delicious anticipation as eating a slice of cake bite by bite. A. Maze. Ing. The long full sail of grace, the sweet hiss of the c like water, like waves.

It’s the hymn I would most like to hear sung into this valley by a gospel choir, I think as we slip down the oak leaves at the edge of the woods. I like its short, declarative sentences, its accessible range; any voice can walk up and down its simple scales. The silence of Sunday is behind us now, as we step out over the road and cross to our driveway, the puppy shepherding us home in sweeping circles. He is full of pride for having located me in all the mess of the world. Logan has a particular trait that Daniel says he’s never seen in another dog. After he’d found me, as we walk out, he circles back to check on me, as if he’s concerned for me, that I might wander off again, that I might not make it. He runs up and bumps my hand with his nose. Here, he says, you’re still here. Come, he says, I know the way. I sing my favorite line of that hymn as we hike up the driveway to our house, our two cars and our garden sit silhouetted against the crisp South Carolina sky. I was lost but now I’m found.

  1. Michael Bowden on

    “Live Find” is an astonishingly well-crafted piece of writing. Megan Baxter has woven the various strands of her tale with care and precision, lyricism and beauty. “Live Find” stands tall.

    Michael Bowden

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