How is writing about Martha’s Vineyard like a puppy chasing its own tail?
Real life inspires fiction and fiction starts looking like real life and pretty soon you’ve forgotten which came first. Round and round and round . . .
Not long after Tam’s arrival on the Vineyard, we went to visit my friend the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs. Cynthia wanted to meet the puppy — she met Travvy for the first time when he was about nine weeks old — and I wanted Tam to meet Cynthia’s menagerie, which includes goats, ducks, guinea hens, and chickens. Need I say that many photos were taken, not only by me and Cynthia but by Lynn Christoffers, a bona fide photographer who showed up at the right moment.
I’m in Cynthia’s Sunday night writers’ group, and since Tam is only beginning to develop the internal fortitude to stay home alone, he’s been coming with me — and behaving / amusing himself pretty well for two hours while we all talk writing.
Now comes the tail-chasing part. The title character of Wolfie, my novel in progress, is based on the late Travvy but with a different backstory. In the early chapters he barely escapes being shot for trying to get into a sheep pasture. He’s also accused of killing several hens. This leads to a board of selectmen’s meeting at which the hen owner’s desire for restitution and maybe revenge is thwarted by Glory, my 11-year-old co-protagonist, who makes an eloquent case for “reasonable doubt.” Wolfie gets a pass.
So the week before last, in the early afternoon of a very rainy Thursday when no one was home, thirteen of Cynthia flock — three Pekin ducks, two mallards, four guinea hens, three laying hens, and a rooster — were massacred by dog or dogs unknown. There were no eyewitnesses and no obvious perps, just a few pawprints found in the mud.
Word spread quickly by word of mouth, email, and — once the Martha’s Vineyard Times story was shared on Facebook — social media. Naturally everyone had an opinion, from “it must have been the coyote” (the presence of a coyote on the Vineyard was recently confirmed after years of unconfirmed sightings) to “%@$# irresponsible dog owners!” to “why don’t chicken owners have to keep their chickens under control?”
As you might guess, since I’ve made dogs vs. livestock a theme in my novel, I’ve got some thoughts on the subject. In the novel, Wolfie gets off — but it’s highly likely that he did what he’s accused of, and some other things besides. What’s more, Glory and her co-protagonist, 50-something Shannon, are concealing evidence that might have nullified that “reasonable doubt.” As the writer, I want readers to be uneasy about this but to realize that this might be the best course for nearly all concerned — excepting, of course, the owner of the dead hens.
So I’m raising this cute little fluffball, variously known as Tam Lin, Tam, Tam-Tam, and Tommy, who already has a sizable fan club, all of whose members think he’s adorable.
Travvy had an even bigger fan club. Many of those who mourned his passing last March called him “sweet.” I bit my tongue. Trav was quite capable of doing everything that Wolfie is suspected of doing, even though he never did. It helped that around the time he arrived on the island, mismanaged northern-breed dogs were involved in some high-profile attacks on fowl and other livestock. Fear of winding up on the front page was a good incentive for learning how to manage my dog better.
Travvy was an Alaskan malamute. So is Tam. Rhodry, Trav’s predecessor, was half malamute. Mals tend to have high prey drives. They are no one’s idea of the ideal Vineyard dog. There are good reasons why mals and other northern-breed dogs (Siberian huskies, Samoyeds, Akitas, etc.) are far outnumbered here by labs, goldens, border collies, Australian shepherds, and myriad poodle mixes.
Between Rhodry’s lifetime (1994–2008) and Travvy’s (2008–2019) more people started keeping “free-range chickens” not on multi-acre farms but on house lots of three acres or less. Quite a few of these people were urbanites and suburbanites seeking a “rural lifestyle.” The aggrieved hen owner in Wolfie is one of this ilk. I don’t much like him or his type, but neither Shannon nor I is totally unsympathetic to his plight.
My perspective changed, or maybe “broadened” is the better word, when a friend was the aggrieved hen owner and the carnage was visible. Cynthia decided to go to last Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting. I decided to go too, partly in support and partly because — well, that dog-chasing-tail thing: a scene in my novel takes place at a selectmen’s meeting, it concerns dogs and livestock, and I figured I could learn something.
Tam came along. He wasn’t ready to stay home alone at that point, I’m constantly on the lookout for new socialization experiences, and besides maybe he could learn something too. He settled on my lap in the back row.
Cynthia read into the record a letter detailing what had happened and then asked that a letter be sent to all licensed dog owners in town reminding them of the town bylaw requiring dogs to be under control at all times. The selectmen agreed to this. I did learn something new (and may revise my fictional scene as a result): that the town is authorized to compensate citizens for the loss of livestock when a perpetrator can’t be identified.
You can find the June 19 West Tisbury board of selectmen’s meeting on MVTV, the local-access cable station. Cynthia is the first item on the agenda, and if you hang in to about 12:00 you’ll get a glimpse of Tam and me. (You can hear his brief commentary on the proceedings a bit earlier.) I spoke in support of the letter and noted that dog owners often aren’t aware of what their dogs are capable of when they’re out and about. Here’s the Martha’s Vineyard Times story.
Times have changed. Everyone’s rights are limited by the rights of their neighbors, by convention if not by law. Dogs are predators; hens, ducks, and other livestock are not. Free-ranging dogs can do serious damage when they cross property lines, and penned-up fowl have been attacked by dogs and wild critters who dig or gnaw their way in. It’s up to dog owners to keep our dogs under control, even though it means admitting that things aren’t the way they were 20 or 30 years ago.