Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

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Today’s topic.

I’ve been reading alarmed reports recently about repeated eruptions from Popocatepetl, with some people interpreting them as signs of an imminent seismic apocalypse. But in reality, Don Goyo, Mexico’s most famous volcano, lets off steam and a bunch of ash the same way that Toronto gets snow in winter: regularly and frequently, if slightly unpredictably.

It’s really neat to see a plume of smoke and ash rising from the cone, at least from the safe distance of 25 miles or so that lies between my village and the summit. The volcano is most beautiful after rain, however, which tends to fall at those heights as snow, and coats its enormous bulk in white.

Once, in unimaginably ancient times, this village was covered by seawater. There were coral reefs where there are now rocky hillsides, and seaweed where there are now jutting promontories and small peaks.

I guessed this to be the case when I first came here, since there were so many strata visible in the rockfaces. Volcanic activity here has come and gone over millions of years, changing the topography. At intervals, more sedimentary rocks have been laid down between the periods of volcanism.

Some seven or eight years ago, I was walking on a hillside trail when I spotted a large, patterned rock, just as I was close to finishing the house I was building. It was a chunk of fossilised coral, knocked out of a rockface by some unnoticed tremor, that with the rains of many years had eventually arrived where I was standing looking at it. It was a perfect ornament to go beside my outside stairs.

Years ago, when my kids were small, I would take them to a stream in Erin Mills, the part of Mississauga in Ontario where we lived, to find fossils of seashells. They had washed out from soft, sedimentary rock upstream, and they made neat talking-points on a bookshelf. I think, though, I was more interested in them than my kids, who just saw greyish-green stones with streaks on them, while I saw very ancient history. Anyway, for me finding the coral was an extension of that old pastime.

Now, getting the coral home wasn’t the same as fetching back a clamshell fossil that fit in my hand. This thing weighed 30 lb, and I had to lug it half a mile home. But, I felt, in doing this I was earning the ownership of it. And I’ve never seen a specimen as large or fine here since.

A couple of years passed, and I came back to Toronto to earn more money for my retirement. One time, I asked Ofelia, the woman who rented my house what had happened to my fossil, but she had no idea. I guessed it had been discarded as just another lump of rock.

More time passed, and I returned here. Ofelia had died, and someone else had taken it. He didn’t know about any fossil, either. But then one day, soon after I’d come back, there was a discussion about the security of the corral where our dogs spend their daytime hours.

“Well, just use the big rock to hold the gate shut,” said my friend Lucero.

“Which rock?” I asked, not thinking clearly, so she showed me.

It had been used for this purpose for some months, and much of the coral pattern had been worn away. What had been living creatures millions of years ago, and had taken many more to impress itself as a fossil in limestone, was largely erased for ever.

There was, obviously, a lesson in the philosophical concept of impermanence here. There was also an opportunity for me to extract some emotional leverage for the damage done to something irreplaceable. But I knew there must be more pieces of such petrified coral in existence, and this specimen was not unique. So, I opted for half-baked Buddhism, while privately lamenting the ancient pattern’s erasure. And since it was too late to prevent the harm, and it was – after all – a rock, I let the topic go.

But I do look at the rock from time to time, and gaze at the coral pattern still etched along the un-abraded edges. It’s a simple reminder of how easily the earth can display its immense age when it isn’t covered by concrete or asphalt.

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Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl seen from a hillside above the village. Once, the ocean covered this place.

In such a mood, I took the photo at the top on our patio one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stepped back, admiring my worn find. I was soon joined by Punky, one of the three surviving dogs here. Examining the object of my attention, he commenced his own palaeontological enquiries, sniffing it from all possible angles. Did he, perhaps, detect some faint hint of saltwater impressed into the rock aeons ago? Or even grasp, from a lingering aroma of compressed lime and clay, how it had lain within the rock of the hillsides of so long?

I’ve no idea. For he then did what any sensible dog would do faced with the presence of immense history, and lifted his hind leg, anointing the damaged fossil with a pungent scent of his own.

I’m very fond of Punky, but I fear he just doesn’t have that much scientific curiosity.

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Punky rolling around on the patio.

The Punkster

A few weeks ago, I posted on Rem, the young Labrador-cross who guards this property; except, of course, when he takes off to molest other people’s property. Rem is around 16 months old, and full of post-puppyhood energy.

Punky is now around ten years old, maybe a little more. He was a street dog, a poodle-cross who one day followed my friend Lucero and her mom Estela as they came home. They’re both suckers for a cute, sad-looking dog, and Punky met those criteria easily. No-one’s ever called him a genius dog, but casually strolling into their house was one smart move. He’s too small to have lasted on the streets, and he’s poorly coordinated. I’ve never seen him bite anyone, human or canine, and street dog needs some nasty to make it through.

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Playing by sense of smell.

Still, when I shared a house with the others, after I first moved here, I noticed Punky always tried to challenge our larger dogs, and was constantly put in his place by them. So, when we constructed our own houses in Amatlan, both on the same piece of property where I now live again, I asked to have him move in with me. For three years he lived contentedly in my small house, interacting a little with the others, but preferring his solitude and his chosen role as king of the kitchen. He became the Punkster, the Punkmeister and other nicknames, but always fit the basic name Punky. His wool would grow out and he’d get scruffy, he’d hate being bathed and shaved, and he was fond of rummaging in wastebaskets for ‘toys,’ so I couldn’t leave any around.

After I returned to Canada in 2015 to fix my financial situation, he remained with his former owners, and became the guilt I took with me. Last week, I finally got him back again, wondering how it might work out. Dogs bear no grudges, but caring for an old one requires patience. He was always partly deaf and began developing cataracts four or five years back, so that now he’s largely blind. Like the Pinball Wizard, he plays by sense of smell.

He sleeps a lot, and I have to make sure I don’t trip over or bump into him in the dark, because he chooses odd places to snooze. He still barks aggressively at other dogs, especially when he’s fed … even though there aren’t any there to bark at. He can make out light and dark, but not a lot else. He can’t hear me if I call his name. He always made sequences of odd noises (“Punky noises”) that bore no relation to what appeared to be happening, and now they’re louder.

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It’s only an odd place if you’re a human.

But what he has is a familiar location where he half remembers the layout, and can sniff his way about. I saw him over Christmas, when he was in an unfamiliar place, and he seemed disoriented. Over the past few days he’s begun to build confidence. He’s occasionally started to seek me out, and responds to patting and having his head rubbed.

We always imagine we understand how pets think, or how they’re feeling. And they do have ways of communicating their moods, so it isn’t hard. Punky spends a lot of time just sitting still, as if trying to decide what to do, or where to go.

He must be in a lonely world, unable to play with Rem, but he’s managing. He’s operating according to a mental map of the kitchen and the patio outside, and he’s still reliably house-trained. Rem is jealous of the attention he gets, so I spend lot of my time assuring him he’s the alpha dog here. But it’s a different situation for him, after months of being the king.

I could just ignore both of them, and assume they’re fine on their own. Most people round here let dogs be dogs, and work things out for themselves. But I don’t.

As a child, I wasn’t allowed a dog, and I never did get one until Punky. For a small mutt, therefore, he carries a long time of emotional freight. Mexican poodle crosses like him sometimes do a kind of crossed-paws dance of greeting when they see you, which always charmed visitors, but he can’t manage that any more. I don’t expect a lot from him.

But I think he understands, in some way, that I’m glad he’s here. Lifting the old guilt, even if it dwindled over time, was helpful, and seeing him make slight excursions to extend his back-yard range encourages me. I’m already worrying about how I’ll be away for three weeks starting in late April, and how he’ll handle that.

Dogs are uncomplicated, though. Provide them with food, water and a dry place to sleep, and they don’t expect anything more. And as noted, they’re hugely forgiving.