Whenever the mean-spiritedness that stinks up American public life these days gets to be too much for me, I go outside for a breath of fresh air. Paying more attention to nature than to culture is a wonderful antidote to anger and despair.

Last week during the full moon, I stepped out onto the back porch just as a fox, plush and elegant, trotted across the backyard. He stopped to check me out, peed in the snow, and moved on. The next morning, as soon as I let Rudy, our All-American mongrel, out the door, he followed his nose to the exact spot where the fox had urinated.

A dog’s sense of smell is a million times more acute than our own. Sometimes I wish I could understand what Rudy’s nose tells him about the world. He investigates everything, finds an interesting or unfamiliar odor, takes it in, processes it, then looks up as though to see whether the owner of the scent is anywhere around.

Walks around the block, downtown, or in the park are punctuated by stops for Rudy to read his pee-mail. I wonder whether he recognizes the scents of the dogs he knows and speculates about those he doesn’t. Does he know how long ago they left their messages? What they had for supper? How they’re feeling? No way to know. He just leaves his reply and we move on.

Walks in the woods are even more rewarding. Free from his leash, Rudy meanders this way and that, checking out deer tracks and droppings, lifting his head to take in whatever is on the breeze, rushing off in response to some urgent smell, then wandering back to stick his nose in the pocket where his treats are.

Keeping track of a black dog is much easier in the snow than it is in the spring or summer. With the ground hard and white and the leaves gone, I can see him 100 yards or more away as he wends his way through the trees in pursuit of an elusive smell left by a deer, a fox, a coyote, another dog, or, if he gets visibly agitated, probably just a cat. He sticks his nose in chipmunk holes and, when the snow is soft and deep, he thrusts his entire head in trying to sniff out mice and moles.

If there’s anything worth finding on our rambles, Rudy will find it. Back in the fall, I threw a half dozen of his old beef bones out into the woods and Rudy found them all, pawing them out of the ice and snow, bringing them back home transformed, works of art now carved with the gnawing scrimshaw of squirrels.

The best thing Rudy has found lately is an owl’s cough ball, a regurgitated clump of fur, feathers, and the impossibly fine bones of mice and birds. Somehow I found the prospect of a great owl perched in the tall pine not 50 feet from my desk and leaving its lunch behind quite thrilling. Picking up something that only hours before had been in the stomach of an owl as it swept invisibly and silently through the trees made me feel connected with the wild.

Examining the cough ball more closely, I found the entire skull of a small rodent. Life is temporary, whether you are a mouse or a man. You can never know when a winged specter may swoop down and carry you off. Knowing this, you’d think we’d do a better job of caring of one another, a better job of taking care of the Earth. But we don’t. We just keep fussing and fighting. That’s why I prefer the company of a dog.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.