by Jeff Oaks


I say to the dog every morning when we get to the meadow. He looks at me, suddenly serious. Then his tail begins to wag, his nose lifts, sifting the air for excitement. He bounds off into the dry weeds, head down, tail stiffened, hoping to find that thing that runs fast and suddenly out of nowhere, that thing he loves to run after though he’s never caught one.

If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies, writes Lewis Hyde.

Writes Basho:
There is nothing you can see that is not a flower.
There is nothing you can think that is not the moon.

Oh rabbit of the moon my mother is dying. I called today to see how she was doing, after my brother called me to say she wasn’t doing well, but it was so windy as I walked along the river that she couldn’t hear me. It sounded like a lot of static, she said. I said I’d call back later, but then, caught up in making dinner and getting a little bit of extra work done when I got back home with the dog, I didn’t realize how much later it had become. That it might be too late and I might wake her up.

Rabbit rabbit rabbit.

In ten years, we humans have dismantled what used to be a wild space here in the city. A narrow strip behind warehouses, where the Allegheny Valley Railroad had a few tracks it occasionally used for parking train cars, it’s maybe one hundred, maybe two hundred yards wide until it runs into the Allegheny River. About six blocks long. I don’t know how long this land went “unused,” but by the time I moved nearby, in 2002, it was a beautiful meadow of red clover and wildflowers. There was a line of trees dense enough to make a snow break in winter for the railroad tracks. There was a dirt path that ran above and parallel to the Allegheny River where I began to walk everyday. When I got a dog, I let him go here without a leash so he could run and sniff and chase the rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, ducks, geese, herons, and muskrats who lived there.

Sometimes you have to take it like an animal.
The animals have to take it. No one likes nostalgia.

The neighborhood boys, not one of them well-off enough to afford a house with a yard, played hide and seek then war then brought their girlfriends down here. Single men came down here to fish, to be alone. Sometimes would set up temporary tents in the summer, because they’d been kicked out of the house or had lost their houses I never knew. Everyone came and went in ways that never made the place seem fully human. It always felt wilder than that. Balanced between, you might say.

First, the city improved the dirt path with a cinder and concrete mix that wouldn’t fall apart every heavy rain. Who could argue against that? The young joggers began appearing, talking about how great it would be if there were a jogging path that went the whole length of the river downtown. A few yelled at us to keep our dogs on leashes. For a few years that was the only change.

Then the railroad, fearing they were going to lose their rights to the land if they didn’t use it enough, relaid the tracks, cutting down any trees that were too close or that impeded the trucks and cranes that brought in loads of ties and track. By the time they were done, you could see light through the trees. The wind and snow blew right through. Strangely enough, however, the railroad left weird stacks of old ties behind, which the rabbits colonized. The dogs ran around and around, excited by the accumulating smells. In the winter, you could see the dozens of footprints coming in and going out.

A couple of years after that came the city, making a little park under the bridge, with metal tables and seats, with garbage cans. The neighborhood teenagers immediately destroyed one table, ripping it off its cement foundations. They took the garbage can liners and rolled them into the river. They littered everywhere on the new lawn. And after a while, the city cleaned it up, fixed some of it, began to have regular rounds of sanitation. And then the next year came the conservation people who realized that there were illegal plants here and cut out yet more trees, pulled some flowers we’d only thought were flowers, devastated a whole hill of quite beautiful knotweed. Planted a few spindly trees. Sometimes people would even have picnics at the tables.

And then came the dog park, an idea started by a young woman whose boxer had gotten into a fight with another dog and said we needed some order down here. She found enough “urban pioneers” who believed that her dog wasn’t the real problem, who thought they deserved a place to take the dogs they never walked. They raised money, convinced a councilman who never owned an animal in his life to support it, and last year half the trees were gone, a large fence went up and there was a dogpark where the beautiful meadow had been.

No one likes nostalgia, rabbit. I have met a number of new people because of the dogpark, some I like very much. My dog loves to run around with their dogs, wrestle, bark, hump, play tug with sticks. We chat meanwhile in our small nervous-ape semi-circles. It’s so great to have this, isn’t it? someone says.

At first I used to say, Well, you know all of this used to be a beautiful meadow, but then people looked away or kicked at the yards of mulch that replaced what used to be red clover, bees, butterflies, mice, windflowers, rabbits, songbirds. No one likes to be told something else used to be here and it was better. What’s done is done and can’t be undone, so why remember? Can’t we all just drop whatever it is you’re mourning?

Sometimes in the morning there will be someone standing in the dogpark, who will wave and look confusedly at us as we walk by. His or her dog will run up to the fence to greet Andy who basically snubs him. Where are going? Be right back, I say if I like that person. Otherwise, I just smile.

There is still, at the end of the trail, a little spot left where the grass grows wild, where there’s at least one rabbit still alive. My dog still wants to go there first. He walks past the gates of the dogpark. He’s a retriever and probably would’ve been a fantastic field dog if he hadn’t been saddled with living with a writer, who clearly worries too much. In what’s left of the meadow, I throw him sticks and he brings them back like a true professional, single-minded, without a missing a trick.

Rabbit, I say to the dog and off he goes, sniffing for the mystery. We have seen the rabbit’s tracks this winter, although its hole is well hidden.

Rabbit, forgive me. You are all I have left. Everything else is the moon.