How My Dog Taught Me to Appreciate Small-Town Life

Though I enjoy being outside, the question had always plagued me: what should I do out there?
By: Maura McAndrew
Enid outside

I’ve always been someone who loves cities. I grew up in a small Illinois town, with a friendly neighborhood, big backyard, and medium-sized black mutt named Spooky. It was a great place to spend a childhood, but by the time I was in high school, I was itching to get out. I left for college determined to be a Big-City Person and spent my twenties bouncing from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Dublin, to New York City to Pittsburgh.

I loved the diversity, the cultural offerings, even the crowded public transit. I didn’t mind that I no longer had a yard, or a pet, or that getting to the nearest green space usually involved schlepping a large number of city blocks.

So when my husband got a job in Norman, Oklahoma and we relocated four years ago, I’ll admit it was a tough move. I had barely even heard of Oklahoma, much less expected to live here. Norman was bigger than my hometown but felt the same to me—sleepy and leafy. I worried about the boredom, the lack museums and theaters, the lack of movement, people, vibrancy.

There was one upside to settling in an out-of-the way place: for the first time, we had space, and we could get the big, friendly dog I’d wanted since Spooky passed away when I was 21 years old.

When we adopted Enid, a mellow, 3-year-old yellow lab-ish mutt, a little less than a year into our Oklahoma life, I still wasn’t feeling comfortable in my new surroundings. But she brought with her a slower pace of life and a deep appreciation for the outdoors—the small, unassuming parks in our neighborhood and even our own backyard. I loved Enid immediately and, exploring with her by my side, I grew to love my new surroundings as well.

All my life, I’ve been a doer. Down time used to be my enemy, and “what are we doing tonight?” was my catchphrase. Even as a kid watching television, I took to shuffling cards to keep my hands busy. Though I enjoy being outside, the question had always plagued me: what should I do out there?

Enid in the yard

In Norman, we have a backyard larger than I ever expected to have: it’s slightly shabby, containing a mysterious, spider-y shed (that houses the landlord’s broken lawnmower), soft, green grass to go barefoot in, little red mushrooms to inspect and wildlife (especially summer’s enchanting tree frogs) to sit still and listen for. It was the sitting still part that took time. But the first few times Enid came out into the yard with me, I marveled at her stillness.

Enid isn’t a dog that likes to play, as many times as we’ve tried. If I throw a ball, she just looks at me. When we bought her a squeaky toy, the squeak made her whimper and hide. She prefers to sit vigilantly in the backyard watching squirrels, possums and voles—on rare occasions catching them, but usually just watching until she drifts off to sleep.

“Do you think she’s bored?” I’d ask my husband as she sat quietly in the grass, panting. “She’s a happy camper,” he’d answer, and I’d wonder if he was talking more about himself, glass of bourbon in hand, staring peacefully into the distance while the Grateful Dead streamed softly out of his iPhone. But she did seem happy and, watching her, I wondered if she was onto something.

“Live in each season as it passes.” Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” “Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

Though I’m pretty sure Enid’s never read Thoreau, she does this instinctively, expecting me to walk her twice daily, every day of the year. Together, we can’t help but experience the seasons, and the nature and wildlife that accompany them.

Enid and I walk in rain, wind and snow. We walk past spring trees heavy with blossoms, crunch over colorful leaves in fall. In winter, we peer into cozy houses adorned with Christmas lights; in summer, we smell the meat-smoke of charcoal grills, Enid’s ears perking at the strains of classic rock radio.

“Live in each season as it passes.” Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” “Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

And whenever it’s warm enough (which, in Oklahoma, is often), my husband and I sit in the backyard with Enid, slathered in OFF. At night, we look for meteor showers and supermoons while Enid lays in the middle of the lawn, her white coat glowing almost celestially. Oklahoma isn’t beautiful, not in a picture postcard way. There are no mountains here, no natural lakes; it’s too dry for the evergreens and too wet for cacti. Yet wherever you go, there is nature. Our surroundings are humble. But they contain multitudes, and if you look closely enough, you can see into new worlds.

In the city, you don’t see many animals (aside from pigeons, squirrels, the occasional rat), you see people instead. In my new neighborhood, it’s easy to find wildlife on morning walks. Enid and I have seen a coyote, loose-limbed and sniffing along the path. We’ve seen mother turtles, laying eggs in the soft, muddy ground. We’ve seen skunks, possums, raccoons. We’ve seen an egret, elegantly perched in the stream, a string of geese flying in formation, framing the sunrise. We’ve even seen a pair of armadillos, careening out of a bush like twin alien beings, leaving us both too stunned to react as they clattered across our path.

We’ve seen a lot of things, Enid and I, many of them things that were always there, even when I lived in the city. I probably didn’t have to move to see many of these things, I just needed a guide.

And Enid is that. My calm, quiet partner, pausing, paw raised, to let me know she’s spotted a creature in the brush; rolling in the grass like it’s the best grass in the world, like she’s so happy she can’t even stand it; trotting through the same old parks each morning as though she’s never experienced such enchantment before. And while someday I might move back to a big city and leave smaller-town life behind, I’ll always have this stillness, this attention, this appreciation of nature that Enid taught me.

Thoreau also wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Perhaps this is something that all dogs recognize. And as many times as we can read those words, sometimes it takes the wisdom of a canine companion to make them ring true.