Prescription 5: Spend time in nature. Comeau is a large park, but the hiking trails are modest. It would take a dog-less person probably 20 minutes to walk them. Our pack liked to amble, so it would take us 45. We liked to pause and point out the beauty of ice clinging to pine needles; we liked to stop and listen to the sound of water flowing intrepidly beneath the frozen surface of the Mill Stream. And, of course, we liked to watch the dogs: blazing their own trails through the snow, chasing the squirrels who chittered at us from the trees, or — glory of glories — finding deer poop to roll in (Rainbow) or eat (Sparky) or both (Chloe). Somehow, Chloe’s rolling offense seemed less gross in winter, because I could quickly wipe it off with a handful of snow.
Seeing beauty is also important for a person with SAD — or anyone, really. And while winter beauty can be lonely and stark, it is a beauty that points forward somehow. With the trees bare, we could see the mountains beyond and the steeples of white churches, and soothing curls of smoke rising from chimneys. There is something about being able to see through the distances, especially in winter, which reminds us that there is always the beyond.
Plus, we had three bird dogs, the sort of dogs who always roamed far ahead of us and pointed at things worth seeing: bright red berries on the holly bushes. Chickadees and cardinals. Our dogs were our rangers, our trail guides. I liked following their paw prints in the fresh snow. It felt as if we were doing something entirely original and new.
The trail led us straight back to the parking lot, where we would say goodbye for the day. It took a lot of coaxing and bribing and promises of bacon to lure the dogs back into our respective cars. (Chloe usually wanted to go home with Rainbow.) But they always gave in, knowing that they were going home to hearty breakfasts and warm fires.
Prescription 6: Take care of your body. On the way home, I stopped at Sunfrost Café for carrot juice with a shot of wheat-grass. The juice rejuvenated me in a way that, I suppose, Chloe’s gulps of snow rejuvenated her. There was a sense of freshness, of eating something clean.
Then we’d go home. In the foyer, I’d remove my boots and Chloe would shake off the final flakes of snow. I loved the way she smelled — it wasn’t so much the smell of wet dog as the smell of cold. Of winter at its best. After Chloe had licked the final chunks of ice off her leg feathers and from between her toes, both of us would go upstairs, where I’d light a fire and brew a cup of tea. As soon as I latched the door to the wood-stove, Chloe would curl herself up on the hearth.
Prescription 7: Rest. The hearth — that’s the best thing about winter. The center, the source of warmth, the fire element, our own personal sun. Whenever I see a dog lying by a hearth, I have the sense that life is exactly as it should be. That winter is a time to be home.
Prescription 8: Practice gratitude. Some days, the mornings at Comeau were the only sane hours I had that winter.But those hours accumulated and built upon themselves, as did the vitamin D in my body from the sunshine; the number of times I laughed at the dogs’ antics; and the number of great, deep breaths I took in that pure mountain air. Slowly but surely, I found my frame of mind shifting from, excuse the pun, SAD to glad.
Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once wrote: “If you can just appreciate each thing, one by one, then you will have pure gratitude. Even though you observe just one flower, that one flower includes everything.” Dogs seem to instinctively know this.
I remember that during one particularly grim winter, before I had dogs, I had to work very hard to find things to appreciate. (Such a statement might sound obnoxious, but this is the state of mind of a person in the throes of SAD.) I have always loved stars — their calming presence, their cool, serene beauty — but that winter, not even stars made me happy because, well, because of SAD. The fact that I could not even appreciate stars made me feel even worse. Then, I decided to be grateful that other people appreciated stars. And that one shift in perception and attitude lifted every-thing up again.