Bestselling author Gary Paulsen (Hatchet, Brian’s Winter) has brand-new book out this week: This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs. It’s a collection of true stories about his relationship with animals, highlighting their compassion, intellect, intuition, and sense of adventure.
Paulsen is an adventurer who competed in two Iditarods, survived the Minnesota wilderness, and climbed the Bighorns. None of this would have been possible without his truest companion: his animals. Sled dogs rescued him in Alaska, a sickened poodle guarded his well-being, and a horse led him across a desert. Through his interactions with dogs, horses, birds, and more, Gary has been struck with the belief that animals know more than we may fathom.
Does the book sound interesting? Read an exclusive excerpt from Chapter 2 of This Side of Wild below:
He closed his eyes and fought a cough, then opened them but did not look at me. Instead he softened his gaze and passed his eyes over Gretchen, then out the window, out and out, not looking at anything in particular except perhaps a far time and place that didn’t exist any longer.
“I have been training animals for a long time,” he said at length. “Fifty, sixty years. Dogs for hunting, for working stock, for companions; horses for work and show or just to gentle them. Trained almost every kind of animal that walks or crawls except cats. Not a way to train a cat—they got no give to them. All take. Even trained or half trained a couple of snakes for a fat man who came through El Paso making a movie about snakes. And I know in the end that they all, even the snakes, trained me as well. Think of it—when a rattler sets to buzzing, what’s he doing? A kind of talking, a warning—he’s training you, teaching you to get away.”
He reached now and ran one of Gretchen’s soft ears through his gnarled, bent fingers, like silk through barbwire. “And I never saw it until I started with Gretchen. Got her to sit one day. The same day, she looked a long time at me and at a piece of cookie”—and here she perked up, ears more alert with the word “cookie”—“in my hand, and she saw the cookie and my eyes and then she sat. Clean and down. As much as if she’d said, ‘I’ll sit and then you give me that piece of cookie,’ and she did and I did and it was the first time I knew I had been wrong all along. I never trained one animal. Not once . . .”
“They trained you.”
He nodded. “I always got what I wanted, what I needed, or almost always, but it was all working backward and I didn’t know it, didn’t see it until Gretchen showed me how to see, how to know, how to learn.”
Gretchen sat looking at him, into his eyes, as he talked, clearly loving him but more, too, something more. She heard more, felt more in some way, and I realized with a start that she was listening to every word, every single word.
And more—much more—she understood some of them.
“How many does she know?”
“I’m not sure. I tried keeping track of them at first and got up to seven hundred or seven hundred and fifty before I lost the thread of it. I think she’s way past a thousand now—a thousand words she recognizes and places with some object or place or thought. And she’s learning more all the time, just stacking them up. But there’s more, too.”
I looked at her, thought I was maybe seeing some of kind of a freak—no, miracle. Some kind of miracle. “What could be more than this?”
“She has learned how to understand people in some way that goes with the language. So that you can actually talk to her, or almost talk to her. Watch her. Watch her reaction when you say something she knows and likes. Say the word c.o.o.k.i.e.” (He spelled it.)
Winnike saw it as well and smiled. “She knows the word, of course, and that was the alerting part of it, but that second little bit was because she likes it, wants to eat one.” He stood and went to the cabinet over the sink, took a vanilla cookie from a jar, and gave it to her. She ate it with two small, delicate bites, then nodded again and with a half grimace added a toothy look.
“She’s smiling,” Winnike said. “She picked it up from a little girl who came to visit who kept smiling at her. Now, say something she won’t like, wouldn’t think of eating. . . .”
“Gretchen,” I said. “Would you like some broccoli?”
And here she shook her head in a negative manner, studying me the whole time.
“Now another thing she might like to eat . . .”
“Steak,” I said, “smothered in gravy.”
She alerted, nodded, then smiled, and he gave her a cookie.
We went back and forth that way for a time—pork chops and spinach, chicken and grapefruit, beef stroganoff and eggplant—and she was right, dead right every time. She would shake her head in a negative way when she didn’t like it, nod in a positive way when she did.
“She knows,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee; somehow cold it was more palatable than it had been hot. Cold and sticky sweet. Like Kool-Aid from the devil. “She knows all the words. How is that . . . ? Is that even possible?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that. I doubt even all humans would know all the words. It’s the other thing, the thing that surprised me and led me away from my former life. What I thought I knew my whole life . . .”
“What was that?”
“She ‘reads’ people. . . .”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“I’m not sure I do, either. But I think she can tell by voice or posture or smell or some thought wave, or something, when a person is saying a food she wouldn’t want to eat, or when he says something she would like. . . .”
“But how could she know . . . me? We’ve never met. How would she know anything about me, about my speech or posture or smell? How could she know anything about me?”
He nodded. “I understand and agree with your thinking, or how I believe you’re thinking. But the thing is, it’s not just you. I’ve had other people in here, old people, young people, children barely old enough to understand what I mean, and they’re all the same. She reads them all. . . .”
“She’s reading their minds?” I shook my head. “You think she’s actually reading their minds?”
He hesitated, sighed, rolled another cigarette, and poured more coffee—in my cup as well as in his—before I could stop him. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the rest of my life. “No. Yes. Maybe. God, I don’t know. But I have seen it and know what I’ve seen. The only way I think I can understand it, or feel that I know what she’s doing, is I have to think in some kind of way that I don’t really believe in—spirits and vapor clouds or thought beams or some of that other kind of wild stuff. Thing is, thing is, I’m just an old cowboy who took to training animals and don’t know how that other kind of thing works. Do you?”
I shook my head briefly, then thought of the school I was going to with blast patterns and radioactive winds and radiation lobes and flash damage with melted people who were turned into instantaneous shadows on concrete. He could not know any of this, would probably not understand it any better than I understood what I was seeing with Gretchen. “No, not really.”
“Is it”—he sighed—“would it be something you might like to learn, to know?”
I looked at Gretchen. She looked up at me, waiting, waiting, waiting for, for what?
“Yes. On the weekends when I’m not at school. I can come each weekend, if that’s all right?”
He nodded, and so it was that I came to talk to Gretchen and listen to Gretchen, and Gretchen kept me from going insane—or something like it.
“Broccoli”—head shake negative.
“Steak”—head moved in nod.
“Butter” in negative tone—positive.
“Spinach” in positive tone—negative.
Here—and almost in a regular rhythm—she would stop for a sip, or a couple of laps of coffee, a tail wag, and (infrequently) the need to go outside and relieve herself, to return quickly, get back up in the chair to look at me quizzically, head cocked, waiting for the next question.
No matter what I tried, I could not confuse her, catch her out. I changed tone of voice, facial expression, gesturing with hands, not gesturing with hands. Always she would give the correct, or what I assumed to be the correct, answer.
“Pork chop” in angry tone—positive.
“Ice cream” in anger—positive.
“Vinegar” in loving tone—negative.
I sat in the chair backward, watching her with a small mirror I found in an amazingly decrepit bathroom, and she never missed.
“Jackrabbit running fast,” my back to Gretchen—positive.
“Oatmeal, no condiment,” negative tone—positive nod.
Oatmeal, brown sugar and butter on top,” negative tone—positive nod.
And slowly, over three or four or five weekends, it became evident that she was somehow “reading” me, and it was still more evident in another short time that she had begun testing me, seeing what I “knew” or could be taught.
One cold November morning, at least cold for El Paso, I drove down along the river in my old 1951 Buick (army pay then wasn’t what it is now; I made $82.50 a month and was forced to pay 10 percent back in donations to United Fund) that barely ran. I had paid seventy-four dollars for the car, and it was worth that—or nearly.
Inside, the old house was warm—a small potbellied stove in the corner burned a cherry red with mesquite—and Gretchen met me outside as she always did. Mr. Winnike was gone, but he had left a pot of coffee. God, it was so strong. I still remember the bite of that first sip; it was worse even than army coffee, which was nearly brain damaging. I sat at the table, jolted awake by the coffee, petted Gretchen on top of her domed head, got a tail wag and, in as positive a tone as possible, said: “Used motor oil.”
And got no response at all. The first time. Clearly it was something she wouldn’t like to eat—and most of these decision-questions involved food. Or smell. Or noise.
And here nothing.
Then I noticed something.
In front of her, on the table, was a small piece of prickly pear cactus, just a corner of a tiny lobe, big enough to have a couple of spines sticking out of it. I hadn’t seen her bring it in, and for moment I thought it must have stuck to her ear and flopped on the table. I reached to brush it off the table, and she stopped me with her nose, looked pointedly at the cactus, and gave a deliberate negative shake of her head, then looked up at me.
“You don’t like cactus?” I said.
Again, a negative shake, then a focused study of my face, waiting.
Me. A response. I looked at the cactus, saw the needle- sharp spines, and agreed wholeheartedly that I didn’t like that piece of cactus either. I shook my head in a negative.
Bang. She got rid of the cactus—put it by the door—and picked up a small stick. She put it on the table, looked up at me and nodded, waiting, I returned the nod, reached for the stick, thinking she wanted me to throw it, but before I could pick it up, she grabbed it and was out the door.
We were not to play. We were working, studying, thinking.
And so that day passed. Not with me testing her but the opposite. She was finding out what I knew, what I thought, and somewhere in that day, I realized with a kind of shock, or stunned belief, that we were actually “talking.”
I had, as a small child, been raised by my grandmother—a wonderful, all-knowing woman brought up on farms in Norway and later in northern Minnesota. She believed in the old Norse tales of gods and goddesses and spirits of another world, another spirit world that could and often did talk through animals, telling tales of love and hate and joy and music. Sometimes when birds were singing, she would put her hand on my arm and say, “Songs, for you and me, from them; the birds sing for them, for us. . . .”
I did not disbelieve it, actually, but simply thought it was something perhaps only old people could know, a code I did not understand yet. Like when it was going to rain or snow or when somebody would be close to death or birth. I was not skeptical so much as blank, unable to understand.
But now it was true for me, and open, and clear. Gretchen was, in her way, a very real way, bringing me into a conversation; she knew many things I liked, and now she was showing me some of the things she liked and disliked. We were very definitely “talking,” and as the afternoon drew on, my level of astonishment grew lower and I accepted it and began to understand what I was really doing:
Having a conversation with a friend.
We had—or rather Gretchen had—found a way to break down the communication barrier and interlock with another species. It was simple, clean, and very elegant—we looked at things, said what we thought of them, and with more depth than I thought possible, we understood each other completely.
It was, in many ways, for me a lifesaving understanding.
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen is in bookstores across the country starting Sept. 29.