Looking for Tonya
A Meditation on Death and the Canine Soul
by J. Jeffrey Bragg

Tonya of Seppala, Seppala Kennels' greatest lead dog

1 November 1995 -- 2 August 2011

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson -- In Memoriam A.H.H., Canto LV)

What will become of you, Tonya, Tonya, darling Tonya? ... But we'll be together again, we'll be reunited, won't we, darling? ... We'll see each other, we'll be together, we'll be all right again, won't we?
(Boris Pasternak -- Dr. Zhivago, chapter 13)

(No answer.)

(No answer.)

(No answer.)

She's gone again, she has taken off on me. Yes, she did that several times before when we lived in the Yukon -- slipped through the gate or a weak spot in the fence and took off for two, eight, or twenty-four hours, hunting. Usually she came back on her own, but once she took off with one of her daughters; they didn't come back, and the next day, searching the surrounding area, I found them on a sandy hillside together, their eyes glazed, heads covered in loose earth, zoned out, digging away in a ground squirrel colony.

Tonya of Seppala, Queen of Seppala Kennels. The small black and tan bitch, born on the first of November in 1995 just two years after I arrived in the Yukon, who declared herself as a natural lead dog when she was just three and a half months old, who became the best command leader I ever had or could hope to have. The dog who led my first-string team through thousands of miles of primitive Yukon trails, to whom I entrusted my life and safety in dangerous, unpatrolled back country and in harsh weather. The dog who could always get us there and back in speed and style. Descended in thirty-two pedigree lines from Leonhard Seppala's 1915 lead dog "Scotty," not to mention the much-touted "Togo." Born in a wall tent, raised in the hard cold of the Yukon winter. My constant companion for fifteen years. Poster girl for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed, symbol of all that Seppalas could be and still are, a once-in-a-lifetime dog.

(No answer.)

She hasn't just taken off on a hunt again; though -- it's not like that this time. A small rational part of me knows that and knows why. That's just a little piece of my mind. The greater part of me, heart, emotions, body, feelings, the subconscious mind, the conscious-but-irrational awareness, observer and constant commentator -- all of that is still wondering where the hell Tonya has gone.

Is that her, that flicker of dark motion in the bushes along the fencerow? Or is that her, off against the skyline, that dark speck on a grassy hilltop in the distance? That sharp yap I keep hearing -- is that her voice, or was it one of the kennel dogs, or even a coyote? There, where the tall Manitoba prairie grass is waving -- does that wave mark her quick passage?

She has to be around here somewhere. Just a few days ago I was taking her for leash walks up and down the driveway. She's old and sick (or she was then) and couldn't go very far or very fast. She was fifteen years and nine months old, after all. If she had decided to take off on a hunt then, I could have followed her faster than she could have run. She can't have gone far...

But something happened. Her illness caught up with her, she stopped eating one day, couldn't get onto her feet, and that afternoon she threw back her head in an agonised stretching movement, and stopped breathing. Her heart beat for another two or three minutes, and then she was dead. That evening I laid her in a shallow grave beside the driveway, raked the earth over her, and settled the turves back into place. I gathered stones from the alfalfa field and arranged them around the grave that held my companion and constant sidekick of the past fifteen years. But what I put in the ground wasn't Tonya; it was just what Tonya left behind, something for which she had no further use, just like the big green Dodge four-wheel-drive truck that was, by grudging agreement, hers, though I got to drive it around, as long as she was in the passenger seat. (Somehow it doesn't feel quite right to drive that truck without her.)

Now Tonya herself has gone somewhere. The trouble is, I don't know where. And I get the feeling that now she has her old speed and endurance back again -- possibly even better than ever before. It may not be so easy to find her now.

(No answer.)

I sit here on the ground before her grave, trying to think where she would be most likely to go once she had complete freedom to do as she liked. Would she hang around the farm here? That doesn't seem too likely; we only moved here less than four years ago. She rode down from the Yukon with her understudy Lizzy and me, three thousand kilometers. I left her and Lizzy with Susan and soon went back to the Yukon to bring more dogs -- and she was furious at being left behind. It affected our relationship permanently; it was like Tonya had always known I was a little bit unreliable, and being left on the farm while I drove her truck back to the Yukon proved that conclusively in her mind. She decided she liked her new Missy Susan, who would never leave her behind.

I wonder, would she go back to the Yukon? Quite possibly. She knew those trails pretty well -- not to mention the ground-squirrel colonies and the best red-squirrel trees.The ruffed grouse there were easy to catch. She was born there, and by rights she probably ought to have been buried there. Hell, she might be on the broad meadows atop Keno Summit, listening to the marmots whistling and the conies calling. She liked Keno Summit, we went there in her truck several times. The Yukon was her natural home, her compact physique was ideal for the rough, narrow trails we travelled there. For thousands of miles she explored those trails with me, leading an eight-dog team of Seppala Kennels' best.

But she was always ready to explore new trails. I wouldn't be surprised if she turned up in Siberia. She might like to look over the old ancestral country. I expect she'd give Alaska a miss -- I don't think she would have liked the sleddog culture that now prevails there. Tonner was never an expendable "unit"; the Noble Lady had a high regard for herself as an independent canine person.

Tonya? Where are you?

Perhaps if I sing her song...

My leader's Ton-Ton-Amera!
Oooh, she's so beautiful,
And she's my Ton-Amera,
And she's so sincera,
Sweet Ton-Amera,
Hey, Gorgeosa..."

Tonner? Please come back, Noble Lady! At least give me a hint to where you are... I feel so lost without you.
(No answer.)

Tonya, you were the glue that held everything together. My life, my life's work, the Project, my teams, the websites... it's all dust and ashes now without you. It's fallling apart and it has been for the last two or three years as you grew old and ill. It's all history now, and here I am, an old guy looking back on it all without his best sidekick. Even the new people who really didn't know so much, they knew Tonya at least. They knew you all over the Web.

Sometimes it feels as though you're right here. But maybe I'm just kidding myself. I can't reach out and touch you. Sometimes I think I hear you, but several dogs here have voices that sound a bit like yours. Your big son Prince Ivan, now... he's such a sweet boy, and I feel closer to you when I'm with him. Maybe I should start taking him places in the truck along with Lizzy; they get along well together. He's a chip off the old block, an apple that didn't fall very far from the tree. But he's not Tonner... he's himself, he's Vanni.

T-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-N-N-N-YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Tonya... Please? Come back to me? Hey hey, Noble La'y?
(No answer.)

I guess it's just barely possible that there's such a place as this "Rainbow Bridge" where dogs wait for their masters. Nothing is but thinking makes it so, and a lot of people now think the Rainbow Bridge is real, so maybe, just maybe... but I don't know that Tonya would be very patient about waiting around for me. She would probably be pleased with the pack of Seppalas there to queen it over, and she might even be glad to see her daddy Xpace and her dam Sprite. But to tell the truth, I think she'd be more inclined to go hunting than to wait around for old Boss.

The last and bleakest possibility is that Tonya -- as the canine personality I once knew -- is nowhere, gone for good and all. That all that remains of Tonya is some bones and fur here in the ground in front of me, under the turf. In which case I am crying uselessly to the prairie wind when I call her name.

(No answer.)

I can no longer escape the fact that this all comes down, whether I like it or not, to questions of philosophy and religion. Secular humanism and scientific materialism hold that there is no such thing as an immortal soul; there is only the brain, personality is merely an offshoot of brain activity, and death means prompt obliteration of the self, whether that self be human or canine. Christianity, by and large, refuses to admit the possibility that animals might have immortal souls; that distinction is reserved for humankind alone. The orthodox Christian view seems to be that animal souls are merely a manifestation of the life force, expiring at death when the life force is spent. Islam is generally negative toward dogs, regarding them as ritually "unclean" and, although it enjoins that they should be treated kindly, scarcely contemplates the possibility of an immortal canine soul. Judaism isn't unanimous on this question, but does seem to admit at least the possibility. Buddhism is even more sympathetic to the canine personality, but doesn't really believe even in human souls in the generally accepted sense of the word. Only Hinduism seems unequivocal on this question, due to its commitment to the idea of the long cycle of birth, death and rebirth in which the soul or self grows and develops through its experience in successive physical reincarnations. Perhaps this is why, when push comes to shove, I am more of a Hindu than anything else. In the face of Tonya's death -- or my own -- I can only say "Om namah shivaya." Hail to Shiva, the overarching force that both sustains and destroys us all.

(No answer.)

If I cry to the wind then so be it. Every fibre of my being longs for Tonya and cries for her return. If, as my own studies in advaita vedanta indicate, Tonya has actually gone nowhere, because there is nowhere for her to go, if she is just as immanently present as my own personality, then so much the worse for unenlightened me if I cannot feel her presence. If this be a matter of belief, then it is, as Carlos Castaneda said, a question of "having to believe." I have to believe that some day, somehow, I shall be reunited with Tonya.

"So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry."

      (Alfred, Lord Tennyson -- In Memoriam A.H.H., Canto LIV)

(No answer.)

Tonya, I pray that one day I shall see thee again, my Gorgeosa, my Noble Lady.

Until that day I shall seek thee, endlessly.

And with my head bent, moodily I shuffle away from her grave, heavy-hearted, knowing that I shall return there often as the days of the dying summer roll by.

I sang this beautiful Sanskrit mantra "Om purnam" as I raked the earth over Tonya's grave. It is taken from the invocation to the Sri Isopanishad and may be translated as follows:

This is perfect.
That is perfect.
From perfection springs perfection.
Take away perfection from perfection
And only perfection remains

The Sanskrit "purnam" carries a strong connotation of "wholeness" or "completeness" as well as perfection. The message is that reality is whole, inviolable and perfect, no matter how we may perceive it. The same message is found in A Course In Miracles, which states:

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God.

Seppala Kennels - Mr. & Mrs. J. Jeffrey Bragg - Box  396 - Rossburn, MB - R0J 1V0