Wylie, Jill. Call-of-the-Marsh: Life with a Basenji. Ill. Sue Ross. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1979.
Jill Wylie would have made a fine blogger. This 300-paged diary of the author’s life in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was known back then) stirred the same thrills, sympathies, and connections that I get from spying on personal accounts of doglives fully lived. There are, however, significant differences when the author writes from a time and a place so far removed from my own experiences…
The book spans the years 1958 to 1971, or the lifetime of one prized red and white Basenji named Call-of-the-Marsh. Too large to be shown, he was sold to the Wylies with whom he enjoyed life to the fullest as a worker, a hunter, and of course, the author’s precious companion. At some point, a tricolor female Basenji, his half-sister named Whisper, joined the family, but sadly she succumbed to cancer at the age of nine and does not see the book to its end. Call, however, survives well into his 13th year until he passes from various age-related ailments.
It’s a wonderful and captivating read, primarily for the details gleaned on how differently pets are raised and loved in other parts of the world, in different cultural circumstances. Basenjis are much vaunted for their high prey drive and supposed hunting prowess. Wylie works her dogs, but at unexpected tasks — she employs them as search and rescue dogs, freeing wild critters and other pets from cruel wire snares set up and abandoned by local residents. These fierce contraptions reappear often in illustrated form, thanks to the nice ink drawings of Wylie’s collaborator, Sue Ross.
Call is a natural at this task, and works with heroic synergy alongside his mistress. The training regimen is briefly described when Wylie later adds a Doberman(n) named Javelin to her pack to help with the searches. She writes about the difficulties locating a breeder willing to provide her with a natural, undocked pup, as it seems that most breeders in her area are adamant about this detail — a point which she makes some rather pointed observations about.
I abhor the practice of docking. A more senseless, unrewarding, short-sighted mutilation of living flesh, bone and nerve is difficult to imagine. And like sterilisation, once it’s done, it’s done. Forever. Except you can adopt a baby or a puppy if later the loss is felt too keenly. You can’t adopt a tail. […]
I wrote to the Dobermann Club asking to be put in touch with breeders. Avoiding mention of my revulsion for docking, I explained briefly the job I had in mind for my Dobermann and in order to understand her properly, her tail would have to be left on. I thought they would have been glad that a member of ‘their’ breed might be trained for this unique work. (202)
Instead, the Dobermann Club refused to offer any assistance. After much searching, she was finally able to get a pup from a dam bred back to her own father (!). Though unhappy about the close inbreeding, these were the lengths she felt she had to go to in order to get an undocked bitch. [Note: Javelin is apparently the subject of her own book, Search: Dogs to the Rescue in Wild Zimbabwe (Fish Hoek, South Africa: Echoing Green Press, 2008).]
Wylie is quite an independent thinker, and extremely clear-minded about what she intends of her dogs. At one point, she discusses the difficulties of locating a purebred mate suitable for her female Basenji, Whisper. When all other Basenji males prove to be washouts (knowing better than to mate half-brother to half-sister, she does neuter Call), she breeds Whisper to a local Keeshond instead. It’s a strategic cross-breeding meant to fulfill a purpose:
The other day I was looking at a Keeshond. It’s not such a big dog under all that coat. All that coat is the problem, but if the pups were medium-coated it might be a good thing […] Also the Keeshond is of the Spitz group as are Basenjis, so at least I’d know the pups would have erect ears and curly tails, and avoid the awful anxiety of wondering if their ears would come up or stay down […]. Keeshonds are good guards too. The breed is Holland’s national guard dog. (163)
Apparently, Rhodesian kennel clubs (and Australian clubs now) classified Basenji as a spitz type. From this excerpt, it sounds as if cosmetic considerations were prominent in Wylie’s mind, but I think she knew what kind of functional dog she wanted. To her credit, she strove to find appropriate homes for all her puppies, and she did her best to work the offspring in appropriate situations, though the outcome was nevertheless mixed. One can’t engineer every life, after all.
I’m teaching the pups to bark. They’ll probably go to homes where they’ll hear dogs barking and pick it up but the one we keep must be taught. […] I particularly want ours to warn me when there’s a car coming in time for me to run away if I don’t care for visitors. So when I hear one grinding up the drive, I cry, “Car! Car!” and bark. (175)
Indeed, the terrain that Wylie is working with is totally unfamiliar to most urban, modern experiences. She has acres of land at her disposal — enough to establish a nature sanctuary, a task which takes the story in an interesting direction as she collects and rehabilitates a baby mongoose, duikers, Steenbok does, and sick dogs, including free-roaming village dogs and strays from other estates. Her efforts remind one of the overlapping borders shared between human domesticity and the wilderness, and how some unique people truly thrive in the niches bridging the two.
Meanwhile, she lets her dogs roam free, even if they come home badly torn up from encounters known and unknown. I honestly cannot imagine a life of literally treating my dogs like outdoors cats, not knowing what dangers they encounter or who they copulate with (Whisper does get pregnant by some unknown dog earlier in the narrative).
Say what you will about “irresponsible breeding” — a book like this shows that our contemporary construction of the term actually grew out of specific circumstances quite removed from the world of this story. She’s writing from a very different set of canine, not to mention cultural values. Wylie amuses me because she’s rather cavalier about her own role as mother and wife. When she herself becomes pregnant rather early in the story, she does not trouble the reader with excessive descriptions of crib preparation.
The doctor says the baby is lying wrongly and I’m to stay in bed with my feet up, and when the time comes they’ll have me all prepared for a Caesarean, “in case things don’t turn out right”. She renewed my prescription, glue pills probably, to make the baby stick, and smiled like a broken window pane. I hate her. I hate the baby. I hate Jack [her husband].
I quite like Call. (16)
Her defiance against maternity is necessary to bring out her relationship with her dogs in full relief. There is no way that her drive to care for animal creatures is displaced or surrogate motherhood; she already has that at her disposal, so she’s not substituting anything. She’s making a choice. And while some readers might find this attitude disdainful, I find that it adds to her spunk. This woman clearly knows what she wants out of life, and hardly waits for the dust to settle before kicking up another ruckus.
What was her life before, or after Call? We are given few hints, no leads at the conclusion of this book, which comes abruptly… the death of Call being as “natural” an ending as her own pithy elegy. A quick Google search suggests that Wylie still resides in Zimbabwe (at least as of Christmas 2008!), and that Wildwoods, her nature preserve, is still in operation. This pleases me, though I may never get the opportunity to go there myself. In place of such journeys (or a time machine, for that matter), this memoir will suffice.