Cunningham Pond | Elizabeth’s Gift
One of the prettiest little ponds in New Hampshire belongs to the people of Peterborough and their happy, barking companions.
Seven a.m. at Cunningham Pond. Two box turtles huddle on a fallen shard of waterlogged wood that juts from the water like whalebone. Nearby, on the shore, a stack of blue kayaks awaits. The water is smooth and still, a breath of mist hovering. A flick of a fishtail, and in the depths of the dark, dusky water, motes drift weightlessly down. I have the pond to myself. Until a Frisbee sails overhead—followed by a splash and a bark.
A few miles later, when I stumble and fall in Liz Thomas’s driveway, Sheilah is the first one on the scene. I’m sprawled flat as this furry Florence Nightingale licks away at my bruised dignity. She certainly seems solicitous. Or maybe it’s just those centuries of Australian cattle-dog herding instinct kicking in: Woman down. Get her back to the herd. But then I’m hardly the dog expert …
“I began observing dogs by accident,” begins Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in The Hidden Life of Dogs, a surprise best-seller that spent 10 months on the New York Times list 20 years ago. Even two decades later, vivid members of her urban “wolf pack” bound off the pages: vagabond Misha, anxious pug Violet, and at various times an assortment of 10 dogs and a dingo who lived with Thomas in the wilds of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Until Hidden Life, “virtually nobody, neither scientist nor layman, had ever bothered to ask what dogs do when left to themselves,” she wrote. Thomas pulled back the veil on this secret world that was wagging right under our noses. She let us in on the real life of our so-called best friends. And she did it quietly, like a burr brushing up against fur.
It didn’t stop there. Liz Thomas embedded herself within other hidden worlds, too—cats, deer, elephants. Before turning to animals, she’d written about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, in southern Africa, where she’d moved with her family when she was 18. She elevated the art of observation to quiet new heights.
It’s a long way from the Kalahari to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Thomas lives today. As the prototype for Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, Peterborough is one of a cluster of pretty New England villages located near Mount Monadnock, in an area splashed with ponds and lakes. Her antique Cape teeters on the brink of a meadow that nudges up to the bottom of another local landmark, Pack Monadnock. Thomas’s father, one of the founders of defense contractor Raytheon, bought this place, the old Leathers Farm and the surrounding 2,000 acres, when Liz was a kid. Her parents later donated a chunk of it (more than 1,500 acres) to create the Wapack National Wildlife Refuge.
“I wanted to be here all the time,” she recalls, gazing out the picture window of her writing studio, a low-slung red shed overlooking the field. Now in her eighties, Thomas’s voice is husky and warm: “Raytheon was a small company at the time, so we had to be located in the Boston area. But we came here every chance we got. We’d leave Friday afternoon after school, and we’d go back first thing Monday morning, every weekend, all summer, so this was home to me.”
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