All photos/art by Matt Kalinowski
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.”
They even had their own pond. “My dad made it,” she smiles broadly. “It’s a little pond, but there are beavers.” Glorious, but the real reason her father created it was because there was nowhere else to swim. “When I was a kid, we’d drive past Dublin Lake, and there would be people swimming and having a wonderful time,” she recalls, “but we couldn’t go there because we didn’t live in Dublin.”
In fact, just about every single town in the Monadnock region had its own swimming pond, except Peterborough. Jaffrey has three, and Harrisville’s namesake is boldly positioned in the center of town. Water everywhere, but not a pond in Peterborough. Except, coincidentally, just down the street from Leathers Farm, where Liz Thomas eventually settled for good in the 1980s with her own family. Cunningham Pond was so lovely, so unspoiled, so pristine, that it was the town water supply. Untouchable.
Which brings us to the crossroads of this story, where dogs, books, ponds, and Peterborough all converge.
Liz Thomas wrote the best-selling Hidden Life of Dogs. And when you write a best-seller, “you get a ton of money all at once,” she says bluntly. That meant paying a huge tax. Faced with “giving it to the Feds or giving it to the town,” Liz Thomas and her husband, Stephen, cast about for alternatives. Unbelievably, Cunningham Pond, which was no longer the public water supply, had come up for sale. They jumped on it: “We offered full price plus a dollar, and we got it.”
They thought everyone would be happy when they offered it to the town. “It was voted down two years in a row,” she remembers, shaking her head. “They said it would be a hangout, or too expensive, or too crowded, or too this or that. And the third year it was being debated, somebody said, ‘I’m sick and tired of talking about it—I want to go swimming!’ And they voted for it!” There was one stipulation: There had to be a dog beach. “Dogs bought it; they had to be able to swim in it. It’s in the deed,” she emphasizes. “I always thought Peterborough needed a good place to swim, but dogs should have their own place, too.”
What is it you want? Liz Thomas had once asked of her dogs, and she listened to the answer. Then she asked a town the same question and gave us more than we knew we wanted. Which is why, when you pull into the parking lot of the Lawrence K. Marshall and Harold B. Thomas Recreation Area and flash your resident sticker, you have two choices: a broad, sandy beach off to the right, punctuated by a Nantucket-style cottage, or a smaller, rougher beach straight ahead. It’s more boisterous at the second place, and chances are one of these beachgoers will shake all over you at least once.
“I’ve been a selectman here for 15 years,” Liz Thomas says. “The town does surveys to see what people like and don’t like about the town. And Cunningham Pond is among the things they like most.” She reaches down to scratch Sheilah’s ears: “I was at the beach one day, talking to a grownup, and I felt something tapping my knee. I looked down.” Her eyes fill with tears. “It was this tiny little kid. He looked up at me, and he said, ‘Thank you.'”
Annie Graves is a frequent contributor to Yankee. In summer she can often be found swimming at Cunningham Pond, thankful for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s gift. anniegraves.com