Dogs live in the present – they just are! Dogs make the best of each moment uncluttered by the sorts of complex fears and feelings that we humans have. They don’t judge, they simply take the world around them at face value. Yet they have been part of man’s world for an unimaginable time, at least 30,000 years. That makes the domesticated dog the longest animal companion to man, by far!
As man’s companion, protector and helper, history suggests that dogs were critically important in man achieving success as a hunter-gatherer. Dogs ‘teaching’ man to be so successful a hunter enabled evolution, some 20,000 years later, to farming, thence the long journey to modern man. But in the last, say 100 years, that farming spirit has become corrupted to the point where we see the planet’s plant and mineral resources as infinite. Mankind is close to the edge of extinction, literally and spiritually.
Dogs know better, much better! Time again for man to learn from dogs!
Welcome to Learning from Dogs
The last quality that I want to write about, as in the last quality that I see in our dogs that we humans should learn, is about stillness. There was a very deliberate reason to make it the last one. But, if you will forgive me, I’m not going to explain why until near the end.
Stillness! The dog is the master of being still. Being still, either from just laying quietly watching the world go by, so to speak, or being still from being fast asleep. The ease at which they can find a space on a settee, a carpeted corner of a room, the covers of a made-up bed, and stretch out and be still, simply beggars belief. Dogs offer us humans the most wonderful quality of stillness that we should all practice. Dogs reveal their wonderful relationship with stillness.
In the August of 2014, TED Talks published a talk by Pico Iyer. Despite the uncommon name, Pico Iyer was not a person I had heard of before. A quick search revealed that he was a British-born essayist and novelist of Indian origin. Apparently, Pico is the author of a number of books on crossing cultures and has been an essayist for Time Magazine since 1986. Pico Iyer’s TED Talk was called: The art of stillness.
It was utterly riveting. In a little over fifteen minutes, Pico’s talk touched on something that so many of us feel, probably even yearn for: the need for space and stillness in our minds. Stillness to offset the increasingly excessive movement and distractions of our modern world. Or to use Pico’s words:”Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds.”
Now Pico has clearly been a great traveller and the list of countries and places he has visited was impressive. From Kyoto to Tibet, from Cuba to North Korea, from Bhutan to Easter Island; a man having grown up both being a part of, and yet apart from, the English, American and Indian cultures. Yet of all the places this man has been to he tops them all with what he discovers in stillness: “… that going nowhere was at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba.”
Here are Pico Iyer’s own words from that TED Talk. Firstly:
And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating than taking a few minutes out of every day or a few days out of every season, or even, as some people do, a few years out of a life in order to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most, to recall where your truest happiness lies and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.
Then a few moments later, him saying:
And of course, this is what wise beings through the centuries from every tradition have been telling us. It’s an old idea. More than 2,000 years ago, the Stoics were reminding us it’s not our experience that makes our lives, it’s what we do with it.
And this has certainly been my experience as a traveler. Twenty-four years ago I took the most mind-bending trip across North Korea. But the trip lasted a few days. What I’ve done with it sitting still, going back to it in my head, trying to understand it, finding a place for it in my thinking, that’s lasted 24 years already and will probably last a lifetime. The trip, in other words, gave me some amazing sights, but it’s only sitting still that allows me to turn those into lasting insights. And I sometimes think that so much of our life takes place inside our heads, in memory or imagination or interpretation or speculation, that if I really want to change my life I might best begin by changing my mind.
Emails, ‘smartphones’, telephone handsets all around the house, television, junk mail on an almost daily basis, advertising in all its many forms, always lists of things to do; and on and on. It’s as if in this modern life, with the so many wonderful ways of doing stuff, connecting, being entertained, and more, that we have forgotten how to do the most basic and fundamental of things: Nothing! It’s as if so many of us have lost sight of the greatest luxury of all: immersing ourselves in that empty space of doing nothing.
Thus it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that more and more people are taking conscious and deliberate measures to open up a space inside their lives. Whether it is something as simple as listening to some music just before they go to sleep, because those that do notice that they sleep much better and wake up much refreshed, or taking technology ‘holidays’ during the week, or attending Yoga classes or enrolling on a course to learn Transcendental Meditation, there is a growing awareness that something in us is crying out for the sense of intimacy and depth that we get from people who take the time and trouble to sit still, to go nowhere.
Even science supports the benefits of slowing down the brain. In an article posted on the Big Think blogsite, author Steven Kottler explains what are called ‘flow states’: “a person in flow obtains the ability to keenly hone their focus on the task at hand so that everything else disappears.”
Elaborating in the next paragraph, as follows:
“So our sense of self, our sense of self-consciousness, they vanish. Time dilates which means sometimes it slows down. You get that freeze frame effect familiar to any of you who have seen The Matrix or been in a car crash. Sometimes it speeds up and five hours will pass by in like five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.”
The part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex houses our higher cognitive functions such as our sense of morality, our sense of will, and our sense of self. It is also that part of our brain that calculates time. When we experience flow states or what is technically known as ‘transient hypofrontality’, we lose track of time, lose our grip on assessing the past, present, and future. As Kotler explains it, “we’re plunged into what researchers call the deep now.“
Steven Kotler then goes on to say:
“So what causes transient hypofrontality? It was once assumed that flow states are an affliction reserved only for schizophrenics and drug addicts, but in the early 2000s a researcher named Aaron Dietrich realized that transient hypofrontality underpins every altered state — from dreaming to mindfulness to psychedelic trips and everything in between. Sometimes these altered states involve other parts of the brain shutting down. For example, when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex disconnects, your sense of self-doubt and the brain’s inner critic get silenced. This results in boosted states of confidence and creativity.”
Don’t worry about the technical terms, just go back and re-read those last two sentences, “For example, when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex disconnects, your sense of self-doubt and the brain’s inner critic get silenced. This results in boosted states of confidence and creativity.”
All from stillness!
Back to Pico Iyer’s talk and his concluding words:
So, in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. So you can go on your next vacation to Paris or Hawaii, or New Orleans; I bet you’ll have a wonderful time. But, if you want to come back home alive and full of fresh hope, in love with the world, I think you might want to try considering going nowhere. Thank you.
At the start of this chapter, I mentioned that I would leave it until the end to explain why I deliberately made this one on stillness the last one in the series of dog qualities we humans have to learn.
Here’s why. For the fundamental reason that it is only through the stillness of mind, the stillness of mind that we so beautifully experience when we hug our dog, or close our eyes and bury our face in our dog’s warm fur; it is that stillness of mind, that like any profound spiritual experience, that has the power to transform our mind from negative to positive, from disturbed to peaceful, from unhappy to happy.
The power of overcoming negative minds and cultivating constructive thoughts, of experiencing transforming meditations is right next to us in the souls of our dogs.
“Sanctuary is where you go to cherish your life. It’s where you practice being present. And it may not be that many steps from where you are, right now.” The Rev. Terry Hershey.
1,523 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover￼￼￼￼￼
The many joys of a connected world. As I wrote that sub-heading above, it struck me that the virtual world of blogging partially mimics the real world of life, as in that in nature everything is connected. To say that everything is connected in the world of blogging is rather far-fetched, but (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you) there is no question that bloggers tend to gravitate towards other bloggers where there is some sense of resonance. All of which could have been said in far fewer than the eighty-one words above! Try like-minded tend to be drawn to each other! So whether it’s in ten words or eighty-one words, it’s a preamble to the wonderful words of another blogger. I’m referring to the blog Wibble that is authored by Pendantry. Mr. P (and I’m assuming it is a ‘he’) wrote a post for the recent Earth Hug Day on December 12th. I thought it would make a nice republication this last Friday before the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere this coming Sunday.
‘Earth hug day‘: 12 December 2014.
who has supported you all your life without asking for anything in return? fresh air, clear water, food, stability and unconditional love… the earth provides. the earth cares. the earth loves!
it’s about time we love her back again… every day – every moment… and with a huge collective earth hug right around the planet!
throw yourself on the ground and hug the earth! run to a tree and hug the earth! put your arms around each other and hug the earth!
hug the earth ♥ share the love
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2vjdE0EgIQ You don’t have to understand what they’re saying — the meaning is clear.
Our dear, wonderful Planet Earth.
Thanks to the wonders of the modern dictionary, I am able to understand that about two-hundred years ago, sometime around 1790 to 1800, the word ‘able’ that I just used was added to the word ‘adapt’ to make the word ‘adaptable’. I read that the word is an adjective and that from that comes a related word, a noun: adaptability. That same dictionary informs me that the meaning of adaptability is: “capable of being adapted” or “able to adjust oneself readily to different conditions: an adaptable person.”
Now I would be the first to accept that the history of man, the long history of man, reveals a species, namely us, that is incredibly adaptable. Yet, (and you knew there was a ‘yet’ coming!) my sense of how adaptable any one person might be is inextricably wound up with change, and change is often a bitter fruit to taste.
You may recall that I closed the chapter on The process of change, in Part Four, with a snippet quotation from the film Interstellar: “We all want to protect the world, but we don’t want to change.”
That sentiment could be applied to so many aspects of our lives, especially to any form of change that heralded perceived uncertainty, or potential vulnerability; indeed anything that might be regarded as taking us outside our ‘comfort zone’. Granted not everyone, all of the time, yet not no-one at any one time.
Dogs, just like us humans, love routines. However, what strikes me from having lived for a number of years with a great many dogs in the home, variously from sixteen to the nine we have at present, is how amazingly easily a dog will adapt to new circumstances, both temporary and long-term changed circumstances.
Somewhere in my research, and I regret not being able to quote the reference, I came across a review of the author Jean Donaldson, in connection with her book Culture Clash. This book has shaped modern thinking about the behaviour of dogs and the relationship between dogs and humans.
The reviewer, in discussing the adaptability of dogs, proposes, “Maybe it’s the simple way they view their world. Each thing in their lives seems to fall neatly into its place in their world view. Things to seek out, things to avoid, things to keep, and things to leave behind.”
Then a couple of sentences later, the reviewer adding: “I would guess that scavengers need that kind of mind set. Take it as it comes, deal with it, and move on. Dogs seem to have developed a sense of adaptation. They see what needs to be done and simply find a way to do it no matter what the impediments might be.”
That last sentence describes an attitude towards adaptability that, in my opinion, would be very rare to find in a person.
I am going to devote the balance of this chapter to a true story. The true story about an Akita breed of dog that lived with its owner in Tokyo back in the first quarter of the 20th century. I included this account, despite the main theme of the story being about the extreme loyalty of the dog, because the dog’s ability to adapt is equally as impressive.
In 1924, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo took in an Akita breed of dog as a pet and named him Hachikō. During his owner’s life, Hachikō not only saw Professor Ueno come out from the front door each morning but quickly learned to greet him at the end of the day by going to the nearby Shibuya Station. Hachikō continued this daily routine of going to the station until a day in May 1925, when that evening Professor Ueno did not return on his usual train. The reason being that the professor had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage at the university that day, had died and, therefore, never returned to the train station where his doggy friend was waiting.
Kind persons found Hachikō another home after his master’s death but he routinely escaped, showing up again and again at his old home. Eventually, Hachikō in some doggie manner realised that his master, Professor Ueno, clearly no longer lived at the house. So Hachikō went to look for his master at the train station, where he had accompanied him so many times before. Each day, Hachikō waited for Professor Ueno to return. And each day he did not see his friend among the commuters leaving the station.
Now almost a permanent fixture at the train station, Hachikō inevitably attracted the attention of other commuters. Many of the people who frequented the Shibuya train station had seen Hachikō and Professor Ueno together each day. They now brought Hachikō treats and food to nourish him during his long wait – Hachikō waiting at the train station at the end of every single day.
That same year, it happened that another of Ueno’s faithful students, who had become something of an expert on the Akita breed, saw the dog at the station and followed him when he went back to the home of the former gardener of Professor Ueno: Kikuzaboro Kobayashi. There the student learned the history of Hachikō’s life. Shortly after this meeting with Kikuzaboro, the former student published a documented census of Akitas in Japan. His research found only 30 purebred Akitas remaining, including Hachikō from Shibuya Station.
Professor Ueno’s former student returned frequently to visit the dog and over the years published several articles about Hachikō’s remarkable loyalty. In 1932, one of these articles, published in Tokyo’s largest newspaper, threw the dog into the national spotlight. Hachikō became a national sensation. His faithfulness to the memory of his master impressed the people of Japan as a spirit of family loyalty that all should strive to achieve. Teachers and parents used Hachikō’s vigil as an example for children to follow. A well-known Japanese artist rendered a sculpture of the dog, and throughout the country a new awareness of the Akita breed grew.
Hachikō was so loyal that every day for the next nine years he waited, sitting there amongst the town’s folk, appearing precisely when the train was due at the station.
Hachikō died on March 8, 1935. He was found on a street in Shibuya. His heart was infected with filarial worms and 3-4 yakitori sticks were found in his stomach. His stuffed and mounted remains are kept at the National Science Museum of Japan in Ueno, Tokyo. Hachiko’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty. There is a memorial statue of Hachikō in front of Shibuya Station.
This tale of Hachikō is an astounding tribute to the adaptability of the dog.
1,123 words. Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover￼￼￼￼￼
 December, 2014
Yet another powerful essay from George Monbiot.
I wonder at times why the most obvious things about us humans can be so easily overlooked. I have in mind that we humans are a product of a natural world, that we cannot survive without nature; however we examine our lives.
Take, for example, this picture of a city spread, in this case Chicago, where one might expect the natural world to be practically out of sight, reduced to a single point, metaphorically speaking. Yet nature is still hanging on, albeit courtesy of some local gardeners, I don’t doubt.
All of which is my introduction to yet another powerful essay from George Monbiot, republished here with his very kind permission.
Civilisation is Boring
December 9, 2014
We are pre-tuned to the natural world; wired to respond to nature.
By George Monbiot, published on BBC Earth, 8th December 2014
This is the first of BBC Earth’s longform essays about our relationship with the natural world.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote. “An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”(1)
I remembered that when I read the news that the world has lost 52% of its vertebrate wildlife over the past 40 years(2). It’s a figure from which I’m still reeling. To love the natural world is to suffer a series of griefs, each compounding the last. It is to be overtaken by disbelief that we could treat it in this fashion. And, in the darkest moments, it is to succumb to helplessness, to the conviction that we will keep eroding our world of wonders until almost nothing of it remains. There is hope – real hope – as I will explain later, but at times like this it seems remote.
These wounds are inflicted not only on the world’s wildlife but also on ourselves. Civilisation is but a flimsy dust sheet that we have thrown over a psyche rich in emotion and instinct, shaped by the living planet. The hominims from whom we evolved inhabited a fascinating, terrifying world, in which survival depended on constant observation and interpretation. They contended not only with lions and leopards, but with sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and bear dogs (monstrous creatures with a huge bite radius).
As the work of Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh at UCLA suggests, predators in the pre-human past lived at much greater densities than they do today(3). The wear and breakage of their teeth show that competition was so intense that they were forced to consume the entire carcasses of the animals they killed, bones and all, rather than just the prime cuts, as top carnivores tend to do today. In other words, the animals with which we evolved were not just bigger than today’s predators; they were also hungrier.
Navigating this world required astonishing skills. Our ancestors, in the boom-and-bust savannahs, had to travel great distances to find food, through a landscape shimmering with surprise and hazard. Their survival depended upon reacting to the barest signals: the flicker of a tail in the grass, the scent of honey, a change in humidity, tracks in the dust. We still possess these capacities. We carry with us a ghost psyche, adapted to a world we no longer inhabit, which contains – though it remains locked down for much of the time – a boundless capacity for fear and wonder, curiousity and enchantment. We are pre-tuned to the natural world; wired to respond to nature.
In computer games and fantasy novels, we still grapple the monsters of the mind. In the film of Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, the orcs rode on giant hyaenas(4). In the first Hunger Games film, bear dogs were released into the forest to prey on the contestants(5). I don’t believe these re-creations were accidental: the directors appear to have known enough of our evolutionary history to revive the ancestral terror these animals provoke. The heroic tales that have survived – tales of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap – are those that resonate with the genetic memories lodged in our minds. I suspect that their essential form has remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years; that the encounters with monsters recorded in writing were a consolidation of stories we have been telling since we acquired the capacity to use the past tense.
You can see how such tales might have originated in a remarkable sequence in the BBC’s Human Planet series(6). Three men in southern Kenya, described by the programme as Dorobo people (though this is not a designation many ethnographers accept) stalk to within about 50 metres of a lion kill. Fifteen lions, blood dripping from their jaws, are eating the carcass of a wildebeest. The men suddenly stand and walk towards the pride. Rattled by their astonishing confidence, the lions flee. They watch from the bushes, puzzled and indecisive, as the three men walk up to the carcass, hack off one of the hind legs, then saunter away. That night, the adventurers roast the meat in their cave. “We really robbed those lions”, one of them boasts. “How many do you think there were?”, another asks. “Fifteen, but there might have been more.”
This, surely, is how sagas begin. Those men, led by a veteran of such ruses, are heroes of the old stamp. They outwitted a party of monsters, using guile and audacity, much as Ulysses did. A few hours later, they tell the first version of a story that might echo down the generations, every time with new flourishes and embellishments. Now imagine that, thousand of years hence, lions are long extinct, and the descendants of the Dorobo have only the haziest notion of what they were. They have become monsters even bigger and more dangerous than they were in life, and the feat becomes even more outrageous and unlikely. The saga remains true to its core, but the details have changed. We are those people, still telling the old stories, of encounters with the beasts that shaped us.
The world lives within us, we live within the world. By damaging the living planet we have diminished our existence.
We have been able to do this partly as a result of our ability to compartmentalise. This is another remarkable capacity we have developed, which perhaps reflects the demands of survival in the ever more complex human world we have created. By carving up the world in our minds we have learnt to shut ourselves out of it.
One of the tasks that parents set themselves is to train their children in linearity. Very young children don’t do linearity. Their inner life is discursive, contingent, impulsive. They don’t want to walk in a straight line down the pavement, but to wander off in the direction of whatever attracts their attention. They don’t begin a task with a view to its conclusion. They throw themselves into it, engage for as long as it’s exciting, then suddenly divert to something else.
This is how all animals except adult humans behave. Optimal foraging, the term biologists use to describe the way animals lock onto the best food supply, involves pursuing a task only for as long as it remains rewarding. Our own hunting and gathering would have followed a similar pattern, though it was complicated by our ability to plan and coordinate and to speculate about imagined outcomes. Broadly speaking, ours was a rambling and responsive existence, in which, by comparison to the way we live today, we had little capacity or inclination to impose our will on the world, to lay out a course of action and to follow it without deviation or distraction.
Only with the development of farming did we have to discipline ourselves to think linearly: following a plan from one point to another across weeks or months. Before long we were ploughing in straight lines, making hedges and ditches and tracks in straight lines, building houses and then towns in straight lines. Now almost every aspect of our lives is lived within grids, either concrete or abstract. Linearity, control and management dominate our lives. We fetishise progress: a continuous movement in the same direction. We impose our lines on the messy, contradictory and meandering realities of the human world, because otherwise we would be completely lost in it. We make compartments simple enough, amid the labyrinths we have created, to navigate and understand.
Thus we box ourselves out of the natural world. We become resistant to the experiences that nature has to offer; its spontaneity and serendipity, its unscripted delights, its capacity to shake us out of the frustrations and humiliations which are an inevitable product of the controlled and ordered world we have sought to create. We bully the living world into the grids we impose on ourselves. Even the areas we claim to have set aside for nature are often subjected to rigid management plans, in which the type and the height of the vegetation is precisely ordained and, through grazing or cutting or burning, nature is kept in a state of arrested development to favour an arbitrary assemblage of life over other possible outcomes. Nothing is allowed to change, to enter or leave. We preserve these places as if they were jars of pickles.
The language we use to describe them is also rigid and compartmentalised. In the UK we protect “sites of special scientific interest”, as if the wildlife they contain is of interest only to scientists. The few parts of the seabed which are not ripped up by industrial trawling are described as “reference areas”, as if their only value is as a baseline with which to compare destruction elsewhere. And is there a more alienating term than “reserve”? When we talk about reserve in people, we mean that they seem cold and remote. It reminds me of the old Native American joke: “we used to like the white man, but now we have our reservations.” Even “the environment” is an austere and technical term, which creates no pictures in the mind.
It’s not that we have banished our vestigial psychological equipment from our minds, or lost our instinct for engagement with wildlife. The tremendous popularity of nature programmes testifies to its persistence. I remember sitting in a café listening to a group of bus drivers talking, with great excitement and knowledge, about the spiders they had seen on television the night before, and thinking that, for all our technological sophistication, for all the clever means by which we shield ourselves from our emotions, we remain the people we have always been.
But we have suppressed these traits, and see the world through our fingers, shutting out anything that might spoil the view. We eat meat without even remembering that it has come from an animal, let alone picturing the conditions of its rearing and slaughter. We make no connection in our compartmentalised minds between the beef on our plates and the destruction of rainforests to grow the soya that fed the cattle; between the miles we drive and the oil wells drilled in rare and precious places, and the spills that then pollute them.
In our minds we have sanitised the world. WH Auden’s poem Et in Arcadia Ego describes how “Her jungle growths / Are abated, Her exorbitant monsters abashed, / Her soil mumbled,” while “the autobahn / Thwarts the landscape / In godless Roman arrogance”(7). But the old gods, the old fears, the old knowledge, have not departed. We simply choose not to see. “The farmer’s children / Tiptoe past the shed / Where the gelding knife is kept.”
Civilisation is boring. It has many virtues, but it leaves large parts of our minds unstimulated. It uses just a fraction of our mental and physical capacities. To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially-complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. Many of us, I believe, need something that our planned and ordered lives don’t offer.
I found that something once in Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. I had stupidly launched my kayak into a ten-foot swell to fish a couple of miles from the shore. As I returned to land, I saw that the tide had risen, and ugly, jumbled breakers were smashing on the seawall. From where I sat, two hundred metres from the shore, I could see that the waves were stained brown by the shingle they flung up. I could hear them cracking and soughing against the wall. It was terrifying.
Behind me I heard a monstrous hiss: a freak wave was about to break over my head. I ducked and braced the paddle against the water. But nothing happened. Then a hooked grey fin, scarred and pitted, rose and skimmed just under the shaft of my paddle. I knew what it was, but the shock of it enhanced my rising fear. I glanced around, almost believing that I was under attack.
Then, from the stern, I heard a different sound: a crash and a rush of water. A gigantic bull dolphin soared into the air and almost over my head. As he flew past, he fixed his eye on mine. I stared at the sea into which he had disappeared, willing him to emerge again, filled with a wild exaltation, and a yearning of the kind that used to afflict me when I woke from that perennial pre-adolescent dream of floating down the stairs, my feet a few inches above the carpet. I realised at that moment that I had been suffering from a drought of sensation which I had come to accept as a condition of middle age, like the loss of the upper reaches of hearing.
I found that missing element again in the Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland. I was walking down a sandy path between oak and lime trees that rose for perhaps one hundred feet without branching. Around them the forest floor frothed with ramsons, celandines, spring peas and May lilies. I had seen boar with their piglets, red squirrels, hazel grouse, a huge bird that might have been an eagle owl, a black woodpecker. As I walked, every nerve seemed stretched, tuned like a string to the forest I was exploring. I rounded a curve in the path and found myself face to face with an animal that looked more like a Christian depiction of the Devil than any other creature I have seen.
I was close enough to see the mucus in her tear ducts. She had small, hooked black horns, heavy brows and eyes so dark that I could not distinguish the irises from the pupils. She wore a neat brown beard and an oddly human fringe between her horns. Her back rose to a crest then tapered away to a narrow rump, from which a black tail, slim as a whip, now twitched. She flared her nostrils and raised her chin. I fancied I could smell her sweet, beery breath. We watched each other for several minutes. I stayed so still that I could feel the blood pounding in my neck. Eventually the bison tossed her head, danced a couple of steps then turned, trotted back down the path then cantered away through the trees.
Experiences like these are the benchmarks of my life, moments in which dormant emotions were rekindled, in which my world was re-enchanted. But such unexpected encounters have been far too rare. Most of the lands in which I walk and the seas in which I swim or paddle my kayak are devoid of almost all large wildlife. I see deer, the occasional fox or badger, seals, but little else. It does not have to be like this. We can recharge the world with wonder, reverse much of the terrible harm we have done to it.
Over the past centuries, farming has expanded onto ever less suitable land. Even places of extremely low fertility have been cultivated or grazed, and the result has been a great disproportion between damage and productivity: the production of a tiny amount of food destroys the vegetation, the wild animals, the soil and the watersheds of entire mountain ranges. In the face of global trade, farming in such areas is becoming ever less viable: it cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world. This has caused a loss of cultural diversity, which is another source of sadness.
But at the same time it means that the devastated land could be restored. In Europe, according to one forecast, 30 million hectares – an area the size of Poland – will be vacated by farmers by 2030(8). In the United States, two thirds of those parts of the land which were once forested, then cleared, have become forested again(9), as farming and logging have retreated, especially from the eastern half of the country. Rewilding, the mass restoration of ecosystems, which involves pulling down the redundant fences, blocking the drainage ditches, planting trees where necessary, re-establishing missing wildlife and then leaving the land to find its own way, could reverse much of the damage done to these areas. Already, animals like lynx, wolves, bears and moose, on both continents, are moving back into their former ranges.
There are also possibilities of restoring large parts of the sea. Public disgust at a fishing industry that has trashed almost every square metre of seabed on the continental shelves is now generating worldwide demands for marine parks. These are places in which commercial extraction is forbidden and the wildlife of the seas can recover. Even fishing companies can be persuaded to support them, when they discover that the fish migrating out of these places greatly boost their overall catches, a phenomenon known as the spillover effect. Such underwater parks are quickly recolonised by sessile life forms. Fish and crustacea proliferate, breeding freely and growing to great sizes once more. Dolphins, sharks and whales move in.
In these places we can leave our linearity and confinement behind, surrender to the unplanned and emergent world of nature, be surprised once more by joy, as surprise encounters with great beasts (almost all of which, despite our fears, are harmless to us) become possible again. We can rediscover those buried emotions that otherwise remain unexercised. Why should we not have such places on our doorsteps, to escape into when we feel the need?
Rewilding offers something else, even rarer than lynx and wolves and dolphins and whales. Hope. It offers the possibility that our silent spring could be followed by a raucous summer. In seeking to persuade people to honour and protect the living planet, an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair. We could, perhaps, begin to heal some of the great wounds we have inflicted on the world and on ourselves.
George Monbiot is the author of Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life. There’s an archive of his articles at http://www.monbiot.com
1. Aldo Leopold, 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.
I’m sure that you will agree with me that this is a wonderful essay from Mr. Monbiot, an essay that speaks to us in ways that we all intuitively know makes huge sense.
There is hope for us!
When I was pondering this part of the book, namely Part Five and the qualities we can learn from dogs, and before I started into the writing, when I was building the list of qualities of dogs that we humans need to learn, I was unsure if this chapter on acceptance, together with the previous one on openness, and the one coming up on adaptability, weren’t all too close to the same idea. But after having thought about it some more, I decided that these three qualities are sufficiently different to warrant them being three qualities that we should learn!
For openness is all about offering to others, whereas acceptance is, in a sense, the reverse current, allowing the outside world to flow in to one without too many mental and emotional ‘filters’ corrupting that inward flow and, finally, adaptability is all about change.
Let us start with what our dogs offer us when it comes to acceptance. Almost immediately comes the answer: dogs accept the humans around them and the human world, accept their life as a pet, and accept their world as a domesticated animal; accept it all as it is for what it is.
Just think for a moment of the vast range of life experiences that our dogs are embedded within. From the tiniest poodle who rarely is separated from its owner, to the sheepdog that ‘works’ the land and spends its nights outside in the barn, all the way to the German Shepherd guard dog that is hardly a pet. Dogs are authentic; in the full meaning of the term. They respond, react may be a better word, to their environment and to their natural instincts but totally within the human world in which each particular dog has been cast.
That is a level of acceptance that we humans can only dream about.
Nevertheless, even if that level of acceptance of the world outside us is most likely beyond reach for us humans, there is still an important lesson to be learnt.
Let me elaborate.
The quality of the relationships that we have with others revolves entirely around how we view those other people. And nowhere is that more important than how we view those close to us; our family and our spouses and partners.
If we use the wonderful way in which dogs accept the outside world and, most notably, the way they accept other dogs, as a model for that being the way we accept our partner, there is much research to underpin the fact that we will enjoy wonderful relationships.
If we quietly admit to ourselves that we do not accept our partners as fully as we should, then learning fully to accept them will transform our relationship miraculously.
For the acceptance of the person you share your life with is the biggest gift of respect you can give them. It underlines how much you love them and how much you respect them. It demonstrates that you know that the decisions your partner makes, from small ones to large ones, are based on what they believe is right. It doesn’t at all deny you offering support and guidance, of course not, but what it does guarantee is that you don’t stray into criticism of them, especially the genre of criticism that has its roots in your (false) belief that the other person is not thinking like you, not seeing something as you see it. For one very obvious reason: they aren’t you!
There is no question at all that acceptance is the greatest gift you can offer someone, especially someone emotionally close, because it is the greatest sign of respect. And respect is the cousin of trust and without trust there is no relationship. It applies equally to humans and dogs! Just because we accept our dog unconditionally, that our dog is completely authentic, because we know that it is a dog, and never expect them to be anything other than a dog, doesn’t in any way mean that the same approach, the same unconditional acceptance of a person in our lives, should not be our way of living with that other person.
691 words Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover￼￼￼￼
Over the years, I have collected well over a hundred ‘draft’ posts. In the main, these are simply things that have caught my eye that could perhaps be a blog post sometime in the future.
Recently, I have been wandering through these drafts, throwing away those topics that were clearly dated, and endeavouring to find the gems that really do need to be shared with you.
This post most definitely falls into the ‘must share’ category.
It is just a photograph. A photograph that I regret I can no longer recall it’s source.
But trust me, this is one of those photographs that …….