Learning from Dogs
It was October 25th, 2013. Exactly a year since the day that they had moved in to their Merlin home. Yet in some very strange way if felt neither as long as a full year nor as short.
Molly and Philip were sitting on the decked verandah looking out over the acres of grass. A group of five dogs were cavorting and chasing around in what looked like for them a dog heaven.
He came back to his strange thought of it not feeling like a year; in either direction. The beauty of their land, the joy the dogs experienced every time they ran freely about the place was beyond measure. All their neighbours, without exception, were people that he and Molly liked. More than that, they were also helpful and sharing persons. Rationally, he admitted, this was probably a key aspect of country folk right across the United States of America. But it didn’t diminish what it felt like. Plus his Englishness was welcomed and enjoyed and that created an additional layer of acceptance. Thus in those ways it felt that they had been here for much longer than twelve short months.
On the other hand, his difficulty at learning names and faces of people, even neighbours; his struggle to still find his way to certain stores and shops in Grants Pass had a feel as though they had only just moved in; had been here much less than a full year. That slowness in learning his way about the area worried him at times. It was disquieting and more than once he turned inwards and quietly worried that dementia was stealing up on him as it had for his elder sister, Diana, who had died of it earlier in 2013.
More generally, two dogs had died of old age over the past months so they were down to a total of nine. Those nine were divided into groups of five and four.
The group of five were Pharaoh, Sweeny, Dhalia, Hazel and Cleo. Cleo was the younger German Shepherd that they had purchased as a companion to Pharaoh, who had passed ten-years-old last June. This group was affectionately called the bedroom group because they slept overnight in the main bedroom with Molly and Philip. The other four dogs were Lilly, Ruby, Casey and Paloma. Known as the kitchen group because they lived in the large kitchen and dining area. It worked very well. All nine dogs found their home property endlessly interesting simply because each day there were so many new smells for them to follow.
There was another aspect of their year here that figured very strongly in Philip’s mind. That was the tension between anger and peace, his anger and his peace, and the role of dogs in his life.
He had observed strongly how the level of disquiet, to put it mildly, in the minds of everyday folk all around them was increasing. A throw-away comment in front of a store check-out woman about how we were living in interesting times would trigger a facial expression, a shrug of the shoulders that spoke volumes. Often added to by a comment from the next person in line. Many other tiny windows into how so many people were feeling uncomfortable about the world we were all now living in.
He fully expected to see growing levels of social anger and unrest over the next few years. He could feel the force of anger playing with his mind.
What was it that Jonathan used to speak about? Yes, the difference between power and force. How force could never produce lasting change. Yet how power came from within and could change mountains, metaphorically speaking. Or, as Jonathan pointed out, literally in the case of the power of water and sand.
Philip knew that to bury his face into the furry warmth of a dog’s coat, to wrap his arms around one of their animals and feel the dog relax in to that hug, offered him something priceless. It offered the lesson, time and time again, that anger is only cured from within. That the power of that dog’s unconditional love for him effortlessly took him within himself and bathed him in love, peace and contentment.
One evening during early September, Dhalia did not return to the house after the usual after-supper dog run. He said to Molly that he would go out and look for her. He walked down to the forest just by the creek and stood calling out her name. As the sun set behind the tall peaks and the darkness drew in around him, he started imagining what it would be like to leave their property and plunge into the deep forest searching for one of their dogs that had become lost. He shivered with the thought of how fragile was the boundary between being secure at home and being utterly lost in a vast wilderness.
Thank goodness, he wasn’t put to the test because at that moment the sound of little paws heralded Dhalia’s return. She came immediately to his side, her tail wagging with such furious affection, as it so often did. Philip kneeled down and hugged her. Dhalia lowered her head and pushed herself under his left arm. Tears flowed from his eyes revealing his joy and love that this precious dog was not lost or harmed.
When he and Dhalia had returned to the house, he couldn’t shake off that image of being out alone in the forest. To the extent that the same evening, quite untypically, after their meal he had excused himself to Molly and sat down and written a short story on the theme.
Sitting there with Molly on the verandah more than a month later he reflected that what he could remember of those words was a little hazy. He rose from the chair to go and find where he had put the completed story. He found it almost immediately and came back out to the verandah.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” Molly asked.
“It’s that story I wrote of being lost out in the forest; you know the one I wrote back in early September.”
“Oh yes, I loved that story. Do read it to me again.”
He took out his reading glasses, looked down and started reading.
“Molly, where’s Dhalia?”
“I don’t know. She was here moments ago.”
“Molly, You take the other dogs back to the car and I’ll go and scout around for her. Oh, and you better put Pharaoh on the leash otherwise you know he’ll follow me.”
“Philip, don’t worry. Dhalia’s always chasing scents; bet she beats us back to the car. Especially as it’s going to be dark soon.”
Nonetheless, Philip started back down the dusty, dirt road, the last rays of the sun pink on the high, forested cliffs about them. This high rocky, forest plateau, in an area known as the Siskiyou Forest, not those many miles from their home in Southern Oregon. It made perfect dog-walking country and rarely did they miss a week-end afternoon out here. However, this particular Saturday afternoon, for reasons Philip was unclear, they had left home much later than usual.
There was no sign of Dhalia ahead on this remote forest road so he struck off left, hoping that she was somewhere up amongst the higher trees and the boulders. Soon he reached the first crest; panting hard. Behind him, across the breath-taking landscape, the setting sun had dipped beneath faraway mountain ridges; a magnificent sight. Suddenly, in the midst of that brief pause, him admiring the perfect evening, a sound echoed around the cliffs. The sound of a dog barking. He bet his life on that being Dhalia. Just as quickly the barking stopped.
The barking started up again, barking that suggested Dhalia was hunting a creature. The sound came from an area of boulders way up above the pine trees on the other side of the small valley ahead of him. Perhaps, Dhalia had trapped herself. More likely, he reflected, swept up in the evening scents of the wilderness, Dhalia had temporarily reverted back to the wild, hunting dog she had been all those years ago. That feral Mexican street dog who in 2005 had tentatively turned away from scavenging in a pile of rubbish in a dirty Mexican town and shyly approached Molly. Molly had named her Dhalia.
He set off down through the dense forest to what he thought was the valley floor. Some thirty minutes later, thirty minutes of hard climbing, had him reach those high boulders.
Philip whistled, then called “Dhalia! Dhalia! Come, there’s a good girl.” Thank God for such a sweet, obedient dog. He anticipated the sound of dog feet scampering through rough undergrowth. But no sound came.
He listened; no sounds, no more barking. Now where had she gone? Perhaps past these boulders down in the next steep ravine beyond him, the one even more densely forested with pine trees. With daylight practically gone he needed to find Dhalia, and find her very soon.
He plunged down the slope, through tree branches that whipped across his face, then fell heavily as his foot found empty space instead of the expected firm ground. Philip cursed, picked himself up and paused. That fall had a message for him: the madness of continuing this search in the near dark. The terrain made very rough going even in good daylight. At night, the boulders and plunging ravines would guarantee a busted body, at best! Plus, he ruefully admitted, he didn’t have a clue as to where he now was, let alone finding his way back to the road where he had left Molly.
The unavoidable truth smacked him full in the face. He would be spending this night alone in the high, open forest. It had one hell of a very scary dimension.
He forced himself not to dwell on just how scary it all felt. He needed to stay busy, find some way of keeping warm; last night at home it had dropped to within a few degrees of freezing. Philip looked around, seeing a possible solution. He broke a small branch off a nearby fir tree and made a crude brush with which he swept up the fallen pine needles he saw everywhere about him. Soon he had a stack sufficient to cover him, or so he hoped. Thank goodness that when he and Molly had decided to give the five dogs this late afternoon walk, he had put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, a pullover thrown over his shoulders. It didn’t make Dhalia’s antics any less frustrating but he probably wasn’t going to freeze to death!
The air temperature sank as if connected with the last rays of the sun. Philip’s confidence sank at the same rate as the temperature.
He lay down, shuffled about, swept the pine needles across his body, tried to find a position that carried some illusion of comfort. No matter the position, he couldn’t silence his mind. Couldn’t silence the screaming in his head, his deep, primeval fear of this dark forest about him, his imagination already running away with visions of hostile night creatures, large and small, watching him, smelling him, biding their time. Perhaps he might sleep for a short while?
A moment later the absurdity of that last thought hit him. Caused him to utter aloud, “You stupid sod. There’s no way you’re going to sleep through this!” His words echoed off unseen cliffs in the darkness reinforcing his sense of isolation.
He was very frightened. Why? Where in his psyche did that come from? He had spent many nights alone at sea without a problem, a thousand miles from shore. Then, of course, he knew his location, always had a radio link to the outside world. But being lost in this dark, lonely forest touched something very deep in him. Suddenly, he started shivering.
The slightest movement he made caused the needles to slip from him and the cold night air began to penetrate his body. He tried not to think about how cold it might get and, by extension, thanked his lucky stars that the night was early September not, say, mid-December. So far, not too cold. But it wasn’t long before the fear rather than the temperature started to devour him. What stupid fool said, ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself!’ His plan to sleep under the pine needles, fear or no fear, had failed; he couldn’t get warm. He had to move.
He looked around and vaguely saw a boulder a few yards away, like some giant, black shadow. No details, just this huge outline etched against the night. He carefully raised himself, felt the remaining needles fall away, and gingerly shuffled across to the dark rock. He half-expected something to bite his extended hand as he explored the surface, ran his hand down towards the unseen ground. Miracle of miracles, the granite gently emitted the warmth absorbed from the day’s sun. He slowly settled himself to the ground, eased his back against the rock-face and pulled his knees up to his chest. He felt so much less vulnerable than he had laying on the forest floor. He let out a long sigh, then burst into tears, huge heart-rending sobs coming from somewhere very far within him.
Gradually the tears washed away his fear, restored a calmer part of his brain. That calmer brain brought the realisation that he hadn’t considered, well not up until now, what Molly must be going through. At least he knew he was alive. Molly, not knowing, would be in despair. He bet she would remember that time when out walking in the Dells down in Arizona they had lost little Poppy, an adorable 10 lb poodle mix, never to be found again despite ages spent combing the area, calling out her name. A year later and Molly still said from time to time, “I so miss Poppy!” First Poppy and now him! No question, he had to get through this in one piece, mentally as much as physically.
Presumably, Molly would have called 911 and been connected to the local search and rescue unit. Would they search for him in the dark? He thought it unlikely.
Thinking about her further eased his state of mind and his shivering stopped. Thank goodness for that! Philip fought to retain this new perspective. He would make it through, even treasure this night under the sky, this wonderful, awesome, night sky. Even the many crowns of the tall trees that soared way up above him couldn’t mask a sky that just glittered with starlight.
It was that heavenly clock that resided in the night sky and tonight offered a magical example of the immensity and grandeur of the universe.
Often during his life the night skies had spoken to him, presented a reminder of the continuum of the universe. On this night, however, he felt more humbled by the hundred, million stars surrounding him than ever before.
Time slipped by, him being unable to read his watch in the darkness. However, above his head there was that vast stellar clock. He scanned the heavens, seeking out familiar pinpoints of light, companions over so much of his lifetime. Ah, there! The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, and, yes, there the North Pole star, Polaris. Great! Now the rotation of the planet became his watch, The Big Dipper sliding around Polaris, fifteen degrees for each hour.
What a situation he had got himself into. As with other challenging times in his life, lost in the Australian bush, at sea hunkering down through a severe storm, never a choice other than to work it out. He felt a gush of emotion from the release this changed perspective gave him.
Far away, a group of coyotes started up a howl. What a timeless sound. How long had coyotes been on the planet? He sank into those inner places of his mind noting how the intense darkness raised correspondingly deep thoughts. What if this night heralded the end of his life, the last few hours of the life of Philip Stevens? What parting message would he give to those that he loved?
Molly would know beyond any doubt how much he had adored her, how her love had created an emotional paradise for him beyond measure. But his son and daughter, dear William and Elizabeth? Oh, the complexities he had created in their lives by leaving their mother so many years ago. He knew that they still harboured raw edges, and quite reasonably so. He still possessed raw edges from his father’s death, way back in 1956. That sudden death, five days before Christmas, so soon after he had turned twelve, that had fed a life-long feeling of emotional rejection. That feeling that lasted for fifty-one years until, coincidentally, also just a few days before Christmas, he had met Molly in 2007.
His thoughts returned to William and Elizabeth. Did they know, without a scintilla of doubt, that he loved them? Maybe his thoughts would find them. Romantic nonsense? Who knows? Dogs had the ability to read the minds of humans, often from far out of visual range. He knew Pharaoh, his devoted German Shepherd, skilfully read his mind.
Philip struggled to remember that saying from James Thurber. What was it now? Something about men striving to understand themselves before they die. Would that be his parting message for William and Elizabeth? Blast, he wished he could remember stuff more clearly these days and let go of worrying about the quote. Perhaps his subconscious might carry the memory back to him.
He looked back up into the heavens. The Big Dipper indicated at least an hour had slipped by. Gracious, what a sky in which to lose one’s mind. Lost in that great cathedral of stars. Then, as if through some stirring of consciousness, that Thurber saying did come back to him: All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.
He reflected on those who, incarcerated in solitary confinement, had their minds play many tricks, especially when it came to gauging time. What a bizarre oddment of information; where had that come from? Possibly because he hadn’t a clue about his present time. It felt later than 11pm and earlier than 4am, but any closer guess seemed impossible. Nevertheless, from out of the terrible, heart-wrenching hours of being alone he had found calm, had found something within him. He slept.
Suddenly, he was slammed fully awake. Something out there in the dark had made a sound. Something that caused his whole body to become totally alert, every nerve straining to recognise what it might be. It sounded like animal feet moving through the autumn fall of dead leaves. He prayed that it wasn’t a mountain lion. Surely, such a wild cat preparing to attack him would be silent. Now the unknown creature had definitely paused, no sound, just Philip knowing that somewhere out there, something was watching him, waiting. Now what! The creature was making a sniffing sound. He hoped it was not a puma. Pumas could make trouble; they had no qualms at attacking a decent-sized dog.
Poised to run, he considered rising but chose to stay still. Very quietly and gently he moved his fingers around the ground near to him on either side. A few moments later he closed his right-hand around a small rock. The sniffing stopped. Nothing now, save the sound of his rapidly beating heart. He sensed, sensed strongly, the creature looking at him. It seemed very close, ten or twenty feet away. The adrenalin hammered through his veins.
He tried to focus on the spot where he sensed the animal was waiting; waiting for what? He pushed that idea out of his head. His ears then picked up a weird, bizarre sound. Surely not! Had he lost his senses? It sounded like a dog wagging its tail; flap, flap, flapping against a tree-trunk.
A dog? If a dog, it had to be Dhalia!
Then came that small, shy bark! A bark he knew so well. It was Dhalia. He softly called her, “Come here girl, there’s a good girl.”
With a quick rustle of feet Dhalia leapt upon him, tail wagging furiously, her head quickly burrowing into his body warmth. He hugged her and, once more, the tears ran down his face. Despite the darkness, he could see her perfectly in his mind. Her tight, short-haired coat of light-brown hair, her aquiline face, her bright inquisitive eyes and those wonderful head-dominating ears. Lovely large ears that seemed to listen to the world. A shy, loving dog when Molly had rescued her in 2005 and all these years later still a shy, loving dog.
Dhalia raised her head towards his face and licked his tears, her gentle tongue soft and sweet on his skin. He shuffled more on to his back and that allowed her to curl up on his chest, still enveloped by his arms. His mind drifted off to an era a long time ago, back to an earlier ancient man, likewise arms wrapped around his dog under a dome of stars. This bond between man and dog. So different to each other yet so closely bonded. Bonded in a thousand mysterious ways.
The morning sun arrived as imperceptibly as an angel’s sigh. Dhalia sensed the dawn before Philip, brought him out of his dreams by the slight gentle stirring of her warm body.
Yes, there it came, the end of this night. The sun galloping towards them across ancient lands, another beat of the planet’s heart. Dhalia slid off his chest, stretched herself from nose to tail, yawned and looked at him, as much to say time to go home! He could just make out the face of his watch: 5.55am. He, too, raised himself, slapped his arms around his body to get some circulation going. The cold air stung his face, yet it couldn’t even scratch the inner warmth of his body, the glow from the bond between him and Dhalia.
They set off. As they crested the first ridge there ahead, about a mile away, was a forest road busy with arriving search and rescue trucks. Philip could just see Molly’s white Dodge parked ahead of the trucks and he instinctively knew that she and Pharaoh had already disappeared into the forest, knew Pharaoh was leading her to them.
They set off down the slope, Dhalia’s tail wagging with unbounded excitement, Philip ready to start shouting for attention from the next ridge. They were about to wade through a small stream when Pharaoh raced out of the trees from the other side. He tore through the water, barking at the top of his voice in clear dog speak, ‘I’ve found them, they’re here, they’re safe’. Philip crouched down to receive his second huge face lick in less than six hours.
Later, when safely home, something struck him. When earlier they had set off to find their way back, not long after sunrise, Dhalia had stayed pinned to him. That was so unusual for her not to run off. Let’s face it, that’s what got them into the mess in the first place. Dhalia had stayed with him as if she had known that during that long, dark night, it had been he who had been the lost soul.
Thus came the message from that night, a message as clear as the rays of this new day’s sun, the message to pass to all those he loved. We can only find ourselves from the places where we are lost.
Philip put down the story. There were tears to his eyes. Molly had just blown her nose with a paper tissue so he guessed he wasn’t the only one with wet eyes.
She looked at him.
“You know, that story about Dhalia reminds me of the way that Lilly stayed with Ben.”
“Sorry sweetheart, remind me of that again.”
“When Ben was dying, Lilly stayed by his side on the bed every minute of every hour except for a dash outside for a pee from time to time, and to eat her meals. I knew that Ben had died even before going into his bedroom because Lilly had come out from the room and was resting besides me. Lilly knew that I needed her now more than Ben did.”
There is so much for people to learn from dogs. So many of the ways that dogs behave that show us of what is so desperately missing from these times; from these so-called modern, twenty-first-century times. A time when many believe that our way-of-life is as good as broken. Broken by the levels of greed, by the lies and abuses of those wielding power and control, riven by the deep inequalities between those with comfortable, material lives and those who struggle to live more than one cruel day at a time.
Dogs live so beautifully in the present. They make the best of each moment uncluttered by the complex fears and feelings that we humans so often chose to have about us. 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 length of time. Man’s longest animal companion, by far!
There is no archeological evidence of dogs being part of man’s life earlier than thirty-thousand years ago. However, there is serious consideration by scientists that the grey wolf, from which the dog evolved, was in some way connected to Neanderthal man. That the earliest dogs became man’s companion, protector and helper and that the relationship between dog and man was critically important in man achieving success as a hunter-gatherer. Allowing our species to evolve to farming the land and, thence, the long journey to present times.
However at some point in the last, say one to two-hundred years, that farming and husbandry spirit became corrupted by selfishness and greed to the point where the planet’s plant, energy and mineral resources were, and still are, seen as an infinitely deep pot. That corruption producing a blindness to the most important truth in all our lives. That Planet Earth is man’s only source of life. Unless and until we return to living in balance and harmony with our planet then we are close to the edge of extinction. Both a literal and spiritual extinction.
Dogs know better, so much better! Time again for man to learn from dogs!