Robert Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and academic whose work I’ve referred to quite a bit in previous articles on this blog. A kind friend (thank you, Norma) recently sent me an old book of his poetry, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, and in its pages I found, in poem form, one of the saddest and most poignant stories I’ve ever come across. It’s a story that resonates with me now for many reasons, but not least because it is a story about giving without counting the cost, and that is such a relevant notion as we approach the consumer-driven lunacy of Christmas.
The story-poem resonates mostly, though, because I love Dog – not just as a creature who shares my life and my house (we are fortunate enough to have two working border collie sheepdogs, Nell and Fionn) but as an archetype, a totem animal – and not just as Dog, but as canine. And so I include in this Dog’s canine relations, Wolf (as you may have noticed from the many howling wolf images around this website) and Fox. Dog as a symbol of so much that is good and beautiful and true in the world has been with me ever since I was put in front of a television showing the old black-and-white movie ‘Lassie Come Home’ as a four-year-old, and sobbed so bitterly and for so long that I had to be carted off to the doctor.
Bringhurst’s poem about the story of Dog came back to my mind this weekend, after I’d just viewed the astonishing video ‘The Animal Communicator’, about the work of Anna Breytenbach. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it free online while you still can: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11936/The-Animal-Communicator. Breytenbach’s experiences reminded me of how much we take for granted in our dealings with animals, and how little we appreciate their complexity. The video reminded me too of one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read about human-animal relationships, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf. Compared to wolves, Rowlands doesn’t think much of apes and their descendants, humans. Apes, he argues, are the only creatures whose intelligence is characterised by the need to understand our peers so that we can deceive them and use them for our own purposes. ‘When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.’
And this resonates deeply: we humans are so clever with our language, with our psychobabblish tricksy word-games and our Catch-22s and all the other ways in which language allows us to manipulate reality and each other. Language allows us to lie, to confuse, to confound our senses. To tie ourselves and others in knots so that we no longer know what is true. To me, as to Rowlands, there is a strong sense that Wolf, and Dog, are true. At least, that’s what they represent to me: the truth that is inherent in a wildness that stays close to the earth, just like the women who ‘run’ with them, as in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book. Nose to the ground, following the track, focusing on what is there, Wolf/Dog just carries on, staying alive, looking out for her pack. She’s not interested in playing games, and has little patience with bullshit. She doesn’t inhabit this human world of me-me-me – MY place in the world, MY territory, what I need … And so it is no surprise to me that in Bringhurst’s story, Dog is the creature who sacrifices his own gifts for the benefit of his humans. Time after time, he just heads on back to the old woman who made the world and, without counting the cost, says Grandmother, do you think you could give … and in the giving of those gifts to his humans, he gives the most precious thing of all: himself. In this story, Dog reminds us that this life isn’t about us, it’s about the world; it’s about others. It’s about giving, without scheming, or deceiving, or withholding and resenting, and above all, without counting the cost.
The story which follows is my version of that in Bringhurst’s poem (which in turn was derived from a native Canadian story), adapted to the places to which I belong, and in prose form.
The Story of Dog
The old woman who made the world had only just made it, and everything was strange and new. The wind picked up, and the sunlight cut through the air, and the old woman who made the world pitched her camp on a green meadow above the cliffs of a wild and rocky sea-coast, close to the edge, but not very far from the middle of things. She made a fire, and she looked around her; she looked at the world, and she said to her dog, Well, Dog, do you think it’ll do? And the dog said, Grandmother, yes. It’s the way I have always imagined a world might be. The spruce trees look like spruce trees, the mountain larches look like mountain larches, the balsam firs have the unmistakable odour of firs. But grandmother, these and the others seem to have places to be in the world. The rabbit, the red deer, the seal, the sea eagle and the pygmy shrew all have their places, like the mosses on the base of the trees at the edge of the meadow and the sage-green lichen clinging to the rocks by the shore. I’m the only one here, Grandmother, with no one to run from or run to, and I’m lonely in this world.
The old woman poked up the fire and sighed and said Dog, I will make you someone to love and look after, if that’s how it is. And she made men and women, then, as a gift, to cure the loneliness of the dog. And the dog said, Grandmother, thank you, and guided his humans out into the world.
The old woman sat there, thinking, alone in the meadow, tending her fire, watching the spring squill and tormentil sprout through the snow, and the milkwort and lesser celandine. A sea breeze whipped up, and she thought she saw something travelling across the valley, dodging the fallen-log bridges, sloshing through the burns and the lochans. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and then trotted up close to the old woman’s fire, where he lay down and licked his paws.
You’re back for a visit already, said the old woman. Dog, is anything wrong?
The dog said, Grandmother, now that you ask me, yes. It’s those humans you gave me. They listen, you know, but they don’t seem to learn, and I came back to ask you to give them something I think they should have. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to speak? Would you teach them words, so they can tell one another their lies instead of keeping them secret?
The old woman took a burned stick from the fire and dug with it into the ground. She found a jagged, black stone, and washed it in the burn, and set it in the north end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of speech and storytelling. Those humans will be able to say what they choose to say as long as it’s there. And no one I know would want to disturb it.
Grandmother, thank you, said the dog, and he turned and headed back through the valley to be with his humans again.
The old woman sat in the high meadow close to the edge but not too far from the middle of things. She watched the emergence of the kelp forests in the sea and saw the ripening willow buds on the trees at the far end of the meadow down towards the valley, and she listened to the wind. She watched the thrift and the self-heal and the butterwort, until one day she saw a way off, once again, a dark shape making its way across the grassy floor of the valley. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and ambled up to the fire, his long tongue wet and dangling among the tall meadow grasses.
You’re back again, Dog. Is something wrong?
Grandmother, yes. It’s the humans again. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk? Well, now they just talk and talk all the time. It isn’t much, and yet it’s too much. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to laugh?
The old woman who made the world picked up a stick and poked at her fire and reached a little deeper down into the ground with her long, bony hand, and took a crooked, yellow stone and scrubbed it in the stream and set it in the east end of the meadow. Then she said, That stone, Dog, is the stone of laughter and the stone of dreams. Those humans will be able to laugh just fine, and maybe have a few new things to talk about too, when you see them again.
Thank you, said the dog, and he went right back to his humans again.
The old woman who made the world sat watching the purple heather begin to bloom, and the willow leaves turning yellow and red, and the fir scales floating down out of the firs, and then one day she saw something far off, moving slowly through the valley. It had four feet and a tail, and it was headed straight for the meadow. The dog came wearily up to the fire.
Here you are again, Dog, said the old woman. Is something still wrong?
Yes, Grandmother. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk and to laugh? Well, they talk and they laugh just fine, grandmother. No matter what happens, they keep on talking; no matter what their stories say, they just laugh.
Grandmother, please, would you teach them to cry?
The old woman who made the world looked a long time into the fire, and she sighed, and then she reached down deeply into the ground and found a smooth, grey pebble, and she cleaned it off in the stream. She set it in the south end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of weeping and the stone of prayer, and those humans’ll have tears in their eyes when you see them again.
Thank you, said the dog, and he vanished into the trees at the far edge of the meadow and made his way back to his humans again.
The old woman who made the world sat in her camp in the meadow, listening to the wild geese honk in the darkness overhead, watching the golden plover busy among the stones in the shortening afternoon, and the flocks of blackbirds stripping the blaeberries bare. The first snow fell and melted, and after many days the old woman saw something slogging up the valley, through the leaf litter and new snow, breaking trail. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and came and curled up close by the fire, chewing his paws.
You’ve been gone a bit longer this time, the old woman said, but you’re back so. How are the humans doing?
Better, Grandmother, said the dog, but something is missing.
The old woman who made the world stirred her fire and watched as the coals glowed pus-yellow, blood-red, bone-white and grey before finally turning black. Choose carefully, Dog, she said. Choose very carefully, Dog, because the circle is closing.
Grandmother, said the dog, heading up here today, wading through the deep snow, I knew what I wanted to ask. They sit and they talk and they laugh and sometimes now they cry, but something is missing still, Grandmother, something those humans need really badly. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to dance?
The old woman shifted a glowing log deep in the fire and reached down a great distance into the ground with her bony hand and grabbed a half-round, blood-red stone, and rubbed it with snowmelt and set it in the west end of the meadow. Then she sat back down by the side of the fire and shifted another log.
That stone, Dog, is the stone of dancing and the stone of song. Those humans can dance now, and sing. And they can talk and tell stories and laugh and dream and cry and pray, and I hope it is enough, because the circle is closed. And those were your gifts, Dog. They were yours, and you gave them away. And the circle is closed now, Dog; the circle is closed. Whatever those humans say from now on, you’ll only hear the pain and pleasure in the music of their voices. Soon you’ll forget you ever heard the words. Nothing now but barks and yips and howls will form in your throat. Now when they laugh, you’ll make no sound. They’ll weep, and you’ll whimper. Now when they dance, you’ll scamper between their legs. You’ll jump up and down, but the music will never enter your body. The words and the music and the tears and the laughter and the joy of the dance will all be theirs.
They owe you all this, Dog, and I somehow think they may never remember to thank you.
Adapted from Robert Bringhurst’s poem ‘Tending the Fire’, in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. It is based on a native Canadian story.
* The Gathering — An Trusach — is by my friend and ex-neighbour Celia Garbutt, and a print of it has pride of place in my kitchen. For more of her work, please visit this website: http://www.rhueart.co.uk/Artists/Celia%20Garbutt