I have a one-year-old Border Collie, a Blue Merle, that means he has a marbled coat and striking blue eyes. He has proved to be ridiculously hard to train, having had two Borders in the past we anticipated a few issues, the need for mental stimulation and a low boredom threshold, but this dog, though beautiful is very highly strung.
We have had to seek the help of a dog trainer; Dave, who has made several visits and spent a couple of hours each time showing me how to gain Arthur’s trust and cooperation. It has become clear to me that what is really going on is the deepening of a powerful relationship.
A friend recommended a book to me; ‘Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves’ by Kevin Behan. It makes the point that we spend much of our time as dog owners projecting human emotions onto our canine companions, whereas this book says: ‘what’s fundamental in the emotional dynamic between a dog and owner isn’t the human reading the animal but the animal reading the animal in the human.’
That is the part of ourselves we tend to pay the least attention to – the animal in our human being. I remember attending a Men’s event in the Arizona wilderness, in 2011. Aravaipa Canyon is around 14 miles off the main roads, it is privately owned and is formed of 19,410 acres of wilderness. A wilderness, as I was informed by a disturbing leaflet, is home to a dazzling array of dangerous and wild animals. Scorpions, Rattlesnakes, Tarantulas, Gila Monsters, Millipedes, Mountain Lions, Coyote, and finally the text informed me that Bears wander the rim of the Canyon! All of this, to a Brit with no experience of such dangers would have been mildly upsetting had I not signed up to spend 24 hours in a tent alone in the middle of all this. A fact that the leaflet and its content made all the more alarming. Fortunately we were to camp the first night alongside the Ranch which the ranchers seemed to have domesticated a little and seemed more a home to horses, cattle and humans.
I had made the acquaintance on the way out, squashed in a bus, with Jim a long haired, wild looking man from Seguin, Texas. He was clad in snake boots (I was wearing sandals) and very experienced with wilderness as he owned a ranch. We could not have been more different on the surface of things, I am a soft middle class, bookish poet from Sheffield, Jim was a pastor to an independent church, blue collar background, good with his hands and a man at home on the land. However we hit it off and decided to pitch our tents together. We camped on a strip of land a little away from the Ranch next to the river. It looked idyllic in the daylight. By the time night fell and the starlit sky revealed its glory, full views of the Milky Way, it all changed. I opted to turn in and went down to the tents alone. I turned off my head torch to better see the panoply of wonder above me, only to realise that the audible environment seemed populated with all the creatures described in the leaflet. Snufflings, gruntings, scratchings and scufflings all promised impending attack. I beat a hasty and stumbling retreat back to the security of Jim and the lamplit ranch.
He was highly amused by my fears, and we tramped back to the tents together, all the threatening sounds seemed to have softened and become the normal nightly noises of a working ranch, much to my chagrin. I felt a fool, yet slept more easily knowing my snake-booted friend was next door. In the morning we were striking camp in order to go out into the canyon for our solo time. All of a sudden the lovely morning silence was broken by a distinct and significant rattling. I stiffened, looked around panic rising. Jim shot out of his tent, ‘what was that?’ he asked. I shrugged looking to the more experienced Texan for reassurance. I gazed up and down the river and then louder, another rattle, menacing and insistent. Jim was up, ‘snake’ he shouted, I grabbed my half stuffed pack and ran, sleeping bag flapping behind me. After some paces of hard running I hear a roar of laughter and turn to see Jim, rolling around the floor with a little rattle in his hand. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted a Texan, what was all that about rednecks and Dallas? My sense of humour slowly returned with the relief that venom antidote might not be needed after all.
We conversed over a quick coffee at the ranch about my fears. It came to me as we talked that the pounding fears that thumped in the heavy pulse at the back of my neck in the night dark camp were coming from within and not from the non-human world outside me. It was a presage of the anxiety that overtook me a few years later. Those who are sadly familiar with anxiety know that their fears are all ‘what ifs’, what if I am having a heart attack? What if this is like the time when? Never in the present, always in the future or the past and that night I carried the fear inside me and the dark triggered its appearance. Jim sensed my anxiety was real and suddenly became a real brother to me. He assured me that all I had to do was think like an animal when pitching my camp. Where would a rattlesnake sleep? Are there animal tracks across your chosen spot? ‘After all’ he said ‘you are an animal too, survival is in your DNA’. We have been good friends since, speaking weekly on our laptops, the internet spanning the pond. This advice proved gold to me and I had a powerful experience in the canyon, no encounters with any other animal but the one that I am.
In a book called ‘Becoming Animal – An Earthly Cosmology’ David Abrams seeks to awaken this reality that I touched in Aravaipa. Here is what he says about our animal state: ‘Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us. This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos’. So what is the animal in the human that Arthur, in all his animality, is receiving from me. He is uncertain and nervous and looking for the physical reassurance of mine and my families presence. Right now he has come to sit under the seat I am sitting in to write in the sunny garden, looking up at me with his piercing blue eyes.
We have been trying to walk together over the past few days, the lead the umbilical cord between us. When he pulls to go his own way I stand still and keep the tension without yanking and when he moves back toward me, breaking the leads tension, I praise him with real emotion. It is a long process, it can take ages to get around the field, but the eye contact builds and the calmness I have to find inside my self travels down the lead to Arthur, any frustration or anger also goes across the lead’s conduit. He sees a horse and is spooked, his tension comes up the lead as a pull, I stand firm and assure him it is safe. It is going to take a huge amount of patience on both out parts to find this relationship of animal trust and mutuality but I think it might be worth it for both of us.
Your story reminded me of that line in Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Thanks for opening the door and inviting me in to that place where you and Arthur are finding each other.
I guess I should be apologetic for taking you in on my little snake joke, but watching you run up that hill was simply hisssterical! Love you, my friend!