About a week ago, my husband and I were walking Phoebe, my mostly-Australian-Cattle-Dog, on our daily three-mile morning walk. Because I’m a dog trainer and canine ethologist on the side, these walks are usually cluttered with miniature training sessions and my many theories about dog behavior, which both man and dog patiently tolerate.
There are stretches of this beautiful woodland walk that present some challenges in the form of roving bands of outlaw squirrels. They don’t bother me, particularly, but they transform my sweet intelligent girl into a somewhat different dog (namely, a barking maniac berserker) for the twenty seconds or so it takes me to move her along and regain her attention with a bit of treat.
As part of her cattle dog breeding, Phoebe is genetically disinclined to bark, so when she needs to express her towering squirrel-based rage it comes out sounding like an infernal cross between a veldt hyena and one of her dingo ancestors, as if a purely doggish expression of barking were not sufficient to the offense of squirrelness. It’s really impressive. Fortunately, she does not stay aroused long and the walk proceeds calmly after.
The squirrels generally stay at some distance from us, but this particular morning’s squirrel not only crossed paths right in front of our noses, but actually paused on the way to give us a disdainful little tail-twitch before lighting onto a tree and disappearing round the other side.
Phoebe’s fury had no bounds at this cheekiness and she let loose with her helldog barking with a vigor I’d never heard before. As this level of excitement in a dog presents no training opportunity whatsoever, we simply hustled her past the site of the transgression, stifled our laughter (because however funny she sounds, it never does to laugh at your dog) and kept walking.
When the noise and her temper quieted I commented: “I really wish I knew what goes through her head whenever she sees a squirrel. It seems like it’s something deeply personal.” And then proceeded to meander into dog theories about stalk-chase-catch-bite instincts and prey drive, while my husband lapsed into a thoughtful silence. (Which he does, often. Especially when I go on.)
During a pause he said, “I know what it is.” And he told me the following tale.
Long, long ago, before there were humans, it was the tribe of Dog that had clever hands and thumbs, and the gift of speech and the wisdom that accompanies it. They lived in peace with their neighbors, the clever tribe of Monkey and the sly tribe of Squirrel, though they trusted neither. One year, the tribe of Dog ran short of food, and the chief of the Squirrels came down from the trees, saying, “We have many caches stored against the long winters. We will share with you, and, one day, when we are hungry, you will do the same for us.”
Now, the chief of the tribe of Dog mistrusted the Squirrels, for they were known to be a tricksy folk. But his people were very hungry, and so, against his better judgment, he agreed. The Squirrels brought great stores of acorns and berries and the tribes feasted together until every one of the Dogs was too full of Squirrel-food to remain awake. While they were sleeping heavily, the chief of the Squirrels stole both the Dogs’ gift of speech and their clever hands from them, and hid them away in a secret place in the trees. He knew that the wrath of Dog would be terrible if the Squirrels were found with the stolen gifts.
But the tribe of Dog was not tricked, and when they woke they guessed at once who had been the authors of their misfortune. But lacking their clever hands, the Dogs could no longer climb into the trees after the Squirrels. Lacking speech, they could no longer pass on their knowledge and wisdom to other Dogs. Hence they could take no revenge. The Squirrels, seeing the futile anger of the Dogs, chittered their laughter and scampered off to retrieve their spoils. But they were too late, for the tribe of Monkey had found them while the Squirrels were away and taken the gift of speech for themselves – for they had clever hands already, and had no need to take them as well.
So it happened that the Squirrels gained their clever paws. But the tribe of Dog does not forget, and strives to this day to avenge the theft of their birthright. And thus it is that Dog follows close by Monkey (who of course became Man) in the hope that one day, if they serve faithfully, they may be given back what was stolen from them so many years past.
(Many thanks to my publicity-averse husband for putting this oral tradition to the written word for today’s prompt.)
I can think of no better way to illustrate that no matter how civilized we get, no matter our science or our dexterity of thumbs and minds, humans are at heart storytelling creatures. We build elaborate structures around the serious matters of our lives so that we feel we have an understanding of the world we live in. We also invent tales jokingly, lightly, to fill the void of space around even our most mundane mysteries. We need to tell these stories and something deep in us needs to hear them.
And now, every time Dog and Squirrel cross, I think of their ancient tribal enmity at the same time I invent strategies for managing Phoebe’s behavior. Any frustration of mine is tempered with compassion, and my husband has made a good running joke that binds us all.
The poem is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life. – Robert Penn Warren
For today’s poem, remember and reclaim your ancient ability to mythologize. Choose one of the daily little mysteries of your life (or a large and singular one) and explain it as a myth. Try researching a few creation myths online to get yourself in the mood.