Lola, our five year old golden retriever, died yesterday. She was a chubby little thing and we took a walk in the too-hot midday sun. While it was a walk we had taken many times before, this time she could not catch her breath and we were not near enough to cooling water. I carried her, tried to revive her, but I was unable to help. She tried, she died. Hopefully, I will one day be able to stop second guessing myself because I loved Lola . She loved everybody. Her physical absence is today excruciating.
I wrote an article for the emailed version of “The First Morning” in October of 2006. I reprint it today because I am unable right now to write what I will write later about Lola.
Lola is our three year old yellow Lab. She is sweet in every sense of that word which humans overuse when they’re talking about their pets. She will fetch, over and over, any ball that fits into her mouth, until she is exhausted from running. At almost 80 pounds, she still stands by the chair I’m sitting in waiting for me to pat my lap as a signal to her to “crawl on up here.”
Last night, I was outside, it was about 10:00. I was reading and Lola was sitting beside me, her head resting on my knee. As happens once in a while, in a field across the highway, about ¾ of a mile from our backyard, a pack of coyotes began howling and barking. Now that’s always a remarkable sound, which usually goes on for several minutes. Perhaps a hunt has been consummated, maybe females are being called, or some danger is near. Whatever the cause, it is a sound of wildness that calls to my imagination.
And this night, Lola heard that call, too. She left my side when it began and walked to the middle of the yard and sat down, her attention fully focused in the direction of the coyotes’ howls and barks. She was alert, but relaxed- not tense and on edge the way a noisy truck on “her” street causes her to be. She was so relaxed, as the coyote chorus continued, that she laid down sphinx-like, very still and totally concentrating on the not-so-faraway sounds.
What was she hearing? This was a sound from far beyond the normal barking she hears when we take our dogs on walks and dachshunds, pit bulls, or other retrievers bark at our trespassing. Nor did Lola react to the sounds of these coyotes like she does when dogs behind fences bark at us on our walks. Fence-barkers are reacted to by Lola with much false bravado and silly gnashing of teeth. Lola is pretty much a sissy, though, and runs the other way if she perceives in any way that the fence protecting her has a weak link somewhere.
As I watched Lola listening to the coyotes, I believe I was watching her responding to the eons of DNA wound through every one of her bodily cells. Retrievers, as a breed of dog, have only been around for several hundred years. But they, like every Chihuahua, Great Dane, Pit Bull, and new little Foo-Foo of the month, have ancient common ancestors among the wolves of Northern Europe and Asia, and more recent ancestral cousins among the dingoes of Australia and the coyotes of North America. I think; no, I know, that Lola was hearing a real call of the wild. It was a call to the wild in her that she has, through breeding and spoiling, no idea how to respond to. But she can hear it. She can feel it.
When the barking and howling stopped, Lola sat back up. She looked back at me, as her ‘real world’ was coming back into focus. I went over and hugged and ‘talked dog’ to her. It just felt to me- maybe I’m making all this up, but I don’t think so- it felt to me like there was a longing in Lola that could never, would never, be able to be expressed. The life of the pack, as her 1000X great-grandmothers knew that pack life, will never be part of Lola’s experience. But I could see that some deep and real genetic chord in her had been sounded. And she had enjoyed it.
I often wonder how many of those ancient and genetically ripe moments catch our own human attentions. Most people respond to the seashore in ways which cause them to describe it as “beautiful” or “awesome.” But those words, they also know, even as they are saying them, do little to describe what the ocean is really making them feel. That feeling is the real response to the ancient, genetically sensitive, call which the ocean makes on most people.
Most, but not all. While significant and numerous communities of humans lived over hundreds of generations by ocean shores, their DNA codes being sculpted by the foods, winds, and climates there, there were other communities with ancient histories living inland. Some people today are affected by mountains or deep forests in the same way as others are affected by the oceans. Some communities, many of them around the world, never left the base of the mountains where life-giving streams full of fish and clams were present. Others hunted and gathered in the forests and the edges of forests. Their present day descendents might feel their calls to the wild in the scent of pine, the taste of wild onions, or, in ways very different from the way Lola heard them, the howls of wolves, dingoes, or coyotes. (“Run!”)
Something which all humans in all places seem to share is a fascination with fire. In a shared setting especially, where the fire is purposefully built and controlled, the fire-fascination of people is that same kind of fascination which comes from beyond words, beyond the need for language. Fire, shared and communal, is always quieting, always a cause for reflection and wonder. It is settling. That kind of shared, life-enhancing fire is something which the majority of persons in everyone’s family trees depended on, gathered around, slept near, and were made warm by. Our genetic, human DNA was shaped by that warmth; it is not serendipity or even mere coincidence that we are, as humans, attracted to it. It is inevitable. We can’t stay away from it.
On beyond the campfires, mountain streams, forest glens, ocean waves, and calls of the coyote, there is another even more ancient and powerful call. All humans have that call in common, too. The Apostle Paul said that even the trees and rocks hear it. I’ll write about that call later in the week.