Sam is quite the creature, certainly unlike most dogs I know, maybe unlike any animal I know—a sleek body, built for running, long elegant legs, but what stands out the most and is more striking than anything else are those astonishing eyes, big and round; the deep color of the irises and the porcelain white sclera. And those coal black eyelashes? So long and eloquent, delicately curling upward, as if tempting you to touch them. And when Sam is alerted to something, when interest captures, her lashes twitch, acting like the farmer’s forked tree branch, the dowsing stick, signaling discovery.
On this evening Sam is discovering squirrels.
It’s not her first time, of course. I don’t mean to imply Sam is new to squirrels. But the tree climbers are everywhere along our walk tonight. Rabbits, too. The temperature has dipped, humidity is down, so maybe that’s the reason they are bustling about—scurrying up trees, ducking in and out of hedges, hopping over curbs to dash across the street. Or maybe it’s the season. Late August. Fall is close. It’s time for creatures to prepare. It’s time to get back to work.
I’ve returned to work, too. The sabbatical is over and the college calls. I’m okay with that. I’ve had a productive and restorative stretch—a book has been released, an audio book complete, a new manuscript sold, I’ve written some music, something I haven’t done in a long time. Students will be back in the classroom in two weeks. So, I scurry, too, like the squirrels.
After being at the college all day today, Sam and I need some time together. An evening walk will do me good, as my stomach again has been touchy with off and on grumbling and mild queasiness. I told the doctor that sometimes walking helps. He still wants to do a colonoscopy, so there’s that. Also, Leslie and I had been dog sitting Franco, my son’s dog, for a few days. Sam and Franco get along, but Sam is clearly the beta not the alpha of the twosome. So, now, she needs some singular attention. A walk with me would be just right, I think. Plus, I would like to believe she missed me today. When I came home, she rushed to the door, carrying in her jaw a red rubber toy bone, a gift for my return.
Sam and I step off in our usual direction, south to the corner and east, but we take the longer route this time, and it is at the turn that we first notice the squirrels and rabbits—one after another, pairs of them, sometimes. This is where Sam’s attention quickly shifts from me to these creatures. I wonder what she sees, thinks. She, like all dogs, hears and smells more than I ever will. What is it that truly interests her here, the squirrels or the dream of chasing one? And an even deeper question: are there desires bigger than squirrels? Does she have aspirations? What are they? Does Sam have dreams beyond the obvious?
I’m reading a book, Rising Tide Falling Star, by Philip Hoare. Hoare is an angel of the sea. He lives it, swims in it every day off the coast of Cape Cod or his hometown of Southampton. His story is about communing with the ocean and I love it. When I was a boy I wanted to be an oceanographer. All those Jacque Cousteau shows on television captivated me. That was my dream, to do what Cousteau did. When I was a young man I visited Woods Hole and the Oceanographic Institution and fell more profoundly in love with deep waters. Somewhere that dream faded for reasons I’ll never know. New dreams took over. Has Sam ever had such hopes, such a dream? Does she want to be somebody? Does she know Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Lady from Lady and the Tramp. Does she want to be Marley, Air Bud, a pampered pet from Best in Show? Or is she in the present only, all those squirrels her only concern?
We move close to a tall maple where two squirrels sit together in the crux of dual branches above our heads. Sam watches. She doesn’t bark. Doesn’t lunge toward them. But her ears lift and those lashes twitch. The squirrels have her full attention. It’s a remarkable act, really. Such keen alertness, a level we might never quite understand. It may be one of the reasons dogs fascinate so much, their ability to be so single-minded at a precise moment. And when they focus on us, the master and friend, it is extraordinary.
There was a time when humans worshipped dogs. The Egyptians loved their cats, but dogs, too, had a sacred role in religious art and tradition. The Aztec peoples had burial sites for their dogs. The dog is part of Chinese astrology. And when the patron saint of dogs in the Catholic Church, Saint Rocco caught the plague, as the story goes, and went to the forest to die, it was there that he befriended a stray dog that licked his sores and brought him food. Saint Rocco lived. And to this day in Bolivia, Christians celebrate Saint Rocco and the so-called birthday of dogs on August 16 of each year. Saint Francis of Assisi tamed a wolf, the dog’s ancestor, because he believed, like us, that it was a creature of God. It is then not unreasonable to think dogs were put here for a reason, and far more than chasing squirrels.
It is a lovely night to walk. The angle of the evening sun offers deeper colors, and what the refracted light touches appears more agile, more alive. The large locust tree in the parkway soars higher, the pink azalea in a big pot at a doorstep shimmers, the white lilies along a shaded walkway are more delicate. English ivy clings to the gray bricks of the home near the corner; the greenest growth climbing the highest. The giant evergreen in the yard permits the blue sky to filter through its branches, as if it is sharing its needles with heaven.
Does Sam see any of this? Is she using her amazing attentiveness to see the beauty?
“It’s quite a night, Sam,” I say, admiring the evening, hoping to share it with her somehow. But at the moment, Sam is more interested in other matters. She tugs on the leash to stop me, seeing another squirrel, this one scampering under a large leafy bush between homes. I watch Sam closely. Those eyes, darting, aware, expressive. Human characteristics, of course, but I see them in Sam. I’m interpreting her expression, something many of us do with our dogs. We see the sad face, the happy one; we see fear or anxiousness. Scientists in Finland recently found that humans are just as good at interpreting a dog’s face as we are another person’s. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can put ourselves in our pet’s place like we can with fellow humans. In Sam’s case, I can’t truly understand her interest in squirrels over the beauty of the evening light, but I might be able to tell how she feels. And maybe that is the real reason why dogs are here with us, to share something together, pure and real, beyond the complicated emotions of a human relationship. What does Sam truly see with those eyes of hers? And what do I see in those eyes of hers, below those glorious lashes? Maybe we see the same thing. Maybe Sam is admiring the stunning evening as much as I am, just in a much simpler and authentic way, even when a squirrel snatches her attention. Maybe the answers are all there in the eyes.
At the last turn home, on the opposite street corner, there’s a man walking a little dog, a scrappy thing with wiry gray hair. The two take a short cut across the street. The man and I smile, catching one another’s eyes. I don’t know what the man sees in mine, but in his I see comfortable weariness. He, too, has had a full day, and like me, he walks his dog to come down from the day’s buzz. I can relate, empathize. And the dogs, they pull toward each other. We allow them to sniff noses for a moment, and they, too, look briefly into each other’s eyes, Sam’s lashes twitch, and the two of them share something beyond squirrels, beyond what mere humans might ever know.