In my last post I was thinking about our observation of the world about us, and the other beings in it. Here I want to consider how this noticing is shaped by the bodies we inhabit.
In the photo above, taken in a Scottish winter, the dogs are ahead of me on the forest path. They are listening intently, their ears held erect and swivelling to hone in on interesting sounds in the thick of the trees. While I am noticing the way the winter sun lights up the snowy path, and thickens the darkness of the surrounding forest, they are noticing the presence of other creatures within its dense growth. As usual on our walks together, they are engaging with this place differently from me, using senses that are common to all us mammals, but differently attuned Watching them respond to the world makes me aware of my own human-ness.
Wittgenstein said: ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ Other species that dwell on this planet have their own cultures, interests and ways of communicating. But he also said: ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’ This is an example of a context in which we can understand the feelings of others, through their actions. For this philosopher the context drives the communication. Regarding other species, we know the causes of many of our dogs actions because they are part of our daily lives. We share a long history together.
As countless books demonstrate, we know a lot about this particular species, and they know a lot about us humans. Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog’, for example, explores how dogs perceive their worlds and our relationships with them. From childhood, we build up our consciousness of self and other through our interactions. These interactions are not only with other humans, but also with other species and the plants and places we spend time with.
I am in a wood with the dogs and I have stepped to the side of the path and crouched down to look closely at some pale fungi sprouting from a fallen log. The lurcher runs back to look for me. I watch silently as she runs right past me, even though I am in plain sight. I notice that she is looking upwards to a height which I realise is roughly where my eyes are when standing. This unusual direction of her gaze makes visible my upright, two-legged position; how I carry my main sense and communication organs perched on the top of my body. In contrast dogs mainly keep theirs close to the earth that their four limbs are firmly planted on.
Their noticing is led by their noses, jampacked with sensory cells. What makes a walk an aesthetic experience for me is most often what I see – the sunlight dancing on the water, the blue mountains melting into the far horizon. The sharp tang of seaweed and salt water, or the coconut perfume of the gorse flowers may add to my pleasure. For the dogs though, beauty is to be found in a heady mix of fragrances. Potentially edible ones are exciting, maybe leading to a sun-cured rabbit carcass or the remains of a picnic. Places frequented by other dogs are also of great interest to them, and they study the messages splashed onto gate posts and rocks with the same absorption as my contemplation of a graceful tree, or bank of bluebells.
As we walked along the river one day I glanced up the wooded slope to the right of the path. Half way up, amongst the young saplings, my eyes slowly focussed on a motionless deer, almost blending into the dappled shade. I then made out two more nearby, as immobile as statues. The dogs were just in front of me, noses to the ground, unaware. They discovered the scent trail of the deer some minutes later, by which time the deer had disappeared.
Similarly, in another wood an old fox and I stared at each other for what seemed like a goodly amount of time, plenty enough for me to admire his red pelt and bushy tail. I don’t know what he was thinking about me. This silent interaction was abruptly terminated by the dogs rushing back down the path, ears and tails up, their noses now full of his particularly pungent perfume. The fox made a quick exit through the undergrowth. Dogs need movement to trigger their visual attention, whether they are looking for their human friend, or for the opportunity for the kind of chase that lies deep within their bones.
We humans also have in our minds imagination and language, through which we can enter into other consciousness, to amplify our perception of this world We use these for creative purposes as I said in the last post. We are also slowly discovering that other species too have complex communication systems and creativity. Sharing our time with other species can remind us that we are embodied beings too.