Any dog will tell you: seeing eyes are not the most critical of sensory input, even if dog-eyes do the seeing for some humans.
The nose, though. Critical. They say a dog who stops to sniff a pole or patch of other dogs’ pee is equivalent to a human reading the New York Times. Just so much information, so many stories! Stories they read with their noses and feel with their bodies. (And that’s just from pee.)
I see leashed humans in a hurry, tugging a dog away from those stories. Sometimes I mention the New York Times of it, in case they don’t realize. Often enough, this doesn’t register with the humans. They’re late for work, or think I’m making an absurd equivalence.
If I ever managed to become a dog, I would sure hope I’d be granted some leisure to drink in news of the day, from my neighbors’ comments section on the corner.
On our first visit to my uncle Jim’s A-frame cottage in Delaware, Caddy Compson could not be coaxed away from the floorboards of his side porch. (I could see, hear, smell nothing.) Turns out Jim housed squatters underneath, a multi-generational family of mice or rats. He thanked Caddy for her heads-/nose-up. Like all dogs, she was a genius.
In the woods, you’ll see a dog’s body tense and count down toward ignition. Meanwhile the nose reads, interprets.
You can feel that animal’s tingle and thrum through your own animal body, cell by cell – you are both, so right there, alive. But you, oh human. You are wondering what is happening. You have to guess at the short-story of it.
Is it a fox, raccoon, fawn, woodcock? A story imperceptible to you, but whose essence and detail rustled up from leaves and dirt and reached out (to another animal's nose-brain). If the tensed dog is off-leash, you will see that body launch, in pursuit of the story. (Don’t worry, smaller creatures are geniuses of evasion in their own right.)
I feel blind, near any dog, blind in the nose. Not like my maternal grandmother’s acquired blindness in her late 40s (Part 1 post), but, blind since birth.
(Pop Quiz! I was curious, and did some sleuthing. OKAY: of the following well-known people with blindness, who was born that way, vs. becoming blind after seeing for some period of time: Stevie Wonder; Ray Charles; Helen Keller; Andrea Bocelli; Doc Watson; Jose Feliciano; Jeff Healey?
Hint: Only one of the above was born that way. The others acquired that condition by trauma, disease or treatment for another condition. I was surprised, too. Answer at end of post.)
Meanwhile, toward living as a dog, my other senses don’t compensate. Unless I see a fox with my eyes, I won’t even know it’s near.
That’s not completely true. If a fox is darting alongside, some yards away and behind logs parallel to my path, but keeping both eyes on me, during spatial breaks in those logs, I might sense being stared at. As a human animal, I have that Spidey-sense of being looked at. (If you’re not familiar with the work of Rupert Sheldrake and ‘morphic fields,’ it’s fascinating.) I need to research whether being stared at by a non-human animal is considered sense-able, through the same, deep (amygdala) part of our brain.
In any case, I’m going with my body’s tingle and thrum from a fox’s eyes, in the woods. I have learned to trust my body’s thrum, shout, flicker, internal caress, from my deepest self. That part of my self has never led me astray.
Still, vision remains, for better or worse, my critical human sensory input. Even having grown up with a maternal grandmother who would have to ask, at the Thanksgiving table: “Is my pie gone?”
Periodically, wonder which humans are looking at the world through Page’s eyes, and where are they, exactly?
When your loved one, who endured 5 different cancers (not metastases), finally succumbs to her 5th cancer (lung), you’ll take heart, such as you can. Take heart that her corneas remained viable for organ donation.
My sister-in-law had so hoped to be an organ donor, in spite of her 3 decades of ordeals and fears and treatments and various -ectomies.
(No, all that is so not ‘fair’ in any sense. Yet, to have hope against hope that some part of her could become an organ donor? She was extraordinary in so many ways.)
And. She became a donor. Two lucky humans now walk around, looking at trees and dogs and gardens and beloveds, through Page’s stunning clear-blue eyes, when those humans might not be seeing anything, without them.
I wish I could have communicated to Sierra, their rescued mutt, that triumph of her human mama’s life – cells, spirit, organs, gifts. Sierra grieved Page along with my brother and their 3 young daughters. I don’t mean to take away the profound loss of Page’s presence to her human father Tom, brother Jim, husband Bill, daughters Sofia, Tess and Rosie, all us dozens of named in-laws, and her family-through-the-Universe of whom there are so many.
I just mean not to forget or exclude her animal family. Sierra, whose sensory life flourished in her own way, and no less meaningfully.
As the years followed Page's death, Sofia went off to college in the Bay Area, Tess moved out to live with friends, and Rosie socialized out of the house through middle- and high-school. Whenever any of the girls came home - especially after weeks or months away - her ecstasy knew no gravity, no borders. She lost her mind with joy.
(Not so different from how their Tia Mary reacts to see any of her 7 nieces and nephews. Which may be my point!)
Dogs work hard for our human health and well-being. Some make to-do lists every day (1. lick my people; 2. patrol for possible intruders; 3. sit nicely right there, maybe even lay my head on a knee, when they’re eating at the table).
They work hard, well beyond our serotonin and joy from their companionship, their furry-warm physical touch, their sometimes hilarious behavior. (Remind me to tell you about Caddy’s fur-ball toy, which only became attractive to her when we had human company over. Then her fur-ball became undeniably, erogenously attractive and, well, interactive.)
Well beyond the obvious bonds, dogs are excellent diagnosticians.
You might know all this, but it’s worth acknowledging: a dog’s nose can detect the suite of chemicals that signal an epileptic seizure through a human’s exhale, nearly an hour before that seizure; can register the odor of dangerous swings of blood-sugar in a person with diabetes; anticipate spikes in cortisol or blood-pressure in those with PTSD – even interrupt a night terror or panic attack. Dogs can smell many types of cancer – not just at the skin’s surface, like a melanoma, but also through our breath or urine or poop or sweat (breast, lung, bladder, colon) -- as well as COVID-19.
Page’s fatal lung cancer (at just-turned-49, and a never-smoker) was likely a lurking secret to everyone but Sierra. She must have known that her constant living-room companion, her beloved, teleworking Mama was growing sicker, before any of the humans, including Page herself and all those bio-medically trained, knew.
Page had told me that, whenever the two of them were home alone, Sierra set aside her endless to-do list, primarily patrolling the backyard fence, barking away all manner of snakes, lizards, coyotes and rabbits. (Sierra slayed a rattlesnake on their patio. I mention this only because way more dogs die every year from rattlesnake venom than rattlesnakes die of a dog’s defensive tactics.)
Instead, Sierra would come and sit at Page’s feet while she worked away on her laptop. Page whispered this, even though no one else was home to hear it. I loved that; this other ‘inside job’ of Sierra’s was clearly a secret. When my brother got home from teaching, or their girls got home from school? It was back to patrolling the back fence and barking at lizards and rabbits.
After Page died, her youngest daughter Rosie described how heartbroken she felt for Sierra, now the saddest dog on earth. The whole house was grieving its way through such profound loss and upheaval. Rather than run along the fence, Sierra would sit for hours on the floor in front of the sofa, where she used to put her head on Page’s feet. From my house, 3000 miles away, I still wonder how long Page’s unique scent remained for Sierra, as the months and years passed.
From my house 3000 miles away, along with holiday or birthday gifts for the humans, I would always include a surprise for Sierra. She was not a dog motivated much by food (like Caddy was) but rather by touch. Her instinct was to jump up to a full-body hug when you walked in the front door. They had trained her to drop onto her back, to beg for a belly-rub. She would fling herself onto her back as many times as this worked, for any hand to reach out and rub.
Motivated by frequent touch, less by taste, and, like all dogs, by smell. So.
I’ve never told my San Diego brother or nieces, but this seems a good time to confess:
before I would mail off a new furry toy for Sierra, I would sleep with it for a few nights. Just tuck it down inside the sheets, or inside the front of my night-shirt, to absorb whatever uniquely smells like me, while I slept. Since I deal with hormonal plunges and surges, sweats by hot-flash could seal the fleshy deal right into that squeaky hedgehog or duck-with-fur, without my even being aware.
After those few nights, I’d seal the toy in a Ziploc bag to hold my Tia Mary scent, and ship it off along with the humans’ gifts.
This felt important, to make sure Sierra knew I was thinking about her, even if she couldn’t see or touch me. I wanted her to know I loved her and thought about her, through that toy's story. A surprise, from the visiting Tia who – whenever she visits with her turquoise suitcase that smells like airplane-cargo-but-what's-an-airplane? -- takes her for really long walks. The Tia who, because she is on vacation when she visits, lets her stop to smell all the stories, in the neighborhood and well beyond, down the canyon-road hills, before she and that suitcase roll away again.
My brother would send videos of Sierra seizing those new toys in her mouth, then rushing to hide under the dining-room table. Some days later she would bury the toy in the backyard, I guess to keep it safe.
She got it -- the story I was trying to tell her. (Hi, Bill! Thanks for subscribing, and for sending those Tia M gift videos.)
Something told me, in September of 2020, to send a slept-in furry toy early, along with my brother's birthday box. They could only guess how old she was, as a rescue of likely Shepherd mix, likely Belgian rather than German, from her shorter legs.
There were no health issues at the time, nothing to concern a faraway Tia. I just decided to get her a new one, give it my standard bed-time, and tape up the box for both Bill and Sierra.
Her health took a sudden downturn in November, and she made it clear on her last day that this would be her last day. Dogs will often tell you 'This is it for me.' I'm so glad for the something, that told me not to wait until Christmas.
I wonder sometimes, if we could smell as well as a dog, or even close to it, would we know before they cried in pain, or started breathing agonally? Would we work out hospice-care settings or services? Train and certify animal death-doulas?
Our noses just don't have the intelligence, and for now, at least, the nose has it, if you want to live dog-ward (while still breathing through human lung cells).
If dogs have “languages of love,” along with Physical Touch and Receiving Gifts (like squeaky toys or chunks of steak), they might all add Enough Time for Smelling Things. We are all readers of stories, in our ways.
Humans like me are slow to understand.
Caddy never forgave me, when I finally replaced my old sofa in my condo. First, the old one had a lower height and profile, so as her joints aged, she could still jump up and settle in, next to me. The old one also held all the Muffin and Bob of it, plus strange people before (sofa was a thrift-store find). Then I ‘upgraded’ to a sleep sofa from Ikea, to accommodate guests (like Tia Judy from Richmond). I hadn’t appreciated that impact.
Belated apologies, spirit-of-Caddy, for not understanding what the old one had meant to you. I tried to keep rubbing your back and patting your head, even though you spurned that new sofa and sat at my feet on the floor, instead.
For me, it feels worth thinking about, more and more: how downright sense-less we can be, no matter “dominion” over a planet. (Do we really need an evolving virus to convince us we might not be the dominant species? Maybe we do. Happy ’22.)
Couldn’t our very assumption of dominion have sent us plunging in a “fall” from grace? The grace we’d been graciously graced with for millennia, as one species of great ape on this humble, watery planet? We humans who managed to make skyscrapers and rocket-ships and otherwise detach from our graceful planet? So all our separations, our lift-offs, could actually be a continuation of our ‘fall’?
Or our saving graces? I am None the Wiser, here.
Might well digress. Here is a thing I’ve learned: A dog’s tongue has only ¼ of the taste receptors of a human’s, but their vomeronasal organs are active, while ours are vestigial. The tip of Caddy’s tongue had receptors dedicated to distinguishing varieties and conditions of water. If you blindfolded me for a taste-test between sips of freshly Brita-filtered water vs. Brita-filtered 4 hours ago? Human-animal Fail. You’d have to squeeze lemon-peel into one sample, or make one a seltzer, I think, for me to distinguish most waters from other waters.
(That said, the natural spring-water that Sofia and I collected at Red Rock/Stinson Beach last summer? Gotta say that water tasted fantastic -- filtered through natural minerals and deserving of all the tokens and trinkets of gratitude we saw. Maybe thirsty patrons are to this site as I was to Sierra, compelled to gift something touchable.)
Foodwise, even with a blunter food palate, some dogs do have bottomless appetites. I read recently about a dog gene called pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) that disrupts the signal of tummy-fullness in their brains.
The gene is common in Labrador-retrievers and some other breeds. More likely if they’ve been trained as service-animals (thus reward-based). Bosco, my brother’s family Lab (before Sierra), and wood-cocker Caddy, they sure enjoyed their (human-shared) food.
POMC gene aside, Caddy may have been a gourmand, a foodie before the term hit cable TV. Or, she was just bored after years of a careful, simple diet of “crunchies” (Hill’s Science Diet), and wanted more variety. She and I met when she was already 9 years old and enduring a "bland diet," so she first knew me as the Woman with All the Boiled Chicken and Potatoes, per her Dr. Lemke. From then on, I’d try to mix some broccoli or cottage cheese or salmon into her crunchies.
And as her years advanced to 15, 16, 17, I’d always bring home a morsel from dinner out, wrapped and tucked into my left pocket. The minute the front-door cracked open she’d jump up to smell that pocket. Why not enrich her remaining time (and appetite) with a surprise of some exotic scent and taste?
Big thanks for how important Caddy’s long-restricted calorie intake was – by way of her original mama’s (Bob’s mother Frances') simple daily bowl – for her long-lived, athletic life. Her jump-start for a longer life will always be a gift to me, who met Caddy after half her life had passed. Frances died in 1999, when Caddy was 9 years old but much younger, physiologically. Any vet we went to mentioned how she moved, looked, lab-tested "half her age."
Another note about animal grief: Bob and Esther told me that after Frances was buried and the cemetery workers indicated ‘time to go now,’ Caddy had other plans. She turned around and walked back toward the fresh dirt and lay down in the grass.
She was not ready to leave Frances quite yet. Needed more time. I can only imagine she wanted to feel that grievous good-bye, to say thanks, to acknowledge their 9 years together and their love for each other.
Caddy “just” needed a few minutes more. Bob and Esther waited for her. Finally, she stood up and walked away from the grave. I will always always always be grateful to them for sharing that part of Frances’ burial.
So after a life-extending restricted diet, at an age when many dogs’ lives would be winding down, Caddy was only halfway through life. Her world still held joys like testing out the depth of a creek with her paw, and barking at an ant for 5 minutes, and sniffing out Mr. Groundhog’s House in the adjacent cemetery to Mary’s house. When I asked, audibly, about Mr. Groundhog, Caddy seemed to understand, and veered off toward his known den.
(A photographer with all kinds of spaniels in his studio – cocker, springer, boykin, clumber – told me they have “a toddler’s vocabulary, like 300 words.” I believe it, having known the Caddy of the spaniels. Whom he welcomed into his studio as well.)
Her world still held joys like salmon and potatoes and … honeybee lotion?
She learned quickly that my moisturizing lotion smelled infinitely better than it tasted. Sweet honey (Burt’s Bees) heaven. Yet, confoundingly, a heaven that tasted like chemicals with only a smidge of bee! And not worth the smidge, for all the non-bee of it. Her tongue still reflexed out, but, the tongue should never get closer than 1/8” away from my arm or throat. Oh, that tricky honey, one of a big old world of mysteries.
Mysteries like cicadas. Like nothing else she’d ever known! Big-bodied, juicy, slow insects, that emerged from their 17-year slumbers a few years before she died. The surface of her known planet had inexplicably filled with candy. Candy with wings! Yet, miraculously, although winged, also not very competent at flying.
Caddy was less fond of cicada carcasses, or their robust (brief) adulthoods. But the nearly-deads, the ones whose wings sang only every minute or so, and half-heartedly? Their juicy bodies begging to be gobbled?
Hearing that eating them could be harmful to her GI tract, I tried to keep Caddy's mouth away. Her tract seemed to tolerate her appetite for them, though her farts were epically noxious, and her poop looked charred and lumpy. Sometimes I could still see a gorgeous wing in her poop; the wings are translucent, with a stained-glass design.
Have you heard these creatures, in your neighborhood? Their mating-songs measure at jack-hammer decibels. Can you imagine harboring underground for 17 years until the final days of your life, when, finally emerged above ground and able to mate once, you must find a tree to deposit eggs, and promptly die? (Emerged, only to be eaten by a dog, or bird, or windshield, without the one night of sex?)
Many dogs looked annoyed or repulsed by the humming thrum in the grass, with zero interest in eating one. But a certain foodie would tremble with anticipation at the door, and whimper as if her life depended on getting to that thrum.
And as yard-candy are wont to do, they disappeared as quickly as they’d emerged.
Had a little black dog dreamt it all, this Briga-cicadoon? She had not, but she would also not survive for their next emergence in 2021. She died in December of 2007, a few months shy of age 18.
I know the way I talk about Caddy suggests she’s either still here, or died much more recently than 2007.
Both of those suggestions also feel true, for me. What is time, anyway? Or memory?
What is a single cell of life? (“Every cell is made up of two invisible ingredients: awareness and energy,” per Deepak Chopra. Maybe the energy of loving her, within my still-aware cells, can’t possibly die until I do.)
Truth is, I miss all my sweet acquaintances, now gone from the woods – Kimmie, Traveler, Reilly, Nettie – and my neighborhood darlings – Bentley, Billy, Sophie, Waits, Monk. (First time I met Monk, a popular TV show featured a detective by that name. My question for his human was, “Like Thelonius?” He was shocked, yes, that was Monk’s namesake, not the detective. “No one’s ever asked that.” That part was keen and sad, to me.)
Almost all of these friends, at curbside or in some quiet woods, first lick your hand, arm, leg or face (if you bend down) or shove their noses into your mittens, if not your crotch.
The dog in me licks the dog in you, if you let me.
Just yesterday I met a sleek, young dog, white with with tan spots and tan, floppy ears. “Columbo, but we call him Bubba.”
Bubba walked right into my crotch. Again, the humans were mortified. I felt well-met.
I’ll have to save Daisy, the brindle-coated Lab, for a part 3. She is in a class by herself, in this regard.
Here’s to the sensuous thrum and sweat of having cells at all, with awareness, energy, memory, and attachment.
Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned,
Oh gosh, your Pop Quiz! Of course: of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Helen Keller, Andrea Bocelli, Doc Watson, Jose Feliciano and Jeff Healey? Only Jose Feliciano had been blind since birth. The others had some time (days, weeks, years) for seeing, before losing their vision, like my grandmother (Alta, from Alter Ego) Lois had, into her late 40s.
I was surprised by this answer, as I sleuthed about each person in turn. And those are just the first people who came to mind. Anyway, thanks for playing.