The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Postscript to the Death of Una

Not all dogs possess such intuitive powers of comprehension

Una – my German shepherd, Collie, and Golden retriever mix – of whose death I wrote about in my last blog post, was a very special kind of dog; not all dogs possess such intuitive powers of comprehension or such gentle and trusting personalities as did Una. It is difficult to rationally account for the devotion that can develop between dog and man; yet I have no doubt that it represents a particularly compelling form of love – a love no less consuming and meaningful as that experienced between human beings. (In my last book – What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To? – I was granted permission to reproduce one of the most moving tributes ever paid to a dog by his owner: a poem entitled The House Dog’s Grave by the great American poet Robinson Jeffers. Visitors to Jeffers’ home in Carmel, California – now a private museum - will find the graves’ headstone right beside the front door as they enter the house.)

The distinguished anthropologist, the Abbé Henri Breuil, used the term ‘participation mystique’ when discussing the empathic link between animals and humans – thus implying a shared recognition of some vital spirit force held in common: an intuitive feeling which he considered was responsible for Paleolithic cave art.

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Well... readers of my most recent blog, telling of the death of my dog Una, may perhaps understand what the Abbé was getting at – and may not be too surprised to learn of the serendipitous chain of events that occurred some six weeks after Una’s death.

I was visiting my daughter in her office at work and she was showing me how to view dogs for adoption on the computer – although I was not seriously looking for another dog at that time. It was much too soon after losing Una. But I was on my way out – just through the door – when she called, “Dad, come and look at this!” And there, the last image on her screen, appearing just as she was about to close the computer down, was the most startling image of Una, head down, slightly to one side, staring contemplatively at the ground… a pose she adopted regularly in her role of ‘philosopher dog’. It was, truly, uncanny: absolutely Una’s ‘double’. The dog was male; had been rescued from a ‘kill’ shelter in upper New York State by an animal-loving couple who regularly saved such dogs, and then offered by them for adoption on their website which – it turned out – was unintentionally brought up by my daughter.

A quick telephone call, and it was arranged I should collect him the following day, and after a five hour drive, there he was: a fraction smaller overall than Una, otherwise a complete replica. (Some two years old it was thought.) I slept that night at Jim & Lisa’s house with ‘Ginger’ – as he was then called – in the bedroom; woke up frequently to find him always sitting upright by the bed staring intently at me. He wildly resisted being put into the car for the journey back to Connecticut, and had to be held (trembling all the way) by Patricia in the rear seat. He grew calmer as we got closer to home and we actually got a tail wag out of him when we reached the house. Now he appeared to be much more relaxed, and after sniffing around for a moment or so, made straight for the hole beneath the rhododendron bushes, dug out by Una some summers ago, and settled himself in.

From that moment it seemed he took up where Una left off, sitting out on the deck surveying the driveway. Regular visitors – like the postman, for example – thought they were hallucinating, so extraordinary was the resemblance. On his second day he turned up at my office across the driveway for his walks exactly on time – morning, 11 a.m., afternoon at 4. p.m. – during which he always took the lead and followed Una’s old route, turning back after one mile at the top of the hill and heading for home. In the house his routine – lying in certain rooms according to the time of day - followed the pattern established by Una. Up to this point we had used his ‘kennel’ name, Ginger. No more. We renamed him Gabriel after the messenger Archangel Gabriel, the Herald of Good News. He took to it very quickly.

But the strangest thing about all this was on the first occasion he travelled across the country in the car with us from Connecticut to Arizona – where we go annually to escape winter in the East. Una had done this trip on the backseat of the car (five days) over 13 times and always, when we turned off the main road after coming down the canyon from Flagstaff – onto the small road leading into the desert where our house was situated – she would get up on the back seat and make little throaty barks.

A “Here we are again…” kind of comment.

And Gabriel, on his very first cross-country journey – never having been out of the Northeast before – did exactly the same thing. The light on the main road down from the canyon turned green. We turned left into the desert. Gabriel stood up on the back seat and, with a sho rt series of strangled barks, announced his arrival.       

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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