Doug Bruns

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Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Gravity Probe B

Einstein (1879-1955) was vindicated about seven years ago. That was when Gravity Probe B, one of Nasa’s satellites, confirmed “to a precision of better than 1 per cent the assertion Einstein made 90 years ago – that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time.” (NASA) Imagine a tarp stretched tight, suspended with bungee cords; then imagine dropping a basketball on the tarp. The tarp will sag under the ball and eventually it will come to rest in the middle of the tarp. Drop a marble on the tarp and it will speed to the basketball. This is called the Geodetic Effect and is what Einstein predicted happens with space and time. The basketball represents gravity, as a planet might manifest; the sagging tarp the fabric of space-time. Indeed, time and space bend.

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Despite the assertion fronted by certain family members (you know who you are), I do not believe (entirely) that the gravity of my existence bends my environmental reality. But…

As my parents warned, life (read: time) appears to be accelerating. Years come and go–flash, bang, and suddenly another day has passed, a year escaped, a decade expired before I can blink my eyes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) famously said, “No man [or woman, presumably] ever steps in the same river twice.” His work, On Nature, does not survive, and everything we know about him we glean from fragments mentioned by other philosophers, principally Diogenes and Plato (who gives us the “river” metaphor). We must be thankful for that, at least.

The flow of existence feels (to me) to be bending time. The older I get the more the bend. The basketball seems to rest deeper into the tarp. Have you ever stood in a river when upstream water is released from a dam? I have. You don’t realize the water flow is increasing until the rush of it is hard upon you. That is aging–we are clueless until it’s mid-thigh and rising, our feet searching for traction. (I realize I’m mixing metaphors here, but hang with me a moment more.)

How does one broach this rushing tide? I turn to the lessons of my dogs. The best of them, those most seemingly, most excitedly alive, existed nose to the ground, curiosity aroused, a trot along the line, working the margins of the harvest. A dog lives a life without shadow; it is a being fully aware, running in the brilliant high-noon sun. Humans cast a shadow and we call it consciousness. Like biography it cannot be escaped. It is the ransom that cannot be paid.

The gist: It seems that the less I am aware of things, the faster the flow. Contrariwise, my dogs appear aware of most everything and completely and totally ignorant of  the bending basketball-gravity of existence.

Here are the things I’m not talking about: transcendence, enlightenment, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, immortality, and all the other limp and ill-fitting clothes we’ve donned over the ages. And what I am talking about? I’ll let you know as soon as Lucy wakes from her nap. We’ll discuss it on our walk.

Dogs

In Dogs, Memoir, Writing on June 5, 2012 at 6:00 am

Lucy

Tim and I got the dogs up early yesterday. We had an 8:00 am bird walk scheduled, but dogs come first.

Tim’s dog, Tanks, is a big and burley pit mix. Lucy is a little terrier mix. Both dogs enjoy the outdoors and giving them a chance to stretch out across a field fills all, human and canine, with joy. There is much about watching a dog run for pleasure that is deeply satisfying.

Lucy is a rescue dog and last summer was our maiden outdoor season. The first adventure found us paddling Moosehead Lake. As we beached the canoe the first evening, Lucy jumped over the gunnel and sprinted into the woods. I didn’t know her well then and did not know what would be her response to unbounded territory. I could hear her running the perimeter of the camp. She returned to my call, but I was concerned that she might bolt if a scent or pursuit triggered her interest. The north woods is a good place to get a person lost. A dog lost is likely good and gone lost. In his beautiful little book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee writes of this area:

“Between Rockwood, Maine (about halfway up Moosehead Lake), and Allagash, Maine (at the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers), there is an area of about five thousand square miles in which is neither a paved nor a public road. What few roads there are “north of the Moosehead” have dirt and gravel surfaces and are travelled by the public, at the public’s risk, courtesy of the paper companies that own the land….most of Maine is in the north woods, reaching embarrassingly far into Canada.”

After that trip I took to putting a harness on her with two small cat bells, the better to track her.

Maggie, the dog before Lucy, was a bird dog and she too loved to explore. She was driven by her nose, but when she got excited she would stop and grow to stone, usually lifting her front paw and leaning into it, the classic bird-dog pose. Lucy does not have the DNA for that and instead rushes lurching into the undergrowth in the apparent hope that whatever is in there will jump out so she can kill it. She is the first terrier of my life and I am studying the breed.

I used to meditate at the edge of the woods. I had a stump for a stool, placed under a hemlock, and sat facing a field. Maggie would join me, sitting on her haunches, also facing the field. We would sit like that, together, unflinching, for half an hour. One evening, as sun was setting, a deer emerged from the woods and proceeded in the open toward us. I sat unmoving. Maggie sat unmoving, though I could discern the twitch of sudden tension in her shoulders. The deer foraged, looked around, chewing, then advanced. In ten minutes–a test of Maggie’s discipline–it stood perhaps thirty yards before us. Maggie was a quivering, but stoney, sculpture. From the corner of my eye I saw her study the deer, yet she waited my direction. Finally, under my breath, I released her– “Go.” It was perhaps not the most meditative response to nature, but Maggie had earned a reward. The deer leapt vertical and bounded away, its white tail flashing as if an obscenity. Maggie did not get close, even though she was a sprinter.

I miss Maggie and still mourn her. But I love Lucy to the point where she sleeps on our bed at our feet. We’ve never allowed that of our dog and I think it portends a new chapter in our blended life, human and dog.

Yesterday

In Camping, Dogs, Life on August 7, 2018 at 11:29 am

Peak One Campground, Frisco, Colorado

Yesterday while working in the campground I rounded a corner and came upon an elderly gentleman being pulled by three small leashed dogs. I’d met him the day before. His wife had eventually tugged at his elbow, saying, “Enough already, let the man go do his work.” He seemed lonely, though I only thought it because he liked to talk. This morning his wife was not present, only the man and his dogs. I said hello and we talked about dogs for a few minutes. One dog, a white terrier, feisty and keen, was the focus of his comments. As he talked the three leashes became intertwined but the man didn’t seem to notice. The terrier had been his daughter’s dog, he said. She got him when she learned she had breast cancer. She wanted the companionship. The man talked without emotion, in that way people from Kansas do. The flatness of his voice settled on me in emotional way. I began to tear up.  “She told me she wanted me to raise him if she didn’t make it.” We’d had a rain the night before and the tacky aroma of pine was suddenly apparent. I was wearing a jacket, it being cold. I took off my glasses and wiped my tears. The little white terrier was busy sniffing the edge of my boot, likely picking up Lucy’s scent–Lucy, waiting patiently for my return down the hill and across the campground.

Merry Christmas, Friends

In Dogs, Memoir, Travel on December 25, 2016 at 7:56 pm

There was a surprising number of people at the trailhead this Christmas morning. Some of them wished me a Merry Christmas, which I returned. A few simply nodded and smiled. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and clear. Yesterday’s rain in the valley dropped as snow in the Catalina’s in front of me. These are rugged mountains, not particularly tall, but jagged and naked. Over the ridge is a Bighorn sheep refuge and dogs are not allowed. So Lucy and I kept just shy of that. I had her tethered to me by a rope I’d stowed in the truck. I’ve kept her leashed in this manner since coyotes paraded through camp two days ago, heads down, eyes glancing here and there, totally insolent and bold. It’s a long rope and she gets to sprint every so often, as is her nature, while I have the comfort of keeping her safe. A month or two ago, it was in Colorado, I think, she was off leash and lost to my sight when I saw a big eight-point buck come storming out of a little copse of woods down by the water. Lucy was giving chase. She was easy to spot, a little black dog against the white field of snow. The buck wisely headed up hill and Lucy’s short legs soon gave out on her. She has the heart of a giant but the body of a simple dog.

I’ve had dogs all my life and I’ve written about them here plenty. Where it not for my dogs I would probably not have the morning walks. It’s as simple as that. And my morning walks are close to a fashion of prayer for me. I guess, if logic holds, my dogs have been personal prophets, pointing a way, sparking a thought, instilling wonder. Before Lucy was Maggie, and before her, Cleo, and Punkin before that–all assured of my morning attention, thankfully. Emerson said of Thoreau that his thought and writing was in direct proportion to the length of his daily walk. Thoreau himself claimed a need of at least four hours of sauntering. He called it sauntering which I particularly appreciate. He did not need a dog to make him get up and get going, but then he was a different type of human being altogether. Me, I prefer the companionship of my dog. I am never far from the thought that they, my beloved canines, are rushing through life by a factor of seven. Such future sadness is, for me, a motivation to remember each morning and moment.

Two mornings ago I hiked up to ruins left behind by the indigenous people of this valley fifteen hundred years ago. When the sun crested the ridge the plateau came alive. Birds sang around me. The sun suddenly warmed to the point I took off my down jacket. The morning light turned from steel grey to warm amber. I don’t go to church but if I did it would have to be like this, out of doors and without doctrine, pure and undefiled. These people, the ones who existed here, I’m told, had to make multiple trips down to the valley each day to get water and forage for food. I’m sure their existence was hard and my morning ritual would have been lost on them. Modern existence is not without challenges but the rudiments of existence, for most us, have been addressed and for that I am grateful. Merry Christmas, friends.

The Most Simple Existence

In Death, The Examined Life, Wisdom on December 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

Consider the task at hand: purging…again. We moved to Maine six years ago, and in doing so left a 4500 square foot house and seventeen acres in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon. In Maine we gathered no acreage and settled into a condo weighing-in at around 1400 square feet. That was major purging, and it felt good. And now, as we prepare for a nomadic next year, we purge, again. And it feels good again. Come Spring (target date: May 1, 2016) we move into a two hundred (or so) square feet trailer and a truck. But that is not what I want to focus on right now. What I am involved in at this moment is, well, my legacy. You see, I am combing through every item I own, clothing, books, gear, and so forth, and asking: recycle, donate, shred, landfill, or keep? It is this business of “keep” that I want to talk about.

I recycle everything possible. I donate the other stuff, or sell stuff on Craig’s List, and so on. Papers out of date I shred. Leave no trace! But what do I keep, and why do I keep it? That is what I am thinking about. I am thinking about what will be left behind after I die. DIE. Yes, I am thinking about death tonight. Is there any other subject, really?

Consider the box on the floor I filled today. It is a Time Capsule, nothing less. It will go into storage and, probably, sit there for years, then perhaps get moved, unopened, to someplace else, until finally, after I’ve died, one of my children will remark, “Hey, what about that box dad left in storage? What’s in it?” And that, friends, is the state of my mind this evening. Do you ever go there? You will.

I turned sixty years old a couple of months ago and it is just now starting to settle on me. But let’s not get depressed. The fact is, the stuff in this box I’m not purging is good stuff, wonderful stuff. There you will find letters and cards from my children. Years of them! And notes from my bride, who calls me “lovey.” There you will find a few awards and medals from my youth. And pictures of my dogs, our dogs! You know how we love our dogs, Maggie, Lucy-Girl, and the rest.

You’ll also find a box of money. Don’t get excited, not MONEY!, just money. I got into the habit, during all those years of traveling, of bringing home foreign currency and collecting it in a cigar box. There you’ll find my travel resume, as is represented by country and continent. Yuan from China. Sterling from Britain, Pesos from Argentina. Whatever. It is nothing now, nothing but play money for my grandchildren, or perhaps great-grandchildren, the family historians.

I think the most pure existence is to be found in the most simple existence. There is elegance to that, like a beautiful equation, or a line perfectly drawn on rice paper. The alms bowl begging monk has his own challenging complexities: where will I find my next meal? And, conversely, the corporate CEO abruptly wakes one morning to realize that the things she has accumulated, the things she thought she owned, now own her, including the shareholders. Somewhere in the middle one finds the sweet spot.

And where is that, exactly, that sweet middle way? This box I’m filling, the one to be left behind, will it provide a clue? Perhaps, but for me alone. Everyone must find a personal balance, an individual middle way. Nature will bring us to a center, if we allow it, but that release is not easy. Now, I train for it, the middle way, the release–that longing clarity, Camus pined for. I am confident in this journey, a simple pilgrim.

A Ballet of Photons

In Dogs, Life, The Examined Life on November 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm
Sunrise Pano

Sunrise, Casco Bay

The pummeling started at sunrise. I was in my chair, sipping my coffee. I didn’t see it coming, but who would? At 186,000 miles per second, it’s easy to miss. Then it began, rushing across the frozen vacuum of space, at the speed at light, across the Atlantic, caressing the turning curve of earth, dodging the coastal islands of Maine, zipping across Casco Bay, then–bam!–photons of light crashing against the resistance of my cheek, first a trickle, then a cascade. It does not take long, the earth turning to the warmth like a hungry animal chasing prey. Within minutes the room is filled with light, dancing and spinning, a photon ballet for an audience of one. And the day begins.

If language is the bridge between reality and thought, as Wittgenstein claimed, I was rendered mute on this particular morning. This state of attention without the intrusion of cognition is actually quite pleasant, and one I welcome into meditation practice. It is also a state of presence I experience on occasion while working hard, like hiking in the mountains. “What I wish for now,” wrote Camus, late in life, “is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” I’ve been known to study my dogs to try and discern if this is their natural state. It seems to be the case, dogs being pure beings of presence, at least to my mind.

Why is the firing squad mustered at dawn? Why does the raiding party prepare in darkness to raid the enemy at first light? Of the handful of mountains I’ve climbed, the summit was always saved for sunrise. There is magic in the sound of snow crunched below boot in the twilight before dawn. And of course, vampires must return to the coffin before the sun comes up, or they die. Or so goes the legend. There is something extraordinary about the dawn of a new day no matter how you look at it.

My daughter dated a young man for a while who often slept until noon. I found this an affront on nature and my attitude toward him reflected it. He was a decent guy otherwise, though too often he helped himself to too much of my whisky, a lesser offense.

I’ve written often here about my love of morning, so I apologize if I’ve spent too much time on this subject. But here’s the thing: This ballet of photons has been going on for billions of years. It will continue on in this fashion for, presumably, billions more. That I occasionally participate in this cosmic dance never ceases to amaze me. It is Thanksgiving, and this is one of the things I am grateful for.