Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Dogs’


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


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.

Woof, woof. Bark.

In Dogs, Philosophy, Religion, Thinkers on April 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself, sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

The birthday gift.

In Dogs, Happiness, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on March 31, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’ve spent much of my adult life contemplating how best to live. I probably should have been a monk or a philosopher, but I have no appetite for monastic life and lack the systematic intensity of a philosopher. Anyway, today I was planning to write about dogs because I find encouraging clues to answering this question when in their company. For instance, a dog would never ask such a question–how best to live?–which in itself is a refreshing bit of wisdom. Too, they appear to live in the immediate moment; they are present, as we often wish to be present–and yet, they don’t know it. More wisdom in that. Dogs (presumably) don’t have self-awareness and consequently don’t know they’re going to someday die. Where there is no knowledge, there is no angst. Only life, bounding, run-over-that-hill, what’s-that-smell, life.

But I must start over. I now realize that my first sentence is not accurate. It is not just my adult life spent contemplating this question. I was eight years old when it first occurred to me, a sister form of this question, how best to live?. I will set aside, for now, my rumination on canines and tell you the story of my eighth birthday.

October is my birthday month, and in the mid-west, where I was raised, it is a glorious month. It is a time of crisp and especially good-smelling air. Usually there is a nice bit of sun. It was on such an afternoon, while walking to the house of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff, that I had my epiphany. Our backyards were catty-corner and the block had yet to be partitioned by chain-link fence. It was my eighth birthday, and I was full of my grown-up little self. Somewhere crossing those backyards a thought struck me, out of nowhere, a bolt–and this is exactly how I remember it: If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

I recognize that memory is not to be trusted and that much of the information we store in memory often lacks the accuracy of history. But the memory of our memories, to put it awkwardly, is not the stuff of history. It is, rather, the stuff of myth, an archive of stories and recollections. It’s where we go to fuel the engine of awareness. I put my epiphany in this category.

My eight-year old self, sun on my shoulders, on my birthday, standing in a nicely mowed yard, was dumbstruck by an existential question of significant magnitude. I have no idea its origin, and there is nothing in my early existence, no family troubles, sickness or death, that would account for it. No Proustian madeleine this; it simply arrived, out of the blue, as if released from an autumnal cloud.

It was a question that changed everything.

I’ve shared this story many times. It is most often received with a look that can best be interpreted as: My, what a morbid little bugger you must have been.

I wasn’t morbid, and it was not a morbid thought, nor did I grow morbid over it. It was, indeed, an affirmation–a gift, even. I have been well served by keeping the question at the ready. It is my mantra. My eight-year old self still asks, If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

…walking across town.

In Dogs, Life on February 18, 2011 at 9:59 pm

We have panhandlers in Portland. A lot of panhandlers. I walk across town almost every day (to the Y–no longer the Young Men’s Christian Association. Now just the  Y.) and am always accosted (though that seems such a strong word). I give. I have been fortunate and recognize it. Most of these guys (always guys) have not (been fortunate, that is) and maybe a buck or two from me will make them feel more so. I recall reading a biography of Samuel Johnson. He was admonished by a friend for giving money away to every drunk and indigent who approached him. He said something to the effect that he did not care what they spent the money on, that he was not in a a position to judge; that he only hoped if, for instance, they liked to drink, his donation would give them happiness in more drink. It is probably a naive consideration, but I find it a refreshing perspective. Regardless, why justify? If someone asks me for a bit of change because they’re in a hard way, I wish to help. “Seek and ye shall find.”

And, while on the subject of walking across town. Why is it that people with pooping dogs (and all god’s creatures gotta poop) think that because their dogs shit in/on the snow they don’t have to pick up behind the beast? What?, does snow, as it melts, make the shit disappear? No, to the contrary, it rises to the top. Our town is littered with ever so much and canine poop seems to be in a pole position.


Enough ranting. I have a new (short) essay up at The Nervous Breakdown: Like Burned Coffee.

I Have a Dog That is My Mind.

In Curiosity, Dogs, The Examined Life on August 31, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I have a dog that is my mind. I am easily given to metaphor. My dog, Maggie, is restless. She will not sit down. She paces. She scratches at doors to go out, scratches at doors to come in. She sits down, stands up. Head down she sniffs around, led by her nose. She is my mind. She needs movement. She cannot be still. She requires stimulus. She wears me out. She needs constant attention.

I have a dog that is my mind. She explores. She is curious. She is not content. She wants, searches, for something. She explores and loves to run. She will track down a scent. She will lift her head to the wind and smell. She is insatiable. She will not rest easily. She is demanding. She goes when she should rest. She pursues, when she should give up. I am easily given to metaphor. She is exotic, but common. She comes when called. She loves to be petted. She is a dog.

Where and when do we rest? When do we retire and sit down? How do we silence the noise? When does the leash choke? When does it protect? When is curiosity a danger? (The ancients deemed curiosity a deadly sin.) When and where do we (find) rest? I have a dog that is my mind.


In Dogs, Life, Wisdom on June 9, 2010 at 12:58 pm

The Magster

How is it that Maggie, my ten-year old Vizsla, is so excited every morning upon waking up? She’s not a puppy any more, but you wouldn’t know it at 6:00 am, with the sun streaming in and the gulls screeching. As soon as I move, she leaps from her bed and throws herself on the floor at my bedside. She rolls over and arches her back, twisting. Then she rights herself, stretches, squeals, and rolls over again. I struggle to get out of bed amidst her bounding and cavorting. Lastly, she rises, braces her legs in support and flaps her ears. Lately she has taken to letting out a deep resounding howl, as if to announce to the world that she has risen. It is all, frankly, annoying. But learning by repetition can be very annoying, can’t it?

By that I mean, every morning, rain or shine, Maggie performs her routine at my feet. All that excitement and enthusiasm and joy. Every morning that lesson gets drilled into me. You must see where I’m going here. Who musters such happiness at the prospect of every single day? Really, who? My dog, that’s who. Life should be so simply learned as to watch our dogs and emulate them. Unconditional love, curiosity, loyalty, boundless joy. (Yes, I’m only listing the good stuff, not the chewed shoes, the ruined carpet, the surprise in the closet.) And the current lesson: a canine reminder, carpe diem. I’m a slow learner. Maggie’s a good teacher. And her work is not yet done.