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It's Nelly's World

Scotland Dreaming

alec vanderboom


It was late in life that Errol Flynn occurred to me. Better late than never. And since he is immortal, though quite dead and out of reach, it doesn't much matter when you first realize, Oh, my god. He can stay forever the dimpled god of Robin Hood, and if you like, he may never mature into the dissipated man, lightly filmed with whiskey-smelling scum, who drags himself through The Master of Ballantrae. But as my seven-year-old son never read, as I did, of the actor's shocking self-abuse in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he saw only a swashbuckler with a glinting sword, and he developed a desire right there to visit the rocky land that grows castles more readily than any other crop.

It is a good thing that the cinematic ghost of Errol Flynn haunts the same land of origin of the Errol Flynn of dogs, the border collie. And so a plan is being hatched in my house, one that will involve a transatlantic flight.

I am reading The Farmer's Dog by John Holmes, a British dog trainer who wrote this first practical manual on working sheepdogs in 1960. It is full of plainspoken gems--here's one I just read on p. 51, and you want to go find the author and pump his hand vigorously for it: "I have serious doubts about the intelligence of those people who teach dogs to walk along bumping up against their owners' left legs and gazing up into their faces like demented idiots. It certainly does not point to any intelligence in the dogs." Beyond the stupidity factor, I have always hated the sound of the word "obedience," which makes me try to imagine exactly what happens when ears are boxed, or the taste of soap on the tongue. (The latter I don't have to work too hard to call up, since I have experienced it, grace of my schoolteacher grandmother who was brought up squarely in the Age of Obedience, when children should be seen but not heard, and when to spare the rod was to spoil the child--which motto she actually inscribed on the old butter paddle she wielded against the unruly children in her midst, and then gave to one of these grandchildren as a keepsake.) The idea of pursuing Obedience as something fun or interesting seems to me, rather, good cause for embarking on a long course of psychotherapy. When militarism is personally attractive, this is a matter for professional help.

Besides, then you've got to contend with the notion of disobedience, which is even more frightening. I suspect that it's mainly people who have never taught either their dogs or their children what they want them to do who most often punish them for "willful disobedience." If you accept, as I now do (having tithed myself a member of the Church of Behaviorism), that the only behaviors that will recur are the ones that have yielded some reward for having been performed, then these punishments are being meted out to someone who couldn't really help doing what they did. How can this be right? So here's my latest sissy pantywaist idea: all punishment is a crime. A nonpunishable crime, then, alas. Well, I never said I couldn't at least contemplate the delights of revenge.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word "collie" is uncertain, but that it probably derives from "coaly," as in black. And when I think of a coaly black sheepdog, I most often see him lying in front of a smoldering fire in a rough Welsh farm hut, while the night winds sweep the furze outside. But the sheep are safe. Because, as the OED says, collies are "a breed of sheepdogs remarkable for their sagacity."

Remarkable, oh yes. I suddenly remembered the other day how coaly Mercy, in the unforgivable absence of sheep to tend, would chase cars whenever she got the chance. But not every car. For she employed her higher maths to determine the speed of an approaching vehicle, and when she figured it was going too fast to successfully pen, she saved her energy and coolly let it pass. The next one might be appropriately paced, at which point she would launch herself at the proper angle of intercept.

Driving yesterday through the unpeopled wilds of the middle of Pennsylvania, looking at the old hills flash by in a series of endless green steps, I imagined that this was how Scotland might look, when I get there.