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It's Nelly's World

You're So . . . Artistic

alec vanderboom

It's a commonplace of all discussions of animal intelligence (meaning the other animals; it goes without saying that we're the measuring stick and thus our intelligence is not under question . . . OK, I'm back. Had to go wipe the tears of laughter out of my eyes) to eventually get around to this: "Of course, no animal has
yet produced the work of a James Joyce. . . . " Whereupon I throw back a spitball at the teacher's head: Really? Well, which one do you mean? The James Joyce of Dubliners? Or the James Joyce of Ulysses? Because it's possible that a troop of macaques somewhere, given enough typewriters and ribbon, just might produce something as unfollowable as the latter.

Oh, yes, I jest. I have to! In the face of something as fundamentally silly as the supposition that just because no jackal has emerged as a direct rival to Van Gogh then it's clear that humans have a lock on that mysterious ability known as creativity.

But how would we actually know? I mean, if what another species creates is done on an entirely different aesthetic grid? If their language is primarily physical (and primarily not understood by us), then how could we know that perhaps the family pet were the canine universe's equivalent of Aaron Copland or, for that matter, Yo La Tengo? For all the millions of us who use our language as a means to compose grocery lists or notes to the third-grade teacher about what our children will be bringing to the Valentine's party, there are only one or two who can use it to lay down the syntactical amazements of a Faulkner, a Hardy.

The few pictorial dictionaries of dog language we have now are to me breathtaking, not necessarily for what they are--just the beginning, even if a two-hundred-page one, of an understanding of the richness and breadth and subtlety of their physical communication--but for what they suggest: that all the nuance we experience in the use of our own language may well exist in theirs. That for all the millions of dogs who use a combination of tail carriage, ear position, eyes, lips, and body orientation to say, "Hey! You can leave that vole carcass alone because it's mine," there may well be one who uses something like the poetry of Melville to say much more. Maybe even to expressing the transporting joys and sorrows of vole-ness in this world where they become sodden blots on the snow two days after violent death in the jaws of a little dog, their souls having ascended sadly to vole heaven.

Maybe your dog is a lyricist of the tail wave, admired by the astonished mass of other dogs who can only wonder, "How does she do that with just a tail, and the air, and the small suppleness of her spine? Sheer magic."

Maybe when Nelly comes at me, flying low over the ground, having set up the opportunity by first going so damn far away I'm a nervous wreck, she is really writing a poem on the joy of return. It would contain lines about exerting individual will inside a paradigm where it is all but curtailed (domestic dog imprisoned in human environment). Maybe she is doing much, much more than experiencing the momentary bliss of that act, which is what we often celebrate in dogs, and what I frankly see in her face, her smile, the energetic burst of her movement. Maybe she understands paradox. And paradox is the single origin of all great art.

At the very least, Nelly is much more creative than most people would realize. She has found all sorts of ways to use me, the big bad human who purportedly calls all the shots. Ha. It dawned on me one evening as I sat reading on the floor in front of the woodstove, the station I man in the cold months. She picked up the giant knuckle bone she was working on, it having slid all over the floor as she pursued it, and it banged to the wood again and again as she haplessly tried to reposition it to stay. All of a sudden she purposefully walked over and deposited herself in my lap, then paused to look at me. I don't know how I knew what she wanted me to do, but I did know. I held the bone in my hand for her, and she went back to work on it.

I was a bone holder. Nothing more. A BA, an MA, and all I had amounted to in the end was a bone holder. I must say, I was the perfect tool for the job. No more sliding across the floor or banging out of reach. The bone was now held firmly so she could really go to town on it.

Let it not be said that I lack breadth, however. No, there are times when I far exceed the bounds of the single-purpose human. Sometimes, see, I am door opener! Treat dispenser! Bed bolster! Chauffeur! I can be so many things: Melissa, Swiss Army knife. The kind with tweezers and toothpick, too. Nelly has even discovered that she no longer need suffer her tongue to hopelessly scrabble with a piece of gristle stuck in her teeth, for if she comes to me and implores with her eyes, I will use my fingers to swiftly remove the offending bit. They're good for something after all.

I thought about this recently as I finished reading Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote, a book that is both hugely affecting and maddening, in a let-us-test-the-restrictions-of-narrative-nonfiction kind of way. Kerasote puts words into his dog's mouth, and much of the time they feel right: Merle was no doubt saying exactly what his owner thought he was saying. But human language, as expansive as it may be for us, is too limiting, I suspect, for a dog.

Maybe Merle was an artist, creating symphonies or songs his owner could not hear, because his ears were already full of speech. We may never know what concerts we have missed, because that particular orchestra does not play for us.