Thursday, August 5, 2010


1993 - 2004

While recently perusing The Pushcart Book of Poetry, an anthology of the best poems from thirty years of The Pushcart Prize, I came upon a poem, titled "What The Animals Teach Us,"  by Chard DeNiord.  As one who has learned much from my two labrador retrievers -- Baci, who is no longer with us, except in spirit, and Derry, my current Zen master -- I find the subject of this poem to be fascinating, and I would interested in learning what others have discovered from their experiences with animals.  Let's begin with Chard DeNiord's poem:


that love is dependent on memory,
that life is eternal and therefore criminal,
that thought is an invisible veil that covers our eyes,
that death is only another animal,
that beauty is formed by desperation,
that sex is solely a human problem, 
that pets are wild in heaven, 
that sounds and smells escape us,
that there are bones in the earth without any marker,
that language refers to too many things,
that music hints at what we heard before we sang, 
that the circle is loaded, 
that nothing we know by forgetting is sacred, 
that humor charges the smallest things,
that the gods are animals without their masks,
that stones tell secrets to the wildest creatures,
that nature is an idea and not a place,
that our bodies have diminished in size and strength,
that our faces are terrible,
that our eyes are double when gazed upon,
that snakes do talk, as well as asses,
that we compose our only audience,
that we are geniuses when we wish to kill,
that we are naked despite our clothes,
that our minds are bodies in another world.

This poem is deeper than its title implies, and new truths are unveiled each time I read it.  The line that seems to resonate most with me is that "music hints at what we heard before we sang."  Maybe animals evoke a similar response in humans; perhaps they remind us of a more innocent time and place -- a time when we roamed together, knowing innately that our destinies were intertwined.

Derry as a Puppy

My two labs, Baci and Derry, have taught me several of the lessons that DeNiord mentions in his poem, the principal ones being that "sounds and smells escape us" and "that thought is an invisible veil that covers our eyes."  Being great teachers, however, they have also taught me other valuable lessons, specifically --

that sunrise brings a day unlike any other in history,
that exploration is the great purpose of our lives,
that every place is a good place for a mindful walk,
that even the adventurous need rest and reflection,
that love's touch is needed more than love's words,
that peace is sitting in silence with your heart's desire,
that a kind heart can bond softly with its opposite,
that animals walk with us through dark shadows of loss,
that animals often smile and sometimes laugh,
that there is no life except the life of the moment,
that everything good and bad will eventually pass,
that aging and illness can be a walk through grace,
that authentic love knows no bounds -- not even death,
     and this, with due respect to Carson McCullers,
that, with a dog, the heart is never a lonely hunter.

Derry in Last Winters' Snow

What have you learned from your pets or other animals that you have observed closely?  Your comments will be appreciated.  If my response is not immediate, it is because I will be out of town for the next three or four days. Rest assured, however, that I will respond to all comments upon my return.  Have a nice weekend, everyone!


  1. I came across your blog through Desideratum and I've been looking at the endlessly, endlessly beautiful pictures of English countryside.
    I am wondering about these paintings you have posted on the side. The colours and strokes are riveting. Is there any way I can see more?

  2. To Chesley,

    Thanks. I'm delighted you enjoyed this posting and the photos of Derry and Baci.

  3. Derry as a puppy is killing me, softly.

    There are too many truths in your lines and in DeNiord’s for me to respond to any specifically right now. I am going to take a nap (I’m on vacation, sort of) and let these things move around in my subconscious. Like you, I’d need to read and reread them to let them reveal their depths.

    My cat Bishop teaches me that life is elegant. Saying any more to define that would support the statement that language refers to too many things.

    Do you know James Dickey’s poem (one of my essentials), The Heaven of Animals? The bit about having no souls is debatable, but as a whole, I like it very much -- and this post.

    The Heaven of Animals, by James Dickey

    Here they are. The soft eyes open.
    If they have lived in a wood
    It is a wood.
    If they have lived on plains
    It is grass rolling
    Under their feet forever.

    Having no souls, they have come,
    Anyway, beyond their knowing.
    Their instincts wholly bloom
    And they rise.
    The soft eyes open.

    To match them, the landscape flowers,
    Outdoing, desperately
    Outdoing what is required:
    The richest wood,
    The deepest field.

    For some of these,
    It could not be the place
    It is, without blood.
    These hunt, as they have done,
    But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

    More deadly than they can believe.
    They stalk more silently,
    And crouch on the limbs of trees,
    And their descent
    Upon the bright backs of their prey

    May take years
    In a sovereign floating of joy.
    And those that are hunted
    Know this as their life,
    Their reward: to walk

    Under such trees in full knowledge
    Of what is in glory above them,
    And to feel no fear,
    But acceptance, compliance.
    Fulfilling themselves without pain

    At the cycle’s center,
    They tremble, they walk
    Under the tree,
    They fall, they are torn,
    They rise, they walk again.

  4. To Priya,

    What a delight to have you visit my blog! I love the cross-cultural conversations that take place through blogging, and to be communicating with someone in Bangalore is especially fascinating.

    I"m glad that you like the photos taken on my recent coast-to-coast hike across England. It was one of the great experiences of my lifetime, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

    I'm also delighted that you have enjoyed my paintings. At this point, I have no website where you can see more of my work. I am taking a short sabbatical from painting and currently have most of my unsold work in storage. I will be painting again soon, however, at which time I hope to have online access to my paintings.

    I took a quick look at your blog and found it very interesting. I plan to read most of your recent articles and follow your postings on a regular basis.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  5. To Ruth,

    Thanks for all your comments. Derry is still killing me, softly for the most part.

    By all means, take a nap and enjoy your vacation. As I said in my posting, one of the things learned from dogs is that "even the adventurous need rest and reflection."

    Thanks for providing the Dickey poem -- it obviated the necessity to go digging through the books I have stored in boxes. I used to read Dickey, especially in the years before his death, but I don't seem to recall this poem. While I could never agree that animals have no souls (with the possible exception of a few of my own species), I really like the last ten lines about acceptance and compliance, rather than fear, and about the cycles through which everything rises, falls, and rises again.

    Thanks again for adding so much to the conversation.

  6. How did I not realize you're a painter, and that these glories on your sidebar are yours? Holy cow. Forgive me for being blind.

  7. To Ruth,

    Believe me, Ruth, nothing you could do would offend me. I studied painting after retiring from my law practice about sixteen years ago. I maintained a studio and participated in a co-op gallery until recently, but I have taken a bit of a sabbatical from painting to concentrate on some other creative interests. I expect to have another studio at some point in the not too distant future, at which time I will return to painting more actively. In the meantime, life is good.

  8. Lovely poem George. Enjoy your time away.

    I too am a dog-person - pug, then pointer, now Border terrier - what have they taught me - well unconditional love for a start, loyalty, and that nothing is so important that it cannot wait until after a walk in the fresh air.

  9. To Pat,

    Thanks for the comments. With a pug, a pointer, and now a Border terrier, your lessons from dogs must have been quite diverse. Giving priority to fresh air walks, of course, if something that all breeds agree upon, thankfully.

  10. Hi, George! What a beautiful post! Baci has such a handsome, soulful expression. I am so sorry for your loss, but I am glad you had Baci in your life for those years. Yes, now you have Baci's wonderful spirit.

    Derry is another beauty and makes my heart melt. Labs are my favorite dogs, though I love them all. I love your lessons. Two of your lines really jumped out at me:

    "that authentic love knows no bounds -- not even death.
    that exploration is the great purpose of our lives."

    Yes!! I agree with you that the heart can never be a lonely hunter when animals are involved. It is such a pure, sweet love.

    One of the things my family dogs have taught me throughout the years is the excitement of discovery. No place is boring. No day is boring. We should roll around in life and enjoy every sense, including the "other worldly" senses. Animals seem to know things on a deep visceral level, don't they?

    DeNiord's poem is also fantastic. The line that leaps out at me in that is "that stones tell secrets to the wildest creatures." Each line is magnificent, though.

    George, I hope I have told you how much I enjoy your blog. Every time I visit, I come away with much inspiration and thought. This is another wonderful post. I hope your time away is for enjoyable reasons.

  11. To Julie,

    Thanks so much for your wonderful and generous comments. I have my laptop with me, plus a little time in my room tonight, so I can respond.

    When I say that my labs have been my Zen masters, I am more serious than one might think. The dogs are always present with the moment, always willing to follow their own intutition, and always engaged in the dance of life. Humans cannot look directly at each other for an extended period; the eyes drop, look aside, or do whatever is necessary to avoid the honesty that comes with true intimacy. My dog, Derry, however -- like her predecessor, Baci -- can stare into my eyes for long periods of time. She sees my soul, I'm quite sure, and I see God in her eyes.

    The DeNiord poem is a little jewel box that one can return to and always find something overlooked the first time around. The mark of a good poem for me is whether I want to return.

    Thanks so much for the compliments on the blog. I'm grateful that technology has created a way for me to connect with others who share my interests and passions. Thanks again for such thoughtful comments.

  12. Glad to see a post dedicated to what we do for you. I try to remind Tramp that communication is more than words but it is an uphill task.

  13. Hi George, having 4 second-hand mixed breed dogs has let us have a close up to their very distinct personalities, they are so intelligent and learn quickly... they can be stubborn or get over excited like little children..they learn good and bad things from each other... they are much more sensitive than many people would ever imagine...... and most of all, Wet dogs like sitting on your knee...

  14. To Tramp,

    Keep trying, Lady. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but we humans always have something new to learn.

  15. To Gwen,

    Wow! Four second-hand mixed breed dogs! How on earth do you get the beautiful work done around your place? Thanks for the note.

  16. What a beautiful dog Derry is. As Gwen says all dogs have different and distinct personalities but one thing they all have in common is the unconditional love and loyalty they give us. They are always there, always glad to see you - having said that I have had two dogs (a Scottish terrier and my present one Mr B Baggins) both of whom made/make it clear that they don't appeciate it when I go away and leave them for a while. An ecstatic welcome back was/is followed by a period when they didn't/don't speak to me.:) B Baggins forgives me very quickly, Macintosh the Scottie remained cool for several days!

  17. To Rowan,

    That's quite funny, Rowan, because this was precisely the experience we had with our first lab, Baci. When we returned from being away for several days, she would be happy to see us initially, but would then move into withdrawal for a couple of days. The message seemed to be, "Glad you're home, but you are now going to pay the price for a few days. You cannot take my affection for granted." Thanks for the comments and have a nice day.

  18. I liked the poem very much, and had not come across it before - the lines are so fresh and unexpected (as you say, it will repay rereading - there's always something new to discover in the best poems). And I liked your continuation of it too.

  19. To Robert,

    Glad you liked the poem, Robert. I found it very beautiful and insightful, especially the line, "music hints at what we heard before we sang."