Canine unbelievers
According to today's NYT, Sheik Mahmoud al-Ghassi, a young mullah in Aleppo, Syria, has been giving fiery sermons denouncing "atheist dogs." Surely the same question must have occurred to you: Are there really any atheist dogs?

My first thought was, "Impossible. Every dog worships its master." But then I thought back to a summer in Williamsville in the western mountains of Virginia. My accomplice and I had rented a cabin from the writer Donald McCaig and his wife Anne on their sheep farm.

The cabin had sounded quite attractive (especially the price) in an ad in the NYRB. It turned out to be a collapsing shack among the weeds where the McCaigs' land dipped down toward Bull Pasture Creek. It had electricity, but no air conditioning. The window screens were torn and clusters of big black flies would light on your eyelids and stay there till you brushed them away, while their kinfolk stopped for a taste of saliva on your lips and others explored your ears to distract you from all the reading and writing you'd gone there to accomplish. But the place did have its virtues. It was absolutely quiet, except for the buzzing of the flies and the occasional deer crashing through the trees on the way to the creek. The smells were pleasantly organic, pine and other country plants I wouldn't know how to identify, the rich black soil, the occasional scent of manure. And the firefly displays at night were just spectacular.

It was a short walk up the hill and along the two-lane country road to the general store/ post office -- we could never find anything there that we would want to eat, but for the first few days we enjoyed the illusion that we might. Williamsville must have had a population of, oh, maybe 50 people (that may be an exaggeration -- we never saw more than three at one time), so I guess there wasn't much demand for caponata or gorgonzola or other necessities of urban living. Plenty of lamb chops were available, though; we just had to ask the McCaigs.

Somehow -- traveling all the way to Roanoke for shopping -- we managed to put together a pretty decent non-lamb dinner one night and invited the McCaigs down from the big house to share it with us. Our secret agenda was to get them inside the place to experience the flies and see that maybe the screens should be replaced. Actually, it was a two-point agenda. We also wanted to get to know the McCaigs, and have a chance to talk to somebody besides each other.

They turned out to be pretty interesting. He especially was full of stories. He was at the time working hard on what would become his acclaimed Civil War novel, Jacob's Ladder. He'd found archives of a WPA project of the 1930s, interviews of former slaves, and was quite excited about it. But mostly we talked about sheep and especially the dogs that herd them, most especially the highland border collies that are so smart their owners have to go to a special school to learn how to communicate with them. McCaig's reputation (before the Civil War book came out) was based mainly on his dog books, both fiction and nonfiction, celebrating the wit and complex personalities of these dogs, and he lamented that despite trips to Scotland and Australia to learn more, he hadn't really become expert enough as a dog-partner to get his own two border collies (mother and daughter) to respond to his sometimes confusing commands.

In the next days, when we wanted to take a break from the heavy workloads we'd brought, my partner and I would go walking through the forested hills. The younger collie would come bounding after us, not just to accompany us but, eyeing us closely, to nudge us in one direction or another. After looking us over, she had decided we weren't much smarter than sheep, and she was herding us. This was a little embarrassing, but I suppose from her point of view, and given that we were wandering more or less aimlessly in unfamiliar territory, she was right.

And I remembered McCaig saying that border collies were so smart and so capable of thinking ahead that, unlike almost any other dogs, they would sometimes disobey an explicit command the better to meet what they knew was the master's larger purpose. For example, the master, standing at quite some distance from the action, would think that the dog should make some particular maneuver to get some wayward sheep back where they belonged, but the dog, more experienced and at the scene, would see a better way to it, and would do it that way.

That's when I thought that yes, the mullah in Aleppo may be right. Border collies must be atheists. They are the only dogs to realize that their masters are merely human. Atheism, after all, requires a sense of irony.

Here's something about Donald McCaig.

And here's something about border collies.

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