Dogwalking Metaphysics

Hiking uphill on the North Country Trail on January 9, 2021 near Lowell, Michigan

Ecclesiastes famously reminds readers “there is a season” for each part of a life. But the same can be said for the many phases in caring for a pet from its earliest months to its final breath. Others have distilled metaphysics from Japanese archery (Eugen Herrigel 1948) or motorcycle maintenance (Robert Pirsig 1974), but dogwalking also offers a few insights into one’s place within the larger scheme of things. In particular, daily accompanying a dog day after day in all weather and cleaning up the regular dog dirt sometimes comes with moments to chew on an idea, let one’s thoughts wander, or again and again closely to observe something of the nature of the beast — both the living creature and the large reality it shares with the dogwalker.

The relationships of humans and dogs goes back something like 35,000 years or more at least. So there are many connections, facets, and organizing principles that could be spoken of. Things to leave out of this essay include the question of whether the dog is walking the human, or the human is walking the dog; or the way that strangers feel able to talk to the dog but sometimes not to the human; cultural ‘personhood’ attributed to house pets (a small person in a furry suit); getting over the urge not to pick up dog poo; learning to look out for animals wild or domesticated before the dog notices them; and the question of couture and accessories for a dog of a certain age and breed.

The dog in this story was born at the end of 2008 and so now in early 2021 she has had 12 good years and is now part way into the 13th. Dog food sellers helpfully define “senior dogs” starting at age seven and formulate the kibble to suit less growth and fewer calories. By now this dog has had a couple cancer surgeries, but otherwise has not departed from health. So the daily walks sometimes stir thoughts of morality and the finitude of one’s (pet’s) days: how many days remain, how big will the cycle of grief be, will the absence left at home and the stopping of multiple walks ever seem normal by comparison to now.

Metaphysics includes many things about the basic nature of reality, but with regard to an aging dog and the spiral of thoughts and observations sparked by daily walks, it is the physicality and presence of the subject within the fabric of space and time that stand out in my mind. There are a couple of ways to view this four-footed woolly beast in action at the end of the leash, ever alert to ambient (loud) sounds, smells, and movement with her peripheral vision. One was is the layering approach: each sentient being is comprised of solid, liquid, gas, and perhaps a fourth aspect — life force or animating spirit. A mnemonic for these layers is “4 B’s” of bones, blood, breath, and beatha [‘life’ as in the Celtic word, “water of life” or Uiske Beatha, a.k.a. whisky]. With the pet in motion or stopped to sniff, it is possible to picture each layer almost like an x-ray vision that begins with the solid (bone frame), goes to the circulating liquid (blood), followed by the regular inhalation/exhalation of gas (breath), finishing with the thrum of livingness (beatha). The result of this visualization exercise is to reveal the physicality in several dimensions that connect the creature to the surrounding space and moment in time.

Another approach to the physical space and time occupied by the dog on a walk is the artist approach. In this exercise the elements that form the living animal are mass (what gravity pulls on), volume (three dimensions filled with dogness), purposeful motion (reacting to smells, sounds, sights, signals from the dog walker) or intentionality, and the cumulative effect of this bundle of mass, volume, and movement on the surrounding world’s stage. One way to put all this into action is to use the illustration taken from Japanese brushwork (Sumi-e or calligraphy). Aficionados claim to be able to see the brush movements that left their trace on the handmade paper, reading the shape of motions and the rhythmic timing that allows some points to soak up more ink than others; sort of like people who “read” sheet music with their eyes but can hear the melodic line or chord progression in their minds. Just so in the realm of dogwalking with the artist approach to the dog’s being present at the end of the leash at a given confluence of history. The dog is the artist’s inky brush as it moves over the surface of the page, but instead of leaving a pattern of brush strokes, the dog leaves a trail of paw prints (on fresh snow, for example) and its own signature smells (for the benefit of other dogs passing by). When there is no blanket of snow to record the prints, then one’s own imagination can render the fabric of reality as the space and time where the successive days of the dog’s walks leave a kind of mark; of “being there.”

momentarily at rest: layers (solid, liquid, gas) and bundle of mass, volume, and purposeful movement

Taking both approaches together, the layer approach and the artist approach, the experience of walking the dog three or four times per day offers times to contemplate the dear pet’s last days or months or years on Earth. The metaphysics of dogwalking place this sentient being in a context of specific time and place, expressed in physical dimensions and occupying a moment in the river of lived experience. In this way, both the sting of mortal existence in physical form and the texture of reality’s fabric that a pet presses against now takes shape.

But of course, the same observations about one’s own physical dimensions and the fabric of society that each person touches can be asserted, too. Each of us takes up a bit of reality’s real estate and the universe’s resources. And learning to savor — as layers or as seen by artist — one’s own place and time, “just passing through” as sojourner, makes the days somehow more precious. Thus comes forth the metaphysics of walking a dog.

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