Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Get Back Out There!

My shoes left my feet in two quick steps. They stopped moving and I didn’t and now the mud that held them firmly in place was pushing up between my toes. I immediately considered the experience to be most unpleasant. I swiveled around to survey the quickest way out and there beside my empty shoes was the dog. He had followed me right in. Up to our hocks in mud, we stood for a moment looking at each other. He appeared to be smiling. In fact, it was easy to see that he was pretty happy. It wasn’t because he was standing in mud, of that fact he seemed oblivious. He was happy because he was outside, free to run, to follow and free to stand wherever he pleased.

My own happy connections to the natural world came flashing to mind. As a child, I swam in rivers, played barefoot in the forest, raised tadpoles and orphaned baby birds, captured bugs (all scientifically classified as “jar flies”) and held respectful funeral services for dearly departed foundlings. I would be called into the house at last light, never wanting to surrender. I thought of the free-roaming dogs I knew back then. They were always ready for adventure, completely present and alive with possibility. I had grown older and somehow, nature had begun to shrink away from me. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Our natural heritage

We are an interconnected part of a natural reality that extends from the soil below our feet, around the globe, and out into the cosmos. We are in tune with its energetic modulations, its cycles, balance and perfection. We would not have evolved into the beings we are today without the hyper-keen awareness and full engagement of the senses that result from living in a natural world. In constantly changing environments we developed perceptual acuity and the ability to react swiftly to stress. Inattentiveness would have left us vulnerable to predation and caused us to miss opportunities to feed and shelter ourselves. Our direct involvement with the world and its elements expanded our view of self and reality outward, rooting us and connecting us to all that was known.

Dogs are also creatures of the great natural systems and their sense of identity is drawn through a deep and abiding connection to them. Their ancient role within those systems is part of their genetic material. No matter how we have morphed them—shrinking, stylizing and stretching them—their utter lack of access to natural environments deprives them fundamentally as it deprives us.

As they develop, dogs will find outlets for their inherent expressions in rich and changing environments. Engaging the flow of time with attentive awareness, they continuously orient themselves to their surroundings and this enables them to structure responses, anticipate consequences and adjust activities accordingly. Rich and variable living environments are constantly in motion, always changing and subtlety unique. In them, dogs express and inhabit the integrity of their being, demonstrating confident stability, inquisitive exploration, playful interaction and exploratory manipulation. They deliberately create opportunities to try out new things and have novel experiences. Their activities demonstrate purpose, enjoyment and an apprehension of life’s meaningfulness. These choices and alternatives for creative engagement fill them with a sense of belonging. Sadly, this is rarely available to a developing canine today.

A Connection Lost

Increasingly, our view of the natural world is artificial and abstract. We have marched out of nature and into the confines of built structures. We have filled our heads with facts and information and the world has become small in our knowing. The rich and riotous, spontaneous and surprising natural world has been replaced by the flat reality of computer and television screens. The living animals we do see are confined in zoo enclosures. We enjoy landscapes as they pass by the windows of our cars. We take walks on manufactured surfaces. Many of us spend as much as 95 percent of our lives indoors. Our homes are swept, kept, monotonous and routine. What we consider to be the “outdoors” is most often an overmanaged green space that is lifeless and sterile. We are the only beings who move within these environments; all other creatures have been banished. And into this predictable, empty reality, we have brought the dog.

A loss of primary experience—seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting and touching for ourselves—diminishes and tunnels the senses. Inventiveness, creativity, imagination, intellectual development and physical and psychological well-being are suppressed and dulled. Our immune systems become impaired. This is a deprivation syndrome, often referred to as “natural-system dysfunction.” It results in a loss of our innate protective and supportive senses and rhythms. When interactions with the world of living forms are severely restricted, a natural animal’s true essence fades and contracts. Loss of experiential diversity leads to understimulation, then loneliness, boredom, depression and feelings of alienation, vulnerability, isolation and hostility. As experience diminishes, life can lose its meaning. Out of sync and out of touch with something profoundly vital, we try to compensate by engaging in mind-numbing activities or physically rewarding sensations. We attempt to satisfy ourselves with artificial substitutions ranging from shopping to thrill-seeking.

Losing the ability to recognize plants, animals and insects, we can no longer imagine the creature who scratches through the brush in the evening or the ones calling out from moist and shady places. And dogs, once knowing every small mammal that tunnels, nests, burrows and climbs, and learning their movement patterns, scavenging behaviors and fleetness, now know only our habits. Once able to identify the sounds made by all manner of life in their proximity, today’s dogs know the sounds made by televisions, doorbells and kitchen appliances. Dogs can actually associate scent particles to the animals who leave them, follow a scent trail great distances and scan the breeze to identify the animals nearby. Living inside our homes, their olfactory receptors are overwhelmed by artificial fragrances and chemical aromas.

We have lost a sense of kinship with nature, detached ourselves from other humans and depersonalized our experience of life. This might explain our growing obsession with dogs who actually represent a vital link to an ancient intimacy with the natural world. Maybe deep inside, we are hoping that they can show us the way back.

Bust Out

Take that dog in your life and release yourselves from the synthetic energy of asphalt and concrete to take up a wilderness trail, climb a hill or dip your toes in a gurgling stream. As you reestablish a connection with your electromagnetic and biological source, balance is restored and the rejuvenating effects can be felt. Natural senses will enliven and sensitivity increase. You’ll gain a sense of belonging to the greater whole and the weight of individual worries and concerns will fall away.

Bust out into the astonishing eruption of nature that can be found in the sunshine beyond your doors. Seek outlets for expression of the characteristics and abilities that makes a dog uniquely a dog and your living experience will be enriched in the process. Start small and work your way outward. Start safe and become more fearless. Begin on a modest schedule and make a plan to increase it gradually. Look under rocks. Walk on a cushiony pine-forest floor. Let the dog poke her muzzle into bushes, chew a stick, dig a hole and gather scents into her fur. Don’t be afraid to stand in some mud as you explore nature together. In the soul of her being, the dog does know the way back.