On Dogs and Mosses

In which I write a letter to my dog, Bear, who we adopted from Dogs Trust in January 2017 and who I love very much.

Dogs are the magicians of the universe. By their presence alone, they transform grumpy people into grinning people, sad people into less sad people; they engender relationship.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Dear Bear,

You have altered the trajectory of my life. I can clearly pinpoint the moment that these changes started churning away. Last April, we walked together in the Lake District, avoiding a mountain climb that neither you nor I had the energy for at that time, and we came across a creek. Nobody else was there. Just you and me, which was a little nerve-wracking as you were off the lead in a new place. A tree had fallen, blocking our route, so I tried to climb up the steep bank with you to rejoin the path on the other side. You refused to follow me, giving me that confused look that you do and wandering off to find a different route up through the woods. I swiftly edged back down, scared you would run into the river or do something else stupid, and leaned on the moss that covered the bank so my feet wouldn’t slip on the muddy ground. It was spongy, soft, damp, and depressed by quite a way as I leant my body weight on it. A lovely green cushion. A little forest helper. I noticed how moss covered the entire bank but it wasn’t a homogeneous layer of spongy fronds; different leaf colours and shapes and sizes started to jump out as I surveyed this carpet. My attention shifted to mossy questions for the rest of our walk – where did it come from? How does moss grow? Does it have roots? I found myself enamoured with this magical stuff beyond our time in the Lake District and sought out books on moss, learning how it will grow wherever it can find water. I learnt how it holds entire jungle ecologies of minuscule critters. I started to think about the world’s interconnection in a way that my university books seemed detached from. Encountering the world with you has been like finding it anew.

Maybe it seems silly or overblown to pinpoint that encounter with moss as something momentous in my life. But it wasn’t just that moment which changed my body’s orientation to the world. On walks you often stop, Bear, whether to sniff or wee or maybe just because you have had enough and feel like sulking for twenty minutes on the corner a few metres from our house. I look at what you’re sniffing and I start to pay attention to what is at dog level in the city. Or I look around at the streets, the park, up in the trees, wherever my eyes can reach so I can entertain myself in what could be a long and boring wait for you to move. Patience has always been key with you. But now I find myself in love with the little worlds that live in the cracks in pavements and wonder about their jungle ecologies too. I cheer on the mosses which thrive in the South Bristol streets. How do they thrive amongst the car fumes? How do they survive against those odds? With you, I notice the changes in the park from day to day and from season to season – the new flowers, the change in the leaves, the light in the morning, the weird seasonal litter composed of disposable barbecues and ripped up old school planners. Last winter you sat down on muddy ground and I precariously sat down with you, not wanting to get mud on my jeans. But soon I started to love it again. We got lost in Leigh Woods with you and clambered up a hill, using our hands. You bounded up and waited for the two-leggeds to ascend to your level. It was joyously grubby. This winter, mud on my clothes is normal. Please never let me become estranged from it again.

When I talk about an orientation to the world, I mean the mode in which I encounter it. This is not just where my eyes are drawn or how I enjoy the changing seasons, but what I feel has been a complete transformation in myself in urban space. You led me through the city without my headphones and podcasts, my well-worn defences against loud noises and the feeling of terrifying exposure I sometimes had when I left the house. With you, I no longer seize up when faced with a conversation in the park. I know how to navigate small talk, even on very bad days when my brain doesn’t function as well as I’d like it to. Those little interactions bring light to my life, especially on those very bad days. I have gotten to know the people, and the dogs, who live near us so that initial outside world is not scary anymore. We have new friends through you. When I am in the big wide world with you, you are my concern, rather than what other people think of me or anything else just as silly. If I can get you home safe and a bit worn out, then that’s all I care about. You have retaught me how to be in the world with confidence and contentment.

Now there is this shift away from craving book-smarts and the kind of success which is solely defined by career or reputation. What resonates with me is so very different since we have started walking together. All I want is to steward those little jungle ecologies to help them thrive and to be outdoors as much as I can; to slow down and take the time to notice the differences between the mosses. Changes are still churning away, but there is some clarity emerging as I realize all I want is to get muddy with the earth and to walk it with you. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me. My Bear, my friend, my kin.

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