June 18, 2019

“What a piece of work is a man: how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties; in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

-Hamlet 2.2.267-272


I awoke this morning, feeling refreshed and more rested than I have in a while. Waldo and I hit the rail-trail, still a bit leery about braving the muddy paths in the woods after so much rain, in the early afternoon. It’s warm, but not hot, and I’m quite comfortable in a light shirt and jeans – plus my hat, which protects my scalp from the sun, and a backpack, that holds two bottles of water for Waldo. It’s promising to be a nice walk – of course, it’s always a nice walk for Waldo.

Waldo assumes his usual duties of exploring every hint of an odor as we start out. I watch him as he prances along from one side of the trail to the other. He is such a happy puppy! I call him to me and he runs up and says hello with a sparkle in his eye. I tell him to sit, give him a treat, which he accepts readily, then release him with a “that’ll do” command and he dashes on to continue his duties. He isn’t always so responsive to direction. Sometimes, he’s so distracted, he isn’t interested at all in a treat and it’s hard to get his attention. He is only a puppy.

I wonder about just how much of the response that I ascribe to Waldo is real and how much of it is projection, anthropomorphization. Many studies, including fMRI and behavioral experiments, suggest strongly that many animals, dogs in particular, understand us much better than we think. We can also communicate in quite a lot of detail to animals whose ancestors diverged from those of homo sapiens hundreds of millions of years ago. Parrots, for example, are representative of a group of animals, birds, that are the closest living progeny of dinosaurs. We haven’t had a common evolutionary ancestor with birds for a very, very long time. And yet, we can not only form a loving mutual bond with a parrot, we can actually communicate quite well with them. Is that possible without having a significant overlap of a common understanding? Can you communicate with someone or something else without a mutual understanding born of common experience? To communicate requires that there is this common ground or one can’t understand what the other is alluding to. Are we really so different from other animals, or is that thought just hubris? Is man really so noble, so admirable, or is he just one example of a broader group of very similar beings – animals? I’m different from Waldo, but I’m also different from a severely autistic child who can’t communicate with the same skill as a parrot.

The ancients believed that there were five elements that permeate all of nature – fire, earth, water, air and quintessence. Quintessence was the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. What then, is the quintessence of man? Does it differ so much from that of a dog? Am I really so different from Waldo, or are we merely brothers of different mothers? Am I not happy watching Waldo being happy because we share the experience of happiness and it is therefore mutually understood? How much deeper does that understanding go? I suspect very much so.

Waldo and I reach the caboose, our usual turn-around point. I’ve looked at maps and know that the end of the trail is only about another mile or so away and I’m still feeling quite fresh. I give Waldo a long drink of water from one of his bottles. He seems physically perfectly able to continue on, so I decide we will go the full distance, from one end of the rail-trail to the other. I take a deep breath. That’s 10.8 miles round trip, not that much further than our usual 8.7, I tell myself. I look Waldo in the eye and know he’s good to go.

Waldo’s quintessence speaks to my quintessence, I feel it in my bones.

The other end of the trail.


1 comment

Kathie Giorgio

SO pretty! No wonder you take Waldo on these walks!

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