A dog’s nose

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To a dog [a well-sprayed lamp-post] is The Times hot off the presses; latest news, social column, gossip….We smell in black and white, while a dog smells in eternal rainbows of subtle and delicate nuances. (Simon Barnes – Bird watching with your eyes closed)

 

For the first few months of our dog’s life with us, ‘up’ didn’t exist.  He lived his life at nose level and below.  Sometimes, he was puzzled at the noises he heard, such as the gulls above us, because he hadn’t yet realised there was another dimension to the world.  But already, there were things he knew that I could never know.

SAMSUNG CSCWhen I walk with my dog, we’re each having the same experience in a different way.  In sensory terms, I can only ever experience the walk in the present moment.  Though I bring to it memories, local knowledge and history, that walk will always be what is happening now.  I can see events as they unfold; I can interpret noises; I can smell strong odours; but experiencing that present moment is all that is available to me.

SAMSUNG CSCMy dog knows things I can’t know.  He knows which dogs and people have been here before us.  He knows which way they walked.  He knows if they were friends or strangers.  A dog’s need to sniff has been likened to reading the daily newspaper.  When my dog sniffs a tree or a patch of ground and feels the need to mark it, that’s because of something he’s read in the newspaper.  When he picks up a scent and follows it, that’s because he can ‘see’ a trail that is invisible to me.

SAMSUNG CSCHis nose can identify if a dog is male or female, what it has eaten, if it is in season and a myriad other factors.  Recent research has shown that dogs are able to smell disease.  Their nostrils work independently so that they can tell which direction a scent is coming from.  And my dog is always sniffing.  His nose rarely stops twitching, whether he’s awake or asleep, whether he is sitting before an open window at home, or walking outside.  I may believe that nothing much is occurring, but to him, there are all sorts of things going on.

SAMSUNG CSCA writer’s brain is like a dog’s nose.  It’s our job to see in a different way.  We can use all of our senses to experience and describe a location.  But we also have to see the things that aren’t there.  We go beyond the limits of our senses.  We people the world with imaginary characters.  We imagine events we haven’t physically seen or experienced.    We build up the layers of place, people, events until they can be experienced in a rush of sensation.    As a dog’s nose is always ‘on’, so is a writer’s brain – always observing, always sifting ideas through the ‘nose’ of our creativity.  And, just like a dog, we will suddenly pick up a scent and we’ll be away, following the idea hungrily to see where it will lead us.SAMSUNG CSC

Dog scenting is usually seen as a way of asserting dominance, by marking territory, but it could also be viewed as a huge effort of co-operation.  Each dog is a canine reporter, contributing his smell, his story, his ‘news’ to the doggy newspaper, so that other dogs can make better sense of the world.  And in this way we, as writers, do the same.  We don’t usually write for status, but only to interpret the world in our own unique way, which will hopefully contribute to the world’s understanding of itself.

As a lesson for living, my dog’s nose reminds me that life is lived in the present moment and that is the best way to be content.  As a lesson for writing, it reminds me that there is so much more to imagine and ‘see’ than what is in front of me.

Three go off to camp

When I was small, I would plead with my mother to set up the clothes horse in the back garden.  She would drape a sheet over the rectangular frame and it would become my own miniature den.  I still have a vivid picture of the small ‘tent’ set up against the russet brick of the house, though I have no memory of what I actually did in there.

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I always wanted a tent.  I never owned one of my own and went camping only once for a single night on a school trip away.  A friend of mine had a tent and occasionally, she would put it up in her garden and we would ‘camp’ out during the day.  But I never had the romantic experience of camping I wished for.  I wanted to snuggle under canvas, in the shaded light, ideally with rain beating down above me.  I wanted to sit by a camp fire and listen to ghost stories.  I wanted to eat sausages cooked on a stove and drink tea out of a tin mug.  I’ve tried to understand what it is about camping that so attracted me.  Perhaps it was a sense of adventure instilled by reading too many Enid Blyton stories as a child – the type of adventure that if it ever existed, was beyond my means and experience.  Maybe it was that sense of being protected, but close to the elements.  Or maybe that part of me that longs for a nomadic lifestyle, with nothing to hold me back from pitching a tent anywhere.  Perhaps it was just to have a cosy space of my own at an age went that wasn’t yet possible.

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Is it a fiction writer’s curse to be able to build such an intense vision of what an experience will be like before having it?  We’re used to creating worlds that don’t really exist, to inventing scenes and scenarios that aren’t real but could be, to visualising imaginary things in such detail that they take on a life of their own.  To imagine each experience before it happens and to imbue it with a meaning that it can’t possibly live up to?

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Of course my real experience of camping wasn’t quite like my imagined version.  In my vision, we would be somewhere in the wilds, in a forest clearing perhaps, or on the edge of a shore.  In reality, we decided on the sensible approach, easing ourselves in gently at a well-maintained camp site.  And so we set off on our journey, my partner, my dog and I, three intrepid adventurers in search of an adventure.  The first image to be demolished was that of us as nomads, travelling light.  The car was loaded to the rafters with stuff – tent, airbed, sleeping bags, equipment, food.  I had my first guilty second thoughts – wondering why people bothered with all this effort, when it was just as easy to find a hotel or a cabin to hole up in.

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We watched the weather fretfully as the day warned of gale force winds and heavy rain.  The sky seemed to clear as we headed north, until, closer to our destination, it turned deep grey and it began to rain.  We watched the trees anxiously to see how badly they swayed in the wind, which howled fiercely through the car windows.  But when we arrived, it was dull but calm.  The campsite’s location was idyllic: castles and coastline visible to both north and south, sheep grazing on a tumulus shaped hill to the west, trees and hedgerows surrounding us.  Despite not being entirely sure of what we were doing, the tent went up efficiently and without any tantrums.  We unpacked and arranged our belongings.  And then…what?  We had our den but what to do with it?  We had our stove, but it took forever to boil enough water to make a hot drink.  Fantasies of savouring cups of coffee in the open air began to fade, as it became clear how much effort it would take to make them.  I wondered how exactly the Famous Five could rustle up hunks of fried bread, bacon and tomatoes enough for all of them on a small camping stove…

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There was to be no sitting around the campfire telling stories – open fires weren’t allowed on the campsite and people, though friendly enough, kept to themselves.  Between the lighted pathways and the full moon, there was little rural darkness to be enjoyed.  I discovered the frustrations of trying to sleep in an oversized sleeping bag, with a slippery shell, which seemed to deny all efforts to stay put on the bed.  The night was so cold that an icy breeze cooled my head and the dog was content to stay curled happily cocooned within a sleeping bag.

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In the morning, the tent dripped with condensation.   Outside, the weather was warming up to an extremely hot day.  I’d had one of those sleepless nights that, despite your fatigue, you just want to end, but I was so tired, I was useless for the rest of the day.  The heat inside the tent was thick and stifling.  Outside, there was no shelter and I worried our dog would catch sunstroke.  We’d camped for two days, between extremes of weather and it wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it to be.  I did sleep under canvas, accompanied by the sounds of birds and sheep.  I did eat sausages cooked on a camping stove and drink tea out of a tin mug.  I watched hares leaping around the campsite in the early morning and absorbed wonderful views.  But ultimately, the experience was, dare I say it…a little boring.

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Our next camping trip is already planned.  In September, we’ll be camping at a festival where scores of Border Terriers and their people gather together.  This first trip was just practice for that bigger adventure.  But my fiction writer’s perspective will be tempered by reality when I think of the trip to come, so perhaps it will be an adventure after all.