Friday, 7 July 2017

Thinking about dogs, death and Petraichor

Julie’s comment on the previous post, about her miniature Schnauzer, Millie, made me thing of dogs, and brought to mind this poem by Charles Kingsley:

When all the world is young, lad, 
        And all the trees are green ; 
    And every goose a swan, lad, 
        And every lass a queen ; 
    Then hey for boot and horse, lad, 
        And round the world away ; 
    Young blood must have its course, lad, 
        And every dog his day.


    When all the world is old, lad, 
        And all the trees are brown ; 
    And all the sport is stale, lad, 
        And all the wheels run down ; 
    Creep home, and take your place there, 
        The spent and maimed among : 
    God grant you find one face there, 
        You loved when all was young.


All I remembered from it before I looked it up were the two phrases “every lass a queen” and “every dog his day” – which shows I must have been of quite an optimistic cast of mind when I read it as a teenager, because it feels like quite a depressing poem taken all round.  I think Kingsley can’t have been all that old when he wrote it, because my mother’s nearly ninety and, though she’s frail and forgetful, “spent and maimed” she is not, and I haven’t noticed her do much creeping either. It all depends on your point of view, I think.

My parents had a dog they loved dearly, a Border Terrier called Josh. In the last years of his life, my father went off into the wilderness somewhat and preferred the simplicity and peace of living alone. My mother sent Josh with him so he wouldn’t be lonely, and they lived together very contentedly in quietness and seclusion.

When Josh died, they both grieved for him, and I remember making a remembrance card to mark the occasion, with a quotation from this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson:

Fear not, dear friend, but freely live your days
Though lesser lives should suffer.  Such am I,
A lesser life, that what is his of sky
Gladly would give for you, and what of praise.
Step, without trouble, down the sunlit ways.
We that have touched your raiment, are made whole
From all the selfish cankers of man's soul,
And we would see you happy, dear, or die.
Therefore be brave, and therefore, dear, be free;
Try all things resolutely, till the best,
Out of all lesser betters, you shall find;
And we, who have learned greatness from you, we,
Your lovers, with a still, contented mind,
See you well anchored in some port of rest.


I think what I picked out for the card was:
Fear not, dear friend, but freely live your days . . .
Step, without trouble, down the sunlit ways,
… we,
Your lovers, with a still, contented mind,
See you well anchored in some port of rest.

Thinking of that little, muscled, bristly brown back trotting contentedly along the summer lanes of rural England, under the trees and the wide blue sky with its white clouds, it seemed fitting.

And thinking of that death of a beloved animal reminds me of the death of the last of a litter of kittens who grew up and grew old in my (now) husband’s house. By the time I married him, he was on the last two – Toffee and Mackerel. We lived then in a house with a slate-flagged kitchen floor, complete with underfloor heating. At great expense Toffee, having lost the ability to leap up onto sunny windowsills, spent his last days stretching luxuriously on the warm slates as we ran the heating day and night for his benefit!

Mackerel was the last to go. Toffee in the end was euthanased at the vet, but Mackerel died at home. 



She spent her last days in the long, narrow utility room at the back of the kitchen, in a quiet space under the counter next to the washing machine, lying on a pile of our laundry waiting to be washed. We left it there for her, because I think she probably found the smell of us comforting. She just stayed there, quietly, until her last evening. Then she moved further along the corridor of that room to the lavatory at the end, where she went into the secluded space behind the door.




We were out that evening, but our lodgers called us to come home, worried about her because she had begun to have small convulsions. While the Badger was calling the vet to arrange to take her there, I sat with her. The moment she died was memorable. In my mind arose the words, “Ah! That’s better!” in a happy expression of relief, and in my mind’s eye I saw a liquid golden bubble (like the stuff they put in lava lamps, but gold) floating upwards and free.

Yesterday in our household we were talking about death, and how it should be as natural and simple as we can manage to make it, not feared or evaded, not dreaded or protracted. Death is part of life. Carlos Castenada in his (very odd) novels featuring the Native American character Don Juan, described death as always sitting/walking/standing very near you, somewhere to your left just out of sight. And one day he will tap on your shoulder – “Time to go.”

Which reminds me of yet another poem . . . in my commonplace book . . . roots around for it . . . here it is!

It’s by Virgil. From the Aeneid? Just a short snatch:

Here’s Death, twitching my ear:
“Live,” he says, “for I’m coming.”

Quite right, too. So in the meantime, may every dog have his day, and every living soul have his or her time in the sun. Let us live simply, in slowness, lowliness and littleness finding contentment and peace. Let us take the time to watch the sparrows in the greengage tree, and love the nip in the air that comes with the autumn, taste with amazement the flavor of ripe peaches, smell the rose that rambles over the garden arch. For where is there like Earth? – and what a chance we have been given, to explore this wonder, this marvel, this fullness of life.




Petraichor (say it Petra-eye-core) – a word for the scent arising from rain falling new on dry earth. It releases the aroma of whatever is there. I have heard that in India it’s a feature of the Monsoon beginning – people where the rain has not yet arrived know it is coming when the air fills with the fragrance of spices as the rain begins to fall in the country nearby.

Petraichor is a composite of  two Greek words: πέτρα petra, meaning "stone", and ἰχώρ īchōr, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

Of course the fragrance released speaks – loudly – of what is there on the earth. Spices, in India. In a garden, the green scent of plants and the perfume of flowers.  And in some places the telling aroma of dog poo and particulate dust from exhaust fumes. As Shakespeare said, “Thou earth, thou – speak!” And so it does. In the end, what we put in returns to us. Sometimes quite quickly.







2 comments:

Buzzfloyd said...

Regarding Charles Kingsley, it should be borne in mind that he was a Victorian social reformer. 'Spent and maimed' was the condition of many of the old people he would have grown up around (especially the men who had fought in the brutal Napoleonic Wars), and of the working poor. Grandmary obviously has good genes, but also became an adult in a time that has afforded an easier life and a better opportunity of comfort in old age. So I think if Victorian poems paint a seriously grim picture of old age, it's not due to inaccuracy but historical circumstances.

Pen Wilcock said...

Good point.