I was googling when I discovered, by happenstance, that I was mentioned in a dog book.
I was? Uh oh! Best to brace myself!
The book was What's a Dog For? by John Homans, and it had excellent reviews:
"[An] engaging, informative book that is both a survey of the latest research on canine cognition and a memoir of [Homans's] years with his Lab mix, Stella... perfect and poignant."
—The New York Times Book Review
"[An] artful exploration of human-canine relations... Homans travels around the country, exploring various dog cultures and speaking to scientists, aid workers, lawyers, and breeders to discover how dogs have achieved this 'honorary personhood.'"
—The New Yorker
“A remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog's journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor… Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What's a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin's muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.”
"Through careful observation and analysis, New York executive editor Homans opens the door into the world of dogs, from the scientific to the humorous... illuminating nuggets of information on the ever-changing and complex world of people and their pets."
"Retraces [the] journey from Darwin's study of canine emotions to puppy mills to a canine-science conclave in Vienna... covers doggie consciousness and evolution... Homans hits his stride on topics like the read-state (pro)/blue state (con) divide over euthanasia and the aristocratic origins of canine pedigree. Sprinkled throughout are charming anecdotes that will delight dog lover and even likely appeal to die-hard cat people."
Wow. That actually sounded pretty good. And so, while sipping on a cup of coffee last week, I ordered a copy off of Amazon, and it arrived on Sunday.
I would like to say you I'm not so vain as to first turn to my own name in the index first, but that would be a lie. That said, what I found was rather flattering, which was not expected:
Patrick Burns of the popular blog Terrierman.... wants to tear down the Potemkin village of the AKC and repopulate the world with real working dogs, dogs that can dig up farm varmints, like his own terriers that he sets after woodchucks on the farm fields around his Virginia home. His deep, scoffing contempt for his adversaries makes him a great blogger. He's forged a cross-Atlantic alliance with Jemima Harrison, creating a two front war. In some ways, he's also an ideological ally of journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivores Dilemma, as well as all the sheep farmers heirloom vegetable growers and locavores who are trying to imagine a new relation with the natural world. But he's far from sentimental about the past – he knows what the modern world is, knows that the Wendell Berrys are not about to feed Chicago anytime soon.
And he knows that in some ways the natural world is in better shape than it was, say 30 years ago: there are more eagles, more deer, and more varmints, which is where his terriers come in. Terrierman uses them for the purpose they were originally bred for; digging for varmints. Their chests have to be narrow enough to squeeze down fox and groundhog burrows, and part of his issue with the AKC is that the dogs it certifies don't have these dimensions.
Burns's cosmology is idiosyncratic, a world entire, woven from skeins of history and philosophy and science. He writes about what your life might be like and what equipment you'd need if the electricity was turned off; why the AKC won't listen to Charles Darwin; why the golden bear hasn't return to California. His hunting is a practice that leads to all sorts of corollaries. He's a truth seeker and a truth teller. His dogs anchor his thinking to what's happening to nature in the modern world.
Burns's passion reminds us that to have a relationship to the natural world, we must imagine it, then believe in it, and then live it. One of the main intellectual threads of the last decade has been our need to take ethical responsibility for our food choices and for our carnivorousness. Despite their element of moral playacting, these ethics raise an important truth, which is that we're not on the farm anymore. And getting back there involves, as much as anything else, imagination.
Dogs, as always, are players in this drama – side players, a parallel story. The Victorian era's field-and-farmyard uses for dogs – "hunting in a field of high turnips" - no longer exist in our world. But then what uses are appropriate for dogs today? The dog world is alive with such anxieties, hand-wringing about the future of the dog. Which can seem a little silly, as dogs are patently not going anywhere.
That's as far as I have gotten so far, but will I read the whole book? You bet! And you can too!