Lily contemplates the snow. Photo: Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 23: My canine sensory extender

Lily draws us into possibilities and mysteries, while at the same time reminding us of our limitations.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

Dec. 3, 2019 

Winter is here! I spent much of yesterday on a window seat watching the snow come down, Lily dozing on my legs, with the occasional glance outside. Today there’s a foot and a half of snow on the ground.

Lily refuses to go out, even with a path shoveled thoughtfully from the door to a lovely little cleared space that, on non-snowy days, she happily uses for her necessaries. Last night I even carried her out, placed her in the cleared space, and as soon as I put her down, she bolted back through her doggie door.

I think about going back into the woods after the storm. We can strap on our snowshoes and hit the trails, but not with Lily. Even were her proclivities to be more snow-friendly, Lily is a small dog with a low chassis, maybe 5 inches ground to belly. She’s no match for deep snow.

And what would the woods be without Lily? You see, Lily is our sensory extender in the woods, a conduit into its mysteries, a kind of external neural network into the unknown, something like how mycelia under the forest floor connect tree roots with other tree roots and extend their communicative range.

When Lily leaps on a fallen tree and raises her nose to the wind, we follow her gaze and raise our noses, too. We surely can’t smell what she can smell, but our senses are on the alert, maybe even extending their range and capabilities. When she darts, barking, into the trees, we strain our eyes to see what’s there. We can’t see what she sees, but we are prepared to see, and mindful of what we cannot see. Sometimes, as she whines and snuffles at a hole under a stump, we see a chipmunk flee out the other side, safely escaped while our dog digs and whimpers at the promise of the scent.

Lily draws us into possibilities and mysteries, while at the same time reminding us of our limitations. We humans cannot define the universe, however clever we are at creating instruments for exploration and formulae for interpretation. We cannot see the iridescence that allows blue jays to recognize each other, nor hear song below and above the registers of our ears. No matter how sophisticated the instrument or the analysis, we are largely restricted to the capabilities of our senses to carry information in, and of our minds to make sense of what we are able to perceive, even with artificial intelligence. I am no expert, but we will always come back to our bodies and ourselves.

And that’s where Lily comes in. Even as we switch our adventures from the snow-blocked trail to the road and the leash, Lily is exploring, tugging and carrying me to points of interest to her that I would never have realized could be points of interest to me, too.