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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dogs, Philosophy and Nonphilosophical Dogs

The other day I wrote a one-sentence post that implied conceptual thinking on the part of my dog. Being a philosopher, I gave careful consideration to that sentence but in the end decided to invoke literary license.

It was only one day later that I idly picked up The Philosopher’s Dog: Friendships with Animals, by Raimond Gaita. Had I read the book? Surely I would have. Opening it at the beginning pages cast doubt on my certainty, and further reading convinced me of my error. This book doesn’t belong in the pet section of the bookstore at all but on the philosophy shelves! But I couldn’t resist. I had to read more before reshelving.

Dog lovers without philosophical inclinations would find long stretches of this book tedious, but every page is interesting to me, for various reasons. For instance, Gaita quotes a long passage from J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and subsequently makes a distinction between practical awareness and reflective understanding. If people think that dogs, let’s say, do not possess concepts, then how can they say a dog anticipates a future event? Isn’t the dog trapped in a never-ending NOW, without past or present? Gaita writes,
Coetzee appears to challenge that assumption. He also challenges assumptions about the connection between our sense of an animal’s body and of its behavior and our unhesitating preparedness to say that animals believe this or know that. He urges us to attend to the role that the living body, the body of flesh and blood, plays in the constitution of our concepts, including our concepts of belief and knowledge. Like Wittgenstein, he seems to believe that we misunderstand the importance of the infinitely subtle inflections and demeanors of the body, the many forms of its expressiveness, if we take them only as the basis for hypothetical attributions of states of consciousness....

Gaita’s last two words in the sentence I have let tail off with an ellipse are “to animals.” I stopped short of the end of his sentence because I think the case can be made—and that Wittgenstein implied the case—for humans as well as nonhuman animals.

The room Gaita makes for practical awareness falling short of reflective understanding reminds me of an old favorite paperback of mine, From Fish to Philosopher. Why is it so tempting for human beings to think that conscious must be all or nothing? If that’s your assumption, the doctrine of innate ideas makes perfect sense, eliminating any otherwise necessary leap over the chasm from nothing to all. Gaita dissolves the pseudo-problem of dog consciousness in Wittgensteinian fashion: it is not that we have justification for believing dogs conscious but rather that doubting the matter makes no sense. Belief comes before doubt, or doubt itself makes no sense.

My feeling—call it just that—about arguments for strong determinism is in this same boat. The determinist argues that we could predict every event in the future, given infinite knowledge of the past and present. But the very nature of argument rests on the possibility of convincing, of changing a listener’s or reader’s mind, and if determinism were true, the change in or persistence of belief would, either way, be inevitable. Does this possibility cohere with what we take belief to be? The arguer himself would be determined, not reasoned, in every word he utters. Is this what we take argument to be?

I no longer argue determinism, nor do I debate whether or not dogs are conscious, sentient beings who [yes, that's what I mean] feel pain, joy, satisfaction, who [not "that"] dream and anticipate. There is plenty of room for doubt in this world, but I’m saving my doubt for matters where it makes some sense. That’s one luxury of being a bookseller instead of an academic philosopher.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

End of August: Reading and Re-Reading

Each of us is inevitable,
Each of us is limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Eacdh of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.


Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Whitman. I'm reveling in this reading. And then there's this newer delight--

What if the wind could blow away everything we know, all our words, all our theories and arguments and superstitions and prejudices, all our fears and bravado, all our politics and ethics, everything our education has taught us, leaving us scoured and empty, clear and clear-headed, and able, at last, to see the world, not as a screen upon which we project ourselves, but as it is? What would such a world look like? Would we know it? Would we be at home in it? How would we make our way through it?

- Jerry Dennis, “Winter Comes to the Keewanaw,” in Michigan Quarterly Review special issue, The Great Lakes: Love Song and Lament, Summer 2011

Finally, I'm indulging myself with reading for the third time a Michigan novel that continues to teach me lessons:

Her earlier fury seemed far away, and tiny, ike something that had happened at the opposite end of a very long tunnel.


Madeline looked woeful. “Nothing’s the way I expected it, now.”

“Ha,” Mary said. She didn’t mean to laugh at the girl but if that wasn’t the story of life, nothing was.

- Ellen Airgood, South of Superior

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Travel, Poetry, and Some Secrets of the “Most Beautiful” Places

Surely you’ve all heard by now—“Good Morning America” found Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore to be the most beautiful place in the United States. We had some stiff competition, so it's pretty big county news. What’s really funny are the different local responses to the news from residents and visitors, old and new, fulltime and parttime. Some, rubbing their hands together, eagerly anticipate a boom, while others shudder in dread of the same. Are big changes in the wind? Will Cape Cod, the Grand Tetons and Hawaii’s golden beaches be deserted for the glories of northern Michigan? Somehow I doubt it. The shelf life of a morning news segment is briefer than anyone imagines.

Meanwhile, here on Waukazoo Street, the bad news or the good news--depending on your point of view--is that the TV crew did not get up to Northport at all. (It's going to take a lot to spoil us!) Even star community booster Mario Batali, when touting area restaurants, doesn't spill all the beans in his poke. For instance, did he tell the world that he brought another visiting celebrity to dinner one night at the Garage Bar and Grill in Northport and that the two of them were back the next day for lunch with Mario's wife? No, he did not. We here at the northernmost end of Leelanau County still have some--er, oops! Cat out of bag! Sorry, Bruce and George!

Really? Honestly? I can think of countless beautiful places in Michigan that tourists from New York and California, let alone other parts of the world, never see. They don’t even suspect the existence of these secret gems hidden away in plain sight but perhaps without a lot of signs pointing the way. My friend Laurie and I spoke of this years ago, lying in the sun on the dock at Charley and Mary’s lake—which is what we always called it, and I’ll say no more about where in the state it is to be found. Unsung treasures! I’m sure that what is true of Michigan is true of every state and every country in the world. It’s been true of every place I’ve ever visited, at least.

Then there was this summer story:

“Stranded in Northport”

A woman not interested in art or books—although, in fairness, maybe she would have been some other time—spent a quarter of an hour in my bookstore on her cell phone, discussing with someone on the other end the calamity of being “stranded in Northport” due to boat engine troubles. When she got off the phone and relayed the latest news to her husband, he said cheerfully, “So maybe I should get two books then!” Her reply: “That’s not funny.” I thought it was. I thought it showed true vacation spirit.

How many people slaving away at jobs in unappealing places would love to be “stranded in Northport” on vacation? A man from Wisconsin got a big laugh at Barb’s Bakery one morning a few years back when he declared Northport “the holy grail” of destinations. But then, he had to make the trip on his sailboat through “Death’s Door” to get out of his Wisconsin port and arrive here safely.

Follow the crowd or take the road less traveled? It can still make all the difference. What’s your take?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Still Here, Still Reading

Time constraints and technical difficulties have conspired to keep my posting to a minimum lately. Now at least one of those problems has been resolved (hint: time is still full and fleeting!), so here I am again. Still reading Still reading Leaves of Grass, but other things, too. One is a fast-paced action novel from Botswana from Australian writer Tony Park, but unfortunately for the rest of you, Park’s books (the one I’m reading is the seventh, and he has a new one out since then) have not yet been published in this country.

We in the U.S. and here in Michigan do not want for exciting words on paper, however, as the new issue of Michigan Quarterly Review makes abundantly clear. You won’t want to miss this special issue entitled “The Great Lakes: Love Song and Lament,” its title taken from one of two essays by Jerry Dennis that make up part of this remarkable compendium of prose, poetry and photography that opens with two poems, in original Anishinaabemowin on one page and in English translation on the facing page, by Margaret Noori. There is so much in this beautiful, slim little volume, every page moving and every line quotable, that I must urge you to get out and find it for yourself. If you’re near Northport, naturally I hope you will stop in at Dog Ears Books....

The new MQR another reminder, too, that the Jerry Dennis essays inside are only a preview of his new book due out this fall, The Windward Shore, which will have its Leelanau launch party at Dog Ears on Friday, October 7, from 5-7 p.m. I’d say “I can’t wait,” except that before then we’ll be hosting Dee Blair, whose garden column many of you have enjoyed for years in the Record-Eagle. Dee will be signing the first of her books of collected columns (there will be one book for each gate in her lovely Sixth Street garden), The View From Sunnybank, at Dog Ears on on Friday, September 9, from 1-3 p.m.. Gardeners—from wannabe through negligent to expert—please take note and mark your calendars.

Between Blair and Dennis, David and Sarah and I will be squeezing in a little “summer” vacation time, making our usual September jaunt up to the U.P., so if you’re coming to Northport and want to make sure we’re open, you might want to call first. Bruce will probably cover the shop for part of the time that I’m gone.

Great Lakes. Michigan, September almost here. What more could anyone ask? Only time outdoors to enjoy it! Okay, so my time outdoors today starts off with stalking tomato hornworms. Sound like fun? "How do you kill them?" David asked. "I let Nature do it," I told him. I collect the little beasties and relocate them to the dusty driveway, far from the garden. There they can (1) dessicate, (2) starve, (3) eat something else, (4) be eaten by birds or (5) be run over by an orchard tractor. I don't care. Just so they're not eating my tomatoes. And meanwhile, on today's shopping list are apples, cider vinegar and golden raisins, so I can chop up green tomatoes to make green tomato "mincemeat" to can for fall pies. Yum!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beautiful Grasses and Their Companions

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlours of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

These days (as time permits, of course) I’m concentrating seriously on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the last item on the reading list of a young man finishing up his high school credits from far off-campus. So many of the classics on his list, both fiction and nonfiction, were depressing and bleak that, when the group leader asked members for suggestions, I felt the student deserved something upbeat and life-affirming. I don’t know that I’ve ever before read Whitman’s whole long, rambling work from beginning to end, straight through. I do know that I’m loving the experience and hope the student will, as well.

I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass over a period of roughly 30 years, adding to it, rearranging and altering sections through edition after edition. Certain lines and phrases (“my barbaric yawp,” for instance, and “I sing the body electric” and, of course, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d”)) leap out at me familiarly. Much more feels like pure discovery. My little old Penguin paperback is bristling with Post-it tabs.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then....

Is it only my imagination, or is the fullness of nature in August, a time for harvest in the fields and seed-scattering in the wild, particularly appropriate for reading Leaves of Grass?
Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own, O my soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.

In the morning when the grasses and wildflowers and roadside weeds are heavy with dew, I seem to notice each species more, in its separateness, for reading Whitman before sunrise. There by the cattails is Joe-Pye-weed, and there are sedges, and nearby there is goldenrod, and along the road the heavy-headed blooms of Queen-Anne’s-lace stand waiting like spectators before the parade comes by.

Like the United States of America, this poem grew and grew and sprawls still, practically overflowing its pages. (Leaves. Obvious as it is, I love that thought that keeps recurring.) Whitman is sometimes called an urban poet, but there is as much countryside and wilderness as there is city and town in these free-form verses, as much field and stream as factory and street corner. In a hundred different ways, the poet announces his desire to be everything and everywhere. The reader becomes joyfully breathless trying to keep up with the poet’s flights. Nothing is alien to him. Nothing human or animal or vegetable or mineral. Nothing is omitted or rejected. And there is detail, detail, detail.
...Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower’d cotton plant, over the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak’d farm house, with its scallop’d scum and slender shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav’d corn, over the delicate blue-flower flax....

Whitman’s spirit is democratic, avowing that “there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero." His spirit is transcendental and accepting, “Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things.” Above all, his spirit of that of a happy man, in love with all existence.
All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me.
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.

I find this work inordinately refreshing. Something tells me that Walt Whitman wouldn't have been bothered at all by the sight of invasive loosestrife. He would have seen the blooms as beautiful and would have taken the name at its word.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dog Parade 2011, Northport, Michigan

Anticipation for the dog parade begins as early as a year before the event. No sooner has one parade ended than folks begin to speculate on next year's theme and brainstorm on next year's costumes. On the big day itself, anticipation comes to a head, as these photographs illustrate. There are even dogs in the audience lining the streets of Northport. Some (not to mention any names) are dogs who can't be in the parade because they must be at their places of work.

But all work comes to a halt as the parade winds its way through town. Old Jake beat the advance guard, as the oldest dog and the first one down the street.

Here's the official beginning--

I found the dog costumed as a carpetbagger amusing. You do remember this year's theme, don't you? It was "Dog Gone With the Wind"!

It wouldn't be a parade without a band, and the Northport Community Band pulled out all the stops, as always.

Overcast skies and a cool breeze helped keep dogs and their attendant walkers from being too uncomfortable in Civil War costumes.

Finally, along came the Grand Marshall and the main float of this year's parade, a brilliant nod to Northport history:

Friends of the Library made a splash, too, as they do every year--

Humans in costume could have fun even if not walking a dog, as this Leland woman demonstrates.

But there were plenty of dogs and kids and grownups in fancy dress.

The dog parade is like Thanksgiving--all the preparation and waiting and excitement, and all too soon it's over, Dog Gone With the Wind!

We stretched out the festivities at Dog Ears Books, however, with author John Mitchell on hand after the parade to add personal inscriptions to signed copies of his book, Grand Traverse, The Civil War Era.

Sarah started the day very perky.

She and I both snagged some parade beads along the way. She also snagged some doggie treats, and the Grand Marshall threw me a Reese's peanut butter cup. It was an exciting day. By the time it was over, we were dog tired. But in a good way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Detour Through the Kalahari: “It may be that the day is just the dream of the night....”

Before the first of our rains finally arrived last week, the grass was parched and brown, and the vegetable garden needed watering every day, but the dry spell that made the cornfields suffer was good for cherry harvest and could hardly be called a drought--nothing like conditions on the opening page of Laurens van der Post’s The Heart of the Hunter (1961):
We were still deep in the Kalahari, moving slowly through a difficult tract of country into which the rains as yet had been unable to break. Since it was already late in the year, the plight of the desert was frightening. Almost all the grass was gone and only the broken –off stubble of another season left here and there, so thin, bleached, and translucent that its shadow was little more than a darker form of sunlight. The trees, most of them leafless, stood exposed against the penetrating light like bone in a X-ray plate. The little leaf there was looked burnt out and ready to crumble to ash on touch. Under such poor cover the deep sand was more conspicuous than ever, saffron at dawn and dusk, and sulphur in between. There was no shade anywhere solid enough to cool its burning surface. What there was, seemed scribbled on it by the pointed thorns like script on some Dead Sea scroll.

In quiet moments during the day and the dark hours when sleep flees, I have been living in the Kalahari and learning from Laurens van der Post. The excerpt above is only the second paragraph of the book, after a short introductory paragraph of two sentences, so you see how quickly the author plunges his reader into the atmosphere he wants to convey. Van der Post does not mistake the desert for empty land. The Kalahari, we learn as we read, is alive with clouds, stars, plants, trees, people and stories, and the traveler who guides us through it does so with a fine sensibility and love for everything and everyone he meets there.
I know that, ever since I can remember, I have been attracted by deserts in a way I do not properly understand. I have always loved above all others what I call Cinderella country. I know of nothing more exciting to my imagination than discovering in the waste land, which the established world rejects as ugly and sterile, a beauty and promise of rare increase not held out anywhere else in life.

Most of all, he appreciates the culture of the Bushmen. At its most superficial, then, The Heart of the Hunter (sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari) tells a story of travel through the Kalahari and conclusions the author draws from his experiences, with the next level down his focus on the Bushman, but there is depth beyond a recounting of encounters and tales told. Van der Post’s third level is his search for nothing less than the meaning of life and his finding it in Africa and in the Bushman’s oral culture, from which he draws parallels to cultures and religions around the world. Finally, in all of these stories, as well as in the poetry of Blake and Goethe, he finds the reconciliation of opposites, the reunion of black and white, man and nature, intellect and emotion, life and death.

The Bushman before he came into conflict with European culture and law, with his spirit safely contained in his traditional stories, says van der Post, knew nothing of “that isolation which secretly eats away the courage and individuality of modern man.” Rather—
Armed only with his native wit and his bow and arrow, wherever he went he belonged, feeling kinship with everyone and everything he met on the way from birth to death. I myself would define his ‘participation mystique’ as a sense of being known; wherever he went he felt known, whatever he encountered, starlight, cloud, tree, or animal, knew him.

Those of my readers unfamiliar with van der Post’s writings will no doubt be thinking skeptically about now, Isn’t this just one more book romanticizing of the ‘primitive,’ of which we have known so many? Does the author conclude that we of the literate West are doomed to alienation because there is no way to return to our mythical ‘origins’? Happily—although not at all easily—this is not where Laurens van der Post would lead and leave us. The structure of this book echoes the much longer work of Marcel Proust. Part One of The Heart of the Hunter is “World Lost,” Part Two, “World Between,” and Part Three, “World Regained.” We can, the author believes (along with Proust), “regain” a feeling for the meaning of life and for belonging in the world. All it takes is that we do not let our commitment to words bar the contribution of images to our sense of belonging, that our appreciation for science not blind us to the grace to be found in imagination, mythic narrative and poetry.

Laurens van der post himself (1906-1996) was blessed with the soul of a poet and with a childhood that nurtured that soul. His attunement to the world around him was extraordinary. There is scarcely a sentence in this book unworthy of being quoted, but I will close today with a short excerpt from near the beginning, since in the beginning is the end and in the end the beginning:
The last red glow in the west died down behind the purple range of cloud, and it went utterly dark beyond our camp. Our own fires rose higher than ever, straining like a gothic spire towards the stars which were appearing in unusual numbers. Soon the stars were great and loud with light until the sky trembled like an electric bell, while every now and then from the horizon the lightning swept a long sort of lighthouse beam over us. At last the Bushmen stood up from their work with a deep sigh of satisfaction and wiped their hands on stubbles of grass. ... As always their fires were more circumspect than our own. Ours was a cathedral of flames, theirs little more than slender candles burning in a night devout under stars.

The sight stirred me deeply....

Monday, August 8, 2011

Important Summer Reminders






There, now we've taken care of safety (I hope), here's another timely summer reminder from Northport's own David Chrobak, your host at the Old Mill Pond Inn and Grand Marshall of the Northport's famous summer Dog Parade: The parade is this coming Saturday, August 13. Advance registration is $10 per dog. The theme this year is “Dog Gone With the Wind.” Think Civil War costumes and hope for a pleasant day with temperatures below the broiling range..

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Another Book Signing, Another Music in the Park, Another Perfect Northport Day

One of the first things I did on Friday morning was to gather wildflowers from my meadow for the book signing later in the day. Gathering flowers took place after Sarah’s playtime with Zeva, of course, and after watering the garden and loading everything into the car for the day to go to Northport, where the first order of the day was arranging for Sarah’s long-overdue pedicure (Thank you, Jamie!), after which it was time for Friday town errands: farmers’ market, post office, bank, grocery store, a stop at the Filling Station for bags of ice. Then just a few minutes left to organize things inside the bookstore before it was time to open the door and put out the OPEN flag, and soon the store was bustling.

Dusty was visiting and took over Sarah’s usual entertainment role. (Sarah was pooped after her romp with Zeva.)

There was the book signing table to be arranged. I arranged and rearranged it many times in the course of the day.

At last five o’clock arrived. Bonnie Jo Campbell arrived. Book-lovers arrived and kept arriving. Lines formed to buy books and have them signed. The author took time to talk to everyone personally, while those waiting enjoyed conversation with friends or strangers in line. It was Campbell's first visit to Northport, and Northport did me proud.

Here’s Bonnie Jo with famous fly rod builder Bob Summers of Traverse City.

Here she is with poet Marie Bahlke.

And here are author and bookseller at Dog Ears. It was our first face-to-face meeting. Our husbands were there, too, in the crowd.

Sarah was there and behaved well, other than begging for Triscuits, but she didn't get in any of the pictures this time.

At last the long-awaited event, my last summer 2011 signing, came to a close. David and I bid farewell to Bonnie and Chris, made the first small dent in the tidying-up (leaving the rest for morning) and went next door for a bite at the Garage Bar & Grill. It felt good to sit back and relax. I was perfectly satisfied and happy. Then--it being Friday, after all--we decided to go catch a little Music in the Park. The NYSS (Northport Youth Sailing School) was having a picnic by the water’s edge, making a spot of color and activity in the bright evening sunshine.

A large crowd had assembled for the always-delightful Chico Luna, this time playing with his “Other Band” and featuring fiddler Ruby John. Oh, rhe light, the colors, the laughter and smiles, the children playing and the lovely, lovely music!

Chico and Ruby, Ruby and Chico—what better way to end a beautiful day? My eyes and ears were happy, and my cup of contentment overflowed. I was as happy as this young girl in the big old willow tree... happy as this soft moon risen over our old barn at home. Ain't no place I'd rather be.