Like many of you, I go out every day into the natural world in the good company of a dog. Yesterday-a brilliant day- the oft-written-about Dory and I followed a long narrow trail through the woods that ended abruptly at a steep slope of sand. We floundered up and over and entered the majesty of the Provinceland dunes, spread before us, with the ocean beyond.
What a glorious couple of hours we had roaming and exploring the dune faces and precipices, the swales and hollows, the copses of pines and oaks, the cranberry bogs, until we finally made it to the fore-dune and gazed out at the wild Backside beach with ocean waves spilling onto it over the Peaked Hills bars.
The day, the place, the experience, set my soul to spinning. Why? There is a human appreciation of spaciousness. There is a yearning for solitude in this crowded world, and indeed I did not encounter anyone. There is a human affinity for the wild and green world. There is survival value in all these things that could explain a genetic predisposition for my ecstasy. But beyond this, there is the sheer beauty- the too-blue cloudless sky above, the undulating dunes and the wave-tossed water in the distance, and up close the perfection of the tiny bearberry blossoms, and all the other budding vegetation.
Beauty. What exactly is it? Yes, I know it when I see it, but I can’t put in words what the human concept of beauty is. I am sure there are shelves of books devoted to the topic, but I will not read them. I will leave it stand.
I was wondering, though: does my dog comprehend any of this quality? What does Dory see out there? Is it really just black and white and shades of gray? Of course she smells so much more than I do. We cannot imagine the world of smell that is denied to us. But what of the overall beauty of the dunes? Does it mean anything to her? Would a similarly sized asphalt parking lot sprinkled with scents be the equivalent? It is hard to imagine that, but then what exactly would a dog be responding to? The same things I am responding to? The trees, the dunes, the sky, the ocean? What do they mean to her?
And for that matter, how about the Red-tail Hawk soaring above us? What does it feel about the beauty below? Or is it just looking for a rabbit? Is there an aesthetic sense in animals? Is there, for instance, music in their lives? Is bird song simply functional? Is there joy in the soulful chords of Humpback Whales? Is there room for a sense of beauty in an animal’s life, and, if there is, would it line up with ours?
Coming to a sheltered cranberry bog, I stand and admire it. The water table is high after all our rain. Dory shoulders by me, drinks heartily, lies down in the water and rolls over and over in it: now, who got the most out of this experience?