The Ruricolist is now available in print.


How fitting that a dog went first, and that, for a time, she was between us and darkness. All our proud rockets, all our brave pioneers, and we entered space as a child might enter a basement, holding onto a dog’s tail. She was a Moscow stray. A stray, and therefore nobody’s dog, or everybody’s – yours and mine, even. A Moscow stray, distant aunt to that remarkable unbreed of hustlers and idlers – Russia’s last aristocrats.

Strays live by the old covenant. Dogs never needed us. The deadliest hunter of the African plains is not the lion but the wild dog, whose kills are efficient, coordinated, and relentless. And they chose to throw in their lot with us. What honor! And what responsibility! There is a play (a radio play by Dunsany) where mankind is put on trial. One by one the animals testify against us; only the dog speaks in our defense, with such praise as is, in its way, worse than accusation:

He is man: that is enough. More is not needed. More could not be needed. All wisdom is in him. All his acts are just; terrible sometimes, but always just.

Bacon writes (against atheism) that men are better for having a god as dogs are better for having a master: a strange and improper argument. But if our faith is as heavy as the faith of dogs is to us, we can have a sort of sympathy, and imagine how gods might know shame.

Muhammad relates that a woman was forgiven a lifetime of sin for giving a thirsty dog a drink of water. Consider how the balance is weighed; what does it mean to harm a dog? “Who could eat a dog?” is really the same question as, “Who could eat a man?” Traditionally, nobody eats a dog for its meat; men eat dogs like men eat men: to absorb their power. It is at least respectful. When dogs are twisted into brutality, neglected into savagery, beaten into helplessness, there is no respect; better to be eaten. And yet each new puppy is a fresh expression of absolute trust, never diminished. Our terrible debt vanishes in that unquenchable devotion.

In his last years, isolated in deafness, Goya gave up canvas and impasted the walls of his own house with a series of alien images, primordial and apocalyptic at once. A lone dog – all alone – sinks below the horizon, howling as she recedes over the edge of the world. We sent Laika to die; we sacrificed her. She died within hours. And then for five months, dead, in her dark, silent capsule, she circled our bright world, falling and falling as the horizon slipped away beneath her, one dead dog keeping solitary watch over the billions. Then she fell as a star falls, a burnt offering, trailing fire, scattering earth and sea with her ashes.

Even the sky is haunted.