Kinship with All Life, by J. Allen Boone (reviewed by Sten Linnander)
This is a gem of a book. Although it was written 60 years ago, in 1954, it is still refreshingly relevant today, especially for lovers of dogs – and, as the title implies, for lovers of all life. The book is only 157 pages long, but is full of delightful stories of man-animal interactions.
A bit more than half the book deals with the author’s experiences with a very special dog named Strongheart. Collectively, we have forgotten Strongheart, but for three years he was a Hollywood star. As the author writes: “With his fame reaching into every part of the world where motion pictures were shown, Strongheart became the Number One attraction in the world of entertainment, the most glittering of the Hollywood stars […].” By pure chance, the author, who knew practically nothing about dogs, was asked to take care of the dog for a few months during a break between productions.
What followed was a rapprochement between a man and a dog that goes much further than what we usually believe to be possible. It must be said, however, that Strongheart was very special, having come from a long line of blue-ribbon shepherds and having been trained extensively in police and war work in Germany. But not only was he an exceptionally well-trained dog, he was also what the author calls an “educated” dog. His “education” was based on principles that we would do well to apply to our entire educational system. The idea behind his education was that the talents and graces buried beneath the dog’s tough exterior did not need to be developed, but liberated.
There follows striking examples and often hilarious anecdotes of how the dog understood everything the author told him and how he read his mind, even when they were not in the same room. But this incredible display of talents on the part of the dog always seemed to be one-directional – from the author to the dog. Until one day he has an experience that makes him think that if he really wants to get to know the dog, he “would have to stop localizing him within the boundaries of his body and begin to look for him in more expansive categories.”
The instructions that the author had received about how to care for Strongheart included the somewhat unusual request that he read something intelligent to him every day. Although he didn’t fully understand why, he did so, receiving the full attention of Strongheart. One day, having finished reading some unusually fine poetry to him, he suddenly understood why he had been instructed to read to him: Reading aloud to Strongheart meant that he no longer treated him out of all kinds of limiting dog classifications, instead dealing with him as with an intelligent fellow being. The more he stopped treating Strongheart like “a dog” in the conventional meaning, the more he stopped acting like “a dog.” And the more the two began to function as companions, the more the kinship barriers between them came tumbling down.
Again and again, the author experiences blocks in his communication and realizes that they are all caused by his own feeling of superiority. He had mentally assigned himself to the upper part of the relationship because he happened to be “a human,” and Strongheart to the lower part, because he was “a dog.” So he decided to make a complete right-about-face. He reversed “man trains dog” and turned it into “dog trains man.” He thus tries to open up to the same kind of telepathic communication with Strongheart as the dog obviously had with him.
Once, when the two of them are sitting in stillness out in nature, the author decides to interview the dog as though he were a “distinguished but difficult-to-understand foreigner.” Not wanting to disturb the stillness between them, he mentally asks him all kinds of questions having to do with the dog’s most intimate life, with humans and with human-animal relationships. Once he has asked his questions, he relaxes and after a short while Strongheart turns his head and stares at him with those big eyes of his. This goes on for a few minutes and when he is done, the author realizes that he has received answers to all the questions he has asked. He writes “I had spoken to Strongheart in the kind of speech which does not have to be uttered or written, and he had replied to me in the same language. […] I had at last made contact with that seemingly lost universal silent language which, as those illumined ancients pointed out long ago, all life is innately equipped to speak with all life, whenever minds and hearts are properly attuned.”
This unspoken form of human-animal communication and our corresponding kinship with all life provides the focus for the second half of the book, which describes interactions between humans and several other animal species: rattlesnakes, ponies, skunks, worms, ants – even bacteria. The stories are like revelations about what is possible once we allow ourselves to shift our perspective and stop judging what is possible and what is not.
Unforgettable is the author’s description of his encounter, interactions and friendship with a common housefly, whom he called Freddy the Fly. Once he has understood that the fly is following him around and that there is a silent communication going on, they enter into a kind of routine with each other. Every morning Freddy is there waiting for him in the middle of the shaving mirror in the bathroom and proceeds to follow him around during the day: “Whenever I would pause, extend my finger in his direction and invite him to come aboard, he would always do so and usually in the most artful way invite me to stroke his wings.”
There are plenty of obstacles to “normal” people starting to talk and interact with flies. The author finds that to do this he has to erase all unfavorable qualifications, all judgments having to do with Freddy as a fly. “From then on he became to me what I, and I alone, thought about him. And that sustained attitude toward my little companion opened the way for all the remarkable things which subsequently happened.”
For me, this book is not so much about what one person has experienced in communing with a dog and other animals. Instead, it opens up images of a way of relating to the living world in a respectful and non-judgmental way, allowing for a gradual opening, without fear, of the channels of communication with all life that are constantly at our disposal. If we apply these inspiring stories to our own way of relating to our pets and other animals, we can set out on a never-ending journey of discovery – exploring from within our own kinship with all life.