The Austin Chronicle

Bad Dog

Why Do We Fear Our Natural World?

By Paula James, September 10, 1999, Features

I step out of my car and swing open the back door, releasing my mutt to race across the vacant lot and into the woods 50 yards away. She bounds for freedom -- deer, a running creek, and wilderness abandon just seconds away. A woman approaches down the sidewalk, her Pekinese on a leash. It yaps. My dog glances back without interest.

"We have leash laws in this county," the woman yells at me as I follow my pooch toward the trees. "That dog should be on a leash!"

As we're only yards from the woods, I decide the best course is to nod and continue walking. Furious, the woman threatens loudly to call the pound.

This woman is not alone. I drive my dog to this spot because other homeowners have berated me for allowing her to trot unleashed down their sidewalks. I thought that surely no one could complain if I park here, at the edge of a field bordering a wilderness area, and let her loose to run those last few yards.

I was wrong. I'm trying to understand why.


I'm 55 years old. I grew up in a small West Texas town in the Fifties. It was dusty, unkempt, down-at-heel. Sandstorms rolled through every spring, staining the stucco houses a dirty brown.

Yards and boundaries were casual affairs. Not having learned yet that lawns were supposed to be perfect green squares, we were satisfied to keep a little grass growing in front for appearances. Lines between homes were hazy, indistinct. Even when fences were put up for the dogs, children rambled freely -- cutting through yards, playing with the neighbors' kids, and using vacant lots for baseball.

Claiming even the streets as common property, we played kickball and keepaway in the road, moving over for the occasional car. Drivers seemed to accept that kids and dogs had the right of way.

Dogs wandered. That was their nature. Most of us kept our pets fenced to protect them from cars, but strays were not uncommon and kids like myself often took their dogs out to play. So seeing a dog meandering down the street or running alongside a child caused no concern.

In my hometown, we saw our position in the natural order differently than do my suburban neighbors. We were a small community of people, struggling to make a living and hold our own in an unaccommodating landscape. Water was scarce, people were scattered over the half-barren land, sandstorms and tornadoes ripped through our lives unhindered. Tumbleweeds blew in gusts down the highway, driven by a relentless wind till they snagged and tangled in our fences.

Sky, wind, land, and water -- these bedrock realities formed our world. Looking straight ahead, we saw the horizon 40 miles away, across cotton fields and endless plains. Looking around, we saw scraggly houses and half-hearted yards cradled in this dry and forever-reaching flatness.

Yet our world was not bleak. Behind its homely features lay the immense if understated grandeur of earth and heavens, overwhelming, enveloping, and grounding us, even granting us a place in this infinite and intricate universe. This was our home, where we were allowed to dwell if not dominate.

And over it all, a blue, limitless sky promised us eternity.

Now when I look around me, I see tidy, green, manicured lawns, unblemished by dog poop or any other evidence of human laxity. No dogs wander. No children play in their yards, much less the street.

My horizon extends one block, and beyond that corner lie similar streets with similar houses. For a long way.

Neither grass, nor children, nor dogs are permitted to break the rules.

Nature is tolerated only as decoration.


I know we no longer live in the Fifties, that our neighborhoods are more congested, and that good reasons exist for leash laws, the first being the safety of dogs on busy streets. And some dogs, either made crazy by fencing and leashes or bred for viciousness, are dangerous and need to be restrained.

Then there's the complaint that dog droppings in our yards are a serious nuisance. I find this contention odd, as dog dung seems to me just part of the world we live in, along with bird droppings, falling leaves, and mud after a rain -- annoying at times but part of our natural home. Though dog poop could become so excessive as to be a problem, even for me, an occasional dog doing its business in my yard is hardly worth mention.

Yet even if we were to concede that dog feces in a neighbor's yard is an affront not to be tolerated, we still haven't explained the anger. Though my dog and I have been yelled at by several neighbors, none of those incidents involved dog waste. Nor was my dog's behavior threatening.

The anger is about something else. And it's intense. The issue is raised at every board meeting of our neighborhood association and in every issue of our monthly newsletter -- in a neighborhood in which a loose dog is a rare sight. According to that same newsletter's crime report, several incidents of family violence and burglary occur every month; yet the exhortations are not about wife beating and sticky fingers but solely about leashing our dogs and picking up their poop.

So what is this about, this intense and angry preoccupation with unleashed dogs?

Could it be that we feel both envy and fear of such freedom? When we watch a dog run free, we witness a privilege we are not allowed to share.

Manicured lawns, manicured marriages, and manicured kids are tough to maintain in a world of traffic congestion, dual-employed households, and demanding jobs. The expectations in every area of our lives have increased, while our time for meeting them has dropped. We must be the perfect wife, the perfect employee, the perfect mother -- and if we drop a stitch, we feel condemned. Our freedom to let go and let down has all but vanished.

When we see a dog running loose, in violation of the rules, perhaps it awakens our denied desire to do the same. To kick over the traces and taste freedom. To forget the schedule that controls our lives. To forget about pleasing everyone else. To feed our souls with abandon.

But we dare not. And we react in anger as the intensity of that blocked desire requires an even more intense denial to quash it.

How outrageous that a stranger let her dog do the thing that I cannot -- run free.

Then there's fear. Living in a world devoid of natural spontaneity, we have come to believe that safety is secured only by rigid control, that nature is so dangerous we dare not allow her freedom. Seeing a dog run loose, some people cringe. I've seen folks actually recoil when my dog approaches them with her tail wagging. To them, all dogs are threatening, no matter how friendly the animal's intentions. And they're mad at me and my dog for their discomfort.

We sense peril everywhere. One of my neighbors stays in telephone contact with her teenage daughter from the moment the child exits the school bus a block and a half from home until she's within her mother's eyesight. We fear strangers, we fear neighbors, we fear the weeds that threaten our perfect lawns -- and we fear our own anger at living in a world that demands such unleashed dogs and their owners, eradicating weeds as though they were the devil's work, and monitoring our children as though they live in constant mortal danger.

Nature appears, not as our nearest glimpse of heaven, but as a lurking criminal, intent on destroying our defenses and dragging us, if not to hell, at least to the muddy highway leading there.

How do we invoke the sanctity of sky and dirt in a world terrified of its earthly shadow? Perhaps we must await an evolution of priorities that retrieves us from urban frenzy and washes us anew in a reverence for the land and its creatures.

Meanwhile, I urge my neighbors to recognize in a harmless, wandering dog a role model in laissez-faire ease. May we learn from her. end story

Paula James, a family law attorney-mediator and author of The Divorce Mediation Handbook (Jossey-Bass, 1997), has been walking dogs in Austin since 1973.

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