Friday, January 14, 2011

Crap on the Path of Life

No, the above title isn’t a list. It’s an exhortation.

We’ve been having a lot of snow around here — who hasn’t? (O.k.: shut up, San Diego.) And this has necessitated more than a little shoveling around the house.

When I’m shoveling, I am ever mindful of our two dogs. I always dig a path across the patio to the lawn in order to facilitate their — ahem — doing their business away from the house.

Naturally they don’t comply. Ever. Even when the weather is perfect, more often than not they drop their load right near the house, sometimes smack in the middle of the garden path.

My only solace is knowing that dogs don't have a monopoly on this behavior. It’s actually something to do with all dogs and, I venture to say, most beasts.

In Zimbabwe years ago I was fascinated to see the amount of manure that animals deposit right in the middle of the game path. It’s so common, in fact, that anyone walking those paths soon loses all compunction about striding right through it. To get anywhere in the African bush is to step in shit.

None of this should be a surprise. Social animals that can’t talk (which is to say most species) sometimes report on their adventures by regurgitating some of what they just ate, setting it at the feet of the tribe, as it were. Once they’ve digested, however, it’s their rivals and enemies who get a message from the other end of the digestive tract. Even not-so-social animals do this. The message says: this is my neighborhood; you’ve been warned.

Another way to phrase it: I’m alive; I’m putting the world on notice. Isn’t this what the writer does?

My recollection of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is that Augie’s imperative was to “make a mark” on the world. Though I can’t seem to verify the exact quote, something like that is the essence of Augie — and of many, if not all, of Bellow’s greatest main characters: Augie and Herzog and Henderson and Humboldt.

It is certainly what drove me to write: to leave my own mark, my notch in the tree, my tattoo on the collective mind of the world. So what if earth is a big place and most people will never hear of me? Most never heard of Bellow, either, and he was one of the greatest men ever to set pen to paper.

An artist of any kind can’t help himself. He must throw down that marker. Where others tread, he must lay down his crap — and not far from the house where no one will see, if he can help it — but near the common domicile, in the middle of the path. Right in the center. Lay it true and if it sticks to someone’s shoe, well, isn’t that the point?

As Augie said for sure: “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”