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February 4, 2021

One thought leads to another.

Buddhists call it “monkey mind.” Some of us have bigger monkeys than others, and more of them, too. Putting vegan cheese on my sandwich led me to wonder about vegan milk, and how much milk one could get from a vegan, which prompted the revelation that it probably depended on how long one had a vegan hooked up to the milking machine, but that notion conflicted with vegan ideals about cruelty to living things. Luckily the conflict derailed the train of thought and I could eat my sandwich in peace.

The worst thing about monkey mind is that the bigger monkeys can’t be chased away for long. I’ve been returning to the thought of what it means to be American. Recent scientific studies changed the answer and the question to a much larger context, a polite way to say that the monkeys got loose.  

For the longest time, I thought that it was travelling, moving. Everybody here came from somewhere else. Even the Native Americans and First Nations who greeted European arrivals came across the Bering Land bridge, or hugged the shoreline in boats. They were all going somewhere new, driven by…what? Curiosity? Boredom? Hunger? A vague feeling that someplace else has got to be better than this place? All of the above? Whatever reasons, they took the whole family, had no maps and didn’t stop to ask directions.

Movement is a fundamental part of the American psyche. Movement and speed. A surefire conversation starter in the US is, “So, what are you driving these days?” or , “What was your favorite car?” The travelling thread runs all through American popular music. You don’t have to look far- Springsteen springs to my out-of-date mind immediately, and the monkeys start singing Born to Run.

Active leisure pursuits support the fundamental nature of movement. Hiking, hunting, kayaking, fishing, running, bicycling, shopping. Yeah, even shopping. You could argue that it’s not so much about consumerism as it is about getting out and being stimulated by new sounds and sights. Hunting and slaying a big chocolate chip cookie is just a bonus.

We’re American. We go to new places. We go. But then the pack of monkeys took off in a different direction when reading gave me a different perspective.. 

There’s good agreement that Homo erectus arose about 1.9 million years ago in Africa. Now there’s good data showing that H. erectus lasted until 108,000 to 117,000 years ago, in Java . That is a heck of a long walk. Was Homo erectus just following the nose for food, or was there a fundamental primate curiosity leading them? Many species migrate back and forth, or spread to new territory. H. erectus walked.

Modern Homo sapiens is traced back to 300,000 years before the present. In 2019, a paper pushed bipedal locomotion in primates back to 11.6 million years. Get up and go isn’t just American, it’s a primate birthright with roots even older than Homo erectus.

Then a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests that a genetic group of humans was isolated in northeastern Siberia. Gray wolves were likewise isolated by the vagaries of climate. The outcome was domestication of wolves at about 23,000 years ago. The two groups later walked out of the area, one split of canines and humans headed to the east and one to south.   

It’s no coincidence that most dogs know the words “walk” and “ride” and get excited. Every day, my moose-sized dogs alerted me to activity on the street outside the house. My neighbors are re-enacting an ancient ritual of partnership, walking with the dog.

That is the fundamental thing that makes modern humans different. Not bipedalism, or agriculture, or war, or binocular vision. It’s the fact that dogs are part of our tribe, and we are part of their pack. We move, we travel, we go new places, and the dog goes along for the journey.

The ancient partnership between man and dog also explains how I feel with the loss of my dog, Colby, after 12 years. We recovered from surgeries at the same time, we comforted teenage girls through growing up, we walked the neighborhood countless times, and we grew gray in the face together. I was his human. Seizures and loss of his back legs meant a final trip to the NCSU Vet School. The dog bed is empty, as is the patch of morning sunshine, as am I.

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