The Dog, the Flame, and the Magic Circle

Unbidden ideas will lead you if you’re prepared to follow them. Cast your mind adrift, attend to misty thoughts only distantly, and your insight may clear. As your muscles relax, your grasp may become surer. A wandering daydream may reveal a clearer path.

We recently installed a backyard, gas-fired firepit that worked a little spell. The blurb had promised an “endless summer.” But as the days leaned into fall, it wasn’t the waning season that came to mind within the curve of light. Instead, the modern hearth ignited two reflections about the ancient, instinctive pre-history of play.

The first of these musings recruited the dimensions of time and space. Players reserve a special interval for play and play within its limits. They designate a place and they play inside its perimeter. Sometimes, the playground is literally ground—a baseball field, the soccer pitch, a tennis court, a hockey arena, a boxing ring. For the duration, these special places of commitment, pleasure, and sacrifice are set apart and forbidden to non-players. These are places of contest and decision. It is not by accident that the tennis court is called a “court.” Though play stands apart from legal or sacred rituals, there are yet ritualistic elements to play as rules of order naturally emerge.

As the great Dutch 20th-century philologist, historian, and play-theorist Johann Huizinga put it in his groundbreaking work Homo Ludens, “the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground [places that are] isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.” All are “temporary worlds within the ordinary world,” he wrote. He called these places “magic circles.”

As we sat in the backyard, I remembered how Dylan Thomas in his tale “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” referred to the “close and holy darkness.” In the gathering darkness, my wife, who has an ear for poetry, recited in full Robert Service’s “The Creation of Sam McGee” and then retold a ghost story she’d heard many years before in girl scout camp. As the flames rose from lava rocks, we harmonized and laughed through a couple of old camp songs, one about a “calf with a mournful eye,” and another about a kookaburra who lived “in the old gum tree.” The lyrics had survived five decades of disuse. In this urban 21st century backyard, we had resurrected two of the oldest of human social experiences, singing and storytelling around a central fire. (Singing likely antedated language itself in our evolutionary climb, and reciting and storytelling preceded written literature and history.) We shouldn’t forget to count these creative acts as varieties of play.

But there was another dimension and another actor to notice. I noticed that our golden doodle, Charlie, had positioned himself meaningfully at the edge of the encircling light. And this lead to a second revelation.

Charlie, a thoroughly modern, citified dog, a designer mutt, has never seen a camp fire. (In fact, he’s never seen a fire of any kind so far as I know.) Yet, he took up his post lying and facing outward in a perfect triangulation, head up, ears forward, and alert. His was an ancient role in this tableau; he had stationed himself, instinctually, as a sentry. Charlie became, literally, a lookout for his small pack of three as the fire burned low.

The social evolution of humans and dogs had plenty of time to encode this partnership. Genetic evidence proves that the dogs of the current lineages have lived with us humans for at least 15,000 years. (And we can’t say for sure that canis familaris was the first domestication as the tenderest and most playful wolves struck up a friendship with us.)

The behavioral ethologist, C.J. Rogers, who studies wolves in a remote research station in New Mexico, believes that the typical characterization of wolf society as severely hierarchical misses a subtler mark. She observes in my interview with her in the American Journal of Play, and in her recent fascinating book, Raised by Wolves, that wolves, in fact, do not establish a “pecking order,” as such, with alpha males and females dominating a pyramid-shaped authority profile the way primate societies (including ours) tend to. Wolves do not climb a ladder to dominate their pack: “people are projecting when they think all wolves are alpha wannabes. Wolves know that alpha isn’t the only place to be.” Wolf society is more circular and concentric.

So, words like “alpha” and “higher” and “lower,” seem “foreign and wrong,” she says, when applied to the societies of wolves and their close domestic cousins, dogs. Instead, she has observed, canid societies gather around a central inspiring figure, performing various roles and taking up diverse functions, cooperatively. According to Rogers, we see relics of the roles within the ancient wolf posse reflected in the inherent characteristics and skills that we’ve exaggerated and selected our modern dogs for. We recognize old wolf temperaments and talents as categories at the Westminster Dog Show: the hunting dogs, the work dogs, the shepherds, the rescue dogs, and of course, again, the guard dog, the sentry.

Dogs helped us hunt and stood vigilant at cave entrances and village boundaries during our long history as foragers. For more than 90 percent of our history, faithful dogs functioned usefully and became integral to our survival. They moved north with us from Africa and then tagged along as we spread east and west to Asia and Europe. They found us game and barked when they sensed danger. But they comforted us in our lonely outposts, too, and became vital to our emotional survival because of one additional characteristic; dogs are funny; they make us laugh. And in the 90 plus percent of the human past that we humans spent as hunter-gatherers, we ran with them, rolled and tumbled with them, scratched their ears and bellies companionably, played catch and keep-away with them tirelessly, and laughed at their antics and gleeful play-frenzies. And we still play with them in these happy ways. Dogs struck a good deal with us; they outnumber wolves in North America by perhaps one hundred to one.

But back to singing and storytelling in the urban backyard. There we felt ourselves in no danger from cave lions or other predators the way our paleolithic predecessors would have. We felt safe from invasion and secured from attack. We lulled ourselves with tunes and tales in a temporary respite from the ordinary world. But our playmate, our faithful sentry, Charlie, like his own ancestors, still naturally became watchful as he took up his place at the edge of the flickering, magic circle. In this recent instance, in the gathering dark, he was protecting our ancient instinct for play.

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