A knowledge for thirst: Water, empathy, and kinship

Let me recount this short tale—a thin slice from my recent life—exactly as it happened.

On a warm afternoon earlier this month, outside an old inn that overlooks an east-coast estuary and that was once owned by a prolific persecutor of witches, I met a recent immigrant to the British Isles. It was immediately obvious that she was nervous in the presence of a new person. Call it a neurosis or a sensible precaution, the habit was one I so quickly recognized because it was something that I shared with her. In the case of my new companion, however, the social policy came with a twist: her anxiety was acute when the new person was one wearing a high-vis jacket.

That she felt this way was something I learned from her two human companions. She was a Hong Kong street dog.

My conviviality with the two human strangers could be explained as much by the warmth of their personalities as by the coolness of the local beer. Mouthful by hoppy mouthful, it was quenching a thirst that had built during an afternoon spent strolling through fields and woodland.

Like most of my recent forays into the countryside, this one had been soured by the sight of a housing development. On the present walk, a new estate covered what the up-to-date Ordnance Survey map assured me was still a large patch of farmland (the growing population and shrinking non-developed area doubly pressurizes Britain’s myopic and ecologically reckless dependence on imports). Then, as I plunged back into the cover of woodland, my mood had been sweetened by the harmony of the vernal ground flora and an unintentional percussive duet: the meeting of great-spotted woodpecker drilling and long-tailed titmouse prrtprrt-ing.

Despite the richness of woodland flowers, I could see that this place had not always been true forest. Several of the trees were gnarled in form and of a gigantic girth—a size only reached in the absence of competition for light from close neighbours. According to local folklore, at least one of these twisting behemoths may have been used, back in the seventeenth century, by individuals accused of witchcraft who were seeking refuge. Why, I wondered, do people so readily form negative views of people they do not know?

Outside the inn, the table where I sat was separated from that of my new human companions, a man and a woman, by a potted bay tree. I had to rock from side to side in order to adequately adjust my sightline to the demands of the conversational flow. During occasional lulls in the discussion, I stared out across—or, rather, into—the estuary. The water was retreating with the tide, and shelducks and brent geese were exploring an emergent sandbar.

I rocked to my right as the lady began to talk about the member of their trio who was standing beside the bay tree’s large pot: a vulpine creature with vibrant eyes, a sharp muzzle, and immaculate golden-sand fur—the street dog. The lady had managed to bring this beautiful beast back to Britain after rescuing her during a stay in Hong Kong. On that island, these animals are known for roaming construction sites and rubbish dumps. It is not difficult to form a sinister story in one’s mind of how this particular individual’s severe distaste for high-vis jackets may have arisen. Perhaps, though, the habit simply relates to something about the canine field of visible colours. We do not know what a dog really sees when they look at a human wearing a fluorescent orange vest. Nor, despite their vocal proficiency, can they tell us.

More generally, there are so many things that we do not know about the ways in which our non-human Earth-kin experience the world. In the case of sensations such as sight, there is, of course, some scientifically informed guidance to steer us, but we must still draw heavily on reasonable extrapolation and supposition. And while doing this, we must remember that our grasp of non-human possibilities is inevitably limited. In other words, we should heed the knowledge that things exist which are unknowable.

At the same time, we can be confident about the basic desires of many of our Earth-kin. When a hedgehog is flattened by an SUV, for instance, both the momentary pain and the termination of further life potential are dramatically and indisputably against the being’s interests.

These were the sorts of thoughts that were knocking around in my head outside the inn after my three new acquaintances had made tracks. The ideas had been bouncing around in there for several weeks, hopefully losing some of the roughness of their edges, as I had been working on a paper that examined the empathy that might stem from the shared water needs of us and our fellow beings—our kin on this planet and in this universe. I had included in the paper several real examples of humans responding to the pull of non-human needs through this fundamental facet of our interwoven existences. Yet, I had worried if I was arguing too hard and making this conjecture about water seem stronger than it really was.

As I drained the last mouthful from my glass, I thought again about an incident that I had witnessed outside the inn on this warm afternoon, shortly before the trio of temporary companions had arrived.

I had just taken the weight off my feet and wetted my mouth with a first gulp of beer when my reverie—that most pleasant kind that such a combination of circumstances can precipitate—was abruptly broken off by the arrival of a large white van with a lone occupant. The driver braked heavily and turned off the main road, bringing his beaten-up vehicle to a stop at a spot that blocked the route down to the quayside. How selfish can he be? I thought with a rising concern.

Despite the multiple dents and abraded paintwork, I could see the remnants of a slogan that advertised his probable line of work: windscreen repairs. But it did not look like he was here on business. As the driver opened his door, an object fell onto the ground and he followed after it. He was as scruffy as his vehicle. My concern rose further.

The man picked up the object that had fallen, an old plastic bottle, unscrewed its cap, and tipped some out onto the tarmac. What awful chemical is he disposing of, and so near to this beautiful estuary? Doesn’t he care about other life?

Next, he started to shout at someone coming up the road behind him, a man on a bicycle. The cyclist pulled off behind his van and the pair exchanged words. It was clear from the body language that they did not know each other. Then, the van driver bent down, formed his left hand into a cup, filled the improvised reservoir with liquid from the bottle, and offered it to a third member of this gathering—a large hound with thick anthracite fur who had been running alongside the cyclist and must have been thirsty with the exertion and the heat. My concern was replaced instantly with shame as the dog lapped greedily at the water in the stranger’s hand.

Why, I wondered for a second time that day, do people so readily form negative views of people they do not know?

Read ‘A knowledge for thirst: Water, empathy, and kinship’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog