What book would you want to have with you on the proverbial desert island? John Allen Boone’s Kinship With All Life is a short book – it could be read in a couple of hours or less – so it might not supply weeks of reading as would, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, but I would be happy to have it as the only book to read while stranded. It would repeatedly remind me that my conception of the relationship between “man” and “animal” is completely skewed and short sighted, it would cause me to be overjoyed to come in contact with any non-human life forms, even the flies buzzing around my head, and I would be constantly reminded that our ordinary idea of “man” as supremely intelligent and and animals as supremely stupid is pure bull****, the stuff of which I’m most interested in doing without.
John Boone was a writer and film producer living in Hollywood. A friend of John’s would be out of the country for a few months and asked if he would take care of a German Shepherd named Strongheart who had become quite famous as a film star. Although John felt he knew nothing about dogs, he agreed to give it a try. He was immediately astounded and puzzled by the surprises Strongheart had in store for him, but one instance in particular must have led to his resolve to write the book. One day he was sitting in front of his typewriter trying to decide whether to “be a man” and finish the writing job he was in the middle of, or whether he should give it up and take Strongheart into the hills for the rest of the day. Finally he decided to go hiking in the hills.
Within a few seconds after this decision had been made, the back door was knocked violently open and in rushed Strongheart in a frenzy of excitement. Skidding to where I was sitting he gave the back of one of my hands a brief dab with his tongue, raced into the bedroom and came out almost immediately with the old sweater I always wore on our outings. Then into the bedroom again and back with my bluejeans. Then came out one of my walking boots. Then it’s mate. Then my Irish walking stick. All of these things he placed carefully at my feet. In five swiftly executed trips into the bedroom, he had brought to me all the things I needed for our trip into the back country. Then bouncing, and swirling, and barking with everything he could put into it, he made it clear that we should leave at once, and sooner if possible.
Boone’s elucidation of the curious relationship between humans and animals has gone a long way toward explaining some of my own experiences. I’ve heard that “a smart cat doesn’t let on that he is”, so I’m not often aware of how smart our cats are. But we had a cat named Calvin (after Calvin of the cartoon series Calvin and Hobbs) who broke his silence on the matter. One Sunday I was scheduled to be picked up at 7:00 am to leave on a business trip. My wife, who was away that weekend, usually gets up around 5:30 in the morning so the cats are accustomed to having their breakfast at that hour. I on the other hand, will sleep as late as possible, especially after staying up until 2:00 AM packing and preparing for a trip. Calvin predictably started climbing all over me at about 5:30 telling me I needed to get up and make his breakfast. I of course, kept rolling over and falling back to sleep. I knew that the only thing I had to do when I got up was to throw some clothes on and get my bags out to the curb. About 6:40 I heard a clatter on the night table and opened my eyes to see Cavin, staring straight at me, with my eyeglasses clenched in his teeth! The instant he was certain I’d seen him, he raced from the room and down the stairs. “Damn!”, I thought. “I’m being picked up in twenty minutes to go the airport, and if I don’t have my glasses I’m screwed!” I leapt out of bed and ran down the stairs to find my glasses lying in the middle of the living room floor. Calvin got his breakfast, albeit a little late, and I was at the curb when my ride arrived.
As a footnote, I owe the discovery of this wonderful book to Alan Watts and my good friend David Pike. David and I were working together in I forget what city and one evening at dinner he suggested that we browse around the local Border’s afterward. I agreed and mentioned that I had just heard about this book Kinship With All Life and this would be an opportunity to see if I could find it. “Oh my God, you have to read it Bob!” he burst out. “I tell you what. If you promise to read it I’ll buy it for you.” In the store, coming around the corner of a row of bookshelves, I saw David at the other end holding the book in the air. I paid for it myself and was soon very glad I had. It is an enlightening little book, but also a tremendously entertaining read.