A Notebook friend who was living in Germany with her parents in 1971 and ’72 and knows about my Olympic involvement sent along a picture of Waldi, the dachshund mascot for the 1972 Munich Olympics. You’ll notice that the colors red and black are missing from Waldi’s striping scheme. That’s because red and black were the colors of the National Socialist party, more commonly known as the Nazis, who didn’t create a cute dog mascot for their 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“To Charles Darwin, anthropomorphism came as naturally as breathing. And his close observation of dogs played a surprisingly central role in his work. The Galapagos finches have gotten most of the attention, but dogs were just as important to Darwin’s scientific enterprise.”
That quotation comes from a new book, due out in November, by John Homans called What’s a Dog For: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend. I stumbled upon a copy—the advance uncorrected proofs, actually—that sat on a table by a copying machine at the offices of Sports Illustrated. I did not steal it; according to the law of the SI office jungle, books placed in the common domain are like meat left out for wild animals. They are meant to be snatched up and devoured.
A new book explores the evolution and history of dogs.
Most of the discarded books in the office aren’t about science and natural history; they more often bear titles such as The Great Book of Penn State Sports Lists and Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls: A Century of Unique Baseball Inventions. Every now and then something different shows up, however, and What’s A Dog For? certainly piqued my curiosity.
“In Darwin’s domestic life, from childhood to old age, dogs were a constant irreplaceable presence,” Homans writes. “His sisters liked to tease him that he preferred dogs to people. He doted on them, sentimentalized them, treated them as family members. As a dreamy, distracted boy—just beginning to order his speculations about the natural world—dogs were always in the picture, creatures both of the human and the natural worlds. Dogs were companions on his first voyages…”
Perhaps I have no piqued your curiosity as well. You may have to wait for the book to come out in November, but I will read more from the uncorrected proofs. I already know what a dog’s for from the human perspective—companionship, love, loyalty, play, etc.—and I know that in the broader picture no animal has to be “for” anything other than its own existence, but I’m eager to see how the author interprets the question.
I just got one of these from SI. A BlackBerry, that is, with two capital Bs. Hand-held but not edible. I am perhaps one of the last eight people on Earth never to have had any kind of “smart” phone, but I needed a mobile device with which to communicate while at the London Olympics. How did my new gadget get the name BlackBerry? I wondered. Turns out the name was inspired by the keys of early devices being so tiny that they reminded someone of fruit seeds. A consulting group ran that notion up and down the test-marketing flagpole and eventually took into account the fact that all the early models were black. And so we don’t communicate on StrawBerries or RaspBerries.
So I’m in New York. I take a walk through our old neighborhood of Greenwich Village and, as so often is the case, a movie’s being shot. Scottish actor James McAvoy (left) is on the sidewalk in front of the Acme restaurant, an old haunt of ours. He’s starring in the film, called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby—or rather, in two separate full-length films that explore the same story from the perspective of a husband and a wife, called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers. I don’t think that either has a naturalist angle, but both sound artistically intriguing. And I like the Beatles.
I’m walking around New York, why not photograph the extinct bird I come across? For the first time since our visit to the Oxford natural history museum last fall, I encountered a dodo, this one hanging out in a store window.
In Central Park I stopped by The Pond, a serene spot made famous (sort of) by Holden Caulfield, who stops here in The Catcher In the Rye and asks where the ducks go in the winter. They stick around, mostly.
A guide was leading a nature tour by The Pond, perhaps headed for the nearby Hallett Nature Sanctuary, one of the park’s hidden gems. Here he was identifying a dogwood tree.
A gray catbird was hopping around under a few park benches. I didn’t get to hear any of its vocalizations and I couldn’t see the rusty patch under its tail, but it was fun to watch it mingling with similarly scavenging sparrows..
This unusual piece of public art sits just outside Central Park, near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 60th St. It’s by Paola Pivi, an Italian-born multimedia artist who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and it is a six-seat Piper Seneca airplane that has been modified so that it can rotate, end over end, while attached to upright braces by its wingtips. It was inspired by a story about three modern art pioneers, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Leger, who were amazed by what they saw at the 1912 Paris Air Show. The motor-driven piece flips over and over is aptly called How I Roll.
Answer to the Last Puzzler
The temperature on the surface of Venus is a cool 860 degrees Fahrenheit.
Which of these is NOT considered a possible origin of the name dogwood?
a) the Celtic word dag, meaning a pointed tool made of a hard wood, which dogwood is
b) the bathing of dogs in water in which dogwood bark had been boiled, as a treatment for mange
c) the use of the tree’s wood in making docks (dock was slurred to dog) in the British Isles