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  • Writer's pictureReed Silbernagel

Between Wolf and Dog

Spanish artist Salvador Dalí would apparently doze in a stiff chair with a ring of keys in his hand so when he slipped into that incredible liminal space, his keys would fall from his limp hand and wake him up with their noise. He would then sketch and paint the landscapes he saw in those first inklings of dreams. Dreams thus adopted the hard edge of reality, and Dalí stretched reality to magical proportions.

While living in France I heard a different term for that twilight space – l’heure entre chien et loup. “The hour between dog and wolf,” referring to how in the fading light it becomes difficult to distinguish between dog and wolf, between companion and threat. It’s a magical hour when you know you can’t trust what you perceive. The Lakota people have a similar phrase which inspired the title for Kent Nerburn’s book Neither Wolf nor Dog, in which he details his conversations with an Oglala Lakota Elder. Don’t believe everything you see; what you see probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. By categorizing your perception into conclusions instead of questions and therefore rejecting ambiguity, you can miss a lot of what the world is showing you.

Almost every culture has somehow codified humanity's unreliable perception into their oral traditions. Many stories feature a trickster archetype character in some significant role, including both as the protagonist and the antagonist.  The book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde explores a wide-ranging collection of trickster myths, from Greek to Salish to Western African to Hindi, which Hyde then compares to the lives of modern artists. He makes an argument that trickster tales play an important role in disturbing and then creating a refreshed status quo, in effect tricking people to expand their perception before it again narrows back to mundane life. These tricksters steal fire from the greater gods, such as Raven and Prometheus did. They goad neighbors to dispute over what they see, as Eshu the monkey did with his hat split in two colors. They trick travelers into throwing their eyes into a tree to get a better view, as Coyote did. Most every time, the trickster’s victim is humiliated into a new perspective. With fire, they can see past the night’s confusion and change inedible plants and animals into sweet sustenance. In a dispute, neighbors realize they are not in fact each other’s enemies but that instead they have both wrongly perceived their borders: neither wolf nor dog. And with our own eyes thrown away, we have to beg other animals to lend us theirs. Trickster goads us into new experiences, forcing us to trade our default perspective to instead look inside and sideways at things we took at face value before.

The trickster Coyote in particular has played an important role in my education. At a summer camp I grew up attending, we learned Indigenous stories and international Indigenous traditions in an effort to make sense of the forest we wandered in. Coyote often played a role in our games and songs: 

Are you the trickster they say, stealing the night from the day? 

Are you the wandering sage, willing to show us the way?” 

We never saw an actual coyote at camp – I had to wander elsewhere for that. Rather, we were taught to train our eyesight so we could literally see better, and perhaps spot the influence of this wise trickster in our lives. Seeing better was also important for the many camouflage games we played at camp, which in turn helped us develop a new sight that was useful for looking outwards into the natural world and even inwards during sit-spot meditations.

The principle seeing strategy, which we called “Owl Eyes,” had us unfocus our eyes so we could see more. It’s incredibly simple to do and a very practical strategy for hunting and birdwatching. Ironically, you can see more when you don’t focus. When you stare off into a landscape, your eyes can more quickly detect movement near and far across the entire field of view. You can trick your eyes into focusing out like this by stretching both arms straight out in front of you and holding up both pointer fingers. Then, slowly move both hands out in opposite directions until your fingers disappear into the edges of your vision. Do not move your eyes; keep looking forward. Your eyes will try to zoom in on one object, usually something moving or oddly shaped. That’s ok, but just return to the wider unfocused view so that one object doesn’t dominate your entire awareness. See more.

Owl Eyes is not about identification or categorizing. It is about opening the field of vision to receive more input. The summer camp counselors continued to test our awareness skills all summer long through all sorts of sneaking games and playful ambushes. We were shown that there are things always at the edge of vision, much the same way that Coyote loves walking along the edges – of fields and forests, of day and night, of trickster and guide.

So, look sideways. Look up. Look down at your left nostril and let go of whatever in front of you is grabbing you. Look at what is inviting you, at the edges. At the edges are gods, injustices, half-formed dreams, inspirations, the first budding flowers of spring. At the edges are things which you may only see once but are still worth spending an entire lifetime chasing. You don’t have to wait until twilight to dream yourself a better reality. Don’t be so quick to frame something friend or foe. Maybe it’s neither wolf nor dog. Maybe it’s Coyote, showing you another way.


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