Where Is The Key?

It is our first day of the 3rd lockdown in France, but it feels very different to the first one in spring 2020. This lockdown is not a hard one. I can go out in a radius of 10 km as long as I want and have to stay at home only by night.


Nevertheless, the meaning of the garden gate to the street has changed. It divides the inside and the outside, the virus-free world and the contaminated one, the supposedly safe existence and unsafe movements. Does my dog see it the same way when he barks at other dogs at the gate? Unlike our increasingly polarising way of debating on social media, I recognise more subtle differentiations in Bilbo's language that often escape my crude perception of humans.


The yard gate does not even serve as a territorial boundary for him - if he wants to defend something, his private space extends to one metre onto the street. I, as a human, secure it with a key and, during storms, additionally with a cord. Fences, gates have displaced the once magical hag-hedges, have become displays of ownership. A sign for other humans: This far and no further!


Nowadays, it has become a symbol for so much more: Threshold of fear, a promise of safety, an almost magical transition again between a world that supposedly always was and always will be - and a world of unsettling change, movement, passing and flowing. Even today, we operate in magical dimensions like our ancestors, yet that former world had never really existed. We conjure it up for ourselves. Close the gate, on the outside, within us.

For my dog Bilbo it is the opposite. The gate is an opening to the world, a promise of interesting new sensory perceptions and people, children, dogs. Observing Bilbo, I am surprised how many children remember his name. Young girls shout to each other: Let's go and visit Bilbo! And then they stand giggling in front of the gate because he tries everything to show himself from his most beguiling side. A short, sharp rumble with a bark that sounds like "wup wup" - and I know it is again the man who often hollers at his horses. Bilbo has a surprisingly fine sense for violent people. With this reaction, I can almost be sure to catch them at some point beating their dog, yelling at their wife or who knows what else behind closed doors.

My dog Bilbo von Butterblum, a beagle-mix

That is how my dog distinguishes whether the outside is threatening or intrinsically friendly, worth the curiosity or not worth getting up. I have learned that his sonorously rich sounds have different addressees. He barks directly at a rabble-rousing fellow dog. But why does he bark when the woman comes with the friendly buddy on four legs?

I didn't want to believe it for a long time: He barks at the woman because she is walking the mobile phone but not her dog. The dog is only an attachment that she doesn't talk to or look at because she has eyes and ears for nothing but her mobile phone. The woman doesn't understand that my "aggressive" dog purrs happily after the barking sound - it's like a pep talk for the poor buddy, who seems to have long since capitulated.

Meanwhile, I even understand that Bilbo shows me distance information. He has his sounds to tell me when a baby goat is caught in a fence two kilometres away and that I have to call the owner to rescue it. Bilbo also insists on collecting runaway sheep between us and the neighbouring village and bringing them back to the pasture. All this he learns through the gate, his window to the world. Unlike me, he interacts with all living beings and the pee-mails on inanimate ones.


The ideal gate for him would be an opening. Bilbo doesn't understand curfews and can't interpret viral fear, although dogs can smell disease and deal specifically with sick conspecifics. I wish he would become the key to my world behind the pandemic third lockdown. I want to learn from him, trying to shift my human perspective.

After lifting his leg at the thuja next to the fence to leave a message for the following dogs on the road, he looks up attentively. I look at it, too, and see a thuja. It is the same bush that always stands here, lush green and quite deserted. Bilbo, on the other hand, looks up as if spellbound.


Most people think of cypresses and thujas as dead. Indeed, there is not much life in them when they are trimmed box-like in monoculture. A climbing rose grows in mine. I approach: The bush is humming. Wasps and bumblebees buzz along the evergreen branches.

Only now do I see it: The branches are full of tiny flowers. This thuja is not just a shrub. For the dog, it is a letterbox and a ladder for the neighbour's cat; the shrub attracts pollinators and birds that eat its nuts. It is is a scent and pee-mail spot, offering shelter from rain and sun. The thuja can also be an ideal hiding place to ambush the woman who walks her mobile.


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