The Joys of Barkish

April 9, 2020

A friend of mine posted on her blog recently:

“I guess I’ll have to settle for the cats and the dog for my wordless communications. I do feel fairly fluent in Cat, but I am still working on my Dog awareness.”

I’m the opposite. I used to be the personal attendant of a cat (they don’t have ‘owners’), and when I came home from work each evening, she’s miaow at me. I’d miaow back. Then she’d do a double miaow, and again I’d echo her. At one point we hit reciprocal triple miaows, but then she got bored, and gave up the game. Or maybe my Cattish accent was so bad, she had no patience with it. I probably sounded like a tourist lost here in Mexico, grinding through mis-vocalised vowels and badly conjugated verbs, trying to get directions for the hotel his GPS says is across the street, when it isn’t.


There are rumours cats are evolving to be more like us.

Barkish is a different language. Having looked after a half-dozen or more dogs during my times in Mexico, I’m reasonably certain it’s a tonal language. There are variations in pitch that, if you can echo them, sound a bit like language to a dog. A single utterance can’t last more than three seconds, or it becomes too complex for the animal, but a short phrase, maybe hitting three pitches, each a couple of tones apart (no more), seems to make a dog listen.

I found this bizarre skill useful when I first returned to this village a year and a half ago. I always thought of myself as being “on” the team of dogs, but I was bitten by three in the space of four months. “That never used to happen,” I thought one time, as I looked at the red and purple wound above my ankle, and I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Over time, I probably began smelling more like the local people. I’d eaten the food, drunk the water, used the local brands of soap, and gotten the dust of the streets into my clothing. But also, I learned that a soft, bitonal growl, made from the side of my mouth, seemed to disarm acts of aggression. I’ve not even been seriously threatened in a year now.

We naturally assume that any language is made up of nouns and verbs: names and actions, with some qualifying adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions thrown in. Barkish, if I’m right, is about states of being: Everything’s cool; You’re a jerk and I want to bite you; I think your tail is so cool; I want food now. I have to render these concepts in English words here, but the growls themselves don’t actually operate on that basis.

I tried one experiment a day or so ago that seemed to work, which might, in part, verify my theory. Two of the four dogs currently here stay in a corral beside the house all day. One, the incorrigible Rem, needs to be there to stop him getting out and killing the neighbours’ chickens for fun. His buddy, Woody, is in there because they’re pals, and dogs don’t like being alone all day.

When evening came, and I wanted to let them out of the corral to eat, Woody especially would bark at maximum volume. He’s not actually my dog, but one I’m looking after for someone who’s away, and he seems quite neurotic compared to my others. Since I had to bend to move a large stone that kept the corral gate shut, this being necessary to foil Rem’s ingenious escape techniques, each evening I’d have 90 decibels of Woody right in my ear.


Woody in laid-back mode.

Finally, I decided to try my Barkish on him.
“Ah-row-ow-rah-ow!!!” I  uttered as loudly as possible.

I don’t know that he “understood” exactly, but as probably happened with my cat, it intrigued him long enough for me to clear the stone and get my ear safely more than 16 inches from his mouth.

I’m still working on the general theory of all this, but since I’m now spending more time at home, I have more time and opportunities to practice. My Spanish still sucks, but if I can ever publish my Barkish in Twelve Easy Yelps, I won’t have wasted this time in quarantine.


December 14, 2019

“Huh?” I hear most of you mutter at my headline. Which only goes to prove my hearing is still pretty good.

The cuetlaxochitl is sometimes known by its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (which none of the online translation sites will translate for me today), but more often it’s called by the one derived from the surname of the man who introduced it to the United States in 1822: Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was the US’ first Minister (i.e., ambassador) to Mexico. Odds are, half of you have one in your houses right now.

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A fine plant in front of a village house.

Poinsettias mostly grew till then on the Pacific coast of Mexico and one or two Central American countries. Since then, they’ve spread across central Mexico.

In other parts of the world, they’re deliberately grown infected by poinsettia branch-inducing phytoplasma, a bacterium that makes them more squat and produce more flowers. Around here, they’re in people’s back yards, a dozen feet high or more, and in late November, as the days shorten, they quite suddenly turn scarlet. They need just five consecutive nights of more than twelve hours of darkness, then voila. Already in the village, flowers (actually red leaves, or bracts) on some of the shrubs that no-one waters are beginning to wilt.


An almost-tree Poinsettia in a front yard.

Today, the usual name here for the plants is flor de NocheBuena, Noche Buena being the Mexican Spanish term for Christmas Eve. I read that in Spain they’re used to mark Easter, though since the redness has ebbed by then, I’m not sure what that’s all about. But there’s a big trade around this town in smaller potted NocheBuenas for houses that don’t have shrubs (trees, almost) in their gardens. The plant is inescapable right now.

In preColumbian times, the plant was used medicinally for fever reduction. You’ll still find the leaves described as toxic, but this is inaccurate, and you’d have to eat a whole plant, or more than one, to make yourself ill. If you try this, which would be stupid as well as unappetizing, it’s not my fault.

Oddly, Mr. Poinsett died on December 12, the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national religious icon. In the US, this has become National Poinsettia Day. His other interests included promoting Freemasonry in Mexico, so his involvement with the country was long-term.

His social and political work is now, of course, only known to specialist historians. However, the plant he favoured has perpetuated his name through most of two centuries. After its brief spurt of glory at the end of year, it’s an unsightly weed, and a spindly shrub. Unlike bugambilia (called bougainvillea in some places), which produces coloured bracts all year long, it has to wait for its seasonal moment of glory. But since US trade in the things alone runs to $250-million, it’s in no danger of disappearing any time soon.

The Daily Barkathon

September 8, 2019

The first indication that they’ve arrived is the dogs barking. In the photo below, you might just see my neighbour’s dog in the gate, his paws up between the bars as he yelps. He is often bored, so barking at horses and cows is a diversion for him. Shortly after, a couple of my dogs will be at it –the pair who most prefer to be outside – plus three or four of the dogs of families living on this laneway.

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A photo taken by leaning dangerously out of my living-room window.

They all make more noise than they would if a pack of dogs from the main part of the village had come in for a rumble. Big ruminants are a scandal to the canine world, apparently. There’s no mistaking, therefore, that cows or horses have arrived outside.

The laneway is only half built-up, and on the side opposite to where I live, there’s still a meadow. This offers grazing, but so does the central reservation of the lane, and its fringes. We’re still getting the occasional rainshower, so all this is green and lush right now.

I’ve never been able to understand how the farmers keep track of their animals. Theoretically, they could wander miles, up into the hills or off to a village miles away. Horses are still branded, so they can be identified, but there must be arguments over the cows.

And, occasionally, an out-of-town driver doesn’t realise a large animal could emerge onto the road at any moment, and present a costly compensation case when it’s hit at speed. You don’t want to run down someone’s horse or cow, believe me. Somebody will always know someone who knows the real owner.

So somehow they do work it out.

Most days, mothers, calves or foals come meandering into our cul-de-sac for a meal, seemingly ignoring the dogs’ racket. Sometimes, a dog gets nippy, and gets a hoof in the face. More rarely, a cow or bull lowers its head and threatens the dog with a horn. I’ve not seen a dog killed or injured in such an encounter, but it must happen.

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A foal just a few days old, with its mother, at the entrance of our laneway.

Meantime, the livestock are cheering to look at. They keep the village’s agricultural heritage intact, and they’re often beautiful animals as well.

So I’m glad the dogs start a barkathon when they come by. It reminds me to stop and look out.


The Saturated Dog Catcher

June 15, 2019

A month ago, I wrote about our rescued dog Oliver, who’s the shyest of the four we have here. He’s as close to me as to anyone else, which isn’t saying much. He lets me stroke his head when I give him his food, but remains immobile as I do so. He just does his thing, whatever it is, without playing much with the other dogs.

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Oliver doing his thing, whatever it is.

A couple of nights ago, as my old hometown of Toronto was on tenterhooks for the NBA finals, I’d planned to catch the game online. But somehow, someone had left our main gate open, and Ollie had wandered out of it.

With the other dogs, I’d be concerned about them causing trouble. With Ollie, I was concerned he’d draw trouble on himself. When you’re a timid dog with minimal social skills around other canines, even if you’re quite big, the world around here isn’t much fun. To go down to the street, he’d have to pass three, maybe five other dogs of varying levels of aggressiveness. Down on the street are some notably mean mutts. So, he went into a place behind the houses, among the rocks under the cliffs, and hid. I went to look for him there, but probably didn’t go up far enough, so I spent most of the evening combing this side of the village for him, and asking neighbours if they’d seen him. None had. By night-time, the Raptors had won, and I was still missing our most vulnerable dog.

I left the front door to the property ajar all night, on the theory that he might come back, and if any of the other dogs got out, they at least knew how to get home. But Ollie lives in a private world of long-entrenched fears; he likely found shelter under a big rock and stayed there. Early the morning after, having slept little and with Toronto no doubt still in a condition of hangover, I went out to look for him again. I’d held off notifying his original rescuer, my friend Lucero, that he was missing, hoping he’d turn up, but I felt I couldn’t postpone letting her know. She was distraught. She was also three hours away, and couldn’t help.

Among other places, I checked the cemetery, where dogs hang out seeking shelter among the tombs. And I found the body of a freshly killed dog, his probable assailants snarling at me from close by.  Seriously – dogs here can be vicious. But at least this poor critter wasn’t Ollie they’d torn into.

Finally, back again behind our house I saw him, to my great relief, and knew … the fun was about to start. The rocks where Ollie was hanging out made it tough for anything on two legs to move fast, and I absolutely didn’t want him to associate recapture with ill-treatment. But he wasn’t going to help much. 

Any of our other dogs come when called. Oliver won’t. Whatever traumas he underwent as a pup are always with him, and he’ll run from me, even if I’m bringing him food. So I began an hours-long process of trying to tempt him home. I went and rattled kibble in his bowl, then decided he was probably more thirsty than hungry, and tried this with his water-bowl. He looked at the familiar green object, came to a few yards away, then turned back into some scrub.

Eventually, I went into town to keep a lunch date with a friend, then started round two. No dice. Then it began to rain. Suddenly, heavily, and … well, wetly. Very wetly indeed. I skidded on mud for the hundred yards back home.

Then, drying out in the living room, I had that “You know what you gotta do, cowboy” moment. Which involved more wetness but not, thankfully, of the kind with which that line of dialogue is associated.

So, I trudged back through the mud to the rocks with Ollie’s water bowl, since even with the rain he had no decent source of water. And a dog gets pretty thirsty after a whole day.

He continued the same process we’d been through a score of times already. I’d call him, he’d come close enough to check things out, then veer off. He was soaking, I was soaking, but he was also tired, and hungry, and cold. At one point he wandered into a kind of shallow trench, paused, and stopped, worn down. I think he tried to jump out and couldn’t. I was finally able to get to him, and slip a leash on his collar.

Relief – I could finally get this daft dog back where he’d be safe! Cue the John Williamson orchestral chords!

Then the real fun began. When he feels trapped, Ollie will go limp. So, he went limp. He sat down, his back legs splayed, and refused to budge. I’m sure in his mind he was trying to resist an anticipated beating or other punishment, perhaps remembering his dreadful puppyhood, but I had to get him down a slippery slope. So: sodden man dragged sodden dog downwards, sliding on the stones of the ciruelos (hog-plums) that grow all around here.

Hog-plum stones are God’s way of saying He enjoys watching people in Mexico fall over. Think of outsized organic ball-bearings, on a hillside also lined with vegetation that grabbed at my ankles, or the dried sticks of which provided roller-bearings to complement the plummy ball-bearings. To this visualisation, add any quantity of mud you like, and the sound of divine laughter coming down amid the rain-supporting thunderclaps.

Add me, determined to do this without swearing at a dog who won’t help me get him to home, food and safety. Now picture me lifting this dead-weight of a wet, muddy dog (22 kilos, or close to 50 lb, plus a little extra from water-content in his saturated fur) and carrying him the last 70 yards back to our front gate. Where I finally had to shove his wet, muddy butt through the doorway.

You could say Ollie was admirably stoic through it all. It was a serious tussle: his single-minded inertia versus my single-minded intention to get him back behind locked gates. I was truly impressed by his ability not to contribute anything useful whatsoever.

Then, once through the door, he flipped. There was his half-sister Victoria, Rem our little pack’s alpha male, and a known environment. He began wagging his tail at full speed.

Hey, what about me, dawg? And look at my clothes! But no appreciation for me was forthcoming. At times of stress, I think he can only anticipate bad things happening. A genius dog he isn’t, but his behaviour made no sense at all in human terms.

Or maybe it did, mimicking some dafter human obsessive tendencies. He’d been scarcely two dog-minutes from the door of home, where there was water, a dry place to sleep, and a regular supply of food. But he confined himself to the illusory safety of an uncomfortable space, deprived of company, sustenance or security. Only when he surrendered from tiredness did he get home – where he obviously preferred to be.

I might just have waited him out for a few days, but I couldn’t make myself do that. I really wasn’t sure he could reason his way out of the situation he was in, simply come back, and bark at the door like any sensible canine miscreant would.

I was aware I looked ridiculous standing in the rain with a bowl of water, calling a dog who wouldn’t come (and who’d still largely avoid me), then carrying him back here. No-one else round here would do that. But I felt wildly relieved he was back on the property, where deep-rooted fears still run his life, but where at least I can prevent the worst of them from happening.

Oliver’s Journey

Two issues always bother me about Mexico. My previous post, on new garbage cans, touched on the way people carelessly throw things into fields and ditches. Piles of litter disfigure many locations around where I live in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, and it saddens and annoys me.

The other issue is the treatment of animals.

Humans almost always have the power of choice: we can understand our own situations, and we can run away. Animals have little concept of “away,” so they suffer where they are. And sometimes, their suffering is horrible.

My friend Lucero simply took Victoria. She was starving, and obviously in a bad way, and one night Lucero went to the corral she lived in with a bunch of other weak, hungry animals and dognapped her. Another night, moved by the sight of Vicki’s brother (subsequently named Oliver), who was too weak to walk and was dragging himself along the ground, she stole him, too.

Not long afterwards, the other dogs in that corral were all gone: the owner who’d been starving them had killed them all, presumably in a drunken fit of rage. We don’t know if he noticed or cared that two of them were already missing. Vicki thrived, but Ollie had multiple health issues, and the vet didn’t think he’d make it.

But he did. He first came here in 2015, after some years living in Mexico City. He’s always been shy of people (obviously), but for two days he just cowered in a corner of his new corral. Even his sister’s presence didn’t help. Finally, he started to eat the food we gave him, though he still looked at me in terror, and wouldn’t let me touch him.

After a few weeks of this, I tried playing a game of tag with him, tapping him when he came close enough. It took five months of tag, but one day he let me stroke him, and stopped being afraid if I approached him slowly enough. But not always.

And then I went back to Canada, and I didn’t see him for more than three years. He was moved back here at the end of April, and once I returned from my vacation trip, we started it all again: food, wariness, hiding, tag.

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Oliver: unwilling to stay still for a photo.

But he’d remembered me. This evening, after only four days, he let me rub his head and neck again. He’s still afraid of me trapping him where he can’t run to safety, and he wouldn’t stay still for a photo, but he’s reached the point of half-trust that’s his limit with people. And he does seem … “doggier” than he used to. He moves differently, and behaves more as a dog should, than he used to.

There are several brutalised mutts in this village. I kept wondering why one small dog hung around our gateway, which is at the end of a long laneway. Occasionally, I’d give it some leftover chicken, or a handful of kibble. Yesterday, I saw its sibling attacked by three large dogs when she ventured down to the main street. One of them grabbed her with its teeth, and tossed her a few feet away. A woman closer to the melée than I was picked up a stone, which is the local signal to a dog that it had better scram, and the little dog ran off, yelping. I’ve no idea how badly hurt she was. But I see why the other small one hangs around up here. If our chronic delinquent Rem gets out, he simply wags his tail at her.

Wealthy people here dote on their canine companions. Many poorer ones just use them as guards for their houses, and don’t let them indoors. One cleaning lady we had thought our bringing our dogs into the kitchen at night to sleep on dog-beds was a nasty habit.

With Mexico, you accept how it is, value the beauty and graciousness you do find, and simply sigh over the bad stuff. But a thought I have five times a week is, “Mexico would be a bad place to be a dog.”

I don’t know what Ollie remembers, if anything, of his earliest year. But he won the lottery the night Lucero grabbed him.