The hound of the hedges – Tim Morris
What could a remarkable new discovery revealing that the zoological and botanical worlds are sometimes more intimately linked than ever before realised and my all-time #1 fictitious crypto-beast possibly have in common? Read on, and – extending my previous ShukerNature article’s theme of extraordinary green animals (click here to read it) - all will be disclosed!
A CHLOROPHYLLIC CANID
If I were asked to name my favourite real-life animal, I may need a couple of lifetimes to consider the myriad of diverse species populating this fertile planet of ours. If I were asked to name my favourite beast of legend, I might need a similar time-span to scour the far reaches of the human imagination in search of its most exotic examples, though I confess that the rare, evanescent unicorn may ultimately claim that prize. But if I were asked to name my favourite cryptozoological creature of literary fiction, I could do so in an instant – the hound of the hedges.
Where could you possibly encounter a dream-like dog whose fine green fur is composed of rich sweet-scented grass, its sharp teeth an array of prickly rose thorns, its curved claws a series of scratchy burrs, its viridescent blood a heady concoction of chlorophyll, and its long plumed tail an elegantly-woven plait of curling leafy ferns? Only in a circus, surely, and no ordinary circus at that – nothing less, in fact, than The Circus of Dr Lao, a truly weird but very wondrous novel first published in 1935 and conceived by the extraordinary imagination of fantasy writer Charles G. Finney. Here, frolicking amid the heterogeneous assemblage of sideshow marvels and misfits that include a werewolf, a satyr, a unicorn, the gorgon Medusa, a sea serpent, a sphinx, a roc’s egg ready to hatch, a mermaid, a chimaera, and a golden ass, can we find this unique and elusive canine cross-fertilisation of the animal and plant kingdoms – or, as it is known there, the hound of the hedges.
The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G. Finney
But where and how did such a phytozoological wonder evolve? These and other important questions were answered as follows in his usual eloquent and informative manner by the circus’s enigmatic Chinese ringmaster-of-ceremonies, the eponymous Dr Lao:
“Possibly the strangest of all the animals in this menagerie, and certainly one which none of you should miss seeing, is that most unique of all beasts, the hound of the hedges. Evolved among the hedgerows and grassplots of North China this animal is the living, breathing symbol of greenness, of fecund, perennial plant life, of the transitional stage between vegetable and animal. The greatest scientists of the world have studied this hound and cannot decide whether he is fauna or flora. Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as the next. When you examine him, you will notice that, although his form is that of the usual dog, his various bodily parts are those of plants. His teeth, for instance, are stiff, thick thorns; his tail is a plait of ferns; his fur is grass; his claws are burrs; his blood is chlorophyll. Surely this is the weirdest beast under the casual canopy of heaven. We feed him hedge apples and green walnuts. Sometimes, too, though not often, he will eat persimmons. Let me advise you, good people, to see the hound of the hedges even though you must forgo seeing the mermaid or the werewolf. The hound is unique.”
The hound of the hedges – an exquisite gouache by William Lucius Appaloosius Steinmayer (http://www.elfwood.com/)
To a subsequent audience, Dr Lao expounded further on this astounding beast’s origin and singular attributes:
“Epitomising the fragrance of grassplots, lawns, and hedgy, thickset places, this behemoth of hounds stands unique in the mysterious lexicon of life. Most of the other curiosities of this circus, I regret to say, have a taint of evil or hysteria about them, but not this magnificent hound. He is as sweet as hay new mown with clover blossoms still unshrivelled lying in it. He is as sunny as the dewy mornings his parent grasses so much love. He is a grand beast, if beast he may be called. Also, though I refer to him in the masculine gender, such designation is very loose; for, as a matter of fact, this hound has sex only as a water lily might have sex. He is alone of his kind throughout the world; no mate and no sire; no dam and no brood. This hound is no more masculine than a horse radish, no more feminine than a cabbage, less carnal than a tiger lily, and as little lustful as a rose bush.
“We found him in North China along the canals where the ricefields flourish and where grasses and little stunted hedges grow. For a long, long time that land had been nothing but so much parched dust with no green thing growing upon it anywhere. Then the canals were constructed and brought water to it, and over its dry skin lovely green things commenced to grow. That which had seemed dead quickened into life. That which had seemed sterile glistened with fertility. And as a symbol and embodiment of that exuberant fecundity, the grasses and the weeds and the flowers and hedges and bushes each gave a little of themselves and created this hound, truly an unparalleled achievement in the annals of horticulture.
“We saw him first at dusk playing about the hedgerows, leaping, gambolling, biting at the hedge apples, pawing little holes in the ground and nosing fugitive seeds into them. Alarmed by us he romped about in great tearing circles, flitting through the grasses and disappearing behind hedges so swiftly the eye could hardly follow him. His beautiful greenness entranced us. We had never seen so wonderful a hound in all the world.”
Capturing the hound of the hedges – Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965)
Mindful that such a miraculous creature would prove an irresistible attraction within their circus, Dr Lao and his companions lost no time in deciding the hound of the hedges’ fate:
“So we caught him. Out of his strange eyes he looked at us – eyes that were like green unripened pods. He was perfectly gentle. His tail of ferns wagged a little, switching his sides of green, green grass. From his panting mouth chlorophyll slavered. Around his neck a thin grass snake was curled, and his leafy ears harboured green katydids and tiny black crickets.
“In the meshes of our nooses he stood there regarding us. And, oh, that first close view of his great green glorious head! He was standing in the grasses, shoulder deep among the fresh green grasses; his parent grasses, the grasses that he loved. With their slim green fingers they caressed him and sought to shield him from us. They sought with their greenness to reabsorb his greenness, to hide him, to protect him; this their son. I tell you, nothing in the world has ever thrilled me as much as did the first sight of the hound of the hedges, and I have adored and studied animals for more than a hundred years.” I said: ‘Here is the masterwork of all life, here in this superb living body that is neither plant nor animal but a perfect balance of both. Here is a mass of living cells so complete in itself that it even demands no outlet for reproduction, content to know that, though it did reproduce its form a thousand times, it could never through that or through the evolutionary changes of a thousand generations improve upon its own victorious completeness.’
“Most immaculate of all was his conception among the humble weeds and grasses. All things trample them, devour them, plough them under and destroy them. But they endure and are beautiful and retain their gentleness and harbour no rancour. Yet once a great passion came to them, a pure passion not ever to be clearly understood; revolt was in it, and other things foreign to grasses; and out of that strange passion of the plants the hound of the hedges was conceived and born.”
A cover for Le Cirque du Dr Lao prepared by Philippe Caza (the hound of the hedges is present directly below the muzzle of the unicorn)
Pondering further upon the exceptional manner in which this verdurous canine entity had been generated, Dr Lao came to a no less remarkable conclusion:
“And I wondered, too, for it had always been my belief that beauty was a modification of sex. Life sings a song of sex. Sex is the scream of life. Rutting and spawning the dance of life. Breed, breed, breed. Fill and refill the wombs of the world. Tumescence and ejaculation. Flinging out spore and seed and egg and bud. Quickening and birth. Sterility and death. That was life, I thought, and that was life’s means to the end that finally, after almost infinite centuries of trial and error, there might be produced the perfect living thing.
“But here was this hound, product of no trial and error process, lacking lust, unhampered by ancestral fears and instincts. And I wondered if in this hound of the hedges were not to be found the apogee of all that life could ever promise. For here were beauty and gentleness and grace; only ferocity and sex and guile were lacking.
“And I wondered: ‘Is this a hint of the goal of life?’”
Doctor Lao reached in the cage and patted the hound’s head. The beast soughed like the murmur of wind in sycamore leaves.
And what effect did Dr Lao’s articulate, lyrical outpouring of considered reflection concerning the truly astonishing hound of the hedges have upon its audience?
“What the hell is [he] talking about?” asked Quarantine Inspector Number One.
“I’ll be damned if I know,” said Quarantine Inspector Number Two. “Let’s go see the mermaid. That goddam dog looks like a fake to me, somehow.”
There’s a lesson for cryptozoology in there somewhere! Of course, they do say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but even then, the eye has to be open first, along with the mind.
THE CU SITH – GREEN FAIRY HOUND OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
Intriguingly, green-furred hounds are not entirely confined to Dr Lao’s circus. True, its pelage may not be plant-derived, but a very large Celtic fairy hound with noticeably leafy-hued fur exists in the mythology of the Scottish Highlands, where it is referred to as the cu sith.
Representation of the cu sith at: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/alastairbinnie-lubbock/entry/the_beasts_of/
Moreover, there have even been claims that a real-life green dog exists in this region too. Here is what I’ve written about them in a book of mine on canine curiosities currently under preparation:
In the traditional folklore and legends of the Scottish Highlands, the cu sith is a magical dog as large as a year-old bullock and is further distinguished from all other dogs by its shaggy dark green fur. Other characteristic features include its huge paws, and its long tail, which is normally held in a tight coil or flat plait upon its back. Unlike most supernatural canids, when running through snow or mud the cu sith actually leaves behind footprints, which are as broad as those of a man, but its movements are totally silent - except for its triple-sounding bark, which can even be heard far out at sea by sailors aboard their ships.
Whereas the cu sith is merely mythological, however, a remarkably similar creature has been soberly reported in modern times by a number of eyewitnesses in Banffshire, who have commented not only upon its green fur but also upon its disproportionately small head - or, in some cases, its startling absence of a head! According to John Harries's Ghost Hunter's Road Book, if you should take the A939 from Grantown-on-Spey, and travel along the B9008, running past the Glenlivet Forest, you will reach the favourite haunt of this green-coated pony-sized ghost dog. Having said that, however, those who may be anxious to seek its acquaintance should do so with care - bearing in mind that the mere sight of Banffshire's green dog is said to portend imminent death, devastating storms, and other misfortunes.
Perhaps the most curious detail concerning this ominous entity is that when seen, it appears to be wholly oblivious of its eyewitnesses, never interacting with them in any way (unlike many cases featuring phantom black dogs and white dogs), but simply running ahead in a straight line almost like a projected three-dimensional film image. Accordingly, although the sight of this creature reputedly brings doom, it never physically causes anyone harm.
Is this what the green ghost dog of Banffshire looks like?
But what have green-coated supernatural hounds of the Highlands (in passing) and Dr Lao’s grassy-furred hound of the hedges (in particular) to do with the recent zoological discovery that I briefly alluded to at the very beginning of this present article of mine? Quite a lot, as will now be seen.
THE AMPHIBIAN AND THE ALGA
As so often happens, while I was browsing the internet a few days ago for something totally different the Muse of Serendipity (or was it the Library Angel?) drew my attention to a fascinating report by Brandon Keim, posted here by the online science news service Wired Science on 4 April 2011. It summarised the eye-opening findings of a team of Canadian biologists as contained in the following recently-published paper:
KERNEY, Ryan; KIM, Eunsoo; HANGARTER, Roger P.; HEISS, Aaron A.; BISHOP, Cory D.; & HALL, Brian K. (2011). Intracellular invasion of green algae in a salamander host. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108 (no 14; 5 April).
The spotted salamander - Scott Camazine-Wikipedia
As long ago as the 19th Century, researchers had known that the eggs of eastern North America’s spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum contain a certain species of unicellular green alga, Oophila amblystomatis (the so-called salamander alga), and it was later shown that this was a true symbiotic relationship. The salamander’s eggs provide a nitrogen-rich environment in which the algae grow very efficiently, and the algae oxygenate the salamander embryo inside each egg (the algae release the oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis fuelled by the carbon dioxide produced by the embryo), which in turn prevents the embryo from developing deformities.
However, this latest research has discovered that the salamander-alga bond is even more intimate than that. When the Canadian team examined the algae within the salamander’s eggs using a combination of chlorophyll autofluorescence and algal 18S rDNA amplification techniques, they found that the algae are not merely inside the eggs, but are actually present within the cells of the embryos themselves - having invaded their cells while the embryos were still at a very early developmental stage, and soon suffusing throughout their bodies but remaining in greatest concentrations along their gut. The purpose and benefits of such extraordinarily close and early algal association with this particular amphibian are currently undetermined.
True, it hardly compares to Dr Lao’s supremely foliaceous if wholly fictitious hound of the hedges, but this endosymbiotic union between salamander and alga is, nevertheless, more complete than any previous animal-plant relationship uncovered in vertebrates – yielding an ostensibly unlikely yet evidently mutually beneficial alliance between two of this planet’s most significant biological kingdoms.
Another front cover for The Circus of Dr Lao
NB – During the past week I have attempted several times to contact William Lucius Appaloosius Steinmayer at www.elfwood.com in order to request permission from him to include in this article of mine his beautiful gouache artwork of the hound of the hedges, but on every occasion the website has been down. On 9 April 2011, however, I was finally able to access the site, so I duly sent him a request, but as I have not received any response at present, I am unsure as to whether it has reached him. Consequently, if you are reading this, Lucius, please send me details of how I can contact you directly by email; and if you have any objection to my including your artwork here, please do let me know and I’ll remove it at once. Thanks very much.