I have heard it said that God placed dogs on earth to teach humanity about unconditional love. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that statement, but if you know dogs it seems quite possible.
However, dispensing unconditional love is not the only fine quality they possess. Another was demonstrated the night of our big fire.
Before getting into that, you need to know about our fire season. It commences in or about July when the rains are a distant memory and the veld is tinder dry. There are also no lightning strikes that time of the year. The fires are started by human beings, not the weather. And there are not a few every winter. On some nights there have been as many as six on one night. On the night of our big fire there were three on our plot alone. They came at us from that many directions.
Our plot is made up of rough veld grass, thorn bushes and enough rocks to make farming an impossibility. Both grass and thorn bushes burn as if they are co-conspirators in an arsonist’s plan.
On this night we were woken by the dogs barking excitedly. As soon as we woke up we saw what was troubling them. The curtains of our bedroom were glowing red. When we opened them to look out we saw the wall of flame approaching. It swept across the width of our garden and beyond, a few hundred metres. From our bathroom our view was of the opposite direction where a second wall of flame approached. Further inspection showed us the third fire, approaching at right angles to the others.
I have used the term “wall of flame” above, but the approaching flames were more like a tide than a wall, liquid sheets of fire devouring everything in their path.
All animals are afraid of fire. For good reason. Their only defence is to run. Even that does not always work. Every season there are incidents of cattle being trapped against fences by fire and burning to death. Even elephants have died that way.
Miriam and I have often been surprised by how much our dogs understand of what we are saying. We have just two, Chloe, a no-nonsense part pit bull, and Charlie, a super charming little part Jack Russel. We told them not to worry about the fire, that we would look after it. They calmed down and we went outside where the community fire brigade was just arriving.
The battle that then took place was not an easy one. The fire we saw from our bathroom was especially hard to stop. It approached through the beesplaas which is big. Through most of the grass the fire was about waist deep, but every now and then it hit long grass and the flames leapt up to over my head height – and I am not a short man.
Eventually, the fire brigade did get the better of the flames and the night returned to quiet, as on every other bushveld night. We went back inside to check on the dogs. The fire that was enough to frighten any animal had just been extinguished and we expected to see some sign of relief, or perhaps happiness. Instead, we found them both asleep, relaxed and comfortable, as if nothing had happened.
We had told them we would handle the fire. They had trusted our assurance and gone back to sleep while the sights and sounds of the fire we still all round them.
Maybe God did put dogs on the earth to teach us about love, maybe too they came to teach us something about trust.