My neighbor Madeleine phoned me this morning to ask what last night’s barking was all about. It’s a fact that my dog Sophia has been excitable over the last week or so, and more so than ever last night. For the last few months, many residents of Choranche and the neighboring mountain villages have been convinced that hungry wolves are roaming through our lovely woods during the night, searching for meat. And meat—as everybody knows—could mean more than innocent lambs (of which a certain number have indeed been devoured in mysterious circumstances since the start of autumn). Meat could mean us! So, in phoning me to make sure that Sophia wasn’t barking last night because she had cornered a wolf in my henhouse, Madeleine was simply being vigilant in an everyday sense, like looking to each side before you cross a road, or peering under your bed of an evening before jumping in, to make sure that nobody’s hiding there.
Back in the 18th century, in the nearby Lozère region of France, in a place called the Gévaudan, a mysterious wild beast terrorized the rural folk for three years. Can we be sure, today, that the beast of the Gévaudan didn’t leave generations of descendants that have been hiding away in lonely mountain caves (like those at Choranche) up until now? With monsters, one never knows. In any case, I’m quite excited about the current atmosphere of mild hysteria due to the alleged presence of wolves at Choranche. When I step outside for a late-night pee in the dark before going to bed, I imagine that a wolf might dash out from behind one of my giant linden trees, and devour me, and maybe Sophia too. The next morning, Madeleine and her husband Dédé would find nothing more at Gamone than a pile of clean bones.
To be perfectly honest, when Sophia started to get excited last night, I went outside to see what was happening, and I clearly heard the mournful barking of a roe deer (called chevreuil in French) on the other side of Gamone Creek. They’re solitary nocturnal animals, and the males bark in a strangely muffled way (like a dog with a blocked nose) to attract females. Madeleine was disappointed. “Are you sure it was a chevreuil? Are you sure it wasn’t the bark of a fox?” What she really meant to ask me was: “Are you sure it wasn’t a wolf?”
The British geneticist J B S Haldane [1892-1964] imagined a fascinating dog story, retold by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Apparently experiments have demonstrated that dogs can use their muzzles to distinguish between two similar chemical products: caprylic acid and caproic acid, whose molecules differ by no more than two carbon atoms. In human terms, you might say that a dog distinguishes between these two products in the same style that we humans might distinguish between a pale pink ribbon and a medium pink ribbon. Now, there’s a third product called capric acid, with two more carbon atoms. Haldane suggested, as it were, that a dog might be capable of imagining the smell of this third product, without ever having actually encountered it, just as we could move from a pale pink to a medium pink ribbon, and then imagine a dark pink ribbon. When I go out walking with Sophia, I love to think that I’m in the presence of a high-precision molecular detector.
For ages, Sophia has operated as my high-tech alarm clock, trotting up to my bedroom and nudging me when she knows that it’s just the right time for me to wake up. In fact, the first thing I now do of a morning, when Sophia has eaten her morning meal and returned to the warmth of the kitchen after enjoying her first pee out on the slopes, and I’m making coffee in my splendid new De Longhi machine, is to ask her: “Tell me, did your snout happen to pick up any wolf molecules during the night?” Up until now, thank goodness, Sophia has never replied to that question with a firm yes. On the other hand, I must remain vigilant, because Sophia hasn’t actually said no, either.