I’ve been thinking about fear since last Tuesday’s special town meeting. Well, no: I’ve been thinking about fear since my right retina detached in the summer of 2004 and set me on the road that led to “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terrorism” (which holds up pretty well, I think; but it is almost 6,000 words long). Probably I’ve been thinking about it a long longer than that, but the nation’s response to 9/11 focused my thinking and made me think harder.
Last Tuesday’s special was mainly about dogs, specifically about the restraint thereof and the picking up of poop therefrom. What got me thinking about fear was a story that one woman told from the town meeting floor. It went something like this:
This woman, I’ll call her Rose, had a friend with several very well trained dogs, all of a breed that is fairly large but also known for its “biddability,” meaning its members are generally predisposed to do without fuss whatever the humans want them to do. (Alaskan malamutes are rarely accused of being biddable. Alaskan malamutes are known for asking “What’s in it for me?”) Rose sometimes looked after these dogs, or went walking with the dogs and her friend, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.
Then one day, Rose, friend, and four dogs were out walking on the bike path in the state forest. In most places the bike path has wide shoulders, grassy and/or sandy. The dogs were off-leash. A jogger was approaching on the paved path. The dogs, being of a gregarious breed, ran toward him. The man, said Rose, looked terrified. The dog owner called her dogs back, and they returned to her. (Color me jealous, temporarily at least.) But the look on the man’s face stuck in Rose’s mind. She balanced this against the pleasure of watching well-trained dogs running free and decided (1) that she would no longer walk with her friend’s dogs if they were off-leash, and (2) that she was in favor of a leash law, even in open spaces like the state forest (where dogs are already supposed to be leashed but often aren’t).
Rose told her story clearly; her words were heartfelt, but she wasn’t condemning anybody, even the friend who continues to let her dogs run off-leash. Part of me was persuaded: Yes, a leash law is justified if it saves one passerby the rush of adrenaline that comes from being terrified. And yet, and yet . . .
Between 1999 and 2010 I spent a lot of time riding horseback on dirt roads, even paved roads, and all over the state forest and all the Land Bank and other trails I could get to. My mare, Allie, was sensible but a bit spooky, and she was only three and a half years old when I got her. I don’t think I ever rode out without being aware that a situation might arise that I couldn’t handle. If you ride, you’ve heard all the horror stories, and you probably know the people who survived them (and, in one case, the person who didn’t).
Often enough a real situation made my heart start to pound. Hearing a dirt bike heading possibly in my direction, and making so much noise that the biker could have no idea that I was around the next bend in the trail — that would usually do it. A few times my adrenaline went way over the top. Once the flag in front of the Granary Gallery blew out just as I was riding past it; Allie jumped three feet sideways into Old County Road, missing a passing car (which had not slowed a whit when it saw a horse up ahead) by about 18 inches. One of Allie’s biggest freakouts came the first time we encountered a fellow in a wheelchair wheeling at speed on the bike path. Fortunately we knew him, and he knew horses well enough to recognize an equine freakout when he saw one: he stopped till I could get Allie under control.
During last Tuesday’s town meeting, I thought about quite a few of these incidents. I remembered the two Jack Russells that regularly came barking after us at the end of Tiah’s Cove Road, near the trailhead for the Land Bank’s Sepiessa Point property: the proposed leash law wouldn’t have stopped them from terrifying a horse because they did their barking from the edge of their owner’s property. As Rose told the story of the terrified jogger, I realized that it had never occurred to me to demand a ban on roadside flag flying or wheelchairs on the bike path, or double-wide baby strollers on the old Holmes Hole road, or anything else that had ever scared my horse and threatened my peace of mind.
Dirt bikes were a slightly different matter. They weren’t supposed to be there, but that sure didn’t keep them off the trails, byways, and bike paths. Enforcing the law is pretty much a joke because the territory is large and dirt bikers can go places that law enforcement can’t. So whatever the potential hazard, legal or illegal, it was up to me as a trail rider to weigh the risks against the benefits and make my own choice. I chose to keep riding. These days I choose to keep bike riding with Travvy hooked to the Springer even though he’s reactive and there are plenty of potential hazards out there. You bet I get nervous sometimes, and I can cuss a blue streak when someone does something really stupid or even just unexpected in my vicinity. But I continue to do it, and I’m not ratting on the unleashed dogs I see in the state forest or anywhere else.
What it comes down to, as so many issues do these days, is what we’re willing to give up for — not safety, really, but the illusion of safety. In the end, though I’m moved by Rose’s story, I don’t believe that sparing one person the rush of adrenaline that comes with being afraid is by itself a good reason for enacting a law without examining it critically first. Leash laws, on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere, are very small potatoes, but the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, certainly isn’t. I continue to believe that it resulted from a cosmic freakout by very privileged people — mostly white, mostly male, and all USian — who until 9/11 thought they were safe. Most of the rest of us knew better and had already learned to deal with it.