The dogs, the men—none was just hollering, just signaling location or pace. The men and the dogs were talking to each other. In distinctive voices they were saying distinctive, complicated things. The long yah sound was followed by a specific kind of howl from one of the dogs. The low howm howm that sounded like a string bass imitating a bassoon meant something the dogs understood and executed. And the dogs spoke to the men: single-shot barks—evenly spaced and widely spaced—one every three or four minutes. That might go on for twenty minutes. A sort of radar that indicated to the men where they were and what they saw and what they wanted to do about it. And the men agreed or told them to change direction or to come back. All those shrieks, those rapid tumbling barks, the long sustained yells, the tuba sounds, the drumbeat sounds, the low liquid howm howm, the reedy whistles, the thin eeee’s of a cornet, the unh unh unh bass chords. It was all language. An extension of the click people made in their cheeks back home when they wanted a dog to follow them. No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. (301)
When I read this segment, I was caught by the excellent imagery and use of sounds. It seems at this point that the narrative slows down to a crawl where not only the reader but Milkman closes their eyes to hear the symphonic tones of man and beast. Milkman realizes that out here in the woods, none of the norms or comforting structures of city life can avail him here. This passage shows the intricate relationship between a man and his dog, even one so “dumb” as a hound. Having never been on a raccoon hunt, I watched a video of coon hunting on YouTube and found this passage to be a much sweeter poetic version of that sport. I couldn’t help but imagine a rural symphony when reading this passage. However the neatest part of this is Milkman’s realization at the end of the passage where he realizes this is more than language. This reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where Aslan creates the world through song. This sort of communication is primordial and much simpler than what Milkman is used to. It entrances him and scares him at the same time. Some might question the validity of having dogs communicate to a human and humans being able to understand them but with hunting with hounds, this is possible. Hounds use different sets of barks, as illustrated in the passage, to communicate with each other and to give the hunters not only depth perception as to where they are but what they are doing. I’ve never been much of a fan of dogs barking excessively but it must a cool thing to hear and watch. I never thought of it being a symphony.