About ten years ago, my daily Victorian Village ritual included removing piles of dog poop from the all-too-convenient toilet that is the tree lawn in front of our house, and transferring piles of tumbling trash from the rear alley into dumpsters. That has changed. And in that is both a story and a theory.
I know that most dog owners are kind, respectful people, but back in the day, the inconsiderate dog owners in our neighborhood were so ubiquitous and cavalier that I kept a ready stock of plastic bags for them at our front door. With these bags, I’d routinely confront those who were preparing to walk away from their dog’s fresh piles, and this strategy worked much of the time. But my vigilance was occasional, and the problem compounded.
Based on my experience, poop begets more poop. When I removed piles every evening, poop generally appeared only once or twice per day. But when I left it in the tree lawn for a few days, the amount of poop increased – exponentially – resulting in a poop carpet.
I experienced this relationship in Goodale Park, too. I remember walking through the park to the playground with our four-year-old son, both of us stepping gingerly to avoid the veritable mine field of dog poop. Over the years, I’ve seen a welcome increase in responsible dog owner behavior, and I’ve also seen groups gently confronting recalcitrant and lackadaisical owners. The result has been a much cleaner park.
Same thing with trash. People throw trash near other trash, so regularly picking up alley trash meant less showed up. In general, nice areas stay nice and filthy areas stay filthy. So when I also pruned and weeded the overgrown shrubs and tendrils from the edge of nearby neglected rental properties, those areas stayed even more pristine. That happened in Goodale Park’s homeless enclaves, too.
But over a short span of years something even more interesting happened to both the poop and the trash. I don’t have to clean it every day, or even every week. Sometimes a socially inappropriate dog owner only shows up once a month. The alley and the park stay clean for longer uninterrupted periods.
Did I personally change people? I doubt it. Did our neighborhood lose the impolite folks and gain a new bunch of socially appropriate residents? That could be part of it, but I wonder if it’s more. What if the dog owners and trash-tossers are unaware of an influence that has been silently imposed on them? We all know that we’re subtly affected by other people without being aware of it (for example, our unconscious hot-buttons, and the nuances of body language). But what a mind-bender it would be if other, similar urban dwellers in other places in our city, or in other parts of the world are learning and engaging in new patterns of behavior (like cleaning up after their dogs), and this new learning is being transmitted to our neighbors without their knowledge. Based on Rupert Sheldrake’s research (he calls this phenomenon “morphic resonance”), this may very well be possible.
Sheldrake writes, “Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible. For example, if rats of a particular breed learn a new trick in Harvard, then rats of that breed should be able to learn the same trick faster all over the world, say in Edinburgh and Melbourne.” Is this how Newton and Leibniz invented calculus at the same time in the 1670s? And in a much more ancient example, is it how, as Bill Bryson writes, “…people in widely separated places suddenly and spontaneously developed the capacity for language at roughly the same time.”? Why should the learning of urban dog owners be any different?
So, maybe morphic resonance is influencing us right here in Victorian Village. Maybe we’re all becoming more civilized through a developing collective memory. Could a reinforcing field unintentionally created by faraway people (in Schiller Park and even Hyde Park) who care about their own neighborhoods help keep my tree lawn and Goodale Park cleaner? There’s just enough science in this for it to smell credible.
I like mystery, the unknown, and a sense of wonderment in life and our world. And there appears to be plenty. Similar to our diminishing poop mystery, we still don’t understand how gravity emerges from a bunch of matter, or how economic systems emerge from a bunch of humans, but we seem to be okay with those. And as long as the park says clean, I’m okay with accepting a sense of wonderment about poop, too.