Poop bags, not bagpipes: insights from 18th century Scotland

In an earlier post I wondered at the curious way many dog walkers deal with their poop bags and what it reveals about how they think and what they believe. Not surprisingly, the reaction has been mixed.

‘Seriously? You’re interested in poop bags?’

So I was happy to come across the works of two leading figures of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment that seem to support my conclusions and even provide additional insights.

Not about littering. Taking a step back, and contrary to what you might assume, this subject is not about littering. In some ways it’s the opposite.

A bag nestles in a natural cradle.

Most of the poop bags I see down by the Potomac River—my main bag watching spot—have been carefully set by something, in something, on something, or tied to something—rocks, trees, signposts, whatever (see photo gallery Poop Bags of the Potomac—part II). They are not merely tossed like a beer can or a cigarette butt.

Why? People I’ve talked to say that it’s to make them easier for the dog pooper to find and retrieve at the end of his walk. Well OK, maybe, but. . .

In reality, many, if not most, of the bags are simply abandoned. A poop bag I see one day generally greets me on my next and subsequent visits, each time a little more flattened down and forlorn. If it’s disappeared, it’s mostly thanks to the ‘poop bag fairies,’ public spirited people, often bike patrol volunteers.

Before we meet our two Scotsmen, let’s take a quick look at how I have tried to make sense out of this so far.

High moral standards. I start from the premise that, for the most part, the protagonists are people who live around this area, which is the most upscale places in the nation. These are solid citizens, with impressive educational pedigrees, big houses, perfect lawns, high-achieving children, and professionally groomed dogs.

Official poop bag of
the National Park Service.

Our dog walker prides himself on his moral code and high standards in the matter of dog poop bags and everything else. He puts his bag down in a way that signals he will be back later to deal with it responsibly. That’s the kind of person he is. He is definitely not a litterer.

I’d go one step further. Since I’ve never actually seen a dog pooper set down his bag, I suspect that he chooses to perform his act out of public view. He’s like the true believer who prays in private, instead of putting on ostentatious displays of religiosity. It’s just him and the bag (and, of course, the dog).

At least up to this point, we could say that our dog pooper is a model of quiet virtue.

Sage of 18th Century
Edinburgh, Adam Smith
pondered the role
of morality in society.

‘Fit for society’. I believe that our first Scotsman, Adam Smith, would agree. We all know Smith for The Wealth of Nations, the Magna Carta of capitalism. But in many ways, his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was just as ground-breaking. Here he discusses economics a little, but mostly he examines what people believe, how they think, and their role in society.

Smith examined the relative merits of public vs. private morality, as exhibited by our dog pooper.

“Nature. . . endowed [man] not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men,” Smith wrote.

“The first desire could only have made him wish to appear to be fit for society. The second was necessary in order to render him anxious to be really fit. . . In every well-formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest of the two. . .”

Smith concludes: “This self-approbation, if not the only, is at least the principal object, about which he can or ought to be anxious. The love of it, is the love of virtue.”

When dog poopers put their bags by, in, or on something, they are reaffirming their moral virtue, not to others, but to themselves.

‘Moral beauty’. But as we’ve seen, they often end up abandoning their bags. By the time the dog pooper returns to that stretch of trail, his mind is filled with other thoughts. He strides along, his dog trotting by his side.

How shall we judge a case like this, when personal moral standards don’t perform as advertised? Is our dog pooper, in fact, just a common litterer?

Adam Smith had nothing to say about this, so I turned instead to one of his Edinburgh colleagues, Henry Home, aka Lord Kames, a jurist.

Lord Kames, every
inch a jurist, examined the
the role of intent in
claims of moral rectitude.

Struggling through his essay Principles of Morality and Natural Religion I saw that, like Smith, Kames’s main interest was not just how people act, but also how they think.

As a pillar of the legal profession, Kames was interested in the importance of intent in judging whether a person deserves approbation or condemnation for a given action. If intent can be used in the courtroom to gauge the seriousness of a potential crime, it might be similarly dispositive as evidence of at least some degree of moral rectitude for dog walkers along the Potomac.

And sure enough, Kames maintained that a person must voluntarily intend to achieve some end as a precondition to establishing moral virtue, not just in issues of crime and punishment, but in that person’s broader relationship with society. He called it “moral beauty.”

“We approve …[good] ends as useful in themselves, but not as morally fit or right, where they are not considered as the result of intention,” he writes. “[M]oral beauty” proceeds from “intention, deliberation, and choice. . . ”

For Scottish dogs,
virtue means
maintaining steady bag
pressure.

So our delinquent dog pooper still can claim at least a shred of his self-perceived moral virtue.

All well and good. But how about the dog?

I turned again to Lord Kames’ essay.  While the issue of intent is of the upmost importance for humans, he wrote, “we discover very little of intention, deliberation and choice in the actions of inferior creatures.”

Poop bags of the Potomac: Part II

Just when I think that I’ve see it all when it comes to dog poop  bags along the Potomac, up pops something new—maybe a fresh color, a novel setting, an unusual pose.

Bird watchers might see a thousand Hudsonian godwits, but except for some variation in plumage color and pattern, they’re all just about the same. But for bag watchers, every sighting is a visual event.

Here is a selection of dog poop bags I’ve spotted since my first gallery post. As before, nearly all are by, in, or on something. I think that’s really interesting (see article).

A flock of vultures, maybe?

First thing I did was to look
through the hole.

The little rock had a hole in it, slightly angled and cleanly formed. I picked it up and looked through the hole, out across the river at the rocks and the islands, up the low hills on the other side, and finally at the sky, where a swirl of vultures rode the thermal currents, ever upward.

Neat little rock, I thought, and a nice vignette of the vultures. At least they looked like vultures.

I found the rock on a gravel bar at the foot of a stretch of rapids on the Potomac River called Seneca Breaks. It’s a great place for hauling up your kayak and grilling a bratwurst over a driftwood fire.

Behind the gravel bar runs a network of channels, some of them bordered by vestiges of stone walls that George Washington’s crews built as part of a skirting canal around the rapids. Upstream, mercifully out sight, stands a super-size American flag that marks the beginning of Trump National Golf Course.

The river’s rocks. Most of the rocks on the gravel bar are rounded from their bruising journey down the river. Some are boulder size, but most are much smaller. Among them lie bits of river glass, also smoothed by the action of the river.

I found the rock with the hole high up on the berm, next to a river-worn piece of coal, likely from a long-ago longboat that capsized and dumped its cargo. After examining my find I slipped it into my pocket. There’s nothing better than to come home after a day on the river with a pocket full of rocks.

Hag Stone Beach.

How was it formed? When I see a small object with a hole, my brain says “ornament.” But this was no human artifact. For one thing, the rock was drab and nondescript. For another, the diameter of the hole remained constant from one side of the stone to the other, unlike the hourglass shape of a hole created by a primitive bow drill. And why would an ornament maker drill a hole at an angle, as in my rock, and not just take the shortest route?

Of course the stone might have been produced solely by physical or chemical processes, like the potholes up and down this stretch of the Potomac that form as current-driven pebbles and sand drill into the grey bedrock.

I prefer to think that it all started with a worm. I can imagine a tiny creature hundreds of millions of years ago burrowing through the sandy sea floor, creating this very hole. Later the hole filled with silt. As more sediments accumulated, immense pressures turned the sand and silt into rock. Millions of years later the rock was thrust up in an episode of mountain building, only to be sent tumbling downhill as erosion worked its will. Ending up in a proto-Potomac River, sand driven by the current ground away the softer parts of the rock, including the bit of hardened mud that had filled the worm hole. And so the ancient worm hole was reborn.

Tricksters and vultures. That could be the end of the story, but this is the Potomac River, the domain of Potowmack the Trickster, a river spirit who delights in showing people that things aren’t always as they seem.

I suspected something like this when I looked though the hole in the rock and saw the vultures.

Now, vultures are wretched creatures, despite their federally protected status. They look like beings from the underworld, with soot-covered feathers and naked heads scorched red by fiery embers. Their grunts and hisses could be the soundtrack for a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. They smell of the rotting carcasses on which they feed and they splatter their roosts with foul excrement.

Yet when vultures launch themselves from a cliff, they turn into the essence of grace, delicately shifting the angles of their great wings to catch the thermals that send them circling higher and higher into the heavens.

A hag, but of the
friendlier sort.

Hags and fairies. Can the seemingly opposite worlds of geology and myth shift back and forth, one into the other, and then back again? Maybe so.

For millennia, peoples across the world have ascribed great spiritual and practical power to stones with naturally occurring holes. Such a stone is particularly powerful for the person who finds it, as opposed to buying it or receiving it as a gift.

The stones today are known by a variety of names. The one I like best is hag stones, a term that conjures up the rude world of medieval political incorrectness, of short words and short life spans, of people who urinated in the street, fornicated in the tavern, and cut off noses at the slightest insult. It was also a world of superstitions, where an ‘old hag’ is not only ugly and repulsive, but also likely a malevolent spirit, an inhabitant of a world of ghosts, goblins, and hellish fiends.

Barbie joins the
world of spirits.

But why give such a derogatory name to a stone that provides power to its owner? It could be that the stones are not hags themselves, but rather protect against hags. Or the name could simply imply the opposite. For example, a good many Irish jigs and reels have the word hag in their name (e.g. ,The Hag with the Money, The Hag by the Fire, and The Hag’s Dream). The Irish enjoy playing with language, such as giving words double meanings. Are the tunes about hags? Or actually about nubile young lasses?

This brings us to another name, fairy stone. And an intriguing coincidence: The Teutonic word hag looks a lot like the Greek hagia, the feminine form of the word for saint, a bridge between earth and the world of spirits and fairies.

Stone of many uses. But enough of etymology, geology, and history. What is a hag stone good for? A lot, it turns out.

For one thing, a hag stone opens up a world not normally visible to mere mortals. When I peer through the hole in my rock, I can see shadowy realms populated by fairies, mermaids, sea spirits, tree spirits, and the spirits of the dead. I can see what they’re up to, and take precautionary measures, if necessary.

Hag stones also work as amulets. In the old days, farmers hung them in their stables to protect themselves and their animals. Fishermen fastened them to their boats to ensure a good catch or to guard against shipwreck. I tied mine to the rear view mirror of my car.

The stones ward off nightmares and illness. They can cast love spells and enhance fertility. They can detect if a person is telling the truth.

So far my hag stone has worked as advertised. I have not crashed my car, my health is good, I have not capsized my kayak, and I don’t believe anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

That leaves the part about gateways into mystical realms. Maybe the vultures I saw through the hole in the stone were fairies. But they could have been just vultures, in the same way that lunch can simply be lunch. I’ve gotten to know Potowmack the Trickster, and how he delights in deflating people’s beliefs and delusions. This could all just be one of his jokes. If they look like vultures, it’s quite likely they are.