Forty days and forty nights of loyalty and love.
The dog is an amazing creature — a frequent muse to an entire canon of art, a whole collection of Mary Oliver verses, and some excellent metaphors for beauty and aging, and . But its nose — which is how the dog actually “sees” the world — is a particularly miraculous pinnacle of its amazingness, and now the inspiration for a most fanciful alternative mythology.
In the immensely wonderful Why Dogs Have Wet Noses (public library), Scottish poet, novelist, and children’s book author Kenneth Steven and celebrated Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter — the artist behind the existential allegory The Hole and the bittersweet My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — offer an irreverent and utterly heartwarming modern reimagining of Noah’s Ark.
Steven sets the stage:
A long, long time ago, not long after the world began, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that really soaks you, pouring down from the sky like it will never stop.
We meet Noah, a man “both watchful and wise,” who looks like a lovable aging hipster from the maker movement. He begins building an enormous lifeboat — the Ark — then sets out to recruit “as many creatures as he could remember,” emanating a kind of indiscriminate Buddhist love for all, even “slugs, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies.”
The last to board is a mutt so odd-looking that Noah can’t quite tell what kind of a dog it is, but the soft black nose assures him that it is one.
With a great big groan and a terrifying tilt, the Ark sets sail as Noah wonders whether his strange company will survive this plunge into the unknown.
Steven’s writing, to be sure, is absolutely exquisite — the kind you might find in a Henry Beston masterpiece or an Annie Dillard classic rather than a typical children’s book (but this, of course, isn’t a typical children’s book):
They sailed away. Land had long since vanished. Only sea and sky remained. The rain fell heavier and heavier, and lightning shot from the black clouds, gleaming like snakes’ tongues. But apart from the crashing sounds of rain and thunder, it was completely quiet. As though there were no other sounds left in the whole wide world.
And yet inside the Ark, it was a completely different story — creatures of all shapes, sizes, and appetites clamored day and night. In a scene familiar to parents raising multiple small children — and perhaps good training for Noah himself, whose equally hipster-looking wife grows increasingly pregnant throughout the voyage — he labors tirelessly to feed each animal its favorite food, having “no peace and not a wink of sleep.”
No sooner had the last animal had dinner and gone to sleep, then it was time for the first to have breakfast again.
And yet Noah manages to hold the floating fort for twenty days until, suddenly, disaster strikes — the Ark springs a leak. Although the hole is “no bigger than a chestnut,” water begins to gush in, spelling dread and doom.
With his now beloved dog by his side, Noah brainstorms for a plan. At last, lightning of the more welcome and metaphorical kind strikes.
Just like that, the supreme testament to the dog’s dogness — its soft black nose — plugs the hole and saves the Ark.
All other creatures rejoice as the loyal dog sits there for forty days and forty nights, keeping their lifeboat from sinking amid the seemingly endless ocean.
And then one morning, just as the dog smells an unfamiliar scent, another violent disruption rattles their nautical rhythm — the Ark hits something hard.
Land! Hills rose up through the mist and behind them there was a tiny bit of blue sky. The rain had stopped at last and a magnificent rainbow stretched across the sky.
One by one, the creatures disembark onto the long-awaited shore, marveling at the lush life covering the land. But just as Noah, the last to climb out, joins the marveling bunch, he is seized with a shocking realization: His beloved dog is still down in the belly of the boat, nose faithfully plugging the hole.
Noah rushes to the rescue.
Noah gently stoked his dog’s tummy.
“Good boy,” he whispered.
“Woof!” the dog replied, leaping up to give his master a kiss wit his wet nose.
Never again would Noah’s dog have to go to sea. But from then on, every dog in the world would have a wet nose.
And that, you see, is why dogs have wet noses.
Why Dogs Have Wet Noses comes from Brooklyn-based independent children’s book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, makers of such intelligent and imaginative treasures as Beastly Verse, The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.
Complement this particular gem with Torseter’s philosophical take on a different hole and another magnificent tale of the sea by way of an illustrated love letter to the blue whale, then revisit the far less fanciful actual science of the dog’s amazing nose.