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Archive for the ‘Absolute Piffle’ Category

Shaggy

I had an old dog. His name was shaggy.

Long matted hair and tail so waggy

His mom was a collie. His daddy a rambler,

Half Airedale and a half springer spaniel.

He killed the rats and groundhogs

Screwed the bitches and fought the dogs.

He looked so cute and brown and black

But he’d run a deer down if it had a big rack.

He didn’t listen. He didn’t mind.

He was only interested in being his kind.

Shaggy wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t well-heeled.

He just wanted to run all free-wheeled.

A farm dog born of manor and mirth,

His kind once ran hard on the earth.

But just as passed on a winter’s day,

I knew I’d never again have a dog that way.

We now must keep them locked up well

And not let them roam heaven and hell.

But still I miss that wild freeborn wag

That came from old mongrel Shag.

***

Forgive me my doggerel. I composed all this nonsense as I was going to bed one night.

I never had a dog named Shaggy, but I knew many dogs like him.

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River Wolves

Quest and Anka swimming in the Ohio River on Sunday.

anka and quest in the ohio river

river monster anka

anka river dog

river dog anka

water wolves 1

water wolves

 

 

 

 

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bat-eared fox

I have not yet been asked to review the new film Alpha, which is a story about early dog domestication. I have not seen the film yet, but I do want to see it.

I do think we need to get beyond the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I think there have been some serious attempts recently, but I’m not going to play around with that right now.

Instead, I’m going play around with some speculative domestication reverie. Forgive me my flights of fancy. I must play around a bit.

Let’s say that domestication didn’t involve wolves at all. Let’s say it happened with a very different canid.

And you really can’t get more different from wolves than bat-eared foxes are. Bat-eared foxes are odd little creatures. They are intensely social foxes that live almost entirely upon harvester termites. They do eat other things, and they have even been known to scavenge carrion. But most of what they eat is harvester termites.

Let’s say that somewhere in East Africa some 50,000 years ago, a wandering band of nomad came into the land, but found the whole countryside devoid of game.  The only quadruped messing about the scene were several bands of bat-eared foxes.

And the hunters speared the foxes and ran them down and roasted their bodies on campfires and ate away at their manky fox flesh and hoped the spirits would bring forth a kudu or an impala from the bush.

So for many weeks, the people hunted the bat-eared foxes, and they choked down the fox meat.

But then the fox numbers dwindled, and the disgusting pains of hunger swept through the people. And the babies starved to death, and the children grew gaunt in the piercing sun.

And so the hunters set out on a big journey into the rising sun hoping that they would some place so wondrous as to have plentiful hoofed game.

One hunter, though, knew of a little trick that he’d learned from the hot days of fox chasing in the sun. He knew that the bat-eared foxes like to hang near the termite nests, and he knew that if he staked out one big termite nest, he’d eventually run into a fox.

For two hot days he sat in silence. But on the nightfall of that second day, he the hoary gray form of a bat-eared fox. It was a vixen, and she was all heavy with milk.

Her form was gaunt and tight, and he teats were all swollen with the milk. And the hunter felt pity for her, and so he could not cast his spear upon her.

He sat there watching as she picked up the termites and marveled her rapid mastication.  Rare is the hunter who can avoid watching his quarry and empathizing with it. It is man’s ability to empathize with an animal that ultimately makes him great hunter. It is his ability enter into the animal’s mind and see its ways and its habits as the animal sees it.

But he still can kill it and kill it with skill.  It’s just that every once in a while, the empathy subsumes the hunter, and he feels that odd profound kinship with the animal. It is a feeling I have felt so profoundly on my own hunts, and it is one that I know has made me pass up more than a few shots.  And these are the feelings I do not wish to lose. If I do, I will be a monster, not a fully human hunter.

So the hunter sat and watched the vixen eating the termites, and he let her pass. He then followed her tracks through the arid country. He kept his distance back on the trail, hoping that he would not spook her.

He followed her out of nothing more than curiosity, and as he followed her, he noticed the cloven hoofs of a kudu. The fox and the kudu were following the same trail,  so the hunter knew that if he tired of his little fox tracking, he might be able to get on a kudu trail and bring home some nice meat for the band.

As he followed the trail, the kudu sign grew fresher and fresher. And out of the bush, a young kudu materialized out of the heat waves.  Both hunter and kudu were suprised to encounter each other, but the hunter knew to throw his spear.  It hit home, and the kudu ran and ran. The hunter followed its blood trail, and then found the beast lying in its death throes.

He dispatched the kudu with a simple blow to the head, and it became meat in very short order.

The hunter covered his kill and began the journey back to where he had left his companions. He had dropped a kudu bull, and they would soon have food to eat.

But he had to make his way carefully home, for the stench of blood could bring in lions and hyenas. So he started homeward,  when he sensed presence of another being staring at him.

When he turned to look for his stalker, he was shocked to find the vixen standing upon a little boulder. She was transfixed by him, and he was amazed by her.

He turned to walk away, and the bat-eared fox squall-barked.  He turned to look in her direction. He waved a blessing at her, and then turned to walk again. The vixen squall-barked again, this time with frantic intent.

The hunter turned to look at the fox, but then another movement caught his eye, He turned his head to make his eyes register upon the form before him, and then he realized that a young male lion had come to stalk him. It had been trailing the wounded kudu, and now, it had come upon a bit of human flesh. All it had to do was lie in wait, and there would be a kill.

The hunter stood tall on his legs and reached for his spear. He had but one opportunity to make the lion fall as it began to charge, and he knew that he had to make it count. Otherwise, he would be lion’s meat.

He made his spear aim dead on the lion, and as the beast began its horrific charge, the hunter steeled his nerves  and began his spear cast. It home just as the lion’s charge reached within ten feet of him.  The arrow hit the lion lungs, and her ran off in terror to die the death of a mortally wounded beast.

But the hunter lived. And he owed his survival to the little squall-barks of the bat-eared vixen.

He just began to make his way home when he herd the sound of many hoof-beats. All around him were vast herd of zebra and wildebeest.  And there were many kudu and impala flitting about.

In his journey following the bat-eared fox, he had accidentally stumbled onto some game rich country, and he had to bring his people here.

And he had to make them thank the fox.

And so these people survived a long bout of famine all thanks to their guardian spirit, a little bat-eared fox.

And so the legend was passed through all the people’s children and their children and their children’s children.  And the people came to revere the fox, and bring the kits into their villages and make them their guardians and good luck talismans.

And soon there were whole populations of bat-eared fox that lived in villages and ate people food along with their normal insectivory.

And they followed the people out of Africa into Eurasia, where they diversified into so many forms.

And the bat-eared fox is found on every island and on every continent where people exist.

Some herd our chickens and ducks. Others keep malaria mosquitoes at bay, while others rat as proper terriers do in our present reality.

But in this reality, man’s best friend is the bat-eared fox, not the domesticated wolf. And wolves themselves never survived into the present era. It was too clunky and too churlish to fit into the world dominated by man, and it was fully extirpated from all the land.

And so I’ve laid out some silly reverie of speculative domestication. Forgive me my folly. I sometimes can’t help it.

 

 

 

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fox attacking chickens

The chickens used to roost in the old apple trees that grew around the farm house. On hot summer evenings, the sun would begin its descent to the West in late afternoon, and the big hordes of mongrel chickens would begin their journeys from the various portions of the farm.

And in the loud flapping of wings, chickens and roosters and pullets and cockerels would leap to the nightly sanctuary. And the drawing night would cast down upon the land, as the fireflies rose all around.

In darkness, the farmer and his wife would sit on the front porch and sip coffee or a bit of whiskey and tell stories of the old times when a man and wife could live and farm on the land and raise their children among the hayfields and cattleyards.

And as the darkness drew in deeper, the wife would yawn a bit, then her husband would yawn too. And within just a few more iterations of telling the same old story, one of them would say “Well, I guess we should be getting to bed.”  And there would be a simple solemn agreement, and the two would trundle back into the house.

And the night would grow still.

An old dog fox knew this summer ritual, and he knew it well.  He had learned in the past two summers that the chickens wandered back to the apple trees every evening, and for a while, he’d tried to catch them on their paths through the grass that led from the grasshopper-filled meadows.

He’d tried that game for a good two months, but the farmer and his wife noticed their missing fowl.   And the farmer staked out the meadows where the chickens were feeding and caught the red fox slinking along.

Any other farmer would have let the bullets fly, but not this one. This farmer had an addiction, and that addiction was called foxhounds. In the back lot behind the house, he kept well-bred pack of running Walkers, those famous Kentucky foxhounds that ran the fox long and hard.

Shooting a fox meant less sport for his dogs, and less time to brag to his buddies about his hard-driving “gyp,” that would soon have a littler of nice little puppies.

One of the perverse things about a foxhound is that a foxhound eats meat and cornbread, but it exists solely for man’s amusement. It is not like the farm shepherd or collie that manages the stock or guards the farm, and what’s more, this farm was totally lacking in that sort of dog. A fox cannot be killed and eaten, and letting it live for the dogs’ amusement means tolerating a few missing chickens.

So when the farmer saw the red fox out in the far meadow in a long hard stock of the returning chickens, he merely slipped into the dogyard and let the hounds loose.

The dogs ran the chicken hunter hard, but in the summer heat, they grew tired quickly and dived into a little stream to cool off and let the fox continue on its way.

The dog fox now knew he couldn’t be so obvious. If he wanted to take the chickens on their way back to the apple trees, he had to come on a windless night, where his scent wouldn’t waft over into the dogyard.

He had to slip about in the deepest darkness of night, black paws treading carefully so as not to alert the dogs sleeping just yards away.

The game became a complex dance of avoiding detection and taking advantage of the carelessness of young chickens.  Farmers with free running chickens almost always discount their young cockerels and pullets. Indeed, there is almost a hope that something will thin out the cockerels, who soon enough will be challenging the old roosters for status. And the crowing and fighting will be just too much for anyone’s sanity.

So the dog fox knew his best bet was to stake out the apple trees and wait for that moment when the sun starts trickling back in to bring about the dawn. As soon as that faint sun comes and casts in that purple shade of predawn. The chickens begin their stirring.

The roosters start their crowing, and as the forms of day begin to appear in the faintest morning light, they sail down from the trees.

Twice, the dog fox had charged the chickens at that moment, and they made so much noise and sailed so quickly to the trees, the farmhouse door swung open before the fox had any opportunity to catch anything.

The fox knew to wait until the roosters came down and fought a bit as they do in the early morning hours.  And after a few minutes of silly sparring, the hens and the young birds drop down from the apple trees and the day begins.

The farmer would be up in just a few minutes. He liked to begin the summer toiling before the sun began to beat down and cook the land and force the heavy sweat to drip from his brow.

So in that golden few minutes, the dumb young chickens would be on the ground, and no humans would be about.

And that’s when the fox would make his move, but he would only do so with the cockerels and pullets that had just now stopped following their mother and were only learning about how to be proper and independent chickens. These fools like to check out the tall grass for crickets in the morning dew, and they would always find some.

Such a fine repast for such naive little birds, and such a nice place for a prick-eared predator to lie in wait.

And that’s when the dog fox would take a cockerel or pullet every morning in those days of heat and growing apple trees.

It was a summer ritual to stake out the apple trees around the farmhouse each night, and virtually every windless morning, the fox bagged him a little chicken.

And so the fox lived and grew fat in the summer, but as September rolled around, the farmer would collect his feathered stock. Any virtually any young cockerels that had started crowing were quickly slaughtered and wrapped up in freezer bags. The old roosters were killed off, as were the old hens. Their fate was to become part of a meal called “chicken and dumplings.”

The remaining stock was to spend the fall and winter locked in a chicken run behind the house. The run was protected by a few hot wires, and no fox worth his salt would risk being shocked more than twice to try to menace that run.

And so the dog fox would wander off into the countryside and mouse and rabbit. But in the late spring, the chickens would be turned out again to wander the pastures and meadows.

And he would begin his night stalks near the apple trees once again.

In the winter, the beef cattle would bellow in their muddy lots, and the farmer would drop down hay and silage for for them to eat.

And as the night would draw near, he’d lead his foxhounds out to his truck and drive off to the good hilltops where the foxes haunted. There, he’d meet his friends from distant shires and districts and their well-bred hounds for a bit of chasing. They would build a nice bonfire, then slip their gaunt hounds into the coming darkness.

And the hounds would run the red foxes all through the night, while the huntsmen stood around a bonfire. The whiskey would cross their lips as often as the bragged and bullshitted, and the wild cries of running hounds would pierce the night air.

The dog fox knew about hounds, and he knew not to do his winter hunting on those hilltops where the bonfires glowed.

Instead, he crept along the brier patches where the cottontails believed they had found some refuge and the voles and bog lemmings still had not gained enough sense to avoid a fox’s jaws.

Some nights though, he would slink near the farmhouse. He’d hear the chickens clucking in their run, and he would scent the air. No dogs at home.

He would slide up to the chicken coop. He would smell the stench of chickens, and he would lick his lips.

But he knew fully well this was not his season, but the way the chicken scent made his nose quiver enlivened his spirit on those winter nights.

And soon he would be slipping back into mouser and rabbiter mode.

One winter night, the dog fox made his winter forays to examine the chicken run, and just as he decided that his appetite had been whetted enough, he decided to cross the country road that crisscrossed the farm, and as he did, set of headlights descended upon him.

He froze in the middle of the road, knowing fully well that if he ran, he would be detected, but if he stayed put, he could be killed. He stood in confident terror as the lights scanned down upon him.

It was the farmer’s truck, and he was back from a long night whiskey and hounds on a hilltop several miles distant. The hounds were all worn and threadbare from a long hard chase, and the whiskey had taken a toll on their owner’s senses as well. The hounds were in the straw of their dog boxes in the back, and their attentions were being paid to lick the brier cuts and pluck some burrdocks and beggar ticks from their coats.

But as the truck slid upon the fox, the farmer’s eyes cast down into the road before him. There was his red-coated quarry, standing tall and brave. His blue eyes met the yellow of the fox’s, and for a minute, he was taken with the beauty of such an animal.

And then the fox realized that his chance to escape had arrived, and he bolted for the brush on the other left side of the rode.

Too tired to let his hounds out for another run, the farmer sat for a few seconds and wondered for a minute if the whiskey had made him see things. And he tried to convince himself of that fact, but soon realized that he might have been a hair buzzed but he wasn’t that drunk.  The fox really had found him at home, even after all those miles of letting the hounds run on that far distant hilltop.

And so the opportunistic thief and his fox-chasing benefactor went their separate ways on this cold early winter night.

A fox-chaser always loves his quarry as much as he loves his hounds. The equation goes simply as follows: No red foxes equals no real use for the hounds.  The hounds don’t catch the fox, and the chasers never want them to.  The hounds, the houndsmen, and the foxes live in this odd symbiosis, where, if things were more than a simple sport of chase, the fox would soon fall to the shotgun and foothold trap.

But a fox-chaser lets the wild dog be, if only so he can hear the hounds cry wildly in the night as he stands around a bonfire with his comrades and drinks back the old rot gut whiskey.

The price of a few chickens is worth the joy of the winter ritual, and thus, this farmer has made his peace with the predator that takes away a few cockerels from his freezer every year.

And so the story goes on and on. So long as there is a fox-chaser, there will be room for dog foxes that like chicken meat.

It is a fine bit of absurdity in the grand scheme of the Cosmos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wow. What a find on my lawn!anka bat-eared fox zoom

 

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yellow-bellied marmot

A yellow-bellied marmot can’t predict the weather. Its cousin, the groundhog, can’t either.

I have not written anything about this in a while, but those of you who live outside of North America need to know something:

Every Candlemas, local news stations across the Anglo-American world will be covering a bizarre ritual. At the local zoo or wildlife center, some people with super-thick gloves will be annoying the resident marmot this morning. In my part of the world, it will be French Creek Freddie, a groundhog, who will be roused from his deep hibernation. He will be taken out into the broad daylight.

And somehow, it will be determined if he saw his shadow or not, and if he sees his shadow, then we’re in for six more weeks of winter.

The big ritual happens at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and it is supposedly based upon an German custom of annoying a badger or hedgehog on Candlemas for the same purpose. Neither species is found in Pennsylvania, although wandering American badgers have occasionally turned up in Western New York and even West Virginia.

So they went with the local marmot species as a stand-in. The one in Punxsutawney is called Punxsutawney Phil. There is already a livestream set up for his prediction this morning.

In Montana, a yellow-bellied marmot named Bitterroot Bill. He’s not exactly the ground of Pennsylvania, but if the groundhog of Pennsylvania is a stand-in for a badger or hedgehog, shouldn’t a yellow-bellied marmot do just as well?

At least Van Island Violet, an endangered Vancouver marmot, will be left alone to sleep through her hibernation. Canadians, at least on the West Coast, are nicer to their local marmot than most of us are.

Indeed, this is about the only day that groundhogs get any truck with people in my area. Groundhogs are agricultural pests, and during the hot days of summer, they are frequently used as target practice by those hunters with itchy trigger fingers or those who are starting to doubt their marksmanship skills.

But if you ever see the Candlemas rodents when they are roused from their winter naps, they are quite grouchy. That’s why the handlers have to wear such thick gloves. I’ve never hibernated, but I can imagine that being roused from such a state is pretty traumatic.

I’ve always thought this is a bizarre custom for several reasons:

One is that I can’t imagine the groundhog is looking for its shadow when it’s hauled out into the light. I don’t even know that groundhogs even know what shadows are. The main thing these animals seem to be caring about is why they can’t be put back to bed.

The second is that, um, if an animal sees its shadow, that means the sun is out. If the sun is out, then that will melt the snow, and I would think that the sun shining would be a sign that winter is on its way out.

I suppose I’m thinking this stuff out too much.  It is, after all, just a regional folk custom that went viral long ago.

Most people don’t even know that today is Candlemas, because it’s not an Anglo-Protestant holiday at all.

In North America, it is Marmot Day.

The national news will let us know what ol’ Phil saw. Of course, he won’t be interviewed. There will just a proclamation read, and the news will report on his prediction. The local news affiliates across the country will report on the local marmots, and we will go on our merry way.

And then the real meteorologists will produce their forecasts. People will follow those a lot more closely than the rodent predictions.

And we’ll go back to our lives. The marmots will go back to sleep. When the grounhogs arise in spring, the guns will go off as soon as the find the vegetable patch.

But for one day, they are feted, even if they are too grouchy and dazed to realize it.

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The Mandarin of the Closed Road

orange cat

The county closed this road a few years ago. I used to travel it often, for it shaved some minutes off my drive. It was potholed and roughshod and hardly the thing that someone driving a little sedan should venture on, but I drove it often. I knew where the big holes were anyway, and I got only one flat tire on all my years of driving it.

It took me through a bit of wasteground where the trees grew up thick and tall, and on night time trips, I’d often run into raccoons and deer. Their eyes would flash in my headlights and run quickly into the brush. They were my taste of country existence in this graduate school city:  rough rough, thick woods, and the wild.

This evening, I’ve decided to walk along the edge of this road, for there is a trail that cuts off the right and takes me into a nice little park.  The darkness falls hard upon trees, casting shadows along the pockmarked road up the the bright red gate that says “Road Closed.”

I approach the gate in deep nostalgia. I remember driving this road so many times, but now it’s closed to me.  A universe is walled off to me, and it makes me ache a little.  I wish I could traverse the road again, and I feel violated at the redness of the gate.

As I make my approach, I catch movement to my left.  It is a feral cat, a big tom.  He orange and puffed up like some kind of pumpkin beast set loose upon the countryside.

He bolts from me but stops short of the red gate. He stares up at me with his demonic cat eyes, as if he is accusing me for daring to disturb his peace and tread upon his domain.

We look hard at each other. I am not a cat man, and he’s not impressed with me either. We have nothing but contempt for each other.

We look into each other’s eyes for thirty seconds then a minute.

It is the orange tom who breaks the stare and slips under the red gate as if he never noticed me. He slips through as mandarin on his way back to his palace, which might be hidden somewhere in the deep timber.

But I will never set my eyes upon it. My human feet and my car tires are banned from the road beyond the gate.

But the cat is allowed. Indeed, no one knows he even crossed under the gate.  And no one cares.

I feel heartbroken at this development. My little wild road is closed off, and it has been left to the big tom to rule as his own.

Mankind is all about the rules. We regulate ourselves pretty well.

But when it comes to old cats that no one wants or cares about, we don’t have much in the way of rules at all.

We wall of the places to ourselves, but they become the domains of the cats. They rule according to the customs and instincts of cats.

Every walled off place becomes a fortress for a tomcat mandarin, and we mere mortals can only quake in their presence.

Or stare at them with contempt, as I do.

Or maybe it’s not contempt at all, but simple jealousy.

Yes, jealous of a darned old cat.

 

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