Archive for the ‘deep thought’ Category

The Grounding

streamer on the run

I readily admit that I am an odd human being. A lot of times, my mind is lost in thought and contemplation, and more than a few times, I become transfixed by animals.  I am a hard person to know, because my mind is drawn deeper into those forces than is typical for a member of my species.

I suppose these are the traits of someone who wishes to write about animals, but they are also the traits of an oddball. And I’ve always been an oddball.

I grew up in rural West Virginia, where things were meant to be a certain way, and I never fit the mold very well. I tried to be Christian through my youth and early adulthood, but slowly, I began to realize that I couldn’t be a Christian and be honest with myself.

I came to worship nature, the rocks, the trees, and the animals, and I realized I didn’t need a faith imported Palestine by way of the Roman Empire and the Anglo-Germanic Reformation to understand the world.

Add that problem with the simple fact that my worldview has drifted to the left as I’ve matured, and I now know that I am fully estranged from the land in which I was born. Fundamentalist religion, xenophobia, and fossil fuel worship have generally pushed the people of this forgotten Eastern Outback towards the right.

In so many ways,  I am unmoored, adrift.

But dogs are always going to ground me, though. Their magic is that they exist somewhere between the untouchable animal world and our very contrived civilization.  They are the conduit through which I can be connected to that which is organically evolved and that which is domesticated.

I live with more than a few of them now, a motley crew of German shepherds and sighthounds.

Not one of them is a golden retriever, as odd as that now seems. I have come to the conclusion that my love for that breed comes from my relationship with one individual that was totally atypical for the breed, and she was certainly atypical for what people want to produce in the breed.  People want them to be easier to keep, lower drive creatures with lots of bone.

That golden flame has burned out in my desires. It will still haunt my psyche, but I have finally let it go.

My writings on other wildlife stem from my dog connection. I go to their to closest wild kin, the gray wolf complex and then out to the whole dog family. Then the whole order Carnivora reaches my conscience, and it is but short step before I begin to consider the rest of the Animal Kingdom.

And in short while, I am considering my own station as an insignificant being, a fluttering avatar of carbon in a banal part of the universe. This insignificant being, one with just enough gray matter to question existence, is brought into the deepest humility.

I suppose I do have a religion now.  It is mystical materialism, and my ethics are some form of progressive secular humanism.

And the dogs brought me here. This oddball person who never could fit in a land where conformity is the greatest desideratum now questions in his unmoored existence. But in my unmooring, I am strangely grounded in my own insignificance, as is revealed in the nature of dogs and the rest of nonhumanity.



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I’ve been scribbling away at this space for over a decade. Ten years ago, I was cocksure and dumb, and those two things are never a good match. I am amazed that anyone read that stuff I wrote back then. I was so full of crap, and my style was all edgelord and lilting.

I am not the same person now. I’ve had my successes and my failures. I’ve moved on, and I’ve taken leaps of faith that led me to different avenues, different perspective, different ideas.

I wish to God that I’d had the foresight to give this blog a better URL. It is so derivative that I almost shock myself at my naivete and utter lack of imagination. I named in the vein of hero worship, but I don’t have the same heroes now that I did back then.

I have come to hate much of my prose, even now when I’ve mostly found my voice and style. I’m profoundly insecure about what I write, and I must confess that I always was. Even when I wrote with the faux authority of an angry young man, I never felt that I was writing anything good.

I always felt a bit of fraud. I could write things so clearly that I made this weird illusion that I knew things I simply did not know. But as you get older, you learn what a damned fool you were.

I hate the way I write now more than ever. I write here mainly so I might cast off these ugly bugs that devour my syntax. It is a vain ritual, for I know sI will always write the way I do– and I don’t really like it.

So I will plunk away on this keyboard. Maybe you’ll like it, but I will always doubt.

I’m a doubter by nature. I no longer can write the pithy things that made this sort of blog get attention ten years ago. I no longer feel that that is my current purpose.

I don’t know what it is now, except to analyze out what I think the current science of dogs and their kin is and then maybe paint some pictures with words.

“Paint some pictures with words”? I can’t believe I wrote such a cliche!

Damn these bugs.

I’m so isolated from others writing blogging about these topics now that I sometimes feel that I’m just shooting out a load of nonsense that no one can follow or care about.

I suppose those of us who perform with written words feel these insecurities and sometimes become swamped with doubt.

It’s a hard business, especially when you feel so over-matched no matter what you do. But I stand where the rivers of fate have flushed me.

I stand as a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less. Without significance or favor, but without entirely losing faith in it all.

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The Caudillo of the Coalfields

The sun rises over his mansion. He stands outside and picks up the morning paper and squints his puffy fat eyes into the glowing eastern sky. He glowers back at the horror of sunshine, then slowly slips back into his castle for another day of conspiracy theorizing on Facebook. He believes himself a nobleman, benighted one, one left in exile from the hilly country of realm, where the black seam is dug and sun glints in only when the winter clouds dissipate.

In truth, he is no more a nobleman than he is a mobster. A big boss man of a coal giant, he made himself rich and powerful at the expense of his skilled workers who toiled in his mines. He killed water supplies and whole ecosystems in the wake of his avarice. He added a sort of toxic accelerant to the corrupt politics of West Virginia, making what was already vice even more disgustingly sleezy. Democratic politician knelt to kiss his ring, but he grew tired of pretending he cared for anything to do with their party. So he built the modern right that took over West Virginia, and anyone who wanted to be anybody came to seek approval before the throne.

His name is Don Blankenship. He was born to a single mother in a rundown house in the rundown town of Delorne. They had no running water, the outhouse was their refuge for the refuse of life, and had he been born in in 1900, he might have been a raging radical of the left. For Delorne lies in that land of Mingo, where the radical miners marched and took up arms against the coal company police state that held them in debt peonage and held away all that idea of the unions from the workers. But one time, the miners marched, native-born miners who tanged the Queen’s English as they always had in this and of hollows joined their arms with those who spoke with Irish brogues, African American dialects, and accents of Italian, Czech, and Yiddish.

But he was born a generation that was beginning to see the end of it all. The mines were being played out, and the unions were an obstacle to company profit.

He worked his way through the poor public schools of the county and learned his craft in trapping muskrats. From their hides, he paid his tuition to Marshall University, where the studied accounting. Accounting is study of numbers and yields, and although never a star student, he made his passing grades. He worked in the mines some, but he never once learned solidarity with those who toiled. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be the boss man.

Muskrate trapping is funny business. It is something akin to the beaver trapping that made men brave this territory to make their fortunes back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You come up with ways to make the muskrats drown, or lacking such abilities, you use traps that grip the body and suffocate them to death.

And so trapper Don worked the creeks and the streams, still wild with muskrats, even after all those years of pollution from sewage and mining. The muskrats gave their lives to fill his pockets and pay his fees and rise him up into a better station.

A man of numbers and figures, Don became the McNamara of the mines. He rose higher as he filled the company coffers, and he broke those pesky unions. And one day, he became CEO of Massey Energy.

And then set about becoming the caudillo of the coalfields. He threw his money at the politicians, and the politicians danced. He was the king maker, and everyone feared him.

How many people died because of his avarice is difficult to account. Cancer from the bad water poisoned from the mines is took quite a toll. Bad lungs were epidemic among all miners, but where the dust spread all day, the lungs of the citizenry grew black too.

And for his murine benefactors not much good came from it all. Muskrats don’t do well swimming in cancer creeks anymore than people do drinking for them.

How many people died in his mines in disasters and workplace safety errors, well, is also up to conjecture. Let’s just say it wasn’t zero, and in the end, it would his avarice overriding the need for safety that would do him in.

But he ran riot as the kingmaker. He helped Karl Rove deliver West Virginia to George W. Bush in 2000, when the state had such a long tradition of never voting for nonincumbent Republicans for president that went way back to when Herbert Hoover lost to Roosevelt in 1932.

And realizing the political winds were changing, he set about using his money to build a Republican Party in West Virginia, but it would not be one based upon the traditional conservative ideals of respect for institutions and skepticism of populism. No, it would be built on the reactionary populism that Don Blankenship saw as own sort of “American competitionist” ideology.

He called himself a radical, and in one election cycle, he got his own hand-picked Republican supreme court justice elected—“For the sake of the kids,” was his campaign slogan, accusing the incumbent Democrat of being too easy on a child molester and of being a Marxist to boot.

“For the sake of the kids” became the rallying cry for this Blankenship-based Republican Party to take the state legislature in 2006. Republican candidates ran with his blessing. He pumped their campaigns full of cash. But that cash really began to stink by then, and his slate of radicals all lost.

And thus began the twilight of the caudillo of the coalfields. He continued as the CEO, but environmental protestors were onto him. He had already poisoned the Tug River when his company’s Martin County, Kentucky, slurry impoundment escaped its banks. Water was tainted, and so became Mr. Blankenship.

In the end, Blankenship’s desire to keep the mines “running coal” at the expense of all safety brought him in. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 good, hard-working miners. Obama was president. Joe Manchin was senator. Obama’s MSHA did its job. It fingered Blankenship’s disregard for safety as the main reason for the explosion. He allowed the ventilation system to malfunction, and miners were forced to work where the coal dust, methane, and carbon monoxide levels were allowed to build. He wanted the coal run. He needed more money. More money was more important than their lives.

He was prosecuted for his crimes, but he was found guilty of only a misdemeanor, conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations. The judge still put him in federal prison, a club fed sort of place in California.

There, he had time to stew over the conviction. He wrote a book defaming Obama’s MSHA as the real culprit behind the explosion. He drew harder on right wing conspiracy theories about how the world really works

And when freed from prison, he instantly set about making a documentary that relied heavily on this narrative, which had played on local television stations in West Virginia. By that time, West Virginia had decided that Obama was the cause of all its woes, and a certain portion of the public became receptive to his insane bellyaching.

West Virginia loved Donald Trump, voting for him by the second highest margin of any state in the union. Coal-mining Wyoming held the distinction of being Trump’s number one state. But Blankenship saw how Trump had played that victim card very well to win the presidency, and he knew that he could pay that card even better when he threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination of US Senate. He would be taking on what he thought of as the New Jersey-based Republican establishment that had gained control over West Virginia’s GOP. In truth, all that had happened is some New Jersey right wingers had been unable to get elected in their home state went to West Virginia to launch more successful political careers. Among them was Patrick Morrissey, the state’s attorney general, who had decided he also wanted Joe Manchin’s senate seat.

The Republican establishment in Washington wanted Evan Jenkins, a turncoat Democrat who had once been in the state senate but had managed to win a seat in congress as a Republican. His former Democratic bona fides haunted him all through the campaign.

It was a campaign based upon Blankenship’s id gone made. He stole Trump’s thunder in giving his opponents nicknames. Evan Jenkins became “Little Joe,” as if he were Joe Manchin’s doppelganger. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became “Cocaine Mitch,” a reference to the discovery of cocaine on one of McConnell’s wife’s family’s ships. He also called him a Swamp Captain and pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump. He played ads asking that they lock Hillary Clinton up for colluding with Russia, and he played the race card hard. He said that Mitch McConnell’s father-in-law was a “wealthy Chinaperson” and implied that McConnell only cared about making China great again.

Despite being the uber Trump in that race, he still lost to Morrisey. He still won a few really rural counties, where conspiracy theories are the main currency of the local GOP apparatchiks. He lost this race because Trump himself tweeted out that Blankenship couldn’t win, and instead of turning on Trump. Blankenship turned on the Republican Party.

He hired his production crew to make more crazy ads. He came up with a conspiracy theory that Patrick Morrissey’s New Jersey political operatives worked together with a Fox News host from New Jersey to ruin his campaign. He was so angry with it all that he changed his registration to the Constitution Party, which then offered him their nomination for the US Senate seat. He filed signatures with the West Virginian secretary of state, telling his followers that if he got rejected from the ballot it was only because the establishment of both parties was trying to stop him. Of course, what was actually against him was the state’s sore loser law, which prevents people who lose a primary to run as another party or an independent as a balloted candidate for the general election. The state supreme court threw out Blankenship’s complaint when he was denied ballot access by the secretary of state, and he raced to Facebook too whine to his followers about how the world was truly against him all that was right in the world.

Morrissey lost the general election. Blankenship is still filing with federal courts to get his conviction overturned. He has millions of dollars and greedy lawyers who will gladly take some his fees.

And he has his mansion in Nevada and his Chinese girlfriend, but he doesn’t have the power over the land of coal anymore. It sears his very soul to know this fact, for like Donald Trump he is a man who feels deeply insecure. He knows deep down that his money came from being an amoral, avaricious prick, and he knows he has done wrong. But he cannot look himself in the mirror and accept this fact and fully accept his exile.

I suspect he’ll try running for governor of West Virginia, or maybe if Donald Trump gets impeached, Don will throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for president. It aches himself from the inside out that he cannot be the caudillo anymore, and if he can’t be the caudillo, maybe he can be the illustrious potentate of the whole nation. If only those mean ol’ liberals and Swamp Captains would just lay off him.

And so the benighted and exiled wannabe nobleman is left to his Nevada mansion to writhe the convulsions of his conspiracy theories. Perhaps he portends of the future for Mr. Trump, who also knows his own money largely comes from even more dubious means than sweatshop coal-mining and whose fortune is likely protected from the government’s levy by even more dubious tax schemes. Mr. Mueller or Maxine Waters are on the hot trails of all these potential liabilities, which are even more likely than his Russian collusion connections. And he must agonize all the live-long day that these liabilities could be exposed at any moment.

But I cannot help but reflect a bit upon myself. Like Blankenship, I am fully estranged from West Virginia politics. At one point of my life, I wanted to work in politics down there. I wanted to be fighter for the little guy, the ones whose lives were ruined by people like Don Blankenship. I got a degree in political science, and I went to law school to be a people’s tribune. I became instantly alienated from ever having any hope in that profession the second I stepped into law school, for I felt lost in all the esoteric nonsense about property inheritance in wills and what was a tort and what wasn’t. I suppose that deep down, I wanted to do politics because I loved the story and the drama, but I would never make it as an attorney.

And I cannot even feign a breath of Trumpish conservatism, nor can I pretend to be religious. By the time I was 23, I had intellectually rejected all theses of Christianity, but I was too afraid to admit to myself or others. And I certainly couldn’t play games as mainstream evangelical Christianity prostrates its before the altar of Donald Trump. I couldn’t hold my tongue and avoid saying that Trump is a horse’s ass, a violation that would probably cost me a Democratic nomination for virtually any office In virtually every part of the state.

I never had any hope of being a kingmaker or a people’s tribune. I accept that my native land and I will be forever politically estranged. And in this, I suppose I have more awareness than Mr. Blankenship, and it certainly cannot sear my soul the way it clearly does to him.

And so the tragic burlesque that is West Virginia politics goes on. Can a difference ever be made? Maybe, but for someone as melancholic as me, it is best that I let go and move on to safer station, where I can watch the whole scene in psychological safety.

That is where I am right now. The evening sun in December pierces the clouds. The gray skeleton trees glow glumly in their grayness. Not much snow this far in this greenhouse winter. Only the disgusting, nasty mud, and the chill rain fall from the sky. The arctic is warmer this winter. Don Blankenship made some of that all possible. He won’t admit it. He denies it like all his guilty sins.

And America goes on in ruins, but maybe there is hope. There has to be. I cannot allow myself to think otherwise.

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They ran Charolais on this rugged green ridgeland.  For forty  years, the big white cattle bellowed across the hollows, and the cows marched with their snowball calves in the greening days of April. The big bulls sat in the last remaining copses of oak trees on the land, chewing their cuds and resting all docile and dowdy through those sweltering days of summer.

But the world moved on. The farm family that ran the cattle was losing its grip on the land. Each generation left fewer and fewer people who were willing to commit to cattle husbandry. Now, there was one son, and he was taking a job on an oil rig in the far Gulf of Mexico. He just couldn’t run the cattle anymore.

The price of the Charolais beef had dropped over the years.They bred them almost entirely as a specialty, as a tradition, and now it was all over. The herd was sold to the feedlots, one in South Dakota and another in Tennessee.  The remaining herd bulls would go to Kansas to be bred as purebred Charolais at a specialist breeding program.

The final days of the cattle were on those green, sweet days of June, when the sun bakes the land and the grass grows perfectly green succulent. This would be the time after the first hay-cutting and before the second, when the rowen started to grow up among the stalks of the fallen first cutting. The rabbits would soon be kindling among the growing stalks, and maybe a litter or two wold be born and raised before the mowing machines came again.

But this year, the rabbits bred unmolested and the hayfield grew thick and green and then went to seed in the sun. No machine would come and cut down the grass, and rabbits would have their green refuge for the season.

And so the cows took their calves into the greenery, and the bulls rested their haunches in the oak lots.

It was sweet and settling, and in any other year, it would be the time when the cattle could be watched and the farm hand could breathe in the air and take a bit of time of ease.

But this year, it was all logistics of cattle trailers and health certificates. Recalcitrant haulers and busy veterinarians were on the phone all through the morning and evening.

It takes a lot of planning to end what had been a way of life. Indeed, the idea of it all being a way of life had already become the cliche of the demise of the family farm. But just because it was a cliche, didn’t mean it wasn’t true, and it was just as painful.

The long days of June were Halcyon days, just as they always were. But the first haulers showed up, and the first batch cows and calves left. 

It was raining when the trailer for the bulls showed up, and they splashed so much mud over their porcelain white hides that one could be forgiven for thinking they belonged to an entirely different breed.

And the haulers kept coming and taking away the cattle. And one day, there just a little scrub band of cows with calves.

And the thunder rolled in that last night before their hauler arrived. The sky lit up brightly withe sheet lightning, and the muggy air seemed to sweat and sweat until the deluge of rain came falling. The lightning cast the silhouettes of cows and calves in a truly ethereal scene. They were like ghosts standing upon the green grass as the sky dropped the buckets of rain. 

And then sky drew silent, and red June sun began its rising. The robins and thrushes and cardinals lifted their voices in song, and the day came roaring in on the land.

The final hauler arrived and the last of the cattle were loaded in the mud, and the cattle trailer headed down the dirt road, casting off to the southwest to Tennessee.

The meadowlarks sang in the pasture grass.  Crows flitted about the scene, and a pair of wild turkey hens came marching through pastures with 21 poults among them. They inspected the cowpies for bits of grain and grubs, and then moseyed on through the pasture in a singing, clucking phalanx of feathers and down.

They could not know that these were the last cowpies to be deposited upon the land. They merely came through pasture land on their wild foraging excursions, and they could not know that what was will never be again.

The sun of July and August would soon beat down upon the old pasture land. The manure would bake in the sun, and the scarabs would carry off what remained.

And the only thing that would remain of the cattle-land would be the deep furrows in the steep hill pastures that marked long years of bovine inertia moving hard upon the rocks and soil with cloven hooves.

And so another cattle farm went away, and just like the bison that once ranged these same ridges, they slipped away into the long draw of history.

And thus ended the final days of the cattle, and the grass grew thick and lush.  The wild multiflora rose run riot through the pasture in the coming years, and the Virginia and white pines would come to take the land. Then would come the aspen colonies and the drumming grouse.

Back to the forest the land would return, no longer a Jeffersonian farmstead of legend, but a bit of land left feral for the bears and the bobcats and the squacking squirrels. 

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The Old Horse

belgian horse

November’s chill winds scored the valley. The last of the October glowing leaves were knocked to the ground, and the finally stalks of summer corn were cut and set up as silage for the long starving season.

Men were thinking of meat now. The coming gun season for deer loomed as heavily as the November frosts, and those who still kept swine were preparing their scalding tubs and sharpening their hide scrapers.  The Angus steers that hadn’t been sold were similarly being prepared for the freezer.

The nights now drew in early and heavy winter dark, and Old Farmer Wilson seemed to know the score. Yes, he had a barrow or two in the back to take care of before the coming great deer hunt, when his meat gambrels would be hanging with musky venison to be skinned.

But his concerns were now in the nearer pasture, whose only inmate was Dan, the stolid old Belgian horse that he had inherited from a long-deceased great uncle. The great uncle was one of last of the horse-drawn men, the kind who cursed the roaring of the internal combustion engines on his fields and cropland and still held onto the old heavy horses. He held onto them as stubbornly as a barnacle, and when he passed, he left 200 acres to Farmer Wilson and a good horse to work it.

Wilson never much used the horse to work the land. He kept the great beast as a sort of novelty, a relic from an ancient time, and he fed him the finest horse grain and pellets and let him pull a wagon at small town parades.  He loved to groom out Dan’s flaxen mane and fetlocks and smooth out his golden hide with a currycomb, and he would pull that little Conestoga facsimile through the little towns of the valley and look so elegant while doing so.

But the years took their toll on the man and the horse. Dan’s condition had worsened over the long summer. He would eat all day on good green forage, but he would still get a little more gaunt each day.

The old horse’s teeth were wearing out, and Wilson knew that the kind thing to do would be relieve the old gelding of his suffering.

But he couldn’t be made to do it all through that summer and even in the waning days of September. The gentle old horse still touched a man who could off a pig with a single shot to the head.  The horse wanted to be good. He wanted to feel a man’s hand upon his neck and shoulders.  There was dignity in this old beast, and no man who ever knew such an animal could deny it.

And the horse reminded Wilson of the old men on the land that he knew so well. Their farms were now mostly left to go fallow then turn to brushy filth before growing up in the gray twig forest that now covered much of the countryside. Horses and men worked the land, as did many women and children.  But their farms were now forest, and their horses and mules were lost to the ages.

But Wilson knew the time was near. In another era, they just would have shot the old horse with a deer rifle, but Wilson believed that such a beast deserved a proper death.

He made an appointment for the vet to come the Friday before Thanksgiving. The big horse would fall out of his mortal coil, and the weekend would be for the pig killing.

The vet came that eerily sunny Friday morning. The sun cast that yellow pall of waning light that comes in November and December, and the trees stood naked as gray skeleton against the azure, cloudless sky.

Wilson whistled for Dan to come for his morning feeding, which had had brought in double helpings– and added half dozen golden delicious apples.

The great horse nibbled and nuzzled at his repast, and Wilson stroked his mane and neck, offering up the tender loving words  of “Good boy” and “What a fine horse you are.”

And the vet came with his big syringes, all filled with the elixirs of gentle death, and then approached the man and horse.

The vet asked, “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” was the solemn reply, which came only through the deepest of man sobs.

And so the vet came and injected the big horse with the thick needles, and the great animal dropped down to the muddy ground.

And a Farmer Wilson wept and sobbed as he never done before. Here was a man who offed pigs and chickens without thinking twice, but something was very different here.

For in that felling of the great horse, the last tangible piece of those old rheumy memories was extinguished upon the muddy ground.

And a truly noble and sagacious beast was no longer among the living, and anyone with half a soul would weep at such a thing passing.

The crows called in soft wind. A blue jay screeched from the hickory trees beyond hte pasture. A pileated woodpecker chattered madly in the sky.

And the last of the turkey vultures coursed the sky, casting their bills into the breeze to catch the scent of the dead.

The dead horse’s flesh probably grazed their olfactory systems a bit, but they carried on the sky, looking for morsels of meat that weren’t guarded by two men.

That night, Wilson ate a dinner of store-bought sausage.  He didn’t cook it as thoroughly as he normally did, and the blood gushed a bit from the center, oozing out into the plate in a scarlet trickle.

Normally, he would think of nothing of his mistake, but this time, he sat and stared hard at the blood.  Blood would be coming in the morning, when began his annual pig killing, and the blood would run harder and darker than it ever would on his plate.

He considered his odd position as a man who cared for his animals and then killed them, He gave them good food and lots of good care, but the end was the same. The animals died. Their flesh fed him and his friends and family who would take the meat.

It was that problem that he always buried, but this time he had to consider it more.  It was not enough to make him a vegan, but it was enough to take him aback. He had to consider his monstrous self once again, and that consideration is never comfortable.

Some tears eased their way down his cheeks, and he pushed the plate aside for. He sipped his evening coffee and stepped out into the dark sky. The stars were twinkling against the black sheet of night, and he stared up into their infinity.  He breathed in the cold air.

A great horned owl’s hooting rose from the forest in the far end of the property, but then it fell silent.

And the land was all silent all around in the darkness of a November night.  The frosts had killed off all the crickets and katydids of the year, and their stridulations no longer rose in the blackness.

It was just the blackness and the silence and the infinity, and the simple fact that all beings are alone, after all, when the end finally comes.

Be they men or old work horses or katydids or barrow swine, their existence comes to an end, and yet life goes on.

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anka posing with green collar

Mankind what eventually became our domestic dogs could have been running together for over 30,000 years.  This early date is questionable and hotly contested in the literature, but no one thinks that the dog is younger than 14,000 years old. Even in that time, our species and theirs were living as wild hunting beasts, tearing at hides and the flesh of the great deer and wild and horses and occasionally engaging in dangerous hunts for mammoth.

Over the intervening years, man has forged new useful dogs out of that derived stock, selecting for all sorts of behavior and capabilities.  New forms of working dog graced the stage as mankind began to form new cultures and then civilizations, and all would have gone on much like this.

But the nineteenth century came,  industrial production put so many people out of traditional tasks.  It did the same with dogs.

Anka’s line begins to shift from its traditional role as German crofter’s sheepdog at about this time. In 1871, Germany became a nation out of all those principalities and fiefdoms, and then set out on a long industrial march in hopes of surpassing the British Empire. Unified under Prussian auspices, the intelligentsia of the new German Empire began to think of ways to beat the British lion.

One thing that set the British apart from all other nations at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a strong national promotion of agricultural improvement.  By the beginning of that century, massive livestock shows were promoted to encourage the cattlemen, shepherds, and swineherds of realm to engage in selective breeding of their stock. Much of this breed improvement was done through extreme tight inbreeding, and it became such a popular activity that dogs got swept up in the whole zeitgeist of improvement. That sweeping up of dogs into the breed improvement movement in Britain was the genesis of the modern dog fancy, and those ideas are what largely drive our concepts of a dog breed in the West.

It was not long after German unification that middle class Germans began buying collies from England and Scotland, and this development irked the chauvinists of the new nation.

But it was not until 1891 that the Phylax Society was formed. This society was a breed improvement and standardization club that sought to standardize the working sheepdogs of the nation. However, this club lasted only three years, because the members were constantly at war with each other about whether looks or working ability mattered more.

It wasn’t until 1899, when a retired cavalry officer named Max von Stephanitz and his friend Artur Meyer founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde, which begin a systematic breeding program for the creation of what became Anka’s tribe of dogs. The founding “type specimen” sort of dog was called Horand von Grafrath, a Thuringian sheepdog with a sable coat. He was born Hektor Linksrhein to a breeder with the last name of Friedrich Sparwasser, who lived in Frankfurt.

Stephanitz had spent at lot of time at the Veterinary College of Berlin during his career as a cavalry officer, and there, he learned much about scientific breeding methods. The British were making a lot of hay with tight inbreeding, and so the early true German shepherd dog breeders did a lot of inbreeding off Horand and Horand’s offspring.  Dogs from Franconia and Württemberg/Swabia were also crossed in. These dogs were very often black and tan variants or recessive black, while the Thuringian dogs were usually either sable or solid white.

By the early years of the twentieth century, a breed was founded. Yes, the modern German shepherd dog is among the most modern breeds, and when one realizes that it was only 15 years between the founding of the modern German shepherd breed and the outbreak of the First World War, where these dogs served so admirably,  it becomes evident that these breeders achieved something rather remarking.

Yes, all this inbreeding at the base of the breed has left the population struggling with certain inherited defects and diseases, but it created a high quality strain that one could argue is possibly the most useful dog of modern era.

So Anka, despite her wolfy pelage and countenance, is of a new tribe of dog, and her specific part of the tribe, as far as I can tell, is the type that was bred for police work. She looks very Czech to me, though of course, I will never know. This is the type that gets imported from the Czech Republic and Slovakia in pretty high numbers to become part of police forces.

Her exact kind, if I am right, really got its start after the Second World War, when Czechoslovakia became part of the Eastern Bloc. This nation, forged from bits and pieces of the defeated German and Austro-Hungarian Empires,  had a strong connection to the German-speaking world. German shepherd dogs were fairly common in the nation in the interwar years, but after the war, they were in high demand by the state as working animals.

The communist government encouraged citizens to keep and train German shepherds for defense work, and like East Germany (the DDR), the borders to Czechoslovakia and West Germany and Austria were tightly guarded. The most famous strain of Czech German shepherds were the ones designated Pohranicni Straze or “Border Patrol.”  These dogs also patrolled the wild back country of the nation’s interior, and they were bred for athletic bodies and sharp minds.

Czechoslovakia is no more. The Czech Republic and Slovakia now stand as part of the European Union. The dogs are now sold in the West, and dogs of these communist strains are now quite common in the US.

So when I look into Anka’s soft, intelligent eyes, I see the sagacious beast, the one that started hanging out around the campfires of those megafaunal days, then became the pastoral dog Central Europe. Later, that beast was forged into the working dog the new German Empire and then became the dog of the New Socialist Man in Czechoslovakia.

And as we skitter on into this new millennia, where mankind once thought he knew it all and now knows nothing as he is lost in a sea of information and misinformation, the beast come with us, brown-eyed and willing and loyal to a fault.

We can hope the future holds a era of enlightenment and peace.  We hope that possibility, despite evidence that all seems wrong and topsy-turvy.

But we do know that man in his final hour on the planet will gaze deep into the dog’s eyes and weep. He will weep for the sadness of having committed enough atrocities upon the planet and the creatures and ecosystems and knowing that only the dog stands by him now.

But it is the dog that grounds us in the electronic age to the world of nature from which we descend but battle so hard against.  They remind us of that essential animality, that side of us that is still wild beast of prey.  It is this side with which we modernes struggle against but still deeply know when we look into a dog’s eyes.

The beast that stares back at us with soft eyes reminds of what we were and what we should never forget. Even as enlightened as we think we are, we must never lose that understanding that we are not above nature. We are merely forged from it.

And the dog tells us every day that we should not lose site of this immutable fact.




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shackleford ponies

I used to go to those islands all the time. When I was a kid the Southern Outer Banks were my summer isles. We used to drive down across the Alleghenies, the cut through the Blue Ridge, and then wind our way around the North Carolina Piedmont for what seemed an eternity.

And we’d get all giddy and silly when we crossed the first causeway that went over saltwater. Children from the interior are certainly easily amused.

The sandy isles are made to weather and contort with the currents and the wind, but they aren’t likely going to withstand the king tides of climate change.

And this coming hurricane, which they are calling Florence, will be a disaster, of course. I hope the Neuse and the Cape Fear Rivers don’t swell up in the storm surge and decimate all those little cotton and pulp mill towns.

I hope those old banker ponies will still roam Shackleford Banks, and little kids will fight over who saw the first feral horse when the family drives over to Beaufort.

Blackbeard used to use the islands as his pirate haunts, and The Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on a sandbar near Beaufort. And the old pirate met his demise at Ocracoke.

But when you listen to that Jimmy Buffet music on the beach, you feel that pirate’s presence in the hot salty air.

And you feel the hospitality of these saltwater people, whose lives are made during the tourist season if the shrimp and oyster boats don’t bring in a good profit.

They know the storms, but the bad ones are still pretty bad.

And I cannot tell you much but a piece of me aches for what is coming.  I hope that all will be okay in the end, but I know that every one of these storms takes a bit away. It takes life. It washes away a whole beach. It floods out a little town.

Nature builds the hurricanes over the warm late summer seas. We just now help in the process by making the seas stay a little warmer a little longer.

Those island towns have made fortunes off of West Virginia coal miners’ vacation funds. The carbon released from the burning of coal has made the earth retain the sun’s heat, as did the burning of petroleum in air-conditioned cars of all the tourists coming down  And so the force that made the islands ultimately will bring them down a peg.

Nature gives. Nature takes, and humans can never accept the unjust mismeasure.

But the storm is coming to the islands and coast, and let’s hope when this passes we can think about the warming seas and burning of fossil fuels.

I hope we can, but I wonder if we will do anything about it.

Because it may not happen this time, but someday– and someday soon– the Outer Banks will slip and slide away into the frothy waves of the Atlantic.

And I will have lost a bit of the happy times of my childhood, and we will all lose the tern-filled beaches, the nesting grounds of the loggerhead sea turtles, and the place where the waves crash and the dolphins cavort.

A bit of America will be gone, another bit that we squandered away in our stupidity and ignorance as the cars and plants churned up the carbon into the sky.



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