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Archive for the ‘great books’ Category

 

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The other evening, I was at an sporting goods store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the checkout line, the attendant noticed that I was purchasing some coyote attractant and began to bash them.

“Somebody set ’em out.”

This is not dissimilar to the reaction I would get in virtually any place in West Virginia.

Coyotes are reviled virtually anywhere they are found. If they aren’t being blamed for killing calves and sheep, then they are being blamed for killing all the fawns or trophy bucks or are implicated in disappearances of beloved outdoor cats.

Coyotes were once found only the prairies and mountains of the West. Their old name was “prairie wolf,” but now it is often called the “brush wolf.”  In my part of the world, you pretty much see coyotes when they burst out of some thicket or dive down a logging road into roughest, brushiest terrain they can find.

This is an animal that fears our kind. We have long since killed off any that were less than paranoid about people.Their lives are harrowing. Death stalks at every corner.

But the thing which brings the death is also the thing that allows them to thrive. That thing is us. Modern man has made the world so much nicer for coyotes. We’ve killed off the larger wolves and most of the cougars, and we’ve allowed white-tailed deer to overpopulate our forests.  We leave out garbage and pet food for them. We let feral and outdoor cats wander about, and they are pretty easy prey for a coyote.

That brings us to the human element of the story. South Carolina natural and author John Lane spent a year traveling the South in search of the real coyote story. The Southeastern states were among the first settled by Europeans, and they were among the first to wipe out wolves.

Now, this part of the country has to deal with a new predator, one that is far more resolute and durable than the wolves that existed at the time of colonization and settlement.

And for a part of the country that has long been settled into a kind of subtropical England, this animal represents a sort of invasion, like a noxious weed in a rose garden.

Lane travels across the region, interviewing a coyote trapper in Alabama and wandering as far s the Allegheny foothills of West Virginia to track down the taxidermy of a legendary sheep-killing coyote. He listens to the sounds of the foxhounds turned into coyote dogs that now bay hard after the new quarry.

He compiles his findings into a fine piece of nature writing called Coyote Settles the SouthThe title alone is worth consideration. Americans think of ourselves as the descendants of a settler state. But in our settling, we have unsettled much. In the region Lane explores, the woods no longer hold vast flocks of passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets (which were actually conures).  The cougar is gone, but I think that virtually everyone knows someone who has claimed to see one. Whatever wolf lived in the East or the South is long since gone, and virtually all of the indigenous people who lived in these forests have been driven off or put on reservations or intermarried into the populations of settlers and slave that inundated the land with their quests for gold, timber, indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton.

Just as Western civilization’s settling was actually a great unsettling, the coyote’s arrival has been an unsettling. Although Lane is a defender of the coyote, he is conflicted with the coyote depredations on loggerhead sea turtle nests on South Carolina barrier islands:

I’d spent most of my life with my environmentalist sympathies building constantly for sea turtles. After all, they’ve been in the big-budget ad campaigns that come with being cute in a reptilian sort of way. Protecting their nests had become a vacation activity on southern barrier islands. There were even children’s books about them nesting. All that was good, and it has helped raise the awareness of the plight of this ancient and powerful creature, but it had not stopped the carnage. Was it really the coyotes that were keeping the sea turtles on the worldwide list of most concern? Isn’t it really industrial fishing and coastal real estate agents who should be taking the blame and leading the charge to stop the killing?  If we regulated these industries as they should be, would there be plenty of protein to go around?

I was glad that everyone was doing everything possible to give turtles a fighting chance, including “knocking back” the coyotes that had learned how to purchase a quick raw omelet on the beachfront. What I didn’t want, though, was for folks to lose sight of the beauty of the mating predators dancing on the beach. I wanted folks to stop hating the coyotes, and instead to see them as part and parcel now of this new scene (pg. 103).

There is a tendency to think of coyotes as an “invasive species.” I spent many happy weeks in the heat of summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been fascinated by loggerhead sea turtles. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores was my favorite spot to visit on a beach holiday, and my grandparents allegedly took me there several times a day during these vacations. That aquarium was heavily concerned with educating the public about loggerheads, which nest on the same beaches where we sunbathed and swam. I was fascinated that the newly hatched turtles knew their way to the sea, and then the females who survive the gauntlet of predators on the beach and in the depths of the sea return to those same beaches to lay their eggs.

Such a primitive animal, yet so excellent at survival.

And to see its numbers reduced, no matter how trivially in the grand scheme of things, appears at once to be an affront to all that is decent. If this were hogs or feral cats or red foxes doing the deed, there wouldn’t be such a conflict. They simply don’t belong here, and there is no good reason for them to be there.

Lane thinks the red wolf’s historic presence on the islands might give the coyotes some license to eat turtle eggs. I think it goes beyond the red wolf. Turtles have been nesting on these islands for millions of years. If they were using not those very islands, then they were using the ones that were there before. Canids first evolved in North America some 40 million years ago, so it’s very likely that there was some kind of dog eating those sea turtle eggs long before our kind began to walk upright. As wolves evolved, there were always jackal-like and wolf-like forms in both Eurasia and North America. Paleontology has suggested that we can somehow trace the evolution of what have become wolves and coyote through examining those fossils of those canids. Genetic studies strongly suggest that we be careful of such analyses. The story of canids shows that there were many “coyotes” and “wolves” roaming this continent, even if their genetic legacy likely doesn’t exist in any extant species.

In this way, a coyote has more right to eat the eggs of loggerhead in South Carolina than an introduced red fox has a right to eat the eggs of flatbacks in Queensland.

But the line we draw in this regard as some subjectivity. After all, I’m upset at what feral cats do to songbirds, but I know that the bigger problem is what we’re doing to Neotropical forests. If these forests are felled, many of these birds have no place to go in the winter.

That doesn’t mean that we ignore that the cats are taking the birds. It just means that it’s one of the problems that so many songbirds have to face, and the socially responsible thing to do is keep cats inside.

The truth about coyotes is that even their admirers have concerns. Lane wonders if an enterprising coyote might decide to take out his beloved beagle, Murphy, a creature bred to be so docile that he wouldn’t even stand a chance.

Whether coyotes have a place in the South or not is pretty much immaterial. Their populations are so resilient that once they arrive, they pretty much can’t be removed.

Lane wonders whether coyotes would have come into the South if it hadn’t been for the controversial practice of fox-penning. With the rise of the modern highway system and the growth of the white-tailed deer population that might lead a hunting pack into oncoming cars, many blue collar foxhunting clubs have fenced off vast acreages and stocked them with red and gray foxes that can be purchased from trappers or, at one time, ordered from out-of-state companies. Sometimes, the companies would send an order of red foxes with a coyote thrown in for free.

Perhaps that is how the coyote spread through the South so quickly. In West Virginia, I pretty much have my doubts. West Virginia has a climate and forest landscape like the Northeast, and Northeastern coyotes are bigger and more wolf-like. The ones I’ve seen have had broader heads and relatively stout bodies than the coyotes I’ve seen in Arizona. Ours likely came from that great Northeastern swarm that came into Ontario, bred with with wolves, and then wandered into New York State and down the Alleghenies. The High Alleghenies towards the Pennsylvania line were the first place where coyotes became established, and just as black bears did as the forested lands spread out into the abandoned farmland to the west, coyotes did the same. I’m sure that a few coyotes came from fox pens, but I don’t think they are the main reason they came into West Virginia.

South Carolina and the Deep South might be a different story. This isn’t an easy place to be a dog. The parasite load is far, far more extreme that you’d get in the nothern or western parts of the continent. One reason why it so many descriptions of Southern wolves mention their black color is that melanism is associated with a stronger immune response, and being black in color could be a side effect of selection for stronger immune response in the wormy, wormy South. Red foxes were known in Virginia from the Pleistocene. They were unknown south of New England and New York State at the time of colonization. They only became widespread in the Deep South during the twentieth century, and a lot of their spread actually could be attributed to human introduction. So it is possible that coyotes came because of the fox pens.

But it is possible they came on their own.

The epilogue of Lane’s book is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. At Wofford College, where Lane is a professor, a “shack ” was built as a sort of allusion to the one Aldo Leopold built in Wisconsin. It was meant for use for the college’s environmental studies program, and it needed “study skins.”

Lane managed get a coyote pelt. Some rednecks had caught a little coyote and tried to sell it on Craigsist, and the conservation officer tracked down the illegally-owned coyote from the ad. Because South Carolina law doesn’t allow coyotes to be relocated or released, the officer shot the poor coyote and donated the specimen to the college.

The coyote’s pelt is sent to a tannery in Greenville, where a man who is called “the Russian” runs the show. Russians are people of the frontier like Southerners, and they are also people who known some of the worst horrors of humanity. Both people have lived off the land and trapped and hunted. Both know about furs.

But the South is now the New South. With advent of air conditioning and the death of Jim Crow and malaria, it has been appealing part of the country to move to. No more hard winters like in Buffalo or Cleveland. It’s become a domesticated part of America. It’s no longer the Cotton Frontier. It’s the land of air conditioning and finely manicured lawns.

The coyote’s arrival in the region belies the simple fact that the land never can be fully domesticated. Black bear numbers are on the upswing, and Lane quickly notices from reading the literature on vagrant cougars that are working their way east that they are essentially using the same migration route that coyotes used to enter this part of the continent. They are moving across the Northern Plains into the Great Lakes, and it won’t be long before they enter Upstate New York and work their way into the Appalachians.

The domesticated land of the South may soon become a land of predators.

The general population–obese, unaware, untrained in natural history, much less yard maintenance- won’t notice the chance until it’s too late and they’re trapped indoors thumbing their remote controls and adjusting their air conditioning. The coyotes and bears and cougars won’t be using remote controls. They’ll be settled in, operating on instincts and native intelligence, paws on the ground, checking out what opportunities the new neighborhood offers.  Cowered in their midcentury modern dens in aging suburbs backing up to greenways, undeveloped parkland, remnant agricultural land,  and railroad  right-of-ways, the denatured Homo sapiens will fear (and rightly so) for their poodles, their bird feeder, and maybe even their children rare instance the young wander out of the monitor’s shadow. In my vision, most southerners will be prisoners to the wild (pg. 169).

When Lane swings by Greenville to pick up the coyote pelt and the other study skins for the shack, he marvels at the red fox and beaver pelts, but he is still impressed with the coyote. He thinks it is a good skin, but when he goes to pay the Russian, he finds that the order cost $20 less than had initially been budgeted.

“No problem,” says the Russian. “I throw in coyote free.”

That’s what has happened to the New South. The land has been domesticated at a great ecological cost and social cost, but the coyote, well, it came along for free.

And it’s here to stay.

And its howls may be a harbinger of what’s to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the pleasures of my Alaska trip was meeting Nick Jans. Nick Jans is the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, which is the story of the black wolf that came out to play with free-running dogs at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier.

I may have written a few things on Romeo on this blog before. He was just that fascinating an animal. Most wolves want to off the dogs they encounter. This one decided to become friends with them and even tolerate the humans who came with them.

The book is a wonderful discussion of wolves and dogs and people and what they truly mean to us and what we mean to them. It also tells the story of an odd wolf, who lived out six incredible years running and playing with the local domestic dog contingent.

The story does not have a happy ending, but the story of a wolf coming to trust people and dogs is something so amazing that you would have to look into the fiction of Jack London to find something even remotely similar.

But this is a true story.

If you would like to know more about Romeo, Jans gave a talk on the ship about the book that was an abbreviated version of this one:

My friend Bronwen Dickey wrote a review of the book in the New York Times I just happened to have been the one who mentioned the book to her over two years ago, and I guess I played a tiny role in getting this book the wonderful review it received.

I received a copy of The Giant’s Hand, which is Jans’s new collection of short stories about life in the Inupiaq Village of Ambler  and his experiences in Alaska’s far north.

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The prose in each of these stories is so beautiful. He really can capture the essence of a place with words in a way that very few modern writers are able to match.

I particularly love the stories that include the exploits of Clarence Wood, an Inupiaq hunter and wolf trapper. He is a man of particular genius about the land and its wild inhabitants, but his way of phrasing things is just so perfect if a bit eccentric.

My favorite is: “Too much think about bullshit. That’s what makes you nervous.”

I think I may have to put this on a rock somewhere.

My favorite story in the book thus far is “Crossing Paths.” It is a kind of future warning about Romeo. In the story, Jans meets a red fox near his home, and wanting to get to know it better, he starts leaving out bits of food for it. Things go well until a neighbor shoots it for fear it might be rabid.

Jans has a philosophical discussion in the story about how much wild even Alaskans are willing to tolerate. The truth is that everyone has some limit.

Romeo was not fed to bring him near to humans. He merely came by to socialize with dogs and a few select people.

But Romeo wound up like that poor red fox in the arctic. He wasn’t taken because there was a fear he might be rabid. He was killed by two poachers who just wanted to cause trouble.

As a species, we have a very odd relationship with the wild. We admire it. We want to be part of it. But we also want it to be on our terms.

Like it or not, we’ve long since left the garden. We can only be visitors here, but some of us can truly be at home for a while.

And that’s the best we can do. Unfortunately.

It goes without saying that this book is the best souvenir I’ve ever brought home. I mean I do have a t-shirt from the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, but nothing can compare to this book.

This was the trip of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

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bronwen dickey pit bull

Three years ago, I received an email from a writer who wanted to interview me on what I knew about the history of bulldogs and bull and terrier types.

I have received several emails like these over the years.  They usually go nowhere, but when we were able to talk  on the phone, I was actually  quite surprised.

The author had actually read my blog very carefully, and the questions showed that she had done quite a bit of research on the topic. When you write these sorts of blog posts, you often wonder if people are actually paying attention to what you write.

She obviously had done her homework. She asked me something about Cuban bloodhounds, a defunct breed of dog used to catch runaway slaves. I hadn’t written on Cuban bloodhounds for many years. She asked about the ancient alaunt dogs, whether pit bulls had essentially become an urban landrace, and how society came to understand this concept of breed.

The author who contacted was Bronwen Dickey. I didn’t know it at the time, but she is the daughter of the great Southern poet and novelist James Dickey. And as I came to find out, she is a very fine writer in her own right.

In April 2013, she was delving deeper into the research around pit bulls. She was writing a book on the story of the pit bull type dog in America. Pit bulls, as we all know, are the most controversial dog breed in America. Many, many claims are made about them, but whether these claims withstand objective scrutiny is quite another thing. There is a widespread belief that these dogs have locking jaws or that they suddenly turn on people without warning. There is also a belief that a pit bull is a super canine that can readily dispatch  a feral hog on its own and then curl up with the kids as the “Nanny dog.”

Both advocates and detractors have created an image of this sort of dog. What Bronwen wished to figure out is which parts are true and which are parts of contrived to the point of being pure fantasy.

It turns out there was quite a bit.

Now, this book isn’t out yet, and it’s already being attacked.

Pit bulls are so contentious that I stopped writing about them quite a while ago. Of all the issues I’ve seen dog people invest emotional time and energy into fighting over, pit bulls are truly an outlier. Dog people fight over just about anything trivial, but when it comes to pit bulls, there is a whole other dimension:  If a pit bull mauls someone, there will be a group that wants them all executed. If a pit bull mauls someone, there will be a group of people who want that dog’s life spared at all costs.

I’ve never seen anything quite like this in dogs. Indeed, the only other topic that riles people up more online is whether feminism destroyed video games or not.

In one week (May 10), Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon will be released. There are people whose minds will never be changed on both extremes of this debate, but for that great middle, who really wants to know what the pit bull is and what it truly means to this country, Bronwen Dickey has produced a nuanced analysis that is well worth reading.

And she’s a good writer.

When she had me review a few chapters of her drafts, I found them to be quite fascinating in deed.

But if you really want to know– and are brave enough to have your assumptions challenged– buy a copy. Only a few more days to wait.

 

 

 

 

 

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Farley Mowat served Canada in the Second World War.

Farley Mowat is routinely denounced by wolf experts for producing so many misconceptions about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf (1963). Like most of Mowat’s work, it is difficult to determine whether one should classify it as a novel or a memoir. Many “facts” in the novel have been called into question.

But one thing is clear, this book, perhaps more than any other, is the reason why wolves are protected in so much of their range today.

The book is the account of a zoologist who observes a wolf den in northern Canada. It also includes lore and mythology of the Ihalmiut, a group of Inuit who lived largely off of caribou. According to Mowat, these people saw the wolf as a necessity for maintaining the strength of caribou herds. They required big and fat caribou to survive, and the wolves helped to that end by culling the sick and weak animals.

Mowat heavily anthropomorphizes the wolves in the book.  The three adults are George, top male, and Angeline, his mate. To assist in the raising of the puppies, another male wolf, which Mowat calls “Uncle Albert,” acts as playful babysitter.

Mowat comes to love these wolves very much. He portrays them almost as the canine equivalents of the “noble savage.”   They only occasionally kill caribou. When denning, according to Mowat, they live almost solely on mice.

Of course, this part of the book has been the most heavily damned. Canis lupus doesn’t live on mice for any extended period of time, but its close cousin, the Ethiopian wolf, lives almost entirely on small rodents.

The final scene of the book is the one that is perhaps the most moving.

Assuming that the occupants have gone, Mowat climbs down into the wolf den to make some measurements. Once he reaches the end of the den, he comes across the glowing eyes of Angeline and her pups. He becomes frightened and quickly wriggles his way out of the den.

That’s how the book ends.  Mowat feels upset at himself for being so afraid of these wolves. After all, they have allowed him to observe the most intimate parts of his life, and they never offered to attack him.

Why should he have been afraid?

The book changed the perceptions of millions of people around the world. The Soviet Union heavily promoted Mowat’s work, and it wasn’t long before they banned wolf hunting, even if Soviet wolves did occasionally attack people.

For decades, we believed that the end of Never Cry Wolf was exactly how it happened.

It wasn’t until Mowat published Otherwise in 2008. This memoir accounts the years of his late teens through his service during the Second World War. It also covers the years after the war, when he returns to Canada deeply scarred man and goes into the arctic to find himself.

The story of the encounter with the wolves happened at this time, and when Mowat describes what happens, it is actually quite different from the ending of Never Cry Wolf.  It is not a flattering portrayal, and the possibility that this account is the true one is probably quite high.

Mowat describes what happened:

Mowat thought he had killed the wolves, and feeling so much guilt, he crawled back into the den.

 

This account didn’t appear in Never Cry Wolf.

But when one realizes that he was a veteran of the war, we can understand why he may have been so willing to go for the gun when he felt frightened.

Those feelings of extreme guilt after trying to kill these wolves are really what made Mowat’s career as a writer.

In his words about the natural world, there is atonement.

No, he may not have written totally truthful nonfiction.

But I suppose one can forgive him.

Here was a psychologically wounded veteran who was able to find himself again.

He was no longer the creature he was in combat.

He was human again.

I think we can forgive him of this attempted murder.

And whatever inconsistencies and exaggerations exist in his work.

He needed to make amends.

And so he has.

 

 

 

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The topic is Derr’s new bookHow the Dog Became the Dog.

Lapham has carefully read this book, because he doesn’t just focus on the dog origin information that is the main focus of the text.

He gets Derr to discuss other parts of the book, which are just as interesting. They discuss (among other things) the origins of dog breeds– the “water curs of Newfoundland” caught my ears– and how the ancients used dogs in war.

Lots of good stuff.

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You may not like Keith Olbermann, but this is an amazing piece by James Thurber– a noted dog lover and poodle fancier.

Source.

Olbermann reads Thurber on Friday nights.

And you probably know more about me from me knowing that Keith Olbermann reads Thurber on Friday nights than anything else I’ve written.

Yeah. He has facial hair now. I think he got the idea from Al Gore.

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Source.

Here’s Tom Ryan’s blog.

 

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