Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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.





Read Full Post »

Miley and I went for a long walk today. The temperature was in the 70’s, and after a long winter, it was good to get out. Last Sunday was also wonderful, but the weather was absolutely perfect today.

We start out in the pasture. Yes, you can hear my voice in this clip.


In the pasture, we discovered something a bit macabre. This squirrel carcass has obviously been eaten by something– something that has peeled it!


My guess is a turkey vulture found the dead squirrel and ate it. There were dozens of them flying overhead.

As we continued on we hit the dense thickets.  All sorts of scents come pouring into Miley’s nose. While I am busy trying to film tiger swallowtail butterflies, she is busy checking out some brushy areas near an old stand of Virginia pines. The snows and wind have taken their toll on this particular stand over the years, and now just a few trees stand. But those that have fallen over the years have become formed something like natural chaveaux de frise. It’s very hard for me to walk through them, and even a quadruped has some difficulty traversing them.


Going on these long walks is great exercise.

Miley comes home hot and tired. Maybe a little muddy.

But definitely contented.

And she still has enough energy to think about catching a carpenter bee!


Taking long walks with a dog like this is perfectly natural. I imagine my ancestors living in Northern Europe– maybe 14,000 or even 30,000 years ago– walking with those proto-dog wolves in a vast wilderness that once teemed with vast herds of caribou/reindeer, red deer, horses, aurochsen, and bison.  Such things to be seen. Such things to be smelled.

It’s a shame that so few dogs get to do what Miley does. Their lives are as far removed from their natural inclinations as possible.

But going out together in the relative mundane forests of West Virginia gives us a chance to reconnect with those inclinations– albeit impefectly and only briefly.

I am certain, though, that Miley’s experiences here have made her a more intelligent individual. Her brain matured in a stimulating environment, full of novel smells and other creatures.

When she was four months old, she came across a gray fox on one of our long walks. The fox was coming downhill in the track of a rabbit,  just as Miley was coming uphill. Miley caught scent of the rabbit and began to air scent it, and so the puppy and the fox were closing in on the same bunny. The bunny tucked itself close to the ground in hopes that the tall grass would hide its form from the naive yellow wolf and the gray predator. I was standing 20 yards behind Miley when the rabbit bolted. It ran uphill then jumped right into a dense thicket.

And when the rabbit got away, the puppy and fox came eye to eye with each other.  The fox stopped, and Miley remained frozen her tracks. They were no more than ten feet from each other. The two creatures stared at each other from a distance. I could tell what was going in both their minds.  It was something like when we watch monkeys at the zoo. They could sense similarities but also very real differences.

It was a strange moment, but it lasted only briefly. The fox sensed my presence, and it knew that humans were always bad news. It tore off for the heavy brush, running so fluidly one might mistake it for a cat– or maybe a cougar.

It was in that moment that I knew Miley’s life was going to be different from most dogs. She was going to see the natural world in all of its pulsating rhythms. The wild creatures were to be part of her world, just as they once were to those ancient wolves who made an alliance with man.

I now know how important her “wolf time” is.  It is as important to her as my Cro-Magnon time is for me.

Sometimes we both need to go feral.

Read Full Post »


In some ways, I think I had the ultimate childhood. I grew up on a former working farm– 70 acres of pasture land, woodlands, and disused orchards. This land included a farm pond, which attracted all sorts of interesting creatures.

And I had a grandfather who fancied himself to be quite the self-taught naturalist.  My parents’ house was on the same property as my grandfather’s house, so he was forever bringing me things from his various “zoological expeditions.” His job involved tending natural gas wells in rather remote part of the county, where the land was very wild. He had seen wild beasts of all types, including several escaped/abandoned squirrel monkeys and one large black monkey that was wandering down a forest trail. Several people saw this monkey, but its species was never identified. (It wasn’t a sasquatch, before you ask.)

When I was a little boy, he would bring me things home. I remember several ring-necked and garter snakes that he caught and brought home. I also remember him bringing me the carcass of a dead screech owl that got hit by a car.  He got my lizard collection started, bringing me northern fence lizards and five-lined skinks to fill my home built terrariums.

All of these experiences with the natural world gave me a profound appreciation for the wild beasts and their environment. I had the normal pets that children have– dogs, hamsters, and rabbits– and animals that farm children have– horses, ponies, and muscovy ducks. And all of these animals opened my eyes to their natural history, their domestication, and their behavior.

I was encouraged to wander the farm at an early age. I developed my own interests in animals, and although my parents never really got as into the wild creatures as I did, they at least tolerated my interests.

Today, most children don’t have those experiences, and their knowledge of most other animals comes from the television. Parks are a good compromise, but no urban child gets the opportunity to wander the parks as I wandered the farm.

What we need is community-based outreach groups to really get children interested in animals. However, these things require commitment from various groups, including landowners, who would be needed to provide access to their lands.

We have to create a society for amateur zoology. Not everyone is going to study at the highest level, but I think we’re all better off if we know a bit of it. But the only way to get people interested in it is to have them experience it.

And these experiences shouldn’t be only for those with means. We need nature camps that offer urban residents a chance to experience it.

The more people experience nature as it is, the more they will want to preserve it, and that will serve the totality of life on the planet. And we need passionate adults to share their knowledge with children.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: