Archive for December, 2012

what passes for wit

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 1,100,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 20 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

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Pavel is fetching

Yep. He’s a fetching big game hunting spitz. He oddly looks nothing like a retriever.


He is being clicker trained to refine the behavior.

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Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago be a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Could the extinct elephants of North China that lived as recently as 3,000 years ago have been a relict species of straight-tusked elephant?

Much of China was home to elephants, but the records of elephants in northern China bothered scientists.

The Asian elephant (Elaphas maximus) is a tropical species that does roam up into southwestern provinces of China. It is poorly adapted to  the cooler temperate climate that characterize much of central and northern China.

So was there an unusually cool climate-adapted subspecies of Asian elephant in China?

It turns out that the answer is no.

And the truth is more spectacular than we might have imagined.

A team of researchers in China examined the fossilized teeth of elephants from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties from 4,000 to 3,000 years ago and also examined elephant-shaped bronzes.

Their findings suggest that the elephants of North China were not Asian elephants but a relict species of a genus of elephant that was believe to have gone extinct 10,000 years ago.

The researchers believe that the elephants of North China were a late surviving species of Palaeoloxodon or “straight-tusked elephant.”

Now, one should be a bit skeptical of this research. Tooth morphology can have a tendency towards convergence. If these elephants actually were a subspecies of Asian elephant, it is possible that they might have evolved similar dentition to straight-tusked elephants, and one should be careful about making claims of animal morphology based upon artistic expression. Even photographic evidence can be somewhat dubious, so one needs to be careful about using artwork in this fashion.

That said, if these findings are corroborated with more evidence– say, an examination of a full elephant skeleton from that time period– then it will be one of the most amazing findings in recent years.

It’s only recently become clear that there are actually two species of elephant in Africa, and if these findings are further corroborated with more evidence, then Asia also had two species in historic times.



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Canada lynx and bobcats really don’t belong in the pet trade.

They might be somewhat easy to breed and feed, but their needs are usually too much for the average person. Most of the ones available on the pet market descend from ancestors that were bred for the fur trade.

And the fact that they are wild animals that have a lot of power for their size just makes the inappropriate as pets.

Declawing such animals might make sense in this context, but for a species that is known for producing such a copious undercoat, a Canada lynx needs all the grooming equipment at its disposal.

And never mind that declawing is a very painful procedure.




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Digging up something

Some small animal– my guess is some kind of weasel– got Miley’s attention, so she tried to dig it out.

digging it out

digging it out 2

digging it out 3

digging it out 4



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What do wild turkeys do in the snow?

When the wild turkeys forage for acorns in the snow, they have to dig them up. I’ve tried to get some photos of massive turkey scratches in the leaf litter early this year, but they’ve not shown up well.

But in the snow, they are quite clear:

turkey scratches 1 turkey scratches 2

Wild turkeys are survivors.

Unlike their domestic kin, they aren’t hatched out into warm brooders.

They poults hatch here in the middle of spring, when it can still get quite cold and rainy.

Many poults die of exposure, and all the wild ones you see that are older than a month old have had to survive that gauntlet.

Further, these turkeys fly pretty well. I’ve seen them fly across really broad rivers, and if a dog spooks them, they will fly off  for more distant trees.

During the winter, the turkeys bunch together in really large flocks. If the weather gets too bad, they leave the oak-covered ridgetops for the bottom land along rivers.

The wild ones are very graceful and wary– as different from their domesticated form as an Arabian wolf is from a St. Bernard.

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The true muse


If you were ever to ask me what inspires me to write, I’d have to say that I have few muses.

I’d very quickly explain to you that the many wonderful dogs I’ve known are an inspiration. The ghosts of at least two dogs loom heavily in every word I write here.

But in the end, they aren’t my true muses.

My true muse is nature.

I grew up in the middle of a forest. In many parts of the world,  people plant trees around their homes as a way of landscaping, but in most of West Virginia, a home is just a place where the trees got cleared off enough to have a yard and a driveway.

I spent my childhood catching lizards and nonvenomous snakes, filling jars with insects of every description, and spending lots of time in the woods with dogs.

You can learn a lot from reading about the natural world and watching nature programs on television, but I had hands-on experience.

And that’s an education unto itself.

All around me were people who had an even better education than I did.

My grandpa admired people who had a lot of experience hunting and trapping. He referred to this as having “a Ph.d. in the woods.”

I don’t think I’ll ever have more than a mere associate’s degree.

But that’s more than most people in the West will have.

Most don’t even have an eighth grade education.

When I was a believer, I saw God in nature.

It was how reconciled all the dense scriptures I read.

There was a God because in nature I saw His handiwork.

Now I know that nature is nothing more than a compilation of catastrophes. There is no intelligence to it.

It is merely life that has survived horror after horror. It is not so much survival of the fittest as it is survival of the luckiest. Did my phenotype make me more likely to survive or reproduce?

But there is something beguiling about the products of the horrors.

The truth is that I am as much a product of those horrors as a mouse or a wolf or an oak tree.

My species is the great contriver. From the time we began to shape flint tools to this modern era when I can have conversations with Facebook friends in Europe. we have contrived, rebuilt, and reshaped.

It has created a kind of delusion– perhaps the most destructive delusion of it all.

It’s the delusion that we are not part of nature, but the truth is everything that we own  and everything we use came from nature.

Materials get manufactured and refined, but it all comes from nature.

But because we have advanced so much and so quickly, we think that we’re above nature.

In our minds, we’ve become as supernatural as the Christian God, but we’re still mortals.

We’re still animals, and no matter what we do, the resources of the planet do have some finite nature to them.

I think that this may be one reason who people are so hesitant to accept evolution. If one accepts that man evolved, then one has to accept that man is a part of nature and that somewhere along the line, we have to deal with natural realities.

We can’t continue to treat the ocean like a giant septic tank.  We can’t continue to fill the atmosphere with all that carbon dioxide.

But in order to fix those problems, we’re going to have to change the way we live– maybe even change the expectations we have for what a good standard of living actually is.

And that’s an anathema to our species. For tens of thousands of years, we’ve used our brains to make ourselves more comfortable, more entertained. and more withdrawn from the simple realities of nature.

But we can withdraw for only so long, and at some point, things will fall apart.

It won’t be an Apocalypse. It’s  not a doomsday scenario, but at some point, it will just be harder for us to live the lives we want.

And then we’ll wonder why we didn’t try to fix things sooner.

But even with all that high-minded talk, nature is ultimately my true muse for another, much more selfish reason:

It’s never let me down.

I know that there is no compassion in nature. When Werner Herzog described the jungle as obscene, he was talking about the simple reality that nature is the compilation of horrors.

These are the same life shaping horrors that I described earlier, but they are nothing compared to my utter disappointment in my own species.

This is the contriving and conjuring species.

This is the species that can think about doing big things, and it can think about its own legacy and role in the world and in the universe.

And I grew up in the nation that did big things. We were founded upon Enlightenment principles. Empiricism was meant to form our decisions on how to rule ourselves.

But we’ve long since kicked empiricism to the curb. If it’s not fundamentalist Christianity then it’s New Age hokum.

It’s really any excuse to avoid critical thought. If we thought critically, we’d see the problems very clearly, and then our consciences would require us to do something.

Now there certainly are some bright green shoots that give me some hope. The re-election of Obama and the growing rationalist and skeptic community among the younger generation certainly do give me hope.

But there is still too much darkness about.

Over the past month or so I’ve thought of Camus’s basic philosophical question.

That question is very simple, if a bet stark and disconcerting.

Why don’t you commit suicide?

I didn’t write this to shock anyone, but it’s a fundamental question.

And it’s one that is very hard for nonbelievers to answer.

I don’t see a lot of hope for this world, and I also see very little purpose in my own life. Further, even if there were a purpose, it would eventually end. Judging from my own family medical history, it would either end with cancer eating out the last bit of my organs or the   Alzheimer’s destroying my brain bit by bit.

Neither is worth looking forward to.

The only answer I have is that I, like all living things, derive from ancestors who had strong instincts for survival.

I never had to worry about Smilodon or short-faced bears, but my ancestors had forage in world full of such fell beasts.

If they wanted to eat meat, they had to kill. They just couldn’t pass the buck to someone else by going to a grocery store.

Even my more immediate ancestors lived in much this way.

I am only three generations removed from people who essentially lived like the Siberian in the taiga.

During the Great Depression, ruffed grouse provided much of the poultry my great grandparents ate.

They lived in a world in which fascism was on the rise, and fascism was worse for human dignity than anything current proposed by the religious right of today.

They survived it.

And so shall I.

I will survive because my instincts says I should live.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

There is no more meaning to existence than this.

My muse provides balm to my wounds.

And Ill use this space to celebrate her.

That’s really all I can do.

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pavel West Siberian laika

Pavel, a West Siberian laika in Alberta. Photo by Dave Parsons.    

Mark Derr reviews Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2011).

In the piece, Derr extols the virtue of the multipurpose dog, the one that has the intelligence and the ability to do many different things and pursue a wide variety of quarry.

Laikas certainly fit the bill. Developed over the millennia over the vast expanses of Russia, these dogs have had to have the abilities that the English have reserved for specialized hounds and gun dogs.  The laika may bay up a moose or brown bear or wild boar, then dive into a frigid river to fetch a shot duck.

They were the dogs of the people who lived off the land, and in Happy People, the dogs are their sustenance.

Left alone for months at a time in the taiga, the Siberian trappers must hunt to survive and to provision their traps.

And without the dogs, they simply couldn’t survive.

Very few dogs living in the West make their own keep.

And virtually none are their owners’ survival.

These laikas are that and so much more, for these trappers live for much of the year as hunter-gatherers.

Perhaps their relationship with their laikas is much like the relationship that man had with the wolves that eventually became dogs all those thousands of years ago.

It’s tempting to think so.

It’s certainly tempting to imagine.


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2012 is now in its final week.

Within but a few days, we’ll be starting  new year.

And with new year dawning, there will always be talks about self improvement.

I know that more than a few of you will be making resolutions, and I also know that the majority of you who make these resolutions will soon be breaking them.

I know.

I’ve never been able to keep to one.

Instead, I’ve come to the conclusion that a more fruitful enterprise is to spend the new week reading and thinking.

In my undergrad days, when I had nearly a month off for Christmas, I’d spend the entire week between Christmas and New Year reading books. I know that I’d just sequester myself off in my room and read and read and read.

Books make us grow.

Each year, the books I would want to read would be different.

Sometimes I read new ones. Sometimes I read old favorites.

But I always read.

That’s the only way I’ve been able to change.

Setting out arbitrary rules for my life is just a good way for the rules to be broken.

This year I’m not going to have time for the books.

A piece of me wishes that I had been born in Medieval times, when I could join a monastery and spend all my time writing and reading and walking the countryside:


So if you have time this week, don’t make resolutions.

Take time to read and think.

And that will do you much more good.

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