Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Blogswick Stew

Michael Blowhard takes on the human population growth-is-always-good crowd.

James Howard Kunstler wonders if we’ve reached peak tech.

Chas Clifton gives us the straight poop on a certain black bear food.

Matt Mullenix has reopened his hawking blog.

Grumpy Old Bookman lets loose another entertaining haymaker at literary snobbism.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Apologies and Appeals

My apologies for my recent lack of blogging. I’ve been holed up in the boonies for the past several days, away from the Internet and telephone, trying to make progress on my part of the working dogs book I’m doing with Wyman Meinzer.

I’m struggling with an introductory essay on the history of the canine-human bond. I’m thinking 2500-3000 words, aimed at a general audience.

For reference, I’ve checked A Dog’s History of North America and Dog’s Best Friend, both by Mark Derr, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas by Marion Schwartz, and Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston.

Naturally, Derr, Schwartz, and Thurston agree on very little.

In Dog’s Best Friend, Derr begins his history of the wolf-human relationship 500,000 years ago, pointing to evidence that Canis lupus variabilis and Homo erectus pekinensis were “sharing time and space, food and shelter…” He further mentions that remains of Homo erectus and wolves dating back some 400,000 years, were found in Kent, England. He does not come out and say that there was a working, religious, or ceremonial relationship between species, but it seems implied.

Further along, Derr states that tamed wolves were well on their way to becoming dogs by the end of the Paleolithic Age. He frequently uses the name “wolfdog,” to describe short-faced wolves or very wolfish but nearly domesticated canines.

He then says,

“Among the predators hunting them [large Pleistocene herbivores] were saber-toothed tigers, scimitar cats, dire wolves, gray wolves, and humans with their wolfdogs.”(my emphasis)

Yet, a few pages later, he writes,

“By 15,000 years ago, people around the world were raising dogs, [my emphasis] with the centers of activity being northern Europe, including England, northern North America, especially the Arctic region, the Middle East, China, Japan, and Siberia. Presently, the earliest fossil called a dog comes from Obercassel, Germany, and dates to 14,000 years ago, the late Pleistocene or upper Paleolithic.”

Mary Elizabeth Thurston begins much more recently:

“Tantalizing hints that a relationship of some sort was forming between people and wolves during this era come from La Grotte du Lazaret, a 125,000-year-old complex of Paleolithic shelters discovered in France in 1969, where wolf skulls appear to have been set at the entrance of each dwelling, leading excavators to speculate that canids already were incorporated into some aspect of human culture at this very early stage.”

Thurston also puts the development of the true dog well into the Neolithic Age:

“Some of the earliest known skeletal remains classified as dog come from the Neolithic site of Jarmo, situated in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains spanning Iran and Iraq. Radiocarbon-dated to 6600 B.C., the fifty-three cranial and mandibular fragments of big-boned canids suggest that they may have been descended from mountain-dwelling wolves who were larger than their brothers in the floodplain.”

As for the use of dogs or “wolfdogs” in the hunting of giant Pleistocene animals, Thurston writes,

“At a twenty-five-thousand-year-old mammoth hunting camp in the Ukraine, for instance, some distinctive wolf skulls were found along with butchered remains of at least 166 mammoths. The skulls were markedly different from those of average wild wolves, with many of them exhibiting foreshortened muzzles, diminished tooth size, and teeth crowding, all traits hailed as more common to domestic dogs than wolves.”

I’m confused and would appreciate any comments, especially suggested reading. I’m not trying to wimp out of doing the needed research; I’m in over my head and need a bit of guidance. Also, my deadline looms large.

In a recent comment on one of my blog entries, Steve mentioned that some of Derr’s dog-evo seems out of date, but noted that scholarship on that subject is moving rapidly. Further comments?

Again, this will be a commercial book aimed at a general audience, not a scholarly work, so I don’t have room to guide readers through each author’s arguments. However, I do want to provide a reasonable treatment, one consistent, as far as possible, with current scholarship. In other words, I don’t want to make a fool of myself.

Many thanks!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tagged by Terrierman!

I had thought (hoped, actually) that as a relative newcomer to our little community of bloggers, I might escape notice. But no. Patrick, every bit as alert has his terriers, refused to let the new kid off the hook.

I'll do my best. No doubt my friends and loved ones could come up with a much longer list of quirks and foibles.

1. Just before dark, when it's not too hot, I like to sit in the backyard, sip red wine, and admire my tomato plants. Jane finds the practice odd and amusing, but not surprising.

2. In an earlier career, I designed circuitry for military weapon systems. For the most part, I enjoyed the work immensely, especially the part that involved running around in the desert testing prototype equipment. Although I find my current career as a writer more satisfying overall, I miss the math.

3. I get a bit annoyed when people ask, "How did an engineer become a writer?" Clearly, they know nothing about engineering or writing, though they probably think they do.

4. I like to think of myself as thrifty and sensible. My two daughters think I'm cheap.

5. I'm a morning person. I like to get up very early and drink a pot of coffee while sitting in the dark in my easy chair. I tell Jane that I'm working, and I am. She doesn't buy it.

6. Although it's a terrible dog training practice and more than a little ridiculous, I've always given my dogs nicknames. So far it hasn't caused even the slightest confusion. My agreeable dogs have responded well to both names and nicknames. My hard-headed dogs ignored both.

7. I have a good sense of direction in the field, but in restaurants, I often have trouble finding my table after a trip to the salad bar or men's room.

8. I am certain that car commercials are not aimed at me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Marvin Nichols Reservoir Article

A text-only version of my article on the Marvin Nichols Reservoir controversy is now available online. The original version, with Russell's photos, is still on the newsstands in the July issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Normally, I don't go around crowing about my own work, but I want to draw attention to Texas's reservoir controversy and the outrageous land grab by water hustlers and big city boosters.

Swift Fox Photos

You must check out these photos by photographer Russell Graves. The little swift fox was thought to be extinct in Texas until the mid-90s when Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist Kevin Mote live-trapped several on the shortgrass prairie in far northwest Texas. Further research indicates that the swift fox is holding its own if not exactly thriving. They're very shy and largely nocturnal, hence the lack of good photos. I don't know how or where Russell took these, but I plan to twist his arm for details.

I wrote a feature on the little swift a dozen or so years ago, but TPW's online archive doesn't go back that far.


Monday, July 9, 2007


After a five-hour delay at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport – more rain, wind and lightning – we arrived in Louisville and finally made it to our hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky a little after midnight.

Next morning, Tuesday July 3, we drove 150 miles southeast to visit family in the little mountain town of Harlan, where my father was raised.

Driving through Appalachia, I’m always struck by contrasts: beauty, blight, poverty, natural wealth, dignity, degradation. I am not well-traveled, but I suspect that the region shares these contrasts with other places where economies have been built on extraction by outside interests. Since the end of World War I, unfathomable wealth has left the region in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, and timber, and that outflow continues today. I wonder how much of that wealth ever passes through banks on the Cumberland Plateau. Notwithstanding the occasional fine new brick home perched on a ridge above hovels and wrecks along the creek, the region remains mired in poverty – and the associated problems. As we crossed a bridge over Greasy Creek, Jane pointed out a campaign sign for a local magistrate's race. It listed the candidate's winning qualities: honest, a veteran, sober.

Mountaintop removal and clear-cutting continue amid growing public outcry – mostly from outside the region, as best I can tell. The mining industry still offers the only decent wages for working-class folks. But there are signs of healing. In Harlan county, at least a few hollows now hold modest homes and churches in place of squalid mining camps. As we drove south out of Hyden, I thought of Steve Earle singing “The Mountain.”

There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel
There’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company seals

I recognize that mine is an outsider’s view, though Southern Appalachia is a place I’ve visited often. My people, the Chappells, come from the hollows along various forks of Greasy Creek, in Leslie County – still one of the most sparsely settled counties in a sparsely populated state. But in the 1950s, my father left the mountains and settled in central Kentucky, a gentler place of rolling timbered hills and fertile bottomland, the country I’ll always think of as home. I have not experienced first hand the difficulty and complexity of life in Appalachia, so I try to form my opinions very carefully. Nothing is ever quite as it appears, and it can be awfully hard to discontinue practices that feed and clothe your children – if only barely - even if those practices are killing you and defiling your home region while enriching a few stockholders and providing “affordable” energy to distant, disinterested consumers.

I have long considered Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands one of the best works on the history and culture of the Southern Highlands. But there’s no shortage of proud mountaineers who find the book insulting, even though Caudill was a Letcher County boy who earned his law degree and came back home to fight for his people and region. When I visit, I keep my opinions to myself.

Driving along shaded mountain roads while admiring swinging bridges and tiny, dignified homes and gardens of pole beans, corn, and tomatoes, I reminded myself that a 47 year-old man who misses his father terribly, a man still looking for a place and a way to truly dig in and make a life, had better beware of sentimentality.

Still, I can't help but feel that there’s something in those mountains worth knowing and keeping.