Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dog Deliberations

It's only been fairly recently that we humans have been inclined to allow animals to have minds or even thoughts. Rene Descartes influenced the beliefs of people for several hundred years, when he maintained that animals cannot think and have no emotions. That insidious idea encouraged hundreds of years of mistreatment and even torture of animals, due to the rationalization that they cannot feel pain or even have the ability to ponder what was happening to them. Like a machine, it was believed that an animal was simply without awareness and automatically reacted to events. You can disassemble a machine without causing it pain, so why not a dumb animal?
Fortunately we now have awakened to the fact that animals do have thoughts, have emotions, and are able to learn new things. That latter factor means they even have culture! This knowledge has led to much more humane treatment of animals—although we still have a long way to go, to improve our behavior towards them.
In fact, recent fascinating research at two universities (the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand) have demonstrated that even spiders have the ability to think. The researchers have clearly demonstrated that spiders have a memory, use sophisticated ways of communicating, and make complex decisions. Spiders deliberate!
The animal with whom I have the closest relationship is our dog Chompsky. (Yes, he is named after Noam Chomsky.) He's the most intelligent dog I've ever known. He understands and responds to a few dozen words. He knows the daily routine—often anticipating what's coming next, by either the time of day or by various emotional or body signals that we send. It's as if he is reading our minds, but I know it's more a matter of his acute attention to subtle cues that we display.
Chompsky has an excellent memory, which is definitely an indication of a mind. For example, when we walk through the woods he will adhere to fading trails that we've not followed for several weeks, so there can't be any trace of lingering scent that his exquisite nose could pick up. He simply remembers the way, as he leads me along. When he comes to a branch in the fading path, he pauses and looks back at me to see which direction I might choose today.
A dog does not have the ability for language, so Chompsky cannot cogitate in words, as we humans do; but there has to be some kind of mental process going on—wherein he thinks about things, remembers prior events in order to make today's choices, weighs alternative possibilities before making choices, and even anticipates future events. He deliberates!
One unique feature that dogs possess (and most animals don't) is the ability to communicate and interact extremely well with humans. That skill is what transformed wolves into human companions, tens of thousands of years ago. Those first proto-canines were smart enough to realize that pairing up with people had several advantages—such as bringing a plentiful food supply and a cozy lifestyle, as a companion to the planet's smartest critter.
One of Chompsky's more fetching qualities is his propensity to lock eyes with me and hold our gaze for several minutes. He even seems to be making a mind-meld, as if some kind of deep, wordless bond has been established between us. The other night I walked past his bed, as his eyes focused intently on me. I felt compelled to sit down, place my hands on him, and gaze deeply into his eyes.
I pondered what may be going on in his mind. Was he feeling the same emotion—call it love—that I was? I sat there, as if my mind was melding with his. I had sweet, mushy thoughts come to me, that I sent to him. I wondered if he was having the same warm musings I was. Just as I thought maybe we were on the threshold of a cross-species breakthrough that would dazzle the scientific and spiritual world, he abruptly got up and walked away! So much for a new discovery.

Monday, June 19, 2017


A full moon rising over the ridge. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Midnight Repartee

My wife and I suffer from what we have come to call a case of “midnight repartee.” I don't think we coined this term. It seems to have been around for some time, and it does seem to accurately describe the nature of our responses to certain kinds of incidents in life.
But first, what do I mean by repartee? My dictionary defines it as “conversation or speech characterized by quick, witty comment or replies.” Its origin is from the 17th century French word repartie , which means “replying promptly.” Synonyms for repartee are: witty conversation, banter, and lively exchange.
So when we refer to ourselves as practitioners of midnight repartee, we see ourselves as not being witty in the present moment, or not being able to come up with some kind of quick-response banter. As a result, we find ourselves often having a rather emotional reaction to what someone just said or did, and wanting to say something erudite, but just not quite able to respond with a sparkling or impressive phrase. We're sort of tongue-tied, or too shy to speak up, because we know that our response will be—rather than sparkling—quite dull.
Yet, a few hours later (maybe around midnight), an eloquent response pops to mind, accompanied with the wish to have had the wherewithal to have spoken up and impressed everyone, back when the incident occurred. Now it's too late. Now we're all alone, with only ourselves to impress, and we've been around each other too long to be dazzled by the other's wit.
For much of my life I have envied friends who excelled at repartee. I remember many occasions of being with friends who were witty and who impressed everyone with their quick and droll responses. These friends seemed to be quick on the uptake, as I stood by speechless and clueless as to what to say. I admired how fast they were.. how nimble and clever they seemed to be.
I can't recall how many times I've had a clever midnight repartee later come to mind, as I regretted that I was too late to have swayed those folks present at the time, by displaying my verbal adeptness. Too little, too late.
So much for regrets of being slow witted. In contrast (maybe in an attempt to save face?) I think there can maybe a beneficial side to the lack of having instant repartee: Maybe I'm slow and unable to dazzle people with my prompt wit, but maybe it also makes for a more calm and peaceful life. I have observed my quick-witted friends, for example, put their opponent in their place, only to experience an unpleasant rebound later, as their opponent returns with a vengeance. The price of instant wittiness can sometimes be an enduring enemy. When we shoot from the hip or respond in the heat of the moment, we can say things that we later regret. If instead, we pause, hold back, and reflect on the dynamics of the moment, we can give ourselves a chance to respond a little more sensibly.
Long ago I came upon the wisdom of practicing nonviolence. Those who behave nonviolently usually are not reactive, but appropriately respond in the moment from a centered place of calm and reason. Gandhi had the presence of mind and centeredness to be able to respond in the moment with insight and wisdom. One of my best examples of this is a time when a Western journalist asked Gandhi what he thought about Western civilization. Gandhi instantly responded, “I think it's a good idea.” If only I could be so quick and sage!
So I've often regretted my delayed midnight repartee in reaction to events and wished I were quicker on the draw. But maybe it's brought me a little more peace of mind, less controversy, and fewer antagonists. Maybe others have not been impressed by my quick wit (or the lack of it), but maybe it's helped me to live a quieter, more peaceful life, in the slow, solitude I've forged. And I think it's a more appropriate lifestyle for a hermit.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tulip Tree Flowers

These are blossoms from the tulip tree, an eastern US tree that is tall and straight. Its wood is soft. The Miami-Illinois Indians called it oonseentia. They used it to make dugout canoes, so early American white settlers called it "canoewood." It's also called the "fiddle tree," because its leaves are shaped somewhat like a violin. Its flowers, as you can see, are shaped like a tulip. Click to enlarge.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Alleviating Ignorance—Part 2

A third struggle caused by our ignorance of rural life had to do with trying to grow fruit trees. For a few years we planted and nurtured numerous kinds of fruit trees and even began enjoying apples, peaches, plums, and cherries. In our naivete we had no idea that our mini-climate here was a dangerous one for fruit trees. We live in a small hollow that gets good sun. In early spring the sun's warmth encourages the trees' blossoms to pop out in bloom too soon, because a frosty night will inevitably follow. Cold air flows down hollows, chilling itself even more as it goes. Our vulnerable fruit blossoms regularly got killed by the frosty air, thus killing our chance that year of enjoying fruit.
What few fruit trees managed to survive spring frosts later began to fall prey to fungus and other pathogens drifting in from the surrounding woods. I unknowingly aided these attacks by transplanting some lovely wild plum trees from the woods—native trees that had a natural resistance to the diseases, but were also carriers of them. The imported attacks promptly proceeded to infect our tender nursery fruit trees. Unwilling to use powerful chemical sprays, we mourned as one tree after another succumbed. We eventually did find a way to grow fruit: strawberry plants do not catch wild tree diseases.
A fourth fiasco we encountered was to acquire a few hens, in order to enjoy a steady supply of our own fresh eggs. Doesn't everyone who moves to the country get some chickens and enjoy fresh eggs? A friend gave us several laying hens, to set us up in the egg business. Our mistake was to allow the hens to free range—not wanting them penned up. We hoped they'd also go after bugs, as well as not have to deal with the mess of caged chickens. After all, we'd moved to the country to enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors; why shouldn't our chickens also be free? Well, they sure enjoyed their liberty. The hens sauntered into the woods to lay their eggs in secret places, then came out happily cackling, defying us to find their stash. It was as if they were laughing at us, as if they were smarter than we were (and maybe they were!). We rarely found their eggs, or not until they had rotted. Before long, forest critters like raccoons and foxes solved the issue by dining on our free-range chickens.
A fifth and final example (although I could relate many more) of our ignorance turned out to be a fortunate one, resulting from our free-ranging dogs. (Running free didn't work for chickens, but it sure did for the dogs.) We live far enough out in the woods that our dogs can run free—as their spirit surely requires. Our ignorance in this case was that we did not know what damage deer can cause to a garden. We did not know, for example, that nearby residents were being constantly invaded by deer, and had to resort to expensive solutions like electric fences, tall fences, or purchasing pricey repellents like cougar urine. Our garden—very modestly fenced—remained deer free. Why?
It took a few years for us to realize that our neighbors either had no dogs or that they tied or fenced their dogs. Deer are smart. They will quickly discover that a restrained dog is no threat, and simply move in to dine—even seeming to take some degree of amusement from their surreptitious deed. In contrast, our dogs ran untethered—free to joyously chase any deer that wandered near. This is one good example of our ignorance leading to a happy result, rather than struggling with chiggers, voles, and spring killing frosts.
I could go on with a score of other examples of what we learned—how we alleviated a few more ignorances. These many lessons helped us endure, and yes, even thrive out here. Many of our lessons could have been learned from fellow travelers and from public media, but there will always be many more that are unique to one's situation, and that you have to stumble into on your own. Our major transition from city professionals to rural hicks—like any radical change—challenged us in many ways we could not have imagined. Many factors have led to our still being here 35 years later. I'd like to think that flexibility and intelligence played a significant roll, but some luck and stubbornness were probably just as important.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alleviating Ignorance—Part 1

Some three and a half decades ago my wife and I made a major transition from a city life of professional careers to become rural hicks. It was a move that we'd dreamed of doing for some time, but were not at all sure of what we'd be walking into, so we hesitated, while we laid plans for several years, before making the big move. The fact that we're still here 35 years later is testimony to our tenacity—either indicating that we've been successful or that we take a long time to admit defeat. I'd like to believe that our survival is because we managed to find the keys to accepting the many vicissitudes that awaited us out here in the woods and that we found ways to live with them, rather than seeking ways to defeat them or allowing them to defeat us.
When we made our rural transition, it was with the proviso that we leave behind mainstream society's methods of domination and throwing money at problems, by seeking simpler, low-cost ways of facing life's dilemmas. That's a nice idea, but how do you pull it off? We weren't sure.
Any major change in lifestyle will find you facing problems that you never anticipated. Your ignorance and naivete can throw you off balance and even threaten to throw you off your game plan. I will briefly describe a few examples of how we encountered unexpected challenges and pretty much managed to stay in balance, even though we got knocked out of whack a few times. In each case the obstacle was subsequently managed, not through warfare, but by learning how to live with it; certainly not by throwing up our hands and returning to the city.
The first example battle was with chiggers. Prior to moving out to the woods I'd never heard of a chigger. It's a tiny mite that lurks in weedy areas, waits for a human to pass by, leaps to your shoe or pant leg, crawls up an exposed leg until it's stopped by an obstruction like a belt, and then finds a skin pore, into which it injects a tiny snout (somewhat like a mosquito), sucks up some moisture, and leaves behind a toxin that will have you frantically scratching for days. I incurred a few dozen chigger bites on my first trip out to the land to explore it, to see if it was what I wanted to purchase. The bites drove me crazy. The experience shortly began to cast doubts on the wisdom of my choice to buy the land.
A friend who knew about these biting little buggers advised me to tuck my pants into my socks the next time out and dab some kerosene on my clothing below the knee. Chiggers detest the smell of kerosene and would keep away from me, he promised. I followed his instructions, but in my enthusiasm did not daub, but generously soused kerosene on my pants and socks. I returned from my second excursion to the land with no chigger bites, but the skin around my shins and ankles was red and raw for several days. In time I found more effective chigger repellent methods and now rarely get bites... let alone blistered kerosene ankles.
A second nemesis that we faced was an invasion of voles in our vegetable garden. Voles are mice-sized vegetarians who use the underground tunnels moles have excavated. The moles are no problem in the garden—they are carnivores looking for worms and beetle larvae. The vegetarian voles, however, scoot along the mole tunnels until they come upon the roots of a luscious young plant like young broccoli. First they chew off the roots and then they drag the whole plant down into the tunnel, to dine at leisure. We were left angrily looking at a hole, where a broccoli plant once grew.
Like chiggers, I'd never heard of voles, so we assumed the problem was moles, because of the tunnels. We tried several means of defending our precious garden plants from moles—from growing gigantic castor bean plants supposedly to repel them, to various smelly deterrents. Nothing worked. But I got a hint at a solution one day while reading, that our problem was really voles. An additional critical piece of information I read was that voles feared the smell of cats and dogs. I brushed our dog, got a fistful of hair, and poked bits of the hair down in the tunnels. Within a week or so, the voles were gone. I love to chuckle at the thought of a vole meandering confidently down a tunnel, looking forward to another broccoli meal, and suddenly catching a whiff of dog. “What!? How'd a dog get down here? Run!”

More on ignorance lessons next time...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pine Bug

This is the pine bug--the adult male at top (looking like a bee) and its larva below, in a cocoon (looking like a plant). In its larva stage, the bug decorates itself with bits of the plant (often a pine tree) that it feeds on. The larva (several hundred of them) emerge from their mother's overwintering cocoon in the spring and get  windblown to a nearby tree, where they begin to add twigs to disguise themselves. The larva in the cocoon above had mistakenly attached itself to a window in our house. In late summer the males emerge from their cocoon and seek females to mate with. She stays in her cocoon. She no eyes or legs, and does not eat. She is just an egg carrier. (Top photo from Wikipedia) Click to enlarge.