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Thursday, November 24, 2022

A Roadkill and a Dream of a Better World

The call came after dark on a cold and rainy November evening: there was a road-killed deer south of town, ours for the taking. When we arrived a squad car was directing a spotlight on a buck lying at the base of a slope, several yards off the roadway.  It was a big deer, well over 200 pounds, wearing a headdress of eight polished points. The investigating officer had to put the animal down. 

There was little external sign of injury except a rear leg broken at the knee. Field dressing and processing would show there had been a spinal injury, enough to disable the deer’s hind quarters.


It was an unfortunate end to a beautiful animal, just entering the prime of life. Tooth wear indicated the buck was two and a half years old. A deer in the wild can live up to 10 years, though few do, particularly males which are selectively targeted by hunters. 


Almost immediately after a deer dies there is a dramatic change in its eyes— an attentive and alert gleam gives way to dullness.  It is common among mammals, explained by a lack of blood flow and a breakdown in neurological function. But it can seem that something bigger has happened, something grand and ghostly. 


The native Americans embraced a belief in animal spirits, and most world religions make reference to a sentient if not a spiritual existence among nonhumans.  The question begs consideration at that somber moment when the light in the eyes of a whitetail fades. It persists, days later, as meat is meticulously cut from bone, packaged and frozen.  It returns when the backstrap is searing on hot cast iron, when preparing steak fajitas, meat balls, smoked summer sausage, shepherd's pie. 


In a world where most wild populations are in steep decline, white tailed deer are holding their own, sometimes thriving to the point of nuisance within city limits and protected parks.  Over much of their range they are the only significant big game animal, observed frequently, almost universally appreciated.  They rely on instinct, wit, and learned behaviors to find their way. They are given little consideration if their habitat is lessened or destroyed by urban sprawl, infrastructure or agriculture.They, like all wild species, exist mostly on the shirttails of man’s ambition. Their forced objective is to survive in spite of us. 


I don’t think much about the animal that provides my morning bacon. A grunting, rooting, coarse-haired ungulate is less endearing, despite its proven superior intelligence. But appearance and intelligence has little influence on our demand for pork chops, barbecued ribs, ham, and sausage. Almost one and a half billion hogs are slaughtered annually worldwide.


Before reaching the killing floor, before the light fades from their eyes following a short life, the vast majority of hogs are raised in an environment far removed from what they would have chosen.  Advocates say that animals raised in factory farms are pampered relative to their wild counterparts, fed rations developed by nutrition scientists, given easy access to water and shelter. If they get sick, a licensed veterinarian is standing by.


In a recent airing of NPR’s Living on Earth, author Frances Moore Lappe talked about the high environmental costs of meat production and the urgent need to adjust our diets to one that is more plant-based.  According to Lappe, our food system globally contributes almost 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and about 40 percent of that is from the livestock sector.  Of equal significance, industrialized agriculture, as it stands, will not feed a planet of eight billion people and counting (https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=22-P13-00046&segmentID=1).  


There are new, promising technologies. Our grocery shelves may soon include meat that is biosynthetically produced using selected animal cells, grown without a living animal that requires food, water, and housing. A California firm is one step closer to earning USDA approval using the technology (https://www.canarymedia.com/articles/food-and-farms/climate-friendlier-meat-just-got-a-step-closer-to-your-plate).  


There is also work being done with Precision fermentation, a refined form of brewing, where microbes are multiplied to create specific products.  One method uses microbes that feed on hydrogen, water, carbon dioxide and fertilizer to manufacture a flour containing 60 percent protein, compared with only 37 percent found in soybeans, and the process requires 1700 times less land mass (https://apple.news/A9dWnaLjHSCmZGYh0EbhPhg). 


Millions of acres now used to grow animal feeds might soon be producing foods we consume directly, with much improved efficiency. With more corn and bean acreage up for grabs, hemp may finally be brought to scale, providing a superior alternative for manufacturing paper and fabric and building materials that are actually carbon negative, all from a crop requiring little or no chemical inputs. Even more exciting, with less demand on acreage for food production, rewilding could enter the mainstream and bring with it our greatest hope for storing carbon, controlling climate disruption, and halting the sixth great extinction. 


Maybe there’s a world in the near-future free of confinement livestock operations and killing floors. In that world, perhaps they’ll be autonomous vehicles so advanced that collisions involving deer will all but disappear. It’s an encouraging possibility. But for now, there is a hundred pounds of fresh venison in the freezer from an animal that will be long appreciated. His spirit, or whatever it was that put the spark in his eyes, lives on. 



Wednesday, November 16, 2022

A Connecting Thread

We are driving 650 miles north, to a cabin in the Algoma wilderness. For 23 years it’s been our escape from the routine, a place of solitude, a link to the boreal forest and its maze of rivers and lakes.  A colleague once said unless his travels took him beyond the eastern deciduous forests he really hadn’t gone anywhere. I’m inclined to agree. 

The cabin overlooks the Michipicoten River, less than 20 miles from where its tannin-tinged waters empty into Lake Superior. Upstream, by way of a chain of lakes, rivers, and portages, a wilderness traveler eventually heads downstream to the great James and Hudson Bays. In a different era the voyageurs loaded with furs and trade goods would have passed the very spot we see from our cabin window. Today the route is interrupted with hydroelectric dams and water control structures, but the wild country— a land of cedar, pine, fir, spruce, birch and aspen— remains as a million square miles of contiguous forest stretching from Alaska to Newfoundland. 

It’s quiet there in November, almost eerily. In an entire day the silence may be broken not more than once by the chatter of a chickadee or a raven’s raucous squawk. But there is solace knowing that bears, moose, lynx, and wolves are in proximity, and there are an array of songbirds every spring. The forest stores 208 billion tons of carbon, critical in a world where atmospheric CO2 has reached concentrations exceeding anything humans have ever experienced.  

There is a wholesomeness in hauling water by the bucketful from the river, in warming a chilled cabin with heat from a crackling wood stove, in finding ourselves unplugged from the world except for two radio stations whose broadcasts reach us. There’s value in having the essence of fir and spruce fill our lungs with every breath, with letting the wind and water steer our skiff as we drift downriver, in landing a 30-inch pike following a hard fought battle. Time spent in the north is contentment grounded in the simple and uncomplicated, where daily living is reduced to the basics, where an eagle soaring overhead or a beaver cruising upriver is entertainment enough. 

Our stay is short, and too soon we’re back home, plugged into our devices, drawn into political battles and a world of crises. But still fresh in our memories is a place of reverence and simplicity, a place that lifts our spirits, resets our priorities and refuels our resolve to focus on worthy causes.

This morning I heard a white-throated sparrow sing. He’s left his seasonal home in the north to overwinter here. His experience, the quality of habitat he finds, will determine whether or not he’ll return to his breeding grounds next spring. He sings in the spruce-fir and he sings in the oak-hickory and both destinations are crucial to his existence; two ecotypes explicitly connected by a traveling songbird. 

No place and no thing is truly isolated. The fish we catch in the north contain levels of mercury, emitted from industrial sources and carried hundreds or thousands of miles on air and circumpolar river currents. Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment warns of eating more than one meal of fish per week. Whitetail deer in Maine and several other states have meat tainted with dangerous levels of PFAS, forever chemicals used in household products such as cosmetics and detergents and non-stick cookware, that follow a connecting thread from contaminated soil and water to wild ungulates. PFAS are not restricted to deer— they are widespread in our water supplies, in the soil and some of the foods we eat, in the air we breathe— we carry them in our blood. 

A coral reef dies from ocean acidification and 25 percent of marine life is disrupted. A warming climate melts glaciers and influences weather patterns, threatening water supplies in some regions while flooding others. Midwest farmers, homeowners, and turf managers, send nitrogen and phosphorus down the Mississippi and 6000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico become lifeless. The Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London shows a nearly 70% decline in vertebrate wildlife populations since 1970 due to such things as habitat loss, over harvest, pollution, and climate stress. Declines send ripples if not tsunamis across ecosystems and are never without consequence. 

We talked about these things on a still November afternoon as we sat next to a fire on the Canadian Shield. Accepting that nothing acts alone or independently is a way of making the earth a smaller, more intimate space, where a flippant or less than reverent regard for the environment should never exist. But that is not our history, and even as we better understand our place in the ecological community, our response to the damage we inflict remains far from adequate.

The wind shifted overnight and is blowing straight in from the north.  I convince myself I detect the essence of spruce-fir flanking the Michipicoten River, and take a deep breath to feel the connection.  If it’s all in my head, there is still a sparrow singing in the back yard that is truly linked to a place where simplicity reigns and contentment is found in the rudimentary. The connection spans 650 miles then continues on, linking an entire planet with common fiber, binding everything together with magnificent purpose.  Nothing is unattached. 


Thursday, October 27, 2022

An Advanced Intellect vs a Stone Wall

Everyone enjoyed the great autumn colors this year and for obvious reasons— they were rather spectacular. At our place a bald cypress in the middle of the pond took first prize with a rust-orange radiance, but there were serious contenders: a pawpaw that literally glowed with yellow light, a black gum holding every shade of orange on shiny waxed leaves, a sassafras set afire. A dry fall is typically an excuse for poor leaf color and our records showed we hadn’t  had appreciable rain in six weeks. But we didn’t bother looking for explanations— the time to enjoy fall color is fleeting. 

In towns across the country, the leaves that were destined to contribute rich organic matter and nutrients to the soil were raked and piled curbside to be trucked off to the composting facility, or worse yet, the landfill. Complex soil communities composed of mycelium, bacteria, and insects will suffer the consequences. Mulching leaves where they fall is far more practical and beneficial and still provides the look of tidiness we seem to crave. 


Lee and I are conducting a bit of an experiment here at the home place, a study of what happens when fields used for nursery production are suddenly abandoned. The results are rather predictable as the vegetation that follows field abandonment is well documented, but this is land we are intimately familiar with, and we need to call it an experiment lest we be accused of laziness or poor stewardship or worse. 


Along the south field where it borders the county road are segments of dry stone wall interrupted with sections of rail fence. It was once a pastoral overlook— a combination of native stone and rustic timbers with a manicured nursery beyond. Today the wooden rails have largely collapsed but the stone wall stands firm, fashionably trimmed (“weedy and unkempt,” to some), with remnants of seasonal grasses, goldenrod skeletons, lingering asters, and milkweeds casting their silky seeds to the wind. 


A well built stone wall holds a somewhat unique promise. If it is not intentionally or unintentionally deconstructed, it stands a reasonable chance of existing long after the buildings and trees and roadways it borders are gone and forgotten.  The wall’s only guaranteed threat is the elemental forces of wind and rain which eventually erode it away. 


Last weekend the wall lured a passing car into our driveway. The passengers included a high school senior and a couple photographers. They were on a mission to find picturesque backdrops for senior photos. They pulled in and said, “we thought this place was abandoned!”  “Abandoned by design,” was my reply, feeling rather complimented. They were immediately attracted to the bald cypress, and based on their excited chatter and whooping, it must have satisfied their objective. 


The study has proven entertaining, frustrating, and intriguing over its 10 year history.  There is no shortage of pioneering tree species such as elm and sycamore, but there are more oaks than expected and for some odd reason a few white pine seedlings are showing up, which is a rare occurrence almost anywhere in the state. Our frustration stems from the invasive and highly aggressive Bradford pears, autumn olive and bush honeysuckle which compete with native vegetation with a vengeance. 


Then there are the vines, the hops and mile-a-minute, that may have hitchhiked on nursery stock we handled and now delight in smothering the crowns of plants young and old. Other native vines like grape and poison ivy are abnormally abundant and are showing exceptional vigor, which is a verified response to increased atmospheric CO2. 


Sprinkle in brambles and multiflora rose and an assortment of ornamental plants that remain in the fields and we have a nearly impenetrable mass of vegetation occupying the study area, which the birds and deer and rabbits appear to find quite acceptable. For the foreseeable future it is theirs, while we continue to monitor changes. 


It’s fall and the mice have laid claim to the house with bold aggression. I catch glimpses of them sprinting along baseboards, dashing under furniture, ducking into desk drawers left slightly ajar. Almost always, they make their moves at the periphery of my vision so I question myself, but they cannot hide their stockpiles of sunflower seeds stolen from the sack on the back porch and stashed in closet shoes and gloves. Neither do they attempt to muffle the sounds of their waltzing and racing and gnawing inside our walls. Our century old home with a crumbling stone foundation provides an open invitation.  A few mice are a given and don’t bother us, but they reproduce like flies and have no concern for our preferences so inevitably their numbers exceed our tolerance. Today, traps smeared with peanut butter and laced with sunflower will be set.  Step gingerly, little vermin, your days of free and reckless frolicking are numbered. 


If mice had advanced intellect and if we assume wise judgment would come from it, they might anticipate the consequences of over abundance and gauge their numbers accordingly. Instead, they liberally procreate as long as resources hold out or until disease, famine, predation, competition, or a detrimental shift in their environment puts an end to their growth if not the mice themselves.  


All too soon the last of the color fades to brown, the curtain drops on the finest of seasons, and the animals of highest intellect rake the last of the fallen leaves curbside and perceive a future of growth and prosperity free of limitations. The season of dormancy moves in, an abandoned field nurtures the seed it’s given, and a dry stone wall stands with a promise to outlast it all. 






Tuesday, October 18, 2022

An E-bike and a Cleansed Mind

In late summer, to celebrate my wife’s 70th birthday, our sons offered to buy her an electric bike, and I, not wanting to be left out, decided to get one as well.  After an exhaustive search of makes and models and learning more than we realized there was to learn, we chose bikes offered by a recent start-up having great reviews and a promotional price second to none.

E-bikes have battery powered motors that can be used all the time, not at all, or only when the pedaling gets tough. When engaged, the motor delivers an invisible push allowing the pedaler to maintain cadence and speed. Because the amount of motor assistance is rider-determined, anything from a thigh-burning, oxygen-starved workout to a casual cruise is up for grabs.  I view pedal assist as a morphine pump— when the sting in my thighs reaches a critical limit I touch a button for instant relief.  Hills and headwinds are of little consequence. 


There’s a peacefulness out there on county roads seldom traveled. I notice things, like the crunch of dried leaves between tire and pavement, the praying mantis at the road edge, a newly hatched snapping turtle, a northern redbelly snake, wooly worms and grasshoppers. I hear the tapping of deer hooves on the road as a family crosses a dozen yards ahead, a squirrel clawing at asphalt in a sprint for safety, the cries of migrating killdeer as they settle in freshly harvested fields. So much is missed from the seat of a passenger vehicle. 


We have in our possession nearly every bicycle we’ve owned, and at a time when we are trying to minimize, we buy two more. We are masters at justifying our wants, using aging bones and the need for healthy activity to explain our actions.  We joined “Ebike Cyclists Over 60” on Facebook, and in our first month logged over 300 miles on our new toys.


The e-bike industry is booming. It has inspired aging folks to get back in the saddle, but interest is not limited to the over 60 crowd. My brother, a lifelong biker and career bike shop employee, mentioned with some disgust how fully 50 percent of the 30-somethings entering his shop are in search of electric bikes. There’s sometimes a rift between traditional bikers and the pedal assist gang, with the former accusing the latter of cheating or downright laziness.  There have been complaints about e-bikes traveling too fast, and too many clogging roadways and parking areas. In places, including some national forests, new rules are restricting motorized bikes. While some concerns may be legitimate, the bigger problem could be too many cars and a lack of accommodations for bicyclists. Ask anyone from the Netherlands. 


None of this applies to rural Cass County, where on a typical 15 mile jaunt we see no other bikes and maybe three or four vehicles. The wooly worms and squirrels, and wild, unexpected delights far outnumber any manufactured conveyance. 


The riding experience stimulates mental cleansing.  When worldly concerns are reviewed while muscles are strained and our brains are pumping dopamine and endorphins, the result can be a fresh perspective, a clearer understanding, a bit of hope.


To date we’ve not been run over, audibly cursed, or splattered with rotten tomatoes hurled from roadside gardens. Instead, we’ve noticed a disproportionate number of folks who wave hello— far more than if we were driving a car— and a basic courtesy shown by people on the road or sitting on porches or at work in their gardens.  It suggests we live among good, civil minded folks who look out for one another, have similar needs and wants, and an equal claim to a clean environment, opportunity, and fair treatment.  It’s a perspective worth holding onto as midterm elections approach and our differences are brought into sharp focus.


We pedal up a long grade which I choose to climb without motor assistance.  I think about how our biking experience and lives might differ if we were part of a minority demographic. I wonder if we would get as many friendly greetings or have the luxury of new bicycles.


We turn into a headwind and my head clogs with concerns for our democracy, a changing world climate, a capitalistic ideal run amuck. I cringe at the flow of misinformation that bombards everyday life. 


But then the dopamine and endorphins kick in, and I see a maple tree so ablaze with color that it appears to generate its own light. And I think about the incredible fresh apple pie waiting at home— four pounds of apples in one pie, spiced and baked to perfection, with a tender and flaky crust that relies on a generous dose of lard. 


I take a shot of imaginary morphine and we ride on. There is hope on the road ahead. There has to be. 





















Thursday, September 29, 2022

A More Certain Future

There’s a heavy mist rising from the pond this morning. A pair of geese, barely visible, send ripples across the surface. The northern hemisphere tilts toward the season of dormancy. Meteorological fall has begun. 

It’s 40 degrees, and a 64 degree house feels cooler than when the outdoor temperature is, say, 60. I don’t understand why. Late in the afternoon we take a bike ride into a stiff north wind and quickly learn we are underdressed.  The road exits the woods and enters a protected sunny stretch, and without thinking our pedaling slows and we take in the warmth.


Corn harvest has begun. We flush a group of five pheasants huddled roadside, the first we’ve seen here in years. Crop fields are not ideal habitat but offer some benefit, especially when no-till practices or cover crops are used. As seasonal grain harvest ramps up the effect is not unlike a forest fire— suddenly millions of acres of cover and travel corridors disappear, and wild residents are forced into new routines. Predators take note. 


In the news this week the CEO of Chase Bank said the bank will continue to provide loans to the oil and gas industry because not doing so would put America “on the road to hell.”  The four biggest US banks: Chase, CitiBank, Bank of America, and Wells-Fargo are the world’s largest lenders to the fossil fuel industry. According to an article by Bill McKibben from The Crucial Years, these same banks also continue to make loans to Russia and its fossil fuel efforts, effectively supporting the war against Ukraine. That means every time we swipe our CitiBank card we’re supporting Russia and Big Oil. It won’t be swiped again. We have options. We all do. 


The Chase CEO said the world needs to produce 100 million barrels of oil per day over the next decade, which is an increase over current production and blows a hole in President Biden’s plan to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. A year ago the four big banks signed onto the Global Alliance for Net Zero, an organized effort to wean lenders away from the oil industry, but now they’re threatening to back out, claiming “legal reasons.”


We subscribe to a local online meteorologist who backs up his forecasts with explanations I appreciate.  In recent years he’s made several references to events that were particularly rare and unexpected, sometimes destructive.


A study published in ScienceDaily says that as the temperature difference between the North Pole and equator lessens, the ability for forecasters to accurately predict weather, particularly flooding events, becomes more challenging. The atmosphere is behaving differently, and the models used to predict weather are becoming outdated. 


Meteorologists are quick to mention when they get a forecast correct but can be tight lipped when they don’t.  A couple years back I sent my weatherman an email suggesting he mention climate change when, say, a “chance of rain” becomes a flooding event. It might help him save face while doing his part in keeping an existential threat in the public’s eye. He responded saying the topic was politically charged and he had inclinations to steer clear, but agreed it was something he needed to do. He hasn’t. 


In a few days September will pass the reins to October. Our weatherman suggests peak leaf color and first frost dates could be delayed.  The planet is getting hotter and drier and wetter all at once. Big banks, and virtually everyone alive, continue to support an industry which ensures a climatic shift back to a world where no man ever lived.  


We’ve started watching the Ken Burns series on PBS: The US and the Holocaust. The longer I live the more I realize how frequently I must have dozed off in high school history. I didn’t know that Hitler drew inspiration from what he observed in the US.  Our forced sterilization practices, our treatment of native Americans and slaves, the support shown for improving the gene pool, all intrigued the fledgling German leader. I didn’t know that many of his countrymen opposed their commander and assumed his aspirations would be short lived or controlled by reasonable people close to him. I didn’t realize how restrictive our borders were towards accepting Jews desperate to leave Europe. Most unsettling are the parallels that can be drawn between the rise of a crazed dictator in 1930’s Germany and the current state of affairs in the US.  We can be a complicated and frustrating lot, set in our ways, easily drawn to conspiracy, blinded by deep rooted racial prejudice or religious intolerance. 


I get it. A good part of my life was oriented towards career and earning a respectable living, looking no deeper into the world than required to complete the task.  I didn’t think about the prejudices I might hold or the fault in my work ethic, and was the perfect candidate to be influenced by snippets of news from biased sources.  I would never take the time to analyze my opinions, which I knew could be readily affirmed by friends equally consumed by ambition.  It shouldn’t have taken so much time to get my head screwed on and it no doubt is not yet securely fastened. I have to admire the youth of today who are viewing the world with eyes wide open.  My hat is off to them.  


We live on a remarkable blue sphere.  By inconceivable design or improbable chance it evolved into a beautifully functional living machine, but our sheer numbers and misuse of resources has thrown a wrench in the works. While doing great things we allowed our progress to be undermined by greed, superiority, and a warped sense of dominion. We failed to respect our role in a world where everything is connected, and crippled the bedrock systems that support life.  Even as our understanding improves, we are reluctant to let go of destructive behaviors and practices. 


I think about all this as we cut up our CitiBank cards and take a bike ride into the first big push of autumn air. The earth tilts on its axis and continues around the sun, just as it has for billions of years, just as it likely will for a few billion more.  It has the luxury of time to heal its wounds, and a future more certain than ours. 




Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Remembering CMK

first met Dr Charles M Kirkpatrick a couple years after I graduated high school.  I was at Purdue for a day on campus, registering for classes.  Kirk, as he was known to colleagues and friends, was sitting behind a desk in the old Ag Annex Building. He was lean, white-haired, and wore a scowl befitting a man bored with the prospect of signing up another new student. He sat quietly, reviewing my paperwork.  “Greensburg Indiana,” he said, making eye contact. “My home town.”

I’m not sure it meant much to him, but it did to me.  I had never met someone schooled as a wildlife professional, and did not expect my first to be someone intimately familiar with a tree growing from a courthouse tower in Decatur County. He had to know Sand Creek, the way it brushed the edge of town before meandering south and west to merge with the White River. Maybe, in a newly fallen snow, he’d found a fresh fox track where the creek passed under the railroad, and followed ole Reynard half a day as I had. He’d be familiar with Cobbs Fork and its limestone bottom, perfect for wading and looking for salamanders. Perhaps he’d thrown spinners to smallmouth bass in Clifty Creek where they held tight against the bridge abutment on the Vandalia Road, and hunted squirrels in the rolling oak-hickory woodlands east and south of town.  I reasoned that the experiences that led me to this campus likely influenced him as well, and I felt a kinship with the man and a confidence I had come to the right place.


In high school I focused on industrial arts and worked part time as an electrician to get me out of the classroom. I was not college material. Then two weeks before graduating I walked into the office of Miss Risk, my guidance counselor, and said, “I want to study wildlife science.”  “I know,” she said, smiling. Geneva Risk was a seasoned professional who had counseled my dad a generation before, and knew what students wanted sometimes before they did. She laid out a plan for evening courses at a nearby technical school where I would pick up math, economics, and other classes Purdue required.


I wouldn’t have C.M. Kirkpatrick as a class instructor until my junior and senior years but would stop in his office occasionally, maybe to appease my home sickness.  He was editor of The Journal of Wildlife Management, a technical publication with the latest findings in wildlife research, and was a stickler for proper verbiage, both written and spoken. I was a lad with little respect for either.  At one of my visits he abruptly asked, “If two Fords are traveling single file down the highway, what time is it?”  I hadn't the faintest idea. “Tin after tin,” he said. It was a joke, but its purpose was to have me listen to myself and my hillbilly lingo. “It’s ten, not tin; get, not git.” He wore professionalism and integrity like a well tailored shirt, and would subtly and patiently demonstrate to a group of backwoods students that there was infinitely more to his science than a love of hunting and fishing. 


I can picture him now walking the aisles of the classroom, handing out a freshly mimeographed lesson, his brow furrowed. He approaches a girl who is not yet my wife and their eyes meet. She’s intimidated, but reflexively offers him a Milk Dud. He gladly accepts.  


I came to learn he suffered from frequent migraines and wondered if they explained the scowl he often wore, but there was rarely a time he would not break into a smile and chuckle given the slightest incentive.  It would happen as we reminisced about squirrel hunts. “Amazing, how vivid the memories,” he once reflected, “the details of particularly difficult shots.”  It happened anytime we spoke of home turf and families, or the north country, or the Rocky Mountains of the west. 


His specialty was wildlife physiology and he had studied under the tutelage of the great Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin, the man who said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… (He) sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Leopold’s science-based revelation that healthy ecosystems require top predators and his philosophical insights of a land ethic encompassing all living things earned him worldwide acclaim.  


Kirk was among the fortunate to know Leopold personally.  When Aldo’s beloved dog, Gus, was accidentally shot on a bird hunt, it was Kirk who drove the car to the vet, a distraught Aldo in the backseat, a wounded dog on his lap.  “Gus, you poor goddamned dog,”  Aldo repeated over and over. Kirk’s admiration for Leopold’s tenets and values would guide him for life, as they continue to guide and inspire today. 


When C.M. Kirkpatrick was offered the opportunity to develop a wildlife science program at Purdue, he quickly accepted and set the university on course to become a leader in preparing students for careers as biologists, researchers, and naturalists. The undergraduate curriculum he designed and implemented was topped off with a senior year I never wanted to end.  Ornithology, mammalogy, ichthyology, wildlife ecology— what not to love?  


Maybe it was the natural consequence of his aging, the decades of discouraging environmental observations and experiences that wore him down, but it seemed Kirk’s hope for a healthy and viable future for the resource he dedicated his life to was waning. Wildlife would always be tertiary to agriculture and industry and the whims of civilized man. The loss of wetlands and critical habitats was ongoing despite their intrinsic value and proven necessity for a healthy planet. Once, while gazing across a section of native prairie turned cropland, he said, mostly to himself, “A  cottontail would have to pack a lunch to cross that field.” At Purdue, he’d be approached by ag industry leaders concerned that damage from wildlife was threatening their livestock operations or field crops. Rarely was there space for compromise, for consideration of harmonious existence. When my wife and I finished grad school, Kirk came to visit and to meet our first born son, and we joked that Jacob was destined to be a biologist. Kirk set his eyes on the boy and lamented, “There won’t be any wildlife when you grow up.”  Jacob turned 42 this year, and the sixth great extinction is well underway. 


In our senior year we were given an assignment to produce a polished scientific report on a particular species, including life history, past and current research, special concerns, etc..  To avoid bias in grading, Kirk required all reports to be identified only by the author's social security number.  Sometime later, I was in his office and the topic of reports came up.  “Which one was yours?” he asked. “Sharp-tailed grouse,” I replied. Wearing a wry smile and tugging the front of my shirt, he said, “Don’t ever stop writing.”


I could have come clean and told him my wizard roommate had voluntarily dissected my report and made it what it was, but I didn’t. But neither did I take CMK’s words lightly. He made me want to be a better writer.  I’m still working on it, his memory urging me on.


Leopold said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.” In the introduction to his book, A Sand County Almanac, he wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” 


In reality, humanity can’t exist without the elaborate interconnections and collaborations among wild things, but not everyone agrees or understands, and our collective behaviors and actions have resulted in a planet whose environmental systems are collapsing.  We need mentors to help us anticipate and navigate the consequences. I’m glad CMK was mine.


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Maisy

We buried a dog this week, and not just any dog.  This was a 70 pound, bearded, coarse haired cur named “Maisy,” and for the past 13 years there was scarcely a day we were not together. 

Lee found her on Craigslist. We were, at the time, about three months into a one year agreement to not own a dog, but there was something in the photo of this girl that altered the plan. We went for an initial meeting and found her sitting bolt upright, propped by long front legs, looking regal. She was rail thin, had a urinary tract infection, in need of spaying. We took her home. 


When we got back to our house she leapt from the car and was on a dead run, exploring her new territory. She spied a chipmunk that streaked across the patio then disappeared under the dock at the edge of the pond. In flaming pursuit the dog launched herself full speed into the pond, then began an awkward attempt to swim while remaining vertical. It was a baffling display of thrashing but she eventually made it to shore, and my wife said, “That dog can’t swim.”  “Agh,” I responded, “all dogs can swim!”  It took some time but I was proven wrong— this dog, indeed, could not swim. With training she would eventually learn, but she would never learn to enjoy it. 


Maisy hated obedience exercises. When put on a leash for training she’d assume a dejected attitude as if cruelly reprimanded, and seemed thoroughly bored with the stop-sit-stay-come routine. It turned out she was listening— and learning— but from her perspective there were matters of much greater priority and urgency. 


In her youth she was built like a cheetah and behaved accordingly. She lived to run and ran with artistry, her head steady, legs sending her forward in long strides, covering great distance with impressive power.  Yet, she could turn on a dime, and with these talents would often overcome whatever she deemed as prey. When in a playful mood, she’d work herself into a frenzy spinning in tight circles with her butt an inch off the ground. She was speed and agility perfected. 


She was a sight hound with a hesitancy to use her nose because stopping to smell things necessarily interfered with running. She would barrel through fields of weeds, leaping high in search of anything she might flush, then follow in hot pursuit as long as she could see her quarry. She was interested in anything furred with one exception: she could identify a hawk at 100 yards and would sprint hell bent in its direction, eyes skyward. 


Her posture while sitting was abnormally erect, her spine nearly perpendicular to the ground.  We were never sure exactly what combination of breeds made her, but there was no shortage of speculation from casual observers. Irish wolfhound was often mentioned, as was Norwegian deerhound and Lurcher.  A DNA test indicated she was predominately Airedale, with Akita and other miscellaneous thrown in.  None of it really mattered.  She was a handsome girl, 95 percent sweetheart, and worked her way into my heart like no dog ever had.


She was a perfect traveler, even on multi-day trips. She’d sit or lie in the backseat without a sound or sign of restlessness, content only to be with us and to occasionally hang her head out the window and drool down the side of the truck.  We spent years adjusting our routines so she could be included, taking time for daily walks, making travel plans that allowed for her, forfeiting hikes and venues where dogs weren’t allowed. 


I sometimes resented her need for accommodation and her senseless disruptions.  There were evenings when her inability to decide if she wanted in or out of the house drove me to distraction. But then she’d walk up and with the most expressive eyes in the animal kingdom ask for hearty rubs behind the ears, and I would respond and she would lean into the pleasure with groans of contentment and all would be forgiven.  And then there were nights in bed when I’d look up to find her eyes locked on mine, watchful, with a loyalty beyond measure. 


She slowed down the last couple years, lost her cheetah behaviors as her hips were failing.  She began struggling with stairs and had to be lifted into the car and onto the bed. She showed only casual interest in nearby squirrels and rabbits, fell behind during walks. Then she quit eating. 


We made arrangements with the vet. One of our sons called for an update and suddenly I couldn’t speak. I don’t cry easily. I don’t cry at all. Damn this dog. 


Sir Walter Scott said, “The misery of keeping a dog is his dying so soon. But, to be sure, if he lived for fifty years and then died, what would become of me?” 


It’s different around the house these days. Something’s amiss first thing in the morning and the last thing at night and a hundred times in between. We’re not looking for another dog, we’re still looking for ours. 


She was still warm when we laid her in the ground. Still huggable. I scratched her ears one last time.