Monday, January 30, 2006

Groundhog Day In Congress and in Church

The roots of Groundhog Day go back to the Bible and perhaps even earlier. The Romans considered February [the name comes from februa, to purify] as "a time of cleansing in preparation for a fresh start" because the month comes halfway between December 21, the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and March 21 (the Spring or Vernal Equinox).

The connection to the Bible is that in Hebrew tradition mothers were required to purify their children in the temple 40 days after giving birth. Mary, mother of Jesus, purified Jesus on Feb. 2nd, 40 days after Jesus's birth, establishing the tradition of the "Feast of the Presentation."

The early Christians, working off of an earlier Roman tradition, associated February 2nd with the lighting of candles (i.e. "the bringing of new light") and established "Candlemas" as a Christian tradition.

A Candlemas rhyme was developed to mark the occassion of the turning of the seasons, and the rhyme suggested that Candlemas itself was a kind of weather predictor:

"If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again."
Somewhere along the way the weather-predictive power of Candlemas came to be associated with badgers. No one is quite sure why, but it is probably due to pre-Christian Germanic traditon that associated the romantic roamings of this large weasel with the start of a slowly lengthening day.

In any case, when German and Dutch immigrants came to Eastern North America there were no badgers to be found, and so they transposed their badger tradition to the groundhog, which also burrowed in the ground and which also came out of hibernation at approximately the same period of time.

In 1887, Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit Newspaper in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania came up with the idea of a "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club" as a kind of boosterism for his ill-begotten city (the name Punxsutawney means "place of sand flies").

It was a crazy idea, but perseverence paid off. Over the course of several years, story and ritual were heaped up, and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club stoked the flames of a myth, claiming that "Punxsutawney Phil" was a legendary groundhog that never died and could predict the weather for six weeks in advance.

In December of 2004, the 100-year-old civic boosterism of Clymer H. Freas came to its latest fruition when Congressman John Peterson (R-Pa.) managed to snake $100,000 in Federal funding out of Conggress for a "Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center".

The "grand opening" of the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center will be Groundhog Day, 2006, but (you will be relieved to hear) it already has a home on the Web. Just >> Click here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fox Hunting as Cultural Icon

Foxhunting is currently leading a government poll to find England’s greatest cultural icon.

Icons: A Portrait of England is a new scheme designed to paint a virtual portrait of the country by exploring the most cherished items of English culture online. It also aims to encourage debate amongst members of the public as to what defines England. The two-year £1 million project has been commissioned by Culture Online, part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The directors had drawn up a list of 12 icon suggestions including Stonehenge, the Routemaster bus and the FA Cup as English icons. But it is foxhunting which has provoked the biggest response.

TO VOTE in Support of Fox Hunting >> CLICK HERE

Monday, January 09, 2006

Albino Raccoon

When 88-year old Lyle Gleason of Bartlett, TN looked in his backyard he found something in box trap he had never seen before -- a true albino raccoon. The chances of a raccoon being an albino are estimated at one out of 750,000, and most albino raccoons do not reach maturity because of predation.

Gleason has moved every other raccoon he has caugh to a swamp about 10 miles away, but released this special one back into his backyard. “I hope I catch him again,” he said.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

If My Head was Not Screwed to My Neck ...

Have you ever gotten out to a farm and realized you were short a piece of gear? That's what happened wth me when I got out to the first farm to pull the raccoon that I found in denning in the feed bunker last weekend -- I had forgotten to put my pole snare back on my pack after washing it off. Damn. My only hope of moving that raccoon is to snare it as it exits a crack in the side wall.

A bit frustrated, I hit my next farm which has more hedge. We were only about 200 yards down the first hedge when we found a dead fox. It had been shot my a deer hunter. What a waste. I had seen another fox run over near the entrance to another farm I hunt. This is all very bad, as our fox season is short and there's not much time for more fox to find this empty territory.

I crossed a creek and Sailor followed, but Mountain stayed on the othe side and did not cross. I finally put down my pack and tools and crossed back over the creek to locate her. Sure enough, I found her working a hole. I pulled her to see what was inside and sure enough it was red with what looked like a bit of white on the tail.

Yahoo! It was just at that point that my "fox" turned around a bit and I saw what it really was -- a large orange feral cat!

I pulled Mountain off and let it bolt out. It promptly ran about 20 feet and then shot up a tree!

I carried Mountain back across the stream, and looked back just in time to see the cat fall out of the tree she had climbed. So that's how they get down!

We found a possum farther up the top hedgerow, and I dug a short muddy hole down to the dog. The possum was slightly injured, and I terminated it.

My camera ran out of batteries after two shots of the wet possuum, and when I got back to the car I realized I had forgotten my wallet as well as my snare pole. Lucky for me I had plenty of gas and could actually get home, which I decided to do before something else went wrong.

My mother used to say I would forget my head if it was not attached to my neck, so I don't think this is early-stage alzheimer's.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Tracking and Checking in Winter

Above are a nice set of raccoon tracks found on the farm last weekend. In winter tracks are more commonly found that at other times of the year, as the ground tends to stay wetter longer, the mud has higher viscosity due to lower temperature, and some animals are making longer forays looking for food and mates.

One of my favorite things to do in winter snow is to simply track deer -- select a set of foot prints in fresh snow, and follow them through the brush regardless of where they go. I have found myself in parts of small forests I otherwise did not know existed -- little drops that shelter deer during the day, edges near fences that lead straight to low spots where the deer can cross, evergreen honeysuckle breaks that serve as sources of food and bedding, old buildings on the edge of properties that serve as wind breaks, etc. Deer densities can be very high, and yet these animals do a marvelous job of staying out of sight during the day. The trick with deer is to simply track them in snow until you understand their routines -- where they lay up during the day, where they feed at night, and how they move from one location to another to stay out of sight. I know of no other way to do this than to get off the paths and track then in very fresh snow.

A blank hole on a warm day. We'll be back ...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sailor Back in Action

I took Sailor out to the farms on Sunday -- her first day back at work since she got disemboweled back in November from a piece of falling roof metal. She has repaired very nicely and is back to her old perfect-health self.

We worked this possum from a hedge, and then Sailor bolted a nice big raccoon out of the wall of a feed bunker after we could find no fox to ground (it was better than 50 degrees out).

I was a little surprised about the raccoon, which exited out of an impossibly small crack in the top of the concrete and then leaped towards me -- I think it did not see me, but with rabies as thick as we have around here (amost all of it in the raccoon population), I am careful.

I will have to deal with the raccoon I suspect -- he's bunked only about 100 feet from a chicken pen. The chicken pen itself is undermined on several sides by groundhog tunnels. I have removed the groundhogs from there, but the tunnels run under the battery shed and I cannot fill them in very well, and I notice one of them is open again. What the farmer needs to do is squirt liquid milk cow manure into those holes, which will then dry up up solid as a rock, but all he has are a beef cattle and it's a totally different manure. Time for a raccoon rodeo!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Fufus and Fidos

Winner of the 2000 Westminster Best in Show award

Fufus & Fidos
March 20, 2000, National Review by Jonah Goldberg

New York City -- Suddenly, John was the favorite to win. “Johnny” could switch from taciturn to playful in an instant, but he was — above all things — a fierce competitor, a purebred warrior like his father and grandfather before him. Only months earlier, he’d been written off as a long shot whose few wins were undeserved, establishment-bucking flukes. Now all that stood between him and the brass ring was the “son”: the pedigreed scion of bluebloods dripping with the sense of entitlement that comes with the blessing of the establishment. The son had never suffered, never sacrificed. His victories came easily. Throughout 1999, the pundits had pegged him as the obvious favorite. Still, Johnny, the outsider, had an uncanny appeal. “There’s just something about Johnny that everybody loves. I can’t explain it,” said one experienced observer.

John McCain versus George W. Bush? A good guess. But while other journalists were eating Krispy Kremes on the Straight Talk Express, I was wading deep into the World Series of doggiedom, the 124th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held at Madison Square Garden. This is the second-oldest annual “sporting event” in America, only one year younger than the Kentucky Derby. This contest was supposed to be between “Johnny,” a.k.a. Hi-Tech Johnny J of Boxerton, and “Treson,” a.k.a. Lake Cove That’s My Boy. Hi-Tech Johnny is a boxer, and Treson is a standard poodle. More accurately, he is the poodle-the “winningest dog of all time of any breed,” according to Sports Illustrated.

One hopes the analogy to presidential politics will not hold, since both dogs were bested by a third contender in a stunning upset. The winner, the Al Gore of the race, was a springer spaniel appropriately named “Shameless” — which is especially ironic, because many of the dogs seem so embarrassed to be here in the first place.

As you walk through the backstage grooming area, you see maybe a hundred dogs standing on what appear to be small ironing boards. The longer-haired breeds — Pekinese, Shih Tzus, sheepdogs, etc. — are so covered in special dog hair-rollers that, at first glance, the beasts appear to be under attack by bright blue grasshoppers. One bearded collie being assaulted by a hairdryer has his bangs bundled into a rhino horn of fur; he looks up at me with an expression of intense humiliation. A caged German shepherd is in even worse straits: “Please,” his eyes plead, “kill me now.”

It’s not an easy life, and one would forgive the pups for mounting an insurrection. But the dogs are invariably better behaved than the humans at the show. The event is crowded, loud, and thoroughly disorienting. There is a great deal of commerce: Dog-food cookbooks, dog-motif jewelry (“The Fine Arf Collection”), and even canine self-help manuals (“When Pets Come Between Partners”) are hawked at stalls lining every wall. In the area where the dogs are put on display, thousands of people push, poke, shove, and shriek. In this tense, almost gladiatorial locker-room atmosphere, owners and groomers can get pretty testy.

But-among the canines, at least-there’s no biting, and no dogfights. Sure, there is the occasional excretory “accident,” but most dogs wait politely in long lines with their owners to use one of the sandboxes designated for that sort of business. In fact, to a dog-lover like me, it is precisely the un-canine nature of the event that is so disconcerting. Walking amidst these almost Prozac-calm descendants of wolves, one starts to worry; the dogs are almost too well behaved. Is that golden retriever with the ribbons in his hair suffering from what the Marxists would call “false consciousness”? Or is he just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to spark the mutiny? “Canines! Revolution! Throw off your leashes!” Perhaps not. But there is something odd about 2,600 dogs crammed into a room over two days, without a single recorded instance of a chewed shoe or nipped ankle. Indeed, this passivity reinforces the misgivings many dog-lovers have about the world of dog shows. Westminster rates dogs according to American Kennel Club guidelines, which judge appearance, not behavior; a champion dog is simply the one that best conforms to the picture in the guidebook. In other words, the “best” Labrador retriever at Westminster may not even know how to swim, let alone retrieve, but his ears will be the right distance from his nose. This is why, for example, Border-collie breeders fought tooth and nail against having their dogs recognized by the AKC. From the day they’re born, Border-collie puppies herd anything that moves — tennis balls, ducks, humans. Now, science has proven that a great deal of dog behavior is genetic. Pointers, for example, don’t necessarily need to be taught to point. (This fact of science is unappealing to liberal dog-lovers; when I made this point in another magazine, dozens of irate readers wrote in to accuse me of being an advocate of eugenics.)

Many Border-collie breeders feared, and fear, that breeding their dogs according to a standard derived solely from appearance instead of behavior could very easily result in dogs that look great but are useless for herding. Border collies remain the unparalleled champions in the burgeoning world of agility trials, contests that measure a dog’s intelligence and athletic ability; breeding for looks might attenuate the breed’s natural gifts.

But there is a second objection, which even many Westminster breeders will (secretly) endorse: The horrible dogs tend to win. “It’s always the dogs with the ribbons in their hair that win,” says the breeder of a big floppy hound. Indeed, since each dog is judged against the standard of its own breed-is the resemblance of Dachshund A to the Platonic ideal of Dachshunds greater than that of Rottweiler B to the ├╝ber-Rottweiler?-the judging couldn’t be more subjective. “It’s all politics here,” a veteran dog journalist confirms. “The judges don’t like hounds.” Indeed, a cursory study of the statistics shows that doggy dogs-the kind of dogs that catch Frisbees, drink out of toilets, or appear in dogs-playing-poker paintings-do not fare well at Westminster. The judges prefer small, malleable, and exotically groomable dogs — the ones that are not only small enough to be carried in a purse, but also behave as if they belonged there. Last year, for example, the runaway winner was a papillon, a homely, twin-ponytailed dog with a face that looks as if it had been pushed in by a pastry chef’s thumb. The dog weighs less than an overripe honeydew and has fewer uses.

One does not want to traffic in stereotypes, but it remains a fact that as one walks from what amounts to the big-dog section to the small-dog section, the number of men practicing alternative lifestyles seems to rise dramatically. Indeed, one gets the sense that for men and women alike, many of these dogs take the place not so much of children, but of Barbie dolls. Treson, to take a notorious example, is a classic dog-as-dress-up-toy. This legendary “winningest” poodle is shaved down to his death gray skin on legs, rump, and snout. What fur he has is largely in snowball-shaped puffs that look almost glued-on, except above his eyes, where there is a shelf of white hair crowned with a huge white Afro.

“Westminster is pretty much a competition among hairdressers,” snorts a disapproving veteran. The assumption permeating Westminster is that these are the best dogs in the world, which prompts the obvious question, “Best for what?” Breeding dogs for their appearance is a relatively recent phenomenon. The original Westminster Dog Shows were contests for gentlemen and their hunting dogs; winning owners received pearl-handled revolvers. It looks as if dog-show culture is on a track parallel to that of the culture as a whole, demonstrating yet again the pertinence of the maxim, “It shouldn’t happen to a dog.”