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Tag: nature

Reflections on the dog paddle

dogpaddle

Throw a dog who has never gone swimming into a pool and, pretty much instantly, he’ll start moving his four legs in a series of motions we’ve come to call the dog paddle.

Throw a human who has never gone swimming into a pool and — though the possibilities are much higher for helpless flailing about, cussing, drowning, or becoming traumatized for life — he may eventually come to his senses enough to try and work his way back to the side of the pool. He’ll do so not using a butterfly stroke, breast stroke or Australian crawl, but by doing what dogs do.

The dog paddle: It’s seemingly instinctual. It’s primitive. And though we humans mostly outgrow it, it remains sort of the default mode of propelling ourselves through water.

Just how primitive it may be is under investigation by Dr. Frank Fish, a professor of biology at West Chester University who — maybe because of his name, maybe not — has spent most of his career studying how marine mammals swim.

Most recently, he has been studying the swimming motions of dogs, and he has concluded that they are very similar to the motions dogs use in trotting. That explains the  ease with which most dogs can make the transition from land to water — requiring no lessons, and (generally) little coaxing: They basically propel themselves the same way in water as they do on land.

That their stride and strokes are nearly identical is interesting in itself, but Fish thinks it could also help explain how whales and dolphins ended up in the ocean.

Fish subscribes to the theory that marine mammals were intitially four-legged land dwellers who ventured into the water one day (likely dog paddling at first), decided they liked it better there, then evolved into such super swimmers that they no longer needed legs, or, for that matter, land.

underwater dogsFor his research, Fish set up some underwater video cameras and enlisted eight volunteer dogs (including his own) of six different breeds, ranging from Yorkshire terrier to Newfoundland.

He borrowed a swimming pool used to rehabilitate horses at the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing the video, Fish and fellow researchers saw that dogs swim much like they run — with diagonal pairs of legs churning in unison, according to Science Daily. Fish presented his findings at the 2014 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Austin.

While there’s plenty of dog research we’d categorize as a silly waste of time, we find all this pretty intriguing.

First, it reminds us that practice makes perfect — to think that long, long ago there might have been a couple of four-legged dolphins who didn’t know how to swim, hesitating at the edge of the water: “I dunno, it looks dangerous … should we go in?”

Second, in an era when we’re increasingly relying on computers to do our thinking for us, it serves as a warning that those muscles we don’t use can disappear. It raises a host of interesting questions about our future, and our past.

Why is it we humans tend to dog paddle in our first encounters with water? Is that some sort of instinctual nod to a past when we got about on four legs, instead of two?

If cavemen had spent more time at the swimming hole, might we homo sapiens have evolved into something more amphibious?

Given that, might mermaids really exist?

It’s kind of inspiring to think there might have been a day when dolphins, the planet’s most graceful swimmers, were total klutzes in the water — that they started off splashing about with some awkward looking dog paddling and progressed to the point where they could actually leap out of the water.

It reminds us that, maybe, anything is possible with enough hard work — even when it comes to behaviors we might think are genetic and therefore unchangeable. Do we sometimes wear our genes too tightly, and allow them to restrict us from leaping into new things, and getting over old ones?

We wish Fish luck in unraveling how four-legged terrestrial forms evolved into no-legged, finned ones. And as long as the dogs involved in his research are having a good time –  given Fish is letting his own dog be used in the study, we assume they are – we have no problem with them helping the professor prove his point.

In other words: Go Fish!

(Top Photo, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology; bottom photo, from the book Underwater Dogs)

Would you eat your dog to stay alive?

Marco Lavoie.jpg A hiker who was stranded in the Canadian wilderness for nearly three months after a bear destroyed his supplies had to eat his beloved dog to survive.  When Marco Lavoie was found by rescuers on Wednesday he was just days from death and had to be carried to a waiting helicopter.  The 44-year-old had been trapped with little food and survival equipment since July after a bear ransacked his campsite near the start of a planned three-month solo hike.Three days after his dog saved him from a bear in the Canadian wilderness, a stranded hiker ate his German shepherd to save himself from starvation.

Unable to find any food, Marco Lavoie, 44, killed his dog with a rock and ate him, according to the Canadian news agency QMI.

According to news reports, the first words the hiker uttered, after being found close to death by rescuers last week, were: “I want to get a new dog.”

Lavoie — after a bear destroyed his canoe and food supply — was stranded for three months in the wilderness about 500 miles outside Montreal. After the bear attack, he sprained his ankle and was unable to hunt or find any other source of food, according to reports.

Lavoie, an experienced hiker who often spent weeks in the wilderness by himself, was rescued by helicopter on Wednesday. He’d lost 90 pounds and was suffering from hypothermia. He was listed in critical condition in a hospital in Northern Quebec.

Survival expert Andre Francois Bourbeau told the Toronto Sun that Lavoie’s decision to eat his dog was a good one.

“He survived because he made good decisions. Eating his dog was one of them,” said Borbeau, the author of a survival guide. “You have to be desperate, but there’s no shame in (eating the dog),” said Bourbeau. “Hunger squeezes you so much that you would accept food that’s not normally possible,” said Bourbeau. “You can crave slugs and bugs.”

I’m sure there are many others who hold that view, and who’d point out that man – by virtue of that “dominion” he has over other animals, by virtue of being the superior, more developed being, by virtue of his position atop civilized society – has every right to chow down on his dog when trapped in the wilderness with no other options available.

But we don’t find much virtue at all in his actions.

We see more humanity in the dog, who loyally went along on his master’s silly wilderness trip, scared off a bear to protect him, and — despite any hunger pangs he might have been experiencing, despite his master’s hobbled condition – didn’t make a meal of Lavoie.

Something to quack about

A new generation of Woestenducks entered the world Saturday, when the eggs laid by the duck named after my mother cracked open and at least eight — maybe more — ducklings emerged.

I was visiting Arbor Acres, the duck-crazy retirement community where my mother lives, and by the time I left that evening, eight of the eggs had hatched, and four more were about to, according to Bo Bowers, a resident who monitored the nest all day long from a nearby folding chair.

It was Bo who, when the Arbor Acres flock was dwindling last year, ordered 16 ducklings of various breeds, raised them in cages at his home until they were old enough to survive on their own, then released the newcomers — each named after a resident of the community — into the Arbor Acres pond.

The duck named after my mother was the first one to become pregnant. She built herself a nest of pine needles in which to lay her eggs under an azalea bush just outside the window of my mother’s room.

Bo counted 13 eggs in her nest last week, but when he later found one had been stolen and destroyed, apparently by a crow, he saw a need for increased vigilance.

He put a little fence around the nest, then watched and waited all Saturday — getting up from time to time to chase off the geese and other ducks who approached.

Once all the ducklings emerged, Bo gently gathered them, placed them in a box and took them home, ensuring that, for the next six weeks, they won’t become the victims of predators. Those include coyote, fox, crows, herons and at least one good-sized turtle who lives in the pond and, attacking from below, is believed to have pulled a few baby ducklings, bobbing along behind their mothers, into its depths.

On Saturday, I stepped outside my mother’s room and asked Bo how many eggs he was sitting on, and whether he’d like to borrow my tent for the night. Despite my teasing, he let me get close enough to take a picture.

Mother duck sat firmly on her nest, protecting the unhatched eggs, and making sure none of the ducklings ventured off. I was able to see one who poked its head out (that’s it under the hosta leaf, in the bottom right corner of the picture atop this post).

As news of the births spread, the crowd grew outside the window of my mother’s room. Other residents, staff and even a security official showed up to take a look.

Bo was still sitting sentry when I left. One could argue that he’s interfering with that whole “survival of the fittest” thing. But (being not particularly fit) I’ve never been a big fan of that. Besides, Bo, having brought the ducks to Arbor Acres, feels more than a little responsibility for them, and the second generation they are producing. He sees nothing wrong with giving them a headstart — at least until they’re big enough to avoid the snapping jaws of the turtle that lurks beneath.

I agree. Long live the Woestenducks.

Highway Haiku: The bounce of Spring

 

“Some Guy Named Bud?”

Who named the seasons?

Kudos for Spring … We wake up …

And, KABOING,  it’s here

 

(Highway Haikus — poetry composed behind the steering wheel — are a semi-regular feature of Travels With Ace. To read them all, click here.)

A farewell to the Pacific

On our last west coast afternoon, Ace and I were wearily headed back to the motel after spending the day touring Monterey when the beach beckoned.

Knowing our route was going to take us inland, that there’d be no more Pacific Ocean views in our travels, I decided we should soak in all we could before we left. Ace didn’t object.

Marina State Beach was nearby, so I pulled in, only to see a sign that said dogs weren’t allowed. Hang gliders have dibs, it seems. So I headed north, probably less than a mile, and saw two trails leading to the beach. With more than an hour until the sunset, I grabbed a dog-hair covered blanket from the car and we hiked up a sandy path to the highest dune I could find, overlooking the ocean.

Winds had blown its surface smooth, so there was not a track anywhere to be seen, except those we left behind us.

I curled up under the blanket, and the sun came out from behind the clouds, providing some warmth, but not quite enough considering the cold winds that were blowing. I also noticed, even with my eyes closed, that something kept blocking the sun out — not for long periods, like clouds do, but in quick flashes. I opened my eyes to see what it was — a hang glider.

So we can’t hang out on your beach, but you can buzz our’s? How fair is that? I shot him repeatedly, and some of the pictures came out okay.

Then I re-situated myself, head on my camera bag. Ace curled up next to me, then nosed his way under the blanket. I rearranged it so it would cover us both.

I thought a pre-sunset nap was in order, but Ace, after a few cozy minutes, felt otherwise. He decided it was playtime, so he started squirming around under the blanket, then sat up and looked me straight in the eye. I stared back, knowing that he was in perfectly still alert mode and that the slightest movement I made he would interpret as playing.

So I got up, and he ran circles around me. Then he repeatedly charged at me, veering at the last possible second, looping around and coming back again. It’s our version of bullfighting — violence, blood, bull and cape free, though he does sometimes playfully snap at me when he passes by.

After 30 minutes of that, the sun began a quick descent. Ace lay still on the dune — which our playing had turned into a pockmarked mess — and watched with me.

Part of me, a very small part, felt as if I should smooth the dune out before I left, like I should have one of those little sand trap rakes golfers use and return it to its original condition.

The larger part of me said, naaaah, they were joyous divots, and merely temporary ones. Overnight winds would blow the dune smooth again — just as sure as the sun sets over the Pacific.

Steinbeck Country: Monterey or bust

“The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out.”

John Steinbeck’s return to a much-changed Monterey in 1960 was more bitter than sweet — he found it much improved cosmetically, and economically, but its old fishing character and its saltiness were gone.

It wasn’t home anymore.

The town’s transition from a sardine-based economy to a tourist-based one was well underway by then, and while that would ensure that Monterey would continue to thrive, seeing how much had been erased — fish guts and all — returned Steinbeck, a native of the area, to the kind of funk he seemed to teeter on the edge of, periodically, in “Travels with Charley.” 

“My return caused only confusion and uneasiness,” he wrote. “… Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”

If he were to return again today to this spic and span city by the sea, he’d likely be even more displeased. Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are now full-fledged tourist attractions that, while giving nods to the past, no longer have much connection with it.

And, quite possibly, he’d be downright irate over how his name and likeness have become an integral part of the area’s business and tourism marketing.

He probably wouldn’t think much of the way his name has been seized by business operations large and small: Steinbeck Garden Inn, Steinbeck Jewelers, Steinbeck Mortgage, Steinbeck Travel, Steinbeck Credit Union, Steinbeck Country Bail Bonds.

Steinbeck shunned publicity. In fact, he once moved out of the area to avoid it. Maybe he’d be OK with his bust being on display, in Steinbeck Plaza, but to see his face flapping in the breeze on banners above the streets in Cannery Row? I’m guessing he wouldn’t care for that.

The Steinbeck bust is right in the middle of things, and tourists regularly stop and have their photos taken with it. It faces away from the bay, toward the traffic, which probably wouldn’t have been his preference, either. He stares, somewhat solemnly, into the distance. Not even Ace could get him to break into a smile.

Monterey, and the surrounding area makes much of its Steinbeck connection — Steinbeck Country, they call it — from the flatlands of Salinas to the hilly bayfront of Pacific Grove.

It was in the family cottage there, purchased by his father as a family retreat, that Steinbeck wrote several novels and got started on “Of Mice and Men.”

Steinbeck stayed in the cottage with his wife Elaine, as he headed south through California and then back east on the trip that would become “Travels with Charley,”

He visited old haunts, at least those still standing, and old friends, at least those who were still around. Between the people who had died or moved away and the makeover the city had received, Steinbeck felt out of place.

“The place of my origin had changed, and having gone away I had not changed with it. In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me.”

Monterey was a new place. And Carmel, he wrote, ”begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there…They would be instantly picked up as suspicious character and deported over the city line.”

Ace and I visited Cannery Row, then drove by Steinbeck’s former cottage in Pacific Grove to snap a quick photo. We found a nice spot, cliffside, near Lover’s Point, to rest our weary paws.

We walked Fisherman’s Wharf, which once served as the major port on the Pacific and whose fishermen once set off daily on quests for huge whales, and later tiny sardines — until overfishing brought the sardine industry, which thrived during the Depression, to a grinding halt in the 1950s. By 1960, as Steinbeck noted, tourists had become the city’s salvation.

In the 50 years since, the supply of them has not depleted. I’ve visited Monterey  several times, first  in 1987, and a couple more times in the early 1990′s, once for a story at Ford Ord, the once massive military base that was shut down in 1994. This visit, I was surprised to see mostly emptiness on the massive Army base by the sea, built in the 1940s to train soldiers for World War II. And surprised, too, that, given our times, it hadn’t been reopened.

Funny how sardines are limited, but we seem to have an endless supply of wars. Even over-warring doesn’t seem to bring an end to that industry.

Ace and I stayed at Motel 6 near what used to be Fort Ord, in a town called Marina, which I don’t even remember existing when I was last here. But we spent most of our time in Monterey, which, despite all the tourists trappings, despite never being my home, still never fails to touch my soul.

It’s not because of anything man has built; it’s not because John Steinbeck slept here. It’s the pockets of nature that still exist between the seafood restaurants and wax museums and souvenir shops and boutiques. It’s the topography, the way the peninsula stretches into the bay, and the wildlife that, despite all man’s tinkering, still call it home.

To me, that, more than anything else — moreso even than the famous writer — is what still gives salt-free Monterey  character:

The pelicans, the gulls, the seals and sea lions and all the other squirmy sea life you can see, not just in the confines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but in their natural habitat.

If I ever return — and I hope I do — that will be why.

The rise and fall of kudzu dogs

With leaves getting past their peak, turning brown and taking a dive — at least up north — my journey is losing some of its luster.

And I’m losing one of the ways I pass the time while driving: Soon, the kudzu dogs will be gone.

As some of you may remember, I got a little wrapped up in kudzu growing in the shape of dogs while I was traveling through the south. I kept seeing kudzu dogs as I progressed north — kudzu not being strictly a southern phenomenon anymore.

I saw several along the New York State Thruway, but none as good as the green ones I saw down south. The thruway doesn’t lend itself to pulling over — prohibits it, actually, except in the case of emergencies. So I refrained from stopping and taking pictures, figuring “but officer, I saw a kudzu dog,” wouldn’t quite qualify.

Those I did see — kudzu not changing colors as crisply and vibrantly as some other leaves — looked a little dappled and mangy. When the fast growing vines finally call it a season and stop their climbing, the leaves turn brown, making only a quick stop at yellow.

Soon, the vines will be bare, and I’ll have to resort to other ways of passing the drive time — like dictating brilliant thoughts into my voice recorder that, when I listen to them the next day, aren’t that brilliant at all; singing, babbling, talking to the dog, or guessing which part of my back is going to start hurting next.

Soon, all the trees will revert to skeletons, and only the evergreens will be there to enjoy — and you can’t find dogs in evergreens. Can you?

see here