Whatever the etymology of Passchendaele, the little Flemish village sounds to me like “Valley of Passion” in English. In 1917, it was a valley of mud and cordite, steel and fire. The dirt was burned and scoured of life, except where poppies sprouted in early summer. They are ephemeral and irrepressible little plants, nodding with blood red heads where there is little competition on disturbed ground. Poppies came to symbolize the War, then the Wars.The poem was composed in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor who was badly gassed at Passchendaele and succumbed the following year. When I worked in Montreal and visited the library archives at McGill Medical Center I passed a glass cabinet containing the original copy he posted home to his mother. Without the poem as his memorial, I wonder if his name would stir any remembrance of him.

Last week, there were ceremonies to mark the battles that lasted from the end of July to November 1917 around Passchendaele. The centenary was commemorated by somber tributes near Ypres in the presence of Belgian and British royals. The Last Post (equivalent to Taps in America) was heard across the military cemetery, and has been every day for the past hundred years.

The congregation joined the stirring Ode to Remembrance by Laurence Binyon, but when it came to, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” I felt the words hollowed out because everyone who knew people who served in the Great War have all passed away too. Have the fine words become a hackneyed ritual, like a church Creed or national anthem, empty of feeling and soon forgotten until next year? Of course!

Who remembers the names of young men and, indeed, women like Miss Nellie Spindler who was nursing close to the Front? Without names to flesh them they are become ghosts.

I was musing how quickly family memories fade. I was never told a great uncle perished at Passchendaele until I found his name through ancestry research. I only know he was 26 years old and married, but not his rank, regiment or anything else. Since no one ever mentioned him, he never existed for me until recently, and now I am come late and the only one to celebrate his life.

His name was Leonard James Saunders. The name has a sad mirror the other side of the family. The other Leonard died the following year in France, aged 19. There is, however, some memory of him. He lied about his age to the recruiting officer so he could join up with his older brothers. He disappeared in the war, probably atomized, which may be a better fate than terminal trauma in the trenches. It took decades for us to find his name listed at Arras. His mother laid a place at the table for the ghost every day for the rest of her life, because closure is harder without a body or a memorial.

I’m no better than others at remembering, but I know it helps to have something to stir this consciousness, maybe a portrait or if there is none then fabricate a token.

Next Post: Gold and Guns in Paradise

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Celebrating the Dirt Road

Dirt roads are the borderland between flourishing nature and the black sterility of asphalt roads. Gravel roads are dirt roads after they have been improved with crushed stone to make them more resilient to wear and weather. Dirt roads of all kinds are the roots of rural life.

Dirt roads are the rule in poor corners and countries, and road maintenance crews are rare so travelers must use their own ingenuity to conquer the problem of a wash-out after a heavy storm. I remember a journey in the back of a truck with Lani tribesmen in the Highlands of West Papua where a new stream formed by an overnight storm carved a deep crevasse in mud across our route. There was no going round or back so we scouted for a pair of logs to lay over the six foot gap the exact distance between the wheels, and then very gently roll the truck across to firm ground on the other side. For local folk it was a minor annoyance compared to the trials of their day, but I doubt many Westerners would have gotten through without their cell phone.

I believe there is more romance driving on dirt than on tar because you never know what you may encounter or, sometimes, even know where the road will end. For sure, there will be potholes and more wildlife on the way, and in rural America you might not realize when the public road changes to a private driveway until you reach a ranch or mobile home where only invited guests are welcome.

Driving on dirt or gravel in summer is musical, except in the desert, because life still clings to the ground instead of buried under poisonous tar. As the tires are steered along the paired track, stalks of vegetation in the center play a random tune on the underside of the vehicle. The lower its frame to the ground the bigger the orchestra.

I was musing about the profile of a gravel road I know, and why they all look like a Mohican hair-cut with a mid-line sprout separating bald patches on each side.

Why the difference between the green and the gray? Does it need regular traffic to stay that way? The example I was looking at was an old driveway where road and foot traffic passes infrequently, yet it still had two bald lanes running in parallel. It seems that where there’s been a history of traffic the vegetation is suppressed for a long time, maybe even for centuries. That’s why you can still see some places in the Plains where wagon trains went out West, and old logging trails are visible in the forests of Appalachia.

Another explanation for the difference is drainage because the grassy center probably retains more rainwater than the smooth camber where it runs off quickly. That maybe so, but it doesn’t explain how the difference started in the first place. Besides, I found a flattened area where vehicles used to turn all over the place and it was bald, apart from a few miniature patches of grass where growth had stalled.

The real explanation now seems obvious, especially to a gardener who avoids trampling the ground and keeps the soil particles loose with a fork and hoe. For even if a road is no longer taken, over its history the weight of passing traffic compresses dirt and stones under the wheels, but rarely on the crown of the road which stays more porous so plants can put down roots to reserves of water and oxygen in the gaps. Dirt roads are truly about roots and routes.


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Testicles and Neuticles or Other Jewels

For someone who has spent a career in reproductive endocrinology there’s a surprising dearth of stories about gonads in my blog. I am now correcting that impression.

This post was prompted by the memory of a visit to our former veterinary clinic for Ben’s checkup. One of the techs who examined him wanted to show us her own Golden and went out to retrieve her dog from the kennel. It had that lovely nature redolent of its breed with a double coat of hair and brushy tail. He was magnificent in every way, except one. His long bones were so elongated he looked like he was walking on stilts. The next time I saw a Golden like him I snapped a picture, but it wasn’t an extreme example.

Hind legs like a jack rabbit

Both owners told me their dogs were neutered around 6 months of age. Many female dogs are also spayed before puberty, and the same for cats, but I believe it’s too young when they are still immature.

There are four reasons for castrating a dog before puberty. 1) It’s good for society because it avoids breeding unwanted animals that may suffer or become feral and terrorize the neighborhood and wildlife. 2) It’s good for the vet because surgery is easier when the gonads are tiny. 3) It’s good for the pet owner because it reduces socially embarrassing mounting and marking behavior, or hounding females in heat. 4) And it’s good for the animal, or is it?

Among many impacts on the animal’s body and behavior, testosterone in males has a double effect on the long bones of limbs and ribs, as in humans. At low levels in juveniles, testosterone stimulates growth zones near the ends of bones (epiphyses), and when it rises to adult levels epiphyses fuse to prevent further elongation, and the bones are then considered mature. But if levels remain low because the testes are surgically removed the long bones continue growing past the age when they would normally stop. The final stature of the body is partly dictated by the trajectory of testosterone, and the same for estrogen in females. Without his sex hormones, Ben would become a canine eunuch.

That’s why a girl who has her first period early, at say age 6 to 8, tends to become a shorter adult because her bones have matured prematurely by estrogen. Hence, no more than 3-4” in height can be expected after menarche. Conversely, delayed puberty gives more time for growing, although sex hormones are only part of the story. Testosterone has the same effects in boys, although less apparent because there is no stage of puberty as marked as the onset of menstruation.  But I digress…


Ben is an adult dog approaching two years old and still intact, yet we have no intention of breeding him. His day of the knife is postponed, and our vet agrees with the physiological rationale that his body should experience testosterone at full throttle before we cut his engine.

Ben looks like classic Goldens you see at the Westminster or Crufts Dog Show, where every competitor must be intact to qualify for show. They have shorter and stouter legs than either of the examples I mentioned, although it’s hard to compare pictures because of his shaggy coat. He doesn’t need to be “fixed” urgently because he’s not aggressive or horny and does not roam willy-nilly looking for females. I am sure he’s a better-looking and healthier specimen for still being intact. The delay helps weight control and avoids extra strain on bones and joints, but if it raises his risk of prostate growth a tad in old age the disease is unlikely to be malignant, as in men. But his time will come, and he won’t be the only family member feeling sad that day. It feels unkind to put our best friend under the knife for mostly social reasons, and some owners feel so guilty they replace the testes with prostheses.

A pair of neuticles made of medical-grade silicone fill the vacant space to give the impotent the presence of potency. The swollen scrotal sac placates an owner’s conscience, but I wonder if it can restore a dog’s pride?

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Yellowstone Opens the Doors of Perception

While I was sauntering through woods I mused how quickly the intensity of first impressions fade to extinction. How the frisson of a new place or a face we want to sustain with its original freshness never burns so brightly afterwards, like the turning down of a dimmer switch except the hand that turns it is unconscious.

I was in the backwoods of Montana last week at dawn. I was told to drive past the last ranch on a gravel track to where it peters out at the edge of a lodgepole pine forest that girdles a snow-capped mountain. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is outside the Park and a better place for the only big beast on my list that I hadn’t seen inside. I followed the directions of a local man to signs posted for grizzly habitat.

I left the car to tramp into a dew-soaked meadow where there were wild forget-me-nots, bluebells and lupines in bloom, and crouching among the sagebrush there was a kind of golden sunflower. A Painted Lady flitted around, confused by the choice of flowers to suck for nectar. There was a powerful fragrance of pine resin breathing out of the trees, and it involuntarily triggered a memory flash of another forest walk long ago. The place was so silent only the ringing in my ears kept me from mental numbness. I stood soaking in the scene and scent for several minutes before starting along a forest trail used by riders in the fall who come to hunt elk and mule deer.

This is not a prologue to a terrifying bear story. Sorry! It was the hope of seeing one of those old men of the woods that brought me there, and I was alert because without rummaging in my backpack I wasn’t sure if in the dark cabin to avoid disturbing my wife I might have brought a can of hair spray instead of bear spray.

Ecstatic absorption in a scene obliterates other thoughts and pushes away anxieties, if only for a few minutes. I remember I had the sense of being naturally high before, not always on nature. It is a mysterious emotion of pure being the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart called is-ness, and the best word to capture my feelings for the object is love. As for the bears, I never saw or heard them, and yet wouldn’t exchange that lone stroll in the woods for lying longer in bed. But those feelings are becoming strangers as the days pass. The images, fragrance and silence faded as soon as I started back along the path to the ordinary day.

It’s tempting to wish to live permanently on the heights of exaggerated sensibility, to continue to enjoy the fullness of being in the woods, a new home, a new lover, and all those other special moments that are fleeting. But our minds quickly shut down inputs from our senses, which I suppose protects us from too much distraction in the business of normal life, or even from going mad.  Maybe that’s what T.S. Eliot meant by, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Most of the time we look and do not see; we listen and do not hear; we breath and do not smell. That’s my experience. My brain diminishes the world, casting aside unnecessary details I only notice when they are fresh, making it less extraordinary and the experience of being alive less astonishing. Familiar stimuli quickly slip from the mind into a chasm of unconsciousness. The aroma of barbecue fades before the end of the meal, the stale smell of tobacco smoke is not so offensive by the end of the taxi-cab journey. I don’t notice dust on my bookshelf unless a visiting mother-in-law holds up an accusing finger she wiped across its surface. It takes concentrated effort to focus on the same object for long. I mostly achieved it when I was scanning specimens for rare cell types under a microscope, and when I used to draw and paint and had to scrutinize the subject for the finest details.

When the dimmer switch is turned down and our senses are no longer in rapt attention, the mind draws in on itself to internal thoughts and memories. I don’t think it is only introverts who will admit this. l can walk a familiar path without much consciousness of my surroundings, and am sometimes so absorbed in thought (including plans for the next blogpost) that if my dog didn’t steer me away with her leash I could walk into a tree or lamppost.

I wonder if my dog lives a much more sensate, much less introspective life than I do. Both predator and prey animals must remain alert to their environment to capture nuances that help them find food and to survive. Humans are relatively liberated from this urgency because we learned to provide more security for ourselves by controlling our environment and sharing responsibility.

Perhaps early hominids engaged the sensory world more acutely and more like animals, but it seems likely that big differences in natural sensibility exist between modern people. I doubt if this territory has gotten much attention from researchers because it is subjective, but I think artists like van Gogh and poets like Blake had this gift.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, experimented with mescaline from the peyote cactus and with LSD to induce psychedelic experiences for mimicking the experiences that inspired William Blake’s art. He wrote about the intensity of visions and red-hot poker plants in his book The Doors of Perception, which became a handbook for early hippies. But drugs provide an artificial and forced escape without the fullness of an experience that comes free from nature and empties the mind for liberated senses to fill. Coming out of the internal cavern spontaneously to experience a “high” in the woods was so much more rewarding for being rare, taken by surprise, and not bent under pharmacology.

Next Post: Eunuch Dog on Stilts




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Fences, Neighbors and Owls

A pair of new neighbors moved into our woodlot this spring. We hear them calling on and off during the day while they are resting until they fly off for night work. They repeatedly chatter to each other: “Hoo, hoo, who cooks for you?”

Owl pellets

I am curious about their diet. Scratching in the ground cover under their favorite tree, I looked for pellets regurgitated from indigestible food. I found several about an inch or two long and floated them in a bowl of water until they were soft for tearing to shreds between sharp points. The solid matter settled to the bottom of the bowl for identification, first by naked eye and then with the low-power lens of a dissecting microscope. I hoped there wouldn’t be evidence of small birds in their diet because we had two broods of bluebirds fledging from one nestbox and also a family of titmice from another box that might be tempting tidbits.

They were mostly eating insects. There was a jumble of legs up to the size of large cricket’s, as well as the hard chitinous protein of beetle elytra. I found the skull and femur of a vole. No feathers. Phew!

Jumble of undigested material

They often roost in a hackberry tree like a romantic pair perched side-by-side. To make our yard their base for months in springtime surely means they have family plans, or even a hidden brood. I guessed they had a nest in an old maple tree whose heartwood was rotted out to form an entrance hole nearly 20 feet up. The sticks and limp greenery poking out of the hole confirmed something was living there, but they never showed themselves.

Considering how most wildlife scoot off at first sight of us, regarding humans as arch-enemies or super-predators, owls are remarkably trusting. I can walk to within seven paces without disturbing them any more than rotating their heads through 180° to watch me go. But I make concessions to win their trust, meaning I saunter past looking nonchalantly and avoiding abrupt motion. I pretend not to notice them and never look them in the eye as a hunter does.

It is a moving experience to build a friendly relationship with a wild and beautiful creature. People rarely come into conflict with owls and they are beneficial for farmers and gardeners. People love them and we are introduced to the wise bird in story books and cartoons at early ages. But it wasn’t always so. In folk-lore they were depicted in a superstitious light and as harbingers of death, probably because they are beasts of the night.

Owls have few friends apart from us. Prey animals loathe them, of course, but so do other birds in our yard, regarding them in the same way as they do red-shouldered hawks. It’s an injustice when they haven’t committed crime against their feathered relatives. Whenever there is a tremendous cacophony of mocking birds, titmice, and blue jays outside I know the owls are in for a mobbing, and soon enough a murder of crows arrives to accuse our friends, who look like two thieves crossed on a horizontal branch. “Murder” is an apt collective noun for crows, whose bills are as sharp as spear points.  Shouting to scare them away is wasted effort. Crows are so smart they know the difference between a man carrying a gun and empty hands. Owls are not dumb and know when to retire from the bullies into dense cover.

Barred owl in our persimmon tree

As night workers, owls have eyes and ears for perceiving objects too faint for us to see and too slight to hear. I guess they long to open their pupils at the end of day after they were stopped down like camera lenses in daylight, and if birds have any sense of time I expect they look forward to when the yard falls quiet in the gloaming.

I remembered another amazing adaptation for their nightly patrols when I found a flight feather where they were preening. It was barred white and brown for camouflage (they were Barred Owls), but I was more interested in the leading edge because the vane was brushed into a delicate comb. Uniquely in owls, it reduces turbulence from air passing over the feather to muffle sound and perhaps even raise the pitch above the threshold for prey to hear. It “comes with gossamer softness,” wrote a birder with a poetic heart.

Since this post is about neighbors I was recalling some years ago when I had a row with the man next door after I erected a fence along our property line. He didn’t want it in his line of sight and didn’t know it was for good cause, because “good fences make good neighbors.” Our owls, like Mr. X, are no respecters of fences, but we are getting along with them and welcome their trespassing.

Next Post: Hail Yellowstone



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