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.


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?