A Dog’s DNA, Part 2

Photo credit: umseas on VisualHunt / CC BY


In Part 1 of this blog series, I considered the state of things before receiving our dog Ethan’s DNA test kit results, including some guesses as to what those results might show.

A reminder of why we care, whether or not we should: “Dogs vary in size, shape, color, coat length and behavior more than any other animal” (Weber Shandwick as cited in ScienceDaily, 2008). As our best friends and family members, dogs’ unique physical variations naturally pique our curiosity about which parts come from which sources.

In this post, I reveal the results and discuss the aftermath of our dog’s DNA analysis. Some things haven’t changed, and some will never be the same.


DNA Denial

They don’t believe it. They say it can’t be. They’re incredulous about what lies beneath the surface—the surface features of our dog, that is. Reasons in the unbelievers for their disbelief may involve the following:

  1. Aversion to a fact due to prior negative associations
  2. The intractable human tendency to believe only our eyes
  3. Simple unmet expectations

Then, there is the plain fact that genetics is a complex science with equally complex social and cultural implications.

But what exactly is so incredible? And am I a true believer by contrast?

  • Unbelievable: The breeds represented in—and missing from—our dog’s DNA.
  • Me: Ever the skeptic but open to possibilities. (Just see this blog’s About me page.)

In short, “I want to believe,” but like Fox Mulder of The X-Files, my fatal flaw would be to believe that “the truth is out there” when, actually, the truth that matters most is in here, in me, when it comes to my family, which includes my dog.

Facts are not truth, and especially not absolute “Truth.” They can only inform–and only if we let them. These particular dog-related facts are the result of scientific research, the genomic analysis of the DNA from my dog’s saliva.

And it’s no easy science for us lay people to grasp. From terms like “genotype,” “locus,” “phenotype,” and “allele” to phenomena “wolfiness,” “paternal haplotype,” “genetic age,” and the diverse functions genes have in an organism, it’s a lot to unpack. DNA analysis piles on thousands of data and facts to sift through if we have any hope of reaching some larger truth that relies on it.

“Ethan, what are you?”

The bottom-line fact for my family is that our dog isn’t what any of us thought he was. Sure, he’s still a dog and a best friend. But his breed make-up was definitely a surprise to everyone from the immediate family to dog-owning friends to his foster mom to our dog trainers. (I haven’t informed the vet yet.)

But really, I’m not so distant in my reactions from the more staunch non-believers. I look at my dog, and I look at these breed photos, and I think, “I don’t see any of that in there.” I can’t blame them for doubting the science; I am not without doubt. But then, the results are not without holes, remaining questions, and uncertainty, anyway.

We thought we knew . . . some things.

A fact and a truth as old as dirt is that appearances can be deceiving. The fascinating thing is how many different kinds of applications that truth really has. It’s not just our eyes that lie to us, though. It’s also precedent, accepted practice, tradition, conventional wisdom, emotional denial, and the assumptions of what we thought was “common” knowledge.

Specifically, the precedents and traditions that form convention tell us what certain dog breeds are supposed to look like. Then, common belief tells us we can identify mixed breeds by using our eyes and memories to link aspects of physical appearance that we see with our understanding of breed types.

From novice dog owner to seasoned dog trainer to veterinarian, dog shelter manager, and animal control warden, people interested in canines tend to think we know which breeds are most likely present in a dog of mixed breed heritage simply by looking at the creature before us.

But, man, are we wrong. So. Very. Wrong.

No one likes being wrong, even when we claim we’re only guessing. We like to think we’re well qualified to chime in, even if we’re not quite experts. We like to think our contribution is helpful, informative, unique perhaps, even if we give it off the cuff. We like to be right, and we certainly hate admitting when we’re wrong.

In light of our stubbornness, I think I need to say it again so we have some time to get used to the idea: We’re frequently and very much wrong when it comes to identifying dog breed mixes by sight alone–without registration papers or knowledge of a dog’s both male and female parentage. Part 3 of this series will explain exactly why this is so.

Science can provide answers, but it can also raise more questions than it answers. The journey to discovering my dog’s breed ancestry is one such case. Like it or not, the issues take some unpacking, along with a healthy dose of patience and humility.

So, as a matter of curiosity and entertainment, and maybe some education and insight, in this post, I’d like to share our dog’s DNA results, our reactions to them, and some reflections on their implications. First, a caveat.

Three Key Points

I believe it’s important to keep three key points in mind while digesting all of this.

1. Time, tradition, and cultural rituals have shaped and fixed our conceptions of dogs, dog breeds, and their relationships with people and each other.

2. Prejudice for or against certain dog breeds, like human-focused prejudice, has some basis in fact, some in cultural tradition, and some in outright misconception influenced in large part by pop culture stereotypes and the media. Deny it if you wish, but none of us is free of harboring some kind of racism–whether our focus is human, canine, floral. . . .

3. The meaning of anything can be highly personal, and meaning should be informed by more than one factor in life–such as reason, emotion, dreams and goals, research, study, established scientific fact, the mysteries of nature science has yet to uncover, and the practical demands of living.

With these thoughts in our back pocket, let’s consider the results and implications of one dog’s breed mix analysis and other DNA details, as well as my family’s and my reactions to them.

My Guesses

If you read Part 1, you’ll see a bit of conjecture as to my dog Ethan’s possible breed ancestry. Although I labeled it a “hypothesis,” that’s really a misnomer, suggesting a degree of scientific method I did not apply. Instead, what I’ll now call my “guesses” from Part 1 came down to the following:

"If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients 
going into the oven that made my dog, it would include 
but perhaps not be limited to:
Vizsla
Labrador retriever
German shepherd
springer spaniel or Brittany
Doberman
Dachshund
and some terrier blend

"If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, 
it would include one of the following:
Vizsla, German shepherd, or
Vizsla, Labrador retriever, or
Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)"

DNA Analysis Genetic Breed Results

Here are the actual DNA breed results from Embark.

"Mixed Breed

24.2% Rottweiler ["Rotti"]
24.1% American Pit Bull Terrier ["Pittie"]
17.4% German Shepherd Dog ["GSD"]
6.2% Doberman Pinscher ["Dobie"]
28.1% Supermutt

"What's in that Supermutt? There may be small amounts of DNA 
from these distant ancestors:
Collie
Golden Retriever
Boxer
Chow Chow"

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! It is fascinating. The only parts not included in the public profile are Research (additional surveys we took about Ethan), Health, and DNA Relatives.

Initial Reactions?

Number 1: Surprise.

Ethan, December 2017

The biggest surprise? I think it’s a tie between his having no measurable trace of Hungarian Vizsla and the prominence of Rottweiler and pit bull in his blood.

Some of my guesses involved the right idea: GSD, retriever, Dobie, some terrier due to size. But actually, the Rotti, though stocky like the rest of the identified breeds, is medium-sized, too.

Nevermind that we originally set out to look for a Vizsla as our pet dog.

Nevermind that the rescue organization we adopted Ethan from advertised him as a “Vizsla/Lab mix.”

Nevermind that everywhere we go at least one person asks, “Is that a Vizsla?”

Nevermind that we’ve been answering everyone with “Yes, we think he has some Vizsla in him.”

He’s not a Vizsla. Not even close. He may not even have any trace of the breed in him at all, and we’ll probably never know one way or the other. Bye-bye, Vizsla fantasy.

Family Reactions

Number 2: Alarm.

For some of my family members, learning that all these powerful breeds historically used for guarding, protection, police work, attack, and fighting come together somehow in our dog was more than a surprise. It was alarming. Their images of the Rottweiler, pit bull, German shepherd, and Doberman are not of friendliness, safety, or even “goodness” in a dog. These breeds, at least some of the time, are seen as mean, vicious, predatory killers, barely controlled by their owners and often used for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood, the media, and traditional breeding have all played a role in forming this stigma. Although the guarding nature of these dogs, such as the Doberman, can be used for comic relief, the premise is always that the breed is formidable, imposing, even monstrous. Films like Up and ’80s TV shows like “Magnum P.I.” play up the alpha dog image of the Doberman, the pet of the eccentric, wealthy elite and the animal antagonist that terrorizes the hero in the story. 

Rottweilers can be associated with the junk yard and cartoons where the dog is tasked with keeping out pests and trespassers. In the ’80s cult classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Bueller family Rotti rips the trespassing principal to shreds in his meddlesome pursuit of the truant Ferris.

As the breed most commonly used for K-9 police units, German shepherds sniff out drugs, guns, bombs, and dead bodies, and run down and subdue crime suspects. High energy, fierce looking, and powerful, they’re the bad asses of the law enforcement sector.

Little needs to be said about the nasty reputation of the pit bull, though, like all these others, it is grossly misrepresentative and extremely unfair. See the more fitting profiles of the pit bull in a later section and at the bottom of this post.

None of these dogs is portrayed as an obedient sporting, sprightly terrier, or lap-dog toy breed character. They’re not seen as playmates or accessories. They’re seen as dangerous and downright scary–creatures, not dogs, always to be avoided. 

Influence of Personal Experience

It doesn’t help that my parents have negative associations with at least one of these breeds. My brother was bit in the face by a German shepherd at age 5, and my mother for one has been afraid of them ever since. My mother-in-law was bitten by a dog, though not one of these breeds. My father-in-law doesn’t like pit bulls at all, and he’s not alone, but he has a special bond with our dogs and other pets any time they interact.

While not necessarily afraid of them, my father was the one who pointed out how our culture has conditioned us to fear these and other specific breeds. People who do not currently own and never owned dogs will more easily tend to fall victim to those stereotypes in their interactions with dogs. My husband did not grow up with dogs as I did, so he is more tentative around less familiar dogs than I tend to be, but only mildly so.

Number 3: Rejection.

Even after I attempted to explain the results, my in-laws emphatically declared, half in jest, “We don’t care what the results say. We’re saying he’s a Vizsla.” I had nowhere to go from there, so I accepted it with a smile and a “Fair enough.”

If the details or reasons for the results don’t matter to others, you can’t change that; nor can you imbue anyone with curiosity they just don’t have. We all have our priorities of what to focus on. But I can try to satisfy my own curiosity, and I wanted to try to understand. So, since I started this blog series, I decided to do my best to bring it to some meaningful resolution.

My Personal Reactions

Number 4: Confusion.

Absence of the Vizsla breed in my dog, though admittedly a little disappointing, hasn’t been the main issue for me. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with these breeds in the mix. With the influence of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer TV show, reading about raising and training dogs, and substantial lay research about dogs in general, I’ve long held positive views of just about every breed of dog. So I don’t carry the same degree of typical prejudices held by others.

For me, it’s simply hard to see in my dog what the DNA results claim about his breed mix and the likeliest associated character traits and behaviors.

There are important scientific and societal reasons for this that you won’t want to miss later on. See Part 3.

Meanwhile, let’s get to know the breeds in Ethan’s genetic mix.

Enter Research.

The Rottweiler (24.2%)

After popping in and out of all the linked question marks on Embark’s results package, one of the first additional things I did was find out more about Rottweilers.

Looking for similarities primarily, as opposed to differences, I discovered I could see some Rottweiler traits and behaviors in our Ethan. These include:

  1. intelligence–Ethan learns faster than I do in agility class, that’s for sure.
  2. stubbornness–This often goes hand in hand with smarts.
  3. food orientation–Ethan is nothing if not food driven.
  4. strength and physicality–He’s also pretty strong and can play rough at the dog park.
  5. lounging preference–Ethan can be a lazy boy, too, preferring the cozy indoors to especially wet conditions outside.
  6. lack of barking–Our dog hardly ever barks.
  7. direct eye contact–I suppose he often looks me in the eye. . .
  8. athleticism–Ethan jumps, climbs, leaps up onto neighborhood boulders, picnic tables, and utility boxes–all with our initial permission when he was a pup; he loves turning corners, running through tunnels, jumping hurdles, and running faster than every other dog at play. Source consulted: “11 Facts Rottweiler People Understand Better Than Anyone”

Consulting just one source on this, I found that Ethan matches up with Rottweiler behavior in a solid 7 of 11 traits, which are only general tendencies and, as with all breed traits, do not apply to every individual of that breed.

The ones he lacks from that list are lap dog behavior (prefers to lounge alone), loyalty to the point of guard dog behavior (he’s as eagerly friendly and mild as they come), and carrying the stigma/responsibility of being an obvious member of the breed (he really looks nothing like a Rottweiler).

He’s also deferential enough not to stare us down, though he can make eye contact frequently. He’s strongly bonded to me, but he’s still not entirely comfortable being invited onto the couch since we initially taught him not to go on it, or even having us lie down beside him (he gets suspicious), and he has shown no particular protective or possessive tendencies with either of us.

While this is only one source, it opened my eyes at least to the possibilities of similarity to a breed I was less familiar with and hadn’t considered during my concerted guessing period.

Physically, Ethan also has ears that seem to match in many photos I’ve seen of Rottweilers.

Despite these parallels, however, there is truth in the notion that all this is simply an exercise in finding what you look for–in this case, similarities. That’s called confirmation bias, a plague rampant in the media. What’s to say I wouldn’t find the same degree of similarity between my dog and ten other breeds? Speaking of other breeds . . .

The American Pit Bull Terrier (24.1%)

So, what about the American Pit Bull Terrier? Which of its typical behaviors match Ethan’s?

Thankfully for his relationship with people (including close family with fear of the breed), as with the Rottweiler, Ethan bears practically no physical resemblance to the pit bull or related breeds. However, are there behaviors unique to the pit bull that Ethan might exhibit?

The Embark description characterizes pit bulls as “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” Ethan has become more affectionate over time, gradually, but he did not start out all hugs and kisses with us. Ethan is sweet and talented, but these traits are so vague as to apply to at least a dozen other breeds or simply great individual dogs.

Embark’s description also says that pit bulls “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.” Both are true of Ethan–and lots of other dogs and dog breeds.

I was unable to use an American Kennel Club (AKC)’s breed description because American Pit Bull Terrier is not an official AKC-recognized breed. The closest related breeds in their database are the American Staffordshire Terrier (“Amstaff”) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Staffie”). The key words associated with the former are “confident, smart, good-natured” and with the latter “clever, brave, tenacious.”

It’s the “bull” and associated traits that made the Staffie a good fighter. Even this minor shift in emphasis between the two breeds assures me that it would be faulty to compare breed characteristics to the American Pit Bull Terrier as a way of ascertaining from another source the breed “type” most likely represented in Ethan.

But based on the Embark details, we can still make some basic assessments: Unlike the stereotypical pit bull, Ethan thinks every other dog is his best friend, and he is not as high energy as most pit bulls I’ve observed. However, he can be pretty scrappy at play, and he does excel at agility, an example of pit bull versatility and talent. But again, pit bulls vary in behavior just as much as any other pure breed’s specimens.

So much for the pit bull. Despite its comprising almost a quarter of Ethan’s DNA, very little closely, and nothing exclusively, associates him with the breed’s visual–or purportedly standard behavioral–traits.

Other Breeds

Without swimming in the details, it’s a similar story for the German shepherd (17.4%) and Doberman (6.2%).

Photo credit: gomagoti on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Some traits line up; others don’t.

If you’d like details about any of the breeds identified in Ethan’s mix, including “Supermutt” estimated trace breeds, see the bottom of this post for a full set of breed profile highlights from Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club. See also my section below about the significance of the Supermutt component.

After receiving the results and learning more about the science behind all this, it was interesting and disappointing how the “a-ha” moments kept pace, neck and neck, with continued puzzlement.

Second Impressions: The Double Take

So why should these 4 breeds NOT dominate almost 70% of Ethan’s genetic inheritance?

Because, even going beyond the quick glance from Embark’s identified breeds to the creature we live with–and back, across man, it just doesn’t seem to stack up. Here’s why:

1. First, there’s his build.

The only breed named in his mixture that’s remotely close to Ethan’s body structure is the Doberman, which makes up the smallest percentage of definitively identifiable pure breed present at 6.2%.

Otherwise, he’s not stocky or broad-jawed like the pit bull, he doesn’t have the shorter muzzle of the Rotti or pittie, he’s not tall like the GSD or prick-eared like three-fourths of them, and, though several of them have deep chests, his rather high pelvic tuck matches none of them.

Instead, Ethan is lanky and wiry, slender even, with a long torso and bony butt, and, yes, he eats plenty every day. He’s downright petite. I’d sooner believe he had whippet in him than any of these four main breeds. Looking deeper, there may be some resemblance to the build of the collie.

Otherwise, the causes for his shape remain mysterious, at least to the same extent that other representatives in Ethan’s “Supermutt” DNA (beyond traces of collie, golden retriever, boxer, and chow chow), say, the other 15-25%, are themselves mysterious.

Go back far enough, if we really could, and you would think every mutt in Ethan’s ancestry has a pure breed ancestor. But it turns out that conception is wrong, too. More on original dog breeds later.

2. Second, that curly tail.

The only breed named in the mix with a curly tail is the chow chow. The tightness of the curl in Ethan’s tail more closely matches the chow chow than the more gradual curve of any of the other breeds’ tails. His tail shape is distinctive without a clear source, certainly not one source alone.

3. Third, his red color.

Ethan doesn’t have the coloring of any of these breeds’ standard versions that come to mind. Red is recessive, I learned from the trait science, but it was definitely a major factor leading us to believe in the Vizsla component. He also has a blond or buff undercarriage, underside of his tail and faint patch on his chest.

The only breed with a slightly stronger tendency in these directions is the pit bull, along with some of the breeds among the traces of retriever, collie, boxer, and chow chow that Embark supposes may be present.

4. Fourth, behavior.

Items 1-3 have to do with appearance, but we all inherit a lot more from our ancestors than just our looks. Off hand, the behaviors that strike me most about Ethan are his keen sense of smell relative to other breeds and his high propensity for scent tracking. I attributed these to some sort of hound breed in his DNA. What I did not think about during my guesses was how scent-oriented the German shepherd is. Caught me napping.

Behaviorally, Ethan sits like a Vizsla and is shy/sensitive like a Vizsla, but there isn’t much else I could point to in the Vizsla besides looks. Along with face shape and build, another reason I had ruled out pit bulls was muscle strength, but that’s hard to judge comparatively without owning other dogs, and Ethan is pretty strong in neck and jaw when we play tug of war. On the other hand, he routinely tumbles under the heftier charges of stocky dogs at the dog park. Note: My knowledge of the Vizsla breed profile comes from many sources beyond kennel clubs.

I might be one of the more easily convinced among my family members as to the veracity of the numbers, but seeing those numbers and reading the basic profile of each breed included in the results was not enough to settle my mind about match-up.

Even though I knew something about dog breeds already, the picture created by these results really didn’t look right, and searching for the reasons for them was the obvious next step.

I had to learn more if I was going to make sense of either the behavioral or physical appearance traits in the breeds the DNA says my dog Ethan contains.

Aside from identifiable breeds, the meaning of the Supermutt factor must also be considered.

Supermutt (28.1%)

Amidst the tendencies, likelihoods, prevalences, possibilities, and estimations inherent in this package of results, the largest variable of breed ID lies in the Supermutt designation. Obviously, this is not a breed but a label that shouts “no single breed dominates.” Not only that, at almost 30%, this component makes up the highest distinct percentage of Ethan’s breed mix DNA results.

Despite Embark’s guesses as to traces of breeds (again, see the bottom of this post for breed profile highlights) that could be present in this 28.1% mix of mixes, it really opens up the field of possible ancestors and the range of possible traits from those dogs. In so doing, “Supermutt” diminishes the potential influence on my dog of all of the first four breeds listed.

Conclusions? More Questions.

The results suggest their own decreasing significance for us. He’s a mutt, a highly mixed animal with no single dog breed making up who he is genetically. What more can be said? And where else in the results can I turn to find meaning?

As the picture complicates, it also distracts from the key points at this post’s intro. What can we really learn about pure breed prejudice through Ethan’s case?

The answers lie in answering the question, “How can a dog look so different from the physical breed traits of his genetic heritage?” And only the science can answer that.

During this educational process, I did gain clarifying insights, but I stewed about the breed appearance factors for quite some time afterwards. I would have to dig deeper to understand how a dog’s appearance and breed heritage can seem so at odds.

Not only the science but also the reason for the dissatisfaction really does beg for explanation. I mean, What gives? Did we waste our money? And how trustworthy are Embark’s science and report, anyway? 

Answering these questions will be the task of Part 3 of this post series. In Part 3, we’ll:

  • Learn why and how a dog can look so different from the physical breed traits of its genetic heritage.
  • Uncover what this insight means for visual breed identification of mutts when their parents are unknown.
  • Wrap up the series with an evaluation of our DNA analysis supplier, remaining questions, and final reflections.

Stay tuned!

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! (It is fascinating.)


Have you had your dog’s DNA analyzed?

What are your thoughts on all this?

Do Ethan’s results surprise you?

Feel free to share in the comments.


Sources Consulted and Cited

American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/

Embark. embarkvet.com. embk.me/ethan5

Finn, Maureen. (n.d.). 11 facts Rottweiler people understand better than anyone. The Dog People. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.rover.com/blog/facts-rottweiler-people-understand/

Weber Shandwick Worldwide. (2008, June 23). DNA study unlocks mystery to diverse traits in dogs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622225503.htm

Westminster Kennel Club. https://www.westminsterkennelclub.org/


Dog Breed Profile Comparison: Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club

Rottweiler

Embark description – “descended from Roman Molosser-type dogs” “one of the oldest herding breeds” “guarding” “protective . . . loving . . . loyal . . . can also show aggression if not properly socialized and trained” “Intelligent, energetic and loving” “short, high-shedding coat and a high tendency of drooling”
AKC – “loving, loyal confident guardian” “strength, agility, endurance” “robust working breed” “great strength” ” descended from the mastiffs of the Roman legions” “gentle playmate and protector” “observes outside world with a self-assured aloofness”
WKC – “medium large working breed with a strong willingness to please” “versatility” “originally designed to be an all-around farm dog” “endurance, agility, and strength” “compact, muscular build” “devoted companion”

German Shepherd Dog

Embark – “confidence, courageousness, and keen sense of smell coupled with notable intellitence” “heavy shedding coat that comes in both short and long varieties”
AKC – “confident, courageous, smart” “finest all-purpose worker” “large, agile, muscular” “noble character and high intelligence” “loyal, confident, courageous, and steady”
WKC – “highly intelligent, exceptional family dog” “willing companion” “enjoys endeavors of its owners” “herding and protection” “adaptability” “competitive in all performance activities”

Doberman Pinscher

Embark – “intelligent, loyal, and make for perfect companions as well as guard dogs” “a mixture of many different dog breeds that includes Beauceron, German Pinscher, German Shepherd, and Rottweiler” “very athletic and often excels in agility” “trainable and one of the top five smartest dogs”
AKC – “loyal, fearless, alert” “sleek and powerful, possessing both a magnificent physique and keen intelligence” “incomparably fearless and vigilent” “among the world’s finest protection dogs”
WKC – “an elegant athlet in a tight-fitting wrapper” “square, compact, muscular” “grace, beauty and nobility” “energetic and fearless” “an intelligent, affectionate, and obedient companion”

American Pit Bull Terrier*

Embark – “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.”

* “American Pit Bull Terrier” is not an AKC- or WKC-recognized breed.

American Staffordshire Terrier

Embark – “fighter . . . easily managed . . . sweet, trusting disposition” “playful and people oriented” “stocky, muscular” “great strength” “grace, elegance” “generally playful and friendly” “showing affection to new people in the presence of their owner” “can be aggressive toward strange dogs” “protective nature if threatened” “intelligent, trained without much difficulty” “lively”
AKC – “confident, smart, good-natured” “courage proverbial” “loyal, trustworthy” “springy gait” “agile and graceful” “stiff, glossy coat” “keenly aware of surroundings” “game for anything” “lovable ‘personality dogs’” “like mental and physical challenges” “highly trainable”
WKC – “weight proportional to height” “loyal, trustworthy, courageous” “intelligence, strength and agility make him an excellent all-around dog”

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Embark – “bull baiters, tenacity, aggression, intelligence” “stubborn” “really love people” “extremely social and loving” “enthusiastic and exuberant personality” “intense energy needs” “ability to get along with canines varies from dog to dog” “love of children” “’nanny dogs’” “strength and size . . . ideal for older children”
AKC – “clever, tenacious brave” “muscular but agile” “mild, playful with a special feel for kids” “sweet-natured, family-oriented” “true-blue loyal companions” “old fighting instinct lurks within”
WKC – “strength, intelligence, tenacity” “alert stance, big smile, wagging tail” “’affection for its friends and children in particular, its off-duty quietness and trustworthy stability’” “all-purpose family dog” “steady, dependable” “outstanding athletic ability”

Supermutt

Collie

Embark – “wonderfully loyal and intelligent family dog” “good looks and soft temperament” “popular among the social elite” “intelligent and quick to learn” “great athleticism, possessing great strength and speed” “sweet and friendly nature . . . loyalty and willingness to please” “not as energy intensive as the Border Collie” “otherwise quiet nature”
AKC – “devoted, graceful, proud” “famously fond of children” “swift, athletic” “thrive on companionship and regular exercise” “With gentle training, learn happily and rapidly” “loyalty, intelligence, sterling character”
WKC – “beautiful in temperament and body” “gentleness, intelligence, loyalty” “willingness to work closely to master” “exceptional with children” “devotion to family legendary” “primary focus on people” Rough = gatherer. Smooth – drover.

Golden Retriever

Embark – “hunting companion” “friendliness and intelligence” “generally lankier and darker than their British counterparts” “love of play and water”
AKC – “friendly, intelligent, devoted” “exuberant Scottish gundog” “great beauty” “serious workers at hunting and field work” “enjoy obedience and competitive events” “endearing love of life” “sturdy, muscular” “medium size” “broad head” “friendly and intelligent eyes” “smooth, powerful gait” “feathery tail carried with ‘merry action'” “outgoing, trustworthy, eager-to-please” “joyous and playful” “puppyish behavior into adulthood” “energetic, powerful” “enjoy outdoor play” “swimming and fetching”
WKC – “willing, adaptable, trainable nature” “ideal family dog”

Boxer

Embark – “a Molosser-type dog” “distinctive underbite and strong jaws” “bred as a fighter” “patient and spirited family dogs” “intelligence and energy of their forebearers”
AKC – “bright, fun-loving, active” “loyalty, affection, intelligence, work ethic, good looks” “bright, alert” “sometimes silly” “always courageous” “smooth and graceful, powerful forward thrust” “upbeat and playful” “patience and protective nature” “serious watchdog/guardian”
WKC – “highly intelligent, medium-sized, square, clean lines, balanced proportions” “bred from ancestors in Germany called Bullenbeisers” “fearless but tractable, energetic and wonderfully patient with children” “extremely intuitive” “responsive to his master’s moods” “ideal family dog” “boisterous and clownish” “cherishing toys and family into his oldest age”

Chow Chow

Embark – “an ancient breed probably originated from Mongolia or Siberia”
AKC – “dignified, bright, serious-minded” “muscular, deep-chested aristocrat” “air of inscrutable timelessness” “dignified, serious-minded, aloof”
WKC – “possessive nature” “hunting, herding, pulling, protection”

One Writer, Many Ways

Modern human survival depends in large part on understanding and adapting to the difference between the best way and the only way. Could it even be true that, with absolutely anything, there is never only one way? We might be glad if we looked into it. The pursuit of our goals involves finding our own most manageable way and coming to terms with our chosen way. When things don’t work out as we’d hoped, and if course correction to the path we first (or second) imagined is impossible, acceptance can elude us and disappointment reign. Learning, then, to come back from that can take time. It takes the distance from which to look back and see things differently, and some openness to present mystery and future possibility. It takes patience and the desire to keep trying.

The writing life is not one kind of life, but many kinds. When misconceptions abound, the path tilts uphill, but the artistic, creative life is more than legitimate and worth while. To the art, to the artist, and to art-starved and art-filled societies alike, it is essential. So don’t starve while you’re trying not to starve, whether you’ve put living or writing first.

Writers and humans, please read on for the insight, resonance, beauty, and inspiration of Jan’s story. She did it, and does it, her way. 

“If Wishes Were Horses”* by Jan Priddy – at BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

You can learn more about Jan here and Jan’s work listed at her newer blog here.

photo of pathway surrounded by fir trees

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com


Philosofishal posts on a similar theme:


* Incidentally, Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite authors, but I cheer Jan’s response to his novel’s blame game.

A Dog’s DNA, Part 1

Ourselves, Our Dogs

Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?

With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.

I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.

For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.

Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.

As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.

However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.

But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the double helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?

Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.

Breed Standards, Rescue Ethics, and My Dogs

Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.

“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.

“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.

It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.

So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.

Excluding thoughts on my personal aesthetic preferences among dog breeds based on appearance and movement, other criticisms from the earlier post were equally valid.

“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”

As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.

The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.

Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”

One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?

Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.

In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.

We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.

Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.

We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.

Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.

“What are you, Mister?”: The Guessing Game

Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.

But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.

So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.

First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.

Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.

Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.

All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:

  • among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
  • among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
  • among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
  • among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
  • toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?

Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.

Sporting breeds:

  • Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
  • Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
  • other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters

Hounds:

  • Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
  • Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
  • less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
  • even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna

Working, Herding:

  • Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
  • Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
  • German shepherd – coat only
  • some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.

Terriers:

  • Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
  • Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
  • maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape

Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:

If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:

  • Vizsla
  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • springer spaniel or Brittany
  • Doberman
  • Dachshund
  • and some terrier blend

If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:

  • Vizsla, German shepherd
  • Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
  • Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)

I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)

Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!

Below: Ethan is less excited to solve the puzzle.

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Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 3 of 4

After a few weeks’ rest, massages, and chiropractic adjustment, I recovered from a spinal arthritis flare-up in early September. Despite the pain, my strenuous photographic efforts to capture speedy, high-flying objects at the Cleveland National Air Show paid off with a post of my best shots from the day.

In early October, my husband and I took a refreshing vacation to California, visiting my brother’s family, some wine and hard cider makers, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and, for the first time, Yosemite National Park. I fell ill during my last trip out there in April 2015, but I made it through this one and the rest of October virus free. Health and sense of mission restored, I’m on to the second half of this series.

In text, maps, and photos, Part 1 started with how the Outlander book and TV series inspired and triggered our Argyll adventure; the first post then showcased our dynamic drive toward the Argyll coast. Part 2 featured highlights of our first stops upon reaching the sea: Crinan Canal, the Paps of Jura, and Kilmory Knap Chapel.

The Outlander Season 4 premiere starting November 4th at 8pm EST on STARZ brings long-awaited relief from Droughtlander and takes the saga into the New World. While I’m eager to follow Jamie and Claire on the next phase of their on-screen adventures, my own travel in Scotland still calls me back. Scotland is, after all, the seed of Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander book series phenomenon, which last month took the number 2 slot of the Great American Read‘s top novels.

Venturing farther inland for Part 3, this post shares some of my most cherished moments from our long day in Argyll with Àdhamh Ó Broin, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and their STARZ TV adaptation.

Late Morning in Mid Argyll

Third Thread

Kilmory Oib

We had taken East Loch Sween Road into Kilmory, drove south to Kilmory Knap Chapel, and returned on the same path. It was a single-track road, known by road management officials as C42. A Scottish government guide explains that “C-roads, like B-roads, are minor, local routes but are not signposted or shown on maps.” However, OpenStreetMap.org was my source for both names of the road because it’s awesome. Score one against the web of Old World secrets.

Road C42 becomes Achnamara Road toward Barnluasgan, where we tracked back to the southwest on B8025 and soon reached our destination. Kilmory Oib township ruins are the moss-eaten traces of a settlement abandoned in the 19th century. Online satellite maps, even OpenStreetMap.org, indicate no name for the site, though a zoomed-in satellite view on Google Maps offers such age-old markers as a low, road-side fence and two discernible standing stones. It seems you can find the settlement itself only by knowing its name and location beforehand. So much for blasting through Scotland’s secrets.

Of course, we had a secret weapon. Our native Scottish guide Àdhamh brought his insider’s knowledge to our discovery of Kilmory Oib. After reading the placards at the clearing’s opening, I then researched further to inform the visit.

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Google Maps

What’s left of Kilmory Oib lies within North Knapdale Forest, planted 100 years ago in the heart of North Knapdale. Most of the area is managed by Forestry Commission Scotland. On the ground, two lochs and a bed and breakfast neighbor the former township: Loch Barnluasgan to the northeast where the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial successfully reintroduced beavers to the area, Loch Coille-Bharr to the east, and the White Rock Bed & Breakfast to the north-northwest. Kilmory Oib is closest to Loch Coille-Bharr, but Loch Sween and the Sound of Jura are also not far away.

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OpenStreetMap. Standing stones, too? See “Stones of Kilmory Oib” (The Hazel Tree blog)

From the parking lot, we walked south up a dirt- and grass-covered path over the modest grade of a hill. At our feet I pointed out a large black beetle scurrying in the direction we headed. Like a child discovering nature for the first time, Àdhamh stopped to inspect it, as if he were stopping to smell the flowers. A true nature lover.

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Portion of placard at the Kilmory Oib site, courtesy of the Dalriada Project

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The path opened onto a clearing in the forest bathed in the rising sun. An early autumn, late morning light in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, its brightness shone high enough to illuminate and low enough to dazzle. The sun’s position in the clear sky made a pleasing contrast for photos, and it gave this Ohioan the impression of an earlier hour than it was. A peaceful scene unfolded when we met the clearing strewn with ancient and modern relics.

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After my extensive map research for the trip and before we arrived on site, I had never seen a Scottish or Gaelic place name quite like “Oib.” Even Scottish people will pronounce names slightly differently across regions and time, but some guidelines assist the non-native Gaelic speaker. The consonant is simple: “b” here is pronounced like “p.” The vowel in “Oib” is something either like “up” but with a slightly rounded vowel into the “o” in “hop,” or “oip” as in “voip” but with a bit of a slide toward the long “i” sound in “hi.” In sum, close to “Op” or “Ipe” in English.

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The Forestry Commission explains the meaning: “Usually referred to simply as Kilmory, the township is part of the estate known as Oib, or Oab, meaning bay or inlet in Gaelic” (Source: “Kilmory Oib,” Forestry Commission Scotland (current owner); contents menu includes links to information about a dozen other historic townships). The closest water body is Loch Coille-Bharr, neither bay nor inlet, but Scotland can be such a moist place, I suppose it matters little. A canal, river, burn, or sea, and precipitation, are frequent encounters. See my discussion on the variable labeling of place names in the sections “Dividing a Nation” and “Notes on Area Names” of the post “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3.”

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In 2016, the ground brushed with dew and waterlogged besides, its dense green things slowly swallowed and partly camouflaged many of the decrepit stone structures in the morning sun. Some shapes from the low piles of flat stones suggested old livestock pens, now carpeted with moss. Other forms announced cottage or barn walls, spattered with lichens. Ferns and bracken, a russet brethren showing fern its future, rounded out the signs of growth. The layers of life blanket these landmarks of bygone people and preserve the dark, damp earth underneath.

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The Campbell clan owned Kilmory in the 1800s, but due to bankruptcy, ownership passed from Neil Campbell to Neil Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1785. Forestry Commission Scotland is the current owner (“Kilmory Oib”). During our visit, only two other visitors walked nearby and were on their way out when we arrived, but more than plant and fungal life stirred on the site. As it scooched slowly across the jagged stone surface atop a wall close to the trail, a little curl of motion attracted our attention. Again our guide picked up and examined the creature—a fuzzy grey-blue caterpillar with thin white striping and russet-orange bands across the stripes. It wore its own clan’s tartan. With visible signs of fertile land over the buried strata of past farming and fishing communities, could the insect’s glossy wings emerge to echo the plaid? And would it be Campbell, Malcolm or just Clan Butterfly?

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Do you know this species? The caterpillar, not the hand. That’s Àdhamh’s.

Across the grounds, enclosed on one side by a crest of evergreens, some of the narrower end walls of the dwellings remain intact to the apex, like a peppering of stone arrows pointing skyward. They are evidence of the roofs’ gable style of only two slopes, a Dalriadian feature from 18th-century architecture of the southwest Highlands (“The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill,” p. 6). Although similar sheltering can be supposed across this collection of buildings, the dearth of surviving walls and roofs leaves mysterious precisely how the structures must have appeared when last they were whole.

Now, one large tree that appeared to be in the cypress family twists its way up through the center of a building space, snug against the west-side escarpment. A fruit tree, too, sidles up to a smaller jagged wall remnant on the township’s opposite end.

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Àdhamh asked me if he could have copies of my snapshots for a story about the site. I was happy to oblige and, from that point, diligently recorded the scene.

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Before leaving, Àdhamh and I became photo subjects for my husband. Leaning on either side of an ancient cross slab (standing stone with a Christian cross on it) next to a water well filled to the ground surface, we struck a handful of cheeky poses.

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It wasn’t the Colosseum, nothing so imposing as Linlithgow Palace or other crumbling Scottish castles. Instead, it was an intimate look at the shadows cast by a deserted set of humble communities. Kilmory Oib is an example of not-uncommon displacement from a not-so-distant Scottish past. It is only one of thousands of places where Scottish tenants were forced out by Scottish landowners, their own clan chiefs, or left from threat of clearance when they had no land rights, funds, or legal recourse. These Highland Clearances occurred over an extended period, lasting from after the final failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 at Culloden Battlefield until well into the 19th century.

To varying degrees for about 100 years, Scottish landlords evicted their tenants, whose families had farmed or fished there for centuries, to make room for more economical sheep farming. Known as infamous by some and controversial by others, the Clearances helped destroy clan culture, shrink the rural population of Scots in the Highlands and Islands, and push them into the Lowlands, out to the coast, or, if they could afford it, out of Scotland altogether. Today, land rights, property ownership, resource management, and conservation remain salient issues in Scotland, especially in rural areas.

Although the exact reasons and timing for Kilmory Oib’s end are uncertain, recent excavation and study of the site have shed some light on the context.

The Kilmory Oib settlement may have been abandoned “not long after the [nearby] Arichonan clearance . . . . [, which] took place in 1848 [as] part of the reorganisation of the estates owned by the Malcolms of Poltalloch, the Oib Estate purchased by them in 1798. The active role played by . . . surrounding settlements, including Kilmory, in the disturbances that accompanied the Arichonan clearance, suggest that this opposition was triggered by the threat of a wider clearance programme in North Knapdale” (Source: conclusions section of The Dalriada Project’s Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report,” Roderick Regan, 2008, pp. 11-12, Kilmartin House Museum).

More about the former township’s particular story can also be found at Forestry Commission Scotland’s page dedicated to the site. Tucked away without a landmark on the road nearby, like many long-abandoned settlements, the modesty of Kilmory Oib belies its complex, and partly ancient, history in Argyll.

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Reflecting on our visit stirred my foreigner’s sense of intrigue at a sight so rare in the U.S.: overgrown ruins made of stone. We, too, have ghost towns and run-down urban neighborhoods, but the American city version means exposed rebar, toppled concrete, rusted steel, and broken asphalt. Besides the obvious uniqueness of castle ruins, rural Scotland’s fragments are usually different. The age of Kilmory Oib and its quiet country setting add an irresistible pastoral romanticism to my view of its loss.

But what really is the ruin of a community, a nation, of a dream, an idea, a belief? While the result of misfortune, remnants cultivate a fortitude in shared memory, the roots of a people’s hope for a better future, a way through the challenges that tempt us greatly to give up. Something survives on which to build again. Without those seeds, a glimpse of real alternatives, we capitulate easily.

Without seeing ruins for the living past they represent, our sense of history is stunted along with our capacity for empathy. Our souls are diminished by the very erasure of signs of endings from the past. Without a tangible record, we may doubt, misremember, and completely forget historic events. It may follow, then, that preservation of all sorts of ruins help keep willing hearts awake to see, understand, and consider the needs of others as we prioritize peace and justice alike.

By marking our losses, ruins call us to create a more reasonable and compassionate world. “To all those we have lost . . .” toasts Claire Fraser with a dram of whisky in Outlander STARZ episode 304, “Of Lost Things.”

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Loch-side lunch in Tayvallich

Cutting across mid-Argyll, the Crinan Canal serves as northern border to Knapdale, Tayvallich’s surrounding home, and divides Kintyre Peninsula from the mainland. The canal connects salty Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura, and Tayvallich lies just south of these intersections, near the middle of the peninsula. See lower left on map below.

Like Crinan Coffee Shop, Tayvallich Coffee Shop gave us a lunch-time view of the inlet, docks, and boats. We could also see the other side of Loch a’ Bhealaich, at the edge of which dwells the village.

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Clockwise from lower left: Tayvallich, Kilmory Oib township ruins, Crinan, A’ Moine Mhòr (The Great Moss), and Dunadd Fort. Yellow bubbles mark my account’s saved locations. Snapshot from Google Maps; darker text added using photo editor program.

Vessels were plentiful as for a busy day but not quite a special event—some at anchor, some docked, of sail and of motor. As I learned from Gazetteer for Scotland, along with the area’s forestry tradition, both fishing and tourism have made up the life blood of the village.

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Loch Sween, another sea loch, feeds the inlet from the east. Though subject to tides, Sween with its castle of the same name is substantial enough to spread its wealth into nooks and crannies like Tayvallich’s. Anglicized from Taigh a’ Bhealaich, the Gaelic name translates into something like “house of the pass” or “house in the valley,” depending on which source you consult. In that valley house’s coffee shop, I ate a lovely omelet before we left for our next destination.

Àdhamh and I discussed place names and poetry along the way. I would ask him to repeat the Gaelic names he rattled off as we passed, and then pronounce them in my turn. At other times, I took more careful note, gathering spellings as well.

Hear Àdhamh and me pronounce and spell the Gaelic name for Tayvallich:
 


In asking my husband and me about our jobs, Àdhamh opened a path to more of our shared interests. He and I are both educators, both artistic in some way, and both happened at the time to be working on a project involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. I told him how I’d just started a spin-off novel based on Through the Looking-Glass, and he told me about his work to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Scottish Gaelic. Writing a book is hard; I can’t imagine having to translate an entire novel.

At any rate, the three of us all love learning, and Àdhamh and I work with language, literature, poetry, and song. Next time we meet, we’ll have to have a sing-along or something. Later in the day, toward evening, I discovered I would not be equal to a duet with such a voice.

Two years later, I’ve followed a referral he made to a famous Scottish Gaelic nature poem “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” (“Praise of Ben Dorain”) by Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Like the mountain it praises, the poem, Àdhamh said, is something special. I investigated to find out why and how.

Originally written in Gaelic, published in Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s collected poems (1751), the poem tells the pastoral story of a beloved mountain in what was once northern Argyllshire and Perthshire, the poet’s home region. Today, you can see Beinn Dorain’s almost perfectly conical shape grow larger in your windshield driving the A82 north from Tyndrum toward Bridge of Orchy, as we did on the way to Glencoe two days later.

In the poem, through a first-person speaker, a deer hunt occurs on the mountain, but for sustenance, not sport. The piece is highly descriptive and reads well in a good English translation. I’ve also heard it spoken in Gaelic, which was quite beautiful.

According to a 2016 article in The National, self-described as “The Newspaper That Supports an Independent Scotland,” the poem has rather complex form and soulful content. Like much Scottish poetry, it was constructed to be played and sung rather than simply spoken. An unnamed author declares, “Its shape is essential to its meaning. Composed in the musical structure of a pibroch – in Gaelic the spelling is piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.”

Identifiable sections of the poem include a main theme in three parts, a second movement that develops each of those, repetition of the main theme, another movement, and so on. Three journeys occur between themes, then a synthesis of all prior elements–a climactic deer-killing scene. The song moves in circles as new material comes into the chronological plot, establishing a reader expectation of renewal and drama.

The prevailing mood, The National argues, is a question for Scottish readers and listeners. Exultation is there, but so are sadness and violence, suggesting wrath. What are the sources and the objects of those emotions? Answers may help decide the role of “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” in Scottish literary history and politics.

Passionate writers tend to fixate, and in the article they speak with a unified voice. Its title claims a premeditated “manifesto for land reform” on MacIntyre’s part, but The National also admits this is “not explicitly depicted in the poem,” but rather “its historical context implies it.” That’s quite a leap of logic. If every historical context played the predominant role in all of literature, there would be little need or inclination to study it through any other lens, including solely by its own merits and content.

Literary criticism moves us beyond such a limited perspective for 21st-century analysis. Besides, among other relevant facts, Duncan Ban MacIntyre fought on the Hanoverian side of the ’45 Rising, not the Jacobite side. So, historical context argues at least partially the other way in this case. The article then claims an environmental conservationist purpose to the poem, as distinguished from a work praising human or religious subjects. While the content of the poem does focus on nature and wildlife, plus the destruction and loss of a piece of it, Ban MacIntyre also wrote a poem praising the king.

Literature can be interpreted to mean what we wish it to, but perhaps first we must read for ourselves to determine whether a message exists, waxes inherently political, or just depicts such things as the human experience of the interplay between life and death.

Excerpted from Alan Riach’s translation posted at Kettillonia, the cyclical rhythm of the “chorus,” or main theme, is reinforced with internal rhyme in “Praise of Ben Dorain”:

Praise over all to Ben Dorain –
She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun –
In all the magnificent range of the mountains around,
So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none
To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight
Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run,
Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves
Of the woods, where the thick grass grows,
And the curious deer, watchful and tentative,
Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.

Whatever else the poem may be or mean, however we may appropriate it, at least Àdhamh was right. It is special and deserves more recognition by a wider audience.

As a musical man himself, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin would have to be keenly aware of Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his iconic song-poem. At our next stop, our host shared some other tunes in the Scottish tradition by playing his bagpipes for us, which he brought along for the occasion.


Mid-Day in Mid Argyll

Fourth Frontier

After lunch in Taigh a’ Bhealaich (Tayvallich), and on more than one occasion that day, I was trapped. As the guys left the vehicle, I remained locked in the back seat of our rental car like a child mistrusted with her own safety. Despite calling out, I had to wait a beat or two for them to realize my plight and then for my husband to figure out the lock situation so as to set me free.

It seems the back doors automatically lock on the 4-door Vauxhall Corsa when the driver closes his door. An odd feature to set as a default, I thought. The first time it happened, I suspected my husband of jumping the gun on locking up before I had a chance to get out, but after the second time he swore he didn’t do it, the nature of the issue became clearer. After my release, it was smooth sailing–almost.

Dunadd Fort, ancient seat of Dalriada Scots

Not quite fit for munro bagging (climbing mountains of a certain height in Scotland), I climbed up Dunadd Fort hill and felt my lungs fighting before I reached the top. It’s not really up that high, but the rugged terrain requires the climber’s legs to stretch farther for most steps than on a smooth grade.

Fortunately, the plant specimens among the uplifted rocks made for a convenient excuse to take photo breaks. The creases and sloping shelves in the rock were lovely, adorned with tufts of still-blooming heather, fern, and wild grasses.

Once the center of the Gaelic kingdom of Dàl Riata, or Dalriada, the artifacts of Dunadd Fort monument tell the tale of the first Scots and the first kings of Scotland, 8th century A.D. But the site was in use as early as the 5th century A.D.

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Archaeological research conducted in the early 1980s helped stretch the history of its use as far back as the Iron Age, and further evidence suggests its importance persisted through the 1500s, the late medieval period. All told, therefore, Dunadd was something more than a monument for 2,500 years.

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Dunadd Fort, fellow visitors with dog

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Fence and gate to Dunadd Fort hill

Dunadd-halfway-up-outcrop-heather-downhill-house-behind-edits-2018_DSCN3386Dunadd-halfway-up-outcrop-heather-edits-2018_DSCN3385Dunadd-heather-closeup_edits-2018-DSCN3380The hill rises in isolated elevation from its flat surroundings. On the cluster of rocks clothed in moss, painted with lichen, and crowned in heather garlands, we could see evidence of human use, described and mapped on the placards labeling the fortress site.

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“An Dùn Rìoghail” – “The Royal Fortress.” All placards on site provided under stewardship of Historic Environment Scotland.

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In early medieval Scotland, Dàl Riata leaders became kings when they stepped into a stone footprint, still discernible today. This “inauguration stone” is shown in these pictures as item 3.

The hilltop features of some ramparts (2) and a citadel (5), or upper courtyard, loom over the “traces of buildings” (4).

From there, steep cliffs on the far side from the parking lot plunge into the surrounding farmland with cattle and sheep on the plain.

A’ Moine Mhòr

As we looked out over that plain, known as the Moine Mhòr (Great Moss) bog, also a designated national nature preserve, Àdhamh played a few tunes on his bagpipes for us, including “The Piper’s Warning.”

The story goes: A piper is imprisoned at a castle and by playing his pipes warns his beloved son to stay away, lest he too be captured.

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Àdhamh shared the lyrics in English for us, noting that the Highland Scots had no embarrassment about calling fellow men “my love” because they’re so “[expletive deleted] hard.” That is, Highlander men are so manly in the sense of having impervious strength that they fully own what, say, the Sassenach might consider effeminate endearments between them.

Whether this really explained the choice of phrase or Àdhamh just wanted to dispel any suspicions of sexual overtones, I do not know. But it was clear, because he was barely audible and did not smile, that Àdhamh was proud of the Highlander reputation for “hardness,” or hardiness, this bit of his cultural heritage. It made us smile in turn.

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As the sunshine beamed on, visible in the distance from atop Dunadd Fort was an isolated, ruined cottage Àdhamh admired and dreamed of owning on the Moss. Beyond were lochs and hills; behind those, the west coast. A wide, winding stream reflecting bright blue sky ran through the farmland below the remnants of Dàl Riata’s royal center.

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Starting in the northeast and proceeding past Dunadd and beyond the Moine Mhòr National Nature Preserve, the River Add bulges again, running roughly parallel to the Crinan Canal, as it finds its way to the Sound of Jura at Loch Crinan, a wide-mouthed inlet just east of Crinan Harbour.

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Dunadd was one of my husband’s and my favorite parts of our day. Fellow visitors, one of whom Àdhamh recognized and greeted, and his humble piping at the cliff’s edge made our time at the ancient site extra special.

From the Trossachs to the seaside and curling back inland, so far that day, we had gone to places that offered wide sweeps of panoramic views. Whether from loch side, coastal perch, forested enclave, or ancient hilltop surrounded by vast plain and winding river, we saw the beauty and brushed the mystery of a quiet Argyll countryside. 

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Next Time: Part 4 of 4

The final post in this series follows late afternoon into night of this magical day: from the intrigues of prehistoric stone structures in Kilmartin Glen to the singular charms of our host and Cowal Peninsula’s small village, Clachan of Glendaruel; and from the perils of single-track night driving to a night view over the Kyles of Bute onto the city lights of the mainland. Plus, a surprise encounter from the day after. I hope you’ll join me for the finale.

In case you missed, or miss, the beginning . . .

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 2 of 4


Sources Consulted and Cited

All on-site images in this post were created and edited by C. L. Tangenberg.

Kilmory Oib

Ancient Monuments. “Kilmory Oib Township, cross slab and holy well, west of Loch Coille-Bharr: A Scheduled Monument in Mid Argyll, Argyll and Bute.” (n.d.). AncientMonuments.uk. https://ancientmonuments.uk/124836-kilmory-oib-township-cross-slab-and-holy-well-west-of-loch-coille-bharr-mid-argyll-ward#.W96aFBRRdND

“The Best Books on The Highland Clearances.” (2018). Five Books Expert Recommendations. https://fivebooks.com/best-books/james-hunter-on-the-highland-clearances/

The Dalriada Project. “About.” (n.d.). TheDalriadaProject.org. http://www.thedalriadaproject.org/

— — —. “Archaeology and Landscape.” (n.d.). TheDalriadaProject.org. http://www.thedalriadaproject.org/index.asp?pageid=536848

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Highland Clearances – Scottish History.” Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Highland-Clearances

Faclair Gàidhlig – Beurla / Gaelic – English Dictionary. (n.d.). http://www2.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/faclair/macfarlane/macfarlane.html

Forestry Commission Scotland. “Historic townships.” (2018). Scotland.forestry.gov.uk. https://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/activities/heritage/historic-townships

— — —. “Kilmory Oib.” (2018). Scotland.forestry.gov.uk. https://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/activities/heritage/historic-townships/kilmory-oib

The Hazel Tree. (2018 August 20). “From Arichonan to Kilmory Oib.” TheHazelTree.co.uk. [blog]. http://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2018/08/20/from-arichonan-to-kilmory-oib/

— — —. (2015 May 26). “The stones of Kilmory Oib.” TheHazelTree.co.uk. [blog]. http://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2015/05/26/the-stones-of-kilmory-oib/

“Highland Clearances.” (2018). UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usscotfax/history/clearances.html

Kilmartin Museum
Argyll, PA31 8RQ
Tel: 01546 510 278
museum@kilmartin.org
Scottish Charity SC022744

“Parish of North Knapdale: Details of Parish of North Knapdale.” (2018). Gazetteer for Scotland. http://www.scottish-places.info/parishes/pardetails675.html

Regan, Roderick. (2014 January). The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill: Historic Building Surveys. Forestry Commission Scotland. Kilmartin House Museum: Argyll, Scotland. 6. http://kilmartin.org/docs/kilmoryAndArichonanSettlementsSurveyReport.pdf

— — —. (2008 June). Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report. The Dalriada Project. Kilmartin House Museum: Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. ii, 1, 11-12. http://www.kilmartin.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Kilmory-Oib-Excavation-DSR.pdf

“Scottish Gaelic learners’ materials on the Internet.” Stuth ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig air an Eadarlìon. http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/ionnsachadh/

Tayvallich

Gaelic-English / English-Gaelic Dictionary. LearnGaelic.net. / LearnGaelic.scot. https://learngaelic.scot/dictionary/index.jsp

“Tayvallich: Overview of Tayvallich.” Argyll and Bute. (2018). Gazetteer for Scotland. www.scottish-places.info/towns/townfirst3579.html

“Tayvallich.” Content from Wikipedia.com, with links to Tayvallich articles at Wikimedia and Wikivoyage. Revolvy.com. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Tayvallich

Dunadd Fort

Historic Environment Scotland. “Kilmartin Glen: Dunadd Fort.” (2018). HistoricEnvironmentScotland.scot. https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/kilmartin-glen-dunadd-fort/

The Landscapes of Scotland, Descriptions 51-60, Scottish Natural Heritage: 52 – Jura, 53 – Knapdale and Kilmartin

Love Argyll. (2018). “Kilmartin Glen, Dunadd and the Crinan Canal.” LoveArgyll.com. https://www.loveargyll.com/kilmartin-glen-dunaad-bronze-age-monuments-ancient-seat-pictish-kings/

“The Scots.” / “Scottish Monarchs.” (2018). EnglishMonarchs.co.uk. http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/scots.html

VisitScotland. (2018). “Moine Mhòr National Nature Reserve.” VisitScotland.com. https://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/moine-mhor-national-nature-reserve-p333971

Duncan Ban MacIntyre and “Praise of Ben Dorain” / “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain”

“#7 Seat of all seats.” (2016 June 17). Mountain: a podcast about adventure [podcast]. Includes excerpts of “Praise of Ben Dorain” read in Gaelic and English. Interviewer: Christopher Sleight. Readers: Siobhan Anderson, Anna MacQuarrie.  http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/7-seat-of-all-seats/

MacIntyre, Duncan Ban. (2018). Praise of Ben Dorain. [pamphlet]. Description, Extract. Alan Riach, trans. Kettillonia: New Scottish Writing. http://kettillonia.co.uk/pamphlets/poetry/praise-of-ben-dorain-2/

MacLean, H. (n.d.). “On the Gaelic Poetry of Known and Unknown Bards, Published and Traditional.” Sacred-Texts.com. Some parts published 2011. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt4/pt410.htm

Meek, Donald E. (2010, 1997). “The Gaelic Literature of Argyll.” The Association for Scottish Literary Studies: Scottish Literature’s International Voice. https://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/Laverock-Gaelic_Literature.html

“Not Burns: Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his Gaelic manifesto for land reform.” (2016 Feb 4). The National. www.thenational.scot/culture/14861208.Not_Burns______Duncan_Ban_MacIntyre_and_his_Gaelic_manifesto_for_land_reform/

“Scottish Surnames Meanings & Origins: What Does Your Scottish Last Name Mean?” Thoughtco.com. https://www.thoughtco.com/scottish-surnames-meanings-and-origins-1422406

Argyll and the Isles – General

“4. The Inner Hebrides” at “Top 10: cities and places to visit in Scotland,” The Telegraph, Travel | Destinations – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/Top-10-cities-and-places-to-visit-in-Scotland/

Argyll and Bute Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/councilfirst4.html

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php

Argyll Guide at Travel Scotland – http://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/regions/argyll-holiday-guide

Argyll, Scotland at The Rough Guides – https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

“Crinan Canal.” https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/crinan-canal/

Crinan Canal Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, accessed through Lochgilphead link on the site’s Argyll and Bute Overview page – http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst1169.html

Destinations and Maps – Argyll & the Isles at VisitScotland – https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/argyll-isles/

Detailed Road Map of Argyll and Bute, at Maphill.com – http://www.maphill.com/united-kingdom/scotland/scotland/argyll-and-bute/detailed-maps/road-map/

“Population: Where We Live,” at Argyll and Bute Council – https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live

Scotland General

Department for Transport. “Roads Classification.” (January 2012). Guidance on Road Classification and the Primary Route Network. p. 6.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/315783/road-classification-guidance.pdf

Scottish Government / Riaghaltas na h-Alba gov.scot. “Footnotes.” (2008 October). Rural Road Safety: Drivers and Driving. Part 19. https://www.gov.scot/Publications/2008/10/03140548/19

UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap. Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division.

Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote of An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”

OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/

Google Maps – https://www.google.com/maps

“Scotland” entry page of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias – http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/16523

Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira.

See also: my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me, for all of us, to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

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If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

See my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1

As the air warms and my dog waxes bold and curious in his wanderings on our property, he leads me to discover things I might never have imagined.

Two days ago, I went outside to check on him, tethered as usual to the deck, but I could see him nowhere, nor any trace of his tether.

As we so often do these days to prevent or get him out of trouble, I slipped on my clogs and grabbed the baggy of kibble in case I needed to coax him home. In the 10 months we’ve had him, Ethan has never run away, never broken his tether or even tried to.

Once, he managed to unlatch his collar, leaving it secured on the tether while he zoomed over to greet the neighbor’s dog. Another time, he became loose through the garage and sauntered back around to the same dog. Not to the road.

Now, though he enjoys sunbathing, Ethan seeks the cool shade as well, and has taken to digging, which I imagine feels luxuriously cool on his hot paw pads. (We’re getting his and my feet a kiddie pool for the summer.) So far, only minor patches, hardly even holes, have resulted—a couple of times in the grass and this latest in the flower bed bordering the deck.

Luckily, the effect was to loosen only a weed rather than a perennial just next to the divot. Cooling off his feet, having a fun dig, and, it would seem, creating just enough space to slip under the deck steps into the gap beside the wood lattice work.

When I found no tether and no Ethan, I called for him, thinking at first that he had rounded the corner of the house down the side yard. But the tether was still attached at the base of the deck, the rest of it tucked under toward the dog.

I crouched down to investigate and query the fur child, who promptly looked up with his dopey ears perked, though his body faced away from me. It appeared as if a little smudge of dirt, or something less benign, added to the outline of his nose. I could just see it in a shaft of light penetrating the cracks through the deck boards.

There are several spare boards lined up under the deck, and he had crossed many of them to reach this far. The tether was most of the way under and the dog most of the way to the other side, traveling the length of the shelter.

Our deck has an irregular shape, with five sides, not counting the house sides where a bay window juts out on one end and the kitchen sink area protrudes slightly less on the other.

In the bordering flower bed parallel to the back of the house, a limelight hydrangea bush decorates the right side, and a lacecap hydrangea marks the left, where the length of the deck meets a corner on each end.

A few feet farther right, down the length of the house than the limelight, I crouched by the deck steps the dog uses to do his business and get into mischief. Ethan stood almost all the way to the lacecap on the other end.

I had to reel him in by the tether, a vinyl-coated wire cable, which luckily gave way as it slid back across and around the ends of the unused boards.

Once he reached the exit, Ethan had to dip his torso down into that divot he had dug in order to squeeze out with an inch or two to spare. He’s a skinny dog, but this was still fairly impressive.

I’ve known various critters to live beneath our deck and around the yard, including chipmunks and rabbits. I’ve seen a gray vole in the front yard beds, plus a tunnel of soil something had dug in an irregular, meandering curved line through the brown.

We’ve enjoyed natural lawn aeration that we deduced either skunks or raccoons had accomplished, digging for grubs in that same area beside the bed nearest the steps.

In the open field near the neighborhood playground and jungle gym, we’ve encountered deer droppings and scattered feathers from birds striking the power lines above.

And once, while walking my former dog Elyse toward that same clearing that stretches across the street, as we approached the area, a car slowed beside us and two ladies told me there was a coyote up ahead, to be careful with the dog. That sent us in the opposite direction back home.

With these experiences, near-misses, and all the forensic evidence, we’re well aware that it’s best if the dog does not go under the deck for any reason. Plenty of claws, teeth, parasites, and diseases make suburbia a wild kingdom.

Then, of course, the nails on those deck boards pose injury risk, along with the uneven ground causing the boards to lie unevenly. It must become strictly off limits.

I figured it was certainly possible, if not probable, that Ethan had grabbed hold of some tender morsel of scat or remains or babies that maybe he shouldn’t have.

It was too dark, at mid-day, as I peered underneath, to see anything definitive without risking myself by going in or by walking around to the lacecap. There my access to the dog would be less but my view closer and clearer.

I did not want to waste time investigating. The dog had to come out now.

So then out he came, panting and pleased with himself for escaping the day’s heat, and I promptly shoved a large plant pot, filled with old, heavy soil from both winter and spring, into the corner to limit his access should he happen to try again, even while I watched. One never knows.

Then, I used a towel to scrape off the damp dirt caked to the underside of Ethan’s toenails. This took a little time; his nails had already needed trimming.

The next day, yesterday, I supervised more closely.

We clearly have training to do to keep Ethan out of the flower beds in the first place, out from under the deck, and away from chewing on my hydrangea branches, among other no-no’s.

Luckily, although he is a tough chewer and is becoming a digger, he rarely eats anything he enjoys chewing on that’s not designated edible for dogs. This sidesteps major hassles, dangers, and vet bills.

This time outside with Ethan, I was eating cereal topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a late breakfast by most standards at 11 a.m. At first seated in a deck chair, I decided to move after I noticed three yellow jackets starting to congregate in my vicinity.

What happened next led to a remarkable discovery. . . .

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Come back for Part 2 when all will be revealed, plus a little more.