Archive for June, 2010

PALA FRUIT: A Riyan fruit with a sweet, spicy taste and just a hint of tartness. As picked, it is grayish and spiny, but when the outer covering is stripped off, a smooth-skinned, green-gold fruit is revealed.

Moose Tale

Here in Interior Alaska, moose are a fact of life. You drive with one eye out for moose—they are big enough and leggy enough that if you hit one, there is a very good chance it will come through the windshield and kill you. Not that the moose—or the car—will be in much better shape.

They love anything in the cabbage family—cabbage, broccoli, turnips, cauliflower—and they aren’t content with eating the occasional plant top. They will go down a row and take one bite out of every head of cabbage, for instance. Small decorative trees have to be protected in the winter, when moose are living on twigs and dormant buds. Fences are merely a nuisance—they used to step right over the 5’ woven wire fence around my property, especially in winter.

They can be dangerous—moose have trampled people to death. I’ve never actually been attacked, but my dogs have scared me silly a time or two. The Shelties used to be quite certain they could run off a moose, and Dot, my Border Collie, was totally confident she could herd one. Unfortunately moose don’t agree. As far as they are concerned, dogs are wolves, and they’ve had to fight wolves to survive for generations. They’re very good at it—much better than the dogs are at dodging moose hooves.

They do disappear during hunting season.

On the whole, I enjoy having moose around. I will grab the camera and take pictures if they come into the yard or are browsing just outside the fence, and I pause to watch them—warily—if I happen to see one near the highway, though I don’t try to take pictures when I’m driving. I do worry a bit about them when I’m riding my tricycle, even though the bike path I use is right beside a road. But my biggest moose scare involved one of the dogs, specifically, Dot.

Dot was already trained to herd when I got her. She taught me a lot about the sport, and I showed her at ranch dog level at both the Tanana Valley and Anchorage Fairs. We also attended the Aussie Fling in Anchorage a few times, and she got her Advanced Trial Dog title on ducks and her Open titles on sheep and cattle. (As to how she got the title on sheep, you’re welcome to pop over to Suffice it to say that she did not always obey my “that’ll do,” which means “Stop herding and come back to me.” She was, however, reliable enough that I had no problem walking the tenth of a mile to get the mail with her loose at my side.

We were returning from the mailbox, almost to my driveway, when Dot suddenly alerted and went into her Border Collie crouch. I glanced idly across my front yard, and froze. Dot was already starting her outrun, but it wasn’t a sheep in the yard. It was a moose. A large moose, with a very small calf at its side. Moose are dangerous to wolves—and dogs—at the best of times. A mother moose protecting her calf…

Dot’s intentions were clear. She was bred to bring sheep to her handler, and she obviously had every intention of bringing this moose to me. The moose, just as clearly, considered Dot a wolf that was after her calf. The huge ears went down, the hair on the neck stood up, and I knew she wasn’t going to be content with just killing my dog.

“Dot,” I screamed as I speeded up my walk down the driveway toward the house door, “that’ll do.”

I don’t know whether Dot was in an exceptionally cooperative mood or whether she’d noticed that this was larger than any sheep of her experience, but she obeyed more promptly than at any trial we’d ever attended. I grabbed her collar and we both retreated indoors–fast. The moose didn’t hang around long—no doubt she was looking for a place without wolves.

I’ve seen plenty of moose since. I grow my broccoli in pots in the old dog runs, behind 6’ chain link. I don’t think it would stop a really determined moose, but there are plenty of other things to eat during gardening season. Besides, moose are fun to watch—as long as you don’t get in their way!

TANALIS: A dish in which crustaceans and marine vegetables predominate, considered a delicacy on Central.

MIRROR: A planet on which life is just beginning to invade the land surface, and is still confined to the wave zone. Very warm. It is highly unusual in that life forms exist which utilize both left-handed and right-handed proteins. The atmosphere is denser than Earth’s and has a much higher carbon dioxide content, but does not actually require space suits.

JIBETH: Originally a philosophical group based on bodily health and the obligation to help others attain that health. With time, it has become primarily a school of holistic medicine noted especially for its herb lore and the use of massage as an adjunct to other forms of healing.

PEACOCK PLANT: A plant grown on Central both for its decorative leaves and its fragrance. The leaves shade to turquoise along the veins, and are covered with purple hairs. When the hairs are brushed they release a spicy fragrance.


WINDHOME: A subtropical vacation island on Riya. Like our Hawaiian Islands it is part of a hot spot volcanic archipelago, but the volcano that formed Windhome is long-extinct.


XIRA: The R’il’nian equivalent of mice.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned. Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.

RAINDROP PLANT: A small Riyan succulent, the leaves of which are useful as a wound dressing.