Thursday, January 31, 2008


High: 23° F
Low: 7° F
Conditions: Sunny with unlimited visibility

Ari has started blowing her coat. It doesn’t matter that we still have at least two full months of winter here in Maine, or that it’s super cold outside, or that she’s blanketing the house in fur. She’s a giant, molting mess. She looks terrible, and I think she knows it.

This makes her irritable. And when she’s irritable, she does bad things. Like stealing food out of a backpack. That was zipped. And hanging on a wall hook. In the basement.

To make the caninaturalist feel better (and to save my house from further damage), we’ve set out looking for similar shedding phenomena in nature.

Here’s a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) that’s losing its bark. It looks surprisingly like Ari’s coat. But this is not a great example, since the tree is dead.

We next consider the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). This plant is distinguished by velvety covering on new sprouts, which protects them from the elements. The staghorn also keeps its furry seedpods through a good part of the winter. This time of year, hungry birds pull apart the flowers, eat the seeds, and then deposit them, undigested, where they will later sprout. This process doesn’t appeal to the caninaturalist, who clearly doesn’t care for the idea of a bluejay stopping by to lunch on her coat. So we moved on.

Our third candidate is the cattail (Typha latifolia). Initially, Ari seems resistant to this comparison as well, especially since the only cattails she knows of are attached to the two cats who like to steal her toys and take food out of her dish. Upon further consideration, however, the caninaturalist softens her resistance. Like Ari, the cattail keeps its fur until late winter. As temps start to fluctuate and the sun returns, it loosens its fur-coated seeds and lets them blow out onto the snow, where it will be carried away by melting waters and grow in settling ponds. We’re getting closer. but Ari’s coat problems aren’t about reproduction. So we move on once again.

The winner of the flora molting contest seems to be our last contender, the white birch (Betula papyrifera). Trees like the maple and oak have a corky bark made up of an accordion of texture and grooves. When the sunlight warms the bark and causes it to expand or, conversely, when the temperature plummets and causes it to contract, the pliability of the bark accommodates these changes. Birch doesn’t have this functionality. So instead of shifting, weaker birch bark splits and then sheds the forfeited pieces. New bark grows in its place. This is not an exact match to a shedding dog, but it’s close.

Ari loves birch—ever since a Passamaquoddy medicine man gave her a piece of the bark to chew, she seeks it out and takes a piece for herself whenever we pass a tree. Now that she knows it is blowing its coat too, I wonder if birch bark will still hold the same metaphysical sway.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Being Caribou

Low: 0°F
High: 25°F
Conditions: Mostly sunny with a light breeze

It was a gorgeous weekend, so the three of us said goodbye to the cats and struck out for an adventure. Our intended destination was the well –named (but poorly-spelled) Catherine Mountain in Downeastern Maine. Once we started hiking, though, we zigged when we should have zagged and ended up at the base of Caribou Mountain instead.

This change of plans seemed to appeal to the caninaturalist, though she looked more than a little disappointed when she discovered that the last living caribou (Rangifer tarandus) was seen in Maine during the early 1930s. Clearly, we had pulled some kind of sinister bait and switch. Ari scowled. I offered to rename the mountain “No Caribou Mountain.” This didn’t strike her as clever.

We told her that this is black bear (Ursus americanus) country: right now sleeping females are waking up just long enough to give birth to a cub. Immediately afterwards, she will fall back asleep for the remainder of the late winter while the cub quietly nurses and tries not to disturb mom. Greg and I love this fact, particularly since it seems to fly in the face of evolutionary biology—or at least successful reproduction. Ari didn't share our interest, probably because—once again—there would be no actual animals for her to observe.

Still, she was mostly a good sport about the trip.

Ari adores being in the woods: I think it taps into a primordial desire to throw off the mantle of domestication and try out life as a wolfy, wild thing. She bites at the air and assumes very serious expressions and pretends not to notice that she is still attached to a leash. This is her best wild dog face. What do you think?

Being a wild dog also means you have to pretend not to notice the terrible racket humans make on their snowshoes, which are noisy enough to ensure any self-respecting animal in a 2-mile radius would make itself scarce. Dogs on leashes don't get to make these choices. This can make them quietly vindictive: I’m pretty certain I heard wolfy laughter as I tripped over a submerged root and went sailing. Domestication is tough, especially when you really, really want to be a wild dog.

Or a fit human.

Caribou Mountain is no slouch, at least by East Coast standards. The vertical rise is close to 1000 feet, and the pitch is remarkably steep in spots. Greg and I were well-winded by the time we reached the top; Ari, on the other hand, looked bored: Hey, guys, when does the real hike start?

I told her I thought she was showing off. She pretended not to hear.

Her wolfy resolve crumbled, though, as soon as we stopped for lunch. Wild things don’t eat peanut butter sandwiches. She took half of one anyway. And, once we reached the truck, she made no bones about fashioning an elaborate nest out of our winter coats and snoozing the whole way home. Wild canid? Maybe not today.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


High: 12° F
Low: -7° F
Conditions: partly cloudy with occasional light

This time of year, caninaturalism requires a lot of excavation. That’s good news for a husky mix like Ari, since the husky part of her heritage is (in)famous for their digging prowess. But lately, someone or something has beaten Ari to the punch:

Across the fields and meadows around our house, we’ve been noticing what archeologists call test pit sites: small sample cores taken to see what lies below. In this case, what lies is overwintered grass: not quite as nutritious as hay, a little bit better than straw.

And judging by the tracks around these sites, they are becoming increasingly interesting for our neighborhood deer. Given a choice, whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) prefer to subsist on Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) this time of year.

It has a higher nutritional content and better calorie ratio for the winter months. Plus, no digging is required. So why are the deer suddenly so interested in our terrestrial frozen food section?

Ari and I set out this afternoon to visit the cedar bog in the woods behind our house, hoping we could discover what’s up. The caninaturalist found the main deer path right away.

And then reveled in her discovery.

By the time we made it to the cedar bog, the reason for our deer’s shift in dining habits was clear: there are no more cedar boughs within reach.

I’m 5’8” on a good day. As this amateurish self-portrait shows, the cedar boughs are stripped clean to a spot somewhere just over my head: too tall for most deer to reach. So instead of the characteristic, scaly green boughs, what exists at deer-eye level is this:
Even less nutritional value than the grass. This isn’t good, either for the hungry deer or the damaged trees.

Late winter is a lean time for most animals, especially in the boreal forest. I’ll close today, then, with a recipe for Ari’s favorite dog biscuit recipe. Not much consolation for foraging wildlife, but a great way to tell your dogs you love them.

Ari’s Oat Biscuits
1 cup flour (I use whole grain spelt or brown rice flour)
1 cup oatmeal
½ cup wheat germ
½ cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons molasses
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Pinch of salt
Dash of honey

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add molasses, butter, 2 tablespoons oil, and ¾ cup water. Stir well, then turn out on a well-floured surface. Knead for 2-3 minutes, then roll into a thick round. Cut biscuits and layer on baking stone. Mix remaining 1 tablespoon oil with dash of honey. Brush on biscuits. Cook at 350° F for approximately 30 minutes. Let cool and harden before storing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Low: -7
High: 12
Conditions: sunny with blustery winds
I caught a glance of the barred owl (Strix varia) by accident. The phone rang and, as I raced past the window to answer it, something caught my eye: large, white, bobbing in the very chilly wind. I stared for an hour, looking for identifying markings that might distinguish her and confirm my identification. At least 20 inches long and nearly all white, save for a few pale brown markings, she was striking. I was transfixed, watching her perched, eyes closed, thick belly feathers draped over her feet.

The cats sat opposite me, looking out another window for signs of nuthatches and chickadees. There were none, of course—these birds are far too smart to dally when a giant predator has decided to come out for an unexpected morning visit. I tried to stir the cats, to show them what I was watching outside my window. But they weren’t interested.
I took my camera and the caninaturalist outside where we could get a better look. The owl continued to sway on the branch of a mature ash (Fraximus pennsylvanica). She saw us, and sat watching us watch her. Or rather, watching me watch her. Ari had no idea someone else was there: no movement, no smell, no sound. Instead, she nosed around the snow—perhaps looking for the same rodent population as the owl. More often than not, caninaturalism requires movement—or at least a lot more than a still visual image.
I pointed and cooed and tried to gently coax Ari’s head up in the direction of the owl. Nothing. After fifteen minutes, I was defeated: my fingers went numb and we went back inside. Ari returned to her bed upstairs; the cats continued to pine for bird t.v.; and I wished that some other creature could witness this scene with me.

I called upstairs to Ari. “Don’t you know what you’re missing? There’s an owl. . . outside. Right outside our window!!”

She pretended to snore. I was certain we had to watch--at least one of us had to follow this owl.

I gathered my laptop and set up shop next to the window, where I could study the bird between paragraphs. She remained still, just giving a slight swivel of her head now and then. I noticed each time. We sat like that, alone, for nearly three hours. I began to wonder if we could sit together all day. Sometime later I got up to brush my teeth, certain the owl would wait. But when I returned, she was gone.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Low: 17° F
High: 38° F
Conditions: Unbelievably variable.
There’s an old saying in Maine: if you don’t like the weather here, wait a few minutes. That’s a little folksy, I know, but it’s also true. Today was a perfect case in point. It was also a great opportunity to study caninaturalist behavior in variable meteorological conditions. I’ve been working under a hypothesis that Ari’s weather preferences match my own: in other words, temperate and sunny = good; cold and rainy = bad. In a day when almost every possible weather condition comes and goes, it’s easy to log some data about how a rowdy young dog feels about the day. 6:00 a.m. Thick, heavy snows. The wind gusts in disorganized stutters, and the entire landscape feels a little more dynamic than normal. I think it’s meditative. The caninaturalist, on the other hand, is a bundle of frenetic movement. She flies on and off the snow banks, then launches somersaults and enthusiastic rolls in the snow. But her heart isn’t really in it. She seems distracted and more aware of her surroundings than usual: she leaps up and out of a roll with ears flattened, then surveys the horizon. Nose up, she tries to catch the direction and contents of the wind. Only the stalwart chickadee is out this morning, but the world is moving and Ari wants to understand how.
10:00 a.m. Snow has changed to what our weatherman euphemistically calls a “wintery mix.” That might seem to suggest something pleasant, like a cocktail or a salty snack or even an adolescent dance. A novice might think that these conditions are a lovely time to be outside. But if that novice is a human walking a dog, he or she would be very, very wrong. These conditions simultaneously sting and soak; they make even a paved road unpassable, and send our brave chickadee back to her hidden nest. The caninaturalist turns surly, leads us outside just long enough to pee, and then skulks back into the house. I am not-so-secretly relieved.
1:00 p.m. Wintery mix has become intermitten rain. In spite of my complaints last week, I have to admit I find these conditions preferable to late morning. So does the caninaturalist. We venture outside, where she sniffs at the evaporating snow. Still no sign of animal traffic, but the precipitation has created a small pre-vernal pool filled with swamped timothy grass. An omnivore through and through, Ari sucks the grass out of the water and eats heartily. I wait impatiently, and play innocent after giving her leash a tug. When we return inside, there’s a bounce to her step I can’t really understand. All I feel is cold and wet. But she’s satisfied, and back home makes a point of shaking out the rain onto me and the cats—just to show off. 3:00 p.m. The sun has returned, and the landscape has taken on a decidedly spring feel. We strap on snowshoes and head out to brave the heavy groundcover. Several species have beaten us outside: Ari leads us first to the meandering tracks of a red fox, either out for a stroll or looking for a quick rodent meal. The caninaturalist flings snow behind her, looking for leftovers. No such luck, and she soon tugs us forward, hoping to find other activity. I comply and enjoy it for a good hour, but receive a dirty look when I finally turn us back towards home. 5:00 p.m. Dusk—usually the stillest part of the day. But this evening, traffic is increasing. Two crows chatter their way overhead, startling the pup and causing us both to pitch our heads backwards and towards the sky. From this position, we can also see the recent work of the downy woodpecker, who has been stealing hibernating insects from a rotting tree. Winged activity is soon overshadowed, though, by a herd of deer picking their way through the grove. Ari is frantic in her interest: she rises to her hind legs, then hops up and down while chortling at the herd. She spins back and forth, barking at me to follow. When I don’t, I get an even dirtier look. It’s time for both of us to eat, but I'm more interested in casserole and kibble than I am venison. Ari doesn’t even bother with her biscuit back inside: it's small consolation when we could have been chasing giant, musky creatures across the forest. 8:00 p.m. The winds have risen sharply, turning our log cabin into a kind of harmonica as the gusts force their way through chinked logs. The cats look concerned, and hunker down under my desk. The caninaturalist is oblivious, snoring loudly in her dog nest. I wake her gently to go outside one last time. She pretends not to hear. I give her a nudge, and she rises reluctantly, make a great show of shaking her tags and stretching before making her way to the front door. Outside, it’s all starlight and mystery. I want to explore, but Ari is on high alert. She checks for porcupines, pees quickly, then pulls us back inside. This time, she gets the dirty look.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

dog du jo(u)re

Caninaturalism is immensely gratifying: I’ve learned so much letting Ari be my guide in the natural world, and I’d like to believe that we’re both better for the experiences we’ve had. That is, unless you consider her need to expend tremendous amounts of energy and my commitment to cardiovascular fitness. Neither gets accomplished when you’re wandering around an oak tree, waiting to see if a vireo or a chipmunk might stop by.

Ari and I love to run and ski together, so after talking with some great folks already in the know, we decided to begin a formal project of skijoring and canicross. Both involve a sledding harness for Ari, which is then tethered to a nine-foot bungie rope and, in turn, a thick belt worn by me. The former, not surprisingly, involves skis and snow; the latter just a good pair of running shoes and some untrammeled geography to explore.

To get started, we visited Perry Greene Kennels, home of Mainely Dogs sled gear. They initiated us by fitting Ari with different sizes and styles of harnesses.

This took considerably longer than you might expect, largely because Ari was convinced that the stuffed dogs in the above picture were not only real, but about to attack and eat her. Hackles raised and teeth bared, she made an admirable attempt at holding her ground while shouting at the stuffed huskies to back off! 20 minutes later, they still weren’t best friends, but she was willing to hang out with them long enough to try out her first harness.

Once home, and still sweating the confrontation, we practiced wearing the harness. Dogs show stress by exhibiting what behaviorialists call “calming signals”: they avert eye contact, pant, lick their nose, lower their ears, and do anything else they can think of to prevent another individual from continuing aggressive behavior.

Here’s a fun game for the kids at home: how many of those signals can you find in the below photo?
This is not a happy dog.

But this is a dog who loves to run. We practiced a few laps in the driveway until Ari’s tail migrated out from between her legs, and her ears found their way upright. Then we decided to take advantage of the January thaw and try a few road runs.
The pup was tentative, but enthusiastic. After a few jogs, she didn’t even retreat to her crate when the harness came out of the closet.

On Monday, the snows returned.
We were ecstatic. And very, very eager.

Hitched, harnessed, bundled and bound, we made our way outside for our first jore. We had a few directional missteps:

But 20 minutes in, we found our stride. Ari loved it—and I was impressed with her pulling power, particularly downhill (anyone have a better ‘whoa’ command than “Oh, Sh*t!!!” ?)

I began dreaming about Olympic events and cover photos on Dogs Illustrated and the heaps of trophy bling awaiting my genius dog.

And she is a genius. But she’s a cananaturalist genius, and she always will be. By the end of the first jore, she was much more interested in shopping for voles than she was keeping up our heartrates.

Am I discouraged? Absolutely not. If this brilliant canine has taught me anything, it’s that any day out is a great day out. I can’t wait to try again tomorrow.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

rain, rain, go away

High: 42
Low: 34
Conditions: Rain, Freezing Rain, Sleet

For a caninaturalist, rain can often be great fun. It brings out salamanders and spring peepers; it creates mucky puddles perfect for splashing; it enhances smells and redistributes snacks. None of this is true, however, during the January thaw. This rain is cold and enervating. To paraphrase our new husky friend Tubey, January rain in Maine is just plain stupid ( .

Ari and I set out to brave the sleet and freezing rain this afternoon, hoping we could find something redemptive about the weather conditions. It’s swamped our ski trails and made snowshoeing all but impossible, so we stuck to our favorite dirt road to see what we could find.

Not a single animal could be found: no new tracks, no scat, nothing. Anything with any sentience is hunkering down somewhere with a little bit of shelter.

We don’t blame them. There is beauty in a thaw:

But it’s the kind of beauty best appreciated from a distance. Up close and personal, the moisture seeps into your boots and hat; it mats dog fur; it threatens to destroy a new digital camera. On a day like today, Ari doesn’t stop to smell or explore, and she barely acknowledges even the domestic animals we pass on our walk. After 15 minutes, we relent. I take a few hasty photos and we head home, where we can work on some species identification in the warmth and comfort of the house.
Red pine (Pinus resinosa)

Japanese Hydrangea (Hydrangaceae Macrophylla)

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Litter Bug (homo sapien jerkus)

Ari doesn’t care about this part of our canine naturalism project. It doesn’t matter to her that a guy named Linnaeus devised a system of organizing organisms, or that people like Darwin and Mendel and countless contemporary scientists have been tweaking it ever since. Instead, she rests quietly—pensively even—on the back of the couch, staring out the window at all that rain.
Or at least that’s what I think she’s doing.

When I stumble out of my office and away from my field guides, I discover she’s been busy with her own scientific project: couch dissection.
In our house, a quiet dog is usually being a bad dog. I know this. And somewhere deep in my subconscious, I probably even reminded myself about this fact while I was thumbing through tree books. By the time I emerged from the office, however, the damage had been done. I know should scold her for this kind of wanton destruction. But to be honest, I know exactly how she feels. January rain is stupid: we just choose to respond to that stupidity in different ways.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


High: 34°F
Low: 26°F
Conditions: Partly cloudy and gusty, changing to
wintery mix later tonight

The temperatures are dropping back down to reasonable levels, but Ari is still stewing. The cause of her consternation is our local red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Ari loves red squirrels: they’re the highlight of her walks, and she watches them for hours with a look of joyful bemusement. This particular squirrel, however, has broken her moral code.

First, some background: we call Ari “The Hall Monitor.” She has a well-articulated sense of justice and has no qualms about scolding (or tattling) when that ethical system has been breached. This is particular evident with Mouse and Leila Tov, the two feral rescue cats we adopted. Ari reprimands the cats when they get too close to her food dish, when they chew on paper products, or any other time she disapproves of their behavior. When snapping at their noses or boxing their ears doesn’t work, she runs into the next room, takes either me or Greg by the hand, and leads us to whatever feline transgression is taking place.

In the past, this need to police others has always been a strictly indoor impulse in the pup; outside, she’s been all wide-eyed wonder. But that changed this week when the red squirrel started squatting in our shed. The larger (and more placid) gray squirrel (Sciurus arizonensis) builds elaborate leaf-lined nests in the crooks of large oak and maple trees (Quercus rubra and Acer saccharum, respectively):
Our red squirrel, however, took a page from the book of local mice and fashioned a tidy little nest in one of my flower pots overwintering in the shed:

To make matters worse, he’s spent his free time carving a tunnel system leading from said flower pot to our bird feeder station in the side yard. These snowy thoroughfares allow him to move, unseen, from the shed to the bird seed, where (undeterred by our feeble attempts at squirrel-proofing) he stuffs his cheeks with sunflower seeds and suet, then returns to his nest. The visual effect for Ari is a kind of virtual whack-a-mole.

She seethes at the window as the squirrel pops up first in one location, and then another:
Two resulting behaviors seem particularly relevant to our caninaturalist pursuit. First, although she doesn't like it when the squirrel forages on the ground, she really scolds the squirrel when he steals from the actual feeders. Does she think the feeders are the property of our local bird population? Has she created a caste system in which squirrels should content themselves with the dregs on the ground? Secondly, her view of red squirrels during our neighborhood walks has changed as well. They no longer receive play-bows and chortles but, instead, stern growls of warning. Is this a revised Pavlovian response? Is Ivy right—are squirrels really evil? Or has Ari created a kind of Old Testament moral system in which Tamiasciurus hudsonicus has fallen from grace? I don't know. But we’d love to hear what you make of this new development.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

January Thaw

January Thaw: A period of mild weather, popularly
supposed to recur each year in late January in New England and other parts of the northeastern United States.... Statistical tests show a high
probability that it is a real singularity." (Glossary of Meteorology)
The January thaw is here!

For over a century, New Englanders have talked about the January thaw as an annual event that usually occurs during the third week of the month. Each year, temperatures spike, causing a near total collapse of snow banks and ground cover. The result is a big, soupy mess. However, if you’ve had a winter as snowy as ours this year, it can be a real blessing: especially if you’re running out of places to pile snow in your driveway.

Accounts of the January thaw have always been thought of as more folk wisdom than verifiable fact. But lately, meteorologists have found scientific proof that this thaw is more than local legend. Their data report that most years do show a giant upsurge in temperature from the St. Lawrence valley to the Maritime Provinces each January. They contend that the thaw is not only unique to this region of North America, but it’s unlike any other phenomenon in the world.

The 2008 thaw arrived this week in Maine. That’s almost two full weeks early, but Ari’s certainly not counting. As best as I can tell, this heat wave is kind of like Shangri-La in the dog world. In 48 hours, the landscape has gone from frozen tundra to effervescent swamp, ripe with scents and scenes we’d forgotten about during the deep chill. We set out this morning to investigate.

Overnight, the neighborhood red fox family (Vulpes vulpes) hosted a dance party in the nearby hay field; by morning, they had left a crazy scattering of tracks (see above) for our consideration. We dallied in the field long enough for Ari to recreate some of their movements and to wish desperately that she had been invited to participate.
We also stopped by to see our wooly friends, Charlie Horse and Lily (Equus caballus and Equus asinus, respectively), who came out of their barn to play in the slush. Their camera-shy goat colleagues wandered out too, but chose to stay out of this amateur photographer’s frame.
Further down the path, we flushed a band of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) foraging near the stream, and also noticed a real increase in other bird traffic. Ari’s personal favorite is the hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus). She must have stood below his tree for ten minutes before moving on.
Today's Weather:

Low: 34 degrees F

High: 50 degrees F

Ceiling: Unlimited to Partly Cloudy

(Human Translation: more gloppy mess)

(Caninaturalist Translation: Woooheeeeeee!)