Winter is Going

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht..

This is an excerpt from a beautiful medieval poem asking for divine help to find peace in winter’s grip. link As do we all here in the South where winter loosens its hold reluctantly, teasingly. In fits and starts. The forecast for the next 10 days is of moderate temperatures after weeks of bitter weather. I look forward to 71 degrees this afternoon. This is fortunate because, in Central Texas, it’s time to put in part of the Spring garden.

I will start cleaning this week. Yesterday I said good-bye to the ‘Winter’ garden and cut the last small cauliflower and pulled the last little cabbage. I have neighbors who are harvesting beautiful carrots and asparagus. My carrots failed for some reason (I suspect the chickens) and my asparagus has been deterred by bitter cold snaps into the 20’s these past few weeks. Unpredictable old winter gardening.

little onions in cold ground

This weekend, I’ll plant onions, spinach and lettuce.  I’ll try carrots again and protect the seeds with fencing wire. I have to put my spring broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower seedlings in 6 inch pots for planting in the garden later this month. All of these winter plantings will be battered off and on for the next six weeks by freezes, cold rain and icy winds. And they should be fine — adjusting to the roller coaster of warm and cold weather in this climate far better than their human caretaker.

Of course, up North, everything is quiet. The cold protects gardeners from doing much work outdoors. The problem with year round gardening is that one doesn’t get much time off. The other problem is that there is nothing really gorgeous outdoors right now. Even on blistering summer days there will be zinnias and cannas and mistflowers in bloom; the banana trees and citrus trees will be in their glory.

Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’

Now I have only a few blooms on the honeysuckle and some pretty new leaves on the Satsuma orange trees that were beleaguered by 13 degree temperatures in January. I have to look for inspiration to do my work in my imagination.

I was ordering hay for my stock and complained that I had no pasture. The normally gentle hay lady snapped, “Nobody has any pasture now.” She is, apparently, in absolute agreement with the 12th century poet quoted above. Winter grinds. But when people ask me why I go to the trouble of putting in a garden, the answer is of course ‘hope’.

“Hope” by George Frederic Watts

 

Forced March of Civilization

The so-called invention of agriculture is considered by many to be the beginning of civilization. Recent reports and articles about the threat of modern agriculture have accumulated in my files in the past few months. They weigh heavily. We are barely into the new year so I have been reluctant to write about the the future collision of the number of humans who need food and the number of acres of land on our planet that can produce food.The global population is expected to increase by 38%, from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 9.6 billion in 2050. Of course, many factors could intervene to prevent such an extraordinary increase; still how to feed even half such an increase is the stuff of bad dreams when combined with the decrease in arable land.

A UN study has found a worldwide decline of 20% in cropland, 16% in forest land, 19% in grassland and 27% in rangeland. In addition, the UN reports that over 1.3 billion people, suffer on land that is degrading under their feet and they are seeking refuge in cities, losing their cultural identities and depending on the production of their evening meal by ‘others’. link

After a frustrating winter of wind and punishing weather, I have more insight into this move from rural to urban. A pay packet at the end of the day might not seem so bad, even if earned in some horrible factory or mine–or any source of income to avoid the vagaries of growing food.

When families move off their farms, big agriculture moves in. In a perfect world, large, well-funded farmers would work to increase organic matter in the soil, conserve water, build terraces, plant cover crops and rotate plantings. It’s not a perfect world sadly.

George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that that we are “flogging the land to death” and that coupled with  increase in population mass starvation in inevitable. He writes that, based on the above-cited UN projections, the world has perhaps 60 years of harvests left. link

Critics of agriculture write longingly of the more stable lives led by hunter-gatherers. One such critic welcomes a population decline. The aserbic and controversial John Zerzan, an anarchist and primitivist philosopher, is a hater not only of agriculture, but all technology. It is hard to disagree with Zerzan and other anti-agriculturists since where agriculture has been practiced, intensely lush and beautiful land has turned into rocky, dry terrain. link

J. Russell Smith writes compellingly of erosion. For example, in China, “The slope below the Great Wall was cut with gullies, some of which were fifty feet deep. As far as the eye could see were gullies, gullies, gullies — a gashed and gutted countryside… Hence, the whole valley, once good farm land, had become a desert of sand and gravel, alternately wet and dry, always fruitless. It was even more worthless than the hills. Its sole harvest now is dust, picked up by the bitter winds of winter that rip across its dry surface in this land of rainy summers and dry winters.”  link

The Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, much of the American Southeast, my own Hill Country are just a few other examples of soil erosion and the devastation of plants and animals and whole civilizations that follow. Plato complained bitterly that the deforestation of Greece turned Attica into  “a skeleton wasted by disease.”

My moral concerns are shared; mostly by writers dismissed as cranks and extremists by big agriculture. Animal rights activist James Serpell believes the more we attempt to increase the production of food, the more havoc we will wreak. If the beaks are cut off chickens so they can be crowded into tighter cages, and pigs have their teeth and tails removed to prevent fighting in their pens, so be it. It is some trouble to find humanely raised animals and it is expensive to raise or to find food grown where the land is nurtured and not drenched in chemicals. Civilization costs a lot.

Anti-agriculturists claim that a disconnect was created 10,000 years ago when huge farms were created to support cities. How do we reconnect. How do we care.

Tasteless

Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide in reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.” Dan Barber

Taste is being pursued now by chefs who have left their kitchens and sought fine foods where the food is grown. Dan Barber, in his wonderful book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, provides insight: “Truly great flavor— the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder— is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste breaks through the delicate things we can’t see or perceive.”

According to Barber, chefs cannot make delicious food if fruits, vegetables, grains and animals are grown on compromised soil, and the history of American soil is one of “degradation and death.” While Barber gives many examples of food that has been subjected to breeding programs that value chemical growing processes, ease of shipping and long shelf life over taste, the one that resonates with me is the story of bread. The puffy over-processed white stuff in our stores will last forever. It is making some people sick and others suffer blood sugar issues when they eat it.

Barber believes we have lost the real taste of grain which, in days past, had a shelf life of only a few days before it began to spoil. It was the staff of life for ten thousand years and now it’s junk. “Who’s responsible for killing wheat? It’s no mystery— what makes the story of American wheat so interesting, and so tragic, is just how obvious it all was…. Everyone and no one killed wheat. It was the perfect murder.” When I make bread at home it grows mold in just a few days; grocery store bread never gets moldy. Never. Mold doesn’t even like modern bread.

Barber is also enlightening on the subject of ‘the perfect carrot’, which he serves in his high end restaurant as a ‘steak’. The carrot dominates the plate. He can do this only because the carrot is delicious; it is a carrot with a long heritage grown in really good soil. “Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds. It comes from the synthesis… Phytonutrients— like amino acids, esters, and flavonoids— are key to the flavor of the mokum carrot,”

The soil must be alive to produce good food. It breathes, digests and a teaspoon of good soil contains a billion tiny creatures: bacteria, microbes, fungi, worms, grubs, bugs, and slugs. This soil produces a carrot, or tomato or other food that will have ‘persistence’. For example, good wine is ‘powerfully persistent’. It’s in your mouth and nose–alive. Barber even finds persistence in iceberg lettuce. Not the white tasteless variety, grown on dead soil, but the old varieties of the lettuce, “full of flavor, bitter and sweet” at the same time.

Famed chef, Alice Waters, claimed that she did not cook, she picked. She made me laugh when she described a dessert plate containing only a perfectly ripe, delicious peach. In the 1970’s, when she made her mark, breeders had developed low-acid, high-sugar peaches that could be picked hard and shipped cross country–many people forgot what a peach should taste like. Waters reminded us that eating local and seasonal was a easy and cheap and it provided an interface with the natural world. One has to pay attention.

The American love affair with junk food and convenience food has brought us disease and lethargy. The salt and sugar and unhealthy fats do have taste. But there is no persistence of good taste. It is tasteless.

 

 

 

 

Hybrids

Of course hybrid plants. This is the Plantswoman, not the Carwoman. Hybrids are not very fashionable in the upper reaches of the gardening world right now. Generally hybrid plants do not come true from their own seed. This creates a bonanza for seed sellers and garden centers since a gardener can’t just save seed from one year to the next–new seeds or plants have to be purchased every year.

The riot of tomatoes pictured above are not hybrids; some are heirlooms, meaning they have been around for generations and all are open-pollinated, meaning the seeds can be saved and replanted to produce the same tomato year after year. Taste is the most important criteria in these older varieties. It doesn’t matter that they are ‘homely’ looking, misshapen and have little shelf life. Sadly, I have had little success growing them or any other non-hybrid vegetable.

Although hybrids are produced by the most aggressive corporate plant and seed dealers, nature is also a great hybridizer of plants. Hybrids are simply a cross between two plant varieties, a cornerstone of the evolution of plants. Because of all this natural development, most ancient wild plants are no longer recognizable. Two plants growing near each other, the wind, a few pollinators and voila’, something new and different, but often with an added bonus of something called ‘hybrid vigor.’

Plant scientists at the John Innes Centre sought a reason why second generation crosses have more vigor than their parent plants. They rejected natural selection as a key factor in the vigor question. And they concluded that closely related plants have a type of genetic ‘noise’ caused by a high degree of variation in gene activity. That noise is cancelled in hybrids, and the reduced gene activity fortuitously leads to greater vigor. link

Natural selection has been so closely associated with evolution that we overlook other processes that drive life evolving from one form to another. A favorite scientist I cite regularly, Stephen Jay Gould, tells us that “many evolutionists argue that substantial amounts of genetic change may not be subject to natural selection and may spread through the populations at random.” Even Charles Darwin believed natural selection had received too much attention. link

So instead of some plodding path, when plants cross, a little miracle happens. Many home gardeners love the mystery and magic that occurs when breeding their own varieties–seeking a positive genetic outcome after patiently crossing plants year after year. I do not have that much patience, but I am not using old seed lying around the house or seed from local stores this year. I ordered from a respected seed house, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. And I have ordered only hybrid seeds for spring and summer 2018 for two reasons . First, I seek the disease resistance bred into most modern hybrids. An I need the vigor.

My seeds are germinating in seed flats (potting soil in aluminum cake pans). Much is made on the internet and in gardening books about germination. But seeds kept wet and warm will pop up and mine always thrive under my indoor grow lights. The problem is the transition to the garden. Transplants get pounded by rain, eaten by rabbits and squirrels and devoured by insects. Once broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cool weather plants get a foot tall, all is well, so a plant that can grow fast is a plant that can stay alive. In addition, all cool weather plants must race to their finish before the killing summer heat arrives.

My fall vegetable garden of 2017 was not a great success. The weather was extremely wet, the cold came early and bit hard, the insects were voracious. So many excuses. But my practical seed selections have not leaned toward what will be delicious, only what will survive. Next week: taste in the garden. Poor taste, left out too often.

Crazy Little Platypus

Is it a mammal or a reptile or a bird? The remarkable platypus has a thick, beautiful coat of fur and looks at first glance like any respectable mammal. But the mother platypus digs a burrow on a river bank where she lays her eggs. After hatch, unique from all other animals, she nurses her babies with breast milk. In addition, this amazing animal has what appears to be a duckbill, but a very fancy one fitted out with exquisitely sensitive nerve endings called electroreceptors that detect prey. Its reptilian sideways feet scream alligator; the male platypus has a stinger with venom, like a snake, that can sentence a victim to months of pain unaffected by opiates.

The origins and evolution of the platypus remain a mystery and many scholars have declared that this genetic mess “should really be extinct.” Bitter debate raged among eminent scientists of the early 19th century who desperately wanted to ‘classify’ the little creature and now, 200 years later controversy continues. Modern teams of scientists have found that the platypus egg genome matches those previously found only in birds, amphibians and fish. The breast milk of the platypus has genes for the same family of milk proteins found in human milk. The platypus venom tracks reptilian-like genes.

A New York team of scientists found “microRNAs that are shared with chickens and not mammals as well as ones that are shared with mammals, but not chickens.” link  And many scientists draw a false conclusion from this genetic soup. For example, Matt Phillips of Australian National University theorizes, “The new genomic data make a water-tight case for [platypus] egg-laying truly being a primitive retention from reptilian ancestors.” link

Why primitive? Why burden a marvelously adapted creature with this pejorative? It is true that the animal is ancient. The literature, including serious science writing, tells us the platypus was ‘discovered’ in Australia in 1797. I imagine Platypuses were perfectly aware of their existence long before European naturalists first spotted them swimming happily in a river just outside Sydney. The platypus was a contemporary of dinosaurs according to Timothy Rowe of the University of Texas, surviving “without any problem” the 85% extinction of life, including all the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous.  link

One of my favorite scientists, Stephen Jay Gould, writes passionately about the mistake of confusing early or ancient with undeveloped. Gould is both deeply religious and a tireless advocate for evolution; and, in fact relies on Proverbs for his favorite metaphor for evolution: a multi-branched Tree of Life. See Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991. He disdains evolutionists who imagine a ladder where reptiles are on a rung below mammals and are considered more “primitive” than mammals.

The platypus is not some ill-formed creature whose characteristics failed to blossom into complete mammalness. It is instead a perfect animal, in the sense that the adaptions of fur and milk were well and good, but egg-laying and sideways feet built for swimming were good as well, worth hanging on to. Gould urges us to throw off the shackles of thinking one kind of attribute such as egg laying is primitive and inferior and another like feeding babies with breast milk is progressive and superior.

One shackle to lose this year: imagining life progressing ever upwards, the newer always being better. The platypus reminds us that there are old things that do not need be changed.

 

Why Did it Take So Long?

It is always fun to imagine people from the Paleolithic past appearing in our modern world. We can only imagine what questions they might have of us. But what would we ask? I have been reading essays and articles about human inventions recently, one of which wonders, “Why did it take so long to invent rope?” link

Plain old everyday rope. Stone tools have been found in Ethiopia dating back two and a half million years; at least that is the earliest discovery so far. It is easy to criticize early humans for not thinking of tying stuff up until 28,000 years ago; hindsight, always so clear. Lots of useful things were invented before rope: glue (200,000 years ago!), clothing, pigments for painting and dyeing, spears, weaving, the mortar/pestle, the flute. link

Egyptians making Rope
Egyptians making Rope

As is so often the case, once rope was in use, it spread across the world. And ladders. One would think, a human who could craft a cooking pot or a flute could make a ladder. The “first” ladder is shown in a cave painting in Spain, dating back 10,000 years. The painting shows highly motivated humans trying to reach a nest of wild honeybees.

 

Example of the Jiahu symbols, writing-like markings found on tortoise shells, dated around 6000 BC.
Example of the Jiahu symbols, writing-like markings found on tortoise shells, dated around 6000 BC.

At the top of my personal list of “Why did it take so long?” is the invention of writing, used first by Neolithic humans. The excuse given by historians is that some form of paper had to be invented first. But Asian tortoise-shell carvings, pictured on the right, date back to 6000 BC. My list would also include sterilization: Hippocrates boiled instruments used in caring for wounded Roman gladiators but this practice was abandoned until the late nineteenth century. Apparently we can take forever to invent or discover something useful and then forget it.

The most debated question is described in a thoughtful article in Scientific American: “Why Did it Take So Long to Invent the Wheel.” link  Natalie Wolchover writes that humans were enjoying sailboats and harps, building canals and making metal alloys when the wheel was invented during the Bronze Age, 3500 B.C. Large trees were necessary to create wagon size wheels; and, the stroke of brilliance was the carefully fitted axel. Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be all this occurred very late and long after the “toolkits” were available.

Of course it it unfair to look back and gripe about what humans should have done earlier. We put men on the moon before it occurred to anyone to put wheels on luggage. I watched a movie set in the sixties last week and marveled at the characters carrying large suitcases.

It is inspiring though to think that there is something there for us to find, or discover or invent. Some obvious thing that we are just not seeing. Like…rope.

Moon Visits

The elliptical orbit of our Moon brings it near to us each month. Perigee. And on the far side of the ellipses: Apogee. Of course the Moon can roll by in Perigee when it is new or waxing or waning–or, when it is full. It seems very grand that the Moon was full the very day we set out on the new road of the year, 2018. January 1, 2018 was special since the Moon was not only full but close, very close. It visited us at what is called “extreme perigee distance”–only 221,559 miles away. The Moon won’t be this close to us again until November 25, 2034. The closest full moon of the 21st century will fall on December 6, 2052–so mark your calendars! link

Supermoon is the glamorous modern moniker for a full moon at perigee. Some scientists, skywatchers and news media say the difference between a full moon at perigee and one at apogee is not perceptible to the naked eye. Others tout the extra 30 % of brightness and the 14% difference in size.

Such squabbling or scholarly writings, even poetry or pictures don’t help us really “see” our Moon. We have to look at it first hand. And what we see is cold and bright with no hint of the Moon’s history of fire and violence described and illustrated by Ron Miller several years ago. link

Miller tells us that four and a half billion years ago a heavenly body the size of Mars hit the Earth. The ring of debris created by the impact circled the Earth and coalesced into the Moon. Asteroids then smashed into the molten cooling moon creating thousands of lava flows.  Poor Moon.

I love the illustrations here showing the turmoil. The illustration at the top of the page shows the current quiet, stark surface of a Moon that roiled with fire in the past. But no more.

The Moon came this year with a punishing Arctic cold front. It was huge, dimmed by mist but it seemed pure to me, unsoiled by bloody battles or disease or death, lighting a new road that will hopefully be one of peace and health and good living. Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humans v. Wild Pigs

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The conquistadors would leave a few pigs on a lush, warm Caribbean island, and come back a year later to find dozens and dozens of animals; pork dinner for months. Proliferation gone wild. Wild pig hunters joke that the pigs are born pregnant and they certainly multiply at an astounding rate. I had read that there were six million wild pigs but in a recent well-researched article, I have learned the number is up to eight million and no solution exists. link

Several years ago the Texas legislature passed a law making it legal to shoot wild pigs from helicopters. The photo above shows the shadow of the helicopter in pursuit of wild pigs. The problem is that, given the high birth rate, approximately 70 percent of the two million wild hogs in Texas would have to be removed annually just to keep the population of pigs at it current number.

There are, nationwide, about one hundred helicopter services who offer services to landowners, charging about $600 an hour to provide a platform for shooting wild pigs. Even at this price, wildlife agents in Texas have found aerial shooting to be the most cost- effective method of pig control. Texas agents kill 25,000 pigs a year and half of them are shot at from the sky. Private aerial hunters kill between 25 to 70 pigs during a daily run. Since there are up to two million wild pigs in Texas; helicopters would have to fill our skies to solve the problem. It’s math. It works out in favor of the pigs.

Trapping has been used successfully, particularly in areas with dense forests. A family unit of wild pigs is called a sounder and trapping entire sounder families of about 25 pigs is the goal. The problem is the pigs’ intelligence. They learn to avoid traps. If one pig from a sounder escapes, no other pig will ever go near that trap again. New traps are monitored electronically and programed to close only when every member of the sounder is in the trap. The other issue with trapping is that a pig or pigs confined in a trap are going to be extremely dangerous.  A study done in South Carolina found that catching and harvesting wild hogs in traps required about twenty-nine man-hours per hog.

Hunting wild pigs with dogs is effective and often works best if only a few – most often the smartest pigs are left in an area. Hunters use three kinds of dogs: dogs who trail and have good noses to track the hog; dogs that bay when the pig is found; and “catch dogs” that hold the pig by the ear or nose while the hunters come in for the kill. These hunters travel with surgical stapling guns, suture kits, and blood-stop powder and very valuable dogs are outfitted with vests made of ballistic-strength fiber. link

Hunters with dogs can kill at a very modest rate; up to seven in a night using night vision goggles. This is not a solution for eight million pigs; although scientists in Louisiana are working on a night-vision pig-killing drone.

What happens to the dead hogs? There is lively discussion in books, magazines and on the internet of wasting the hunted pigs when people are hungry. And feral pigs are food. One hip Austin restaurant sells feral-hog chorizo and includes hog meat on the restaurant menu when it is available. The pigs that are retailed are trapped and specially processed; the skull of a feral hog is so dense, it cannot be killed with a bolt gun. Around half a million a year are USDA inspected and sold here and abroad.

Which leads to the issue of poisoning the wild pigs. Warfarin is presently the poison of choice; it is laced with bitter sodium nitrate to prevent other animals from eating it. Warfarin is also put into a big Pez dispenser device that only hogs are smart enough to access.

Except. “If Kaput or any Warfarin hog bait is allowed, I cannot guarantee the meat I sell doesn’t have the drug in it,” said Will Herring, a hog hunter in Hubbard, Tex., near Waco, who last year founded Wild Boar Meats.

Except. A video of a black bear ripping into the Pez device caused Louisiana officials to halt plans to follow Texas’ lead in the proposed use of Warfarin.

Except. Pigs are messy and litter the Warfarin laced bait around, where other wildlife and pets can get it.

Except. Warfarin, although widely prescribed for blood clots and strokes, is a leading cause of adverse drug reactions in humans.

Except. Warfarin is used to kill rats and rats have developed a tolerance for the poison. Pharmacologists believe this would be the result if it is used to kill pigs.

Unintended consequences all around us.

 Illustration by Ralph Steadman in Animal Farm by George Orwell
Illustration by Ralph Steadman in Animal Farm by George Orwell

…out from the door of the farmhouse came a long file of pigs, all walking on their hind legs…out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him.He carried a whip in his trotter.  Animal Farm, George Orwell

Giving Thanks — originally published Nov. 23, 2016

We’ll sit down at our feasts tomorrow inspired by the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

The Pilgrims landed in November of 1620. Half died of disease and starvation before the famous harvest of 1621. They were likely joined by thanksgivingthe Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. This tribe had been infected by the bacteria, leptospirosis when European ships had visited in 1616. This disease, thought at various times to be typhus or small pox, killed 90% of the Wampanoag people by 1619. A microbe. Invisible to the human eye. The most horrible, horriblest-ever human invader would stare in amazement at such a death rate.

These grieving people gave thanks and, no matter how much controversy swirls among historians of the “real” truth of the event, we should hold the idea of peace between diverse peoples and thanks born of suffering as sacred. Worth remembering and celebrating after hundreds of years.

My personal thanksgiving goes out to the Native American who planted my 300 year old tree mott. The huge Live Oak has an Elm tree in its center. I understand that the Native Americans planted these trees together. It is horticultural genius, since the shallow roots of the Live Oak are held in place by the deep roots of the Elm, and the tall and brittle trunk of the Elm is protected from our sometimes ferocious winds by the Oak. After a storm, giant Live Oaks will be lying on the ground throughout my neighborhood, their roots exposed; and not 50 feet from my front door a 60-foot Elm (not protected by its own Oak) cracked in half last year during a terrible spring wind.

Comanche woman
Comanche woman

Back in the 1800’s a the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes lived near my home.

The Comanches had come tearing down from the Pacific Northwest, drove most of the Apaches out of the Southwest and were putting pressure from the west on the Tonkawa by the 1800’s. The Tonkawa, called the “original people of Texas”, were pressured at the same time from the east by the white settlers. But some skilled horticulturist from one of these tribes likely planted my combination tree.

Of course, hunting and meat eating were important to the Native Americans, but both the Comanches and the Tonkawa commonly ate corn; roots like potatoes, prairie turnips and onions; vegetables such as spinach; and also wild berries and fruits. Colin Tudge and other scientists believe that agriculture began after the last Ice Age. Neanderthals, Bandits and FarmersHow Agriculture Really Began, Tudge.

Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo
Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo

That is another post. In any case, it is not only the horticultural expertise of the Native American who planted my tree mott that I admire. I am amazed, humbled at his or her long view. This person was creating shade, not for his or her generation, but for generations a hundred and more years away. Oak and Elm are slow growers, planted for great grandchildren. The tree mott may have been 10 feet tall in by the late 1800’s when the American army ‘relocated’ the Comanches and Tonkawans to Oklahoma. Now it’s 50+ feet tall and my grasses, microbes, chickens, sheep, and I seek the shade of this tree on hot days. And we give thanks.

img_0105

 

Pig Out

I saw the wild pig on the highway only a mile or so from my home; killed by a car. Its presence here in Hill Country was unwelcome news. Perhaps not entirely unexpected. Wild pigs, also called razorbacks, Old World swine, wild boars, feral hogs are cutting a path of destruction through 39 American states and four Canadian provinces. There are as many as six million of them currently and they are expanding their territory. As an example of unintended consequences, the ‘Wild Pigs v. Humans’ story can’t be beat.

I have always thought Columbus had quite enough to answer for; but, it turns out he was the first person to bring pigs to America where they went wild–feral. Settlers also brought pigs to the new country. It’s hard to fence a pig. They can dig under, jump over or just power through most fencing so these domestics often ran free and they bred with the feral pigs. Later hunters imported Eurasian pigs for sport; the feral pigs bred with them, too.

This genetic soup resulted in a formidable animal. A tough, smart animal. Their hearing is excellent and they can smell odors for seven miles cross country or 25 feet underground. They can sprint up to 30 miles an hour and swim two miles of open ocean. The males develop muscles in the front of their bodies that thicken like armor and are almost impermeable. Their noses have a special bone, the nasal sesamoid bone, which is connected to the skull only by cartilage and which provides extra rooting support. Some have tusks but these are often lost in fights between males.

Wild pigs invade national and state parks where they devastate grasses and trees and frighten tourists. Their destruction leaves wildlife bereft of food sources; and, they eat foxes, opossums, deer and other wildlife. The wild pigs contributed to the near-extinction of  foxes on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California.

They love farms as well, they will uproot, then feed on fields of sorghum, rice, wheat, soybeans, melons, fruit, nuts, grass and hay. The wild pigs eat food put out for livestock and then eat the livestock young–calves, lambs and kid goats.

Cities and suburbs are not neglected by the wild pigs. They wreck outdoor furniture and root up and eat lawns and gardens. They love golf courses and athletic fields. Pets such as dogs and cats are killed, maimed and sometimes eaten. Wild pigs eat anything and everything.

This miracle of breeding in the wild has left us to cope with an animal that remains vigorous although often host to up to 32 parasite species, scabies, lice ticks, liver flukes, lungworms, tapeworms, the pseudorabies virus and swine brucellosis. When the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded, Belarus, Russia and Sweden were irradiated. A quarter of a million wild pigs live in Sweden; and in some parts of Sweden wild pigs have been found to have high levels of radioactivity– but the pigs seem fine and continue to tear up the countryside. link

The subject of wild pigs brings on a certain denial of reality in humans. For example, hunters. I have great respect and affection for my hunter friends. And serious hunters love wild pigs. Wealthy hunters imported Eurasian hogs for sport in the 1890’s and again in the 1930’s. “You can fool deer 50 percent of the time, but hogs’ll win 90 percent of the time.” link. The fun of the chase on one hand; destruction on the other.

And scientists. I have great respect and love for my scientist friends. But wildlife biologists insist on on classifying and studying wild pigs as a non-native species. After 600 years of breeding and interbreeding.  Designating them as foreigners just might be holding up problem solving and research funding.

A final example: animal lovers and activists. I love and respect them. Wild pigs are voracious consumers of many protected species, sea turtles red-cheeked salamanders, short-tailed shrews, red-back voles and other precious threatened creatures. But PETA is now recommending taking wild pigs to refuges and containing them in ‘inexpensive’ fencing. First, no fencing is inexpensive and second, the capture and transport of 6 million wild pigs would be a nightmare. This verges on fantasy given, well–the nature of the beast.

The old joke is that there are two kinds of people: those that have wild pigs and those that will have wild pigs. My friends and I shook our heads and enjoyed our wine the day the wild pig was seen on the highway. Perhaps it was just an anomaly. They might not come here. We embraced the escape from reality just like all of our human friends.