Canine Forensics

The Society for California Archaeology is holding their annual meeting in Ventura this week. In conjunction with that, Connie and I attended a presentation last night from the Institute for Canine Forensics. This group trains and promotes the use of dogs to locate dead humans both of recent and long-buried vintage. It is an outgrowth of the use of dogs by search-and-rescue teams.

Two members of the Institute and their dogs (both Border collies) gave a talk and demonstration of how the dogs are trained, the types of projects they have done, and their potential to help archaeologists in their research. It was interesting and entertaining. At the beginning of the talk, the dogs were taken out of the room, and some “targets” set around the seating area: human teeth, dirt fill from around a human burial, lumps of cement, and pig teeth.

The dogs are trained to “signal” by taking a down or sit position when they encounter the scent they are trained for. After the talk, the dogs were allowed to search the room and signalled at the human teeth, ignoring the pig teeth and cement. They hesitated at the fill dirt that was sitting in an open bag on the floor. The handlers said that when the dogs get a visual with the scent, they sometimes doubt themselves, as though they are thinking “This is too easy to be real.”

The handlers freely admit that the dogs have problems picking up scent in hot and dry conditions or when areas are waterlogged. They also have trouble in heavy clay soils or when burials are very deep. But it appears they can be of value. Please look at their website for descriptions of projects they have worked on.

One interesting project they discussed was the excavation of the Donner Party Camp at Alder Creek here in California. You may recall that I posted on this controversial project in January. The archaeologists who conducted the excavation there reported that though they recovered large amounts of bone they found no direct evidence of cannibalism, something surprising to most who know the history of the Donner Party.

The handlers from the Institute were invited by the archaeologists to visit the Alder Creek site while it was under investigation. In the talk last night, they said that their dogs signalled all over the meadow where the site is located. They said the dogs’ reactions seemed to indicate that the scent was scattered and diffuse, not concentrated as they get over a burial. The dogs reacted most strongly to the hearth areas that were excavated.

I found this very interesting. Perhaps cannibalism did take place at Alder Creek, and the bone was smashed into such small pieces that the archaeologists couldn’t identify it. The ladies from the Institute seemed quite unaware that their dogs’ reactions contradict the archaeologists’ conclusions.

Designer Grits

Just so we can be ethnically diverse here, I have to put up this companion post to Steve’s on risotto from earlier this week. He gets to honor his Italian heritage – I get to honor my Southern redneck Scots-Irish heritage. This LA Times article says that grits are starting to move into high-end cuisine to take their rightful place alongside potates, polenta and risotto. But not your everyday off-the-shelf grits: special old-school stone-ground varieties that take two hours to cook.

Though I say I celebrate my Southern heritage by talking about grits, it is of course truly an inheritance from our Native American antecedents along with its first cousin, hominy. Hominy is another wonderful over-looked food waiting for its day in the sun. People who say they don’t like hominy have likely never tried that delicious Southwestern hominy-based stew, posole, one that I know Steve and I both like.

Grits were a staple in my family when I was growing up in Arkansas and Tennessee. We still eat them a lot and one of my great accomplishments as a parent has been passing on the love of grits to our kids.

Aussie Speak

A young lady who works in my office is Australian, a transfer from our Melbourne office. She is a geologist; very bright, capable and funny. It is interesting to talk to her about her impressions of this strange country she finds herself in. Of course, the fact that her experiences here are mostly in California ups the “strange” quotient, but that can’t be helped.

Last week she was sitting in our break room leafing through an office furniture catalog.

“What are you looking for in that ‘wish-book’?” I asked her.

She looked at me quizzically, “A wish-book?”

“It’s a Southern slang name for a catalog. You page through the catalog, point at things, and say, ‘I wish I had that.'”

“Oh. Well, where I grew up we always called them ‘dogalogs’ – I never knew why.”

Then her eyes widened, “Oh! Dogalog – catalog! Of course!”

How To Interest A Big Publisher

Society is not breaking down. Society is broken.

I caught this bit at Yahoo news, about a college student who spent his spring break in Wal-Mart (or should we spell that, W@L-M*RT?). Skyler Bartels haunted the fluorescent interior for 41 hours in a row, watching movies, playing video games, eating from the snack bar and stealing naps in the garden department. He planned to write an article about his experience but decided against that when he failed to meet his goal of a full-week’s stay. The greeters were getting wise to him, and Bartels had to leave before he was thrown out.

But was the project really a failure? Read on:

The Des Moines Register…called to ask him about the experience. Once the story ran, TV networks began calling.[Bartels] also talked with a book agent, has been contacted by New Line Cinema about a movie concept and did a radio interview with National Public Radio.Bartels told The Associated Press he has decided the stunt wasn’t such a failure after all.“I’m incredibly happy with the press coverage,” he said. “It would be kind of silly not to accept it with open arms.”

In a spasm of sheer meanness, I sent this story to Steve. I told him he was going about this writer-thing all wrong. No need to actually WRITE. All you have to do is hang out a few days at Wally World. Steve comes back, “You blog it, Matt. If I have to do it I’ll shoot myself.”

Maybe we should file this under Doom and Gloom.

Girls With Guns

The incomparable Tam, queen of snark and Mistress of Coal Creek Armory, deconstructs a breathless and idiotic piece on female shooters.

“Why is it that when some bright spark in the marketing department at Apple, Cannondale, or Pontiac notices that slightly more than 50% of the planet’s population is setters rather than pointers, it gets two column inches on page 24 of the WSJ, but when their counterpart at Remington or Smith & Wesson does likewise, it calls for a panting TeeWee news spot from ABC? Build a Saturn that has room to stow a purse in the front passenger compartment, and nobody notices. Make a SIG small enough to fit in that purse, and shoulders get dislocated in newsrooms across America as folks reach for dusty tomes by Freud. Weird.”


Update: the link doesn’t seem to be working. Go to View From the Porch and scroll down…

Risotto and Rice Fetishism

Reid sent this LAT food column on risotto (which I still call “risott’ ” in the mountain dialect of my grandparents) for my comment. What did I think?

Well, you’d certainly get a good dish if you followed the cook’s advice. But he sure takes it solemnly (not at all the same as seriously).

I never knew there were separate names for every step, like adding butter, and I have been making it for almost 50 years….

I think I said the same thing in an essay in here using fewer words.

He needed a special inspiration to think of making it?! (Maybe because he seems to see it as such a … BIG THING?) We make some variety two or three times a week.

And finally, drop the rice fetishism and the rare- rice mystique. Arborio is nice, but you can make it with any of the shorter high- starch rices from supermarket medium- grain to (even) sushi- type— just avoid long- grain types like Basmati. My grandparents used ordinary medium- grain and it worked then, as it does now.

Cooking technique is important, but there is a difference between the kitchen and Church– or even an art gallery. I prefer Bourdain’s playful, even raunchy attitude to food to hushed worship…

Flu Update

It seems most scientists are a lot less panicked by Bird Flu than the press or, worse, European governments are. Here is the latest by the NYT’s invaluable Nicholas Wade on why the number of mutations needed for H5 to become pandemic is less than likely to occurr.

Most likely we’ll eventually be attacked by some OTHER flu.

“Foodies” vs AR?

I don’t particularly like the pop term “foodies”, but when a phenomenon involves New York and Berkeley, I am tempted…

Even as the coursing battle heats up, no fewer than three books defending hunting and “scavenging” (to use the author’s own term) in the strongest terms are being published, virtually simultaneously.

Pehaps the wildest of the three– and the only one I have yet read in its entirety — is Steven Rinella’s The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, in which the author, a twenty – something writer from Michigan who grew up hunting and fishing, finds a copy of Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire. Rather than thinking it a musty curiosity, he sees it as a challenge, and decides to plan a year’s hunting and gathering inspired by its recipes, culminating in a three-day feast at his home in Miles City, Montana.

The book is by turns hilarious, dead- serious, and touchingly innocent (Steve, the “swallow” of Escoffier’s bird’s nest soup is an Asian swift which makes its nests from saliva– it is no wonder that boiling a Cliff swallow’s nest yielded you nothing but warm mud!) But it is an intrepid account, and as good a defense of real eating and acceptance of mortality and killing as I have seen in a lifetime of interest in the subject. Rinella hunts for crayfish and frogs and snapping turtle in his native Michigan, big game in Montana and Alaska, eels in New York, and lingcod and octopus on the Alaska coast. He has an almost incomprehensibly hard time getting street pigeon squabs, and then being allowed to kill them by various sentimental friends– perhaps the funniest running subplot.

I think the book’s three highest points are his encounter with Ron Leighton, a Tshimian indian who has honed the perfect subsistence lifestyle in coastal southeast Alaska; an elk hunt in Montana; and the culminating feast. The elk hunt is particularly remarkable because it made me realize how little space even the best “hook & bullet” writers– Tom McIntyre, John Barsness— are given by publishers these days to tell their tales. Rinella, not constrained by magazine word length restrictions, gives a wonderful account of the glory and the drudgery, the boredom and the exaltation, and finally the sheer slog of getting a big animal out of the back country.

As for the feast, he brings it off. The only spoiler was the last minute attendance of– I am not making this up– a militant Vegan chain- smoking “health nut” girl invited without permission by a guest, who spent three days making scathing remarks about the food and people. I feel old. Not only would I have asked her to leave– I don’t think her friend would have received another invitation either.

See Steve’s site for more.

The other books are by writers my readers may know. Michael Pollan, author of among other books the wonderful Botany of Desire, has a new volume coming out that I have already pre- ordered: The Omnivore’s Dilemma. An excerpt, on his hunting wild pig with California chefs, appeared here today in the New York Times. It too starts funny, but to serious purpose. He beginds with an itense description of how alive and aware he feels when hunting; backs off, says that he always considered such things “hunter’s pr0n* “; then admits what he never knew: they ARE true, and a hunter cannot be ironic about them; but you can only know them from the inside. Read The Whole Thing, and get the book.

Finally, Querencia fave Anthony Bourdain also has a new one coming: The Nasty Bits, which looks to be still another choice batch of hard core food- writing. Its particular relevance here is that it begins with what one reviewer calls “..the horrifying opening passages, where he joins an Arctic family in devouring a freshly slaughtered seal”, and includes such things as ” restaurants that still serve stomach-turning if palate-pleasing dishes, such as New York’s Pierre au Tunnel (now closed), which offered tête de veau, essentially “calf’s face, rolled up and tied with its tongue and thymus gland.” ” Just sounds like real food to me..

Which brings us ’round again to Anamall Rites*. The exact relevance of these books to our struggle over “small issues” like coursing is that there is obviously an intelligent audience of eaters out there who WANT real, tasty, ecologically sound food, from Bay Area chefs like Paul Bertolli (who hunts) to the “Crunchy Con” crowd, from me in rural New Mexico to Rinella in rural Montana. They strive to understand hunting and to make personal connections with the land and animals. The AR people, sometimes in an unholy alliance with Big Ag (see the NoNais site for one example) want to shut us down, whether we are hunters or small farmers or backyard growers, using everything from propaganda to lies about “food safety” to bird flu paranoia.

Remember these Wayne Pacelle quotes, collected by Borzoi breeder Rey McGehee:

“If we could shut down all sport hunting in a moment, we would…”

“Our goal is to get sport hunting in the same category as cockfighting and dog fighting…”

“We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States … We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state…”

First they came for the coursers…

* These are deliberate misspellings to confuse spam and unwanted ads– I hate seeing ads for “Pee- tah” pop up in the sidebar…


I know my posting has been patchy of late. Part of the problem is that I have been very involved in the approaching showdown over California coursing ban.

I am also spinning my wheels trying to get a novel started. But part of the problem is simply this: it is spring, after one of my toughest winters in years.

Those of my readers who know me personally know that we have not had a working vehicle since late August, when both of our ancient (’87, ’90) engines blew. Shortly thereafter, the east wall of our 120 year old stone house started toppling outwards, showering us with rocks and chunks of mortar while we slept. Obviously, the most important thing we had to do was to buttress the walls, so we diverted our money there.

No car meant, for the first time since I was 17( I’m 56) virtually no hunting. I got my hounds out a few times but I did no falconry or shooting whatsoever. Luckily my friend Bodie took up my hawk Tuuli who has, with the assistance of his older lurcher and one of our pups, taken thirteen hares at last count. But not only have I been suffering from what amounts to house arrest or at least extreme cabin fever (and less wild meat than we are used to)– my creative processes seem to have ground to a halt. I can’t seem to write without regular walks, and not just within the village’s confines either. (And the village’s edges, where I have always hunted, are being replaced by subdivisions– a later rant). As Bruce Chatwin’s elegant borrowing from St. Jerome says, “Solvitur ambulando”.

The engine on the Jeep should be ready “soon”. When it is, I have hawks’ nests to search for in canyon and wood, bees’ colonies to reconnoiter, places to explore. So forgive me if I may blog less. It may be that I actually write more– walking, as I said above, seems to unblock my head.

Also in spring– time for the garden, pigeon raising, and more. This is an apology, but it is not a complaint…