Home and Shop Companion 0112
Home and Shop Companion 0112

Rural Ramblings – Spring 1980
Ralph C. Miller

“May This House Be Safe From Tigers…” The late Author, Artist and raconteur – Alexander King, chose to call the second volume of his memoirs after those, the words I believe of an old Hindu benediction. As I recall his explanation he had a friend, a convert to Zen Buddhism, who always pronounced the prayer on leaving the King premises. When King ultimately asked the reason behind it the friend countered with a demand to know if King had been bothered by Tigers in the three years he had been using the benison? King of course had to admit that his house had indeed been free of big, striped cats; the friend then declared that he had no intention of changing anything that obviously worked that well.

I don’t choose to argue with success and the fact that Mr. King lived in an upper floor apartment in New York City at the time is probably not relevant. Undoubtedly there are still a few places in the world where saying “May this house be safe from Tigers” would be considered relevant and an extremely courteous blessing. Some places surely – but not nearly so many as there were once.

I think I read not too long ago that the worldwide population of wild tigers was estimated at somewhere between 2000 and 3500. Now I don’t think I’d care to live next door to even 100 of them in the wild state but I do love Tigers (when they can’t get at me), and it would depress me to think that they may one day disappear completely.

In a recent column I mentioned the homanid footprints uncovered on the Laetoli Plain in Africa. Frozen in time in volcanic ash they were dated at something like 3.6 million years old. At the same time, in the same material and most probably from the date they found prints of many animals, some now extinct, many which with minor evolution have come down to the present day – and including the sabre toothed tiger.

Additionally, when this country boy arrived for the first time in Los Angeles all those 40 odd years ago, he visited in order first the ocean, then Hollywood, then the La Brea Tar Pits; expressly to see the site and view the bones (in replica at least) of the same big cat. People who study such things and pass as experts say the Sabre tooth very likely originated in the Northern Hemisphere when there was a land bridge between North America and Asia. Later they spread southward and skeletal remains are found in every part of the world.

Evolution has shortened the huge fangs somewhat and the present animal is smaller – a mere 9 or 10 feet overall, but they are still one of the most beautiful and deadliest killing machines the world has known. How they dwindled from a once global range to a handful of habitats in Asia can be attributed to several probable causes, but chief among them can be expressed in a single word – man.

Those familiar with this column know I frequently get carried away by subjects not seemingly connnected to Small Farms. My answer to that as always is that farming antedates every other occupation except maybe hunting and for that reason everything relates to farming at some point. With Tigers the connection is even more direct than one might think.

India, China, Siberia, Malay, Sumatra – over most of the present range of the tiger an exploding population and the clearing of forest and jungle for field or plantation reduces not only the range of the tiger but more importantly of his wild prey as well. Shove a herd of cattle, sheep or goats up against the big predator and he does what comes naturally. And when he gets too old or crippled to go after the herd he frequently eats the herder. After that the pressure mounts to wipe out not only the maneater, but every other cat found over a wide area.

Of course our?sympathy is with the herder or his survivors, but it is difficult to make a strong case against the Tiger. Especially when you think, as I do, how like the plight of the big striped cat is that of the Small Farmer. Both began somewhere back of recorded history, spread across the world and now are in danger of being pushed out of existence by the current direction of our civilization.

Lest we get the idea that our continuing existence as Small Farmers is much different and more important we need to take another look. The difference is superficial and relatively temporary. The regimentation of the independent smallholder is closely bound to the same principle that rules against the wild tiger. Something that is usually foisted on us under the guise of the inevitability of progress. If the Tiger had a vote he’d call for a slight change in that prayer; “May this house be safe FOR Tigers.”

To switch metaphors: I know that at this point many readers out there are saying, “Oh, here’s another one; just let him try raising cattle or poultry or sheep – whatever, then see how fast he takes up for predators.” You’re right as far as it goes; I’ve lost a few myself and I know the feeling. I only say there are no absolutes and that only seems like a contradiction.

A while back an expression found its way into American idiom which I deplore in principle. For the benefit of those who don’t live in our American West I guess I should explain where it comes from. Some time back when the SFJ Editor and his Brothers and Sister were growing up, an Airline indigenous to the West started a certain series of TV commercials. With the voice over of the announcer an animated cartoon would show an airplane with the Company logo and a usually bemonocled, supercilious parrot riding atop. As the announcer finished touting the alleged advantages of the company the parrot would lean back, raise a glass of champagne and intone, “_____ Airlines, the o-only way to fly!”

It caught the fancy of the kids, the Nation and for all I know all the English speaking world. Your particular enthusiasm of the moment was ‘the only way to fly!’

I rode Brand X airlines a few times when they were going my way (I’ll always think they overcharged me on excess baggage once); I found them on the whole no better or worse than others. I am not sure if they are doing business under the old name at present. They were smaller than the giants at the time then I believe they merged with another and are still somewhere in the pack.

I remember one trip with them when a half dozen people had to be bumped in Las Vegas. I am sure those people at least would agree that there is no such thing as the ‘only way to fly.’ Catchy slogans notwithstanding too much depends on circumstances and the point of view. It is difficult to be objective while you are looking at the carcasses of dead sheep or a hawk is carrying off one of your chickens; on the other hand they were here first and could perhaps make a good case that man is the worst predator. All we can hope for is some kind of balance. The peaceable kingdom is at least a worthy dream if not always practical.

In partial explanation of my empathy for tigers, when still in my teens I went off to the University for a brief time. It was a healthy walk from the dorm to the Zoo in Vilas Park but as a change from the cattle and horse barns I liked the animals in the Zoo. When the cold weather came and the animals moved inside I followed and took refuge in the heated lion house. If I recall correctly there were about a dozen cats in there and at least three were tigers.

The lion may be designated the King of Beasts but the Tiger is from Asia where King is only a word for rulers of those effete Western cultures. In Asia conquerors were called Great (Genghis) Khan, Grand Mogul or Timour the Iron Lord that we call Tammerlane.

Sitting alone in the room with the caged cats I could see the difference. The lions appeared to accept their captivity and being somewhat lazy appreciated the regular food with no necessity to hunt. Tigers however always seemed to be on the alert for a way out. Even though they may have been bred to captivity their constant restless pacing, their coiled spring appearance even when resting indicated their eternal vigilance.

The first time I sat by myself in that confined area something disturbed the big cats so that one by one they roused and joined in a full throated roar. Whether it was in protest at being disturbed or an exercise for the lungs I couldn’t say. At that moment I wasn’t concerned; I was too busy standing on my toes with my mouth open trying to keep from being deafened by the reverberation in that echo chamber. Needless to say it caught my full attention.

Being younger and less sedentary in those days after things had gotten quiet I dared to set them off again just to prove something to myself. They grew tired of it and so did I but it became a shared experience. On a subsequent visit I sat in the lion house just as dark was settling when one of the keepers entered the elephant quarters next door and turned on the lights to feed them. If I had thought they were making all the noise they could before I was mistaken. I am sure they were always fed right after the elephants but they let the keeper know they didn’t want to be forgotten.

If there is any lesson in all that for us as Small Farmers I take it to be that there is very little to be accomplished by grumbling, protesting or demanding unless it’s done at the right time and to the right people. Not to be political about it 1980 is an election year and like feeding time at the zoo is a pretty good time to get someone’s full attention. At the very least we ought to press for a few thousand acres someplace where Small Farmers could be protected like any other endangered species.

Of course that is what this ramble is all about. The Tiger is just a symbol. There are so many things that impede unlimited progress. Except when we start eliminating them it doesn’t stop there. The stagecoach and freight wagon gave way to the railroad which gave way to the motorcar and truck. Who would have thought ten years ago that deserted filling stations would dot the landscape, that people would ever be moving in from the suburbs or that not only Chrysler but the other American car manufacturers would be in trouble as well. Those things too are a symbol… Progress feeds on destruction – so much so that in the end it must destroy itself.

For all of those considerations we need to take a look at what we have already thrown out and to see what we can salvage for use further down the road. I won’t belabor the point about horse farming although it certainly qualifies. There are other Tigers to be made safe.

In the Fall ’79 issue we mentioned a couple of those we ought to get behind. On page 8 in the piece about patenting seed grains, mention is made of the movement to salvage the original strains of seeds and to preserve them. Somewhere down the road when the hyped up hybrids no longer do their job we will need those basic tools to start over with. The vigor, high yield or resistance of hybrids inevitably run out and we can’t rely on only the newer strains to rebuild.

On page 4 of the same issue is a piece about the American Minor Breeds Conservancy. If that sounds a little highfalutin’ to you I can assure you it’s a real issue. Horsemen can tell you how close we came to losing some if not most of the draft breeds. For certain purposes crosses and hybrids in domestic animals and poultry can be made extremely productive. Here again down the line those crosses eventually become self defeating. If we didn’t have the original strains to go back to we might have to go to New Guinea or Borneo for jungle fowl, wild boar, and wild cattle.

We humans don’t have to take the rap for the extinction of all the species that are gone. The dinosaurs were gone before we appeared and probably the chalicothere died out without help from homanids, although there were prints of the animal found in the tuff on the same plain of Laetoli with those of man and the tiger. The Chalicothere was an ungulate, eater of vegetation, and yet had claws on its feet.

Elephants, gazelles and giraffes, vegetarians all, made tracks in those ashes at the time and have come down but little changed to the present day. Possibly an ambivilance set up by possessing the claws of the predator along with the appetite of the vegetation eater was too much for the poor Chalicothere. If there is a message for anyone in there I am not going to pursue it further.

Many life forms both vegetable and animal have disappeared without help from us, although we have certainly contributed in other cases. And there may still be dead end varieties whose passing shouldn’t affect us too deeply; the difficulty is to know what we need to preserve, to make sure of our priorities and make provision for all that may be needed down the road.

One of the important arguments for holding on to the Small Farm (and the Small Farmer) is that it is often a bastion in itself. By its nature the Small Farm lends itself to the older ways; not being faced with the constant temptation to throw out equipment for something newer, to try the latest in hybrid forms, in exotic breeds, in innovative pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, or to get bigger, faster just to stay in place, the Small Farmer so often clings to what he has not only because he chooses but because he must.

If the present price spiral and energy shortage continues – and there is little reason to think it will not – we may have to return to local marketing on a manageable scale with a great deal of our farm produce. When that time comes the Small Farmer with his labor intensive acres raising crops and animals suited to his capabilities may again be highly competitive. The days when crops can be shipped from Texas, Mexico, Arizona or Southern California all the way to Maine and appear on grocers’ shelves cheaper than local people can raise it may be numbered by the cost of oil, trucks and roadbuilding. Progress again in the act of destroying itself. Now the question is will that Tiger, in this case the Maine truck farmer, survive until that day comes? I think he must… I am well aware that it is difficult to maintain objectivity in a column like this. With so much of it coming out of recollection it has a tendency to sound like a paean to the ‘good old days.’ Also that’s one of the knocks against growing older; we’re always making comparisons and too often merely coloring the truth with imperfect recollection…

Passing through Texas on the train last winter a certain section somewhere between San Antonio and Houston really took my eye. Good looking farms, mostly well kept with fences, cattle, (no draft horses, but we can’t have everything) and I was reveling in it. A man seated near me spoke suddenly, “This part of the country sure has gone to hell.” I disagreed mildly and asked what he found wrong. His explanation hinged largely on some scattered litter along fencerows and roadsides. I conceded a minimal amount of trash here and there but pointed out that after travelling halfway around America I found the area as clean as a park. “No,” he was decided in his criticism. “Folks around here are mostly middle European, Hungarians, Polish, Slavs and they always kept this better than any park. If there had been any trash, even along the roads they’d have cleaned it. Barns and houses would have shone but now –” a shrug, “most of the young folks have gone to the city and the old are just marking time. It’s too bad; you should have seen it.”

I still thought it was the best looking part of Texas but maybe what he was talking about is another Tiger. It’s almost impossible to reach a spot on the face of the earth that isn’t covered with the jetsam of civilization. When I was a young fellow in the Islands for the first time you could have a Luau for 50 people without one paper napkin, paper cup or beer can left behind. You ate pig, rice and poi with the fingers served from ti or banana leaves and without befouling paradise. The Islands are civilized now. From the black sands of the Big Island to Haleakala, from Honolulu to Hanalei it’s a constant battle to keep the landscape from disappearing under a blanket of gum wrappers and pull tabs.

Pollution reaches everywhere. In mid-December I was marking the visible layer hanging over the harbor in Victoria, B.C. This on a day following more than an inch of rain. On the Saanich Peninsula almost to Sidney, B.C. there is a Government Agriculture Research Station. The very next place South of the Station has a field along the road with a hill in the middle; not too big a hill, maybe 50 to 75 feet at the crest. The fine tractor had easily pulled that gang plow straight up over the top of it. You could still mark the furrows by what was left of the top soil up there; the rest ran merrily down the ditch by the highway. Not only water pollution but one of the worst cases of instant erosion I have seen – and all for nothing. If only he had plowed around that hill.

We have so many things we ought to preserve; animals, vegetation, clean water, clean air, even the soil itself, all are close to the danger point in some places. And I have eight Grandchildren.

I mentioned the Luau; not one of my favorites but considered a delicacy was the Mahi-Mahi, a raw fish. Over much of the Globe today there exists the real danger that man will have to revert to eating much of his food raw, and even have to go back to sleeping underground for the lack of burnable fuel. Wood is so scarce in many places, even remote areas, that people have to travel many days just to bring back fuel for the cooking fires. It isn’t just coincidence that this occurs mainly in the countries of the densest populations.

Where Man proliferates Tigers decrease. We have to be concerned. Whenever the pendulum swings too far it will swing back. If we can’t manage a harmonious co-existence nature will exact severe penalties. Another 3? million years from now will Man be just footprints and dusty bones like the Chalicothere?

At the risk of being condemned as a Chauvinist I’d better declare this next bit ‘For Men Only.’ I don’t believe women should be admitted as we mere males are in enough trouble already. There has been a lot said in recent months about the ‘test tube baby.’ Gentlemen, I must tell you that even worse than that exists!

I saw a brief mention of some American research on this just the other day; they were just getting into it, but as far back as 1961 I had it on the good authority of a Professor friend that it was then an accomplished fact. Pete is a Scientist whose knowledge and veracity are without question. He said that in England there had been at least one and possibly more human births where NO MALE CELLS figured in any way. With certain rigid temperature controls, with strict chemical balances they had succeeded in bringing at least one woman to full term pregnancy and a live female child was born.

This has been accomplished many times in lesser life forms but was apparently the first, although not necessarily the last, human case. Whether that child still lives I don’t know, but since Dr. Coad and others knew of it nearly 20 years ago and nothing has come out about it, it seems obvious somebody has kept it under wraps. (Justifiably so, in my opinion!)

Now it is coming up again. The article laid out the direction of the American Research Team and it was essentially the same road. Men, we have to be concerned. Not only are they about to take the fun out of things, but the only possible offspring under this unthinkable process are always female. They won’t need us any more. Talk about endangered species – it’s time to set up a roar. Everyone up on his hind legs and all together…

“May This House Be Safe For Tigers!”

Home and Shop Companion 0112

Home and Shop Companion 0112