Category Archives: books

Temple Grandin Goes to Hollywood

Claire DanesAsperger’s Syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum first identified in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, has become a popular dramatic plot device in television shows such as House, Bones, Law & Order and Degrassi: The Next Generation. It defined the fascinating profile of the literary protagonists in Mark Haddon’s 2003 award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 posthumous work, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Now Claire Danes is pegged to play the role of Temple Grandin, in an HBO movie to be released in 2010.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal. But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.
~~ Temple Grandin

Grandin overcame the limitations imposed by the disorder to become a top scientist in the field of humane livestock handling.

High school was especially harsh for Grandin, who was called “tape recorder” by other kids because she repeated things over and over, and she was hypersensitive to many forms of sensory stimulation. She eventually graduated with degrees from several universities, going on to write influential essays on animal welfare and designing humane slaughterhouses. She appears regularly on the news talk show circuit and was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and Errol Morris’ First Person: Stairway to Heaven.

In part, the fascination with Asperger’s is due to the growing social acceptance of neuro-diversity – a buzzword that aims to promote an awareness that not all brains are similarly wired. Many of the books about the disorder have been written since the 1990s, and along with that interest has come a revisionist diagnosis of many creative and scientific geniuses.

The ascendancy of Asperger’s as a popular fictional device or “It Disability,” as some have called it, is partly due to the fact that patients often present as “normal,” except for their social awkwardness and obsessive interests.

Hollywood likes to portray them as tragically misunderstood and endearingly eccentric.

“Any kind of awareness in the mainstream culture is good, I suppose. But it’s a double-edged sword. You have to ensure that it doesn’t negate the severity of the problem,” says Margot Nelles, founder of the Aspergers Society of Ontario.

Aspergers: Separating Reality from Hollywood.

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Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.

Raven Steals the Sun

Raven Steals The SunThis is an ancient story told on the Queen Charlotte Islands about how Raven helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water and Fire to the world.

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the
guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire.
Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden.
People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her.
In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he
pleased Gray Eagle’s daughter. She invited him to her father’s
longhouse.

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle’s lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he
dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there
became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the
world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The
smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them
black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It
struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike
two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven’s feathers never became white again after they were blackened
by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

Ravens symbolize many things in different cultures. Native American tradition honors the raven as a symbol of courage and of magical guidance. The Arab culture calls the raven Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.” They are seen as oracular birds, used in divination. They are seen as symbols of death, life, the sun, magic, shapeshifting, and tricksters.

Legend from Ella E. Clark: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.

Image: Raven Stealing Sun, by Ken Mowatt.

The Man Who Saved Akitas

Dog ManThe first dog came into their lives in 1944. They were living in Hachimantai, an undeveloped and remote part of Akita, the north-westernmost prefecture of Japan, after which the dog breed was named, and a 22-hour train ride from Tokyo in those days. Kitako Sawatoishi was 23, raising their first two children, a toddler and an infant. Her husband, Morie, was 28 and an engineer for Mitsubishi, assigned to electrify the far north, a region that had struggled with poverty and harsh weather for centuries. Even in the best of times, it was a forbiddingly beautiful but neglected part of Japan. Only two cities in the region had power in those days – Odate and Akita City – and the rest of the large prefecture of Akita was without electricity, piped-in gas, or heat throughout the long winter.

After decades of wars and skirmishes in Asia, Japan was now fighting the West. Three years into the Second World War, millions of Japanese had died on the battlefront and millions more were starving at home. But every day on the radio, the news was always encouraging. ‘We were winning, they always said, and victory was just around the corner,’ Kitako says.

But the war dragged on, and food became almost impossible to come by. Proper winter clothes – coats and boots – weren’t available either. Kitako learnt to make sandals out of straw, the same shoes she had been horrified to see the locals wearing when she first arrived in Akita. The air strikes on the cities of Japan began, city after city turned to ash. It seemed relatively safe in the mountains, but nobody knew when things had been worse.

Morie was on his way to another snow-country village that winter when he met up with a doctor he knew, a man who had kept akitas before the war. Morie and the doctor discussed the war, swapping stories about how bad things had got. ‘You know how bad things are?’ the doctor asked Morie. ‘People are eating their dogs.’ Desperate for money, they were selling the pelts to the military, which used them to line winter coats.

In some snow-country villages it was illegal to have a dog at all. The police rounded them up and clubbed them. The doctor had been trying to keep track of how many akitas were left. It was widely acknowledged that they would soon be wiped out.

He thought of Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan, a pale-yellow akita owned by a Tokyo University professor in 1920. The professor had taught his dog, as a puppy, to accompany him every morning to the Shibuya train station and then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, to return to meet his train. The two of them were a familiar sight at the station, and people marvelled at the dog’s loyalty and obedience. When Hachiko was two years old, though, the professor had a stroke at work and was taken to hospital where he eventually died, never seeing his dog again. Yet Hachiko continued to meet the four o’clock train at Shibuya every day for the next nine years.

Souvenirs and postcard pictures of Hachiko were sold at the station. A song was written – Loyal Hachiko – and taught to schoolchildren all over Japan. Morie was 11 years old in 1927 when he read in the newspaper that a bronze statue of the akita had been erected at Shibuya, on the spot where the dog liked to wait.

Morie knew the Japanese government had used the story of Hachiko as propaganda to promote loyalty to the emperor and it bothered him to have heard, not long before, that the bronze statue of the dog had been melted down. So many things of Morie’s childhood weren’t surviving the war. And so many things that he loved about his country didn’t seem important to most people any more. What had happened to Japan? Who would be as loyal as a dog if there were no dogs left?

Morie SawataishiAs he walked home in the snow, a thought occurred to Morie. What if he bought the best akita he could find and kept it alive until the war was over? Perhaps there were dogs available to save and a network could be assembled.

By the time Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, there were said to be only 16 akitas left in the country. Morie owned two of them. The following spring, with a litter of puppies on the way, Morie hosted the first post-war dog show in the snow country, an informal gathering of all the men who had kept dogs hidden during the war – a backyard affair that sounds, from his descriptions, as much about sake as it was about dogs.

The restitution of the akita breed became Morie’s passion and the decisive factor of his life. He raised four children with Kitako, and continued to build power plants for Mitsubishi until he retired at 63, but every spare moment of his life Morie spent training or showing his dogs, or hunting in the mountains with them. Eventually, as the akita breed began to stabilize genetically and conform to a set of physical standards, Morie gravitated to dogs with kisho, or spirit – energy, shrewdness, intelligence, courage.

Over the years, he guesses that he has raised or trained 100 akitas – many of them superb show champions as well as hunters. There was Three Good Lucks, a beautiful red dog who was poisoned by a rival owner. There was One Hundred Tigers, a very promising puppy for the show ring, until he lost his tail in a fence. Victory Princess was a stray with a biting problem who was dropped off at Morie’s door.

In autumn 2007, when Morie’s beautiful champion akita Shiro died at 15 – an unimaginably old age for an akita – Morie wondered if it wasn’t time for him to go, too. He planned a big funeral for his great white champion. A priest and dozens of mourners came. Morie still had two younger akitas left, but he lacked the energy to show them or take them hunting.

In June 2008, an earthquake came – the largest earthquake in Japan for seven years. Its epicentre was in Kurikoma, not too far from the Sawataishis’ house. Windows were shattered, a landslide caused a boulder to roll into the kitchen. Morie and Kitako, as well as the dogs, were forced to evacuate to the suburbs of Tokyo where their daughter Ryoko, a university professor of veterinary medicine, has a house and small animal clinic. It was a very difficult transition for Morie. ‘From having unlimited space in the mountains to being in a crowded suburb – it was a big adjustment,’ Mamoru says.

Not long after the ministry of disaster declared the Sawataishis’ mountain house uninhabitable for the time being, Morie was taken to hospital for high blood pressure and various other ailments. He stubbornly refused life-saving drugs or treatments. On October 22 he died with Kitako at his side. He was 92.

‘I’ve over-lived,’ Morie used to joke. He lasted much longer than he had expected. And he wasn’t afraid to die. He had seemed quite happy as he talked about dying – almost joyful. ‘At least I know what my life has been about.’

Full story at Telegraph UK

Dog Man by Martha Sherrill on Amazon.

Nagareboshi Gin and other dangerous dogs

More Words the Dog Knows

Shiba Inu and BallHOME: Where they keep the kibble. The origin and the terminus of the walk. At home, all scents are known.

CYBERSPACE: The place where people go while dogs are sleeping.

CONQUEST: It is not enough to give chase to a ball, catch it in mid-air and bring it back for another throw. A victory lap is in order. Then give it a good shake to make sure it knows it has been conquered.

CONTINGENCY: If an orange ball has just been lost, look around. Maybe there’s a busted tennis ball nearby. Maybe there’s a stick waiting to be found.

PHENOMENOLOGY: When wind happens it happens in the ears. When rain happens all the smells are hidden. When thunder happens it happens inside the heart and head and there is no hiding from the fear.

CONSUMPTION: If it is put in front of you, eat it. If it is on the floor, eat it. If it is on the ground, eat it. If it is dead, sniff it carefully, and then eat it. Even if it smells like shit, eat it. Even if it is shit, eat that too.

SECURITY: Bark if the doorbell rings. Everyone knows danger rings before it enters.

WORK: The ball is a bird, see? Shake it, make sure it’s dead. The sticks need rounding up. Who left this branch here?

PERFORMANCE: If you bring them the ball they will throw it. If you stare at the door they will open it. If you come when you are called, you will usually get something out of it. If you lose a ball under the couch they will find it for you.

MELANCHOLIA: When playtime is over and the long nap in the dark is over, and the early morning walk is over, sometimes in a hurry, sometimes even in the rain, the people shut the door behind them and the dog is left.

Excerpted from J.R. Carpenter, Words the Dog Knows

Lapsus Linguae

Words the Dog Knows

Words the Dog KnowsJ. R. Carpenter’s long-awaited first novel Words the Dog Knows follows the crisscrossing paths of a quirky cast of characters through the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Simone couldn’t wait to get out of rural Nova Scotia.In Montreal she buries her head in books about far off places.

Her best friend Julie gets her a job in the corporate world. Traveling for business cures Simone of her restlessness.

One summer Julie’s dog Mingus introduces Simone to Theo. They move in together. Theo is a man of few words. Until he and Simone get a dog, that is.

They set about training Isaac the Wonder Dog to: sit, come, stay. Meanwhile, Isaac the dog has fifty girlfriends to keep track of and a master plan for the rearrangement of every stick in every alleyway in Mile End. He introduces Theo and Simone to their neighbours. He trains them to see the jumbled intimacy of Mile End’s back alleyways with the immediacy of a dog’s-eye-view.

Words the Dog Knows isn’t a story about a dog. It’s a story because of a dog.

I never had a dog as a kid, which is surprising considering I grew up on a farm. We had every other kind of animal. Ninety head of cattle to keep the one bull busy. A pen of pigs to keep the one we’d eat company. A roost of free-range chickens run ragged by a mean white rooster. A hutch of show rabbits not good for much of anything. And thirty-five hives of honeybees – white wooden worlds unto themselves – each one run by a queen.

I had a housecat named Feather of the Fairies. Children below a certain age should not be granted the power to name. The barn had its own cats. They kept their own company, lived according to laws unknown to us, and came and went and fed and bred and killed in anonymity.

We had a horse named Red, even though he was brown. Red decided how fast or slow he’d go by the weight of his rider. The heavier you were the faster he went. My mother was barely five feet tall. But according to Red she weighed plenty. No sooner was she settled in the saddle than he was off and running. Splashing through the shallows of the cattle pond, up the slope to the rock wall, along its length to the northwest fence, and down again for a victory lap around the first pasture. Unable to rein in his canter, my mother did her best to avoid Red altogether.

My father was six-foot-two at least, and solid as a cast-iron skillet. He rode Red to a froth. The two of them lived for round-up. There were other dairy farms nearby, much larger than ours. Most ran round-up with dogs. On our stretch of the Sloane Road alone there must have been fifteen herding and hunting dogs. And that’s not counting over at the Doyle place where they kept a pack of sled dogs, twenty-four or more, chained all seasons. Their howled chorus blew our way on the same south-easterlies that made the power lines whine. It’s not that I wanted a dog. It’s that I was surrounded by something that was missing.

J.R. Carpenter website

Image: One Bark at a Time

The Decline of Book Making

About 1860, it was noted that printing quality was suffering in the throes of the Industrial Revolution.

Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Henry Stevens, a Vermont-born rare-book seller in London and recognized proponent of fine printing wrote, “The disagreeable fact that our books are deteriorating in quality is assumed for the present and taken for granted. The fault exists and is daily becoming more and more manifest…”

“Our printing presses are teeming and steaming with books of all sorts (with some striking exeptions) not up to the mark of the high calling of book-making. It is no excuse to say that the rapidity of production has been largely increased. That amounts merely to confessing that we are now consuming two bad books in the place of one good one…”

“It is not the amiable public that is so hungry for cheap printing and cheap books, but the greedy provider of cheap and cheaper books with which the public is crammed like Strasburg geese, that are in fault. This downward tendency is not so much the fault of the consumers as the manufacturers. The manufacture of a beautiful and durable book costs little if anything more, it is believed, than it does to manufacture a coumsy and unsightly one.”

“Good taste, skill, and severe training are as requisitie and necessary in the proper production of books as in any other of the fine arts.”

Henry Stevens was engaged by the librarian of the British Museum, to collect historical books, documents and journals concerning North and South America; and he was purchasing agent for the Smithsonian Institution and for the Library of Congress, as well as for James Lenox, of New York, for whom he secured much of the valuable Americana in the Lenox library in that city, and for the John Carter Brown library, at Providence, Rhode Island. He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852, and in 1877 was a member of the committee which organized the Caxton Exhibition, for which he catalogued the collection of Bibles.

Image: Pennyroyal Caxton Bible