How the Ming Dynasty was killed off


Have you ever eaten a clam? A little clam chowder, maybe? Fried clams? Baked, breaded or steamed clams? Clams on the half shell? Clams Casino? Progresso soup with those little chopped-up pieces of clams in it?

If you have, you’ve probably eaten a quahog. There are lots of them. There are towns named after them because empires were once founded on the quahog.

A few years ago, an ocean quahog was minding its own business on the seabed under the freezing waters of the north Atlantic near the Icelandic coast when some scientists happened along and scooped it up. These experts immediately recognized that they had found a particularly elderly clam. It’s relatively easy to tell how old a quahog is, because like trees, they add a ring every year. Most of the clams baked or steamed are youngsters of, oh, say, 20 or 30 years old. Eating a 50-year-old is commonplace. For all I know, half the clams being washed down with margaritas might be 200 years old. 

But this three-and-a-half-inch clam was old. Really old. The initial count put him at 402 years of age. For this it was named Ming, after the dynasty in power in China at the time of Ming’s birth. Ming was not only the oldest clam ever recorded, it was the oldest animal ever known to have lived.

The findings were tentative, though. The scientists did not trust their initial readings. A definitive ring count, they believed, could only be accomplished by counting the better-preserved rings near the hinge ligament on Ming’s inside. This meant opening Ming up.

Opening Ming achieved two results. The first was the death of Ming. The second was that the scientists learned that the question of the interior ring count was more challenging than expected. The view of the rings was obscured in there. They couldn’t make it out. The inscrutable Ming seemed to be taking the secret of his age to the grave. 

Then the scientists found that the answer was right there on Ming’s exterior. They had killed this 507-year-old clam for nothing. They could have just counted those rings more carefully in the first place. Ming would have continued to operate. As happy as a clam.

No one knows how much longer Ming might have lived. It could have been another year or another century. It could have been until the oceans dried up.

I don’t know what this means. I came across this while writing something about how Roo is aging. The difference is that even though she is the greatest boon to the scientific economy of east Oklahoma, in veterinary terms, she’s in far safer hands than Ming was. 


A few days ago, two vicious waves of thunderstorms came through. Warnings of fire danger were replaced by tornado watches. When this happens, I use whatever little internet bandwidth available to keep an eye on furious red storms popping up for more than a day.


It was, of course, hard on Roo. When there are storms she creeps up to squeeze in next to me on whichever side of the tiny dinette in this camper I’m on. As frightened as she is by thunder, lightning seems to scare her even more. If a pilot makes the mistake of getting so close to a thunderstorm that there’s a risk of being blinded by lightning flashes, the cockpit lights are turned all the way up so that the eyes are acclimated to brightness. In the camper there isn’t enough light to use that trick on Roo. Even with all the windows covered, lightning flashes make it through. So, I cover her eyes, which seems to comfort her — up to a point. If the thunder is too severe, she becomes too agitated to risk not being able to see what’s going one. 

The storms passed around ten or eleven that night and were followed by a period of high wind and gusts the the cold front drove through. The wind doesn’t panic Roo, but it worries her, so she was never really able to calm down. By the time she finally agreed to go outside, she had been holding it all in for 20 hours.

Roo only sleeps up on the bed when there’s thunder. Otherwise, she prefers her own bed, which is in a nice little space I had built for her next to the bed where she can feel like she’s in a den. What little sleep I get is as light as a dog’s, and so when, in the middle of the night I heard Roo licking something, I knew it was a bad sign. When she came to me as a foster, she had lick granuloma, deep wounds down the muscle where she had licked herself, which is something some dogs do when they are driven mad by confinement and neglect.

I switched on the light. Roo is used to my telling her to stop licking something, and she takes my word for it that it’s a bad idea. But when she’s groggy she can forget and start licking unconsciously. The fur on the front of her hock was wet and the skin underneath was already pink. 

“Oh, Chig,” I said. 

She had just gotten over a series of skin infections. A week earlier I’d had to shave five inches of the fur on her tail to get at the worst of them. I had waited too long — only a day too long, but too long nonetheless and the infections lingered. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I got out the clippers. There was no point in trying to get her out of her den. In the first place, when Roo is groggy she has no idea what’s going on, and besides, she had just gone through a long period of terror. I leaned over the side of the bed and craned my way in to shave the spot on her foot. She didn’t argue at all. Roo understands completely that when I do stuff like this it’s going to help her. She didn’t budge. 

Already the skin was red and swelling. I cleaned it all off with chlorhexidine and then went to the car to get the blow dryer I use on her when it’s too humid for her to dry, which it was now. When the skin was dry, I sprinkled Neo-Predef on it. It’s a three-agent combo, antibacterial, topical steroid and one of the -caines to numb it and get the dog’s mind off the itch. 

It’s healing. But in the meantime, it began to broil around here, and that meant no cooling off in the water for Roo. She’s such a good girl about it. On her walks here there is water everywhere, and when I say, “No swimming, Chig. You have the foot. Who has the foot can not go in the water,” and she just turns around and gets away from anything wet. She gets it.

I spoke to Dr. Stokes about it today. He recommended trying Aloquel on her (tip of the hat to Sabine, who also did). What with the earlier skin infections getting better, and the Rimadyl seeming to give her some relief, I hadn’t been wanting to add yet another medication to her regime, but there we are. 

And by the way, that thing yesterday that Roo wanted to bring in the camper? It wasn’t a squirrel. It was, indeed a skunk, even if it looks more like a Shi-tzu in the photo, And for those of you who were wondering what she wanted to do with it, today I forgot it was out there and Roo was outside when I heard a crunch. She was crunching on one of its bones and looking at me with a look of great enjoyment. 

“Sorry, Bearface,” I said. “No way.”

She looked at me.

“Not a chance. You’re not eating that.”


She looked at me.

“Nope. Let go.”

She looked at me.

I went back inside to get a piece of cardboard out of the garbage.

"Drop it, Fatso."

She did. I scooped it up and held it out at arm’s length all the way to the garbage can.

She was looking at me some more when I came back. But I could tell she wasn’t holding it against me. She might not be an easy dog, but she's a hell of a good one.

Roo and I get into a terrible fight. The worst we ever had. I won.

This is what a protracted argument with Roo looks like. You can see how much I terrorize her with my brand of iron-fisted discipline. We were fighting over the destiny of a squirrel. Or a skunk. The only part of this knock-down-drag-out fight I regret is telling Roo the she isn’t an easy dog. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the heartbroken look on her face when she heard that. 

But what’s done is done. Maybe one day we’ll be able to patch things up.

This photo is titled "Thank God for barbed wire"


In this picture, taken long after what Henri Cartier-Bresson, the greatest snapshot photographer who ever lived, called the decisive moment, Roo has just gotten through running a fake charge on Ranger the Buffalo. She ran straight at him and then broke left. Ranger, as you can see, was inconvenienced. This is why I call this shot Thank God for barbed wire. 

If the wire wasn't there, would Roo have tried something as idiotic as this? Ranger is a friendly buffalo. I don't know if he's as friendly as the famous Andy of Catalina Island, who used to roam around the road between the airport and town and let tourists stop and pet him, but Ranger is a pretty friendly old boy. At least with humans. Wolves he probably doesn't think as highly of, especially blonde ones.

Would Roo try a kamikaze move like charging a buffalo if there wasn't any barbed wire between her and certain death? Does she know she's only getting away with it because Ranger can't get to her? My guess is yes. 


Snakes and crackers


There are two narrow lakes on this ranch, and now that spring is here, bringing with it the first of a few minuscule tadmouses as they make the transition from tadpole to pollywog, these lakes are a source of Roo’s greatest joy. And what with her recent health issues, the most troubling of which is some stiffness and joint pain, there’s nothing I’d rather see her do than hunt tadmouses. It’s her favorite thing in the world to do and it exercises her to the point of exhaustion without making her bear too much weight.

Dogs have poor near vision, and so Roo can only spot the two-inch tadmouses from the distance of the banks, but when she gets in the water, she doesn’t see them even if they’re right under her nose. The water here is also muddy, so as soon as they dart off they’re camouflaged in mud and that’s that. Still, she loves it. That’s what made her tadmouse hunting in Maine the best in the world. They were huge and the water was clear. If I ever find other lakes like that for her to hunt in, I’m going to take a camp chair and let her do it for hours on end. I really do believe that there is nothing in the world she would rather do.

The problem here, of course, is the cottonmouths — water moccasins. We saw another one today, swimming across the lake. They’re easy to tell from regular water snakes because of the way their bodies float high in the water and they hold their heads up. Once you see one off them swim, which I only had the honor of doing a few days ago, you never confuse them for a harmless water snake again.

Roo seems to have gotten the idea that it’s a good idea to listen to me when I tell her to stay away from snakes. She checks with me before going into her usual spots and when I ask her not to, that The Snake might be there, she has been listening. At least I’ve been able to keep her out of places where I can’t first  limit her to places where I can check the banks for snakes first. Still. I have to admit to being terrified the whole time we’re out now. I can’t walk three steps without worrying about snakes. And if it’s not the cottonmouths in the water, it’s the copperheads in the deep grass. And they’re all hungry, now that their winter is over with. I can’t keep Roo on a leash all the time. She has to have exercise, and she wouldn’t get any if she was limited to my speed.

So now we have to get moving. The idea of it is murder. It becomes a full-time job. Looking for places to stay is the worst part. If we head west of here, we can find free camping, but at the price of no cell service, no internet or power. We have to run the generator, which consumes a lot of gas and has to be opened up frequently to adjust the valves. Setting up the camp every day, finding places that are good for Roo, fixing the things that constantly break (on the menu now, everything from the broken water pump to the wheel bearings). 

Committing to heading in one direction or the other from here in east Oklahoma is another problem. We’re not just south of the exact center of the country. If we head north, we’re going to end up drifting again from camp to camp and I can’t take it. They’re all going to be filling up and I can’t take the smoke.

Over the past couple of years I developed some kind of vicious allergy to woodsmoke, and even though most Americans go camping in order to watch TV and drink Bud Lights, most insist on the tradition of keeping a huge campfire stoked even when its 90 degrees and all they do is sit in their apartment-size fifth wheels cleaning their AR-15s while Sean Hannity warns them about the Deep State from a plasma TV. Camping in red state America has become nightmarish. You can feel the power of all the prayers for war, for getting the chance to shoot a libtard, reverberating through those campgrounds. This has got to be the most beautiful country in the world. Thee’s no way not to come to believe that if you spend as much time on its backroads as I have. The mean-spiritedness of half the population abroad in a land like that makes for a sustained dissonance. The other half of the population, lacking the desire to belittle or persecute others, stands no chance against them. They’re like a 1500-pound man dead of gangrene in an outhouse. Who’s going to haul the sonofabitch out? Better just bulldoze the thing and save up for indoor plumbing. 

When we came back from Roo’s walk today, one of the guys who works this place warned me that a group had moved into the space next to ours and that he had had to spend all day cleaning up after them because they had been burning railroad ties all night. The reason railroad ties last so long is that they have creosote in them. Any idiot knows you don’t burn them unless it’s someplace you don’t want to stink up. But there is a class of cracker in America that thinks of doing things like that, or trashing places up with Bud Light cans and smashed Mike’s Hard Lemonade bottles, or taking dumps at the foot of a 600-year-old cedar tree and leaving mounds of toilet paper behind are what constitute the Liberty That Must Be Protected From Democrats And Muslims At All Costs. Never underestimate the American slob. He is unequalled in feelings of righteousness. He believes in the elite of the ignoramus and is certain of his place in it. It is why no amount of bad behavior from the president will ever erode their support for him. The American cracker is not equipped intellectually with the capacity to understand much beyond their admiration for someone who says “fuck you” a lot. America has been breeding those chickens for years, and now they’re home to roost.

For the last couple of nights a horrible smoky stench took the camper over. I thought the crate was on fire and went out to look it over a few times. It wasn’t and I looked around to see who was burning a fire, but no one was. I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t find the source of what was stinking the camper up, but the creosote-burning campers explained it. The crackers. It’s the problem with being stuck in this camper. I’m probably turning into a cracker myself. If I do, please — some friend come and do the right thing and shot me.

The ranch hand, Randy, shook his head. “Burning railroad ties,” he said.

“Man,” I said.

“Railroad ties,” he said. “Eight foot long. Didn’t even put ‘em out. Let ‘em burn all night. I had to clean that whole porch, that whole side of the house.” They had been staying in one of the rooms for rent. That was why I didn’t see them burning the fire that has now filled the camper with a lasting stench of smoke.

“Fair warning,” he said. “Now they picked out the spot next to yours. And they got a bass boat and a fish cutting table and everything.”

The whole campground is empty. This happens all the time. Somehow people think there’s nothing you might enjoy more than their company four feet away from you. People are inexplicable.

“Fair warning,” he said again.

“Between them and the snakes,” I said, shaking my head. “Well, it’s been time to get moving anyway.”

“Railroad ties,” he said again.

[As long-tiome readers of this blog know, I've had a lot of trouble with our camper. I wrote a book about it. But a copy here on Amazon.]

Dispatch from snake country, or how I survived a 10,000,000-volt electrocution


Unlike Roo, I am not easily frightened. This is not to say that I am not in many ways a coward. I’m just saying I don’t frighten easily. Today, though, I was. 

First, a word about muskrats. The muskrat is not an animal I have ever seen. This is because they exist to tantalize dogs like Roo by living in dens at the edges of ponds and streams that they cleverly construct with underwater entrances. Anybody who wants to get in has to submerge on the waterside, scoot under some kind of obstacle—roots, branches, mud—and then pop up on the other side. This way, muskrats can live in the lap of luxury, unworried by predators like Roo who might come along.

Of course, Roo knows all about them. I think she has seen them, at least once, because she barked her head off at what had to have been a muskrat once. Now, she suspects them of living just out of reach everywhere. She prowls the banks of ponds and streams, sure of it, filled with dreams of a bloody struggle ending with one of them dangling from her jaws. She looks forward to parading it around in front of me to make me jealous for a while before she digs a hole and buries it. But, so far, thank God, no luck.

Today, we were taking a walk. Roo was a little on the slow side, maybe because of the possible allergies she has. Maybe because she’s six-and-a-half years old. It could also be that’s it’s pretty tiring just being Roo sometimes.

She was walking next to me and I was saying, “Imagine the odds, Chig. Here you are, the best bear in the world. I’m not just saying that because you’re my fat little bear. I’m saying it because it’s a provable fact. When you got of jail all those years ago, you could just as easily have been sent to some other daddy. Then, that daddy would have the best bear in the world. Which proves it, Chigi. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that if there can only be one best bear in the world, and you were someplace else, then, wherever that would be, you would be there being the best bear in the world? The odds are staggering, Chig. It was a matter of luck.”

Just at that moment, she heard somebody down in the mud and perked up. She never lost her taste for cliff diving, and she didn't hesitate to go over the edge.

My guard was down a little because the temperatures these last few nights have been down in the 30s. Wishful thinking has made me believe the snakes might not be out in too much force. 

I was still keeping a good eye on her, and I followed her to the bank to see who she was checking and saying the same thing I say a hundred times a day: “Watch out for the snake, Roo. Be careful of the snake, Roo.” In fact, I often tell her that in advance of a walk. I take her arm and press a couple of fingertips into the spot where she was snakebitten and say, “Remember the snake? This is where the snake bit you. Yes, the snake bit Chigi right here in the arm. It was terrible. Do you remember the snake? You have to watch out for snakes. Careful of the snake.” Snake, snake, snake. She hears about snakes from me all the time. God, how I miss there being no venomous up in the northeast.

I got to the mudbank three or four seconds after Roo, AKA Chig, AKA Chigi, did. She was standing in the muddy water watching someone. Her ears and tail were up, but she wasn’t wagging, a sure sign of being unsure.

“HISSSSSSS,” someone out of sight down there said, as loud as a jungle cat. For a disjointed moment, I thought it was a cat, a cat of some exceptionally loud caliber. In the next nanosecond I realized there would be no cat down there. What cat short of a Florida panther would be prowling around down there? The only other candidate for a hiss like that was a cottonmouth. Where do they get the lungs to hiss like that? It seemed like it never stopped.


"HISSSSSSS!" the snake said.

Roo, being the great naturalist she is, was fascinated by the hissing creature, though, and she kept looking at it. 

“HISSSSSSSSSSS!” the snake said. Roo tilted her head to one side. Then I saw the cottonmouth—when it wriggled. It was the color of a shotgun that had been thrown into a trunk full of old tools after a few too many murders. It was as frightened of Roo as I was of it and it was lashing around like a snapping rope. I could see in the tension of Roo's muscles that her instinct to pounce was on a hair trigger.


Amazingly, Roo took a step back in the water and the cottonmouth took the opportunity to fling itself in the water and swim away in an elaborate, showy S. When cottonmouths swim, they keep their entire, fat bodies above the waterline. Regular, nonvenomous water snakes, on the other slithery hand, ride low in the water. This snake looked like a southeast Asian canoe.

“Good girl, Roo!” 

She looked back at the snake but the snake had disappeared, probably to go spearfishing for one of the 18-inch prehistoric needle-jawed monsters with rows of piraña teeth who live in that lake, and who I only know about because a couple of days ago Roo dragged one of their rotting carcasses out of the water and up onto the grass so she could drop down and wiggle on it on firmer ground where she could grind into the stench more effectively and make my life as her bather that little bit more difficult.

She came up the bank and looked at me. I’ve seen that look on a dog before. It was one of those smug looks. One of those self-satisfied looks, like on a kid who held on to a cherry bomb a second too long before tossing it away and didn’t get his hand blown off out of sheer luck.

Muddy and wet as she was, I put my arms around her anyway. Oh, she was proud. I think she understood the risk. I think she was feeling she had performed well under the threat of death. Which she had.

“I told, you Chig,” I said. “The best little hear in the world.”

Over the course of the next hour, I think Roo heard me say the word snake 300 times. At least. 

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