Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Our Greatest Companions

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

September 19, 2010

I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.

My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.

He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.

Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.

Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.

The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.

Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.

Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.

No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.

Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site,, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.

The Secret Beach

Monday, October 15th, 2007


Silver Donald Cameron

On an impossibly warm and clear October day, the trek in to the secret beach is almost as enchanting as the beach itself.

We parked the truck and struck off across an eroding drumlin headland covered in brown grasses, yellow vines and lavender-coloured asters. Beyond the drumlin was a bit of wetland, draining through an abandoned concrete sluice-gate covered with orange lichens, where tall bulrushes had already exploded into seedy fluff. Seaward of the marsh was a short, gleaming sandy beach, with a ridge of round cobbles acting as a dune line.

I looked carefully at the marsh. I have seen fat muskrat in such mini-marshes before – once, memorably, swimming under a thin pane of clear ice, like a muskrat under glass – but there were no muskrats today.

We walked carefully across the round, rolling cobbles and up into the dark spruce and fir. The track rose through stout, short trees to the crest of a crumbling bluff, providing intermittent glimpses of the glittering sea. In the restful shade of the woods, the little Sheltie trotted busily between tree-trunks, sniffing the rustling copper-needled floor.

In the clearings, the rosebushes stood chest-high, crowned by red bursts of rose-hips. Browning umbrella stalks of angelica reached above the tawny grass, and low reddening leaves of wild strawberry lay hiding on the ground. As the track rose and fell, the footing sometimes became tricky where fierce recent rains had carved deep rocky furrows in the ground.

We picked our way down a last steep defile to find ourselves beside a tiny rivulet chuckling its way from a dark lagoon down through the dunes and out to sea. Behind the lagoon, a shallow valley curled back into the wooded hills. Cormorants perched on rocky outcrops in the water, gulls swooped overhead, and tiny wading birds – plovers or sandpipers, perhaps – ran busily through the swash of the gentle surf.

We forded the streamlet, and the beach lay open in the sunlight before us – a mile of wide sand, wet, taupe-coloured, curving between forest bluff and grassy headland. MacTavish thundered down the beach, his ruff blown backward, his ears flat, his tiny legs drumming out the exact same rhythm as a horse’s hooves, tossing his head back and barking for the sheer frantic joy of living.

The sand was spotted with sand dollars, razor clam shells and the cast-off exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters. Just offshore, the dark yellow rockweed swayed with the swells, surging back and forth in the shallows. A small vivid orange-and-black caterpillar was humping its way from stone to stone. A tiny black spider shot across the sand at high speed. A yellow butterfly flirted with the lacy edge of the water.

The sun hung high and hot in the pale blue sky. I was wearing shorts and a golf shirt – in October – and I was still a little too warm.

“Look!” said Marjorie, squinting upwards. “How many?”

I tilted my head. The sky was laced with the contrails of jet airliners, each leaving a fuzzy white brush-stroke across the heavens. Every morning, 100,000 people leave Europe by air. At mid-day they converge on Moncton. We could see 20 jet trails and six actual planes, all at once. But the only other signs of human life were a few tiny houses across the bay, and a few bits of sea-borne detritus, including – this was Cape Breton, after all – a Captain Morgan rum bottle, which we carried out.

Essentially, this is the beach as nature made it, quietly going about its endless ballet of continuity and change. Wild beaches are our heritage as human beings, places where the eternal processes of creation and destruction take place right before our eyes. Human beings need access to such places – places to view with reverence, places where we take away nothing but memories and photographs, and leave nothing but footprints.

A developer would see this beach as a magnificent opportunity for profit, which is why I will not say where it is. The Maritimes have more wild beaches than any other region of North America – but they are only a day’s drive from Boston, a four-hour flight from Europe, and in the ten years since I first wrote about their vulnerability, many of them have been snapped up, fenced off, subdivided and sold. If we do nothing, they will all vanish, as they have vanished in the continental US and Europe.

Last month, in this paper, Environment Minister Mark Parent declared that “it’s imperative that we have a well thought-out, proper policy on coastal protection.” He’s right – and we have already lost ten years and many miles of shoreline.The sooner the province can implement such a policy, the better for all of our souls – and the better for all our children.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s award-winning book The Living Beach is available at