The Practical Gardener

Ever since I came to WNC, I’ve gone out of my way to seek out old-timers who were part of the frenzied, 18-month rush to harvest the greatest nut, timber and shade tree that ever dominated our mountain forests before all the American chestnuts became useless. It had taken several decades for the accidentally introduced blight to make its way to these mountains, but when it did, it wrought havoc. I’ve spoken with half a dozen men who were part of this wild entrepreneurial endeavor back in the ’30s, and though they might have forgotten the names of their fellow loggers, they all still remembered the names of the mules they worked with.

I’ve heard stories of mules whose intelligence enabled them to behave sensibly in dangerous situations. And I’ve heard tales of the spectacular physical feats these great beasts accomplished despite the rugged terrain. For centuries, mules have done things in these mountains that their prissy cousin, the horse, could never have managed. The reason is simple: hybrid vigor. The mule embodies the best qualities of the horse and the donkey. It has the intelligence and independent-four-track locomotion of a donkey together with a horse’s bulk and power.

A mule is an end in itself. It can’t reproduce, but while it lives, it’s a stunning achievment.

And ancient humans clearly appreciated mules’ unique abilities, because these animals have been around almost as long as horses have been domesticated.

The whole issue of the origins of domestication is a fascinating one. But over the last 150 years or so, scientific analysis has pretty much been absent from the dialogue. Most consideration of this question seems to begin with “it can be assumed”; from there, such discussions typically go on to imagine a scenario in which a group of hunter-gatherers kills a parent for food, is so enamored with the calf, lamb or pup that they take it back to camp, and a new and beautiful relationship — domestication — is born. But that interpretation simply doesn’t jibe with biology.

The most articulate and convincing book I’ve read on the subject is The Covenant of the Wild by Stephen Budiansky. He believes that all domesticated animals chose that path as the best way to perpetuate their species, and he backs it up with some compelling logic. The last remaining aurochs (the common ancestor of all modern Western Hemisphere cattle breeds) became extinct in 1641. And while the modern dog is alive and well, its first cousin, the wolf, teeters on the edge of nevermore. The author points out that all domesticated animals were in a comparable state at the beginning of recorded history. He also notes that there’s a significant difference between taming and domestication.

Throughout history, various animals have been tamed and bred in captivity without ever becoming domesticated. One ancient Iranian ruler maintained a stable of more than 1,500 cheetahs, bred and trained for hunting. In the ancient Near East, gazelles were kept in captivity and treated like penned cattle. Trained bears, lions and tigers have been a part of circus acts for centuries. There’s also a long-standing tradition of training zebras to harness. Yet despite these and other examples, none of these creatures have ever been domesticated. So what caused goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and dogs to branch off from their brethren and accept domestication? Budiansky maintains that certain members of the population actually chose domestication. How did that happen?

Every plant or animal population displays a wonderful variation. Within any given species, some animals are more aggressive than others. We all know people whose essential nature is aggressive, and others whose essential nature is sedate. That same behavioral variation can be found in any population, including the mighty aurochs that inhabited the forests of Europe for tens of thousands of years or more.

Aurochs, argues Budiansky, found ready food sources near ancient humans (because our ancestors tended to congregate where they could easily collect food). Aggressive aurochs would have been killed off as a precaution against rogue behavior, and mild-mannered members of the species would have been allowed to proliferate as a ready food supply. When mild-mannered aurochs congregated, of course, a certain number of mild-mannered offspring resulted. So the aggressive offspring were killed off for food, and the mild-mannered offspring were allowed to continue living on the fringes, where they enjoyed a modest degree of protection from other predators. Unwittingly, ancient people were selectively breeding aurochs for mild-mannered behavior. And the aurochs that congregated near humans did so because it enhanced their own survival rate.

Something fascinating happens when animals are selectively bred for tameness: They change biologically. On a Russian fox farm in the middle of the last century, an experiment was conducted in which the tamest foxes were separated from the general population and bred. Within a remarkably short number of generations of selective breeding solely on the basis of tameness, some startling changes occurred in the population. Noses began shortening, piebald variations in coloring began to appear, doglike barking became common, and females began to come into heat twice a year. The term used to describe such changes (which often involve the retention of juvenile characteristics in an adult organism) is “neoteny.” And neoteny, Budiansky maintains, is what heralded a new covenant between humans and the wild.

That’s all well and good, but Budiansky’s book fails to address one aspect of domesticated animals that’s well known to mule aficionados: an uncompromising and joyful will to work. The same thing can be seen in large numbers of the general population of any domesticated animal that’s been bred to work. Whether it’s a cutting horse, a herding dog or a mule, you can see an undeniable and certain sense of joy when watching it work. When I was a kid, we had a husky that was part of a sled-dog team a neighbor competed with. Twice a week, the neighbor arrived with his team to take Nikki for a workout, pulling a sled in winter and a wheeled cart in summer. It was amazing to our family how animated and altogether joyful Nikki would become when he sensed the team’s imminent arrival. Nikki had the will to pull.

People who work with draft animals have different terms for it. They’ll say an animal “has heart” or “the will to pull.” It’s also part of what those old-timers are talking about when they recall the names of the mules they worked with dragging giant chestnuts off these mountains 70 years ago. And this weekend, you have an opportunity to observe working animals with heart for yourself.

The fifth annual Fall Field Day happens Saturday, Sept. 21 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on one of the big fields next to Warren Wilson College. There’ll be logging, plowing, disking and mowing demonstrations conducted by teams of horses, mules and oxen. There’ll be a bluegrass band, and food will be catered by Perry’s Bar-B-Q. There’ll also be blacksmith, farrier and harness-making demonstrations. And the price of admission is darned reasonable: $3 for adults, and students and folks under age 18 will get in free. To find out more, call 771-3066. Or you can just head out to Warren Wilson College and look for the tents in the field once you get to the school.

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