Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Readin' in the Rain

As the sky glowered a dismal gray, the first visitors stepped carefully down the slick cobbled streets of Mount Vernon Place at Baltimore's Book Festival. I guess we should have expected this; in past years the Festival has been cancelled at least once when a hurricane came through. But still, we hoped that on this Saturday dry weather would keep the thousands of books in scores of booths from curling. It was not to be.

First it drizzled, then it rained, and then you couldn't hear yourself think over the pounding of the downpour. The picnic tables sat soggy and forlorn while the food vendors smiled hopefully at the passersby huddled under umbrellas. Even with the lights that the City of Baltimore provided inside the tents, there was no way to dispel the gray sogginess.

But in publishing, as in theater, the show must go on. And thanks to stalwart visitors and an engaging young writer, the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association's booth was a good place to be. In the couple of hours that we (author Margaret Rome and I) were there to volunteer, we talked with writers of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and poetry. MBPA's president, Sheila Ruth did a great job of setting up the booth, assembling information packets, and displaying the association members' books.

I love to see the creative covers that come from people not constrained by big publishing's limits. Sheila's husband, Nick, was "wearing" the cover of his book, Dark Dreamweaver, and son David was in the spirit of things with his purple cape. It was David who stood outside the booth and stopped visitors with his smile and invitation to take one of MBPA's information packets. And every packet that left had in it a post card for Margaret's book, Real Estate the Right Rome Way, and one for my own book that I'm scrambling to get out before the holidays, The Writer's Book of Days. You can read more about both upcoming books on The Silloway Press Website. While you're there, be sure to sign up for the free monthly newsletter, KeyNotes - the next one is coming out soon!

Despite the low turnout and the river running through the booth, we had fun. While waiting out one of the heaviest downpours at the Book Festival, I talked with a woman who had come on a bus trip from New Jersey just for the event. It took me back to my days at craft shows when even bad weather wouldn't keep the die-hard fans away. And it gave me renewed hope that the well-written, independently published book is alive and well in America.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My Dance with Wolves

A sparkling September-like day – temperatures in the 60's, clear blue sky, a few fair-weather clouds, as we drove across the state line to Maine. On increasingly less main-type roads, we eventually turned up a dirt road that led more than a mile up and then down hill, back to the place where 76 wolf dogs live in large (up to an acre) fenced areas. Straddling the New Hampshire/Maine border, the refuge is not a place you will find advertised, but if you learn about it you can call and Fred Keating will give you directions to visit his sanctuary and meet his friends.

Our adventure began because I was looking through some old Yankee Magazine issues that had accumulated under my coffee table. About a week before we were to leave on vacation for New Hampshire, I pulled out the next on the stack – October, 2002. Leafing through I saw an article called "Dances with Wolves" and a photo of a white haired man nuzzling what looked like a wolf. It told how this man went from breeding to protecting wolf dogs – animals bred from wolves and domestic dogs. As a breeder he learned that people wanted wolf dogs to be pets, and they simply will not be. It started with just a couple of animals, but as word spread, people started sending him more animals. It wasn't long before he had to move himself and his rescued wolf dogs to a larger and more remote area. Now, the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge (a 501(c)3 non-profit organization) occupies more than 63 acres straddling the Maine/New Hampshire border.

As we drove into the yard, Fred Keating greeted us and introduced his assistant, Dan. A chorus of barks and howls started – not as a greeting to us, but to Fred. His friends saw him and wanted attention.

We approached the first pen where a lone animal came to the fence and Fred stuck his hand right in to rub his side and scratch his head. Tinga was a new arrival and was being kept by himself until Fred and Dan could learn what his personality was, how smart he was, and what group he would best fit in with. That's one of the important features of this preserve – the animals live in groups, the natural arrangement for wolves who live in packs in the wild. Tinga is a wolf/malamute cross and has some of the appearance of both – a beautiful animal, obviously used to humans. Throughout we found many of these creatures were quite used to humans and love to lick hands and lean against the fencing to have their earns, faces, and backs rubbed.

Friendly as some are, you can clearly see the wild animals in them. Several stayed back from the fencing, melting into the shadows of their areas. Some pulled back when instead of a face they saw a camera pointed at them. And others simply ignored us.

Many wolf dogs have the long legs and narrow chest of wolves, a sleeker head, and the very large paws. They all have the golden yellow eyes of wolves, and when even the friendliest looks you in the eye – which they all do – they seem to be able to read your mind and soul. In fact, according to Dan they have the intelligence of an 8 to 14 year old human, and each has a distinctive personality. A wolf will roam over 30 to 60 miles a day, and wolf dogs have that need to move around – another reason people find them hard to keep as pets. Their sizes vary widely from about 60 to 140 pounds, but all seem to have the bushy wolf tail, even the wolf/Samoyed cross who looked as if she should be roaming the tundra with her thick, rich creamy vanilla colored fur coat.

One particular version of the wolf dog has been bred with a coat that has splotches of color to make it look less wolf-like. This is no less wolf than the others, but it is called a "Native American Indian Dog" to disguise its heritage. However, since the animal is still part wolf, the wolf traits come out and too often, owners decide they can't handle this "dog" that won't stay home and that howls. Tunka was one of these that we met, and there are several at the refuge.

A natural question was, how do they feed 76 hungry mouths, each with the ability to pulverize large bones? (Dan told us their bite pressure is 1,400 to 1,700 pounds per square inch!) The answer is that there is a slaughterhouse a few miles away that donates the parts they don't use. And there is no dainty dining out of bowls here. Chunks of meat weighing 15 to 20 pounds are literally lobbed over the high fences and the animals take it from there. We watched as a small white female, Mia, crunched up the rib bones of her catch.

As we walked around visiting the various fenced areas and meeting dark faced and light faced animals, Dan told us of some of their personality quirks. One, Sassy, is fond of playfully nipping his behind when he's working in the pens. Each penned area has shelters and doghouses, but the wolf dogs use them as places to stand on or relax on like a deck. Like dogs, they love toys and will take anything they can get their paws on. More than one person has put down a hat or gloves too close to the fence, turned away, and turned back to find them gone without a sight or sound of the thief. We learned just how quiet these animals are; leaving one fenced area where three wolf dogs had lurked in the shadows, Dan told us to look behind - the three animals had come right up to the fence just a few feet behind us with not so much as a rustle from the leaves.

The animals were generally quiet, mostly just watching us or coming to the fence to be touched. Then suddenly a howling began down the hill and voice after voice picked it up. Dan explained that they were "gossiping" – that something will start a couple of them and others chime in. In the pen next to us a small female lifted her head and added a gentle moaning howl to the chorus. Not far away we heard Max's baritone. And then as suddenly as it started, it stopped. The conversation completely excluded us humans and made it very clear that it is we who are in their territory.

Dan explained that wolves use 60 sounds for vocal communication. Plus, they have complex body language using the combination of eyes, head, body, and tail. And at least at the refuge, they communicate with the wild coyotes that live nearby. Dan told us that some of the wolf dogs have learned to make coyote sounds when the coyotes are calling. Wild coyotes are not the only other creatures here, either. There are a few cats who have adopted Fred, several chickens who wander about and keep the ticks under control, a domestic rabbit, and large birds such as ravens, vultures, and bald eagles. Though squirrels and chipmunks run through the penned areas, the wolf dogs don't bother them – with food provided, they have no desire to hunt.

Fred told us later that he receives 12 to 15 calls a week from people looking for a place to send a "pet" they no longer want, or from an animal shelter that has received a wolf dog and has no other choice than to euthanize the animal. The animals at the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge have come from all over the country – many from both Texas (where apparently you can have any kind of animal) and Massachusetts (nearby), but also from California, Maryland, Florida, Ohio, and even one found roaming the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. As we spoke, there were several more animals in the pipeline heading for the refuge, but only so many can arrive at a time as each animal needs time in a separate pen – like Tinga – until they adjust to their new outdoor home, to the people who will care for them, and to the reality of living with others of their kind. In the wild, a wolf will live six to ten years; in the preserve they live 13 to 15 years, and some have lived as long as 16 or 17.

Most animals receive new names when they arrive, like White Face who became Inca, and Mocha who became Moche. Tinga got a new name and learned it within a day; he'd been in the preserve less than a week and when I said his name he looked at me and tilted his head slightly with that, "You talking to me?" look.

At the end of our visit we met Atlas, a large gray animal who looked much more wolf than dog with his very large feet and long legs. Yet he was as friendly as many of the others, leaning against the fencing so he could be rubbed and have his head scratched. When he would lie down you could see that age was beginning to make his joints stiff, but then a few minutes later he was pacing back and forth quickly near the fence as Fred approached with his favorite treat – watermelon! Fred lobbed two quarters of the melon over the fence and Atlas pounced on it, cleaning the fruit to the rind; apparently it was a little ripe for his taste or he would have eaten the whole thing.

Fred lives with his wolf dog friends full time, and counts on grants, donations, and volunteers to help keep the refuge going. Any animal lover would have to be moved by the commitment he and others have made to giving these beautiful creatures a safe place to live in the kind of environment that is theirs by nature. Their winter coats protect them from the bitterest cold, they get food that is what nature intended, they have veterinary care, fresh water, attention, play, and most important – others of their kind. And the hills of western Maine and eastern New Hampshire are alive with their songs.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Are You Helping Decipher Vintage Texts?

You know those funky skewed letters you have to type sometimes when you want to leave a comment on a blog or confirm an online order? Well, there’s a name for that: CAPTCHA. Sounds kind of like “gotcha,” doesn’t it? But it’s actually an acronym that means Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Thank Luis von Ahn, of Carnegie Mellon University, who helped develop the security technique that is intended to foil the intrusion of bots.

There was a fascinating article in the Boston Globe (8/17/08, Ideas Section) on how people are now deciphering words from a decaying old book and helping to transform a historic text into a new digital file. Libraries worldwide are using digital cameras to scan millions of pages of old books using OCR (optical character recognition) to "read" the texts and turn them into digital files.

The trouble comes when age takes its toll on pages, and the old type smudges or flakes off the page. Computer software gets hung up on words that humans can easily decipher. The system developed by von Ahn takes those messy bits of text and places them as mystery words on websites. As people solve those logon puzzles, they also decode a real world. Dubbed "reCAPTCHA," the system is used on some 40,000 websites and has solved more than 44 million words in one year. You can even add it to your site or blog if you want to be part of the solution!

The results are used to correct the text and build clean copies of the books. It's more complex than that, of course, with a system in place to verify the accuracy of the human helpers. But it's nice to know that the next time you have to squint and tilt your head to figure out what those characters are, you might just be saving an old book for future readers.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Blueberry Bonanza

If you've never sat in the midst of a patch of blueberry bushes and enjoyed the delicious anticipation of picking wild blueberries, this may not mean much to you. But one of the delights of going to the mountains of New Hampshire for vacation – for me, at least – is picking wild blueberries, freezing them, and bringing them home to become mid-winter blueberry muffins, pies, and cobblers. I know you can get "blueberries" in the grocery store, but to me those factory-farm-grown gigantic puffs are tasteless in comparison to their wild cousins.

The real thing grows on bushes that may be knee high (high bush) or only a few inches off the ground (low bush.) Ripe berries hide under the leaves, but turn the branches back and there you find blue/purple treasure.

Near where we vacation is a nature preserve, the Ossipee Pine Barrens. Primary access is off the main road, but a Class 6 Town Road (really an unpaved track) leads off our secondary road into part of the preserve. So one day I took my new walking stick, my bottle of water, camera, and berry bucket, and headed into the quiet of that tree-shaded road. An hour later I came out with my back and knees a little the worse for wear, a few mosquito bites, and my berry bucket holding a bonanza of wild blueberries.

All the time I was wandering and picking, only one other soul appeared – a man on a bicycle who called and waved to me as he went pedaling by. Otherwise, it was just me, the breeze, sunshine, and the blueberries. A perfect vacation day. To be followed by delicious wild blueberry muffins for New Year's breakfast.