Philosophy from Faial
This is not a travelogue. But it begins like one.
Faial is one of nine islands in the Azorean chain situated 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. On a world map the small, irregular shapes are barely noticeable in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, where they show as tiny dots in the sweeping currents of the warm Atlantic Gulf stream. As a result, the archipelago’s semi-tropical climate and temperate water provide fertile breeding grounds for scores of sea life and is a favorite destination for oceanographers and marine biologists. The Azores are often referred to as “Europe’s best kept secret,” and legend has it that they are the last, lingering traces of the Lost City of Atlantis. Romantics, like me, like to believe this.
It is a magical destination that has had an unexplainable effect on people who go there for the first time. Personal experience bears this out. Years ago, on a whim, a close friend of mine from New York, Helen Siemers, joined me on a trip to the Azores. (Some of you will remember Helen, if not for her Afghans, then certainly her gravelly voice and ball-busting persona; also as the woman Bob Stein referred to — even in the present — as “the blast from the past” and/or “Helen the felon.”) The third day on the island she bought an old stone house in desperate need of repair, pulled up stakes in East Moriches, and moved to Faial lock, stock and Popov, accompanied by a semi-psychotic brown Lab named Zelda (after the institutionalized Zelda Fitzgerald) and a nefarious black cat named Bill — a wily, elusive creature who, for all of his nine lives, endured one of his owner’s less inspired animal names. At the age of 50-something Helen had never been, let alone lived, outside the United States, spoke no Portuguese, and thrived for years on the island in spite of it. As I said, an unexplainable effect.
Juliette de Bairacli Levy, the famous breeder of Turkuman hounds I’ve mentioned in other articles, was another dog person who made the Azores her home. She had become seriously concerned about the contamination her Greek island was suffering when the drift from Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout settled over the area. In a letter to me during that time, she wrote about the distressing signs of environmental damage — the bees were dying, the olive trees were stressed and heavily compromised, the skies were continually gray with particulate, etc., and she wanted, needed, to move. “But to where?” she asked.
I suggested she investigate the Azores — a place she’d heard of but one of the few places she’d never been. She moved to Faial with her gypsy-like wardrobe, her manual typewriter and a domino Afghan bitch from what was her final litter. The air and the water and the soil on Faial are pristine.
Faial is known as “the blue island” by virtue of the fact that hydrangeas grow in proliferation, in gardens and public places, along the roads, across the sloping hills to divide individual plots of ground for farming and for grazing cattle and goats. The vibrant color appears at every turn, within every vista. The island population (about 15,000) has remained virtually the same for as long as I can remember; the main city of Horta, as well as the many small villages, are much the same as they were when I first visited some 40-odd years ago. One stoplight regulated the traffic then. The same one regulates the traffic today. That same one will probably be stopping and starting traffic 40 years from now. And it still amazes me how many people have never heard of the Azores.
I’m on Faial now, as I write, in the small village of Pedro Miguel, where our Villa Beyonda sits, perched securely on the banks of the river — the rebeira — that runs from the mountains to the sea. The house is a 100-year-old stone structure, very small and much less grand than the name suggests. The English dictionary describes a villa as “a country estate.” The Villa Beyonda is more like a country cottage. For a number of years before the restoration, local cows routinely took up residence in it. Old houses here commonly have names.
It is the beginning of our — Chris and my — annual two-month hiatus, 6,000 miles from home. From California and the dogs and dog shows. Although Faial makes for an idyllic vacation, I always miss my Afghans, and as I sit here enjoying the tranquil beauty and the manana-like pace of Azorean life, I find myself reflecting on the more than 50 years of breeding and showing these wonderful, unique creatures. Being 6,000 miles from home often offers new perspective. The result is this article and the philosophical path it takes. If you’re not in the mood for a clearly subjective, somewhat abstract and moderately obtuse observation on breeding dogs, turn the page now. (Eddie, this will be too vague and flowery for you. Just so you know.)
When I think about how to articulate how we — Mike Dunham and I, as Coastwind Kennels — have gone about our breeding program, I can distill the “philosophy” into three elements, joining the company of other subjects that are also considered in threes. Like World War II — Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Or the executive, the legislative and the judicial — branches set up for balance in government. (At this point in time, it could be argued they are dramatically unbalanced. Don’t get me started.) Also: protein, fat and carbohydrate in the right combinations for balanced nutrition. And so it is in breeding dogs: the right ingredients and the right combinations for the right results.
We’ve pursued this philosophy from the early 1960s to the present day. I say “pursued” because, as breeders know, the process is never finished. Not really. It evolves. You never get entirely where you want to go. You are in a perpetual state of pursuing. Occasionally, as you evaluate a newborn litter and watch the pick of that litter grow, your heart beats faster. You think you’ve finally bred that perfect dog. In time, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know you haven’t. And you continue.
So, what are they, these threes? Concept, Priority and Vision. Other factors come into play, but for us, these are the primaries. Preaching to the choir? Probably, to some. But, for those folks not on this wavelength, you may find something you can apply to your own efforts. As always, feel free to take exception. Agree or disagree. Or just flip to another page.
I’ve touched on the notion of concept and priority before, but from a different angle — from the world of the dog show as an entity, a competition — mainly in terms of my breed, the Afghan Hound, and where the result is transitory — one day, one judge, one opinion, one moment in time. It’s a valid premise, but actually puts the proverbial cart before the horse. Apply the same notion to the “before” of the show ring and you come up with — breeding the dogs. Apply these principles to any breed. They still would work.
The heaviest lift for me is putting into words my concept of “concept” — if you’ll pardon the redundancy. Why? It’s more abstract than the other two. “Priority” is a bit easier in that it results in the visible measure of what a breeder prefers. Individual values become recognizable — how a dog, or line of dogs look, emerging as it has, for example, as the look of Kay’s Crown Crest dogs, of Sunny’s Grandeurs, Reigh’s Dureighs, Lois’s Akabas, etc. All recognizable and the result of the breeder’s priorities.
What about “vision”? Scores of books have been written on vision in every walk of life: politics, philosophy, the arts, etc. Your “vision” as a breeder takes shape once you’ve digested your breed standard and embraced it. After you’ve grasped the essence — or believe you have. After you understand how your breed is supposed to function — or think you do. At the same time, the fact is, everything you do from that point on will be a derivative of somebody else’s work. Of some other person’s vision. Other breeders will have created pedigrees you will use to build your own on. In doing this, you might find that you are out of the mainstream of what is going on around you, what is “popular” in your breed, and you do what you do anyway, pushing against the tides and criticisms. At the same time, you are in head-on confrontation with your genetic demons, the faults and weaknesses, as they appear in your litters. All pedigrees have them. But in dealing with the problems you will also discover the strengths and move those strengths forward, doubling up on them with each new, linebred generation.
Vision is a breeder’s lighthouse, and, if you’re lucky, it creates something that transcends the ordinary. Recall what was said of John D. Rockefeller: “His vision let him see farther down the street than other people. Not just down the street. Down the street and around the corner.”
Concept. Defining it in breeding dogs is tricky because it is a term both overused and misused, and therefore, often misunderstood. It can easily be substituted for “idea” and “premise” — terms that are fairly generic and interchangeable. And while that may be inconsequential in a casual conversation, it takes on more weight for breeders seeking to truly understand and establish the core of their breeding program, their story, if you will, starting with what they see in the physical elements of the dogs they are working with and how they elect to use and combine them.
“What we see depends upon what we think we see,” Nobel-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn says. One of the most difficult hurdles for breeders to ignore is what they think they see by looking, in favor of what they actually see. Consider the difference in these two small words. They take on vastly different meanings when applied to breeding. To see, not look at. To look is instinctive. To see is not. To see takes practice and is not necessarily intuitive. The mind prefers what it can easily access — looking versus seeing. It’s like hearing, but not listening. (I know this is heady stuff if you’re talking dogs. Vague and flowery. Eddie, you were warned.)
Confusion can stem from the fact that concept is, sometimes subtly, a different essence than an idea or even a premise. If you argue that a concept is actually an idea or a premise by another name, it is like saying that a piece of bread and the world’s most delicious brochette are the same thing. Bread, yes. But brochette is bread on steroids, bread dressed to kill, which is precisely how the essence of a concept distinguishes itself from the other two. It’s important because concept is an idea that has evolved to the point where a breeding program takes shape and becomes possible. The concept becomes the platform, the stage, upon which a breeder’s story unfolds. Concept is the beginning on which the end will depend. And, among other things, it is what asks, and keeps asking, questions. The questions play into the story, and the answers evolve out of an ongoing curiosity, whether through conversation with other breeders or solitary study or just mind-wandering that continues to ponder the why and the how. Also, trial and error. The errors are lessons in themselves. They challenge the concept.
Within the why and the how is the expectation of what your dogs will be. What they will look like. Your concept has given you your “voice.” What your direction will “say” about the breed. But, remember. Breeding over the long haul is a process. It evolves. As you progress, you take risks. You take a step forward. The bitch doesn’t conceive. You take a step back. She conceives but the perfectly bred stud dog doesn’t give her what you expected. What he should have. What she needed. What you needed.
What do you do? You make changes. Sometimes voluntary. Sometimes because you’re behind the eight ball. You’re forced to. But you adjust. You’re patient. You wait for the next generation, or the next, to get what you want. Genetics, no matter how well thought out, can be madly fickle. They sometimes let you down. You may have to go to a Plan B. (You should always have one.) With careful line breeding you eliminate as many variables as you can. Not all. And, like it or not, some of it is, sadly, out of your hands. As bitter a pill as it is to swallow, some of it involves nothing more than plain old good luck.
Babbie Tongren was a great one for prostituting the English language for dramatic effect or to make a point. She once said to me when we were kvetching over cocktails on this very subject, the subject of breeding, “And if you ain’t got lady luck on your side, you got a whole lot of nothin’.” I couldn’t agree more.
Still, in face of every adversity, of every setback, of every loss in the ring, your concept keeps you going. You can make adjustments, refine it, but you never let go of it. It’s the breeder in you. You’ve set your priorities. Your vision steers you — down the road and, maybe, if you’re lucky, around the corner to one dog or, hopefully, a whole family of dogs that transcend the ordinary.
Just a little philosophy from Faial to think about. Socrates signing off. See you back in the States in August.