Timothy And The Ha-Ha

chagall my village

“Human intelligence is greatly overrated.” Compared to what? Some or several experts on cybernetics, artificial intelligence or information technology have made this statement. Perhaps comparing human intelligence to that of machines. All the more true compared to animals.

Like United States exceptionalism, human exceptionalism is based usually on willful ignorance and limited intelligence.

The Enlightenment era naturalist Gilbert White’s 1784 book Natural History of Selborne, NHS, inspired many later scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau. Of course in Gilbert White’s time philosophy and science were considered the same, and the enlightened contemporary encyclopedists and scientists like Diderot claimed the honorable title “Philosophe.”

Gilbert White writes with mock astonishment for the fact that Timothy, his tortoise, wanders along the edge of the ha-ha on the border of White’s garden. A ha-ha is the equivalent for a garden of the modern infinity pool border, a sunken wall that protects the garden from livestock like a fence or moat but not visible from the house or inside of the enclosure.

Gilbert White writing from the tortoise’s perspective in a letter:

“I heard my master say that he expected that I should some day tumble down the ha-ha; whereas I would have him to know that I can discern a precipice from plain ground as well as himself.”

You might appreciate the ironic humor from a churchman, curate Gilbert White, writing proxy letters from Timothy the tortoise vs. apostle Paul’s letters to his disciple Timothy in the New Testament.


The modest, unpretentious, self-critical narrative style and language of NHS and Gilbert White’s posthumously published letters stand in contrast to the arrogance and false objectivity underlying much of earlier and later science. At one time it was said that NHS was second only to the Bible in English language publication numbers. Gilbert White is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of Ecology or The First Ecologist for his recognition of the interrelationship of natural phenomena in the web of Life and Nature.

Gilbert White was of course writing from within his culture and prejudice but his approach and cautious often self-critical observations help the reader to interpret those perspectives and prejudices, not claiming to be absolute unquestionable truth. In modern terms, a recognition that all information is filtered and distorted. Moreover that the process and act of observation affects the observed.


Voltaire may well have intended the more practical literal meaning when he had Candide say, “must cultivate your garden.”

>A keen gardener from his youth, White increasingly took a close interest in the natural world around him, and grew a wide range of traditional and experimental fruit and vegetables. He was the first person in this area to grow potatoes for example, and it was this keen, enquiring interest in gardening that led him to begin his first written work, of recording methodically what he sowed and reaped, the weather, temperature and other details. This he went on to call his ‘Garden Kalendar’.

It is of course White’s later work ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’ for which he is best known. It began as correspondence between himself and other like-minded gentlemen of the time, The Hon. Daines Barrington and Thomas Pennant, where they discussed their observations and theories about local flora, fauna and wildlife. White believed in studying living birds and animals in their natural habitat which was an unusual approach at that time, as most naturalists preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in the comfort of their studies. White was thus the first to distinguish the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler as three separate species, largely on the basis of their different songs, and the first to describe accurately the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. (http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/Gilbert-White/)

Mushers Deserve A Brake

History and evolution of brake designs with a novel idea…

There are four or five types of dog sled brakes. None of them work very well and the best can only prevent the sled from crashing into the dogs. Before the Iditarod era there were no more than three styles (not counting the Siberian pole dragged between the legs or on the side like a Telemark skier) as illustrated below in the WWII US Army sled dog field manual, Dog Transportation: the center board and the hinge variation were the most common; the slew brake was rarely seen; the rough-lock method was for use in emergencies that could be anticipated but not any help unless you saw the disaster coming and were able to stop and wrap chains or coarse rope around the runners (and limited value on glare ice.)



In the early years of the Iditarod and other mid distance races in rough terrain a common problem became obvious with the prevalent center board brake. After the first half dozen racers came down the same hill standing on the brake the rut in the middle  of the trail might be deeper than your leg from your foot to your knees. The snowmobile track brake was first introduced as a training device to make the dogs work harder and to create less damage to trails especially where distance mushers shared trails with sprinters. (Even so the sprinters complained, preferring to have perfect training trails without appreciating that racing trails were not. When the dogs were so well trained on perfect trails that they did not pay attention where they put their feet the result was metacarpal fractures if they stepped into holes or onto hard moguls.)

Around 1980 my Iditarod sled business was booming and I developed another solution, a brake with two claws, each positioned close to the corresponding runner. If there were ruts from braking the runners of following sleds would drop down into them.


The Alpirod brought mushers from around the world to experience new horrors in trail conditions; from that time on many brake systems included both double claws and rubber or plastic tracks with snowmobile carbide core studs. Often the rubber track, the “tapis,” could be lifted or dropped as needed. The photos below show a design where the two are loosely coupled to respond to different conditions, including bare pavement! On pavement the carbide studs in the track slowed the team slightly but emitted smoke and brimstone.



Here is the new idea:

Do mushers still run in conditions that need this? If you have and recognize what it’s for, let me know.




“Ice Spur” under the front of footboard functions like a slew brake


At the end of the day… no, it took more than one day… when all was said and done, uploading, editing and cropping these photos, it was as frustrating as going down a bare road in Sesto, Italy, but at least writing and publishing this post did not cost me $20,000.