Friday, December 19, 2008

Mutts and Purebreds

Baxter is a purebred. He is elegant and beautiful. Under that scruffy coat, his body has a perfection of proportion, form for function, that is a thing of beauty. He is the product of generations of breeding to achieve a set of unique characteristics that qualify him as an AKC-registered Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. But I still get a bit of pleasure when reading that the man who developed the breed, Mr. Korthals, was cross-breeding various hunting dogs and French farm dogs of unknown origin to get that lovely, scruffy mix of family dog and fearless hunter. It's the scruffy French farm dog -- the ones we've seen countless times roaming around the French countryside -- that give him his charm, I think.

As I've said before, while I recognize that the exercise of determining Kirby's various bloodline components is rather pointless, it is kind of interesting to me. We probably won't learn anything about him that we haven't already figured out in a couple of years with him, but you never know. There is some real value in knowing parentage. For example, when we first brought him into the vet for his puppy vaccinations, the vet told us that he looked like he had dachshund in him, and that dachshunds are more prone to having bad reactions to vaccines. He gave us instructions on symptoms and what to do if we noticed anything strange going on. That was one of the best examples I can think of for knowing something about the parentage of your dog. Fortunately, Kirby's long body shape was as good an indicator as a DNA test at the time.

Still, I think knowing his breed ancestry is mostly just a fun thing. But why? Perhaps it's because I, myself, am a human mutt of sorts. My ancestors came from at least six different European countries. When I travel in Europe, as long as I don't speak English, people seldom guess where I'm from (apparently my accent when speaking French doesn't sound remotely English...but my French isn't good enough to be a native speaker). I've asked people to guess where I'm from, and they usually pick some culturally mixed country like Belgium or Luxembourg or Switzerland.

I did have someone once tell me I look Irish. That's interesting, because Irish is the one bloodline that's closest to the old country (Great Grandpa came to the New World in the mid-1800s vs. the 1600s and 1700s for the rest of my ancestors). One British fellow once told me my nose and mouth look like the people from one specific area in Wales. I'm told the Allens (my maiden name) were originally from Wales, so maybe there's something to it.

Regardless of DNA, I'm a cultural mutt, as many Americans are. My relatives are all so removed from anything "old country" that we don't have traditions like my more purebred friends do. For example, I grew up in northern Iowa. Most of the kids I went to school with were of German or Scandinavian descent (sometimes both). My friends' families used to have exotic food traditions like making krumkake or lefsa or, god-forbid, lutefisk. My family had roast beef and mashed potatoes and apple pie. Nothing wrong with that! But it was just not very exotic. The closest thing to an "old country" tradition in my family was that my mother learned to cook from her grandmother, who was of French-Canadian ancestry and somehow managed to pass on the tradition of cooking with herbs and garlic. This constituted spicy food in our neck of the prairie. We ate really tasty roast beef.

A few years ago I undertook a bit of family history research (which unveiled the French-Canadian mystery of the garlicy food). I wanted to know more about where my ancestors came from. While it has had little influence over my day to day life, I think I just wanted to know something about my own DNA and my own cultural heritage. What I realized is that no matter where my ancestors came from, I will always be culturally an American, as were my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents (except the Irishman), and on and on for several generations before that. Perhaps the fact that my ancestors came over from their respective countries and intermarried with people from other cultures does somehow inform how I am. Perhaps this has stoked my wanderlust, my interest in learning about other cultures. Or maybe it's just fun to know.

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