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So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post. The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter). I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened. I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots. Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high. You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]
Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees. The tree is old and huge. It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.
Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era. Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility. The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees. Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees. Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.
Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan. A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties. Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals. Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.
As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard. It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood. All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.
I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud. I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys. Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.
Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464). The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training. We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.
Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism. The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses. The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle. Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels. The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.
Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies. To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”
The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette. The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors. Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different. Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.
According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago. Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child. She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.
The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea. While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess. Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us. Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.
Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood. Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt. He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs. He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.
The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock. With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).
Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above. We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on). We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.
Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld. The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).
The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball). In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court. When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree. However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit. She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment. Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).
After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz. To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around. A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.
Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food. Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.
Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins. The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river. However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead. They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers. The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba. The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before. One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation. Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life. They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors. The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.
The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld. The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together. But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life. Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him. Some say he became maize and gave life to the world. Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.
The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them. Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely. They are still visible as the sun and the moon. Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.
During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do. The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat. When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.
A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs. The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.
Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch. Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water. They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.
One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around. This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me. Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street). The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing. Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey. In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.
Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.
Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.
Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation. These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein. Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth. The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will. What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely. The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse. Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs. In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!
Yesterday I spent some time describing the Namib Desert (as well as giving a brief overview of the entire nation of Namibia). I did this not just because Namibia strikes me as one of the most striking landscapes on earth, but because the harsh habitat is home to a profoundly strange mammal, Grant’s Golden Mole (Eremitalpa granti), a solitary, nocturnal predator of the Nagib Desert. Grant’s golden mole lives primarily in the Namib Desert but ranges as far north as Angola and as far south as the arid dunes of South Africa.
The golden moles are already strange animals. The name “mole” is a misnomer: golden moles are not closely related to the true moles (which are insectivores) or to the marsupial moles of Australia. Their taxonomical classification is presently unclear but they seem to be most closely related the tenrecs, a group of insect eating primitive placental mammals. Tenrecs and golden moles both have unusual dentition (a critical feature to the taxonomist) and possess cloacas like birds. It has been speculated that tenrecs and golden moles are closely related to the first placental mammals, but this may be a mistake. It is also possible that the tenrecs resemble the ancestral placental mammal of long ago whereas golden moles have evolved features which uniquely suit their desert environments.
Grant’s golden mole is a particular anomaly since it is so profoundly suited for desert living (which may have to do with the great age of the Namib Desert). Grant’s golden mole does not make permanent burrows but literally swims through the sand. The creature has powerful claws for digging which have almost some to resemble “sand flippers”. It can move swiftly underground and detect its prey (termites, scorpions, and lizards) through its profoundly acute sense of touch. Its eyes have become vestigial and are covered with both skin and fur. Because it burrows through fine particles of sand, its coat is incredibly fine and dense, its nose is a leathery wedge, and its ears have shrunk to tiny, tiny openings.
Grant’s golden mole does not build burrows so it is not known how or where it raises its young. Because water is so scarce in the Namib Desert, the golden mole does not drink: its kidneys are hyper efficient. It also does not regulate its temperature in the manner of other mammals and it is capable of dropping into a suspended state during the days (when it digs deep down into the oxygen poor sand). Grant’s golden mole requires large swaths of sandy desert for hunting. It lives only on the shifting dunes. With such a lifestyle you would think that it has escaped trouble from humankind, but you would be wrong. The giant sand mines of Namibia are eating into its habitat and it is preyed on by feral cats. In so far as we know anything about its numbers, we believe it is threatened. Even in one of the most inhospitable places, humans are making inroads.
Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand. It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.
The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.” A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch. Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.
The desert is ancient. For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that. West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.
Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.
The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world). Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc. Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).
Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation? The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters). Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.