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Yesterday’s post—which featured a gory painting of medieval deer hunting—makes one feel sorry for the poor beleaguered deer, which are surely among the most beautiful and graceful of all animals. And those painted deer were being pursued by crossbow hunters—imagine how much worse things would be with high-powered rifles. Well actually you don’t have to imagine–here in North America, the dominant cervid, the magnificent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was severely overhunted in the 1800’s as hunters shot wild deer and sold the venison at the market. Deer populations crashed down below 400,000. Entire regions of the country lost the white-tailed deer completely. The sacred animal of Artemis was in deep trouble across the United States.
To rectify this situation, the Lacy Act, the first federal wildlife law, was passed in 1900. The law banned the interstate trafficking of venison (along with other wild game). Then the Great Depression and the Second World War came along and everything changed again. During the Depression, rural landholders were forced to move into cities to make a living and land which had been under the plough began to grow back into forest. When World War II broke out a generation of hunters went abroad to shoot at the Axis instead of whitetails. After the war, in the 1950s, a clever biologist named Crockford invented a dart-gun system for capturing white-tailed deer and releasing them into habitats where they had died out. So deer made a comeback but their predators did not. Wolves, grizzlies, cougars, jaguars, alligators, and lynxes were relegated to the deep forest and swamp of protected national parks.
So by the end of the twentieth century, white-tailed deer populations were spiking out of control (heading to well above 30 million) and this in turn had a terrible effect on the forests. When a forest is partially or wholly timbered (or when it is denuded by some natural means such as a tornado) there is a succession of plant growth which after decades leads back to a mature hardwood forest. The first plants to grow back are meadow plants–short-lived annual herbs and meter-tall woody plants. Over the course of years these weeds give way to hardwood seedlings like oak and maple which can tolerate the shade created by the provisional meadow growth. However, in areas overpopulated by deer, the woody meadow plants are nipped up by starving deer and other tree seedlings which can out-compete the great forest trees for nutrient gathering (but which are not shade-tolerant to survive the meadow plants) then flourish. Beeches, wild cherries, or exotic invaders grow up and the trees of the great forest take lifetimes to supplant them (if they do at all). In the meantime the overpopulated deer begin to starve and suffer diseases even as they damage the forests. A strange truth of ecosystems is that predators are nearly as necessary as their prey—even hardy generalists like the white-tailed deer which can live almost anywhere need population controls for their own good (as well as that of the forest). Perhaps the ancient Greeks were wise to decide that their goddess of the wilderness was both a hunter and a protector of animals and trees.
Biologists, foresters, rangers, and sportsmen are all trying to unscramble the secrets to ecosystem equilibrium, but there might not be any real long-term balance. The tropical swamps and forests of the Eocene gave way to the temperate woodlands of the Oligocene (where the first tiny deer developed in Europe) which in turn led to the savannahs of the Miocene which allowed artiodactyl grazers to radiate out across the world. But it is hard to think in such big terms and it is uncomfortable to think about what will come next. Something within me longs for homeostasis—for the right number of lovely deer beneath the tall native oaks and tulip poplars forever and ever.
Ferrebeekeeper has frequently addressed the remarkable gothic paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder (a description of his allegorical painting of Melancholia can be found here; an essay about his gentler animal paintings is here; and a write-up about his signature winged snake is here). This week, as we salute Artemis (aka Diana) the goddess of the hunt, it is appropriate to again feature a painting by Cranach– since he got his big break through hunting paintings. His artwork first came to the attention of Germany’s most prominent nobles when they were struck by the realism with which he painted game and trophy antlers on the wall. Below is Cranach’s remarkable hunting landscape titled The Stag Hunt of Elector Frederick the Wise which he completed in 1529 to celebrate an outing by his foremost patron.
Cranach eschews a strong central image in this artwork, so the eyes are free to wander through the landscape where magnificent stags try desperately to flee the hounds and crowbow wielding nobles which hem them in on all sides. Through this mechanism, the viewer literally shares the hunt with the nobles in the painting who are also desperately glancing around the forest for a good shot. Although there is festive atmosphere to the painting–which after all shows the political masters of northern Europe enjoying a day of leisure—there is an underlying pathos and brutality to the work as well. Cranach fully understood and admired the discipline of Artemis (in fact he painted a robust, not-safe-for-work nude painting of her with her brother Apollo), however he did not shy away the bloody carnage of the hunt and one can’t help but think that even this painting of a successful day in the woods reveals something of the uncertainty and desperation of his times.
Kindly accept my apologies for the lack of posts on Thanksgiving week: I was hunting and feasting in wild forested hills far away from the city (and my computer).
When writing about mythology, this blog traditionally concentrates on stories of the underworld and the dark beings and divinities which exist beyond the mortal veil. However to celebrate the wild joys of the forest, I am dedicating this week to Artemis/Diana–goddess of the hunt and protector of animals. Even though Artemis was primarily a virgin goddess of unspoiled wilderness, wild creatures, and of hunters and hunted, she had a dark underworld aspect as well. In stark opposition to her role as protector of children and women in childbirth she was a plague goddess who killed swiftly with afflictions which struck like divine arrows.
Artemis was the twin sister of glorious Apollo. Both siblings were the children of Zeus and Leto (a daughter of obscure Titans). Hera/Juno was angry about Zeus’ philandering and tried to prevent the birth of the twins by cursing the land they were born in, but Leto found a floating Island, Delos, which escaped Hera’s wrath by being unmoored. After the birth of the twins, Delos was cemented to the seafloor and became a sacred location.
Artemis was the elder twin. Although Leto bore Artemis quickly and painlessly, Apollo’s birth was a terrible ordeal of prolonged painful labor which lasted nine days and nights. By the end of this time, Artemis had grown into a full goddess and she helped her mother bring her twin into the world—hence her connection with childbirth. Thereafter Artemis was identified with the moon and the wilderness while Apollo has always been a sun god associated with civilization and society. When Artemis met Zeus she asked to always remain a virgin and a loner, a request which the king of the gods quickly granted to his lovely daughter.
Artemis had several attributes: a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a knee-length tunic, and packs of attendant hounds and nymphs. The sacred animal of Artemis is the deer, and she is often portrayed caressing a deer, being carried in a chariot drawn by deer with golden antlers, or hunting stags in the forest. One of Hercules’ most challenging labors was to capture a golden-antlered hind sacred to the goddess. The magical deer could outrun arrows (and anyways Heracles knew that shooting it would bring him the disfavor of the goddess and disaster). For a year he unsuccessfully pursued the deer on foot and he only succeeded in catching the doe when he fell down in desperation and groveled before the goddess (who transferred her wrath to Eurystheus). Another myth involving deer and Artemis does not end so well for the mortal protagonist. Once when she was bathing–nude, chaste, and beautiful—she was accidentally spotted by the unlucky Theban hunter Actaeon. In fury that a mortal had espied her loveliness, she transformed the hunter into a stag, whereupon he was torn to shreds by his own dogs–which did not recognize their master or know the anguished voice trying to call them off with the tongue of a deer. For some reason this scene is a timeless favorite of artists!
This last story hints at Artemis’ dark aspects. When wronged, Artemis was a fearsome being and her wild vengeance rivals that of any underworld deity. Several of the more troubling stories from classical myth involve her wrath. For example, her anger led directly to the Caledonian boar hunt, the defining heroic event of the era just prior to the Trojan War. One year King Oeneus of Calydon disastrously forgot to include Artemis in his annual sacrifices. To punish the King, she sent a monstrous male pig, a scion of the primal monster Echidna to ravage the countryside. This in turn brought the greatest hunters and heroes of Greece together with sad consequences. In other tales Artemis was even more direct with her vengeance. She visited plague upon Kondylea until the citizens adjusted their worship of her. She famously slew the many daughters of Niobe with painless arrows and turned their mother into a weeping stone.
Artemis is a self-contradicting figure–a virgin who was the goddess of childbirth; a protector of wild animals who was also goddess of the hunt; and a friend to maidens, mothers, and children who wielded the plague to smite down mortals. Her temples were frequently on the edge of civilization—at the end of the croplands where the forest began or at the edge of useable land where terra firma gave way to swamps and morasses. This highlights the main fact about Artemis—she was a nature goddess. wildness and inconsistency were parts of her. Worshiping Artemis was how the Greeks venerated and sanctified the savage beauty and random gore of the greenwood.
I am in South Chicago, and, through no coincidence, my favorite fast-food restaurant is also here–so I am uncharacteristically devoting this post to fine dining. I hope my more serious readers will forgive the frivolity of this sybaritic post dedicated to the nation’s finest fried chicken restaurant, Harold’s Chicken Shack in Hyde Park, which I frequented with great gusto when both it and I were younger. Harold’s is known for its vibrant hen-themed wall-paper, its neighbors–namely a liquor store and a lottery shop, and its impregnability (since the cashiers and fry cooks still work behind at least one layer of bulletproof material), but most of all Harold’s is famous for its dirt-cheap, unhealthy, yet supremely delicious fried chicken.
I purchased a signature half chicken (white) with fries, hot sauce, extra white bread, and an RC cola. I’m live blogging the unique experience both because I have discovered that Harold’s chicken fits many of Ferrebeekeeper’s ongoing themes (namely crowns, farms, mascots, & art), and as an opening salvo of the Thanksgiving season of gluttony and good eating.
OK, here’s a photo of the inside of Harold’s Chicken Shack. As you can see, a variety of luridly colored machines are there to help you supplement your meal with candy, soft-drinks, and diabetes. Actually these are only some of the vending machines in the store: the ice-cream machine and the other candy machines are up by the counter. I decided not to take a photo of the counter area because Harold’s employees are hard-working folk and I didn’t want to get in their way (and because I was afraid they would think I was casing the joint and call the Chicago police). Unfortunately this means you can’t see the remarkable bulletproof glass food carousel or the menu with its gizzards, livers, grits, and fish.
Once I had obtained my half-chicken, I rushed it to the local park. The last 2 decades have been good for South Chicago and the park was much cleaner and more beautifully landscaped then back in the 90’s, but I did notice a smashed cassette about “How to Balance Your Life (The Physical Side of Life)” lying not far from a Crown Regal Bottle. I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with eating a 6,000 calorie meal, but I can’t help but think that it does.
Here is the outside of my fried half-chicken. You can see Harold’s two remarkable mascots on the wrapper: King Harold, complete with crown and scarlet robes is rushing after a speedy and clever free-range chicken who does not want to be part of his majesty’s supper. There is a lot to appreciate about the drama, pomp, and pathos of this logo—it captures all of my ambiguous but powerful feelings about animal farming. As an aside, it is unclear whether the eponymous “Harold” of Harold’s chicken represents Harold Harefoot (c. 1015–1040) or Harold Godwinson (c. 1022–1066) who famously fell before William the Conqueror to end Anglo-Saxon rule of England. Maybe they simply anglicized one of the many King Haralds from Sweden or Norway. Anyway, the mystery is part of the charm.
Now for the reveal: here is the Harold’s half chicken sodden with hot-sauce on its bed of fries. A few pieces of wonder bread are stacked on top in case the diner wishes to make a little chicken-skin and French fry sandwich. Hopefully you will notice the Royal Crown “RC” cola which again features a crown (in fact the logo is pretty much only a crown). My whole repast is covered with crown logos and there is indeed something regal about this meal. I can’t help but feel like Henry VIII as I throw bones to the side from orange-stained fingers. Eating Harold’s chicken is like life: the experience is messy and horrifying and delightful. There are moments of delight and moments of despair. As with life, the end is grim and painful and comes too soon. As a greasy calm fell over me and the first stabs of stomach pain began, I noticed this admirable statue sitting nearby the chess tables of Nichols Park. Campoli’s abstract imagery of talons and claws and beaks emerging from a (stomach-like) egg perfectly summarized my feelings about my delicious and unsettling lunch. Hooray for Harold’s!
Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name. As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire. A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.
Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”). When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences. The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India. This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).
The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce). The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris. Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.
Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa. The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy. This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken. It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested. All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).
Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus). Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy). In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.
As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines. One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.
The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day). The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.
This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died. There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th. Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced. New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies. If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.
Built in the 11th century, the Liaodi pagoda in Dingzhou, Hebei is the tallest pagoda still remaining from China’s dynastic past (and the tallest building in China from before the twentieth century). The stone and brick Pagoda was completed in 1055 AD during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song. Although the pagoda was ostensibly designed to store Buddhist religious texts for the (now-destroyed) Kaiyuan Monastery, the name Liaodi means “watching for the enemy” or “forseeing the Liao enemy’s intentions”. The tall structure was built in a strategic location and Song military commanders used it to keep an eye on enemy movements of the nearby Liao Dynasty (a northern empire of Mongolic Khitans).
Including the elaborate bronze and iron spire at its apex, the Liaodi Pagoda is 84m high (276 feet). It is a pavilion-style pagoda made up of thirteen octagonal tiers. Uniquely, one section of the pagoda’s thick walls is split open to reveal a large pillar in the shape of another pagoda. I wish I could tell you more about this bizarre pagoda within a pagoda–but internet sources are strangely blasé about the fact that one of the most important historical buildings in China has a section cut away like it was a pilfered cake from the office fridge. Inside the pagoda are numerous painted murals and carved calligraphic plaques crafted during the Song dynasty (arguably the artistic zenith of classical China).
On July 1st 1916 at 7:28 AM, the British Army detonated the Lochnagar mine–two underground charges of a high explosive compound called ammonal (respectively 24,000lb and 30,000lb) thereby entirely vaporizing a large section of trenches filled with German infantryman. This was only one of 17 giant mines which the British exploded in Northern France that morning. In fact there were an original total of 21 buried explosive charges—but, because of various exigencies, two of these were not exploded until much later on July 1st (one of the remaining charges was detonated by lightning many years after the war, and another was never found).
The explosions followed 16 days of heavy artillery fire and immediately preceded a general infantry charge which began the Battle of the Somme. It was an appropriately apocalyptic beginning of the worst day ever for the British armed forces—by midnight there were 57,470 British casualties (19,240 of whom died of their injuries). The battle of the Somme itself ground on until 18 November, 1916 by which point it had claimed over 1,200,000 casualties from both sides. More than three hundred thousand people were killed during the course of the battle.
Today the huge scars from that morning have been filled in by farmland—with the notable exception of Lochnagar crater, which was privately purchased and left as a monument to the futility and destruction of World War I. Erosion is taking its toll on the crater, yet, even after nearly a century, the great hole still has a diameter of approximately 91 meters (300 feet) and a depth of 21 meters (70 feet). Lochnagar crater is said to be the largest extant crater created by human artifice during war (obviously pit mines and nuclear test sites are much larger). It still possesses a unique horror—a round void in the placid farmlands of Picardy. To this day the grain fields around it yield rusted rifles, dented helmets, and skeletons in addition to wheat.
I am writing about this disquieting pockmark as preparation for writing about Armistice Day later this week, when we can reflect on World War I — surely one of the most comprehensive disasters to befall humankind. I am also writing about the largest wartime crater on earth, as an opportunity to note how feebly small it is in comparison to even modest meteor impact craters such as Lake Lonar or Kaali Craters, both of which happened in the remote past–to say nothing of giants like the Manicouagan Crater in Quebec which has a diameter of 70 kilometers (even after 225 million years of erosion).
Of course all of this should really be cause to reflect on how lucky we are—not only have we missed the Great War (except for you, Florence Green, if you’re reading this), but we have also missed all sorts of other unfortunate events. Today at 6:28 PM EST, an asteroid passed by the Earth. At its closest point it was nearer to us than the moon. The space rock (unsentimentally named “2005 YU55”) was about the size of an aircraft carrier and was traveling faster than 13 km (8 miles) a second. An amateur astrophysicist on the web estimates that it would have created a crater more than 5 kilometers in diameter if it had struck a limestone region of Earth.