You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘farm’ tag.
Most painters find a particular subject and they stick with it their whole life. The themes which dominate an artist’s oeuvre can be all sorts of things: doomed warriors, Christ’s love, dark beauty, prime numbers, death-in-life, imperious aristocrats,monstrous pride, melancholy flowers, unruly goddesses…you name it. In the case of Adolf Lins the great subject to which he devoted his life work was…well, it was domestic poultry. Lins was truly great at painting ducks, geese, and chickens. He demonstrates that maybe not every artist has to concentrate on the ineluctable nature of time or the chasm between desire and reality. His poultry paintings are still well loved (although he is not the subject of long biographies like many of his peers).
Lins studied at the Academy of Arts in Kassel. He later followed some fellow artists to Düsseldorf where it seems he fell in love with the gentle agrarian rhythms of the fertile farms by the Rhine. He lived from 1856 to 1927–and though Germany changed again and again in that time, he kept his eyes on the modest glory of the local ponds and fields.
Lins had a talent for painting verdant Rhine foliage and glittering pools. He was also proficient at painting apple-cheeked farm children and lissome goose-girls, but his real skills and interests lay in the depiction of the individual fowl which are the focal points of his paintings. Each bird has its own personality and is busied with its own pursuits. Cantankerous geese squawk and bicker about flock politics (while other disinterested geese preen themselves or nap). Mallards in a forest pool gather around a white domestic duck with a lambent yellow bill. Two roosters fluff out their feathers and lower their heads as they prepare to battle to the death for possession of the flock behind them. Lins’ works may not concern the massive ebb and flow of historical or philosophical concerns in the human world, but he deftly captures the very real struggles and delights of the lives of domesticated farm birds. The feathers and mud and beaks seem real–and so does the liveliness of flock life a century ago. Any contemporary poultry farmer can instantly recognize what is going on in a Lins painting and share a quiet smile with small stock owners across the gulf of time.
Heliciculture is the farming of snails for human consumption (and for snail mucous used in make-up and skin cream in the Latino community). Garbage middens from prehistoric settlements contain large numbers of cooked shells–so snails have been utilized as food for a long time. Sustained snail farming dates back at least to pre-Roman Phoenician colonies, however the ancient Romans took heliciculture and snail cooking to new levels. Romans gastronomes regarded snails as a particular delicacy and they introduced certain Mediterranean species to everywhere they conquered. When the empire fell apart Gaul continued the Roman tradition of enjoying escargot. Today the French alone consume 40,000 tons of snails per year. Serious agricultural effort is required to keep up with that sort of appetite.
Roman heliciculture apparently involved building little islands from which the snails could not escape. Today, however, snails are kept in carefully fenced garden plots. A small gauge metal wall which extends into the earth is necessary to keep snail predators out (particularly mice, shrews, raccoons, skunks, and toads) while a second interior wall made of specially constructed material keeps the snails in. A net can be added so that birds do not eat the tasty gastropods. Since pesticide and herbicide could injure the snails or the people eating them, organic greens are grown for the snails to consume. Apparently snails operate by Tron-style rules and do not like to cross another snail’s slime path—which means that only 20 snails can be kept per square meter. There are two principal species which are consumed as escargot. The smaller and more common Helix aspersa is also known as the “petit gris” or “escargot chagrine” whereas the larger, rarer Helix pomatia is called the “Roman snail,” “apple snail,” or “escargot de Bourgogne”. Both of these Mediterranean species have been widely introduced around the world for agricultural purposes. They are now endemic pests in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and southern South America (and probably elsewhere). It’s funny to think that the snail eating your cabbages is the descendant of a snail which escaped from some long-dead hungry French chef. I can sort of imagine the scene as a black and white early Disney cartoon with giddy jazz playing in the background.
Everybody and everything seems to enjoy eating snails including…other snails. A particular source of difficulty for snail farmers is cannibalism. Larger snails will eat eggs and hatchlings for the calcium. If not eaten by something, snails can live a long time. They hibernate in winter and Helix pomatia can live up to 35 years.
It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age. Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family). Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads. Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.
In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves. The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.
A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds). Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.
Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares. Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.
Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting). Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently. Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms. A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).
Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland. Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.
As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist. Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell. Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet. To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting. His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem. In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks. His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it. Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems. Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans. His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.
Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative). Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity. There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too. The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig! The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable. It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.
That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems. The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”. Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness. Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.
Is Rockman’s art gothic? I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail. There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech. I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”. Life endures and adapts even as the world changes. Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature, but we will need to grow quickly!