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Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes. During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo. Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans. The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation. For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.
The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies. Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers. Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death. The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.
Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs. The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh. These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story. If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo. After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold. No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up). Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.
It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled. In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders. Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions. Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos. The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.
If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream. A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature. What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?
It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists. That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family! The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu. The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters. An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.
And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that. In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him. Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).
Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces. Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length. The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes). Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).
The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous: the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines. However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals. The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures). It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.
Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period. Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms. Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times. Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film). However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes. For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters. To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.
Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice. Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery! The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy. Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.
Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France. Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana. The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe). Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.
Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome. Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid. The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap. The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition. All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there. Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.
This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor. Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light. They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow. In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue. If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows. At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.
Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.
Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore. Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.
Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead. Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous. If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).
Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday items. The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.
Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests. Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time. Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.
It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time. The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.
The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees. They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm. Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out. Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages. These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out. The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea. In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.
This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”). Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time). The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers. Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.
Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans. They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean. They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).
The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers. The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies). Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp. In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process. The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life. It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger. They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.
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.
I can’t believe how quickly the year has flown past. It is already November. Although that means the coldest darkest part of the year is quickly approaching, there is one bright side to the turn of the season–namely the fact that this month is dedicated to my favorite domestic bird, the magnificent turkey! I have been trying to think of how to reintroduce the long absent turkeys back to ferrebeekeeper. Although it would be good to write more about the birds’ astonishing capacity for virgin birth, or to recount more personal anecdotes concerning pet turkeys, I have decided to start with a picture of the turkey’s native environment—the mixed deciduous forests of the east coast. To provide such a picture, it is necessary to turn once again to the astonishing artist John Dawson, who painted an idealized picture of New York forest which was mass-produced as a sheet of US Postal Service stamps (released March 3, 2005).
The sequence of stamp sheets is called the Nature of America—a series of twelve stamp sheets detailing the different ecosystems from around the nation. When I first started this blog, I wrote about Dawson’s second painting for this series–which showed a pacific Northwest Rainforest. The above picture of hardwood forests is even more exciting to me since I grew up in this eco-region. Unfortunately I could not find a picture of the original work before it was formatted as a sheet of stamps, however (despite the little stamp cut-outs) the viewer can still become lost in the artist’s sweeping landscape of deciduous trees and familiar forest creatures. If you carefully cast your eyes around the picture you will perceive many small details such as fungi, wild flowers, birds, salamanders, and bats. A beaver is just barely visible swimming out to her lodge (which takes up the center right), while a lovely white-tailed deer anxiously eyes a foraging black bear. Despite the many wonders visible in the composition, Dawson has wisely centered the composition on the wild turkey strutting proudly through the paper birch trees. It is a fitting image with which to commence the Thanksgiving season and a magnificent piece of bravura wildlife art.
Between 7500 and 2500 years ago, a space object composed of coarse octahedrite fell into Earth’s gravity well and broke into huge flaming pieces. Although much of the object’s mass and velocity were lost passing through the atmosphere, a number of large pieces (with a total mass estimated to be about eighty tons) struck the Saareemaa island in what is now northern Estonia. Since these fragments were traveling between 10 and 20 kilometers per second, a substantial amount of kinetic energy was released: the impact probably had approximately the same energy yield as the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The area was inhabited by Bronze Age humans and those who were not incinerated must have been appalled when a ball of incandescent hellfire swallowed a whole forest with deafening thunder.
The impact formed the Kaali crater field. Since the impact occurred so recently, the craters are still quite pronounced. The largest crater has a diameter of 110 meters (330 feet) and contains a freshwater lake at its bottom. The smallest crater (which I unfortunately could not find a picture of) is only about 10 meters across and a meter deep.
As at Lake Lonar and the Great Serpeant Mound Crater, there is sacred architecture affiliated with the Kaali Crater field. During the Iron Age, unknown masons constructed a 470 meter long stone wall around the lake. Since the body of water is nearly a perfect circle it looks deceptively small but, aas you can see in the picture at the top, the lake is actually large and deep. Kaali Lake has been a sacred lake for a long time and local reverence suggests that it still is. Additionally, numerous domestic animal remains from the area around the lake indicate that the area has been a sacrificial ground for thousands of years. In fact some animal sacrifices date as recently as the 17th century—it seems that Estonia’s conversion to Christianity did not preclude some surviving pagan traditions. Certain stories from Finnish mythology seem to relate to the lake: one tale relates how a trickster god stole the sun. The virgin goddess of the air, trying to make manufacture a second sun let a flaming spark fall down—it drifted into the forested islands south of Finland and caused a great fire which humankind saved and used for heating, cooking, and forging.
Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests. Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.
Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent. Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve. The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.
The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands. Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent. In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers. Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.
During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest. Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers. When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters. When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.
Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands. The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.
The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”