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The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance. There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake. One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond. At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area. It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish. I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!
Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks. They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago. The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago). Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia. During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea. Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process). Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).
The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda. Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly. Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).
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.
The great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals. Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods. There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean. In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate. Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths. Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites). Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.
The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering. Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in). A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long. Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).
The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon. It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them). The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.
There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”: colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture. The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long). Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths. Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem. Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them. Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand. Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).
In prehistoric times there was no sugar. Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees). The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative. The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.
But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities. One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping. The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt. An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb. The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC. Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.
Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt. It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious. Wax tablets were used for writing. Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent. Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints. Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions. Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting. By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.
According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth. Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king). The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.
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.
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.