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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.
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.
One of the most horrible deities of the underworld comes from the violent and frightening cosmology of the Maya civilization of Central America. The Mayan god of darkness, violence and sacrifice was Camazotz a flying bat god who inhabited Xibalba, the Mayan hell. Originally an anthropomorphic bat monster worshipped by the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Camazotz was adopted into the Mayan pantheon as a vampire killer who reveled in slaughter. The deity appears throughout classical Mayan art and sculpture. Camazotz also features in the post-classical compendium of Mayan myths, the Popul Vuh, where he is master of a house of were-bats like himself. There he (or one of his minions) claws off the heads of one of the story’s twin heroes during their attempt to defeat the lords of Xibalba in a marathon ball tournament.
We’ll jump right into this continuation of last week’s two-part post with the the Black Turkey, which was a European variety of domesticated turkey. The original Spanish conquistadors found that the Aztecs had domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo. The ravenous Spaniards carried some of these off (along with every single valuable thing they could find) and took them back to Spain.
In accordance with Spanish fashion, the new turkey farmers of the old world selectively bred for all black feathers. The black turkeys spread first to the Netherlands (then under Spanish control) and ultimately throughout Europe.
When English colonists arrived in the New England, they brought black turkeys with them and crossed the European domestic birds with the wild turkeys they found in the forest. The resulting variety had beautiful dark brown feathers with green and copper sheen. These turkeys were called Bronze turkeys and the standard bronze turkey was the most common turkey throughout most of America’s history.
In their turkey breeding experiments, the colonists also obtained Buff turkeys, one of the original breeds of domestic turkeys in the United States. It was a medium sized bird with lovely dun/beige colored feathers. Unfortunately, due to the ascendancy of larger turkeys, the breed went extinct in 1915. But all was not lost: to quote The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy “Interest in creating a buff colored turkey returned once again the 1940’s. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Millville initiated a program to develop a small to medium size market turkey. This is one of the few instances where a new variety was developed in a methodical manner….”
In the early 1800’s a Kentucky poultry farmer named J. F. Barbee crossed Buff, Bronze, and White Holland Turkeys to obtain a pretty roan colored turkey with white wing and tail feathers and light under-feathers. Unfortunately Barbee christened his new breed as “Bourbon Butternuts” and the turkeys did not sell at all. Only later when he renamed the bird “Bourbon reds” did they become popular. Even old-timey Americans were slaves to marketing! The Bourbon red turkey had fallen from favor but lately the breed has become a mainstay of the organic back-yard turkey movement.
That concludes my overview of turkey breeds. I’m sorry I told it out of order, but hopefully you have pieced together the strange tale of Aztecs, Spaniards, 19th century showmen, and factory farms. It is curious how some breeds died out while others burgeoned in accordance to the strange ebb and flow of fashion and taste. It raises curious moral quandaries about the nature of farming. Livestock breeds are created by humans for human convenience and whim. If we don’t eat our farm animals, they vanish (for it is the rare farmer who keeps turkeys purely as a hobby). Isn’t it preferable for these creatures to exist and reproduce even if destiny means that they end their lives as the object of our great annual feast? Perhaps it is best to return to the mindset of the first turkey farmers, the mighty Aztecs, who understood ceremonial annual sacrifice and made it a cornerstone of their culture. Look around you this November and see big proud domestic turkeys staring at you from decorations, television shows, brand labels, and cartoons everywhere. Now think about the red step pyramid, the howling augur, and the flint knife–for you must consume domestic turkeys, the sacred bird of our harvest feast, in order that they may live on. I, for one, am up to such a task! And in addition to looking forward to Thursday dinner, I am eager to see what new varieties of domestic turkeys crop up in this coming century…
Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants. The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests. The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds). The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin. Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue. The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail. Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives). Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!). Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood. They have long red legs to run through the jungle. Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.
The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood. Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today). They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices. Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation). Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles. Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.