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Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788. They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers. Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804. In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses. Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa. In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians. Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.
The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).
Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses. Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:
The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.
The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”
Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem. Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun. Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe). Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not. Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization). Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other. Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely. Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.
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.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
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.
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.
…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)
As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor. Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it. We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals. Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world. Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for. Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.
I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature. Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production. It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.
In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile. In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.
What is going on here? This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation. Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans. Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides. Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey. The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!
Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that. The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind. Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal! Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature. We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated. The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast. As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…
I have written about pangassius catfish (tra, basa, shark catfish, and what-have-you) before in an article about the trade war caused by protectionist legislators responding to the quick growth and success of the Vietnamese catfish farming industry. However I am doubling back to address the quickly spreading pangassius catfish itself. The farm-raised fish are currently identical to the fish caught in the wild form, but I wonder if that will continue for much longer. Pangasius farming has spread from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, and, above all, China. I have a feeling that the pangassius catfish will escape in all of these places and establish itself as a successful invader. I also feel like the fish farmers will start pushing the captive fish into new shapes with selective breeding (although the catfish is already a near-perfect farm specimen with its ability to tolerate low Dissolve Oxygen, put on weight quickly, eat anything and survive in fishponds, concrete tanks, fish cages, or fish pens).
About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not. Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today. In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today. They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet. Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?
That number would be none. The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo). The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns. An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton. Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time. Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.
Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons). For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.
The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt. Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving. Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century. Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge. In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal. In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great! They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.
During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do. The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat. When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.
A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs. The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.
Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch. Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water. They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.
One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around. This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me. Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street). The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing. Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey. In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.
It has been a long time since I put up a turkey post. In a way this is appropriate, since people other than hunters and farmers usually only think about the majestic fowl around holiday time when the sharp axe comes out (or–more likely—when one wanders over to Krogers to check out the price of Butterballs). Meanwhile live turkeys have been slogging away through the long winter. For farm turkeys this has meant dull days perched in dark coops huddled together for warmth while living on daily water and grain hand-outs from the farmer. For wild turkeys the winter is more like a Russian war novel. The wind, ice, and snow are enlivened by desperate hunger and by fear of omnipresent predators stalking through the bare trees of the frozen forests. The cold nights are filled with the howl of the wind and the coyotes while the days are filled with desperately scraping the dead ground for remnants of food.
But that was winter–spring is here, and with it, mating season. This time of year highlights one of the signature features of turkeys wild and domestic—gobbling. In fact today’s post is really an auditory one. Here is a movie of a Tom turkey gobbling!
The gobble is rightfully the most famous turkey vocalization. It is similar in nature to the humpback’s song or the deafening yodel of the siamang: a magnificent declaration of self which proclaims dominance and health to females. This ululating yodel alerts all nearby hens to the fact that an alpha male tom turkey is in the area and is at the top of his game (it also lets rival males know where to go for a fight and hunters where to go for a meal, so it is a true and heartfelt declaration of bravery and lust on the part of the issuer).
Gobbles are hardly the only turkey vocalizations. Turkeys both wild and domestic are extremely garrulous characters and produce many different calls for a variety of reasons. Here is a list of the more common turkey vocabulary from the national Wild Turkey Federation. By using a variety of tools and the full range of the human voice a tiny number of truly expert hunters can produce most of these noises, however turkeys are clever enough that they don’t usually fall for such guile.