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Verdun

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.

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The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).

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The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.

As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.

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Spent shell casings at Verdun

I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.

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What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.

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Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.

During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged.  Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition”  A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”

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The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)

And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.

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Namorodo Spirit (Mick Kubaku, 1971, earth pigments on eucalyptus bark)

Ferrebeekeeper has not written about the undead for quite a while…so here is a terrifying monster from Australian aboriginal folklore. Namorodos (Namorroddos) are a type of evil nocturnal monsters from the mythology of Western and Northern Arnhem Land. Namorodos come from broken lands of rocks and sharp cliff faces. Made of dried skin, gristle, and bones, they fly through the night on howling desert winds. They are desiccated and thin and horrible—desert corpses brought to savage hungry life by supernatural force.

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Mimi Spirits and Namorodo Spirits (Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmira, ca. mid to late twentieth century, ochre on bark)

Like vampires and other undead, namorodos seek to suck the moist insides out of living humans (and thus transform the living into fellow namorodos). As with the horrible Alpine Krampus monster, namorodos seem especially fond of preying on willful children who become lost because they fail to listen. They seem like the savagery of the arid lands personified as a villain: a lesson written in horror.

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Namorodo Flying in the Sky (Wesley Ngainmijra, 1988, Chalk on paper)

Namorodos are also illustrated in the beautiful art of Arnhem land. Look at these disquieting yet elegant pictures of the arid monsters.

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Torus-shaped building by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale in Guangzhou

There is disappointing aesthetic news from the internet today: The People’s Republic of China is trying to reign in weird architecture.  A CNN article provides the basic facts, “A statement from China’s State Council Sunday, says new guidelines on urban planning will forbid the construction of ‘bizarre’ and ‘odd-shaped’ buildings that are devoid of character or cultural heritage. Instead, the directive calls for buildings that are ‘economic, green and beautiful’.”

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The great teapot of Wuxi. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Based on this language, one might hope for a future of soaring super pagodas covered with solar cells and hydroponic forests, however I think it is much more likely that we will see lots of boring giant rectangles designed by committees (like the new World Trade Center…or Freedom Tower…or whatever it ended up being called). Communist China had its own history of creating dull monoliths.  This was interrupted by a spate of crazy fun building projects, but it seems like the party is cracking down on the architectural effervescence (probably as a symptom of the vast market correction now under way).

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The China Central Television building in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.

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Sheraton in Huzhou

During the last quarter century China has seen outrageous economic growth.  Along with this boom, strange giant edifices popped up all along the Chinese coast like weird mushrooms from outer space.  I have put pictures of some of my favorites in this article.  I particularly like the Shanghai World Financial Center (which has always reminded me of a broken off piece of some cool mystery awl) and of course the many torus buildings.  However the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium and the Shanghai Tower and the “Giant Pants” and the huge teakettle were all good too.  There were some less famous but more charming sculpture buildings at a local level which I have also included here.

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Rendering of the Shanghai World Financial Center with the Jin Mao Building at right

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I did not realize how much I liked these buildings until I read the news today and found out they now belong to the past.  These buildings went hand in hand with eye-popping double digit growth percentages for the Chinese GDP.  I wonder if, now that the buildings are going to stop going up, the stupendous growth will cease too.  Mandarins from all cultures have a way of forgetting that just as art reflects society, society reflects art too.

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The Emperor Hotel in Yanjiao may legitimately be counter-revolutionary

 

It is February, my least favorite month.  Now is when I most keenly envy you lucky readers who dwell in the Southern hemisphere (where February means something like August)–for here, in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the coldest and worst part of the year.  The gray frozen waste of February also reminds me acutely of age swiftly sneaking up on me–and of all the terrible decisions I have made which have resulted in me being a worthless broke clerk. Yet February has one virtue–it is short.  So, before it is over (happy day!) we had better get to the Shepheardes Calender, the great 12 part seasonal poem by Edmund Spenser.  In this second section we find the young shepherd Cuddy complaining (like me) about February. He is rebuked by the ancient shepherd Thenot and they get into an argument about the changing seasons and about age versus youth.  Cuddy defends youth by boasting of his own amorous conquests.  Thenot rebukes Cuddy for being callow with an allegorical tale about the oak and the briar. Cuddy finds the (admittedly troubling) story long-winded and empty of meaning and the two fall out.  Ah…February!

Anyway, you came here to read Spenser, not to hear long-winded tirades against the (manifold) miseries of this wintry month.  So, without any more preamble, here are Spenser’s words:

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Shepheardes Calender II: Februarie

CUDDY. THENOT.
Ah for pity, will rank Winter’s Rage
These bitter Blasts never ‘gin t’ asswage?
The keen Cold blows through my beaten Hide,
All as I were through the Body gride.
My ragged Ronts all shiver and shake,
As done high Towers in an Earthquake:
They wont in the Wind wag their wriggle Tails,
Peark as a Peacock; but now it avails.

THENOT.
Leudly complainest, thou lazy Lad,
Of Winter’s wrack for making thee sad?
Must not the World wend in his common Course,
From Good to Bad, and from Bad to Worse,
From Worse, unto that is Worst of all,
And then return to his former Fall?
Who will not suffer the stormy Time,
Where will he live till the lusty Prime?
Self have I worn out thrice thirty Years,
Some in much Joy, many in many Tears:
Yet never complained of Cold nor Heat,
Of Summer’s Flame, nor of Winter’s Threat
Ne never was to Fortune Foe-man,
But gently took, that ungently came.
And ever my Flock was my chief Care,
Winter or Summer they mought well fare.

CUDDY.
No marvel, Thenot, if thou can bear
Chearfully the Winter’s wrathful Chear;
For Age and Winter accord full nigh,
This chill, that cold, this crooked, that wry:
And as the lowring Weather looks down,
So seemest thou like Good-Friday to frown.
But my flowring Youth is Foe to Frost,
My Ship unwont in Storms to be tost.

THENOT.
The Sovereign of Seas he blames in vain,
That once Sea-beat, will to Sea again.
So loytring live you little Heard-Groom,
Keeping your Beasts in the budded Brooms.
And when the shining Sun laugheth once,
You deemen, the Spring is come at once.
Tho gin you, fond Flies, the Cold to scorn,
And crowing in Pipes made of green Corn,
You thinken to be Lords of the Year:
But eft, when ye count you freed from Fear,
Comes the breme Winter with chamfred Brows,
Full of Wrinkles and frosty Furrows,
Drerily shooting his stormy Dart,
Which cruddles the Blood, and pricks the Heart.
Then is your careless Courage accoyed,
Your careful Herds with cold be annoyed.
Then pay you the price of your Surquedry,
With weeping, and wailing, and misery.

CUDDY.
Ah foolish old Man, I scorn thy Skill,
That wouldst me, my springing Youth to spill.
I deem thy Brain emperished be,
Through rusty Eld, that hath rotted thee:
Or siker thy Head very totty is,
So on thy corb Shoulder it leans amiss.
Now thy self hath lost both lop and top,
Als my budding Branch thou wouldest crop:
But were thy Years green, as now been mine
To other Delights they would encline.
Tho wouldest thou learn to carol of Love,
And hery with Hymns thy Lasses Glove:
Tho wouldest thou pipe of Phillis’ Praise;
But Phillis is mine for many Days.
I wone her with a Girdle of Gelt,
Embost with Bugle about the Belt.
Such an one Shepherds would make full fain:
Such an one would make thee young again.

THENOT.
Thou art a Fon, of thy Love to boast:
All that is lent to Love will be lost.

CUDDY.
Seest how brag yond Bullock bears,
So smirk, so smooth, his pricked Ears?
His Horns been as brade, as Rainbow bent,
His Dewlap as lythe, as Lass of Kent.
See how he venteth into the Wind,
Weenest of Love is not his Mind?
Seemeth thy Flock thy Counsel can,
So rustless been they, so weak, so wan.
Cloathed with Cold, and hoary with Frost,
Thy Flock’s Father his Courage hath lost.
Thy Ewes that wont to have blown Blags,
Like wailful Widdows hangen their Crags.
The rather Lambs been starved with cold,
All for their Master is lustless and old.

THENOT.
Cuddy, I wot thou kenst little good,
So vainly to advance thy headless Hood.
For Youth is a Bubble blown up with Breath,
Whose Wit is Weakness, whose Wage is Death,
Whose Way is Wilderness, whose Inn Penaunce,
And stoop gallant Age, the host of Grievaunce.
But shall I tell thee a Tale of Truth,
Which I cond of Tityrus in my Youth,
Keeping his Sheep on the Hills of Kent?

CUDDY.
To nought more, Thenot, my Mind is bent,
Than to hear Novels of his devise;
They been so well thewed, and so wise,
What ever that good old Man bespake.

THENOT.
Many meet Tales of Youth did he make,
And some of Love, and some of Chivalry:
But none fitter than this to apply.
Now listen a while and hearken the end.

There grew an aged Tree on the Green,
A goodly Oak sometime had it been,
With Arms full strong and largely display’d,
But of their Leaves they were disaray’d:
The Body big and mightily pight,
Throughly rooted, and of wondrous height:
Whylom had been the King of the Field,
And mochel Mast to the Husband did yield,
And with his Nuts larded many Swine.
But now the gray Moss marred his Rine,
His bared Boughs were beaten with Storms,
His Top was bald, and wasted with Worms,
His Honour decay’d, his Braunches sere.

Hard by his side grew a bragging Breere,
Which proudly thrust into th’ Element,
And seemed to threat the Firmament.
It was embellisht with Blossoms fair:
And thereto aye wonted to repair
The Shepherd’s Daughters to gather Flowres,
To paint their Garlands with his Colowres;
And in his small Bushes used to shroud
The sweet Nightingale singing so loud;
Which made this foolish Breere wex so bold,
That on a time he cast him to scold,
And sneb the good Oak, for he was old.

Why standst there (quoth he) thou brutish Block?
Nor for Fruit, nor for Shadow serves thy Stock;
Seest how fresh my Flowers been spread,
Died in Lilly white, and Crimson red,
With Leaves engrained in lusty Green,
Colours meet to cloath a maiden Queen?
Thy waste Bigness but cumbers the Ground,
And dirks the beauty of my Blossoms round.
The mouldy Moss, which thee accloyeth,
My Cinamon Smell too much annoyeth.
Wherefore soon I rede thee hence remove,
Lest thou the price of my displeasure prove.
So spake this bald Breere with great disdain:
Little him answer’d the Oak again,
But yielded with Shame and Grief adaw’d,
That of a Weed he was o’er-craw’d.

It chaunced after upon a day,
The Husband-man’s self to come that way,
Of custom to surview his Ground,
And his Trees of State in compass round.
Him when the spightful Breere had espyed,
Causeless complained, and loudly cryed
Unto his Lord, stirring up stern Strife:

O my liege Lord, the God of my Life,
Pleaseth you pond your Suppliant’s Plaint,
Caused of Wrong, and cruel Constraint,
Which I your poor Vassal daily endure;
And but your Goodness the same recure,
Am like for desperate Dole to die,
Through felonous Force of mine Enemy.

Greatly aghast with this piteous Plea,
Him rested the good Man on the Lea,
And bad the Breere in his Plaint proceed.
With painted Words tho ‘gan this proud Weed,
(As most usen ambitious Folk)
His colour’d Crime with Craft to cloke.

Ah my Sovereign, Lord of Creatures all,
Thou Placer of Plants both humble and tall,
Was not I planted of shine own Hand,
To be the Primrose of all thy Land;
With flowring Blossoms, to furnish the Prime,
And scarlet Berries in Sommer-time?
How falls it then that this faded Oak,
Whose Body is sere, whose Branches broke,
Whose naked Arms stretch unto the Fire,
Unto such Tyranny doth aspire?
Hindring with his Shade my lovely Light,
And robbing me of the sweet Sun’s sight?
So beat his old Boughs my tender Side,
That oft the Blood springeth from Woundes wide:
Untimely my Flowers forced to fall,
That been the Honour of your Coronal:
And oft he lets his Canker-worms light
Upon my Branches, to work me more spight;
And oft his hoary Locks down doth cast,
Wherewith my fresh Flowrets been defast.
For this, and many more such Outrage,
Craving your Goodlyhead to assuage
The rancorous Rigour of his Might:
Nought ask I, but only to hold my Right;
Submitting me to your good Sufferaunce,
And praying to be garded from Grievaunce.

To this, this Oak cast him to reply
Well as he couth: But his Enemy
Had kindled such Coles of Displeasure,
That the good Man nould stay his Leasure,
But home him hasted with furious Heat:
Encreasing his wrath with many a threat,
His harmful Hatchet he hent in Hand,
(Alas, that it so ready mould stand!)
And to the Field alone he speedeth,
(Aye little help to harm there needeth)
Anger nould let him speak to the Tree,
Enaunter his Rage mought cooled be:
But to the Root bent his sturdy Stroak,
And made many wounds in the waste Oak.
The Axe’s edg did oft turn again,
As half unwilling to cut the Grain,
Seemed, the senseless Iron did fear,
Or to wrong holy Eld did forbear.
For it had been an antient Tree,
Sacred with many a Mystery,
And often crost with the Priest’s Crew,
And often hallowed with Holy water dew:
But sike Fancies weren Foolery,
And broughten this Oak to this Misery;
For nought mought they quitten him from
Decay, for fiercely the good Man at him did lay.
The Block oft groaned under his Blow,
And sighed to see his near Overthrow.
In fine, the Steel had pierced his Pith,
Tho down to the ground he fell forthwith.
His wondrous Weight made the ground to quake,
Th’ Earth shrunk under him, and seem’d to shake:
There lieth the Oak pitied of none.

Now stands the Breere like a Lord alone,
Puff’d up with Pride and vain Pleasance;
But all this Glee had no continuance;
For eftsoons Winter ‘gan to approach,
The blustering Boreas did encroach,
And beat upon the solitary Breere;
For now no succour was seen him neere.
Now ‘gan he repent his Pride too late,
For naked left and disconsolate,
The biting Frost nipt his Stalk dead,
The watry wet weighed down his Head,
And heaped Snow burdned him so sore,
That now upright he can stand no more;
And being down, is trode in the durt
Of Cattel, and brouzed, and sorely hurt.
Such was th’ End of this ambitious Breere,
For scorning Eld—

CUDDY.
Now I pray thee Shepherd, tell it not forth:
Here is a long Tale, and little worth.
So long have I listened to thy Speech,
That graffed to the Ground is my Breech:
My Heart-blood is well nigh frorn I feel,
And my Galage grown fast to my Heel:
But little ease of thy leud Tale I tasted,
Hie thee home Shepherd, the day is nigh wasted.

THENOT’S EMBLEM.
Iddio, perche e vecchio,
Fa suoi al suo essempio.

CUDDY’S EMBLEM.
Niuno vecchio,
Spaventa Iddio.

Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

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It’s time for a belated Valentine’s Day Post (or maybe this is actually an outright Lupercalia post). The Seattle Aquarium has an unusual annual Valentines’ Day tradition of sponsoring blind dates for their resident octopuses. Sometimes the octopuses ignore each other or even quarrel, but other times throwing octopus strangers of opposite genders into a tank together results in multi-armed passion—a special treat for the aquarium visitors (to say nothing of the octopuses)  This year the aquarium has (or had) a large mature male Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) affectionately nicknamed “Kong” who weighs about 70 pounds. Divers set out looking for potential girlfriends for Kong for Valentine’s Day, but the largest females they could find (um, capture) were all under 40 pounds.

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This was a problem. It was widely feared that Kong might react badly to these undersized females and just straight out eat them. Mating is the final act for giant Pacific octopuses. They are semelparous (their lives end after a single reproductive event). After mating, females lay between 20,000 and 100,000 eggs which they tenderly nurture and care for as they starve to death. Males develop white lesions on their body and wander absent-mindedly into the open where they are swiftly devoured by predators.

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Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with human diver

Kong is approaching this final stage of his life, but his keepers could not find a worthy adult female octopus for him to consummate his life with…so they let him go. He went back to the ocean to look for love and death on his own.  Good luck out there Kong, you handsome devilfish! Let’s hope it was all worth it.

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DeBrazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) Photo by In Cherl Kim

So far, Primate Week has been a huge success! The Year of the Fire Monkey has featured the loudest land animal, the immortal magician monkey god, and the disconcerting calculus of Dunbar’s number. There is still another topic which I wanted to address—an important primate post which I have planned to write for a long time–but it is almost midnight on Friday night, so I am going to bunt with a quick gallery post about color. Last week I wrote a piece about humankind’s love for the color red. I blithely assured everyone that primates are the most colorful mammals…however I didn’t back that up with any images.

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Northern owl monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) photo by Mogens Trolle

Therefore, here are some beautifully colorful primates. I am only listing the species and the source (where available) so that you can revel in the beautiful color of these monkeys. If you want to learn what these colors betoken and how each species evolved such lovely patterns, you will have to look elsewhere. I have done my best to label each picture, but the WordPress function which allows a a blog’s creator to label images has been broken a long time (at least for the template I use). If you have any questions, just ask in the comments!

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The mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx)

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The Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei)

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The golden snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana)

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Emperor Tamarin (Saguinus imperator)

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Bald-headed uakari (Cacajao calvus) photo by Luis Louro

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Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirkii) Olivier Lejade

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Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)

 

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Red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus)
It is a pretty intense rainbow! Look at how expressive their faces are. It is possible to read the personality of each monkey. Some of them remind of acquaintances from secondary school or world leaders, but of course we humans are not quite so colorful. Still we can pull off a mean combination of orange pink and brown in our own right. We also change colors somewhat when we are aroused, angry, or afraid! Colorful mammals indeed!

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Human (Homo Sapiens) photo by Luis Aragon

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Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist/primatologist who discovered a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain (or really its neocortex) and the size of that animal’s social network. For example, clever chimpanzees tend to live in groups of 60 or so individuals, who maintain complex intimate social relations (yet chimpanzees don’t really care about outsiders without elaborate introductions). Howler monkeys tend to live in groups of 6 or 7. Dunbar studied primate brains until he believed he found the correlation index… then he applied it to human beings based on our own neocortices (is that the right word?). The number he arrived at was around 150. He posited that this is the average number of stable meaningful social relationships we can have at once. Here is a humorous (yet oddly serious) article which explains the concept elegantly (albeit with some fairly salty language and preachy talk).

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When one starts looking for the number 150, it crops up all over the place. Hunter gatherer tribes were (and still are) limited to about that number. Military companies of all sorts of different armies throughout history have been that size. Business consultants say that this is an ideal size for companies (come to think of it there are 150 people at the company where I work) or for departments of companies.

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But of course the 150 people I work with are not the entirety of my social interactions. I have 500 or so Facebook friends and not a one of them is from work….and the people I am closest to are not always on Facebook. And there are people I know about but have never (and will never) meet (like Susanna Hoffs, the emir of Qatar, and…Robin Dunbar). High functioning individuals like Presidents, CEOs, and world famous artists probably know many thousands of people—or at least know the one or two key pieces of information which makes each contact useful.

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So there are lots of troubles and quibbles with Dunbar’s number…yet if you really write out everyone you have a true worthwhile meaningful relationship with you will probably come up with about 150 (if you are a gregarious adult with a full life in a big city—you can have many fewer close relations and there is nothing wrong with that…it doesn’t mean you are a capuchin monkey or something).

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(Not that there is anything wrong with that either)

There is a line we draw around our tribe. Within this line are people we care about and need, outside it are… others—people we may care about in the abstract, or because they share a language, or a characteristic, or a nationality with us…but who are not dear to our heart in the same way as our intimate associates. The writer I linked to in the first paragraph up there asks us to imagine having a beloved pet…or two beloved pets…or six, or 23. How long would it be before our love and our attention were so diluted that we only cared about them in the most general abstract terms (or just outright despised them as a furry horde)? Whether you accept the premise of Dunbar’s number or not, it is a worthwhile question. If our brains are built by evolution in such a way as to make an “us” and a “them” what does it mean for all of us?

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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It is the year of the fire monkey! Let’s celebrate with some magnificent screaming monkeys from Central and South America. These monkeys are loud–really loud. They are louder than Rush Limbaugh or heavy machinery–so loud that, in fact, that they are generally regarded as the loudest of all land animals. I am talking, of course, about the howler monkeys. These fifteen species make up the genus Alouatta (which lies within the family Atelidae ). They are new world monkeys ranging from the top of Central America down through South America to Uruguay.

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Howler monkeys have short snouts with keen noses (they are capable of smelling their favorite fruits and leaves from 2km away). Depending on the species and gender they range from 56 to 92 cm (22 to 36 in) in height or length…or whatever primary dimension you attribute to monkeys. This measurement does not include their tails which can be up to 5 times the length of their body. They weigh 7 to 10 kg (15 to 22 lbs) and live up to 20 years. Howler monkeys are folivore–they mostly eat leaves. This diet is widely available but it is hard to digest–which means howler monkeys are larger and slower than other New World monkeys (although they supplement their diets with fruit and eggs when they can).

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The hyoid bones of howler monkeys are pneumatized–which is to say that the u-shaped bone in the monkey’s neck contains air. Outside of the dinosaurs and their descendants, pneumatized bones are exceedingly rare. The hyoid bone anchors the tongue and the larynx and allows for vocalization. The fact that it is specialized in howler monkeys is one of the factors which allows them to vocalize with such ferocious power. There is an inverse relation between the size of the hyoid bone and the size of the male’s testes. This seemingly random fact is actually a key factor in howler society.

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Howler monkey lifestyle diverge into two very different ways of living (except for mantled howler monkeys which live together in large groups and behave somewhat differently than the other 14 species). In one model, a male, who has a larger hyoid, and smaller testes gathers a group of females together with his majestic singing (screaming?) voice and he mates with them exclusively like a sultan with his harem. In the other model several males mate with a group of several females. Seemingly, this free love model requires less loud singing and more gonad mass.

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At this point you are probably wondering a great deal about the howler monkey song. What is this primal howl which female monkeys prefer over carnal joy? Musical enthusiasts have compared the baritone shout of the male monkeys to a Gregorian chant, a monstrous belch, or a demonic snowplow.  All of these comparisons have some validity…but the sound is so much richer than that.  Why don’t you have a listen (at 1:23) and let us what you think?

 

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