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It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present

Happy Lunar New Year! In the Chinese calendar it is already year 4718, the Year of the Metal Ox. Gosh, where does the time go? Weirdly, one of New York City’s symbols is, I guess, technically a metal, ox so I put him up there for visual interest. In both the Chinese and Western culture, the metal ox is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, and success. Let us hope that 2021…er, I mean 4718…brings such things to all of us (particularly to you, dear reader).

Humankind’s association with cattle and oxen goes way back to 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East around 10,500 years ago (genetic analysis tools really have a way of clearing up some of paleohistory’s cobwebs!) Since those days, selective breeding has allowed humankind to tailor-make cattle of all sorts of shapes, colors, and characteristics, to such a degree that it is hard to believe they all descend directly from that 80 original herd of four score. Next week I promise a very special kine post to show you what I mean! Here is a little teaser picture so that you will come back for that post (and by “little”, I mean this is a little pre-taste of cattle-themed excitement: obviously there is nothing little about that bull who is pictured with a normal-sized adult human)

But this is Chinese New Year, and we are straying a bit from Chinese oxen, so let us go straight to an undiluted Chinese masterpiece which celebrates the strength, beauty, and personality of oxen in the Middle Kingdom. Here is “Five Oxen” 五牛图 arguably one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.

Five Bulls (Han Huang, mid 8th century CE) ink on silk scroll

The work was painted sometime in the middle of the 8th century AD by Han Huang, AKA Duke Zhongsu of Jin. Han Huang is now renowned as perhaps the greatest cow painter in Chinese history, but in his life he was relegated the less glamorous task of running the Chinese empire as the chancellor/prime minister for Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty. The painting was lost in 1900 after European troops put down the Boxer rebellion and occupied Beijing, but it was rediscovered in Hong Kong during the 1950s and now graces the Palace museum in Beijing. Click on that painting fast, before WordPress changes something and you are unable to look at a high-def picture of the picture. It rewards close attention with its matchless bovine beauty!

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a statesman, Han Huang was a master of building form with calligraphic linework. In this grand scroll, he has utilized that skill to perfection to capture the overwhelming physical heft of five very different oxen. Yet the painting’s true strength does not come only from the oxen’s strength. Somehow Huang has not just captured their imposing bulk and might, he has captured the gentle curiosity and almost childlike diffidence of the great animals (except maybe for that first ox on the left, who has a very stolid cast to him).

Of course this juxtaposition is the very essence of oxen (to our human perspective anyway). They are the size of houses with the strength of small armies, and yet they are biddable and gentle…or at least they can be! In the west, bulls are known for being un-gentle! I have deliberately blurred the lines between bulls, oxen, steer cattle, kine, and cows in this post because I didn’t even want to talk about gender and number, and I certainly don’t want to talk about buffalo (the Chinese word can mean “ox” or “bovine creature” so arguably I could be parsing out the differences between water buffalo, yaks, bison, and cattle). We will talk about what all of that means later (if at all), but for the purpose of this post it means that cattle stand high enough in importance to humans (or at least to cattlemen) to demand incredibly specific and complicated terminology (I get the feeling that the Duke of Jin would understand.

In the Chinese zodiac, the steadfast ox was meant to be first sign, except it was tricked by the cunning rat. This was not just because oxen are tireless and strong, it is because they are first in importance to people and have been for a long time.

Bluebirds (Sialia) are a traditional symbol of happiness and optimism in American society. Ethnographers tell us that this association existed prior to European colonization: in Iroquois mythology, the call of the bluebird could ward off the cold, dark power of Sawiskera, the cruel deity of winter (we need to write more about that character some other winter day!). Members of the thrush family, bluebirds are insectivores which raise two broods of fledglings a year in nests which they build in small elevated cavities in trees or old fence posts (or, these days, in bluebird houses helpfully put up by enthusiasts). Bluebirds live on insects and small arthropods which they supplement with berries and they are preyed on by more or less everything (skunks, owls, kestrels, snakes, cats, cars, chipmunks, foxes, flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, etc…etc). There are three closely related species of bluebirds living in North America, although each of the pictures here shows the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) which I grew up with and which was a sort of totemic creature of the family farm where the handsome birds flourished.

This may be the world’s oldest known representational artwork– a red ochre painting of a warty pig recently discovered in the Leang Tedongnge cave of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The full work is actually three pigs–two pigs fighting (?) while one pig watches from a distance, but the fighting pigs have been effaced by scores of millennia, whereas the bystander pig has somehow avoided the elements as well as the fray.

Archaeologists believe the painting is 45,000 years old, an extraordinary age in dealing with human artifacts. They arrived at that number by means of measuring the decay of infinitesimal amounts of uranium in mineral deposits formed on top of the image (this methodology is not without drawbacks and controversies, but remains the go-to mechanism of dating for 45,000 year old non-carboniferous artworks). Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh largest island. Because it is located at the nexus of three small and two giant tectonic plates it resembles a squashed asterisk. Homo Erectus found a home in Indonesia as early as 2 million years ago, but Homo Sapiens reached the island, around the time this painting was made, 45,000 years ago. Modern Austronesian people (who make up the majority of Indonesia’s living population) only arrived 2000 years ago.

The pig portrayed here is interesting as well! It is a Celebes Warty pig (Sus celebensis), a medium sized pig which was originally native solely to Sulawesi. The warty pig is the only pig species to be domesticated other than Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild pig, which probably makes up 99 percent (or more) or the world pig population. Clearly such pigs were of enormous importance to the first homo sapiens of Indonesia–a nearby cave painting from 43.900 years ago (previously the world’s oldest known representative artwork) shows spear-wielding humans approaching pigs and small buffalo. Yet, as with all art, the full reasons behind the creation of the work remain elusive. What is certain is that it is rather good! In addition to an expressive sense of lively movement, the pig has true character and personality. Just look at its hungry face!

The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

Today is World Elephant Day.  I love and esteem our great gray friends with all of my heart. Not only are they exceedingly intelligent, they also have human length lives and humanlike webs of lifelong social connections (to say nothing of their deeply heartfelt and entirely relatable emotional depth).  The conclusion that elephants are our peers and worthy of personhood (a strange word which has only existed since the 1950s, but which implies autonomy and legal rights) should be inescapable.  Yet a shocking number of people are incapable of seeing how much we share with our non-human fellow Earth organisms. Such folk draw a shining line around people (or certain categories of people!) which no counter-argument or evidence can ever seem to breach.  Perhaps this state of affairs was tolerable in the past when there were never-ending herds of elephants and humankind was trying to eke out a precarious existence–yet that is not the way of things today.  With our overpopulation, infinite appetite, and our grotesque battle for status in the eyes of other humans (which is how resources and hierarchy are allocated) we are causing the extinction of elephants.  We talk so much about seeking intelligent life in the universe, but we are killing off the intelligent life which is already right here on order to make ivory fripperies and unproductive farmland (which will all be desert in five years).

Worst of all, the remedies for this malady lie beyond the reach of people of conscience.  We cannot force people to stop trying to feed their families. We can’t allocate the affairs of impoverishes nations whose kleptocrat leaders are happy to trade away all of the elephants for predatory Chinese loans.  I don’t know what the solution is (although my private heart whispers that the proper home for tomorrow’s humans lies far beyond the beautiful fragile world which gave us life).  Yet world elephant day asks us to think about the problem before it stops being a soluble one and the elephants are gone forever.  I suspect that if we allow such a thing to happen, we will follow the giants in to the abyss not very long afterwards (if you doubt me, take a hard look around you).  Think about the problem as you gaze out at Venus and write down your ideas in the comments below.  In the meantime, to make up for this troubling post, here is a charming Chinese painting of a little elephant family together in the forest.  Look at how happy the little elephant is!

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Nothing irreversible has happened yet…at least on a planetary scale… but fixing the problems caused by humankind’s prolonged adolescent growth spurt is going to take self-discipline, cooperation, and imagination on an elephantine scale.

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