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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

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God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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We think of the statues of Ancient Greece as glistening white marble, yet they were beautifully painted in a rainbow of colors to imitate life.  So too, the poetry of the ancient Greek world was meant to be performed to music…maybe Sappho and Pindar had more in common with the Beatles, Slim Shady, and Bob Dylan than we think (although I, for one, will never accept that bad Nobel prize).  Unfortunately, the music of the ancient classical world has always been elusive.  We know how deeply the ancients praised its lyrical form and its emotional depth.  We even have extensive descriptions and directions of musical pieces, complete with comprehensive explanations of tones, scales, and meter.  In a few cases we have the notes themselves, there are extant scores for tunes which show each noise to be made in the fashion of modern music (albeit with a different notation).   Yet these aids have never been good enough to make musical recreations which were compelling.  The oddball classicists who tried to perform the songs from the ages of Athens and Alexander, succeeded only in making discordant and unpleasant harmonies.  Either the musical archaeologists were doing it wrong, or worse, the ancient world had a tin ear (and the sweeping rhythm of the poetry and art makes this seem unlikely).

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A new project has come together to try another stab at ancient Greek music.  The researchers and musicians based the heart of their work around recently discovered auloi which were found in superb condition.  The aulos was the “twin flute” of antiquity—actually a double reed instrument something like a twin oboe.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, slaves, and entertainers (as opposed to the expensive lyre which was the instrument of aristocrats, academicians, and such).  Although i have never heard it, the aulos is important to me because of the story of Apollo and Marsyas, a myth which is very dear to me (and instantly familiar to all artists who hear the story).

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Using these ancient auloi, musical scholars and musicians have exhaustively reviewed the ancient notes and commentary.  They have poured effort into understanding weird ancient musical terms like “mode, enharmonic, diesis.”  They read the poetry and they practiced…and, yes, they invented and guessed and made things up with their imaginations (which surely is the greatest magic of art, anyway).  I will let you read about their amazing methodologies on your own, but the upshot is you can listen to a closer (?) approximation of ancient Greek music.

[Imagine that Youtube clip was playing here: I would update my wordpress plan to make this possible, but it would cost $48, which would cause me to go bankrupt]

I am not sure I am fully convinced.  In my head, the aulos sounds more like a cross between a nightingale, an oboe, and a small shepherd’s bagpipe—sad and haunting and sweet with a faint hint of something crass.  In this clip it sounds like a vuvuzela making love to a giant hornet.  However, who am I to judge?  My ideas of musical beauty may have been forever compromised by the peerless euphony of 19th century music.  Maybe the clip is closer to the historical truth than I would like to imagine. Whatever the case, the new ancient songs are still worth listening to—they are alien, yet familiar, and not without a certain majestic ceremonial quality. And, best of all, the scholarship, the research, and the musical craftsmanship provides us with another step closer to recreating the ancient melodies that haunt us in poems and in dark myths.

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Since this has been a busy week, we will keep today’s post short and sweet (hopefully this will also discourage any disastrous copy writing errors: I fully apologize if any have occurred in the recent past).  This astonishingly beautiful building is the City Hall of Leuven, the capital of the Flemish province of Brabant in central Belgium.  The building is a prime example of Brabantine Gothic, a highly ornate late Gothic style of architecture, which originated in Flanders in the mid fifteenth century.  Work began on the Leuven Town Hall in 1439 and proceeded in fits and starts (as various chief architects died) until the building was finished in 1469). The building has survived mostly intact throughout the great wars which devastated Leuven (although a World War II bomb strike on the front facade was not fully repaired until the 1980s).

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Although the building is not especially noteworthy in terms of its history, it is is exceedingly pretty. It’s long angular shape and numerous ogee arches are much to my taste and make me want to research further examples of the Brabantine Gothic.  In fact I am going to go do that right now!

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These pictures show the ancient and mysterious ruins of Djado, an abandoned African city which exists in current day Niger.  The ruined city is found on the Djado Plateau in the Sahara Desert, a portion of the world’s greatest desert in Northeastern Niger, which is famous for truly ancient cave art of massive animals long gone from the region (and often from Earth).  It seems the region was once a forest, and then a lush grassland, but now it is a desert (which is worth thinking about). Djado does not seem to be the actual original name of this abandoned fortress town, but is rather a description: “the abandoned city of Djado” (like calling Detroit “the abandoned City of the Great Lakes”), however since I don’t have access to the actual name, I will call the ruins “Djado” so that this post isn’t unreadable. The adobe ruins date to 800 to 1000 years ago, when the community was an important trading center for salt and slaves between kingdoms in Niger and Libya.

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The city’s most recent inhabitants, the Kanuri people, abandoned it–perhaps because the water supply grew brackish, the desert grew too fierce, or the original economic reason which lead the city to flourish had long since vanished.  The Kanuri may or may not have been the original inhabitants–the Djado plateau seems to have been a disputed region between greater kingdoms and empires, but the real history is uncertain.   The photos are certainly evocative however, and they provide troubling food for thought as Ferrebeekeeper begins to delve more deeply into the history and meaning of cities.  I would also like to think about the future direction that cities can go, since ever more of humankind lives in these habitats we have made for ourselves.  Yet we barely seem to have thought about the possibilities of what we could truly create and instead we have utilitarian follies which reflect our obsession with status and our relentless competition among ourselves.

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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

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Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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Happy Fourth of July!  The United States of America turns 242 years old this year (2018).  People always talk about how new our nation is, but 242 is pretty venerable by any reasonable standard.  When the founding fathers declared independence, France was under the Ancien Régime, China was ruled by the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the Ottoman Sultanate was a great world power.  Russia was expanding under the enlightened reign of…Catherine the Great!  The nascent United States had the idealistic strength of purpose to break from the forms of monarchy and autocracy which held sway around the world and to revisit the ancient, dangerous ideal of democracy–rule by the people for the people (although, admittedly, it was a pretty limited and flawed democracy in those early days…and maybe in these days too).  Democracies have always turned upon themselves and blown apart, so the founders were brave/brash to mint a new one in the era of absolutism, but it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (except maybe for Alexander Hamilton…that guy was a maniac).

I love my country for its dangerous democracy and vibrant idealism, although weighing everyone’s opinions and forging them into a consensus can sometimes be a slow and painful process.   I also love America’s enlightened rule of law, its technological savvy, and, above all, its diverse population of people from all sorts of different backgrounds united by shared ideals.  Lately though, we have reached a sort of crossroads where the population is fundamentally at odds over two different divergent views of America’s strength, ideals, and purpose.  For the present, we are the Divided States of America: a recherche red nation of obedience, hierarchy, bravery, loyalty, & honor; and a libertine blue nation of shifting identities and ideas, ceaseless change, and unnerving new possibilities. Until one nation gains political ascendancy so overwhelming that the other side acknowledges it, the whole nation stumbles along deadlocked, incapacitated, and unable to adapt to a world where our adversaries and competitors are refining seductive new forms of autocracy (and goodness knows what else).

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After World War II, the world lay in shattered ruins.  The United States was at an apogee of power, victory and success.  Yet America rebuilt our adversaries in the belief that prosperous powerful, happy nations would be better allies and would become amazing friends.  We chose to remake the world not only with our vast power (not that we have been altogether reticent about wielding that double-edged sword) but with concepts, contracts, commerce, and compassion.  Germany, Japan, and Italy are our dearest friends—esteemed equals in the great work of civilization and progress. The Pax Americana has not been a perfect success, but it has been very good to the world and very good to us.  Turning our back on the world we built (and all of the advantages we built into the system for ourselves and our point of view) is rank folly.  When we had everything and were the only super power, we failed to reach out to the former Soviet Union with the same big-hearted elan…and look where that got us.

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We have made terrible mistakes in the past and we are making a lot of new ones lately (and revisiting some of the golden oldies which have plagued us and destroyed other great nations).  Everyone talks about the “shattering of norms” (which makes me think of the drunken everyman from “Cheers” falling from his barstool and exploding into shards like peanut brittle).   Reforms are inevitable and necessary if a nation wishes to stay dynamic and powerful.  Some norms will have to be shattered so that these much-needed reforms can take place.  The dance of reaction versus progress is so much harder in the real world than it looks on the pages of the history books though, and for the first time since the Cold War ended, I am truly afraid for America’s future.  If we cannot control ourselves, our bright dreams of space colonies, next generation biotech, super AIs, and enlightened ecological conservation will vanish… so will a lot of other things we esteem and so will some very fundamental things we have always taken for granted.

I live in bluest Brooklyn, and I don’t suppose it is a mystery where my political sympathies lie.  But it wasn’t always so.  I am a West Virginian too, with a red heart and a (perhaps overweening?) sense of our special place in the world.  This is a holiday and it isn’t time for more rancor right now, but I am going to write more about politics as the elections come up.  We need to look back 242 years and forwards 242 years too (like the founders did) if we hope to get out of this serious crisis of our democracy.

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The greatest Chinese political epic begins with the lines “Nations long divided must unite; nations long united must divide.”  We are being tested by that adage and so far, we are failing the test.  Have a happy Fourth of July!  But stay ever-mindful that we have serious painful work due on our representative government. This time the heavy lifting won’t be done by heroic half-imagined people of long ago with funny clothes, muskets, fifes, paddlewheels, and telegraphs.  It is up to us…you and me and all the people we care about with all of our dumb phones, anxieties, loudmouth ideas, and hare-brained schemes. We need to respect one another and strike new compromises, or government by the people for the people will perish here and the world will have to look to South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, and India to find its paragons of liberty.

Ceziqy3WIAMnCkF   What in the hell  is this supposed to be?

After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

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To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

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I am still working away at my flatfish project.  Here are four recent drawings/mixed media works which I made.  The flounder above is a cosmic flounder and represents humankind’s aspirations for the stars.  The mathematicians and engineers (here represented as ancient Egyptians) do their best with the tools and calculations they have available, but the universe is so vast.  The flounder represents all Earth life waiting to be lifted to the heavens.  As they struggle, insouciant aliens fly by waving.  The combination of ancient and modern elements make one think of the biblical ark (which is represented in the next picture. The flounder is, of course, a watery beast and is unmoved by divine wrath, although it does look a bit appalled at the inundation.

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Next is a picture of a crude and vigorous flatfish made out of thick lines.  The fish swims by a Viking long hall as seabirds wheel about in the sky, but thanks to some trick of the world (or perhaps the artist’s whimsy) a coati is raiding the pumpkins and fruiting vines. Is this scene unfolding in the old world or the new?

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Finally, there is a scene of a medieval styleeremitic  brother who has forgotten his scriptures and is now contemplating the life-giving sun.   A saintly duck and a far-flying swallow look kindly on his devotions, but the monk’s cat seems unmoved by his devotion.  Crystals hint that religious fervor is becoming convoluted by the vagaries and appetites of the modern world, which can be witnessed all around the verdant turbot.  Yet the fish and its inhabitants maintain a solemn and studious otherworldliness.  Whatever this mysterious devotion is, it is represented in each of these 4 fish, but the viewer will have to devote some time and thought of their own in order to elucidate the subject of this devout zeal. 

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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