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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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Jakarta (photo by Josh Haner for The New York Times)

Before I write about my trip home to visit my family (and LG the Canada goose), we need to pause for a moment to gawp in wonder at Indonesia’s decision to move their capital city.   Perhaps you are rolling your eyes in idiference and casting your mind back to Sung Dynasty/Mongol era when the Chinese capital (as variously construed by various factions)  could have been any of 28 locations, or you are remembering 18th century America when the capital meandered around the Mid-Atlantic to such an extreme extent that the national capital was some random bar in Trenton for a while [shudders].  Yet, this is not the era of Mongol conquest, nor the birth of a nation.  Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and Jakarta is absolutely enormous.  The city proper has a population of more than 10 million people and the full metropolitan area could arguably be the second most populous in the world with 34,365,000 souls packed into 3,300 square kilometers…although, frankly I found that list to be completely baffling and I can’t believe New York isn’t higher (also New York City’s GDP is greater than all of Indonesia’s…so maybe we can afford not to be too tetchy about rankings on some internet list).

Uh, anyway, according to president, Joko Widodo, Indonesia will move its capital city to Borneo over the course of the next decade, as set forth in this not-very-compelling illustration I just made.

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As you can see, Jakarta is in northern Java, so the move crosses about 1250 kilometers (800 miles) which includes the Java Sea.  Imagine if we decided to move Washington DC to Saint Louis, but St. Louis was on a huge island (St. Louis is not on an island, right? I don’t know much about it).

I have never been to Jakarta, but my mother grew up there and her house is filled with furniture and artworks from the great city.  When we visit my grandparents I hear all sorts of tales about Grandpa’s obstreperous mynah bird (that bird evidently had a naughty mouth), the giant cobra in the garden, and the beauty and chaos of 1960s Indonesia.

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Bogor in 1968 (photo by Roy Stall)

Jakarta needs to move because it is sinking fast.  Not only is the Java Sea rising (like all of the world’s oceans) but the city was built on top of a huge aquifer which was seriously depleted by the needs of 34 million people and all of their crops, showers, dishwashers, and whatnot.  The new location is more stable and already has some critical infrastructure in the oil-rich cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.  To quote Asia Today, “The capital will be built on 180,000 hectares of land already owned by the government, thereby minimizing the cost of land acquisition. Earthquakes, flooding and volcanic eruptions are less common in that area.”

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The current site of the proposed capital

The new capital is currently a rainforest, but the Indonesian government hope to minimize forest loss by keeping the city as dense as possible and by “building green.”  That sounds faintly hopeful, but if Indonesia’s real estate developers are anything like the ones here, it might not work out right in the real world.

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To be honest, I have no idea how to assess this proposal.  Obviously all of Jakarta won’t go to the new location.  It could be the Indonesian president is trying to juice the (moribund) project of building up the economy of Borneo (the majority of Indonesia’s economic output comes from Java).  But whatever the case, and whatever the ultimate outcome, this is not the last instance of this sort of move which we shall see.  The near future will feature massive disruption to seaside communities everywhere in the world (New York has been studying Holland and creating parks and building huge seawalls, but who knows if our plans will hold up?).  Best wishes to Indonesia in their quest.  Please spare the rainforest as much as possible, and let us all know what you learn.

After last week, you are probably thinking one thing: “what about these gobies?”

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Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a post on the invasive round gobies from the Black Sea which have showed up in the Great Lakes.  The blobtastic little fish sneaked into the lakes by means of ballast water carried across the great oceans in international freighters and now they are wrecking up the place.   The gobies are outcompeting larger fish for resources.  They are devouring native mussels.  To quote the USGS website, “This species has been found to prey on darters, other small fish, and Lake Trout eggs and fry in laboratory experiments. They also may feed on eggs and fry of sculpins, darters, and Logperch (Marsden and Jude, 1995) and have also been found to have a significant overlap in diet preference with many native fish species.” Particularly hard hit are mottled sculpins, little round pebble-looking native fish which occupy(ied?) the ecological niche which the gobies are now taking over.  the fish horror stories contain some rather sad anecdotes of gobies biting sculpins and chasing them away and taking their lunch money and otherwise bullying them on the lake bed.  It is a rough world out there.

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This mottled sculpin looks disgruntled

So are we just fated to dwell in a gobified dystopia from now on?  Well, actually, there are some positive things which the gobies are accomplishing and not everybody is sad they are here.  I was joking about gobies eating zebra mussels, the horrible invasive freshwater mussels which are filling up the Great Lakes and causing havoc to power plant and shipping infrastructure, however, it turns out the gobies do happily eat zebra mussels.  Additionally the gobies are not just eating other animals: they are also being eaten by them.  Because of the proliferation of round gobies, the previously endangered Lake Erie water snakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum) have become more prolific in number and the snakes are much fatter and happier (insomuch as we have records for these reptilian parameters).  The water snakes have been so successful at hunting gobies that they have been removed from the endangered species list (back before the act was watered down). 

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Why, here’s a great writing mass of ’em! The world is getting better!

Larger gamefish like walleye, yellow perch, and bass and are eating the gobies, as are piscivorous birds like gulls, cormorants, plovers, and bald eagles(!).  Unfortunately there is downside to this as well.  Zebra mussels filter decaying cladophora algae out of the water.  This algae contains C. botulinum, a bacteria which contains the infamously dangerous botulism toxin.  If the predatory birds eat too many gobies they can be killed by the botulism and several mass die-offs have occurred.

What is the point of all of this (other, than, you know, the fact that it is happening in the world)?  I suppose this article is really about ecosystems–the complex webs of life we depend upon.  they are fragile in unexpected ways and resilient in unexpected ways.  We need to think about them more and learn more about them (witness what happened in all of my aquariums).  Thanks for the mindfulness lesson, ugly invasive goby!

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“Northern riffleshell, snuffbox, clubshell and rayed bean” Remember those names for soon they may indeed be nothing more than memories.  An invader has come to America from the mysterious seas of Central Asia.  This interloper stowed away and came to America 30 years ago.  Authorities are powerless to stop the rampage of terror.  It has already conquered the sinister-sounding Lake Erie, a freshwater sea which is found deep in the hinterlands of…wait…Lake Erie borders New York ? [checks notes]

What on Earth is going on here?

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You may think this absurd looking creature is a sentient hockey puck or the ghost of Jim Backus.  It is instead a goby…a tribe of fish which are sort of the prairie dogs of the sea.  This is the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus).  It is a hard-headed omnivorous fish which can live in both fresh and salt water.  Originally native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the tiny fish is thought to have come to the Great Lakes by stowing away in ballast water of a freighter.  Since its arrival in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, it has made the entire Great Lakes its home and it is now spreading along the rivers and creeks radiating from the lakes.

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This is a pretty impressive feat and nobody is castigating the ugly little fish for being lazy or weak.  In fact it is even sort of endearing in a crude 1970s cartoon sort of way.

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My god, what happened during that decade?

Unfortunately the gobies’ unstoppable appetite is leading to the extinction of indigenous freshwater mussels like the Northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels.  Freshwater mussels were already in trouble because of pollution, habitat loss, and stream degradation.  Now they have to contend with this formidable 9 inch long 2 ounce predator.  I have written this article with a joking touch, but, sadly, this sequence of events is no joke. Ecologists are worried that the gobies will continue to spread (particularly with the help of careless anglers, who use them as live bait).  Understanding and curtailing the proliferation of alien species causing havoc in unprepared ecosystems is one of the defining environmental challenges of our times (which are filled with environmental challenges), but so far nobody has figured out how to do so.  Perhaps in the future the Great Lakes will be filled with the descendants of round gobies eating zebra mussels.  Sometimes it seems like nobody and nothing can keep up with the pace of change.

 

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Here is an image of a wild horse made fifteen to twenty thousand years ago by a Cro-Magnon artist in the caves of Lascaux (which are now in France but were then in the hunting lands of these ancient hunter-gatherers).   The horse, which looks for all the world like a Przewalski’s horse, is painted with the carbon black of charcoal and with a swoosh of yellow umber.  This week accidentally became sponsored by the color yellow (maybe to celebrate the new Thai king–since yellow is the color of royalty in Thailand as in China).  Yellow ochre (which is a clay that derives its hue from hydrated iron hydroxide) is one of the most ancient and straightforward pigments–yet it is beautiful and lasts forever.  It is in my paintbox too, next to all sorts of strange synthetic pigments and esoteric heavy metals.

Anthropologists tell us that this horse served some unknown ritualistic purpose for the artists and their original audience (whose names…and whose very language are completely lost), but that strikes me as a bit simplistic.  No doubt I would say the same thing about any mystery artwork from an unknown culture.   What IS obvious is that the Cro-Magnon recognized how closely they lived to nature and they admired the the strength and grace of the animals they preyed on and lived next to.  It goes without saying that they recognized how important their fellow creatures were, because they knew that without these animals they would die. They would literally starve to death and freeze.

I wonder sometimes if that vital piece of knowledge has gotten lost to the artists of today who are busy contextualizing the injustice of social paradigms or examining the insider/outsider dynamics of status hierarchy.   We no longer need Equus ferus for food or clothing.  We don’t even need their domesticated descendants for milk and transportation.  But we are as inextricably a part of nature as ever.  Even if we must exploit it to live we must protect it and save it or we will die.  There is no outside of nature for us. We are nature’s progeny as surely as were the Cro-Magnon…or the wisents and aurochs which they lived off of.   Great art lives in a timeless modernity.  Look upon the round (pregnant?) yellow mare and think about what it really means.  In 20,000 years nobody will know our names or who we were.  Our language might be lost…and all of our works except for a few strange oddball things will be gone.  But the people of then (if there are any) will surely know us by what we took.  Will they admire us for what we understood and preserved or will they just curse us as vicious primitives who lost life’s most critical lesson that all living things are connected?

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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

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I wanted to write about flowers for April, but, so far this April has been a cold month and there is not much going on in the garden apart from Hellebores and crocuses.  Fortunately April is also poetry month!  Therefore, I looked up “gothic flower poetry” on Google to see if I could combine literature, flowers, and the dark foreboding beauty of Gothic aesthetics.  What Google provided was a William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.  Here it is in its totality:

“The Sick Rose”

William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem is so short as to barely be a poem, and it is by William Blake so it is probably ridiculously famous (although I have never encountered it until now).  I was going to move on and write about something else, but the disturbing truth is that I can’t get this poem out of my head!

Like a worm or invisible larva this poem insinuates its way into the reader’s mind.  Also like a minuscule worm,  the poem uses its tininess to devastating effect.    Since there are only 34 words (divided into two disturbing 17 word stanzas), there is not much information to guide the brains to a satisfactory & comprehensive conclusion.  Thus we are trapped with the ambiguity of what the rose and the worm represent…beyond just a dying rose and an invisible infectious agent which is killing it (which is already unsettling).   The effect really is akin to some virulent nematode or spirochete burrowing deeper into a a maze of defenseless petals.

Symbolically, the poem is most obviously about love and the pathology of desire:  the bed of crimson joy is destroyed by dark secret love.  The fetishism, opprobrium, and shame of sexual lust undermines the more sanctified elements of romantic love.  The worm is a perverse predator and the rose an innocent naif.

Yet this poem is not merely about human love and longing.  It is about a real living thing, a rose, destroyed by another living thing, a worm.  Blake evokes the baffling gestalt of a world of tigers and sheep where predators and prey both rely on each other to continue.  Without the wolves, the sheep would eat all of the grass and die out.  Without parasites, weakness would flourish in ways which would unmake the host.  The poem does not just mirror pathologies of love (putatively our most sacred emotion), it showcases a miniature ecosystem which is a microcosm of the whole world.  Is it a broken system?  The rose is indeed dying…

 

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Happy April Fish Day!  The French manifestation of April Fool’s is much nicer than the rather horrid Anglo-Saxon version.  There is still room for farcical fun, as friends try to affix colorful paper fish to each other’s backs (although, admittedly, wearing a pretty fish is no substitute for being badly frightened or lightly injured in an American prank).

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Anyway, I was thinking about these fish, and it gave me an idea for camouflaged sculptures that blend in with the surroundings.  One of the secret strengths of the flatfish (which have become an artistic fixation of mine lately) is that they are capable of changing color to blend in with their habitat.  Unfortunately, this is usually a muddy seabed, which never really allows turbot, sole, plaice, and such like flatfish to explore their frivolous fashion side. With this in mind I set about building a flounder mold to make some “crouching turbot…hidden flounder” sculptures.  Unfortunately I only managed to craft a handful of prototypes, and I was unable to position them to maximum photographic advantage in the concrete jungles of early Anthropocene Brooklyn (yet). However we can get to that later.  Check out these streetfish I made for April Fish Day!

 

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I couldn’t find anything made of shiny steel to put that last one on top of, but fortunately my friend and erstwhile roommate Jennifer was wearing some fashionable silver footwear to help the poor fish feel at home!

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This is just the beginning of this project and we’ll see some more exotic streetflounder in the near future (as soon as I find some more disposable containers for mixing plaster) but in the meantime, happy April Fish Day!  Let us revel in the beauty of spring! Additionally, this is the ninth anniversary of the founding of Ferrebeekeeper, an event steeped in mysterious lore. Celebrate the happy occasion by dropping me a line or telling me what you would like to see more of!  I, personally would like more comments, and, to that end, I promise I will be better about responding quickly and cogently.  Thanks again for everything.  My readers are the best!

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So, I had this idea for a video game: “Dino Poacher: The Estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!”  In the game, your character would get all outfitted with special cool weapons and camouflage gear in preparation to hunt super awesome dinosaurs on the Cretaceous forest estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!

However, it is all a ruse, no matter what you do, as soon as you hop over the fence, Lord Humongousaurus’ bailiffs catch you and drag you into the basement of his mansion where they force you to carefully polish antique silver for hours and hours.

As soon as your polishing is done you are free:  you can re-outfit and once again try to break into the estate for ultimate dino-poaching adventures…but, as soon as you cross onto the estate, the game wardens grab you and you are back to polishing silver.  You have different brushes, rags, and polishing pastes and the sneering butler says unhelpful things like “If you miss your shot you have to buff the coffee pot!” You never do get to hunt dinosaurs (although there are lots of exciting teasers and action clips) but you do get to polish increasingly elaborate and hard-to-polish silver culminating with the Dowager Duckbill’s’ baroque spinosaurus epergne!

The game’s tag phrase hints at the bait and switch.  Lord Humogousaurus, in all of his aristocratic theropod glory says “Can YOU polish off all of the monsters?” Then he laughs derisively.  I drew a colored pencil sketch of how the game package should look in my little sketchbook today.

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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