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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.
On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken. To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java. These amazing birds are all black. I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.
Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black. Even their bones are as black as India ink. It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.
The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment. This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis. For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.
Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast). Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal? The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me. If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller). It looks like it might be money well spent though. These are stunning roosters. Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).
The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is a large tropical game fowl from the Phasianidae family. The junglefowl is closely related to pheasants, grouse, quail, partridges, and other such birds of the pheasant family. Wild junglefowl lives in a swath of south Asia and Indochina which runs from Tamil Nadu east to the southern parts of China and includes the Philippines and Indonesia.
These birds display strong sexual dimorphism. The hen tends to be a drab brownish color with a hint of red on her face—[erfect for blending into the dense jungle. Yet one look at the resplendent male with his iridescent green tail feathers, burnished yellow-orange back, and brilliant scarlet comb & wattle reveals a critical truth about the junglefowl: this is the progenitor chicken—the wild species from which all of our many beautiful and delicious chicken breeds descend. Geneticists tell us there may be a dash of gray junglefowl in there, but the domestic chicken is really effectively the same bird.
Indeed, the wild junglefowl has the same “cock-a-doodle-doo” call and the same truculent streak (but more so, to equip him for living in the tiger-haunted jungles of Indochina). Not only does he have excellent vision and a needle-sharp beak, the jungle rooster is also equipped with sickle-like spurs on his legs for self-protection and fighting for mates. Junglefowl are primarily seed eaters, but they opportunistically eat fruit, insects, small reptiles, and mammals. Cocks exhibit a courting behavior known as “tidbitting.” If they find a food source in the presence of a hen, they cluck coaxingly, bob their head, and pick up and drop the food in offering to the female.
Roosters live by Highlander’s “there can be only one” credo, and fight each other to the death if they come across each other. Junglefowl can apparently live longer than 15 years in captivity, but it doesn’t seem like they attain such old age often in the competitive and dangerous jungles where they occur naturally. They enjoy bathing in dust, are capable of short burst of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites. The female exclusively broods her eggs and cares for the chicks.
Ironically purebred junglefowl are starting to vanish from the world due to hybridization with feral domestic chickens. But it takes an ornithologist to tell junglefowl from feral domestic chickens anyway (since they are effectively the same animal), so I am not going to stress about this too much. It seems like chickens at least might be here to stay awhile.
The Otomi people are an indigenous Mesoamerican people of the Mexican Plateau. During the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Otomi allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs (since the Aztecs were a hated upstart empire oppressing and enslaving them). Otomi populations practiced (and continue to practice) shamanism. The sacred spirit animals of the shaman’s spirit journey take a central position in the most characteristic artforms of the Otomi—which consists of exquisite embroidered animals in dazzling colors. This is the subject of today’s post because…well look at these textile artworks! I just innately love them. They are masterpieces. The colorful animals seem to come to extravagant life on the elaborately sewn panels.
In these embroidered medallions and picture squares, fantasy birds, fish, quadrupeds, and insects embroidered out of brilliant stripes swirl together among equally colorful flowers and vines. Most of the creatures seem to be based off of familiar domestic animals like burros, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and bees—but the farm creatures are turning into each other and exchanging characteristics and identities. I am a bit surprised that Ferrebeekeeper has only just found out about Otomi art….
It isn’t like I went to the Mexican national art gallery and cherry-picked a few hallowed masterpieces from the walls either. Most of these beautiful examples were for sale on the internet by anonymous living artists and artisans whose work I like better than basically anything on sale right now in Chelsea for a thousand times more. I could have one of these amazing handmade artworks if I possessed…35 American dollars? How can such a beautiful thing cost less than a dvd of Fifty Shades of Grey? People who claim that the market is all-knowing should take note (and people who love beautiful art should be taking out their wallets).
It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet. I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things. We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything. It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.
Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures. They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking. When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens. The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked. The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores. She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).
It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them. People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard. After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.
To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?). I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended. Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.
My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat). Why am I picking on her? For status of course! To push my political agendas and ideologies!
Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.
In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church. Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.
I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.
Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other. Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens. Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves. Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive. Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.
This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone. Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me. But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.
“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize. But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start. So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism. Happy Earth Day! We’ll keep working on this. There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.
Allow me to present a truly magnificent breed of show chickens! Polish chickens are known for their plumage—especially their splendid bouffant crests. Despite the name, Polish chickens were apparently bred in the Netherlands (although there are some apocryphal stories about how they first arrived in Europe with Mongol raiders!). Some historians speculate that they are known as Polish chickens because their feathery crest resembles the flared hat of the Polish lancers, but the real reasons for the name are lost in time.
Like many of the truly chic, Polish chickens suffer for their beauty: their feathery crests impede their vision—which often makes them skittish and flighty. They have good reason to be anxious: because of their reduced eyesight, they are easy prey for foxes and other predators (and, if kept with other doughtier breeds of chickens, they fall low on the pecking order).
Polish chickens are mild-mannered and can make good pets (if you happen to want a pet chicken). Additionally they can be decent egg-layers–though nothing like modern egg-laying breeds like the leghorns. As you can see from the images included in this post, there are many different colors and varieties of polish chickens to suit your palette and your ornamental tastes!
Wyandottes are a classic American breed of chicken which first appeared in Wisconsin in the years following the Civil War. They are known for their winter hardy nature (thanks to short rose combs), their brown eggs, and their showy feathers. They are a dual purpose breed farmed both for meat and eggs.
Wyandottes are supposed to be a docile breed, but things don’t always go as planned. My parents obtained a straight batch of silver lace Wyandotte chickens via post, in order to restock their farm with chickens (“straight batch” means that the gender of the chicks was not determined by a trained chicken sexer—a highly experienced but deeply unlucky professional who determines whether chicks are male or female by, um, squeezing them). Because of the luck of the draw my parents obtained a surfeit of male chicken, which, in the course of adolescence, turned into roosters and set out to fight each other for absolute dominance. For a while, the farmyard became a miniature reenactment of ‘Highlander” with desperate roosters fighting to the death everywhere. In the meantime the inexperienced adolescent Wyandottes became the favorite prey for foxes, owls, hawks, and weasels which infiltrated the poultry yard from the surrounding forests and grabbed the distracted fowl.
The Wyandottes had beautiful plumage, but by the time a single rooster emerged as the sole male survivor of their insane battle rayale, the flock was sadly attenuated. Worse yet, the rooster (whom my parents whimsically named “Rooster Cogburn” after the movie character) had been rendered insane by PTSD and dark memories of dueling. It was only a short while until Rooster Cogburn brutally slashed my mother (either to protect his hens, or, more likely, because he was unable to differentiate other living things from rival roosters). This in turn aggrieved my father who grabbed a pair of electric shears and snipped the rooster’s fighting spurs. Rooster Cogburn vanished shortly afterwards, presumably a victim of the many creatures with glowing eyes who live in the woods.
I would have to say that Wyandotte chickens are very pretty (and good at egg laying) but they are not always the ideal chickens for southeastern Ohio. My parents switched over to buff Orpington chickens (large delicious-looking yellow-orange chickens from Southeastern London) which are bigger, prettier, and have a gentler temprament, and the state of affairs in the poultry yard has greatly improved.
Most painters find a particular subject and they stick with it their whole life. The themes which dominate an artist’s oeuvre can be all sorts of things: doomed warriors, Christ’s love, dark beauty, prime numbers, death-in-life, imperious aristocrats,monstrous pride, melancholy flowers, unruly goddesses…you name it. In the case of Adolf Lins the great subject to which he devoted his life work was…well, it was domestic poultry. Lins was truly great at painting ducks, geese, and chickens. He demonstrates that maybe not every artist has to concentrate on the ineluctable nature of time or the chasm between desire and reality. His poultry paintings are still well loved (although he is not the subject of long biographies like many of his peers).
Lins studied at the Academy of Arts in Kassel. He later followed some fellow artists to Düsseldorf where it seems he fell in love with the gentle agrarian rhythms of the fertile farms by the Rhine. He lived from 1856 to 1927–and though Germany changed again and again in that time, he kept his eyes on the modest glory of the local ponds and fields.
Lins had a talent for painting verdant Rhine foliage and glittering pools. He was also proficient at painting apple-cheeked farm children and lissome goose-girls, but his real skills and interests lay in the depiction of the individual fowl which are the focal points of his paintings. Each bird has its own personality and is busied with its own pursuits. Cantankerous geese squawk and bicker about flock politics (while other disinterested geese preen themselves or nap). Mallards in a forest pool gather around a white domestic duck with a lambent yellow bill. Two roosters fluff out their feathers and lower their heads as they prepare to battle to the death for possession of the flock behind them. Lins’ works may not concern the massive ebb and flow of historical or philosophical concerns in the human world, but he deftly captures the very real struggles and delights of the lives of domesticated farm birds. The feathers and mud and beaks seem real–and so does the liveliness of flock life a century ago. Any contemporary poultry farmer can instantly recognize what is going on in a Lins painting and share a quiet smile with small stock owners across the gulf of time.