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stuffed artichoke from

stuffed artichoke from

The appetizer for the first dinner I ate in New York City was an artichoke baked with Parmesan, crumbs, and olive oil.  It was the first time I remember eating an artichoke (although I must surely have eaten some anonymous slimy dip in the 80s).  It was delicious!  Artichokes are still one of my favorite foods and they still remind me of how exciting it was to be in New York for the first time. But personal recollections aside, what is an artichoke?  The answer is as amazing and unexpected as the vegetable itself.

A field of artichokes

A field of artichokes

The first time I tried to cook an artichoke, I bought a couple of likely specimens and included them with my grocery purchase:  the poor teenage grocery clerk grabbed them from the conveyor belt like they were tomatoes and then screamed. It turns out that artichokes are a sort of thistle: they have sharpened spikes on the edges of their leaves (I’m really sorry the clerk hurt her hands:  I would have warned her if I had only known she was unfamiliar with artichokes).  Domestic artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are a variety of cardoons–wild thistle flowers which are native to Italy, Spain, and North Africa.  Cardoons are part of the aster family (along with daisies, scottish thistles, and sunflowers) and were eaten by humans in prehistory.  It is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans domesticated the spiky plants (although they certainly knew of cardoons), however by the middle ages Muslim farmers were breeding the vegetables to be bigger and tastier.

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

Cardoons are hardy perennial flowers which grow up to 1.5 meters (60 inches) in height and produce purple flowers from a large spiky capitulum.  The capitulum is the portion of the artichoke which we eat.  If it is allowed to sprout into a flower, it becomes dry, leathery, and inedible unless you are a ruminant (in which case, why are you reading this?).  The world’s farmers currently grow about 1.4 million tons of artichokes a year–the vast majority of which still come from Italy.  There is even a delicious artichoke bitter liquor made of artichokes!


Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Thanks to a milk snake, I now have a beautiful new set of cookware!  I know that sounds like a Russian fable or something that happened on a sadistic Japanese game show, but it is true.  For years my mother has kept an extra set of hard-anodized nonstick cookware along with a full surplus set of spatulas, whisks, tongs, etc…  The other day one of her spatulas broke and she went out to the garage to find a replacement.  She reached her hand into a dark dusty drawer of dark red kitchen implements and pulled out a dark red eastern milk snake!  Eek!  Apparently the little reptile had been living in the spare utensil drawer and subsisting on field mice which sometimes seek shelter in the garage.

Red Spatula

Red Spatula

After this unfortunate encounter, Mom decided that she had too many pots and pans lying around–so actually the snake was just a catalyst and, as with most of the good things in my life, I have my parents to thank for my new dishes.  I don’t need to join a snake cult just yet (although it is always in the back of my mind).

The eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) does not merely startle parents and dispense fancy pots, pans, and spatulas.  The snakes, which range from Ontario down to Alabama are a species of kingsnake.  Milk snakes often live on farms where they prey on the local rodent populations (although the snakes can also be found in meadows, fields, and forests).  Since milk snakes have always been frequently spotted in dairy barns, our credulous forbears believed they milked livestock.  This is obviously a myth since, even if serpents did enjoy dairy, they would hardly wish to venture among they heavy sharp hooves of sheep, cows, and goats, however it has provided the milk snake with a colorful name.


Like the mighty giants of the snake world, milk snakes are constrictors, which wrap up their prey within a suffocating coiled embrace.  Milk snakes, however, are little: adults range in size from 60 to 91 centimetres (24 to 36 in) in length.  The baby snakes are only a few inches long and they are insanely colorful (although the beautiful bright red fades to maroon, rust, or brown as they grow older.

The milk snake in the garage was escorted out to the field.  The snakes live up to 12 years in the wild and it’s good to have them around since they eat pests.

And what is the review of my new pots?  Of course I was extremely excited to use my lovely new cookware which can be used in the oven as well as on top of the stove.  I turned the oven on and waited eagerly for the little beeper to let me know when the temperature was hot enough to cook…and then I waited and waited and waited.  I guess the wild electrical surges that have been hitting the grid must have knocked out the little electronic lighter/valve in the oven—so no more baking for me until we get that fixed (or convince the landlady to buy a new range).  It also seems like a Russian fable that I have wonderful new pots but no oven…

Is this snake laughing?

Is this snake laughing?


When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.


The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?


So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

Willinhausener Gänselliesel (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Willinhausener Gänselliesel (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

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).

Gänse am Weiher (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Gänse am Weiher (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

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.

Enten am Flußufer (Adolf Lins)

Enten am Flußufer (Adolf Lins)

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.

Imminent Battle (Adolf Lins)

Imminent Battle (Adolf Lins)


Agriculture is almost unknown in the natural world. Human beings are the only vertebrates known to grow crops or keep livestock (with the possible exception of damselfish which carefully tend little algae gardens).  And yet we were not the first animals to invent the concept.  Ants have farmed fungi within their tunnels for tens of millions of years.  Ants also keep aphids in captivity in order to “milk” them of sugary secretions–or to eat them outright.  It is possible that beetles, termite, or snails came up with the concept first, but most evidence points to ants as the first farmers.

An Ant Milking Aphids

Ants do not have a shabby operation either. Leaf cutter ants form the largest and most complicated animal societies known on Earth (other than our own) and a single colony can have over 8 million individuals.  Leaf cutters are an ideal example of how adept ants are at farming fungi.  Four different castes of worker ants work together to bring back leaf fragments and integrate them into huge fungal gardens. Different species of leafcutters cultivate different fungi from the Lepiotaceae family.  Certain bacteria with antifungicidal and antibacterial properties grow within the metapleural glands of the ants.  The worker ants use these bacteria to “prune and weed” dangerous or unproductive organisms out of their gardens.  Older (more expendable) worker ants carry waste products from the hive to a waste pile where they stir the hive wastes together to aid in decomposition.  The waste-management job brings the danger of fungal or bacterial contamination and contaminated ants are exiled to certain death in order to keep the gardens safe.  Additionally dead ants from within the hive are carefully placed around the waste pile so as to protect the hive from their decomposition.

Leaf Cutter Ants at the Cameron Currie Lab arrange cut-up leaves into their fungal garden.

According to geneticists who study the rates of mutation within the various fungal cultivars, ants began their farm relationship with fungi around 50 million years ago in the warm Eocene epoch (an era which saw many of the critical relationships in modern ecosystems begin).


Digital Cut-away of an underground leaf-cutter nest

Scientists are also beginning to understand the means by which ants herd their little flocks of aphids.  The aphids are smaller insects which feed on the saps and juices of plants (which they suck out by means of specialized mouthparts called stylets).  The ants prevent the aphids by flying away by tearing off their wings.  The feet of the ants produce chemicals which tranquilize and subdue the aphids and keep them from escaping the “pastures” near the ant colonies.  It is believed that aphids also derive certain benefits from this arrangement since the aggressive ants protect them from many of their natural predators.

An Ant with a “herd” of Aphids

For years naysayers belittled the farming achievements of ants suggesting they were little more than symbiotic arrangements.  However as entomologists study the ants more carefully they increasingly discover just how complicated and sophisticated those relationships are (involving as they do numerous symbiotic relationships with bacteria in order to produce the chemicals necessary for agricultural control).  Additionally, what are humankind’s relationships with our crops and animals if not huge harrowing examples of symbiosis?


Heliciculture is the farming of snails for human consumption (and for snail mucous used in make-up and skin cream in the Latino community). Garbage middens from prehistoric settlements contain large numbers of cooked shells–so snails have been utilized as food for a long time.  Sustained snail farming dates back at least to pre-Roman Phoenician colonies, however the ancient Romans took heliciculture and snail cooking to new levels. Romans gastronomes regarded snails as a particular delicacy and they introduced certain Mediterranean species to everywhere they conquered.  When the empire fell apart Gaul continued the Roman tradition of enjoying escargot.  Today the French alone consume 40,000 tons of snails per year.  Serious agricultural effort is required to keep up with that sort of appetite.

Snails at market

Roman heliciculture apparently involved building little islands from which the snails could not escape.  Today, however, snails are kept in carefully fenced garden plots.  A small gauge metal wall which extends into the earth is necessary to keep snail predators out (particularly mice, shrews, raccoons, skunks, and toads) while a second interior wall made of specially constructed material keeps the snails in.  A net can be added so that birds do not eat the tasty gastropods. Since pesticide and herbicide could injure the snails or the people eating them, organic greens are grown for the snails to consume.  Apparently snails operate by Tron-style rules and do not like to cross another snail’s slime path—which means that only 20 snails can be kept per square meter.  There are two principal species which are consumed as escargot. The smaller and more common Helix aspersa is also known as the “petit gris” or “escargot chagrine” whereas the larger, rarer Helix pomatia  is called the “Roman snail,” “apple snail,” or “escargot de Bourgogne”. Both of these Mediterranean species have been widely introduced around the world for agricultural purposes.  They are now endemic pests in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and southern South America (and probably elsewhere).  It’s funny to think that the snail eating your cabbages is the descendant of a snail which escaped from some long-dead hungry French chef.  I can sort of imagine the scene as a black and white early Disney cartoon with giddy jazz playing in the background.

Snail Farming

Everybody and everything seems to enjoy eating snails including…other snails.  A particular source of difficulty for snail farmers is cannibalism.  Larger snails will eat eggs and hatchlings for the calcium.  If not eaten by something, snails can live a long time.  They hibernate in winter and Helix pomatia can live up to 35 years.

Helix pomatia

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

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April 2021