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Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

The Bailey Fountain (beautifully photographed with the arch behind it by Wally Gobetz)

I love fountains and my home, New York City, is an excellent place to witness all manner of lovely ornamental waterworks.  No doubt other bloggers have extolled Manhattan’s many famous fountains, so I thought I would briefly write about my favorite fountain in Brooklyn, the Bailey Fountain, which is located at Grand Army Plaza at the north end of Prospect Park.  The fountain lies beyond the huge triumphal arch which celebrates the victorious conclusion of the American Civil War.  Both fountain and arch lie on a traffic island surrounded at all times by dangerous rivers of vehicles.

Wisdom and Felicity form the Bailey Fountain (another fine photo by Wally Gobetz)

The Bailey Fountain was conceived of during the late nineteen twenties but it was built in 1932.  The tension between these two very different eras is noticeable in the ferocity and severity of the classical figures.  The fountain seems to be an allegory of abundance however the individual figures look like they instead portray greed, abandon, and resignation. The fountain is the work of architect Edgerton Swarthout and the bronze sculptures were crafted by Eugene Savage. I think the final work might transcend what either had initially intended.

The Bailey Fountain (photo from “Tugster: a Waterblog”)

Bailey fountain portrays a pair of magnificent bronze nudes standing on the deck of a ship. The two respectively represent wisdom and felicity.  I assume the man is wisdom and the woman is felicity, but it is not easy to tell because she does not look happy and he does not look wise.  Although they both look powerful the figures seem wan and resigned.  Additionally, although they are connected, their backs are forever turned to each other. A besotted Nerues, the “old man of the sea” sprawls on the prow as grim Tritons sound horns and writhe on both sides of the boat.  Strange frog and fish faces spew white water around the tormented figures.  The boat and its inhabitants represent humankind and the figures in the water represent chance and the forces of nature.  When contemplating the fountain it is easy to pitch your mind back to the time of the great depression and see Nereus and his fierce watery compatriots as the unquenchable greed, panic, and other raw group passions which spawned the hardships of that era.

FFigure of King Neptune from the Bailey Fountain (www.nyc-architecture.com)

The Bailey fountain replaced a bizarre Victorian electric water show which was the rainbow-colored high-pressured wonder of its time (but which did not hold up well since it combined early electrical technology, 19th century plumbing, and Brooklyn winters).  I first saw the Bailey fountain in the mid-nineties when it was broken and dry: large portions of the work were painted the same aqua blue as swimming pools.  The plaza seemed deserted except for the eternal traffic, the sinister vine covered trees, and a huge tribe of rats.  Great hunks of granite pavement had been broken apart by frost heave (or some other urban force) and melancholy pervaded the scene.  A lone homeless person sidled up and sadly informed me that the fountain was haunted and, in the lugubrious twilight, I half believed him.  Today, however, the fountain has been restored, and you can contemplate its enigmatic meaning in a much more pleasant surrounding.

Bronze triton from the Bailey Fountain (photo from “Tugster: a Water Blog”)

The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are.  I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them.  Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa).  The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table.  However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin.  They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry.  There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions.  The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.

Domestic Pig

As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful.  They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands.  Swine are omnivorous grazers.  Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.

Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters.  As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles.  A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources.  Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups).  Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner.  The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten.  Even domestic pigs can be dangerous.  To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”

So never ever do this with feral pigs you don't know well!

There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).

That’s a lot of pig butchering!  But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig.  There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet.  Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral.  It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.

A pig (Sus scrofa domestica) swimming in the Bahamas. (Photography by Eric Cheng)

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