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Goose/Duck figurine (Han Dynasty, ca. 200 AD) Terra Cotta

In predynastic China, when an important person died, they were well provisioned for the next life in a straightforward fashion: whatever they would need in the next world was placed in the tomb with them.  Since it would be unthinkable to live without servants, concubines, beasts of burden, and delicious animals for roasting, this meant that important funerals in ancient China were also the occasion of human and animal sacrifice!  By the time the Han Dynasty had rolled around however, the wasteful extravagance of walling up servants and throwing away food, had given way to more symbolic (and humane) customs.  Vassals and livestock were allowed to stay in this world: in their place, little terra cotta figurines were placed inside the tomb.  Here is a very pretty example of such a funerary sculpture–a lovely Chinese goose/duck.  Although the figure is rendered with bravura simplicity (it was going into a tomb after all), it is also an expressive and lovely work of art.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the bird craning its neck down to gobble delicious grain and bugs off the ground or whipping its head around to hiss at the viewer.  Perfect for imagining an eternity of feasting in the next realm!

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The Meijiang River is located in Hunan Province just to the northwest of Lianyuan City.  The river features the classic picturesque landscape of China: karst gorges with vertical limestone mounts, mysterious cliffs, and ancient caves.  The caverns and cwms of the region are home to many locally important spots with names which would not be out of place in “Journey to the West”:  “Immortal Village”, “Avalokitesvara Precipice”, “Sutra Cave”, “Immortal’s Residence”, and “Incense Burner Mountain”.

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The scenic valley would be an ideal vacation spot for landscape painters (if they could ever escape their dead end jobs), but it is hardly as famous as some of China’s other Karst landscapes like the vast South China Karst or the Li River.  So why have I picked out this sleepy river to dream about as winter wears on?

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Well it has been a while since we have featured a mascot post (although you shouldn’t forget that the 2020 Olympics are getting closer and closer).  I don’t want to write about pig mascots (even if that would be perfect for Lunar New Year), but there is a different gluttonous animal which jumps instantly to mind when I think of China: a sort of feathered pig which features heavily here on Ferrebeekeeper.

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I am of course talking about geese and the Meijiang River has a special mascot: a ten meter (30 foot) tall white inflatable goose!  Here are some pictures of the giant floating toy, which obviously owes a debt to Florentijn Hofman’s famous inflatable ducks.

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I guess there isn’t really much more to this post than the visual dynamism of the giant goose (which I like better than the huge bath ducks).  It is a really good mascot though! How do you top that (especially as a small provincial river)?

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In the past we have looked at Chinese goose ewers: here is a lovely vessel from a very different tradition–this gander-shaped vessel was made in Northern India during the Mogul Dynasty (ca. 16th century).  Look at the elegant sinuous curve of the striding bird and the reptilian grace of the piece.  The bird has a bit of the goose’s comic personality mixed in with the striking powerful feel of the whole piece.

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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

mantis1As mentioned in previous posts, my parents have a majestic flock of pilgrim geese (and one peculiar Canada goose).  They have more giant beautiful bright white eggs than they know what to do with…so, when I was home for Easter, I worked in the ancient Ukrainian medium of pysanky.  This involves writing on eggs with a heated wax stylus and then dipping the eggs in progressive layers of batik dyes.  The end results have a beautiful color unlike any other art works, and the eggs are lovely in their own right—both as a curvilinear art medium and as symbols of existence (see yesterday’s post).

Most of my works here feature donuts (which is my personal symbol for the universe) and or flounder.  There are some strange alien-looking mollusks too and some stars.  However I like the radish and the mantis shrimp best.  Those arthropods are amazing creatures (although they are hard to draw with hot wax).  I need to blog about them in the near future.  In the meantime, hopefully the great serpent of the pagan Ukrainian underworld will be satisfied with this batch of eggs.

 

Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Nobody makes more beautiful ceramics and porcelains than the Chinese.  They are the best at it, and they have been practically forever (or at least for the last 3000 years).  The Chinese were also among the first people to domesticate geese, those lovely, useful (and all-too-sadly delicious) fowl with big personalities.  It follows then, that nobody has made a more beautiful ceramic goose vessel than the Chinese…and here is the proof–a magnificent gooseware vessel from the Tang dynasty, a vast empire which from 618 AD to 9017 AD spanned the Chinese coast and stretched deep along the Silk Road into central Asia.  I am just kidding about gooseware…this vessel is properly called a Tang earthenware vessel with Sancai (three-color) glaze, however I am not kidding about the vast scope of the Tang dynasty, nor about the unfading splendor of this artwork.  Look at the expression on the goose—a sanguine curiosity tinged with hunger.  Look too at the beautiful expressionism of the transparent brown blue and yellow glaze, which straddles a fine line between pure abstraction and the natural color of a Medieval Chinese goose popping out of an algae-streaked mudhole.

Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a checkered history with ancient goose art.  We have been known to sometimes get suckered by beautiful forgeries and charismatic forgers, so you will have to look at this piece carefully assay its merit on your own!

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Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…

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LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement.  Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….

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My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it).  He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you.  If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons.  Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous.  Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry).  Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day.  He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.

"We were just minding our business...He probably just slipped."

“We were just minding our business…He probably just slipped.”

I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen.  When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us?  We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet).  I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.

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I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating.  They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous).  Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?

...like looking in a mirror

…like looking in a mirror

My parents' geese

My parents’ geese

My parents have a lovely flock of pilgrim geese: I think these geese are mostly a hobby, but I suppose if society ever falls down, Mom & Dad could probably ramp up production and live on them.  The geese spend most of their time in a big pond in a field next to a pretty meadow (which in turn is next to an oak forest). The birds play and frolic and pursue their goose romances all the while conniving against one another like Roman patricians.  They practice a very intense form of goose politics (goosetics?) which involves lots of self-aggrandizing honking, aggressive jostling, and occasional political murders.  The ganders even look a bit like Roman senators with haughty hungry expressions and cloud-white plumage in place of togas (although the females are gray and slightly gentler).

Pilgrim Gander

Pilgrim Gander

Today’s flock has reached a parity point where new hatchlings replace unfortunate geese lost to the hardships of nature, society, and misadventure, but it was not always so. The first generation of geese arrived as gormless puffballs in the mail.  With no elders to teach them of coyotes, foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, and bobcats, they had to learn some hard lessons on their own. But even once they learned to survive against the wild animals which live in the forest, they still had a lot to learn about the world (like how to fly).

LG the Canada Goose

LG the Canada Goose

This is where a very strange character enters the story.  One day a wild Canada goose landed on the pond with a female mallard duck.  It became obvious that this unhappy duck was the unwilling paramour of the goose, but whenever she tried to fly away from him (I am calling this goose a he, but who really knows?), he would leap into the sky and coral her back down to the pond with his mighty wings and expert flight skills.  This weird pair kept to themselves and my parents watched their dysfunctional relationship with bemusement, christening the big strange goose as “LG” (which is short for Lonely Goose). One day a vast flock of migrating ducks landed on the pond, as they made their way to some rich wetland.  When they flew off, the mallard female joined them, and LG could not find her among the throng so she escaped and rejoined her kind and her further adventures are unknown.

My mother feeding LG

My mother feeding LG

LG however stuck around and began to insinuate himself into my parents’ flock of ignorant catalog-bought adolescent domestic geese.  At first they were standoffish and he was sadly alone at the bottom of the gooseatics hierarchy, but soon he was whispering in ears, teaching useful life lessons, and plotting against less-popular geese. When he moved into the middle of their society he was able to teach them to fly.  I have a distinct memory of LG flying from the farmyard down to the pond with the pilgrims flying after him. He landed gracefully on the pond and bobbed scerenely on the water as the pilgrims crash landed pathetically into the mud and the fields like the aftermath of some WWI aerial battle.  Indeed, flying lessons were not without casualties and my mother’s favorite pet goose swerved into a barn in order not to fly into her (which illustrates a degree of self-sacrificing care).

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Once the flock knew how to fly, LG ascended to the top of the hierarchy and he has been a top goose ever since.  At first my parents were afraid that he would fly off with the whole flock and the domestic geese would all turn feral, but the opposite seems to have happened.  Who knows what LG’s real back story is?  He has a hole in his foot and he looks somewhat old.  I speculate that he spent his life flying back and forth between the Arctic Ocean and Alabama until one day he saw a farm pond where he could retire and work his wiles on perfectly naïve geese. Geese live loooong lives (they can get to be more than 30 years old) so this may be true.  Or maybe he is some sort of bird-sanctuary renegade or just a big human-loving freak.

Whatever the case, these days LG has a special pilgrim goose girlfriend whom he looks after when she is nesting.  He doesn’t seem to be fertile with pilgrim geese and they raise broods of pure pilgrim goslings… but maybe it’s best not to pry too closely into other people’s domestic arrangements.

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG is mean as a serpent to the other geese (aside from his mate, with whom he is exceedingly tender) however he is very adroit at managing the humans in his circle.  He enjoys eating corn out of people’s hands (which most of the domestic geese will not do) and he tolerates being petted.  He is a very weird, weird wild animal.  I kind of love LG, and I always get angry when people badmouth Canada geese for defecating on golf courses or aggressively chasing dumpy middle managers into mud holes.  He makes his own way in life.  If he ever got tired of his girlfriend and his minions and being hand-fed corn he still has mighty wings and he could fly back to the enduring freedom of the sky above, but I really think he has retired and settled down.  I still wish he could narrate his biography, but I guess his friendship will have to suffice.

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Welcome to goose week on Ferrebeekeeper.  This week we are celebrating our big honking feathery friends with some posts about the place of geese in history, the arts, and in mythology…and in the real world too, where they can be found in oceans, ponds, fields, marshes, or the sky noisily eating everything with their serrated bills and um, redistributing nutrients in leal service to the nitrogen cycle.

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But before we get to all of that, we are going to start with a comic visual post, because, despite the fact that geese are formidable mixed terrain omnivores, I find them somehow hilarious.  Costume makers and cartoonists seem to agree with me. Here is a small gallery of goose ridiculous goose mascots.

Honker the goose and Larry Longspur

Honker the goose and Larry Longspur

Born in 1997, the Canada Goose named Canoose, came to life as Canada's Team Mascot

Born in 1997, the Canada Goose named Canoose, came to life as Canada’s Team Mascot

This beautiful costume realistically evokes the precious moment of birth, as a gosling first pushes from its shell (it is not at all a horrifying mass of cheap cloth and nightmares)

This beautiful costume realistically evokes the precious moment of birth, as a gosling first pushes from its shell (it is not at all a horrifying mass of cheap cloth and nightmares)

Washington College's own "Gus the Goose"

Washington College’s own “Gus the Goose”

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Are we really sure this is a goose?

Are we really sure this is a goose?

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I forgot all about Wawa--a store for petrol and chocolate milk

I forgot all about Wawa–a store for petrol and chocolate milk

Does Mother Goose count?

Does Mother Goose count?

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Argh!  I mean...a vintage mascot head from the eighties...

Argh! I mean…a vintage mascot head from the eighties…

OK, that got a bit strange there at the end, but I think I have illustrated the hold that geese have on our heart (and it reminded me about Mother Goose–the whimsical, mythical all-mother at the center of fairytales).  Get ready! There are more geese on the way…

 

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