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Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks!  This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed).  Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year.  If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.

The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle.  Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).

A Chinese porcelain blue and white 'dragon' jar. Ming Dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-66). Photo Gibson Antiques

Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources.  In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.

Bronze Dragon from the Summer Palace, Beijing

Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish.  According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor.  The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own.  As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.

The Yellow Emperor (Illustrated by Blue Hsiao)

People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits.  Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.

Gung hay fat choy!

An Aerial View of Lochnagar Crater in Summer of 2009

On July 1st 1916 at 7:28 AM, the British Army detonated the Lochnagar mine–two underground charges of a high explosive compound called ammonal (respectively 24,000lb and 30,000lb) thereby entirely vaporizing a large section of trenches filled with German infantryman.  This was only one of 17 giant mines which the British exploded in Northern France that morning.  In fact there were an original total of 21 buried explosive charges—but, because of various exigencies, two of these were not exploded until much later on July 1st (one of the remaining charges was detonated by lightning many years after the war, and another was never found).

One of the Other 17 Mined Explosions that Morning (Hawthorne Ridge)

The explosions followed 16 days of heavy artillery fire and immediately preceded a general infantry charge which began the Battle of the Somme. It was an appropriately apocalyptic beginning of the worst day ever for the British armed forces—by midnight there were 57,470 British casualties (19,240 of whom died of their injuries).  The battle of the Somme itself ground on until 18 November, 1916 by which point it had claimed over 1,200,000 casualties from both sides.  More than three hundred thousand people were killed during the course of the battle.

Lochnagar Crater after the Battle of the Somme

Today the huge scars from that morning have been filled in by farmland—with the notable exception of Lochnagar crater, which was privately purchased and left as a monument to the futility and destruction of World War I. Erosion is taking its toll on the crater, yet, even after nearly a century, the great hole still has a diameter of approximately 91 meters (300 feet) and a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).  Lochnagar crater is said to be the largest extant crater created by human artifice during war (obviously pit mines and nuclear test sites are much larger).  It still possesses a unique horror—a round void in the placid farmlands of Picardy. To this day the grain fields around it yield rusted rifles, dented helmets, and skeletons in addition to wheat.

I am writing about this disquieting pockmark as preparation for writing about Armistice Day later this week, when we can reflect on World War I — surely one of the most comprehensive disasters to befall humankind.  I am also writing about the largest wartime crater on earth, as an opportunity to note how feebly small it is in comparison to even modest meteor impact craters such as Lake Lonar or Kaali Craters, both of which happened in the remote past–to say nothing of giants like the Manicouagan Crater in Quebec which has a diameter of 70 kilometers (even after 225 million years of erosion).

A High Altitude Photo of Manicouagan Crater

Of course all of this should really be cause to reflect on how lucky we are—not only have we missed the Great War (except for you, Florence Green, if you’re reading this), but we have also missed all sorts of other unfortunate events.  Today at 6:28 PM EST, an asteroid passed by the Earth.  At its closest point it was nearer to us than the moon.  The space rock (unsentimentally named “2005 YU55”) was about the size of an aircraft carrier and was traveling faster than 13 km (8 miles) a second.  An amateur astrophysicist on the web estimates that it would have created a crater more than 5 kilometers in diameter if it had struck a limestone region of Earth.

Asteroid 2005 YU55

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