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The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

Although everyone is familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are many other fantastical creatures in the Chinese mythological bestiary.  The Quilin or Ch’i-lin (AKA the “Chinese unicorn”) was believed to be indigenous to the realms of heaven.  Seldom seen on earth because of its goodness, purity and nobility, the appearance of a quilin before mortal eyes heralded prodigious good fortune.  Quilins reputedly only visit earth to presage the birth of the greatest sages and rulers or to signal the advent of a prodigious leap forward.

Like many other mythical animals, the quilin is a wild hybridization of other creatures: it traditionally has a wolf’s head with a single horn (although sometimes it is portrayed with antlers), a multicolored deer’s body covered with fish scales, the hooves of a horse, and the tail of an ox.  Its voice sounds like lovely bells.  The quilin is most notable for its gentleness and kindness.  It refuses to harm any living thing and it does not even bend the grass when it walks.  Nevertheless, the quilin could be ferocious in its defense of the righteous or innocent and it is sometimes shown covered in magical flames.  Genghis Khan is said to have witnessed a quilin just as he was about to conquer India.  Although the creature bowed politely to the great conqueror, its message was clear and Genghis Khan cancelled his plans for subjugating the subcontinent.

It’s a bit unclear how auspicious Genghis Khan was for the world (although he certainly had a magnificent run of good fortune after seeing the quilin). Some other supposed quilin sightings make more sense.  A quilin is said to have appeared to the yellow emperor, a legendary wizard-monarch who unified China under one throne in 2697 (that we have an exact date for a fictional person is a fun eccentricity of Chinese history).  The quilin emerged from the water of the yellow river bearing a pictogram of China which the yellow emperor used to fashion Chinese writing.

Buddhists call it the dragon horse and revere it for the belief that it carries Buddha’s book of law on its back.  Confucianists believe a quilin appeared to the sage’s mother just before he was born and spoke a line of holy prophecy to her.  Under the command of the eunuch Zheng He, the treasure fleet of the Yongle Emperor visited the east coast of Africa and was presented with a giraffe.  The animal fit the description of a quilin fairly closely and was brought before the Yongle Emperor as such.  He dismissed the possibility by wryly saying he was no sage–however he treasured the giraffe and kept the creature in his bestiary.

The Giraffe as painted by artists of the Ming Court

I’m afraid there haven’t been many quilin sightings reported recently.  Some religiously-minded Chinese devout believe that this is because the world has become entirely debased (although even for fictional creatures, quilins have always been rare).  Perhaps a quilin is ready to appear again in some unlikely place to some wise soul and the world will lurch forward into a new golden era.  At any rate, here is a good picture of the creature.  Hopefully just looking at the likeness of the quilin will bring you the greatest of good fortune!

The Quilin

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist.  During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China.  Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery.  Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world.  Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity).  Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon.   Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.”  The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:

Ming Dynasty Vase, Jianjing mark and period

Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist.  On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.

Ming Jar, Jiajing mark and period

This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.

Ming Double-gourd Vase, Jiajing mark and period

‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.

The insubstantial nature of the arts and crafts of the Jiajing reign was counterpointed by all-too-real deterioration of conditions within China.  Though occasionally wracked by external wars and secession crisises the early Ming dynasty had been a golden age when Chinese power and affluence reached peak levels.  However as the Jiajing emperor turned his back on the world to sip mercury and contemplate the serenity of clouds, fissures started growing between the Empire’s various classes, the treasury became empty, and barbarians and client states around China perceived opportunities to exploit China’s weakness.

Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now.  But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future.  I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.

Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland.  Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises.  The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles.  It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth).  Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone.  The arils are gelatinous and sweet.

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time.  This means that some specimens are ancient and huge.  The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769.  According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy.  This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth.  The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England.  The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old.  According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that.  It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t.  The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth.  It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

The Llangernyw yew tree in Llangernyw Village, Conwy, Wales

As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant.  This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves).  According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm.  Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character.  Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.

Yews as topiary in the formal garden of Levens, Cumbria

The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew.   A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood.  This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”

Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value.  The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’  (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s.  Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews.  It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function).  In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.

A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope.  It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.

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