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Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

sheepgraduating

 

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

tortoise_sm

To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

kurma-avatar-of-vishnu

The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Cream from Cow's Milk

Cream from Cow’s Milk

Today’s bland but pretty post features a bland but pretty color—and one which traces its roots back to the beginnings of agriculture!   Cream is the color of, well… cream.  If one milks a grazing animal (cow, goat, sheep, camel, mare, etc…) the milkfat will rise up to the top of the bucket.  Cream from grazing animals takes on a lovely pale yellow color from carotenoid pigments which occur in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of meadow plants.  This effect is greatly attenuated in processed cream from factory-farmed milk, so, if you want the original effect as appreciated by Roman and Medieval colorists, you will have to wonder up to a green mountain pasture and milk the goats yourself as though you were Heidi (eds note: please, please do not wander around unfamiliar mountain pastures and grab at the teats of strange ruminants!).

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

Cream was a premium source of energy, nutrients, and sustenance throughout recorded history (and a costly ingredient in the foodstuffs of the rich and privileged for just as long).  Cream shows up in Homer, the Bible, Roman pastoral poems, Scandinavian sagas, and Renaissance metaphysical poetry.   Throughout all of these times, the word has been used as a description of the pale yellow/off-white color.

Osborne1

As a renter, I have a bitterness towards the color cream: rental flats are invariably painted cream because: 1) cream does not show dirt and age as much as white; 2) the bright color still makes rooms seem spacious and bright; and 3) you can always paint over it.  Yet as an artist, I love cream color!  It is perfect for vestal virgins, angel wings, and abandoned human skulls lying around dragon warrens!  Cream is the highlight color of flesh seen in incandescent light and it forms the shadow side of clouds on perfectly bright sunny days.  Even the oil-primed Belgian linen that painters like to paint on is cream-colored.

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

Because the color strikes such a note with humankind for aesthetic and historical reasons, a great many birds and animals have it in their Latin or common names.  Thanks to the ancient ties between cream and luxuriant desserts, it also has a strange double life as an aristocratic color (which belies its use on the walls of rental garrets).   As I keep writing, I realize how complex my feelings are about this beautiful pastel color….

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

Don’t expect any resolution–you will have to figure out how you feel about the multitudinous meanings and associations of cream on your own!

Rolls-Royce-Silver-Cloud-Mk-I-cream-1957-01AL8271533917A

 

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.

Eastern-Milk-Snake-Lampropeltis-triangulum-triangulum-700x527

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?

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

vishnu

When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

Vishnu_and_Lakshmi_on_Shesha_Naga,_ca_1870

Infancy of Jupiter (Giorgio Vasari, 1555-1556)

According to archaeologists, the first agricultural animals were goats, which humankind domesticated 11,000 years ago.  Curiously, the Greek myth concerning the childhood of Zeus, king of the Greek pantheon, reflects this ancient connection. Having tricked Cronus (the rapacious father of Zeus) into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, was naturally unable to raise her child.  She sent the baby into hiding on Crete where he was raised by nymphs and suckled on the milk of the divine goat, Amalthea.

The Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, 1630-35)

The Greeks themselves seem puzzled by Amalthea.  While most ancient authors wrote about her as a supernatural goat tended by nymphs, a few seem to think she was herself a nymph/goddess.  Classical mythology contains a few other ambiguous divinities who were simultaneously animals and their magical tenders (the Crommyonian Sow for example is another such figure) and it is not unreasonable to think they might be borrowed deities which came from more ancient religions now lost to us.  Being a goat-based maternal goddess figure from Crete, Amalthea certainly makes sense in this context. Minoan culture predated classical Greek civilization by thousands of years: its religion revolved around fertility goddesses, horned altars, and livestock.

Whatever the case, Zeus was tenderly raised by the magical goat on her supernatural milk and he swiftly grew to mighty adulthood.  Then, when he was ready to begin his war on the titans, he killed Amalthea, skinned her, and fashioned her hide into his impregnable aegis–a symbol of his omnipotent authority second only to the lightning bolt.  He broke off Amalthea’s magic horn and made it into the cornucopia (which forever provides an endless bounty of food) and gave it to the nymphs.  He then hung his foster mother among the stars as the constellation Capra and set off to make war on the titans.

The story sits jarringly with modern conscience but I suspect it resonated with herdspeople, who must sometimes take an unsentimental view of their livestock.  With our endless supply of meat and milk from factory agriculture and all of our leather luxury goods we might be a bit presumptuous to judge Zeus (whose carnal appetite, jealous persona, and rages have always struck me as an oversized portrait of human temperament anyway).

Zeus Wielding his Goatskin Aegis and a Lightning Bolt

Indeed, I am telling this story just before Earthday, that most uncomfortable of holidays, for a reason. It strikes me that humankind is well represented by Zeus in the brutal tale above.  We sprang quickly to whatever uneasy mastery we enjoy thanks to keen and methodical exploitation of the natural world (not least the domesticated animals and plants we rely on).  We ourselves are animals (chordates, mammals, primates, hominids, humans) an undeniable part of nature, but we seem bent on consuming or altering every living system in our mad quest for godhood. The real question we should ask for Earthday is whether this is a worthwhile quest? If so can we pursue it more responsibly? Could we even stop if we chose to? The answers are not necessarily happy or easy ones.

A Goatskin

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