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The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

When I was a child, my best-loved emblem of the Christmas/holiday season was the reindeer (although, admittedly, I thought they were “rain deer”).  My poor mother had to track down reindeer-themed decorations and jumpers all over the place.  The magnificent antlered beasts were not just my favorite ornaments, but they were also the subjects of my most-preferred songs (in fact, I still find Rudolph’s ascendancy to personal empowerment through effulgent appendages and meteorological coincidence to be quite stirring).  Yet reindeer are not just mythical creatures made up for the holidays—the true nature of these magnificent cold weather specialists is even more remarkable than folklore.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large powerful cervids native to the trackless tundra of the Arctic and to the taiga and bogs of the subarctic (a vast habitat which encompasses most of Alaska,Canada, Siberia, and northern Europe).  The North American subspecies of reindeer are commonly known as caribou. Although the migratory caribou are rangier (with thinner bodies and longer legs than old world reindeer), they are fundamentally the same creature.  The caribou are the last animals in the Americas to still migrate across the wilderness en masse.  The largest herds number in the hundred thousands (!) and evoke thoughts of the Pliocene or of the Serengeti (although like most other wildlife, the great herds are quickly declining).

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

Adult male reindeer weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 lbs) although a few exceptionally huge bucks have been measured weighing nearly twice that.  The fur of reindeer has two layers: a layer of long hollow outer hairs and a down-like layer of dense fluff.  The fur can be all sorts of shades of stippled and variegated brown, black, cream, and white. Both genders of reindeer grow antlers, and the antlers are the largest in proportion to body mass of any cervid.

Reindeer have many special traits to help them survive the rigorous conditions of their northern habitat. In summer their hooves become sponge-like and flatten out to give them traction on mud.  In winter reindeer hooves harden into sharp wedges for cutting through ice and snow. Unlike white-tailed deer, reindeer can see into the indigo and ultraviolet spectrum.  This ability helps them survive in the grey tundra and the great monochromatic boreal forests.  Many things invisible in the (human) visible spectrum pop out in ultraviolet (most notably fur and urine).

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

Reindeer/caribou live predominantly on grasses, sedges, and tender tree shoots during the summer, but in winter their diet changes in accordance with the barrenness of their environment.  During the long lean dark times of winter reindeer largely live on lichen.  The reindeer are almost alone among animals in possessing the enzyme necessary to metabolize the tough lichen (only a handful of gastropod mollusks have been found to also produce lichenase).

DENA_ReindeerTundraYoung reindeer are hunted by golden eagles and wolverines.  Mature adults are largely invulnerable to any animals other than polar bears, brown bears, and above all wolves.  Wolves may be the ultimate predator of reindeer and certain packs live mutualistically with the reindeer herds and follow them all winter.

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

Humankind has a similarly ancient and intimate relationship with the reindeer and caribou. Since the depths of the ice age, human hunter-gatherers have stalked the great herds of deer. Some tribes began to follow the herds along their entire migratory routes and eventually the people and deer gradually became integrated.  The domestication of animals began similarly with goats (ibexes), cows (aurochs), and pigs, but, in the case of reindeer, the process stalled in the middle. Certain herds of reindeer are semi-domesticated: but the herders follow the deer as much as the reverse.  The reindeer provide skin, meat, milk, and transportation to the tough herding/hunting nomads of the north (mainly the Sami in the modern world).  The herders protect the reindeer from wolves, bear, and hunters.

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

Although they are not perfectly domesticated (and would probably keep on with their ancient migrations if humankind all dropped dead or decided to emigrate to Alfa-Centauri), reindeer are docile, gentle, and extremely beautiful.  They are a perfect emblem of the season (although Santa’s presumably male herd would shed their antlers before Christmas), but they are an even greater emblem of the last great wilds which can be found in the far north.  I devoutly hope that the great changes of the Anthropocene do not reduce the reindeer and caribou herds to a fraction of what they are today.  I guess I still love them as much as ever.  Where is that sweater with reindeer on it and the old Rudolph record?

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I'll be away for the next couple days...

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I’ll be away for the next couple days…

Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) by Jim Gressinger

Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) by Jim Gressinger

Ferrebeekeeper has written a great deal about pigs and swine, but the pigs are only half of a larger sub-order, the Suina (artiodactyl foragers with cloven hooves).  The new world equivalent of the pigs are the peccaries (family Tayassuidae) also known as javelinas or skunk pigs. Peccaries are superficially very similar to wild pigs: both groups have four legs, bristling hair, low & wide profiles.  Additionally, like pigs, peccaries have a sensitive nose which ends in a cartilage disk.  Both pigs and peccaries are omnivores though they have different diets.  In the wild, peccaries feed primarily on roots, tubers, grubs, cacti, seeds, and tender grasses.  Although peccaries have complex three-chamber stomachs for breaking all of this down, they are not ruminants (i.e. they do not chew cuds like goats or cows).

Not that cows and goats eat fish like this White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) photo by Douglas PR Fernandes

Not that cows and goats eat fish like this White-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) photo by Douglas PR Fernandes

There are three (or possibly four) species of peccaries, all of which are native to the Americas (from the southwest of the United States down through Argentina).  None of the peccaries grow to be as large as pigs: the Tayassuidae usually measure approximately a meter in length (3.0 and 4.0 feet) and full-grown adults seldom weigh more than 40 kg (88 lbs). Peccaries make up for their smaller size by being more social than pigs.  Peccary herds can number up to a hundred–at least for the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) which lives in the deep rainforests of Central and South America (the other peccary species tend to form smaller herds).  Peccaries can be dangerous–recent news reports from South America involve humans being killed by large groups of peccaries.

Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) San Francisco Zoo

Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) San Francisco Zoo

Peccaries are powerful and can run very swiftly.  Like pigs, peccaries have razor sharp tusks, but peccary tusks are straight and short (whereas pigs have long curving tusks).   When peccaries are distressed, they chatter their upper and lower tusks together as a warning.  Peccaries live only in the Americas and they are concentrated in Central and South America, yet the family is ancient and dates back to the late Eocene.  Ironically, peccaries seem to have originated in Europe, but they died out there sometime in the Miocene, but not before spreading to North America.  Three million years ago, during the great American Interchange (when the Isthmus of Panama formed and linked the long-sundered continents) Peccaries thundered south, and they found South America much to their liking.

Worldwide Peccary Range

Worldwide Peccary Range

Peccaries are heavily hunted for their meat and their heavy durable hides, but populations seem to be broadly holding steady (although habitat loss may threaten some of the rain-forest sub-species) and the Chacoan peccary or tagua has remained thin on the ground since its discovery in the arid Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina .  Additionally, humans have taken to domesticating peccaries for food and as pets, although since peccaries are aggressive, they are not entirely perfect for farming (or for snuggling).

Do not cuddle the collared peccary!

Do not cuddle the collared peccary!

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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Pronghorns

The second fastest land mammal is the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), a delicate artiodactyl which ranges across the western wilderness of North America from Canada to the Baja deserts.  Although they look similar to antelopes, pronghorns are actually the last surviving species of the family Antilocapridae. They can run at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and (unlike impalas or cheetahs) they can run at full throttle for a fair distance.

The Range of the Pronghorn

Pronghorns are named for their forked horns—which are not antlers but true horns made of bone with a layer of keratin.  They shed the hollow outer sheaths each year in late autumn and grow a new pair over the winter. Adult pronghorns stand 90 cm (three feet) high at the shoulders and weigh up to 50 kg (110 pounds).  Although pronghorns can run swiftly, they are poor jumpers.  Herds of pronghorns make great migratory treks across the country and face pressure from human developments and from fences (which they can’t jump over but must run under).  If you are a rancher in pronghorn country you might consider putting a non-barbed strand of wire as the bottom wire on your fence.

 

Two Pronghorn Bucks

Pronghorns once had many close relatives.  The Antilocapridae family is most closely related to giraffes but the different family members filled many of the same niches that bovids do in the old world.  These animals came in an array of shapes and were widespread across North America. There were once 22 varieties of antilocapridae (which you can explore here) but they died out ten to fourteen thousand years ago when the Clovis hunters arrived and slaughtered North America’s megafauna.

The distinctive head of Osbornoceros

Sick or injured pronghorns are sometimes preyed upon by wolves, coyotes, or cougars, but when they are healthy, adult pronghorns can easily outrun all contemporary North American predators. Their blazing speed is not an evolutionary extravagance: pronghorns once needed their swiftness to escape Miracinonyx trumani, the American cheetah which could probably run nearly as quickly as the living African cheetahs.  Like the avocado the pronghorn was molded to fit an ecosystem which has died out: today they are literally running from ghosts.

An American Cheetah Hunting a Pronghorrn

 

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