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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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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.

Pilgrim Geese

Pilgrim Geese!

I’m sorry for the lack of posts for the last week: I was out of the city on a family visit in the bosky hills Appalachia. It was wonderful to get out of the city and spend some time on the farm recharging my mental and emotional batteries! One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with my parents’ flock of pilgrim geese–a heritage breed of medium sized geese noted for their mild manners and gender-selected colors: pilgrim ganders are white (with maybe a few dark tail feathers) whereas the female geese are medium gray with white bellies.

Argh! Back up a little bit...

Argh! Back up a little bit…

Pilgrim geese obtained their name because they allegedly came to America with the protestant refugees who founded New England—the pilgrims–but that dramatic historically interesting story may be an invention. The Live Stock Conservancy describes the various possible origins of the breed on its website:

[A poultry researcher] found numerous references to auto-sexing geese in colonial America, western England and Normandy, France, but the breed was never referred to by a name. According to some authorities, the Pilgrim goose is related to the now rare West of England goose, another auto-sexing breed, which could possibly have arrived with early colonists…But Oscar Grow, a leading authority on waterfowl in the 1900s, claims to have developed the breed in Iowa, and that his wife named them in memory of their relocation – or pilgrimage – to Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Authorities agree that the breed was first documented by the name “Pilgrim” in 1935, corresponding with the Grow family’s pilgrimage. The Pilgrim was admitted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939.

Pilgrim geese are able to fly short distances and they have a long lifespan (of up to 40 years—not that such an age is particularly old for humans!). They are friendly birds and intelligence shines in their round gray eyes. Goose society is very lively with lots of political squabbling and jockeying for prime mates and nesting sites. Like other domestic geese they largely subsist on grass and green shoots which they avidly graze with their serrated beaks, but they are hungry, hungry birds and they love special treats. In order to socialize her goose flock, my mother gives the birds some corn and mash in the morning and in the evening. The geese all crowd around the galvanized bin where their food is kept and inquisitively nibble on the pockets of the goose tenders. If the food does not appear rapidly enough they will point their beaks upward toward their human keepers and open them wide hoping perhaps that we might funnel grain directly down their gullet. They are extremely hilarious standing around with their bills open like big feathery ridiculous Venus flytraps!

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The First Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler.  It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness.   They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them).  It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less.  Where did he learn that?  It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.

Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography).   Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614.  It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain.  Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618.   The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).

Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner.  Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet.  But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise.  The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead.  Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters.   Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.

As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations.  Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).

Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags, and his warriors

Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil.  He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels.  He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags.  Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community.  Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place.  They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands.    By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home.  During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags).   Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.

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