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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.


The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.


During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.



Last week I blogged about the end of the desmostylians, a group of aquatic mammals driven into extinction by competition from the gentle (but implacably hungry) manatees. Since then, I have been worried that people are going to think I am anti-manatee. That is why I would like us all to take a moment to say farewell to Snooty the manatee, the world’s oldest captive manatee who died on Sunday (July 23, 2017) a day after his 69th birthday party. Since 1949 Snooty has been entertaining and educating visitors to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. His death was not a result of old age, but was instead a tragic accident involving the failure of a protective hatch which closed off a maintenance-only section of the aquarium.
Apparently in the modern era, manatees in the wild usually live less than 10 years (due largely to aquatic mishaps) but a few lucky individuals have made it into their 50s. In his late 60s, Snooty was going strong and was an active, intelligent, and gregarious manatee until that cursed hatch failed. This makes one wonder how long manatees actually live when they don’t get run over with speedboats or eaten up by Portuguese conquistadors (and it also leads to other troubling thoughts about humankind’s interactions with other living creatures). I interacted with the late Ivak the walrus and Grandpa the lungfish, but I never had the chance to see Snooty. Yet I am still upset by his loss. I worry about the future of animals in our ultra-competitive dangerous world where even the world’s most respected and well-cared for manatee can have a fatal accident in his own tank. Let us say farewell to poor Snooty and keep working to better the lot of his brothers and sisters in captivity and in the wild.

Map of Namibia

Map of Namibia

Our imaginary fantasy trip across Africa has taken us to some amazing places as we proceeded west along the map starting out from the micro-continent of Madagascar. Exploring the continent on the internet has really made me want to visit someday! Through photos and descriptive writing we have seen the great lakes of Malawi and Tanzania. We have lingered in the terrifying yet astonishing rainforests of the Congo. We have marveled at the unprecedented ugliness of the flags of Mozambique and Angola (sorry, flagmakers). At last we come to the ancient Namib Desert. Beyond it lie the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean filled with nutrients thrown off from the mighty Antarctic circumpolar current. It is one of the most jarring juxtapositions on Earth—the rich freezing waters of the sea pound against the burning arid dunes.


As you can tell, I have a fascination with the Namib. If I ever win the lottery or suddenly find a bag of gold or gain a million internet followers [crickets chirping], I will make it my business to go there at once. The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. As the continents dance all around the globe and their landscapes change from forest to ocean to plains to mountains to glaciers, the Namib has somehow stayed a wallflower and kept its dry desert climate. Its climate has been largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, which is why it is home to oddities like the welwitschia and the sandswimming golden mole.

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

Namibia’s human history recedes into the remote mists of prehistory (humankind is after all from Africa). Various groups of people arrived in the desert in waves. The San, Damara, and Namaqua—hunter-gatherers, then herdsmen—arrived. Then the farmers of the great Bantu expansion showed up in the 14th century. Contemporary Namibian history is more tragic—since the desert land was caught between mighty colonial powers of Germany and Great Britain. Great Britain took the most useful natural harbor and Germany took the rest of Namibia—although the native Namaqua and Herero tribes rose against the nascent colonialists. From 1904 to 1907 the Germans wiped out approximately 10,000 Nama 65,000 Hereros in one of the twentieth century’s first genocides. The surviving tribespeople were relegated to concentration camps and unlivable ghettos.

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

When the Germans lost World War I, Namibia passed to de-facto South African control. South Africa administered the territory somewhat informally (and brutally and badly) until a variety of incomprehensible UN mandates, international pressure, and a scrappy (though morally gray) guerilla independence movement forced the apartheid government of South Africa to grant the nation independence in 1990. Contemporary Namibia has abundant natural resources (which are managed with greater fairness than in neighboring states), but it has suffered greatly from the scourge of HIV. Additionally the single political party SWAPO (which evolved from the aforementioned scrappy independence fighters) is run by a somewhat opaque politburo.


Flag of Namibia

Flag of Namibia

The flag of Namibia is based on the flag of the national liberation movement. It was chosen by the chairman of the subcommittee for flag creation who reviewed over 800 designs before choosing the current flag. The colors have symbolism not dissimilar to other African national liberation flags. Red represents the people of Namibia and the blood they have shed to make a nation together. White is the color of unification and peace. Green represents farms, agriculture, and ecology. Blue represents the ocean and the life-giving freshwater which is so rare in the desert. The sun represents…well, the sun…the source of all energy and life (although political junkies might speculate that it also is a homage to the sun of the Kuomintang).


We have bogged down somewhat in our trip across Sub-Saharan Africa. After starting in Madagascar, crossing the channel to Mozambique, winding our way through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, we got lost in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s time we resume the trip and push on west to Angola. Like The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola is tremendously rich in mineral wealth (plus the Angolan people are notable for their great physical beauty!), but also like the Congo, Angola has suffered greatly from exploitation, greed, and long decades of bitter war. First there was war between the Portuguese colonialists and those who sought a free Angola. When the struggle for independence ended in 1975, the “liberators” fought a brutal war with each other over who would control and exploit the populace. This war became a proxy war for the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, the Angolan civil war became entangled in the greater Congolese war of the 1990s.

Flag of Angola

Flag of Angola

As you can tell, despite all of its beauty, wealth, and magnificence, Angola has been a sad and divided land for the last four decades. Yet, of course there is much more to the country than just fighting (and I’ll describe some of its culture and biodiversity next week), but I am going to finish this introduction to Angola with the story of its rather horrible flag. Naturally this story involves another fight! The flag of Angola, as you can clearly see, represents its long status as the puppet of the Soviet bloc. The red represents the endless blood which must be spilled to make a perfect communist state and the black represents the people of Angola. The broken gear represents unfulfilled aspirations of industry. The machete speaks for itself. Finally, the gold star represents Angolan obeisance to Soviet ideals (indeed the shattered gear and the genocidaire’s machete are meant to evoke the hammer and sickle). This flag was the flag of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the dominant faction of the three factions during the long internecine civil war.


Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

When the war ended in 2002 and Angola finally began to try to repair the terrible damages done to its citizens, its infrastructure, and its society, some people looked askance at the flag. In 2003, the Parliament’s Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly gently recommended the adoption of a new “more optimistic” flag which features brighter colors and a solar design based on ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the resolution was not taken up, so Angola maintains its violent, scary, and anachronistic national colors–although there is no disputing that the flag is visually and historically interesting (and not a little bad-ass).


Leopard attacked by a Snake (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River.   He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery.  Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning.  Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years).  He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation.  During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle.  He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).

The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans).  His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones .  Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces.  The colors and patterns themselves are at war.  Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat.  The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered.   The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.


Self Portrait (Antonio Ligabue, oil on canvas)

Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes.  Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well.  Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

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May 2023