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The red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) is a large tropical game fowl from the Phasianidae family. The junglefowl is closely related to pheasants, grouse, quail, partridges, and other such birds of the pheasant family. Wild junglefowl lives in a swath of south Asia and Indochina which runs from Tamil Nadu east to the southern parts of China and includes the Philippines and Indonesia.

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These birds display strong sexual dimorphism.  The hen tends to be a drab brownish color with a hint of red on her face—[erfect for blending into the dense jungle.  Yet one look at the resplendent male with his iridescent green tail feathers, burnished yellow-orange back, and brilliant scarlet comb & wattle reveals a critical truth about the junglefowl: this is the progenitor chicken—the wild species from which all of our many beautiful and delicious chicken breeds descend.  Geneticists tell us there may be a dash of gray junglefowl in there, but the domestic chicken is really effectively the same bird.

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Indeed, the wild junglefowl has the same “cock-a-doodle-doo” call and the same truculent streak (but more so, to equip him for living in the tiger-haunted jungles of Indochina).  Not only does he have excellent vision and a needle-sharp beak, the jungle rooster is also equipped with sickle-like spurs on his legs for self-protection and fighting for mates.  Junglefowl are primarily seed eaters, but they opportunistically eat fruit, insects, small reptiles, and mammals.  Cocks exhibit a courting behavior known as “tidbitting.”  If they find a food source in the presence of a hen, they cluck coaxingly, bob their head, and pick up and drop the food in offering to the female.

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Roosters live by Highlander’s  “there can be only one” credo, and fight each other to the death if they come across each other.  Junglefowl can apparently live longer than 15 years in captivity, but it doesn’t seem like they attain such old age often in the competitive and dangerous jungles where they occur naturally.  They enjoy bathing in dust, are capable of short burst of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites.  The female exclusively broods her eggs and cares for the chicks.

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Ironically purebred junglefowl are starting to vanish from the world due to hybridization with feral domestic chickens. But it takes an ornithologist to tell junglefowl from feral domestic chickens anyway (since they are effectively the same animal), so I am not going to stress about this too much.  It seems like chickens at least might be here to stay awhile.

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Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders:  our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world.  One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems.  A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers.  There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees.  Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish.  By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.

Eco what?  Yeah, that's great now run along.

Eco what? Yeah, that’s great now run along.

Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn.  The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees.  The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees.   You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.

Thanks, bees!

Thanks, bees!

The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species.  This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct).  All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind.  The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.

Hmm...

Hmm…

What?  Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book?  Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions.  Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops?  What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up?  What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated?  Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish.  Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.

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In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations.  The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid.  The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate.  But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?

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.

 

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the suburbs and towns

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the suburbs and towns

Ferrebeekeeper has always been renowned for its unabashedly pro-turkey policies and stances (we are talking here about the large galliforme bird from North America—not the nation in Asia-Minor).  It is therefore this blog’s duty to look into the rash of negative stories which have recently been circulating through the media about bad behavior from these magnificent birds and see what (if anything) can be determined.

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Apparently wild turkeys have been attacking people across the nation (and messing with our domestic animals and our precious stuff, to boot).  Emboldened by the ever growing size of wild turkey populations (and unaware of the true nature of humans), the birds are taking out their aggressions on churchgoers, children, and even armed officers of the law.  Here is an especially fine collection of “turkey attack” videos gathered together by Gawker.  Slightly more serious articles can be found here and here.

A homeowner attacked by a suburban wild turkey

A homeowner attacked by a suburban wild turkey

The turkey attacks seem to be a result of turkeys coming into suburbia (the wild turkeys of the farmlands and the forests know quite well to fear the fell hand of humankind).  For all their fine qualities, turkeys (like humans) are territorial creatures.  Additionally, like humans, some turkeys are more aggressive or fearless than others. The convenience of factory farming (and humankind’s mastery over domesticated strains of turkeys) has conditioned some suburbanites to think of the birds as fat fluffy simpletons, but the stereotype is far from accurate.  Wild toms can stand 4 feet tall and weigh up to14 kilograms (30 lbs).  The birds have powerful legs with razor-sharp spurs and doughty wings (which spread to six feet).  The scary dinosaurlike quality of some of those gawker clips, illustrates the power, fearlessness, and intelligence of the creatures (which have evolved to be perfectly at home in the woodlands, plains, and swamps of America).

A wild turkey on a car in Burlington

A wild turkey on a car in Burlington

The suburbs are lacking the predators which traditionally hunted wild turkeys and they are likewise lacking the human hunters who nearly drove the birds to extinction.  Turkeys meet non-threatening suburbanites and then began to regard people as fellow turkeys.  Unfortunately, wild turkey society is much like corporate America and involves lots of one-upsmanship, dominance displays, and outright threats (all so that dominant turkeys can rise to the top and obtain preferential mates and resources).  If you are attacked by wild turkeys you need to threaten them back and overmatch their displays with over-the-top sounds and movements. Do not feed wild turkeys!  Wild turkeys can see colors and they have a particular dislike for red (which plays an important part in their mating rituals and contests).  All of these turkey misunderstandings have happened because turkeys have accidentally assumed that we are the same as them (and we have sometimes assumed they are the same as us).  Turkeys and humans are indeed very much alike: both species are clever, territorial, aggressive, bipedal, and omnivorous. In terms of sheer vindictive murderousness and cunning, however, humans vastly outstrip the birds.  Please remember that if wild turkeys begin to play their mind games with you.

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Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter.  From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy.  He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time.  Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals.  Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners.  These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839, oil on canvas)

In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness.  Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards.  In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance).  Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness.  Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society.  A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage.  A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag.  This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together:  there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.

Portrait of Mr. Van Amburgh, as He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1847, oil on canvas)

Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad.  As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars.  Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus.  The huge felines are once again the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].

There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well.  He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter.  In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum.  Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s initial emotional breakdown.  I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is every bit as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.

I can’t believe how quickly the year has flown past.  It is already November. Although that means the coldest darkest part of the year is quickly approaching, there is one bright side to the turn of the season–namely the fact that this month is dedicated to my favorite domestic bird, the magnificent turkey!  I have been trying to think of how to reintroduce the long absent turkeys back to ferrebeekeeper. Although it would be good to write more about the birds’ astonishing capacity for virgin birth, or to recount more personal anecdotes concerning pet turkeys, I have decided to start with a picture of the turkey’s native environment—the mixed deciduous forests of the east coast.  To provide such a picture, it is necessary to turn once again to the astonishing artist John Dawson, who painted an idealized picture of New York forest which was mass-produced as a sheet of US Postal Service stamps (released March 3, 2005).

Northeast Deciduous Forest (Artwork by John D. Dawson for the USPS "Nature of America" Stamp Series)

The sequence of stamp sheets is called the Nature of America—a series of twelve stamp sheets detailing the different ecosystems from around the nation.  When I first started this blog, I wrote about Dawson’s second painting for this series–which showed a pacific Northwest Rainforest. The above picture of hardwood forests is even more exciting to me since I grew up in this eco-region. Unfortunately I could not find a picture of the original work before it was formatted as a sheet of stamps, however (despite the little stamp cut-outs) the viewer can still become lost in the artist’s sweeping landscape of deciduous trees and familiar forest creatures. If you carefully cast your eyes around the picture you will perceive many small details such as fungi, wild flowers, birds, salamanders, and bats.  A beaver is just barely visible swimming out to her lodge (which takes up the center right), while a lovely white-tailed deer anxiously eyes a foraging black bear.  Despite the many wonders visible in the composition, Dawson has wisely centered the composition on the wild turkey strutting proudly through the paper birch trees.  It is a fitting image with which to commence the Thanksgiving season and a magnificent piece of bravura wildlife art.

Detail

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

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