A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Australasian Gang That’s Taking Over the World

Blue jay

Ravens, crows, jays, magpies, jackdaws, rooks, nutcrackers, treepies, and choughs.  What a rowdy gang.  Their ancestors came from Australasian roots and have taken over the world except for the polar ice caps and the tip of South America.  No polar explorers these.

European Magpie

Known as the Corvid family, they are now considered to be intellectually on a par with some of the great apes.  It gives new meaning to the phrase “bird brains”.

American crow

Collectively, the family makes up more than half of all bird species.  They can range in color from black or dark blue, black-and-white pied, or purplish-blue iridescent, although in the tropics they have bright colors.  In size they range from the Dwarf Jay (1.4 oz. and 8.5 inches) to the Common Raven (3 lbs, 26 inches).

Rufous Treepie

Corvids tend to be monogamous, sometimes mating for life.  Mate selection is complex and involves playing social games and aerobatic feats.  Mates build nests together, and have even been known to console one another, especially after the male has been involved in some kind of male dominance event.  Young corvids usually remain in the nest for up to ten weeks, depending on the species.  Both parents provide for them.  These kids participate in elaborate social games, akin to “follow the leader” and “king of the mountain”.

European Magpie

These raucous and, frankly, rude birds are very aggressive.  Don’t go near their nests unless you want trouble, and a lot of it.  I live with dozens of ravens and Western scrub jays, and I’m here to tell you they are not shy.  And thick as thieves they are.  I’ve watched them start trouble just as a distraction so their cohorts can steal something – food, eggs, or very young nestlings.  Yes, they will eat invertebrates, nestlings, small mammals, and carrion.  Since they don’t have the beaks necessary to open flesh, they can only dine on carrion whose flesh is exposed, such as road kill.  But they will eat people food, too.

Western scrub jay

I once had an outlaw band of jays living in the trees over my rental house in a canyon.  I never threw any foodstuffs away, I just put them outside and they were consumed immediately.  Once, in my own kind of peculiar experiment, I put out some coffee grounds.  They ate them.  In my current home, I’ve found the ravens like tortillas – preferably whole.  They’ll grab one and fly around in circles squawking loudly, bragging about the swag they’ve scored.  I once saw a red-tailed hawk flying by with a small rodent in its beak.  Following close behind, and sweet-talking it profusely, was a pair of ravens.  How sweet of them to offer assistance!

Clark's Nutcracker

The funniest experience I had with ravens was in our last house on a hill in a canyon.  There was an abandoned mine in which neighbors told us was a nesting pair of golden eagles.  The eagles remained unseen until one day, when I was baking in the kitchen I heard the ravens making an incredible racket.  Alarmed, I swung open the kitchen door to the patio, and there about ten yards away from me was an eagle, standing on the ground on one foot, with wings spread (the wingspan was huge!), holding a raven in one of his talons.  Two other ravens were screaming at him and attacking him.  When the door flew open, they all stopped and looked at me.  In this incredible, one-in-a-lifetime moment, I blurted out, “What’s up, guys?”  At this fine example of human imbecility they took off, the caught raven dropped.  I was too squeamish and chicken to go and look at at to see if it was okay, so I rousted my husband and made him go look.  Not a creature in sight.

Raven scavaging on a dead shark.

Crows and ravens can be taught how to talk, and there is an instance of a crow being able to count to five.  My raven buds make a loud clucking sound that I love.  When I’m outside I will imitate it, and they will come close and stare at this stupid human who can’t cluck correctly.  But they play the game.  I tire of it before they do.


In brain-to-body weight Corvid brains are among the largest in birds, and have similar ratios to the great apes and cetaceans, and almost as high as humans.  Part of their intelligence scientists attribute to their long childhood and nurturing care by their whole community, not just parents.  When test results of the ability to seek food were compared with those of dogs and cats, the corvids fared better than the mammals.  Although new ways and new types of tests to measure their intelligence are being conducted constantly, the preliminary results for corvids reveal high cognitive ability.  They can even recognize faces.

There are documented cases (see video above) of crows placing nuts on a street and waiting for them to be run over by vehicles to crack them open.  They are capable of watching where other birds hide food, then stealing it later.  They can remember where they have stashed food up to nine months later.  But most of all, it is their ability to use tools, once thought only the domain of humans and apes, that is remarkable.

These hooligans and bullies have successfully survived the spread of humankind and have even thrived because of it.  (In my case they get tortillas and other goodies.)  It’s nice to know that some species can survive us.  Perhaps in time their intelligence will surpass ours, as we kill each other off, and then the earth will truly be for the birds.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Art and Mystery of the Kushans

An early Mahayan Buddhist pentad,  2nd-3rd century CE.
From l to r:  a Kushan devotee, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha,
the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and a Buddhist monk.

One of the most intriguing tribes of ancient times is the little-known Kushan tribe.  They are thought to be a branch of the Yuezhi, an Indo-European group that either were the Tocharians or were closely related.  There is much confusion over the documentation of the ancient Central Asian people, so what little is known of the tribes contributes to their mystery.

Gold coin of Vasudeva I

Yet the Kushans left important evidence of their existence that is still admired and sought after today:  art.  And my definition of art here is inclusive of coinage, which in ancient times were spectacular miniature works of art.  Most importantly it was during the Kushan era that one of the most beautiful styles of art developed in the area of Gandhara.

The Kushan Empire was formed in the first century CE in the area of Ancient Bactria in what are now the countries of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  It only lasted until the third century CE, when it fell to the Sassanid Empire to the West, and the Gupta Empire to the East.  What scholars have gathered on them today is from their art, inscriptions, and the accounts of other peoples, mainly the Chinese.  A lot of what is conjectured about them is arguable.

There is some trace of them in the archaeological record in the various areas shown on the map. A monumental temple here, a palace site there, and various sculptures and friezes reveal information about them.  Depictions of them show deformed skulls - a self-induced deformity popular among Central Asian nomads.  They were horseback enthusiasts, and archers. They dressed in tunics that are usually depicted as stiff, most likely made of leather.

Coin of Vima Kadphises showing Shiva

They gained control of an area known as Gandhara, which is now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They adopted much of the Hellenistic culture that existed in Bactria.  They used the Greek alphabet to communicate in their own language, with the addition of a letter with a “sh” sound.

Kushan Buddhist devotee
 2nd century, Mathura
They were positioned right in the center of trade routes, "The Silk Road", that stretched from Rome to China, and their cities flourished.  Along with goods, there was the transmission of cultures and religions.  Roman glassware was found in Kushan sites attesting to their trade and relations with Rome.  They interacted with the Chinese and fought with them against the many nomadic incursions that threatened Chinese borders.  The Kushans eventually established a kingdom in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang) where their efforts developed Serindian art from the influences of Greco-Buddhist art that they brought with them.

Their religious beliefs seemed to vary and be inclusive of what was popular at the time.  At first it seems they were Zoroastrian, but aspects of Buddhism began to appear.  One Emperor, Wima Kadphises, most likely practiced Saivism (a sect of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva) judging by his coinage. 

There were several great rulers, known to us by their coinage and seals.  Their coins reflect the various religions important to the individual rulers.  Many of these artifacts depict Iranian deities, with some Greek and some Indian deities. 

The most famous ruler is Kanishka.  He holds a place of honor in the history of Buddhism for having held an important Buddhist council in Kashmir.  He also had Buddhist texts that were written in Prakrit, then the vernacular language, translated into Sanskrit.  For his actions he is considered one of the significant early benefactors of Buddhism.

Gold coin of Kanishka I with a depiction of the Buddha.
Legend reads "BODDO" in Greek script.

Maitreya with Kushan devotee couple.
2nd century, Gandhara
The Kushan period was the golden era of Gandhara.  The art here flourished and is considered some of the best pieces  of Central Asian art.  A synthesis of Hellenistic and Indian art, with many other influences, it offers the best of each style.

The Kushan Empire began to decline with the death of Vasudeva I circa 225 CE.  By the 5th century what remnants of the empire that remained were wiped out first by the Huns, then by the expansion of Islam. 

 Perhaps it’s because I like puzzles so much that I have always been intrigued by the Kushans.  There is little information about them, a lot of conjecture, and much of what has been published is in other languages.  Ah, but the art!

Standing Buddha, 1st-2nd century, Gandhara,
Tokyo National Museum

Head of the Buddha


Prince Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni
1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara
Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Purity and Prurience

Sweetness is to woman what sugar is to fruit. It is her first busines to be happy - a sunbeam in the house, making others happy. True, she will often have "a tear in her eye", but, like the bride of young Lochinvar, it must be accompanied with "a smile on her lips."
  Girls and women are willing enough to be agreeable to men if they do not happen to stand to them in the relation of father, brother, or husband; but it is not every woman who remembers that her raison d'être is to give out pleasure to all as a fire gives out heat.
Rev. E.J.Hardy, Manners Makyth Man, 1887

The Victorian era, usually considered to be 1837-1901, carries the connotation of repression and prudishness.  On the other hand, it was also a time of scientific advancement, and the development of political and philosophical thought.  Darwin wrote his theory of evolution.  Freud planted the seeds of modern  psychology.  Marx and Engels formed radical new ideas about economics.  The era is sometimes referred to as a second renaissance.

The Brontë sisters, 1834
by Patrick Branwell Brontë

Certainly for authors it was an engaging time.  The Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and my favorite guy, Lewis Carroll, were among the prominent and popular writers.  In the fine arts arena, the Pre-Raphaelites, a distinctly British art movement, thrived, as well as the Impressionists and the Fauves.

Queen Victoria by Alexander Bassano, 1887
National Portrait Gallery, London

Although socially people had a strict sense of propriety, I‘m not sure how much can be attributed to Queen Victoria herself (1819-1901), whose name the era retains.  The bearer of nine children she was obviously not shy of intercourse.  Recent biographical evidence reveals that she and Prince Albert were fond of erotic art.  But the social norms were quite rigid, and every lady had at least one reference book for etiquette.  A lady definitely knew the rules of courtship, as did all her prospective beaus.  No room for monkey business here, unless a woman found a rare man who wanted more than a Stepford wife.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, and their nine children
1858, photographer unknown

But people, ever human, found their way around all the restrictions.  Erotica flourished, most significantly The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading, a monthly magazine that ran for eighteen months in London.  Published by William Lazenby from July 1879 to December 1880, it was condemned by the authorities and shut down.  (All eighteen issues available online here.)  Lazenby went on to produce other erotic publications such as The Oyster in 1883.  A book by “Walter”, My Secret Life, was the sexual memoirs of a gentleman spanning eleven volumes and 4,000 pages, printed beginning in 1888.

Detail of After the Bath
by William Powell Frith, 1897

Letters were a way that women could express themselves.  Common were cryptograms, which were literally read “between the lines”.  A famous example is this one, entitled Female Ingenuity:

"I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend;
blest as I am in the matrimonial state,
unless I pour into your friendly bosom,
which has ever been in unison with mine,
the various sensations which swell
with the liveliest emotions of pleasure,
my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear
husband is the most amiable of men.
I have now been married seven weeks, and
have found the least reason to
repent the day that joined us.

My husband is
in person and manners far from resembling
ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous
monsters, who think by confining to secure a wife;
it is his maxim to treat,
as a bosom friend and confidant, and not
as a plaything or menial slave, the woman
chosen to be his companion. Neither party,
he says should always obey implicitly;
but each yield to the other by turns."

But this is what was intended:

"I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend,
unless I pour into your friendly bosom,
the various sensations which swell
my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear
I have now been married seven weeks, and
repent the day that joined us.

My husband is
ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous.
It is his maxim to treat
as a plaything or menial slave; the woman
he says, should always obey implicitly."

However, the erotica and the secret letters were the exception to the sexual and behavioral norms that society in general held standard.  There were lots and lots of rules.  Most of these rules made sense.  Some seem to dreamily refer to the romantic notions of knights and their ladies.  But some were outright funny and ridiculous.  The rules we know of were for the upper class, although I suppose other classes held them as evidence of good breeding.

Some general rules:

Never wantonly frighten others.  (I guess deliberately frightening others was okay?)

When dining never make noises with the mouth or throat.  Never permit yourself to use gestures, nor illustrations made with a knife or fork on the tablecloth.

Gentlemen should never scratch their heads, pick their teeth, clean their nails, or worst of all, pick their nose in front of company.  They should spit as little as possible and never upon the floor.  The cracking of the finger-joints should be avoided. 

To be a gentleman one must walk like a gentleman.  A shallow or impudent brain will show in his heel.

Do not speak in conversations if you have nothing of interest to say to someone.  Do not discuss the weather.

Never ask a lady a question about anything. In a lady intelligence was not encouraged, nor was she to show any interest in politics.

The following actions were considered very rude for a lady to commit:  crossing the legs; adjusting the hair; winking or laughing immoderately; beating time with feet and/or hands; rubbing the face or hands;  and shrugging the shoulders.

A gentleman may walk between two ladies, but a lady must never walk between two gentlemen.

No gentleman should use his bare hand to press the waist of a lady in the waltz.  If without gloves, he should carry a handkerchief in his hand.  Likewise, a lady did not touch a person without gloves on.  Ladies were to wear gloves in public places and not take them off to shake hands.

Okay, now for some zanier ones:

It was considered indecent for a lady to sit on the same seat where a man recently sat.  (In that case I am a total slut, as I will sit in any seat, even if a man, woman, dog, cat, or other furry creature has sat there.)

Swinging the arms when walking, eating on the street, sucking parasol handles, pushing roughly through a crowd, talking and laughing very loudly and boisterously on the streets, and whispering in public conveyances are all evidences of ill-breeding in ladies.  (Well, I guess at some time or another I’ve been guilty of everything except sucking on parasol handles.  I don’t get that – am I missing something here?)

A lady could not show her legs or even say the word “leg”.  They were properly referred to as “limbs”.  (There are references to the idea that even furniture legs were covered with cloth, especially pianos, but there is no historical evidence this is true.)  Anyone out there get excited when you hear the word “leg”?  Forget it, I don’t even want to know….

Since the only way one could properly engage in intercourse was to marry, it was important to find the right partner.  Here are some rules for selection:

*A tall man could be paired with a shorter woman.
*People with eyes of blue, gray, black, or hazel should not marry people with the same eye color.
*People with thin, wiry features and "cold blood" should marry those with round features and "warm blood."
*Those with bright red hair and a florid complexion have an excitable temper and should marry a person with very dark black hair or possibly a brunette.
*Soft, fine haired people should not marry people like themselves.
*People with curly hair should marry those with straight hair.
*Irritable, nervous people should marry sympathetic, quiet types.
*Quick-speaking people should marry someone calm and deliberate.
*People who do not fit into one specific category (ie not blonde or brunette) or are average (not tall or short) should marry someone similar to themselves.

A Private View at the Royal Academy
by William Powell Frith, 1883

Either balance was important or they subscribed to the notion that opposites attract.  Balance is something we need to keep in mind when thinking about the Victorian era.  Yes, there were the elements of prudery and constraint, but also great strides in knowledge and the arts.  This era is the worthy precursor to modern times.  And thank the moon and stars that as a woman I missed it!
All images courtesy of Wikipedia except as noted.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Making of "Merry"

“If I could work my will…every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding.”  
Ebenezer Scrooge

In 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, and it was around this time that the Christmas traditions that are known and cherished began.  Up until that time people would wish one another “Happy Christmas”, a greeting that Queen Elizabeth seems to prefer today.  But with the publication of Dickens’ book, the word merry began to take up a new meaning of “joyful, jolly, cheerful, and gay” ("gay" has changed in meaning itself), and in some cases intoxicated.  It still had a bit of a bawdy reputation.  All the new Christmas traditions and the use of this word in the instantly popular Dickens cemented the change of meaning for merry.

Prior to Victorian times, the word had less stellar implications.  In Middle English it had wider meaning:  “pleasant-sounding”; “pleasant-tasting”; “fine” weather; “handsome” dress.  In the 14th century, a merry-man was the companion or follower of a knight or outlaw.  (Remember Robin Hood and his Merry Men?)  A merry-bout was slang for an occasion of sexual intercourse circa 1780, or a drinking session (presumably and hopefully ending in intercourse).  Merry-begot meant illegitimate or a bastard in 1785. 

There have been many phrases using merry since the 1300s, when one would make merry (and it still means partying!)  Merry England, which meant more along the lines of prosperous in 1400, is now commonly used mockingly.  The merry month of May in the 1560s meant pleasant.

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1826-1887) was a British poet who wrote a very popular Christmas carol still sung today:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ, our Saviour,
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!
For Jesus Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas Day.

It is important to note the punctuation in this song.  Merry is not an adjective describing gentlemen.  Rather it is wishing for God to allow the gentlemen to be content, as in “rest easy” or “rest assured”.  This is further stressed by the next line, "Let nothing you dismay."

Dickens was referring to the song when he wrote A Christmas Carol, and quotes it, in part, in the book.  Little did he realize he was legitimizing a phrase that would be used over 150 years later.

“I am as merry as a school-boy.  A Merry Christmas to everybody!”    
Ebenezer Scrooge


Monday, December 6, 2010

Good Vibrations

Once in a while my husband and I try to weird each other out by renting offbeat DVDs.  Usually we like them; sometimes we love them.  Genghis Blues was one we really loved.  The documentary is about a blind Creole blues musician’s sojourn to Tuva, where he competed in a national throat singing contest.    Recently I heard a clip of throat singing on the radio, which got me thinking about it again…

Throat singing is a where a singer manipulates the vibrations created by air coming from the lungs and through the vocal cords to create a melody.  By finessing the pharynx, larynx, then mouth, a voice can be amplified and made resonant, which allows a singer to construct more than one pitch at a time.  This involves controlling the vocal apparati, including the jaws and lips.  There are different methods to achieve various pitches, and many many styles of throat singing.

Mongolia is considered the most significant location of throat singing today.  Southern Siberia has, in addition to the Tuva, the Altai Republic and the state of Khakassi which perform a type of throat singing called khai; in Altai this is used mostly for epic poetry performance.  In the extreme northeast of Russia lies the Chukchi Peninsula whose people have a form of throat singing.  The oral poetry of Kazakhstan and the Uzbek area of Karakalpakstan sometimes includes it.  The Bashkirs of Bashkortostan had a form that almost died out.  There are prayers and ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhism that involve their form of chanting, a sub-genre of throat singing.

The Ainu of Japan had a form of throat singing which  was sung until the last practitioner died in 1976, although there are recordings available.  In this style two women faced each other, formed a tube with their hands, and chanted into one of their mouths, the recipient using her vocal tract to modulate the sound.

Ainu women

Related to the Ainu form is the Inuit.  Once a form of entertainment among Inuit women while their men were off hunting, it was considered more a game than a type of music.  Involving at least two people, the women used each others’ mouths to resonate, sometimes while swaying in a kind of dance.  Men occasionally engaged in this as well. 

                            Inuit throat singing

Tuvan throat singing has become the most well-known of all.  Once the domain of male herders, its history goes back to the mists of time, it has been associated by anthropologists with their ancient pastoral and animistic beliefs that see spirituality in sound as well as other natural objects.  An attempt to mimic nature’s sounds is thought to be the basis of Tuvan throat singing.  With the wide open spaces of their landscape sound travels well, thus location is a serious factor in Tuvan throat singing.

                                        Tuvan throat singing

While it seems that throat singing has been most popular in the coldest regions of the northern hemispheres, there are a couple of known variations further south.  In South Africa the Xhosa women have a style called eefing

Madlamini of Madlamini and Her Witchdoctors

On the island of Sardinia there is the canto de tenore, practiced by groups of four male singers, each with his own part. Traditionally one voice imitates the sound of the wind, another a sheep bleating, and a third a cow lowing.  The fourth enters with a vocal piece.  This sounds somewhat like a round (think “row, row, row your boat”) but with varying entry points for the different voices.  Each village has their own particular style which identifies them.  Today the canto a tenore is performed only by men, but women once performed it as well.   In 2005, the canto a tenore was classed as an intangible world heritage by UNESCO.

                                            Canto de Tenore

Most of us can and do hum.  In fact, humming is now touted as therapeutic,  most importantly slowing down heart rates and lowering blood pressure.  All the types of throat singing listed here must really be healthy, which is interesting when you consider some of these areas are known for the longevity of their natives.  Nothing enhances life like good vibes....