Once a month, I’ll dedicate an entry to a threatened ecosystem or organism… accompanied with sketches and designs related to my work as a potter. This month, I’m logging a brief note about the Ecuadorian páramo.
I’m lying in my temporary residence in Loja, Ecuador, listing to cold, plump raindrops shatter against the skylight. I’m down here supervising a group of eight University of Idaho students, all cranking on a range of ecology projects.
<-- View from our porch, watching my rainpants dry. Note the ubiquitous Ecuadorian concrete and rebar skyline.
People tend to hear ‘Ecuador’ and fasten onto the root word ‘Equator’… with all its connotations of humidity, mosquitos, and tanning oil. The reality is that Ecuador is- in significant part- a country of rock and muskeg… and even a little ice.
It’s also a country where the climate varies by the valley. One ‘Cuenca’ (watershed) can be a dry, floral sort of place… while the next one over can evoke the Hound of the Baskervilles or ‘American Werewolf in London’.
Stay off the moor lads...
Today, we headed up a Cuenca called ‘El Madrigal’ to do some initial surveys for Andean Bears (Oso Andino). Wonderful day out, although it often felt like we were swimming. An ethnobotanist and teacher at a local school fed us on local flowers and berries… all very tart.
Anyhow, I wanted to briefly celebrate the Ecuadorian páramo… a unique habitat composed of endemic shrubs, a bewildering array of bromeliads and yuccas, the mountain tapir, and- of course- Tremarctos ornatus, the Andean bear.
I first encountered the páramo in 2007. My wife and I hacked up a mountain with a good friend named Rodrigo. Halfway up, we encountered the dismembered landing gear from a Boeing 727. It was that kind of place- veiled, precipitous… a place where a plane could easily wander off course and disappear. A vertical Bermuda Triangle.
Not all people like wet, austere places… but I’ve always loved them. The páramo reminds me of Glencoe or Skye in Scotland… except for the primordial looking Puyas that cut through the soils at intervals.
These Puyas, interestingly, are a prime food for the Andean bear (Puya cayata-a small, ramifying species, is a particular favorite). The bears eat the sprouts and basal stems like ice-cream, leaving half-chewed, leafy detritus all across the landscape. Last year, one of our students was experimenting to see whether she could obtain DNA from these fragments… and as part of the experiment, she fed some fresh Puya to a bear in the local zoo. The bear was named ‘Augusto’… and he looked like Pooh in a shop full of honey-pots. I’ve never seen a happier animal.
Note the lovely, Puya-laden scat in the photo on the right!
Here are a couple designs incorporating Puya and mountain themes- I plan to slap these on a couple of pots when I get back to the U.S.
The páramo is an incredible water catchment… the potable water for cities like Quito, Loja and Cuenca flows directly from it’s flanks.
It’s also a garden, with a profusion of orchids, bromeliads, dwarf, bonsai-style shrubs, ferns and mosses. It’s like the Alaskan muskeg mated with a Jurrasic era wetland.
It’s also highly vulnerable. Surprise.
The Ecuadorian páramo- due to its cataclysmic weather and jagged geography, is not as endangered as some Neotropical ecotypes. However, this is starting to change. People are building roads and running ever-larger herds of cattle. The government plants water-sucking Scotch pine trees (see- there’s the Scotland reference again).
More significantly, the páramo has evolved within a fairly narrow window of temperature and moisture… and global climate disruption threatens to change the landscape completely.
The profusion of Puyas, endemic shrubs, orchids… and all the life that they support… these things are support atop inches of viable soil. The area can’t handle changes… this picture from an area near Quito demonstrates what’s at stake.
Ecuador- as a nation and a government- is well aware of the importance of this region… you can’t drive a high Andean road without seeing these things sprouting up. However, good intentions and plans for development don’t walk in lockstep, however, and the Ecuadorians have very little to say about our North American gas guzzling habits.
Still- it’s a region of rough beauty and profound importance… and I’m glad to be able to squelch the eco-alarmism at times, and just slide my rear down a mountainside or two.
I’ve definitely appreciated the people who’ve interacted with this website and blog, and I’d like to inspire a bit more of it if I can. Art is ultimately about communication after all… and it can sometimes feel like isolated labor.
With this in mind, I’m going to inaugurate a quarterly contest.
Four times a year, I’ll solicit a guest entry for my blog. In return, the entry I like the most will get posted, and the submitting person will get a piece of my high-fire work (postage paid- heck… I’ll even mail outside of the U.S. for the right entry).
For the first contest, I’m asking for an entry discussing a threatened or endangered wild creature.
Endangered species have been a recurrent theme in my work (comes of working for a Wildlife department in a western university).
The contest is also loosely based on an ongoing project I’m working on titled ‘Last Chance to See’, based on Douglas Adams’ book of the same name.
1) There’s no hard word limit… but I haven’t posted anything much longer than 1000 words. The entry can be shorter.
2) The entry should be essay-style. It should introduce a specific organism (anything from seaweed to chimpanzee is fine) that is threatened with extinction (I guess this could include almost any living thing on the planet… but starlings or Kentucky bluegrass probably don’t qualify).
2) The entry should describe why this organism is meaningful to the writer. I’m very interested in reference to science, myth, culture, etc. My entry on elephants
can serve as an example.
3) You can include images if you like… but I’m happy to illustrate your entry.
4) You can send me an attachment at firstname.lastname@example.org
, or you can post text into my commissions and contacts page
The contest will run until the end of June (overlapping my annual work stint in Ecuador).
I’ll post the entry that I like the most (assuming I get any!) in July. I’m happy to credit the author in any manner that they wish (links back to their website, etc.).
I’ll also work the organism from the entry into a new surface design for a raku piece.
The winner can choose one of these recent examples of my hi-fire work. Just for the record (because people always ask) these items are dishwasher, microwave, and food safe.
Heck- if Indiana Jones had had one of these, he wouldn't have needed that *&%( refrigerator.
First option is a 'steeper' mug. In addition to the lid, this piece features a perforated insert for holding loose-leaf tea.
There's a carved design on the flank inspired by the coast ranges of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska (with a little bit of Ireland thrown in)
The alternate option was inspired by a friend who came over a month ago. I was giving away a few of my uglier, 'failed' pieces. He took a jar, saying that it would be perfect for 'sippin' whiskey'. He then informed me that I 'outta make a few whiskey flasks'.Idaho- you've got to love it.Here's the result. Not sure if I'll make more of these... but it was fun.The design is my 'stock' grayling carving.
There's a tube running through the upper center of the body- potential attachment point for a strap.
You could evoke all the Minnesota frat boys I remember from the ski hills near Minneapolis, wobbling down the hills with their canteens full of nameless rot-gut.Anyhow- good luck, and I hope I hear from a few of you.
What do green sea turtle eggs and shark fin have in common? The same thing as black bear gall bladder and tiger penis bone, if that’s any help…
Oh… all of these items are connected to really, really cool wild animals, which are getting systematically rendered down into ‘supplements’ that randy old goats sprinkle on their drinks.
I’ve been pondering this in light of continuing work on my ‘Last chance to See’
project. Another artist and I recently got the provisional green light to host this project at the Pritchard Art Gallery
in Moscow… although not until 2014.
This is a good thing- Raku is a spastic process at times. I’ve had a few pieces explode in the kiln lately. This is an added challenge- as in some mega-sized conga drums I’ve been building of late.
Congas hail from North Africa… as does one of the animals featured in Douglas Adams’ book
is the Northern White Rhino, Ceratotherium simum
. These slow-rolling mountains of bleary eyed innocence have a reputation for bulldozering women, trees, houses and villages. In truth, C, simum
is mostly aggressive towards other Rhinos. The brave (or foolish) could theoretically walk to within a couple meters of a calm bull rhino’s horn and live to tell the tale.
Of course, most of the interactions between humans and rhinos these days seem to be flowing from the stubby maw of an AK47. There’s been a sickening increase in rhino poaching of late. In South Africa in 2000, poachers killed seven Rhinos. In 2011, the ‘cull’ was 448
. See Stop Rhino Poaching
for some additional, region-specific stats.
(Note- I considered linking a couple of pictures here… but it’s honestly hard for me to look at these images. Google ‘rhino poaching’ and you’ll get more than you can stomach).
I could discuss the tragedy of the commons and the burgeoning Chinese middle class (both of which are implicated in the recent accelerated poaching). Rhino horn is now touted as a cure for everything from arthritis to cancer
… the tragic rarity of the species accentuating its cachet on the black market.
However, we’re really talking about the fact that rhinoceros horns are pert and erect (and admirably large) and people have a tendency to… err… ‘project’ mystical power onto such things.
I recently logged an entry where I rhapsodized about my bouzouki… talking about animism and the possibility that love can infuse inanimate objects with something like a soul. I admit to a certain sentimental-mystical gumbo in my fiber… but I try retreat to critical thinking every once in awhile.
The cynic might see this type of projection as similar to ‘the pathetic fallacy’- the tendency to ascribe emotion or intent to the inanimate. ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. (‘Pathetic’ in this case drawn from the same Latin roots as ‘pathos’ – and thus related to empathy)-
(Note- the image above is the work of an artist named Margot Cormier Splanea
who I just discovered. Wildly inventive stuff with a biting edge… evokes Ray Troll a little bit).
There’s not really a specific term that I know of for the tendency to imbue objects with magic properties based on their shape, however. (I ran up a flag with a couple of philosopher/writer friends on this one). I’m provisionally calling it the ‘SUE’ fallacy (derived from ‘sugentem umbra essentia’
Anyhow, it’s clear that there’s an extraordinary amount of desperate ‘love’ (of a sort) hurled at anything that evokes a phallus (or part of one). Even Viagra has failed to put a crimp in this trend. Yes- turtle eggs evoke certain paired, roly-poly objects. Does it follow that the thousands of Central Americans who knock them back with beer are seeing a clinical increase in their functionality?
The advertisement- by the way- is from a Mexican add campaign. It reads:My man doesn't need turtle eggs. Because he knows that they won't make him more viral. Etc.As noted in the New York Times
, there's something a bit off-putting about using gender stereotypes to avert environmental Tom-foolery. To quote from John Sayles wonderful film 'Lone Star'... "Yeah, it's always heartwarming
to see a prejudice
defeated by a deeper prejudice"
In the case of Rhino horn, we’re basically talking about a wildly over-grown toenail. You could presumably mirror any clinical effects by pulling a Howard Hughes and rendering your weekly clippings into a shake.
Mind you, fingernails are entirely composed of beta-keratin… so they’re nutritionally useless. Rhino horn does have a calcium core
… so quaffing chang laced with rhino horn could give you an energy boost. If you were calcium deficient to begin with…
Anyhow, I’m not sure if I can indulge my lean towards animism where my bouzouki is concerned… and climb back on my science pedestal when it comes to rhino horn huffing capitalists in Vietnam.
In the meantime, however, it’s a pretty serious indictment on the human race if a gentle giant like Ceratotherium simum fades to black because of our obsession with beloved, ever-troublesome wing-wangs.
Behold my latest creation, shambling its way into the light from Dr. David's mug lab. (Un-carved and unglazed, a legless Golem). Yes- the handle should probably flare upwards a bit more... but otherwise, I like the basic form.As I discussed last week, I'm working to standardize a set of designs- trying to tread into off-beat terrain without completely shedding functionality. One option, when you move past the basic 'barrel with a handle' schematic, is to add a 'steeper' component. Or a lid. Or both, as in the case of this Korean design.
While I love the function of this piece, I'm not overly enamored with the amalgamated shape. It may be a matter of personal taste... but I think the spirit of Pooh Bear's honey pot hovers over these types of fat-bellied shapes a little bit.
Nothing against Milne or 100-acre wood... but the 'Pooh Pot' is one of the most intuitive shapes to throw on the wheel, and beginners crank them out like hot cakes. Spheres, in contrast, are much more tricky... and to my thinking, more profoundly pleasing to the eye.
Here are the components of the current design. The strainer rests within the mug, and the lid nests atop the strainer. The idea is to retain the basic arc of the sphere.
You can see the theory diagrammed out in my schematic.
So- I was feeling all chummy with myself about this. Then- I did what I should have done from the get-go... which is to lay out the original Korean mug and consider why the maker constructed it the way that they did.
I liked the idea of nesting the lid inside the strainer, thinking that this would nicely augment the curve of the mug itself. Also, I wasn't excited about having two extra layers of stuff sitting on top of the mug's rim.
However, looking at the Korean mug (schematic to the right)... there's one obvious advantage over my design. You can remove the strainer and still have a functional lid.
With my design, once the strainer is removed, the lid no longer fits.
Thus- after a day spent monkeying around in the studio, I'm going to huck out my design. Bring on the Kim-chee! I'll retain the spherical model for the mug. I'll also build add a caudal fin to the lid (as a finger-grip)... similar to the prototype I've posted above. This should mirror the curve of the mug.
Sadly, there's a pecuniary motive behind all of this. I want to sell some of these things. So- here's a question: Given that these 'steeper mugs' are more finicky to make than a basic 'stein' model... or a simple 'barrel with lug handle' design... is there any advantage to making them?
It will probably take me almost twice as long to crank out a 'steeper'. I'll have to price it up.
The question then... would anyone be willing to pay a bit more for the mug on the left (below) as compared to either of the other models? (Please ignore the fact that the left two designs are unfired, and thus buck naked). I'd love to get a couple honest (even brutal) opinions on this.
I had a nice little round of Raku this past week. Among other odds and ends, I fired three drums intended for my 'Last Chance to See' project. Just as a quick re-cap, 'Last Chance to See' celebrates a set of critically endangered species. I'm making twelve indigenous musical instruments from the natal countries of these beasts.For a general overview, see my original project overview. For some musings on the specific drums that I'll be talking about in this entry, go here.
Unfortunately, one of the pieces that I was most excited about shattered- literally shattered- as I was lifting it out of the kiln. Always exciting to dodge shards of 1700 degree ceramic (especially when it's 90 degrees out, and your legs are bare).
Raku is a hit-miss sort of proposition, unfortunately, and some catastrophic losses are inevitable. This piece may have been structurally compromised because it was a composite vessel (two pieces joined together). It was also over three feet tall... and there seems to be a correlation between size and failure rate in raku.
It's too bad. I threw a couple chunks in the reduction chamber for giggles, and they came out looking quite tantalizing. The also offer an interesting perspective on the difference between reduced and oxidized raku glazes... note the contrast in the photo in the right.
Anyhow, it looks like I get to do more gorillas!
Fortunately, one of my other drums (a conga with a white rhino design) came out looking pretty spectacular (if I'm allowed to say such things). I'm quite delighted with the balance of the design... it has a certain massiveness that evokes the organism.
Factor in the subtle interplay of color, and I think it's one of the nicest things I've done in Raku.
It also sounds staccato and brash, and plays beautifully.
I'm a little less thrilled with the other conga... in part because I'm less pleased with the basic form, and in part because I think the proportions are a bit off. Oh well.
On the whole, it was a very successful firing. I won't show all of the pieces, but I was particularly pleased with this planter.
Raku is infuriating, in that it sometimes yields serendipitous and wholly inexplicable results.
Why, in this particular case, did I get the copper flashing in the interstitial spaces between the carved lines? The effect highlights the design brilliantly, but I'm baffled as to how to replicate it.
Just to briefly mention a few ongoing projects... I'm currently finishing an improved version of the fountain design I commented on in my last entry
. Aside from being larger, this version features a broader basin (to better display rocks or other found objects). It also has a sharper, steeper lip for the pour-over from the top vessel, and should thus be more of a cascade and less of a dribbler.
Finally, my pop (who's a garage sale hound extraordinaire) found me a lovely coffee table for 15 clams. After taking out the 10-inch glass panels, I'm going to fire a set of tiles and grout them into the top.I haven't decided yet whether to make the tiles themselves in raku or hi-fire... I'll probably make four of each and them decide.Tiles are harder then you'd think. If you're not careful, they crack and warp like cane toad licking Australians.
I've figured out that it works best to throw slabs on the wheel and then cut them to size.Updates as things move forward.
Bit of an epic Raku session yesterday! Hard to beat the volcanic throb of a hot kiln under Idaho skies in spring.
As I've lightly alluded to in the past
, I'm working on a project based off Douglas Adams' 'Last Chance to See'
a series of musical instruments with endangered species motifs. The first iteration involves a replication of a Maori gourd instrument called a Hue Puruhau
. I shared some early designs
and images of wheel work
in a couple of earlier entries.
Here's the first version. This piece was fired a couple of weeks ago. As you can see, I modified the early bottle shape, shortening the neck, and altering the surface (with a blunt piece of wood) to make it look more 'gourd-like'.
I'm not 100% thrilled with this effort. I think that the design is out of proportion to the piece. Also- it's supposed to be a musical instrument, played like a bottle or flute, and I can't get a tone out that out-sweetens the moan of a prion-riddled cow. I can't claim to be an expert on flute making, but I know something about embouchure from my dabblings in Irish music, and this thing doesn't have it.
Here's design number two, hot out of the kiln as of 8:45 last night...
I like this one a lot more.
Apart from the tasty crackle pattern (good crackle makes Raku artists salivate) I think that the piece is more proportionally balanced. It also plays. A Hue Puruhau is supposed to yield a low, almost conch-like note- a sound that could sooth the angry seas.
I might have to test this one on the local Arboretum pond first, but at least it's functional.
Anyhow, I'm curious as to what people think- just visually- about the two pieces
(And... I defy any of you- at the very least if you're not Maori- to take a self-portrait blowing on a Hue Puruhau without looking like a complete ding-dong).
In addition to kakapo gourds, I also fired a couple drum bases and planters. Here are some images...
I've learned a couple important lessons about Raku over the past year.
For one- the clays sold as 'Raku clays' (all of which feature added grit 'for strength') are very frustrating to carve. My carving tool tends to grab as it moves over the clay, catching on the grog. You get jerky, irregular lines... and representational forms are particularly hard to transcribe.
This is all a roundabout way to say that the nymph on this planter looked a LOT better in my sketchbook.
I should not that I don't blithely put random naked gals on my stuff- there's a whole mythology-based story behind this design. Yup. Sure.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I've been riffing off a beautiful illustrated book called '365 fish
' (imaginative title, that). This fellow is known- in polite company- as a 'Bombay Duck'. Harpadon nehereus- # 139 on this list.
Glows in the dark, and is consumed with great relish on the streets of Maharashtra, India.
I culled a few ideas from the same book in designing these drums. Eventually (after I get back from Ecuador in June) I'll slap a drum head on these guys and post a few pictures.
On the right, we have the noble Zeus faber, also known as a 'John Dory'. These are spurned by fishermen because of the massive head and gratuitous spines, but Catholics honor them as 'Saint Peter's Fish'. There's a golden, coin-like marking on the flank of the fish... apparently, Peter, pulled this coin from the fish's mouth.
One the left, we have the equally amazing Regalecus glense- literally translates out as 'King of Herrings'. Number 178. Specimens have been captured that exceeded 11 meters in length (they're registered with Guinness as the 'world's longest fish').
It's hypothesized that legends of sea serpents may have originated with sightings of R. glense. While I defy such unimaginative thinking (I want my Kracken, dang it) I have to admit that that's a pretty snaky-looking fish...
Finally, one of the lovely things about Raku is the social aspect. There's something very joyful about sharing a bout of pyromaniac bliss with a group of friends. I always feel like I've been cast back to the dawn of Stonehenge.
Celeste (pictured at left) was a student in my fall Conservation Biology class, and a fine sculptor. She's got a particular affinity for wild ungulates- note the pronghorn in the photo, pre-fire.
Anyhow, Celeste came over with her friend Carrie, and ran three animal busts through my kiln.
I was a bit worried- these were fairly delicate little creations, and sculpture often lacks the resistance to thermal shock that you can get with wheel-thrown pottery. Also, Celeste wasn't familiar with my glazes, and had to slap some stuff on at the eleventh hour.
This was the first piece we fired. Celeste says that it was a gemsbok. I have to believe her, since she's WAY more representational in her work than I am. (Plus, she's a full-fledged biology graduate as of this week).The piece was formed from a high-iron red clay. I've never used that type of clay in Raku, and had NO idea as to which of my glazes would work. In the end, she went with a turquoise crackle that I bogarted from Jeff Guin and his groovy 'Clean Mud' blog.I've got to say- the glaze came out looking stunning
- both the texture and appearance of a mid-life bronze patina. I may have to Raku fire high-iron clay more often.
The pronghorn also turned out- not only interesting- but also beautiful.
Anyhow, I'm taking eight students to Ecuador on Monday- starting in on several months of research in the High Andes, so I'm about to go through force wheel withdrawal. Oh well. If there's anything on the same level of fun as Raku, it's chasing mountain tapirs in the Páramo.
Moscow, Idaho oscillates between ice and slop this time of year, but we had a glorious weekend. Two days of brilliant sun- outstanding opportunity of crawl into my dank shack and get acquainted with the wheel.
Being as it was my first time since... well... November, I cranked out three crock pots, ten bowls, two vases, and three humongoid plates.
The bowls are a commission for a graduate student friend of mine. She's graduating soon, after having chased pygmy rabbits
about the Idaho sage country. Pygmy rabbits, incidentally, are certainly the most obscenely cute little bunyips on the face of the planet. (Unfortunately, 'cute' doesn't equate to robust, in an evolutionary sense- there are fewer than 100 pygmys left, most in captivity).
The great Bernard Leach- basically the father of modern studio pottery- was a rabbit fanatic, often slip-trailing the same design onto vessel after vessel until the images had the grace and inevitability of light on water. The design on the plate to the right is a famous example.
I've never delved into slip-trailing, but etching in leather-hard pottery yields a similar effect- or at least I like to kid myself that it does. I sketched a couple rabbit designs and have been translating them to the raw pots. So far, so good.
I also have taken a first crack at a Hue Puruhau.
This vessel is the first in my 'Last Chance to See
' project. To recap- this is a series of indigenous musical instruments realized in clay, representing countries that host endangered species from Douglas Adams' awesome book.
The Hue Puruhau
is a gourd-like vessel- and thus fat bellied, with a narrow little neck. As a consequence, the two versions that I crafted today were thrown in two sections and joined on the wheel. The process is quite fun- I love throwing bottles and other narrow-necked objects.
Translating a 2D conceptual design to a 3D surface always offers a challenge or two, and I'm not sure that I really nailed it this time. Still, the raku process has its own whimsy, and I've seen lovely outcomes develop from tentative beginnings.
Anyhow, it's 11:20, and I teach comparative vertebrate anatomy at mid-morning tomorrow. I'd better stop obsessing about earthy things and go wallop my way to my pillow.
Evolution has spun off some extreme oddities, as an article in Cracked
pointed out this week.
The article, titled 7 Species That Got Screwed Over by Mother Nature
, is bawdy and indiscrete, so let the reader be warned (typical territory for Cracked
I was sucked in because #5 on their list happens to be my beloved kakapo
. They mention its lack of a 'fight or flight' response, although they fail to cite its propensity for gleefully skirt-chasing random zoologists
and their cranial anatomy.(I still haven't been able to get in any wet-work on my Last Chance to See project- the temperatures seems to be taking a nose dive into the single digits every time I've got a couple days to work. I really need to insulate and heat my studio space).
Other misfits on the list include the tunicate worm (essentially consumes its own brain as it matures from a mobile larva to a sessile adult form), and the Kiwi bird (lays an egg that’s 1/2 of its own body length and mass), as well as spotted hyenas, black vultures, termites and honeybees.
It’s a pretty funny article… but there’s always a snarky superiority in write-ups like this that gets under my skin. For one thing, it’s easy to forget how utterly odd and superficially dysfunctional human beings are.
Forget the fact that we have mediocre eyesight, an abysmal sense of smell, and the auditory sensitivity of a turnip. There doesn’t seem to be a single environment- terrestrial, arboreal, aquatic- where we move with any fluidity or grace (ignoring the bar-stool, recliner and golf cart, of course).
The standard narrative in evolutionary biology frames the human animal as an atrophying, generalist platform for a hyper-advanced brain and a nimble, manipulating hand. In learning to use our brains and fingers, we lost the need for any focused physicality. We’re somewhere along the pathway to this…
I’d always bought into this idea… but then I read Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall.
Born to Run is one of the most joyful, paradigm-shifting works of non-fiction I’ve read in ages. On the surface, it’s one man’s exploration of the global ‘natural born running’
community. Along the way, however, the author touches on…
- An indigenous people- the Tarahumara- who subsist in remote, desiccated Mexico (Copper Canyon) and appear to be the best long distance runners on the face of the planet.
- The reasons why cushioned running shoes are not only useless for running, but actually promote injury in runners. 50+ years of global marketing and billions of dollars in sales based on a lie.
- The weird, unlikely histories of long distance runners across recent history.
Actually, I can’t stress this last point enough. The book is front loaded with some of the most quirky, gloriously non-conformist characters ever to traverse the written page, and they’re all real. Just as one example, McDougall’s point of entry into Tarahumara culture was a Chris McCandless
-type character known regionally as Caballo Blanco (the White Horse
)- a gringo ex-pat and ex-prize fighter who vanished into Copper Canyon and travels between its dusty towns like a dreadlocked ghost.
It’s McDougall’s commentary on human evolution that really fascinated me, however.
In a nutshell, McDougall claims (and it’s supported by a front page article in Nature
) that human beings are not
atrophied, squishy brain-baskets with hands. We're sophisticated physical engines designed for one specific purpose- succeeding at the long-distance pursuit of cursorial mammals
on the high plains.
I won’t break down the argument in too much detail- read the book. However, there are some wonderful sidelines the book explores in the process of making its case. Just a few examples…
- There are still indigenous societies in the world that will pursue and kill fleet mammals like antelope over a 20-40 mile chase. The Kalahari bushmen are one example. The human biomechanical design appears to be optimal for this.
- The average duration- in miles- of such a hunt equates almost perfectly to the distance of a modern marathon.
- The end of the last Ice Age coincided with an explosive increase in availability of mid-size, fleet footed game. Coincidentally, this was the approximate epoch where Homo sapiens outcompeted Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) for good.
Note- Neanderthals probably had a cranial capacity that equaled or exceeded ours, as well as superior physical prowess on most counts. There are various theories as to why we out-competed our evolutionary cousins, but we certainly didn’t outstrip them because we were 'smarter' or stronger. In fact- there's a real possibility that we won the evolutionary lottery because we were able to run down elands on the open Savannah.
This was a glorious revision on my whole perspective on humans as physical animals. We may have lost our way, bogged down in high fructose corn syrup and wed to the barcalounger, but we’re finely honed to a specific purpose, if only we can remember.
It makes me think about how little we understand the role that other organisms play in the ecological web. How little we comprehend the eons of natural selection, cataclysm, competition and niche adaptation that have produced a kakapo or spotted hyena.
So- while I found the Cracked article amusing, I don’t see Kiwis, termites, honeybees, or Spotted Hyenas as creatures that have been ‘screwed over’
. I love every one one of these fellow travelers. Whether you see them as avatars of a profound creative Providence or as miracles of some stochastic calculus, they’re neither accidents nor failures.
Not saying that I want to lay a 36-inch egg, mind you…