Friday, January 8, 2016

To Rise Above Nature

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

      ~ Katherine Hepburn, as Miss Rose Sayer, in The African Queen, 1951

Following is the transcript for my segment this week on ExtinctionRadio, which can be heard at the website.

Thank you Gene, and welcome listeners.  I would like to dedicate this 20th Dispatch from the Endocene to David MacPhail, a much respected member of a Facebook group called The Panic Room.  He passed away in November, in his adopted country of Nicaragua.

David typically chose, almost daily, a photograph of an endangered or extinct species to post online with a brief description.

To honor his effort to commemorate each lost creature or plant, from the most majestic whale to the most humble snail, in its own unique diversity and splendor, I thought I would focus this episode on just one species, the lion.

It would be impossible to mention with any depth even a small fraction of the instances in human history when lions have occupied a prominent role of cultural significance.

The earliest drawings are found in the Chauvet Cave of southern France, from some 30,000 years ago.

Lions are depicted in the ancient Egyptian sphinx, and contemporary value is still placed on beaded manes and tails collected by Maasai hunters.

Across time and continents, lions have symbolized courage and bravery, and the power of both nature and man.

Lions have been sculpted and painted.  Their image adorns fine Limoges porcelain, golden cups, pottery vases, hand-woven rugs and iron gates.

Lions are on the coat of arms of England, while the pair known as Patience and Fortitude flank the stairs to the New York Public Library.

Lions are sacred as guardians in China even though they aren’t indigenous.

Around the world lions are part of timeless myths - we see them at the movies as a Hollywood studio mascot, and in a beloved Disney cartoon and Broadway show.

The Lion is, well, lionized in literature from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to the Wizard of Oz, and Narnia.

The Greeks gave us the lion as a constellation, and in the Bible the lion represents Christ as the son of God.

The four bronze Barbary lions, now extinct, that guard Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square stand mutely in rebuke to humans, who can and do annihilate that which what we most revere.

The following passage is from an article about a genetic study of extinct lions:

Lions once roamed across the world. Until relatively recently, various sub-species could be found across Africa and all the way from the Indian subcontinent, through the Middle East and into modern day Greece and Turkey. Visitors to the British Museum in London can see engravings from Assyria (in modern day Iraq) made as recently as 635 BC of large scale lion hunting by the local people."

"Sadly these hunts, and others like them, were rather too successful. Along with increasing human encroachment on their habitats, persecution has resulted in the virtual extinction of lions outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The Asian lion lives on only through a small and highly endangered Indian population of approximately 400 individuals; all other lions outside of sub-Saharan Africa are extinct.”

Although the hunt in Assyria mentioned in that quote was by no means unique, it is remarkable because images of the slaughter were meticulously and absolutely gorgeously recorded in limestone bas relief.  Archaeologists excavated the walls from the great palace in Nineveh, located in present-day Iraq.  You can find photos and an astoundingly exquisite short video of the carvings on my blog, Wit’s End.

The rest of this dispatch are excerpts taken from a blogpost I came across while researching these now-extinct lions.  The author, Geoff Micks, first viewed the carvings in the Museum at the age of seventeen.  In hindsight, he expresses some poignant observations that reflect the visceral beauty and savage barbarity in the artwork.  He begins:

The lion’s expression of suffering –of great dignity struck low– was so palpable that I felt compelled to sit down and sketch it. 

“At the time of this frieze’s construction, the Assyrians ruled over the entire Fertile Crescent, the Holy Land, and much of Egypt.

As might be expected from a powerful militaristic monarchy, the Assyrian Kings were avid hunters when not campaigning.  Ashurnasirpal II claimed in one of his epithets: “I killed 30 elephants with the bow. 257 powerful wild bull I killed them from my war chariot. I killed 370 strong lions just by spear like birds in a cage.”

While all men and beasts were prey to the Assyrian nobility, lions were the particular sport of kings, symbolizing the ruling monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people as well as his dominion over everything within his borders. The palace of the new capital at Nineveh was decorated with these sculpted reliefs to illustrate the prowess of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC). That’s him thrusting a sword into the belly of a wounded lion, an image he duplicated for his royal seal.

The hunt itself was highly organized and orchestrated. The animals were collected ahead of time and kept in cages in the royal menagerie. When the King had time to indulge in his sport the cages would be transported out of the city by his soldiers. Infantry would serve as beaters to keep the prey within a level killing field, and cavalry would drive the lions towards the royal chariot, where the King would use arrows and spears to wound the lions before dispatching some with his sword. Although little was left to chance, much of the sport was based around how dangerous the wounded lions were, and the friezes show a number of scenes where the lions are mauling the backs of retreating chariots.

I’m afraid the pictures I’ve found don’t really convey the true feeling of the frieze. The room in the British Museum is set up much as it would have been in Nineveh: A great hall, with life-sized scenes of the hunt all around you. The bas reliefs weren’t just for the edification of the King. Embassies and visitors would have walked past these scenes while waiting for a royal audience. The power and authority of the King is obvious even more than two and a half thousand years later.

I took a course of Greek sculpture in university, and it talked a lot about pathos: The conveying of emotion and suffering through art. I didn’t know the term at the time, but you could feel it, coming out of the rock. The Assyrian artists gave great dignity to their suffering subject matter.

The lions are shown with every sinew in their legs and paws straining; face after face is twisted in a rictus of pain; most of them bristle with arrows, and many vomit up blood from punctured lungs.

You can almost hear the roars and snarls, the thunder of hooves, the curses and cheers in a language lost to time. It’s magnificent and horrifying, all at the same time.”


  1. Replies
    1. I whole-heartedly understand your statement but I would qualify it to some extent. First, not ALL people are worthy of disdain and that's a good thing (sorta'). However, as I'd guess you're alluding, the preponderance of this planet's bipedal life-forms is more than worthy of any or all forms of debasement they receive. For example, those who believe something for which there is absolutely NO demonstrable evidence or, more appropriately, those who believe something despite mountains of evidence contrary to any of those beliefs. I am incessantly amazed, stunned even, by the number of "people" who can not or will not consider any amount of evidence that threatens to negate their belief(s), whatever it/they may be. Alas, as I've stated previously, that contingent of "our species" seems to compose the vast majority and, as such, we shall all suffer due to their hubris and arrogant ignorance.

  2. I can't hate people anymore than I hate crocodiles. To excoriate humans for behaving like every other species is to elevate us to a place above nature, exactly what Miss Rose Sayer learned is wrong. We are part of nature, we are not special, we were not "put here". We are simply the top predators on earth, and with nothing to stop us (other than perhaps a lethal epidemic or a very large asteroid hit), we will consume everything until it's gone. And then we will be gone.

    1. The 'something to stop us' may well be imminent, in the form of the MCR-1 gene.

      On topic for your lion article... I heard just recently about so-called 'gender fluid' lions appearing. Of the discussion about why this might happen, all ignore what to me seems obvious: the species is in its final throes to try to adapt to something it can't, i.e. us.

      Here's hoping all's relatively well in your neck of the woods.

    2. That gender fluid stuff is creepy!

    3. "That gender fluid stuff is creepy!"

      That is a surprising statement coming from someone I'd ascertained as being MORE understanding and accepting of differences!! Please, elaborate exactly what you mean by "creepy." I've only just moments ago read the article linked by pendantry and was, for lack of a "better" word, amazed. What jumps first to my mind is whether this is something that has been happening for centuries (alluded to by the article) or is it something recent due to human "contamination" of water and food sources for this particular pride of lions (and/or others). If the case is, in fact, the former, the gender bias and stereotyping exhibited by the preponderance of "humans" only appears MORE abhorrent than anyone would care to admit. If it is the latter case, only occurring in "recent" times, it may be even MORE abhorrent to contemplate the possible ill-effects "humanity" has perpetrated on the environment. In any case, thank you, pendantry, for a most interesting article and I do hope more research on this subject will be forthcoming in the near future, since the "far" future seems rather "iffy" at this point. As "someone," somewhere and somewhen has reiterated, "Fascinating!"

    4. I'm not making any judgment on fluid genders, but rather my comment was about this: "exposure while in the womb to an excess of androgens" - exposure to all sorts of pollutants is linked to many genetic abnormalities, such as androgynous amphibians, sterility, cancers, lowered intelligence and on and on. That's what I find creepy.

  3. I'm not sure how the end is going to play out, but lack of food and potable water will most likely be a significant part of it as climate change destroys crops in multiple and chaotic ways and species die off goes exponential. We're already seeing marine and pollinators dying in large, noticeable numbers, with birds and large mammals increasingly making the news too. If we add in spikes in temperature, inversions that trap our air pollution so that we're forced to breathe it, radiation and all the other factors that we at least know about (earthquakes, disease-carrying vermin and flying beasties for example) we're in for a gauntlet of unimaginable severity. Keep piling it on with the collapse of the global financial system and all that entails and it'll be a miracle if anyone makes it through this 'event.' Those that survive won't last very long due to continually degrading conditions, so that no human presence will 'grace' the planet by about 2030.

    Thanks for another great essay, Gail.


  4. I always treasure your posts and appreciate your effort Gail. That is some sick and heartbreaking stuff. I remember seeing footage of men by the riverside blasting bald eagles to bits for shits and giggles, which is what I thought of when I read your line about how we 'annihilate that which we most revere'.

    I while back I watched this documentary about animal trafficking for the gladiatorial games, it has some good information about where those creatures came from, how they were captured, and what they suffered along the way. Likely those lions shot like caged birds were indeed tethered. Little more than Propaganda. I also learned that there were disgusting crimes against women at those events involving animals trained to... well, look it up if you want.

    Also don't forget, not long ago there were lions on the North American continent as well that would have dwarfed the ones in Africa! So difficult to see what is no longer here.


  5. Yes, the perfect metaphor for human civilization... what is it that we are hunting? What are we trying to kill?

  6. Jeeze this fits right in. Here a pic of killed Cave Lions, same old spears and arrows sticking out of them, from pre-industrial, pre-historical, living-in-harmony-with-nature humans.


  7. In many ways human hunting is even worse. Humans focus on the largest prey, and the healthiest, where other animals tend to take out the weak, and old or injured. So whereas other predators cull the herd and enable the most fit to survive and procreate, humans decimate populations by attacking the very individuals who would otherwise pass on their genes. Long term, this takes a terrible toll and subverts evolution, in a way.

    1. I have, in the past, used such examples of "human hunting" as one piece of "evidence" to conclude that "humanity" is the most UN-natural species on this rock. However, recently using "animals that kill for fun" (or "sport," "no reason," etc.) as a search phrase resulted in a veritable cornucopia of other "predators" that exhibit similar, but perhaps more "nuanced," behavior. Ergo, I no longer use such "human" behavior as an example and have also been re-thinking the "Un-naturalness" of humans. Your comment from 10-Jan, 3:16pm, may be even more astute than you, or anyone else, thought! :) Regardless, and I mean no disrespect, that earlier comment seems to be inconsistent with the comment immediately above (11-Jan, 9:00pm). I concur that SOME humans "focus on the largest prey, [etc.]" (e.g. "trophy hunters"), I think the larger contingent of "hunters," while certainly focusing on healthy game, are willing to settle for something less than the biggest and baddest animal. Whether or not this "subverts evolution" is also probably moot in light of your earliest comment. While I can also understand that perspective as well as Ms. Perry's (and my reply to her), I still cannot help but recall words I heard frequently from my parents during my youth, "It takes two to tango." There are few, if any, "victims" of any purported "abuse" that would be willing to admit some degree of complicity in their own exploitation. So, while humans being "UN-natural" may be erroneous, these examples probably reinforce arguments that refute the moniker "wise ape!"

    2. @colinc I'm on a campaign to encourage folks to agree to rename our species, from 'homo sapiens sapiens' ('the wise, thinking man') to 'homo fatuus brutus' ('the foolish, stupid man'). Not making much headway with that, unsurprisingly :)

      With reference to the idea of subverting evolution by hunting the fittest rather than picking off the weak, I think this is clearly demonstrated in our fishing practices. Homo sapiens sapiens would cull the fish, leaving the fittest to breed, providing food for the future; however, homo fatuus brutus does a clean sweep of every last fish it can find, leaving nothing for tomorrow.

    3. pedantry, I applaud your effort and like your re-classification, it may be even more apt than McPherson's "homo callidus." I also concur that a genuinely "wise, thinking man" would show more prudence, if not "restraint," in the harvesting of any game animals. Nonetheless, the way fishing trawlers reap everything and anything (young/old, healthy/sick, strong/weak, "target-species"/"by-catch", etc.) can only be deemed the exact opposite of "wise and thinking." Expanding the most(?) poignant line from the Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) character in "Jurassic Park," too many people have been "so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should!!" The result, in my estimation, will be at the very least unprecedented, i.e. we've done it to ourselves.

    4. I am partial to Homo eradicatus :) -

    5. First, peNdantry, my sincerest apology for misspelling your handle/moniker/screen-name, more than once (not necessarily in this thread)!! I am admonishing myself to no end (well, probably an "end" soon) for such an oversight. It's sometimes "amazing" what one's "mind" auto-magically omits or fills-in. However, in my "defense," I have always been absolutely "terrible" with "people-names," as opposed to computer/directory-folder/file/database/formula names, and "pedantry" IS a "real" word, something with which I've been accused (sometimes rightfully, but not often) on more than a few occasions and "pendantry" is NOT, as indicated by the spellcheck function moments ago. Again, I apologize and will endeavor to spell it correctly hereafter.

      Gail, yes, that is an apt re-classification, too!! Really, ANYTHING that obviates "wise," "smart," "sane," "thinking," etc., as centuries of evidence would indicate none of those adjectives to be apt... except in a very few cases and I'm probably NOT one of those.

    6. Although I have been unable to find the exact one (tried, I remember reading a paper suggesting that human fishing pressure on the Florida Goliath Grouper may have artificially selected for smaller body mass individuals, exactly as you are saying Gail.

      I always thought hunting was to be about wanting something to eat, and not about getting off on the thrill of killing, but I'm sure both behaviors have been around for as long as so-called sapiens. I doubt there is much difference in cultural function between the image of prehistoric cave art lion hunts and the Assyrian hunt relief.

      They say when you once went snorkeling off the coast of Florida you took your life in your hands.
      Just look at these sick images of 'sportsmen' from just one or two human generations ago:
      And there were tarpons and hammerheads and giant mantas and so much more.


    7. I never understood why it was called "sport" fishing. The fish never have a chance. "The grouper's inquisitive and generally fearless nature makes it a relatively easy prey for spear fishermen. They also tend to spawn in large aggregations, returning like clockwork to the same locations, making them particularly vulnerable to mass harvesting." (wiki)

      I noticed one of the pictures had the word handwritten on it, so I looked it up: "The Atlantic goliath grouper has been referred to as the jewfish, but in 2001, the American Fisheries Society stopped using that term because they felt that it was "culturally insensitive"."

    8. @Gail thanks for the link to Homo eradicatus. I'm a tad concerned about you being partial to it. Does this mean that you're anticipating cannibalism? :eeek:

      Is 'homo eradicatus' of your own devising? I'm reminded of the Judean People's Front (we should be struggling together... we are!) :)

      On the 'matriarchal myth' concept, I'm not at all clear what specific meme you're referring to. Though I can entirely understand you not wanting to state it, as that could have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the meme :/ (see John Cook's 'Debunking Handbook'). I think I'll get a copy of 'Belle' -- thanks for the recommendation! -- it will be a welcome distraction :)

      @colinc No worries about misspelling my handle. You're in excellent company :D It's really my own fault, as the collision of the one with the other was entirely deliberate. I haven't had any for a long time now, but back in t'early days of the innerwebz I would often be accused of having spelled 'pedantry' wrongly :)

      Pendant, n: one who, by correcting others, gives himself (or herself) just enough rope by which to hang. Me, 1996.

    9. Ha well, I can find only one other reference to it, now you ask, in this book, which was published in May 2014. But I had not seen it until now - great minds think alike!

      I may have to read it.

    10. Thanks for the link to "Rare Earth" as well as for clarifying "creepy" several comments above. I did not think you were being "judgmental" and I apologize for my wording for seeming to imply such. Perhaps, our "inferences" are a product of the life-long cultural programming to which we've been subjected. Again, my apology and thanks. :)

    11. The trans wars are raging on the interwebs. I am cowering in the DMZ. I started reading Alice Friedemann's new book - you might like it -

  8. I imagine a lot of readers are familiar with I’ve learned a lot from his website. Please contribute:

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Keith. That was probably the first blog that I found when I started learning about collapse. I remember being shocked when I read him say that politics is a sham! Long, long time ago. The admin definitely had a huge influence on me, he really opened my eyes.

  9. January 11 gail said: "seems to be accelerating". just found this site through desdemona:

    I have lost a lot of resilience since my heydays. The smallest event in my personal life is instantly throwing me into profound despair and pain.

    It is more and more difficult every day and I continue to kind of pretend in front of my adult sons (who luckily do not have children!) because they would not otherwise be able to live. And this is a conundrum I cannot solve (wether it is ok for me to feed their hope in some future that I know does not exists). This pretending is the most energy intensive process I've ever been through. Doing it until I can't.

    The government of this province is going to offer a national funeral to the late husband of céline dion... unbeleivable...

    1. Michele, I have long since reached the point where I feel it's best to let people live with hope and in denial if that is their preference. It really won't help much to have been aware and anticipated collapse. There is no way to insulate oneself when the global community is so interconnected and mutually dependent on just-in-time delivery of food, medicine and fuel. Once collapse really hits, nobody will be spared, including those who have been prepping and trying to become self-sufficient for years. So let them be happy wearing their rose-colored glasses, is the way I feel now. Every day we have until the food runs out is a gift.

  10. I felt from your answer that I have not been clear (always wanting to write the minimal number of words).

    having been aware and anticipating collapse for so many years in my humble case has spared me a lot of attachement and involvement in insignificant projects. I do not care really for people or for what people think (I mostly care for other forms of life, even if this feeling remains undescribable). almost all my conversations end very fast. I speak about the latest rain in the arctic on on greeland, the fast coming collapse of the food system and sooner or later (but most of the time sooner), everybody tells me: I DO NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT THAT. I then answer that I do not have any other subject of discussion and that pretty much ends it.

    I know that it is impossible to insulate oneself from radiation and SOON ENOUGH, it will be impossible to find food. But for this girl, I would not say that every given day is a gift. In fact, I would not know how to describe the feeling of living one more day in the middle of the ominous and ever present destruction vibe that is penetrating this whole being. My hearth is in my throath and hardly beats when I awaken and until I go to bed. I distract myself by endlessly watching stupid videos on youtube for lack of motivation to do anything else and financial and physical means to do so in the protected privacy of my big apartment in a priviledged neighborhood. But the countless trees (old maples) in this plush neighborhood are one storm away from all crashing down and if they don't, it will take them just a little more time to fall on themselves. Where I have been living for the last 10 years is in the middle of one of the biggest hassidim communities in north america. So when the SHTF, I do not expect nothing from those aliens for who I do not even exist (except for collecting my rent money).

    even if they have been an absolute source of love (apart from an uncontrollable reptilian push, it is the reason why I made them, to be loved), I so much regret to have 2 children. There will never be words or anything else to start to express my distress for them.

    at her witsend

    1. I actually meant, each day without collapse is a gift to my children. They seem happy, and busy, and I am glad for them. Personally, I live in dread because I know it won't last and will end horribly - which is probably stupid...but once you look into the abyss, it's almost impossible to look away, never mind forget. And it is difficult because it's very lonely when most people are oblivious. Other than my family, I don't bother to talk to people anymore, for the same reason you cite. Everything else seems so trivial and inconsequential, I can't be bothered. I'm sorry you feel it so acutely.

  11. Hi Gail. It can be hard to always remain silent when people are talking hopey bullshit or are completely misinformed. Silence, in the face of bullshit, was never my strong suit. So, I now spend less time around the family except for the bigger get together's. They all have plans and are completely unaware. Maybe it's for the best. At least we have the inter tubes to vent and such. Here's a link that might come in handy in case you want to write another one of your excellent correcting essays ;)

    Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers


    1. Thanks Apneaman! I didn't realize your comment didn't publish automatically. What a great study. I absolutely can't wait to include it in a post - hopefully, next Friday's Extinction Radio transcript.

      I have become something of a hermit for the same reason. It's easier to be alone and communicate with people over the intertubes than to pretend everything is hunky-dory.


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