Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Watership Down

Watership Down - Richard Adams

"El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed." - Lord Frith to El-ahrairah

If you proposed to someone that they read a 478-page book about rabbits, they would probably either look at you sideways like you were utterly insane or shout out in joyous recognition "Watership Down!". Richard Adams first published his utterly compelling tale of adventurous rabbitry in 1972 and the tale remains to this day one of the most creative and enjoyable pieces of children's literature ever set to paper.

Adams tells the story of a small band of rabbits that, aided by a prescient seer named Fiver, sets forth on a harrowing journey across the English countryside, escaping from their doomed warren (destroyed by land developers) to seek a safe home high on the Downs. The rabbits' odyssey take them through numerous fateful encounters, both treacherous and inspiring until, tempered by their adversity, they find themselves forced to face their most difficult challenge of all, using all their guile, skills and bravery against the repressive and dictatorial warren of Efrafa and its leader, the malevolent and powerful General Woundwort.

Adams prose vividly describes and awakens the English countryside in the mind of the reader, from a rabbit's point of view. You can almost feel the grass under your toes. Indeed, one of the few things I readily wished for while reading Watership Down, was a version abridged with sketches or pictures of all the damn plants (fleabane, purple loosestrife, pink butterbur, figwort, yellow mullein...the list goes on. I suspect one needs a certain grounding in botany to truly appreciate Adams understanding of the English countryside.). The other side of the coin is the strength of the various characters - Hazel, the decisive, intelligent leader; Fiver the precognitive runt whose intelligence and visions see the rabbits through diverse sets of danger; Bigwig, the rough-and-tumble fighter who refuses to give in - ever, and Woundwort himself as the battle-scarred and vicious, intelligent and obsessive rabbit that rules Efrafa with an iron paw.

Rich with political allegory and echoing with the touchstones of epic journeys, Watership Down is a book that, if you have not yet read it, will surprise you with its ability to pull you into the Lapin world. It remains a terrific piece of literature.

Of particular note within the book are the various tales of El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits, interspersed within the story. El-ahrairah is a trickster, filled with cunning strategems who foils his enemies, infiltrates every lettuce patch and, in general, fulfills a legendary role within rabbit folklore. Of particular note is the recently published Tales from Watership Down, which collects a number of El-ahrairah's adventures (including several new ones) into a single volume. It is well worth a read.

For a look at the real Watership Down, Nuthanger Farm and the Crixa (they are all real places), check out this site.

Interested in a plot review and notes on Watership Down - you can find them here.

Finally, at least one blogger seems to know and appreciate the lore of Watership Down - check out the excellent Silflay Hraka. Read the book to find out what Silflay Hraka means....

If you can't bring yourself to read the book, there is a very good animated feature (done in 1978) which, barring an unfortunately syrupy theme song by Art Garfunkel (Bright Eyes), is true to the book in almost every way. It is now available on DVD and I highly recommend it (although it might be a little bit bloody for the wee tots...).

Comments are always welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Monster of God

Monster of God - David Quammen

Walking downtown one day, a number of years ago, I was startled by a massive tawny head that peered around a concrete pillar and regarded me with a baleful, quizzical yellow glare. You don't generally expect to run into a full-grown African lion in the heart of a teeming metropolis. I stopped dead, an act that attracted its immediate attention, despite the more jaded urbanites that crowded the sidewalk and barely glanced at this apparition of the savannah as they passed. There is something about being the focus of a predator's gaze that puts a particular tingle in your day. Somewhere, buried very deep is that primodial recognition that there, but for the grace of God, go you....

Monster of God is a look at the role of the predator, in nature and in the mind of humanity, and the tenuous borders where the two uneasily mix. Author David Quammen looks at four "alpha" predators, creatures that live at the very apex of the food chain: The Gir lions of India, the crocodiles of Asia, Africa and Australia, the brown bear in Romania, and the Amur Siberian tigers of Asia. Monster of God looks at the relationship that the predator has with man, the social and cultural role of the predator, its key position within the natural world, and the deleterious impact the the burgeoning human population is having on the predator's environment.

Monster of God is a thoughtful, intelligent and highly readable examination of how humanity lives with predators. Quammen looks at what is the acceptable role in today's world for violent, essentially dangerous animals that can and quite readily do, kill people for food, their position as "keystone" species on the food chain, their position as totemic symbols within human history, language and culture (think about it, even today people are "lionized") and how economic realities of hunting and farming may shape their future. He examines the disparities that exist across the world in attitudes towards alpha predators, particularly noting the fact that where predators and people most often, most tellingly meet, is among the poorer marginal fringes of human society, left to deal with the beasts that haunt the dark nights and quiet waterways. It's easy to say "save the tigers" when you don't have to cut wood in the forest to earn a living, or walk a cold trapline to support your family, hoping not to run into something hungry and toothy.

Here's a brief excerpt: "Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of identity as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monsterous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or a river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster - like auto fatalities today - that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. And it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat."

For more on the Gir lions, check out The Indian Wildlife Portal and the Gujarat Forest site.

For some further background on crocs, check out this site, or just hang out with the Crocodile Hunter.

One of the interesting facts that Quammen touches upon in his book is the hunting excesses of Romanian Communist strongman Ceausescu, who was notorious for, among other things, turning Romania's wildlife managment system into his own personal game shooting park, slaughtering every large beast that came within reach, including 24 brown bears in a single day.

Check out the Chauvet Cave site for a marvelous look at some of the earliest known prehistoric art, featuring, among others, some superlative depictions of lions...

Finally, if you have a literary turn, you can always peruse the quintessential story of man versus monster - the tale of Beowulf, King of the Geats, in his rending, bloody battle with the fearsome Grendal...

My downtown lion? He was being used to advertise some new boutique that was opening. I don't recall the name of the store, but I will long remember the grace, dignity, strength and banked, predatory gaze of that lion...even though he was sprawled across a mailbox of all things...

Comments are always welcome. Bloggers, please drop me a link if you like what you read. Thanks!