A lot of people probably don’t know that the bird at the center of our traditional Thanksgiving feast originated in Central America and southern Mexico. The Aztecs called the bird huehxolotl (pronounced way-sho-lotl) and it was originally domesticated from a now extinct wild species native to that area of the world. * A thank-you to my friend Charlie Wolff, Inca and Aztec language scholar, for the pronunciation of this unusual word.
How this bird, that was native to Christopher Columbus’s New World, came to be named after an ancient Old World, eastern Mediterranean country (Turkey) is a matter of considerable controversy. Even the scientific name for our Thanksgiving bird –which usually can be depended upon to shed some light on a specie’s origin–is confusing!
The official scientific name for the bird we in America call the “turkey” is Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo (from the Greek word Meleagrid, meaning Guinea fowl, and the Latin words gallo and pavo meaning chicken and peacock). This species should not be confused with their close cousins, Meleagris gallopaveo sylvestrus, who are the wild Turkeys we see in our local farmer’s fields.
One theory says that the original Spanish conquistadors who conquered and then decimated the native Aztecs thought that the bird looked a lot like the Guinea fowl–a then common domesticated European bird that was a bird native to Africa–whose nickname was the “Turkey bird.” And the reason the African Guinea fowl was called the Turkey bird was that in the early 1500s the bird was being traded and sold in southern Europe and the Middle East by the Ottoman Turks, who at the time, controlled the sea and overland trade routes to the continent of Africa. When the conquistadors brought their new Guinea fowl-looking bird back with them from Central American, the designation Turkey bird stuck.
Eventually this new Turkey bird spread all over Europe and Asia where it was successfully domesticated into the various different breeds that exist today. When the English settlers arrived in the 1600s in what is now our American northeast, they noticed a wild bird that looked a lot like the “Turkey bird” they had back on their farms in England. And even though the wild bird was no direct relation to the original Central American (maybe distant cousins) species, the name turkey again stuck.
A third possibility for the word turkey (and one that I kind of like) was from a December 13, 1992, New York Times article that claimed the New World fowl’s name was actually given to it by Christopher Columbus’s interpreter. The explorer’s interpreter, a Mr. Luis de Torres, was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. When he first saw the bird it reminded him of the peacock, a bird then common throughout Europe and Asia, but originally native to India! And the ancient Hebrew word for peacock at that time was tuki.
And so, what do the people of the country of Turkey call the bird that we in America at Thanksgiving call the turkey? Because the original birds that the Spanish brought back from the New World looked so much like peacocks, they refer to it as the “Hindi” which translates into the “Indian” bird. And what do the people of India call the bird? They refer to it as the “tarki.”
Of the nearly 2,000 plaques, statues, and other memorials at the Gettysburg battleground, there are only two dogs portrayed. Of these two dogs, only one, Sallie, was actually at the battle. She can be found on the back side of the 11th Pennsylvania’s Monument on Oak Ridge.
Very few people know she’s there because even though the monument sits right next to the road, you have to get out of your car and walk around the statue of the soldier in order to see her. There you’ll see her restng, watching over the field of battle she had so long ago bravely defended.
Please note: All photos–except the one with her in it–were taken by Theresa Orzeck
The 11th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was formed during the first year of the Civil War in 1961 from residents of several Pennsylvania Counties. The unit would participate in nearly all of the big battles including Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and, of course, Gettysburg. 1,890 men served with the unit during the four years of the war; only 340 lived to be discharged at war’s end. During their first month of training, a lieutenant from the regiment was given a pug-nosed brindle Staffordshire terrier puppy by some grateful townspeople.
In short order, she became the unit’s mascot. They named her Sallie, after a local girl from the nearby town of West Chester. Sally drilled along with the soldiers, attended roll call, and during parade, would march with the regiment’s colors. Although she was described to be of even temperament, she was known to hate three things: Rebels, Democrats, and women.
Her first battle was at Cedar Creek in 1862 where she remained on the frontline helping to guard the regimental flags. When concerned caretakers tried to get her to remain safely in the rear of the fighting, she doggedly (sorry, I couldn’t help it) returned back to the front. She did likewise at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 11th Pennsylvania’s defensive position was overrun by the Confederates, and all who were able had to retreat to the relative safety of Cemetery Ridge. In the rout, Sallie was no where to be found. When the battle was over two days later, the survivors of the regiment found her back on Oak Ridge. Hungry and nearly dying of thirst, she had steadfastly refused to abandon her fallen comrades, protecting them on their field of glory from looters and scavengers.
In 1864, Sallie would be badly wounded in the neck at the Battle of Spotsylvania, but would survive. However, in 1865, just months before the end of the war, while accompanying her fellow warriors in the first wave of an attack on the Confederate’s position at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, she took a bullet to the head and died instantly. With great sadness in their hearts, and under unmerciful fire from the enemy, her compatriots buried her on the battlefield.
Because the writer of one of the articles that I used for researching this story did such a good job in his/her summation of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment’s achievements and their monument at Gettysburg, I shamelessly paraphrase what they wrote in their report:
“At the base of the statue is a bronze likeness of a little dog. It is Sallie … keeping watch through all of eternity over the spirits of her boys, just as she did so many years ago during all of the battles they shared. A dog so loyal and full of love for her men that the regiment’s survivors insisted she be remembered on ‘their’ monument for all of time.”
“Where the great had failed, the small succeeded . . . Muskrat teaches us about ethical conduct, the action necessary to ensure that Creation continues. Muskrat informs us about our relationships with each other and with the natural world, including teachings about cooperation, respect, honour, humility, bravery, love and sacrifice.”–Professor Deborah McGregor. www.muskratmagazine.com/teachings-from-the-muskrat/
Recently, while on a six day road trip through Wisconsin and up around the north end of Lake Michigan, we spent a night at the Kewadin Hotel/Casino in St. Ignace. The casino, which turned out to be quite nice, is operated by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Our visit there was memorable for three things: a restaurant that served one of the worse New York trip steaks I’ve ever tried to eat, the casino that (for lack of a better expression) scalped me for a little over one hundred dollars at its crap table, and (as it pertains to this blog post) for a very moving, Ojibway creation story written upon one of the walls of the hotel’s lobby. It recounted the story of how the muskrat saved the world. But before I tell the story, here are a few tidbits of information regarding the creature.
Most people today, I believe, don’t give the muskrat too much thought. Many farm boys–and even a few farm girls–back when I was a kid used to trap the critter every fall for a little extra spending money. And, every once in a while, I’ll see one hit in the road between the two ponds that lie on either side of the road just south of our village; but that’s about it. But from my researches that were inspired by the story on the casino wall, it turns out that the muskrat plays a very important part in Native American Creation stories.
As a matter of fact, the word muskrat probably derived from the Algonquin word muscascus. Its scientific name Ondatra zibethicus has quite an interesting story as well. The genus name Ondatra is fairly straightforward, deriving from the Huron word for animal. The species name zibethicus is from the Latin word that describes anything that smells musky, and in turn, is itself derived from the ancient Arabic word for the Asian mammal called the civet cat (sinnawr al-zabada.) For over a thousand years, the perfume industry has made use of a compound called civet musk, or civet oil. This musk is harvested by removing the oil from the secretory pouches of the Asian (and African) civet cat and sells for $200 a pound!
“Traditional Indian people, including the Ojibway, hold special reverence for the muskrat who sacrificed his life and made life possible for the Earth’s second people. To this day, the Muskrat has been given a good life. No matter that marshes have been drained and their homes destroyed in the name of progress, the Muskrat continues to survive and multiply. The Muskrats do their part today in remembering the great flood; they build their homes in the shape of the little ball of Earth and the island that was formed from it.” http://www.pipekeepers.org/uploads/3/1/3/0/31306445/the_creation_story.pdf
Additional Credits and Resources by the original authors: *Well worth the extra time to read!
Embalmed and now on display at the Biological Field Station on Santa Cruz Island, Lonesome George will forever look out at us and to the multitudes of generations yet unborn with his innocent — but dead, dead, dead — dark eyes and ask that most damning and eternal of questions: “WHY!!! Why did you let this happen?”
Readers of this humble column know, that besides sharing the occasional tidbits of my veterinary knowledge with the world, I like to share as well tales of our world travels. Which is good for me, because after 20 years of kicking out these stories, both myself and my readers are getting a bit tired of my constantly pontificating on and on about rabies shots, constipation, heartworm prevention and flea/tick control. These things are important with regards to the health of our dogs and cats, but what I’m about to point out, I THINK, is infinitely more important in terms of our humanity.
Most of our travels involve destinations and goals that give us a deeper insight into the lives and events of the people and places that have shaped the world we live in today: the beaches of Normandy, the Great Wall of China, and the crumbled walls of Jericho. We’ve tested the limits of our meager physical endurance by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiking across the width of England, and trekking 16,000 feet into the Himalayas to the source of the Ganges River. And I cannot forget to include my most favorite of all of our trips: those of numerous Holy Pilgrimages to places like Fatima and Medugorie, the Shrines of Saints Francis, Faustina, and Theresa of Lisieux, as well as to God’s Holy Mountains: Sinai, Nebo, Ararat, and Calvary.
But our travels also have a darker side. I call it “The Death Watch.” Along with Theresa, one of my unspoken goals as a biologist (my Bachelor’s degree was in biology with a minor in chemistry), veterinarian, and citizen of our planet is to seek out and to document endangered species in the wild before they are gone forever. These journeys have taken us to both Antarctica (for the Wandering albatross) and to the Arctic (for the Beluga whales), to Swaziland and Indonesia (for the quickly disappearing Rhinos), to the central Pacific islands of Yap, Kiribati, and Tuvalu (for reef sharks), and to Uganda (for the mountain gorillas.) Sometimes, knowing that these guys will be gone—almost exclusively by the hand of man—is almost too hard to bare. One of our early trips in life was to the Galapagos Islands. The following is a short excerpt from my recently completed travel book.
Sitting directly on the equator 450 miles west of the South American nation of Ecuador are the Galápagos Islands. This isolated, distant chain of volcanic islands—and the oceans surrounding them—are home to some of the most amazing (and strangest) animals I’ve ever seen: iguana lizards that swim, cormorants that don’t fly, penguins that don’t require any ice, a tool-using finch, and of course, the giant Galápagos tortoise. It was the biological uniqueness of these islands, along with their thirteen distinctly different species of finches (buntings, actually), that inspired a then very young naturalist named Charles Darwin to propose one of the profoundest and most controversial theories in the history of science: the theory of evolution.
At the Charles Darwin Research Center on the main island of Santa Cruz lives a Galápagos tortoise named Lonesome George. As we stood outside his pen in the equatorial sun watching the magnificent tortoise as he chomped away at a head of cabbage, Faustus, our tour boat’s naturalist, told us Lonesome George’s story. The haunting history of this poor creature turned out to be just another version of the same sad story that has darkened mankind’s legacy on this planet since we first picked up our first tool and smashed it over the head of another animal: that of wanton environmental destruction to satisfy our own—and mostly selfish—wants.
Charles Darwin noticed in his landmark study of Galápagos Island finches that each isolated island had its own separate and distinct species of this bird. And so it is with the Galápagos tortoise; each island has its own unique species. Lonesome George had the misfortune of being a native of the ecologically ravaged island of Pinta. For a hundred years, sailing ships would come ashore on the island and, by the thousands!!!, gather up as many of George’s brothers and sisters as their ship’s storage capacity would allow. The tortoises would languish alive in the ship’s holds for months and thereby provide a source of fresh meat for the sailors. When the tortoises’ number became too low to bother with, ship captains set loose goats on to the island to forage and multiply. It was these goats that ate all of the food the tortoises needed to eat.
In 1971, a biologist discovered Lonesome George near death and brought him to the research center where he lives to this very day. He is the last of his kind on the face of the earth. For the last forty years, his caretakers at the institute have been trying to mate him with what they feel are closely related species, but all of the eggs he has fertilized have proven to be infertile. Barring a miracle of biological science, when Lonesome George dies, so will his species.
And that will be that.
And now, and for all of eternity, that is that!!!
“Lonesome George, spread your angel wings and fly
Go and meet your tortoise lady
On that island in the sky.”
Sitting directly on the Camino de Santiago in the heart of Spain’s famous Rioja wine district, the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada was founded in the year 1090 by its namesake, St. Domingo de la Calzada. This former hermit turned engineer dedicated his life to the safety and welfare of the pilgrims of his day by building them roads and bridges and even a hospital. He also began work on a church that ultimately would become the beautiful Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
One of the first things I noticed as we walked into this church was the faint smell of chicken poop. A little bit surprised, I looked upward, and there, directly across from the Tomb of St. Domingo, in two separate cages, were a pair of white chickens. One was obviously a rooster; the other was a plump little hen. Our guide then told us the story of the Miracle of the Chickens.
In the middle of the fourteenth-century, a family of great virtue and piety stopped to rest for a couple of days at an inn located in the then small village of Santo Domingo. This family consisted of a father, mother and their,sixteen-year-old son. During their short stay, the innkeeper’s daughter fell passionately in love with the young son. In the words of a sixteenth century travel writer, Andrew Boorde, “. . . she was a wenche whych wolde haue had hym to medyll with her carnally.” In other words, she wanted him for a lover. The young man, however, declined outright—he was, after all, on holy pilgrimage.
The old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in this situation turned out to be somewhat of an understatement! This troubled young lady was livid! Enraged beyond words at the boy’s rejection of her offering to bed him, the innkeeper’s daughter plotted the ultimate revenge. During the night before the family was planning to depart, she hid a silver goblet in the boy’s knapsack. Then, in the morning, just after the family had resumed their pilgrimage to Santiago, she told her father of the “theft” of the innkeeper’s silver.
The local sheriff and his deputies then tracked the family down, and when they searched the hapless young man’s backpack, they did indeed find the silver goblet. As the falsely accused boy screamed and pleaded his innocence, he was mercilessly brought before the magistrate for the theft. The judge found him guilty of the crime and sentenced the boy to death by hanging. All the young man’s parents could do was stand by in abject horror as the wardens dragged their son to the gallows on outskirts of town, slip a noose over his neck, and then open the trapdoor beneath his feet. It was ordered that he be left dangling for a week as a stern reminder to all who passed of the penalty for being a thief.
That evening just after the sun had gone down, the distraught parents returned to the site of their son’s execution to mourn him one last time before setting out to fulfill their obligation to complete their pilgrimage. They could do nothing else; the magistrate had issued the edict that he remain where he was. As they tearfully approached what they thought was their dead son’s body, they were confronted by a great surprise. Their boy was still alive!
Still hanging from the gibbet by the rope around his neck, the boy, when he saw his tearful parents, calmly spoke to them. “Fear not, my dear father and mother,” he said. “Blessed St. Domingo holds me in his arms as I now speak. Run, run! with all your might and tell the honorable judge that I’m still alive. St. Domingo will perform a miracle!”
Without a second’s hesitation, the father and mother rushed back into Santo Domingo to the home of the magistrate. After frantically knocking on his door for over a minute, they were finally let in to the inner courtyard, only to be informed by the judge’s servant that the justice was eating his evening meal and absolutely did not want to be disturbed. The determined parents, however, would not be deterred. Barging into the home, they quickly found the dining room.
Prostrating themselves before the seated magistrate, they quickly told him of the miracle taking place involving their son. The judge, who was just about to begin cutting up the two roasted chickens he was about to eat as his dinner, rather than being annoyed—or even worse, downright pissed off—at this intrusion into his home, was moved by a sort of mocking compassion. Legend says that he looked the anxious parents directly in the eye and bluntly said to them as he pointed to his dinner plate, “My dear pilgrims, your boy can no more be alive than these chickens could get up right now and crow!”
The words had no sooner sprung forth from the magistrate’s lips than the Good St. Domingo performed his second miracle of the evening. Immediately, the two chickens, a rooster and a hen, came to life, squawking and scurrying across the table, and then running outside back to their barnyard roost. Upon witnessing this miracle, the judge fell to his knees in fearful penitence, and after begging the Lord for his forgiveness, he granted clemency to the parents’ beloved son.
Our guide continued, “And it is the direct descendants of those two birds that are in the glass cages that we see across from St. Domingo’s tomb. They are maintained by the Confraternity of Santo Domingo in a special place called a gallinero; they are never eaten. Finding one of their feathers lying about the cathedral guarantees a successful completion of your pilgrimage. Also it is said that if the rooster crows while a pilgrim is in the church, those people who hear it are considered to have special favor in the eyes of St. Domingo.”
“Maybe it’s just me,” he said jokingly before leaving us on our own to explore the beautiful cathedral, “but in the two years I’ve been guiding pilgrims, I’ve never heard the rooster crow even one time!”
And perhaps it was just me (and/or the group I was with), but as I explored the interior of that beautiful Gothic church, with its much-venerated and beloved saint, I managed to find not just one, but three white chicken feathers. I kept one and gave one to my wife. The third one, which I had intended to keep as a spare, I later gave away to one of the members of our group. But even more important than finding any of these feathers, I/we all must have truly found supreme favor in the eyes of good St. Domingo, because as we left the good saint’s holy sanctuary, the rooster not only crowed one time for our avian blessing, but FOUR times!
***Ad nauseam: a Latin term used to describe something that has been continuing nonstop to the point of nausea. An example, once again, would be that loyal readers of this column have heard so much of Doc’s erudition (perpetual babbling) about rabies that it’s making them sick!
The two most important concepts to keep in mind about the disease rabies for you and your pets are: First, if you are exposed to the disease either through a bite wound or an intimate exposure to a rabid animal, and you do not seek immediate medical attention for yourself, there is nearly a 100% chance that if you catch the disease, you will die. Always remember, that with regards to bite wounds, your physician is your best friend. Secondly, rabies is nearly 100% preventable in your pet (as well as yourself) with proper vaccination. And always remember, that with regards to your pets health, his or her veterinarian is their best friend!
I can almost hear it out there as I write this humble article: “Wow, Doc, what a depressing topic this rabies stuff is!” And my first response would be: “Yup, it sure is!” But because I’m the sensitive, new-millennial, kind of guy that I am, I’m gonna give you most-treasured readers of this humble column a break. Instead of beating you over the head with more blah, blah, blah about the importance of vaccinating your pets against rabies, I’m gonna tell a travel story instead.
A couple of years back, my wife and I walked the Camino de Santiago (Walk of Saint James). From the land of the Basque people high in the Pyrenees Mountains, across the vineyards and wheat fields of Navarra, and ending in the Galician city of Santiago, the Camino is a thousand-year-old plus trail across northern Spain that has been used by Christian pilgrims to travel and gain Grace to the tomb of the Apostle James (the Greater). It’s an amazing experience full of good foods, delicious wines (not quite as good as my beloved Finger Lake’s wine region), history, legends, and miraculous events.
Part one: One of the more interesting legends on the Camino involves a rather plain and unimposing ancient Gothic stone bridge that we crossed over at the end of our second day of walking. As a veterinarian, I found this story especially interesting. The bridge, with its center pier and twin arches, crossed the Arga river into the little valley town of Zubiri. (Zubiri in the Basque language means “village of the bridge.”) What caught my attention the most about the bridge was its name: El Puente de la rabia, the “bridge of rabies.”
I know! I know! that I said I was going to skip the rabies stuff, but I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself! But as long as I have your attention, I might as well continue.
Part two: There is a much-venerated 5th Century Christian martyr in this border region between France and Spain (as well as Portugal) by the name of Saint Quiteria. Not too much is officially known about her except that she was the virgin daughter of a Galician prince, who was beheaded by her father because she refused to renounce her Christianity. Because it was said that she held at bay two mad rabid dogs with her saintly voice, Saint Quiteria’s intercession is prayed for to help in the prevention of rabies. The good saint is depicted in paintings and sculpture always leading a dog.
I can hear it out there now: “That’s interesting stuff, Doc. But what does a 5th virgin martyr and a simple stone bridge have to do with anything?” Ah, dear readers, this is where it gets interesting. It turns out that some—or maybe all—of Saint Quiteria’s relics are embedded in the central pier of the bridge of rabies. And, for over a thousand years—and still to this very day—local farmers believe that if they march their animals three times over the central pier, the beast will be immune from rabies. Also, they believe that if they walk a rabies infected animal three times around the central pier (the river in the summer is not all that deep) that it will be cured of the disease! I’m not too sure of the science of all this hard work, but it must be more exciting that just getting a shot at the vets!
Last September, Theresa and I made an amazing trip to eastern Turkey where we went on an expedition to climb Mt. Ararat. In answer to the question we most receive when we tell others about our climb: Nope, we didn’t see any remnants of Noah’s Ark. My personal opinion—after having to endure three nights of freezing cold temperature and high winds on Ararat’s treeless, rocky slopes—is that the decedents of Noah chopped it up for firewood long, long ago.
In order to get to the base of Mt. Ararat, we needed to fly from Istanbul to a city in Eastern Turkey called Van. From there we had a three-hour-drive over the Anatolian Plateau to the city of Dogubeyazit, a dusty, somewhat ugly city of functional concrete high-rise apartments that serves as a provisioning point for Ararat climbs and (interestingly) is the last town you hit before the Iranian border.
As former dairy farmers, one of the things Theresa and I noticed on the long bus ride were the region’s lush fields of alfalfa. With the exception of a few irrigated fields of corn and melons, these patches of alfalfa hay were all that seemed to be growing in that harsh, stony, bone-dry, mountainous terrain. And not only was it growing, but it seemed to actually be thriving! I knew that the word alfalfa was Arabic/Persian in origin, but what I didn’t know was that this region of the world between Turkey and Iran that we rode across is where the plant was originally domesticated over 6000 years ago. The crop’s biggest importance to the ancient Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans was as a highly nutritious food stuff for their war horses. And in Arabic/Persian that’s what the word alfalfa means: Best horse fodder.
The city of Van may ring a few bells with cat lovers among us, for it is in this region of the world that the Turkish Van cat originated. As you drive into the city from her regional airport, there is a huge statue of the famous cat. (Van is also famous for her apples, which also had their origin in Western Turkey and Iran!) Although this statement is not without controversy, it is believed by most scientists that the cat is the worlds oldest breed. The local people of this region believe their Van cat descends directly from the original pair of cats on Noah’s Ark!
I don’t see a lot of Turkish Vans in my veterinary practice. My research say that the Turkish Van did not arrive in the United States until 1985. Until she passed a few years ago, the only time I ever saw purebred Turkish Vans was when this breeder brought her’s in to see me. They were big, beautiful cats with long narrow bodies, who seemed like they wanted to kill me whenever she brought them into my office. Also, I suspect that my clinic cat “Speedie” is a Turkish Van mutt.
Besides their distinctive orange and white color patterns (they can also have black patches), their long, luxuriously soft, angora-like hair, and their heterochromia iridis (different colored eyes), the Van cats are world famous for their love of water and swimming! Most also have a distinctive small, oblong, orange patch between their shoulder blades.
The local Kurdish people of the region call this unusual mark “God’s thumb print.” Their legend says that while floating around on the Great Deluge, Noah noticed that the rats he had brought along had multiplied to such a great extent that they started to chew away at the bottom of the Ark. Worried that they might eventually eat their way through and cause the vessel to sink, Noah went to one of the lions he had brought on board and somehow caused the great beast to sneeze. Then, from out of each nostril came a cat. These pair of cats, in turn, gobbled up the excess rats and very likely saved the Ark from sinking. The story goes that after coming to rest on the Mountain of Ararat, as they were disembarking the Ark, God gave the cats a special blessing for their hard work. Every place the Lord placed His hands on the cats—their heads, shoulders, and tails—turned flaming orange.
In the early years of thirteenth-century Italy, Francis Bernardone, then still a young penitent, was walking alone in the valley below his former hilltop home of Assisi when he happened upon the ruins of an old country church. As this future Saint Francis of Assisi stood in front of the collapsed building, an internal voice told him to go inside and pray. Obediently, he entered what was left of the building and cleared away enough rubble so he could approach the sanctuary’s ancient altar. Above this broken-down altar hung the intact crucifix that is now known and revered throughout all of Christendom as the San Damiano Cross.
As young Francis knelt down and began his prayers, he happened to gaze up upon the face of the Lord painted upon the cross, and as he did, he saw the suffering Jesus’s lips begin to move. The Lord then spoke the words that would guide the saint’s every ounce of being for the remainder of his earthly life: “Francis, go repair My House, which as you see is falling into ruin.” The obedient Saint Francis would, of course, not only go on to repair the actual physical building in which he had found himself but would also go on to institute an order of brothers and sisters, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares. A copy of the San Damiano Cross hangs above the altar in the present-day Church of Saint Damiano, the very same church that Francis and his early followers rebuilt stone by stone with their own hands. The original crucifix can be seen in the Church of Santa Chiarra (Saint Clare) just up the hill in the town of Assisi.
The San Damiano Cross is classified by scholars who study such things as an icon cross. By this they mean that the images and messages that the crucifix’s artist intended to convey to his viewers are illustrated on the flat surface of the cross as if it was a painter’s canvas. The San Damiano Cross has a little bit of everything with regards to its iconography. First, of course, it has the image of the crucified Christ, triumphant, his eyes open, and with no crown of thorns upon his head. Legend says that originally, Jesus’s eyes were closed, but upon hearing Saint Francis’s voice, he opened his eyes in order to behold this sweet and devoted man. The icon also has images of the five major witnesses to the crucifixion (Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Saint John, the apostle whom Jesus loved; Mary, mother of James; and the Roman centurion), several minor witnesses, a welcoming committee consisting of a chorus of heavenly angels, the six patron saints of Umbria, and at the very top, a representation of the right hand of God the Father. As well, the iconography of the cross contains two animal representations. Near Jesus’s left thigh, there is painted a small rooster; on the lower right side of the shaft there is a small and very difficult to see (at least for my eyes) cat.
In most world mythology the rooster always acts as a harbinger of danger, that is, he warns us that something dreadfully wrong is about to happen. This was probably the intention of the artist of the San Damiano Cross in placing the little bird on the crucifix right next to Jesus. Just like he did on that dark night in Jerusalem after the terrified Saint Peter denied the Lord three times, this rooster is placed there to remind us of our own potential weaknesses and to help keep us ever vigilant.
The cat’s presence on the crucifix baffles the scholars and most interpretations of the icon don’t even mention the critter. The best possible answer they can come up with is that the cat, just like the devil, is forever lurking in the background, always ready to pounce upon the unaware soul. With my apologies to these great men and women of letters, I think this is academic lunacy at its most slothful. My personal feeling is a little more realistic, and people who know and love cats will likely agree with me on my theory: I believe that just as the sweet breath of the cows in the stable in Bethlehem helped to warm the infant Jesus on that freezing cold Christmas evening of His birth, so did the rhythmic purring of this loving and faithful cat cuddled near His feet soothe and bring one final temporal comfort to our suffering Lord on the day of His Passion.
In honor of the “Super Moon” which has now come and gone, I thought I’d share a story/myth about different kind of “full moon” as well as an animal species that doesn’t get much attention these days: the humble rooster.
Sitting directly on the International Date Line in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the island nation of Tonga. Consisting of over 150 islands, Tonga today is the only surviving monarchy in the Pacific. She also has the proud distinction of being the only Pacific island nation to have never been colonized by a foreign power. Beside my being astonished at the gigantic physical size of the Tongan people (The late king of Tonga, His Majesty Tupou IV, once had the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest monarch in the world), one of my most vivid memories of our visit to the main island of Tongatapu, was watching how, at low tide, the island’s pigs would venture hundreds of yards out onto the exposed coral reefs that ring the island to forage for seafood.
The northern-most islands of Tonga, the Vava’u group, consists of some forty mixed volcanic and limestone islands, only half of which are inhabited. My wife and I spent five days sailing around the island chain in a chartered sailboat, the M/S Melinda, that came provisioned with a captain and two native crew members.
Our days were spend sailing the pristine, sapphire blue waters around the outer islands, stopping wherever it pleased us to swim at a quiet, private, palm-tree-lined, white sandy beach or to snorkel over an unchartered reef exploding with every species of fish and coral imaginable. Several times as we cruised the straits between various islands, we’d be blessed by seeing humpback whales as they passed us by. At nights we’d feast on fresh fish caught that day on our trolling line, and on the tropical fruits and coconuts harvested by our boat’s crew. The whole experience, I believe, was as close to a tropical island escape fantasy as a person can get in this modern day. It was fabulous.
On our last day at sea, as we sailed up the Ava Pulepulekai channel to return to our anchorage, the first thing I couldn’t help but notice was what our captain told me was called Mt. Talau. The huge, almost un-naturally, flat-topped mountain dominated the harbor and its port city of Neiafu. What made the sight even stranger still, was that sitting several hundred yards from the base of the mountain was the tiny triangular-shaped island of Lotuma. From at sea, the pair of mountain peaks looked as if someone had actually sliced the top off Mt. Talau like it was a big birthday cake, and set its peak down in to the harbor beside it. Noting my interest, our captain told us the following amazing story.
According to Polynesian mythology, in the days before time, Samoan tevolo (devil spirits), envious of their southern island cousins’s great treasure, decided to steal Mt. Talau’s majestic mountain peak and carry it back with them to Samoa. Because these devil spirits turn into stone in the naked light of day, the tevolo snuck over to Tonga under the cover of night, and went immediately to work sawing off the top of the mountain. They wasted not a single second of time because they knew they must complete their dastardly task before the sun arose.
Awakened by the noise of their sinister deed, the Tongan goddess Tafakula realized what was going on and decided that she must do something to stop the theft or else these Samoan devil spirits would be emboldened by their success to then steal all of the other many majestic mountains of Tonga. Greatly outnumbered by the Samoan tevolo, and with many more hours to go before sunrise, Tafakula thought up an ingenious plan.
She called forth all of the roosters of the island and had them gather at the base of Mt. Talau and wait for her signal. Tafakula then went over to the nearby mountainous island of ‘Eua, located just east of Vava’u, and climbed to the top of the island’s highest peak. When she and her roosters were at last all in place, she sent them signal to begin. And it was none too soon!
Just as the mischievous devil spirits were beginning to lift the mountain peak from its base and were starting to haul it away to their island, the roosters—with all of their might—all began a nonstop chorus of crowing. As they did, goddess Tafakula turned away from Mt. Talau, raised her ta’ovala (the traditional woven mat garment worn by Tongan men and women), and aimed her huge naked buttocks towards the Samoan devils.
Upon hearing the roosters crowing, and then looking over and seeing the reflected moonlight shining off of Tafakula’s giant rear end, the tevelo were fooled into thinking that the sun was beginning to come up. Knowing that this would be sure death for them, they dropped the heavy mountain peak which they carried into the bay besides Mt. Talau, where it resides today as tiny Lotuma island. The Samoan devil spirits then quickly flew back to they native island. Days later, when they discovered that they had been tricked by mere roosters and a single Tongan goddess, they were so embarrassed that they never again tried to steal another mountain from their island cousins in Tonga.
And that’s how simple roosters managed to help save all of the beautiful mountain peaks of nation of Tonga.
Two Sundays ago, I made a quick trip down to The Big Apple (NewYork City) so that I could attend the Park Avenue Armory Rare Book Show and Sale. The event draws rare book and manuscript sellers from all over the world. And even though I cannot even begin to afford the prices of these collector volumes, I do get a chance to meet old dealer friends and pig-out at many of the city’s delicatessens.
I usually like to leave after office hours on Saturday afternoon, then drive like a maniac (I have made the trip in 3 hours and 45 minutes) down to the city, and rent a room so that I can sleep in till seven o’clock on Sunday morning.
One of my favorite loves on Sunday morning in New York City, is to go to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Although it’s hard for me to be as intimate with our Precious Lord there as it is for me here in our humble St. James church, I am still overwhelmed by the beauty and magnificence of the great cathedral.
Arriving early, I had a couple of minutes to check out some of the side chapels dedicated to various saints. Because I’d been doing some research on mountain climbing in the French Alps and had seen his name mentioned a few times, I was surprised to discover that one of these chapels was dedicated to St. Bernard. I had read that St. Bernard was the Patron Saint of mountaineers. Also, since I’ve been treating a dear client’s St. Bernard dog for cancer recently, I briefly wondered if he was the same saint after whom the dog breed was named.
And so, upon viewing my chance encounter with the Blessed Saint as a sign from God, I stopped, and meditated, and prayed for his intercession on behalf of Theresa and me on our possible upcoming trip to climb Mt. Blanc this summer. When I returned home and told Theresa about my visit with the saint, she said it would probably make a good story. And she’s right, I think.
The only problem, however, (as my research for this article this morning has shown me) was that the St. Bernard I encountered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was not the St. Bernard for either mountain climbers or the dog breed. The Saint I prayed with at St Patrick’s was Bernard of Clairvaux, who founded and led the monastery at Clairvaux, France in the eleventh century, and who later became the first Cistercian monk to be placed on the calendar of saints. This St. Bernard is the Patron Saint of beekeepers, bees, candlemakers, wax-melters, wax refiners, and of all places, Gibraltar.
The St. Bernard I was actually looking for was Bernard of Menthon, also known as Bernard of Montjoux. This Bernard was the Archdeacon of Aosta, Italy who evangelized to the people of the Alps for over 40 years. He started a patrol that cleared robbers from the Alps as well as established hospices (still there today) on the high mountain passes for travelers and pilgrims on their journeys from western Europe to Rome. I was pleased to also learn that the large dogs trained to search for lost victims in the mountains, the St. Bernards, are named after him as well.
Although it has nothing directly to do with veterinary medicine, my research of St. Bernard (the human, not the dog breed) turned up some interesting information. There are at least eight other saints named Bernard. There was one named simply, Bernard, who was a Benedictine Cistercian monk martyred by the Moors in 1180. Another one is the Blessed Martyr, Bernard of Toulouse who was tortured and sawn in half in 1320 by Albigensians. There is a Bernard of Valdeiglesias, a Benedictine Cistercian monk who died in 1155. There is Bernard of Vienne, a former military officer in King Charlemagne’s army, who is the Patron Saint of agricultural workers, farm workers, farmers, field hands, husbandmen. There is Bernard Due Van Vo, who was arrested in 1838 for the crime of priesthood, and became one of the Martyrs of Vietnam. Another one is Bernard of Tolomeo, founder of the Benedictine congregation of the Blessed Virgin of Monte Oliveto. A final St. Bernard, and one that’s quite interesting, is Bernard of Corleone. Noted for his extreme austerity and self-imposed penances in an attempt to atone for his earlier life (he had killed a fellow Sicilian in a sword dual), he seemed to have had a strong gift of healing animals by prayer. Hmm!
All of which brings me back to the Good St. Bernard (of Clairvaux) that I met in NYC last Sunday. Even though I blew it with regards to the mountaineering and dog breed things, I did gleam one bit of information that he and I somewhat share in common. It turns out that every morning when he awoke, the saint would always ask himself, “Why have I come here?” His answer: “To lead a Holy life.” My humble answer every morning to the same important question is: “To just try and save the lives of a few cats and dogs and the occasional cow.”