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Beheading Live Geese Barehanded Used to Pass for Easter Merriment

Blog Post | Violence

Beheading Live Geese Barehanded Used to Pass for Easter Merriment

Remembering the callous diversions of yore can help put the modern world into perspective.

Easter is the most important Christian holiday, and many families, regardless of their religion, celebrate the day by enjoying Easter traditions such as painting hard-boiled eggs, going on Easter egg hunts, decorating bonnets, and wearing cheerful-looking pastel-colored clothes. Easter customs vary from place to place: The people of Florence, Italy, traditionally explode a cart filled with fireworks, and in Finland, children dress as witches for the holiday. Many Easter celebrants aim to preserve or resurrect old traditions. But some traditions are better left dead.

Consider “gander pulling,” which entailed beheading a live goose, barehanded, while riding a horse—and, usually, while drunk—in front of a roaring crowd. Particularly popular around Easter in the American South, gander pulling was once a beloved pastime in the United States and many parts of Europe. The writer Carl Sandburg claims that even U.S. President Abraham Lincoln attended gander pulls in his youth.

It may be hard to believe that people chose to spend their time in this manner, but they did. The sport even earned an entry in Merriam-Webster.com, which defines it as “a pastime especially formerly in the South and Southwest in which a person on horseback rides rapidly past a goose hanging with its neck down and greased and tries to pull off its head.” The blood sport was most popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries and may date back to 12th-century Spain. Gander pulling may also be the source of the idiom “the goose hangs high,” meaning that “things are or will be pleasant, desirable, or merry.”

Writer Louis B. Wright describes gander pulling among other bygone forms of entertainment in his book Everyday Life in Colonial America: “[Pastimes included] running after a greased pig or ‘gander pulling,’ in which men rode by and tried to pull off the well-greased head of a goose suspended from a bar. When a rider lost his balance and tumbled to the ground, the crowd held their sides with laughter. Our ancestors were not overly refined and they did not worry about such things as pain to the goose or danger to the rider.”

Frederick Remington, A Gander-Pull, 1894, Harper’s Weekly.

In her book The New Nation: American Popular Culture Through History, Pennsylvania State University professor Anita Vickers notes that sometimes a hare was substituted for the goose, that the audience often doused failed contestants with buckets of water, and that gander pulling contests often lasted for hours—resulting in drenched competitors and a thoroughly tortured goose. Vickers also writes:

Gander pulling was one of the oldest of American sports, brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch. As with other cruel and bloody sports, gander pulling spread to other parts of the colonies and remained popular in the United States and its territories until the mid-nineteenth century … The prize in a gander pulling contest was trivial. Sometimes the purse consisted of contributions by the audience, approximately 25 cents a head. . . . Other times the winner was treated to rounds of drinks at the local tavern. Frequently, the prize was the bird itself. The true draw was the betting that ensued, sometimes for money but more often than not for liquor.

The anthology We Are What We Celebrate: Understanding Holidays and Rituals, published by New York University Press, identifies gander pulling as a tradition on both Easter Monday and Shrove Tuesday. Another source similarly claims that, in Virginia, gander pulling tournaments often took place on the Monday following Easter. The Chicago Tribune states, in contrast, that in Illinois gander pulling was a yuletide tradition. And the Encyclopedia of North Carolina describes gander pulling as a popular “Easter time” tradition in that state, noting that most contestants fortified themselves for the undertaking with copious amounts of homemade corn liquor.

Women did not compete but found entertainment in the sport as well, according to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina: “The event offered a holiday outing for nearly everyone. Female spectators—who seem to have enjoyed gander pulling as much as men—cheered the crude ‘knights’ on their sturdy mounts and encouraged them to ‘seize the day’ (or gander). Each competitor hoped he would tear the prize from the body and nobly present a battered, bloody trophy to the lady of his choice.” Much has been written about the supposed death of romance, but at least men today do not present the objects of their affection with blood-soaked severed goose heads.

For a contemporary account of a gander pull, which goes into lengthy and grotesque detail, read the chapter “A Gander Pull in Arkansas,” from In the Louisiana Lowlands, a book published in 1900. The author mentions an occasion when it took “twenty-eight pulls on the picked and greased head of a gander before his obdurate head was induced to leave his body.” The author then muses, tongue-in-cheek, “Who could say that the gander might also not enjoy the tournament and imagine himself the highly honored object for which renowned knights were contending, and by skillfully dodging some and resigning his head to more favored ones he could choose the knight upon whose banner victory should perch.”

Our ancestors inhabited a more brutal world, where violent treatment of human beings was routine and mistreatment of animals hardly given a thought. Our forebears were also often bored out of their minds. It is easy to forget just how limited entertainment options were in the past. In an era before access to electricity, recorded music, movies, television, the internet, video games, or smartphones, tedious and mind-numbing manual labor might have kept people occupied, but it could not fulfill their longing for amusement and novelty. The pervasive and extreme boredom that often defined premodern life, combined with the ubiquity of frivolous cruelty at the time, may explain pastimes such as gander pulling.

Remembering the callous diversions of yore can help put the modern world into perspective. This Easter—however you spend the day—take a moment to appreciate the many ways that humanity has found to engage in merriment, rejoice during holidays, and have fun without yanking the greased head off a frantic goose or participating in other forms of needless violence. Happy Easter to all who celebrate; may your day be filled with joy and peace.

CNN | Conservation & Biodiversity

The Islands That Went from Whale Hunting to Whale Watching

“The remote Portuguese archipelago, consisting of nine volcanic islands about 900 miles west of Lisbon, lies in the North Atlantic Ocean, putting it on the migration route of several whale species. And from March to June – whale migration season – lucky tourists may even catch a glimpse of behemoths like the blue whale and the fin whale, the two largest animals on the planet.

As well as migrating whales, the Azores also have resident cetaceans, including sperm whales and some dolphin species, which can be seen year-round. With nearly a third of the 94 known cetacean species in the world observed here, the archipelago consistently ranks as one of the best places on the planet to go whale watching.

But the centuries-old relationship between Azoreans and whales has not always been so harmonious, as Rui de Souza Martins, emeritus professor of Anthropology at the University of the Azores, explains.”

From CNN.

Telegraph | Treatment of Animals

Dogs Born Today Will Be Cured of Cancer by Human Advances

“Advances in human oncology research are as a result now being translated to dogs, leading to better cancer diagnosis, treatment and genetic screening. Cancer is one of the biggest killers of dogs in the UK, accounting for one in five deaths and killing 190,000 dogs a year.

Dr David Haworth, a veterinary consultant, believes we are now entering an era where puppies born today will be able to fend off cancer. True cures are a reality for some types of cancer, he said, and life-extending tests and drugs mean dogs will now most likely die ‘with’, not ‘from’, cancer, as they age.”

From Telegraph.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

BBC | Treatment of Animals

Bird Flu: Scientists See Hope for Immune Chickens

“The researchers identified three genes they believed were important for the bird flu (formally known as avian influenza) virus to reproduce in the chickens. They made two small changes to one of the genes using a technique known as gene editing.

The resulting chickens had no side effects after two years. They also had increased resistance to bird flu, but were not fully immune: half the chickens infected with a high dose of the virus developed an infection.”

From BBC.