National Animals: Why New Zealand? Why?

The national animal of New Zealand is the kiwi – a brown, chicken sized bird, which is all-round weird. The kiwi is a strange choice. Yet New Zealanders are kiwi mad. They named themselves Kiwis. They renamed Chinese gooseberries Kiwifruit. They named a bank Kiwibank. They named a retirement fund Kiwisaver. They stuck pictures of kiwis on the stamps, the money, and the air-force (despite the fact that kiwis are flightless). Kiwi, kiwi, kiwi! Kiwis are everywhere.

Which is strange.

Real kiwi are pretty much nowhere.

Most New Zealanders have never seen a wild kiwi. In most places where people live, kiwi are extinct. Paradoxically, the less contact New Zealanders have had with actual kiwi, the more attached New Zealanders have became to kiwi. Should the kiwi ever go extinct, logically New Zealand will be renamed Kiwiland. It is inevitable.

Kiwi-mania is perplexing. How can a nation become so extremely fond of an animal they never see? It’s like being fond of the Dodo.

New Zealand isn’t the only place to have a made an odd choice.  The national animal of the Mauritius is the Dodo. They love it. It’s dead. The English lion is even less real. The last time England had lions was… was… yeah. But that can’t top the Scottish. Their national animal is a unicorn.

These bizarre choices show us how we got national animals in the first place. The Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland are heraldic symbols from centuries ago. They were never meant to be real. Okay, the Scots did think unicorns were real, but the point is they are emblems. Symbols.

Places lacking suitable medieval heraldry can pick themselves some outstanding real animal. Or some outstanding fake animal. Asia loves its dragons. North Korea went for a winged horse. Indonesia has the humanoid bird that gets ridden by Lord Vishnu. Laugh if you like, but the truth is all national animals are imaginary. Some just happen to refer to real animals too.

National animals are symbols. The less something is a concrete reality the easier it is to make it into a symbol. As the kiwi slid towards extinction, New Zealanders were free to project onto the word “Kiwi” whatever they wanted. An animal became a symbol. A national animal. With kiwis gone, “Kiwis” no longer needed to worry about being confronted with the bizarre nature of actual kiwi. The symbol was safe.

So why do we bother with national animals? Well, all our friends have got them. Beyond that…

Blame cartoonists.

And politicians.

And advertisers.

All of them like to indulge in personification. All need symbols. To make a good political cartoon you often need to draw a character that represents the nation. Animals with a distinct cultural history work well. Then you can draw your disliked politician riding that animal, hitting it with a whip. That kind of thing.

Propagandists have the same need. Their ads need something distinctive that represents what they’re trying to sell. Patriotism needs a face. Hence all the lions, bears, dragons, and eagles doing all their roaring, breathing fire, and swooping majestically. Vote for Steve. Let’s go to war. Buy my boot polish. That kind of thing.

As a young country, New Zealand was in desperate need of new symbols to establish its identity. Hence a little over-enthusiasm with the kiwi. It’s a teenage thing. They’ll get over it. Hopefully.

Yet, the kiwi is still a strange choice. The Bald Eagle? Majesty. Power. Got it. The Russian bear? Danger. Power. Got it. The Kiwi? It’s a furry football with legs, whose greatest claim to fame is being able to push out an egg that is equivalent to a human giving birth to a four year old. Oh New Zealand! Sure the giant Moa and man-eating Haast Eagle were extinct, but why pick the kiwi? I see your sense of humour, but where is your pride?!

Perhaps that’s it.

National animals don’t get picked in a rational way. They just happen. Something about it just works. And the kiwi knows that New Zealand is small, cute, weird, unsure, and occasionally comical. And it doesn’t care. And it was easy to draw. Still, judging by the Scots and their unicorn… New Zealand should have picked the Taniwha. No one messes with a supernatural water monster with face tattoos.

 

 

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

Read more about the kiwi, it’s life as a bird, and its life as an icon. From Te Ara, the encyclopedia of New Zealand. Here.

The origins of the Scottish unicorn, from the Scotsman. Here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

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Why do Rich People Dress Poor?

Why do well-to-do people wear ripped jeans?

And why do they buy their jeans pre-ripped?

Wouldn’t they rather look rich, than get stopped and frisked? Humans desire status. Wealth is a sign of status. So why dress poor if you don’t have to?

Welcome to Poverty Chic: where popular fashion adopts the symbols of poverty.

It makes no sense.

If you are like me then you’re probably thinking this is just a rare, weird, sub-cultural thing. Desperate fashion designers looking for ideas. Those stupid pre-faded jean shorts. End of story.

Prepare to be surprised.

Poverty Chic is everywhere.

Poverty Chic goes well beyond  clothing.  Redecorating? Rehabilitate old furniture with “shabby chic”. Guys? Try tending that beard for the rural working man “Lumbersexual” look. Going on holiday? Try a sightseeing slum tour, available now in all the world’s best slums.

Culture is littered with the ghosts of Poverty Chic past. History was into it just like us. French Queen Marie Antoinette even built herself an entire rustic village where she could play at being a shepherdess. French aristocrats liked pretending to be French peasants, back before they got executed by French peasants.

Poverty Chic has even gotten into our language. “Pimp” has become a word for over-the-top decoration. A real pimp manages prostitutes.

Any symbol of poverty that you can think of has become Poverty Chic somewhere, somehow, at sometime. Race, religion, drugs, homelessness, mental illness, even the emotions. It’s all there.

Why on earth do we do this?

We can see a touch of mockery here. It has parallels in Blackface, dressing up like Indians, and putting on a Chinese accent to make a racist joke. Stereotypes and play. Strangely, dressing like poor people denies the reality of poverty.  Suffering is reduced to a set of symbols that can be adopted and discarded at whim. The play makes it unreal. And that is half the key to understanding Poverty Chic.

Fear.

We are afraid of becoming poor. But if you can control what you fear, you feel safe. Poverty Chic is control. It’s like the difference between falling off a bridge and bungee jumping. Poverty is your plaything. You are rich enough to be poor. But only if you want to.

You are in control.

You have nothing to fear. The horrifying beast of poverty is boxed, wrapped, and yours for $99.95. Enjoy.

Poverty Chic is visibly different from poor. The Chic version is clean, temporary, and partial. Safe. Not quite real. Torn jeans above expensive shoes. An aftertaste of mockery lingers in the mouth. I do by choice what they do by force. Status. Control. However, as soon as the beast bites back the fashion flees. The “Heroin Chic” look soon vanished when its main photographer died of a heroin overdose.

Poverty Chic also has another side. Poverty is romantic. Poverty looks more real. More authentic. More simple. The monk in a cave. The starving artist. The Blue’s player, all true soul.

Poor people are cool.

Part of us wants to be them. Just like part of us wants to be a cowboy, a noble savage, a shepherdess. We want to escape. They seem to have something we don’t. In the past you might have fed this appetite by going on a pilgrimage, or joining a monastery. Today you can go shopping.

Youth in particular seem to feel this pull. The disillusionment. The angst. The escape from a culture which seems so fake. Poor musicians often lead the way. They’re standing on the outside. They’ve got that feeling too. Grunge. Hip Hop. Rap.

Soon the style goes mainstream. The symbols of poverty become associated with celebrities. The money machine takes over. A new Poverty Chic is born. The style comes to represent everything that people were fleeing from in the first place. Culture gains another Chic ghost. The cycle begins anew.

Fear and escape, then conformity and forgetting, and the search for a new fad. Poverty will always be fashionable. That is, unless you’re poor.

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

The cases of Poverty Chic are too many to list. Here’s a few to wet your poverty hungry appetite…

Read about Poverty Chic as a way of managing upper-class fear in “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty”, by Karen Bettez Halnon. Here.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

The True Meaning of Lawns

The weekend rolls around. A look out the window. Grass. Long grass. Didn’t I just mow that? Go to the garage. Check the oil. Fill up the tank. Yank, yank, yank on the cord till it starts. Time to mow the lawns. Suburban Sisyphus begins again.

Even now the air hums with lawnmowers. Yet I know from conversation that many of these people will in truth despise their lawn. And I know from walking the neighborhood that few people use their lawn as anything more than a spare car park, or an open air dog toilet. Yet they toil. They buy the petrol, fix the mower, weekly they battle the grass.

Why bother? It’s not like it’s the only option. We could have:

  • zen rock gardens,
  • concrete slabs,
  • fields of veggies,
  • piles of gravel,
  • sunflowers,
  • wildflowers,
  • permaculture food forests,
  • carpets of rosemary, mint, and thyme,
  • an elaborate series of interconnected goldfish ponds,
  • or we could have at least stuck a goat on it.

Instead we have lawns.

Why?

It wasn’t always this way. The original lawn was not lawn, but pasture – somewhere to graze your sheep. Purely functional. Then in the 18th Century the English landscape garden was born. Naturalness was the key to this style, and grass was front and center. If you want to know what these gardens look like, visit a golf course.

At this point the lawn was pure aristocratic extravagance: beautiful, expensive, and pointless.

Then in the 19th Century the lawnmower was invented. Lawns went mainstream. However, this was at some level still both a status symbol, as well as  a functional sporting thing: croquet, tennis, lawn bowls. The modern pointless lawn would have to await another invention.

Suburbia.

Now the aesthetic of the English landscape garden was applied to town planning.

Strangely, in these suburbs the lawn has come to play a much bigger role than pure aesthetics. If you want to discover that role for yourself, then stop mowing. Life could get very weird.

Passers-by will shake their heads, your neighbors will twitch with an unnatural desire to mow your lawns for you, and you might even get arrested. Lawns spark an alarming degree of passion. Fanatics will cover the slightest brown blemish with green paint. Heretics will defiantly let the yard go wild.

Lawns are a statement.

Lawns are a moral symbol.

In a community dominated by lawns, with unfenced front yards, we become one lawn indivisible. The state of your lawn becomes a statement of virtue. The unkempt is the un-neighborly, the unreliable, the possibly dealing drugs or dead. Tear up the lawn and you are tearing up the community, setting yourself apart, destroying the illusion that we all live in one big happy park. The lawn is the symbol of the egalitarian, affluent community.

That is the idealized philosophy of lawns. This moral pressure ensures that even those who hate lawns have them, and those who have lawns maintain them. So ingrained is the idea of lawns that we struggle to imagine suburbia without them.

Yet lawns might not last. In my own community, lawns have become an inversion of their origin. Lawns, in the open front yard style, are the garden of the poor. The rich, in contrast, can be identified by the height of their walls and smallness of their lawn. The middle-classes, for the most part, are stuck between the two extremes, unsure which way to go. Considering how we got lawns, they will likely choose walls. It almost makes one feel sad for lawns.

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

If you’re looking for someone to blame for inventing lawns, try  Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Here.

“Turf Wars” Evan Ratliff. Here. An interesting read on the fight over lawns.

The Lawn Institute – making the case for lawns since the 1950s. Note how community is one of the first arguments they turn to. Here.

It’s not just lawns. See “Suburban Ideals on England’s Interwar Council Estates” for an example of how suburban gardening in general has always been a minefield. Here

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.