23 June, 2005

A walking pine-cone

The distinction between the mundane and the utterly fantastic is often rather slippery. What we come to accept as the domain of the possible is not a sphere with a well-defined radius; on the contrary, it's an agglomeration populated by hundreds of discordant species and held together by the best glue of them all: confabulation and rationalization.

As an illustrative example, consider the triumvirate that rules the menagerie of Chinese monsters: the dragon, the phoenix and the tiger. The modern student considers the first pair of these not to be actual creatures but the creation of art and fable; flights of fancy, as it were. On the other hand, the tiger is something one can directly ascertain with the eyes (for the moment). The phoenix and dragon, being residents of the realm of the fanciful, take on an aspect of improbability, a magical quality that the unfortunate tiger is not accorded. But really, the tiger isn't any less fantastic or worthy of disbelief - it's an original monster, fanged, muscled and clawed, painted in vibrant colors. We simply won't allow it to live in the same space as the phoenix and the dragon, since we must carefully maintain that tenuous boundary between fantasy and reality.

However, I detest that boundary, and I would very much like to take a bit of a sledge-hammer to it. So I give you the pangolin, a resident of the African continent, sometimes also called the scaly anteater. (Although, in truth, anteaters are Xenartha, along with armadillos, while the pangolin is one of the Laurasiatheria, and closely related to the dog and the cat.) The pangolin is a creature we would easily place in the domain of fantasy if we did not know otherwise. But I think that, even knowing that it is real, if you look at it the right way it forms a rather nice bridge between the two.

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