Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Livyatan Melvillei (image painted by Balazs Petheo)

Behold the terrifying ocean monster, Livyatan Melvillei! This predatory toothed whale lived 12-13 million years ago during the Miocene epoch and grew to 13.5 to 17.5 meters (45–57 feet) in length. A large adult whale could have weighed up to 50 tons. The extinct megapredator is named for Herman Melville and for the Biblical leviathan (“Livyatan” is from the Hebrew word for Leviathan). The great whale’s family is currently listed as “incertae sedis” which means “status uncertain,” a taxonomical place-holder used when biologists are trying to ascertain a creature’s relationship to other related organisms within a larger order.

Livyatan Melvillei

Livyatan Melvillei with smaller baleen whale

In terms of body size, the modern sperm whale is probably slightly longer and heavier, but the livyatan had stronger jaws and much larger teeth. Paleontologists describe the mighty creature as having “the biggest tetrapod bite ever found,” which is no trivial matter, since the tetrapods include all mammals, reptiles (like dinosaurs), amphibians, and birds. Of course plankton feeders (like blue whales and whale sharks) have larger mouths, but the sperm whale and the livyatan have more powerful maws filled with large sharp teeth. The 36 centimeter (1.2 foot) long teeth of livyatan are the largest known teeth from the animal world which were used for eating (which is to say the tusks of elephants, walruses, Odobenocetops, and narwhals tusks were larger, but were not used for biting into plants or animals).

Livyatan Melvillei biting a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei BITING a smaller baleen whale (painting via dino-rider)

Livyatan Melvillei presumably swam the deep blue ocean hunting for seals, dolphins, baleen whales and whatever other sea creature was large enough to command its attention (giant sharks, huge squid, huge fish, and bizarre giant birds?). Like the sperm whale it seems to have had a spermaceti organ in its head although it is unclear if this was used for echolocation, auditory signaling, or aggressive male sexual display (i.e. head-butting).  It must have been quite a (horrifying) sight to see one of these giant monsters biting apart a 10 meter (33 foot) long baleen whale. Sadly, the ever-changing dynamic of ocean life caused the great toothed whale to go extinct at approximately the same time as megalodon, the largest known shark (which was a contemporary of the great whale).  Numerous websites speculate which great animal would have won an ocean duel–which is foolish, since whales are clever animals and thus the obvious victor.

gpYWbQG

 

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

I promised to flesh out last week’s Angola post with an entry concerning the animals and culture of that West African nation. Although the greater kudu can be found in Angola, it lives in such a broad swatch of Africa, that I don’t feel I have satisfied the requirement. So today, allow me to present a very Angolan animal—the Angolan coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus), which lives in the Namib Desert of southern Angola and on down through Namibia into South Africa. Well, actually, the Angolan coral snake is technically Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi—a subspecies of the Cape Coral snake, but the appearance, habitat, and behavior of the animals within the same species is so similar, that I am not sure the distinction is meaningful except maybe to people onsessed over minor differences in snake coloration.

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

 

Aspidelaps lubricus perfectly illustrates how coral snakes and cobras are in the same family, the Elapidae. This little snake has coral snake stripes & a cobra hood. Adult snakes only grow to 60 cm (2 feet) in length and they spend a great deal of time underground. The snakes live in arid scrublands and along the edges of deserts where they feed on small rodents, lizards, insects, and strangely fish (if they can find them). The venom of Aspidelaps lubricus is a dangerous neurotoxin—but the snake is small with little fangs and not very aggressive. To date it has never caused any human deaths (although it still might be a mistake to pet it like a small dog or a guinea pig).

An adorable hatchling coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus) on a paper towel (photo by Brian Ling)

An adorable hatchling coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus) on a paper towel (photo by Brian Ling)

98a57848-4550-4a7a-a263-0347678d0c09

It is early September: the golden beauty of summer is still much in evidence, but summer is now being touched by the first stirrings of autumn. It is a beautiful time of year here in Brooklyn—maybe the prettiest of all. What better time to combine two of our obsessions—gardens and all things gothic?

725d24de3236ae4a2b3035e20a0e603b

When I fantasize about limitless personal wealth, I imagine building a garden which perfectly combines the spooky angular beauty of Gothic architecture and decoration with the luxuriant fecund beauty of flowers and plants. Of course we have already seen how lovely Gothic garden structures are in this well-received post about Gothic greenhouses. Today we are looking instead at Gothic gazebos.

SLA414-FR-PH-CO-MD

gazebo

garden_requisites_gazebo

Vinyl-Gazebos-2

The internet defines a gazebo as “a roofed structure that offers an open view of the surrounding area, typically used for relaxation or entertainment.” Since they are pleasure buildings built entirely for aesthetic reasons, gazebos are often made in elaborate ornamental styles—including the Gothic style of ornate arches, pitched roofs, and intricate detail. Here is a little gallery of Gothic gazebo pictures which I found on the web. Unfortunately I really mean little! For some reason, people do not wish to post large images of Gothic revival garden structures (maybe they are rightfully afraid that I will steal them).

piercegazebo001

19th century cast iron collection (Morning Glory Gazebo with eagle), Belmont University-large

895391487e80d16ae6451cc486d68c0c

hersey-gazebo--MjkyLTY2ODIuMzc0Mzc=

details_gazebo

You can put these amazing buildings in your fantasy garden and wonder into them in your imagination whenever you need a break from the opprobrious ugliness of the real world!

gazebo0402

A model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

The greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is a magnificent large antelope which ranges down the east coast of Africa from the Red Sea to South Africa; and west through southern Africa to the Atlantic coast. Kudus are both browsers and grazers—they eat grasses, shoots, and leaves; but also fruit, roots, and tubers. They live in woodlands and dense scrubland where they conceal themselves amidst the thick vegetation. These antelopes are large: males weigh from 200 to 270 kilograms (430–600 pounds) and can stand 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) tall at the shoulder (although females are substantially smaller). Males have shaggy neck manes and huge elaborate spiral horns upon their noble heads. They use these horns for fighting, sexual display, and (possibly) fending off predators. When “uncurled” greater kudu horns can measure up to 1.5 meters or more (this strange maximalist manner of measurement seems to have been invented by (male) big game hunters).

A herd of greater kudus (female)

A herd of greater kudus (female)

One would not necessarily imagine that a 600 pound animal with giant corkscrew swords on its head would need to hide, yet the greater kudus live in a horrifying world of lions, hyenas, leopards, African hunting dogs, and cheetahs (to say nothing of omnipresent human hunters armed with every manner of inventive weapons). Fortunately, the kudus’ mixed brown coats with beautiful white syrup stripes allow them to melt ghost-like into the dry scrub, small woods, and forests of their vast habitat. If there was an adult greater kudu skulking in your rose garden, you probably wouldn’t notice it.

Addo_National_Park_-_Grand_koudou

Female kudus and their calves form together in little herds of half a dozen to two dozen individuals. Bachelor males form even smaller herds and mature males are solitary. Mating season occurs just after the rainy season. Males fight each other for dominance and then dominant males trail after females making plaintive guttural moans. Eight months later, when the grass and vegetation is at its peak, females give birth to a solitary calf (or occasionally two). There are three (or possibly four) subspecies of these majestic animals occupying slightly different ranges (as seen in the map below). Although hunting (and poaching) and habitat loss have effected the greater kudu, the great antelope have also benefited from irrigation, wells, and reservoirs. They are not endangered—or even threatened—so the world should be able to benefit from these exquisite adaptable antelopes for a long time to come!

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

 

AfricaAngola

We have bogged down somewhat in our trip across Sub-Saharan Africa. After starting in Madagascar, crossing the channel to Mozambique, winding our way through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, we got lost in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s time we resume the trip and push on west to Angola. Like The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola is tremendously rich in mineral wealth (plus the Angolan people are notable for their great physical beauty!), but also like the Congo, Angola has suffered greatly from exploitation, greed, and long decades of bitter war. First there was war between the Portuguese colonialists and those who sought a free Angola. When the struggle for independence ended in 1975, the “liberators” fought a brutal war with each other over who would control and exploit the populace. This war became a proxy war for the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, the Angolan civil war became entangled in the greater Congolese war of the 1990s.

Flag of Angola

Flag of Angola

As you can tell, despite all of its beauty, wealth, and magnificence, Angola has been a sad and divided land for the last four decades. Yet, of course there is much more to the country than just fighting (and I’ll describe some of its culture and biodiversity next week), but I am going to finish this introduction to Angola with the story of its rather horrible flag. Naturally this story involves another fight! The flag of Angola, as you can clearly see, represents its long status as the puppet of the Soviet bloc. The red represents the endless blood which must be spilled to make a perfect communist state and the black represents the people of Angola. The broken gear represents unfulfilled aspirations of industry. The machete speaks for itself. Finally, the gold star represents Angolan obeisance to Soviet ideals (indeed the shattered gear and the genocidaire’s machete are meant to evoke the hammer and sickle). This flag was the flag of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the dominant faction of the three factions during the long internecine civil war.

 

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

When the war ended in 2002 and Angola finally began to try to repair the terrible damages done to its citizens, its infrastructure, and its society, some people looked askance at the flag. In 2003, the Parliament’s Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly gently recommended the adoption of a new “more optimistic” flag which features brighter colors and a solar design based on ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the resolution was not taken up, so Angola maintains its violent, scary, and anachronistic national colors–although there is no disputing that the flag is visually and historically interesting (and not a little bad-ass).

Snailovation (photo by @seaville)

Snailovation (photo by @seaville)

Last September (2013) Sydney Australia was the location of “Snailovation” a massive public art project featuring 24 giant fluorescent snail sculptures made of recycled plastic. The event was meant to highlight the importance of ecological consciousness (and, of course, to raise awareness of gastropods—and mollusks in general). According to Weekendnotes.com “The gargantuan gastropods were created by international artistic collective Cracking Art Group whose members include William Sweetlove, Renzo Nucara, Marco Veronese, Kicco, Alex Angi and Carlo Rizetti.” I’m sorry I didn’t notice this story in time for you to get to Sydney and check out the huge plastic snails—which came down last October—but you can still enjoy the amazing photos!

snailovation17

Cracking Artgroup Facebook

Cracking Artgroup Facebook

 

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

2009_09_02-Cucuzza

It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

Viridian

Viridian

One of the prettiest colors also has one of the prettiest names. Viridian is a medium green with notes of blue (though it is more green than blue). The name is based directly on the Latin word for green—though the first English use of the name viridian came only in the 1860s when all sots of greens became popular with the growing Victorian middle class (and were first commercially available due to the burgeoning chemical industries and consumer goods industries of the time).

000344405

The pigment used in viridian paint is a hydrated chromium(III) oxide, which is colorfast but nothing like the formidable phthalocyanine dyes which eventually ruin all pieces of artist’s clothing (believe me). Viridian has a political significance—the color was affiliated with a group of environmental and technological theorists who believe that humankind’s environmental and resource problems have high tech solutions. These theorists were originally known as the Viridian Design Movement but their ideas have been assimilated into the “Bright Green” environmental movement which emphasizes science and technology solutions to modern global conundrums (as opposed the “Dark Green” movement which advocates for the destruction of technology and a substantial reduction in the human population).

Viridian Acolyte art by D. Alexander Gregory

Viridian Acolyte art by D. Alexander Gregory

bMaenadDeerSkinThyrsosSnake

Today, to remind you to enjoy yourself on the long Labor Day weekend (and to take whatever joy you can from the dying summer) here are two images of maenads with snakes. I’m sorry they are such small images and that they are distorted from being glazed on non-three-dimensional surfaces of fifth century Greek vases. Still they are very beautiful. The maenads were attendants of Dionysus, god of wine, tragedy, and delirium. The constant drinking drove maenads to euphoric madness and they were quite dangerous (unless you could stay as messed-up as them).  Each of the dancers holds a thyrsus—an sacred symbol of Dionysus which we’ll write about next week.

Cheers! To life, fulfillment, and fecundity!

maenad5

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2014
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
2930  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 545 other followers