Pilgrim Geese

Pilgrim Geese!

I’m sorry for the lack of posts for the last week: I was out of the city on a family visit in the bosky hills Appalachia. It was wonderful to get out of the city and spend some time on the farm recharging my mental and emotional batteries! One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with my parents’ flock of pilgrim geese–a heritage breed of medium sized geese noted for their mild manners and gender-selected colors: pilgrim ganders are white (with maybe a few dark tail feathers) whereas the female geese are medium gray with white bellies.

Argh! Back up a little bit...

Argh! Back up a little bit…

Pilgrim geese obtained their name because they allegedly came to America with the protestant refugees who founded New England—the pilgrims–but that dramatic historically interesting story may be an invention. The Live Stock Conservancy describes the various possible origins of the breed on its website:

[A poultry researcher] found numerous references to auto-sexing geese in colonial America, western England and Normandy, France, but the breed was never referred to by a name. According to some authorities, the Pilgrim goose is related to the now rare West of England goose, another auto-sexing breed, which could possibly have arrived with early colonists…But Oscar Grow, a leading authority on waterfowl in the 1900s, claims to have developed the breed in Iowa, and that his wife named them in memory of their relocation – or pilgrimage – to Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Authorities agree that the breed was first documented by the name “Pilgrim” in 1935, corresponding with the Grow family’s pilgrimage. The Pilgrim was admitted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939.

Pilgrim geese are able to fly short distances and they have a long lifespan (of up to 40 years—not that such an age is particularly old for humans!). They are friendly birds and intelligence shines in their round gray eyes. Goose society is very lively with lots of political squabbling and jockeying for prime mates and nesting sites. Like other domestic geese they largely subsist on grass and green shoots which they avidly graze with their serrated beaks, but they are hungry, hungry birds and they love special treats. In order to socialize her goose flock, my mother gives the birds some corn and mash in the morning and in the evening. The geese all crowd around the galvanized bin where their food is kept and inquisitively nibble on the pockets of the goose tenders. If the food does not appear rapidly enough they will point their beaks upward toward their human keepers and open them wide hoping perhaps that we might funnel grain directly down their gullet. They are extremely hilarious standing around with their bills open like big feathery ridiculous Venus flytraps!

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

A digital reconstruction of the Original Serpent Column (Greek, ca. 478 BC, bronze)

The Serpent Column is a stunning work of ancient Greek sculpture which is two and a half millennia old. It was cast in the early fifth century to commemorate the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale which effectively ended the threat of Persian annexation.  According to Herodotus, the column was made from the melted bronze armor and weapons of the defeated Persian army. It was set in front of the great oracle at Delphos to forever commemorate the power of Greek arms and to commemorate the 31 Greek city states which joined together to oppose the mighty Persian war machine. In its original form the 8 meter (26 foot tall) column consisted of three mighty snakes coiled together. On top of their bronze heads was a sacrificial tripod made of solid gold. During the Third Sacred War (356 BC–346 BC), the Phocian general, Philomelus, plundered the golden tripod and used the gold to pay for mercenaries (an act which was regarded as deepest sacrilege by the Greeks).

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

The last known serpent head missing the jaw (Greek, ca. 378 BC, Bronze)

When Constantine the Great declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, he ordered that the column be removed from Delphos and relocated in the new capital city. The Serpent Column was placed at the center of the city’s great Hippodrome (chariot-racing track) among other famous statues of gods, kings, and heroes. Eventually the column was converted into a magnificent fountain and the missing gold tripod was replaced with a huge golden bowl. During the misbegotten fourth Crusade, when excommunicated French knights sacked Byzantium as they tried to get to Cairo, the gold bowl was carried off.

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

An Ottoman Miniature Painting of the Column

Sometime in the seventeenth century the three serpent heads which had topped the column for countless centuries fell off. Some sources contend that they were removed by an extremely drunken Polish ambassador, but more reliable Ottoman sources assert that they simply toppled off the statue. One serpent head still remains in existence in a Turkish museum. The column itself is still where it has been since the time of Constantine the Great, although the Hippodrome is largely gone and has been replaced by a square named Sultanahmet Meydani.

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

The actual Serpent Column as it stands in Istanbul today (with the obelisk of Thutmose III behind)

An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

Today (August 8) is International Cat Day, a holiday which honors our beloved feline friends. The domestic cat descended from the African Wild Desert Cat in the depths of prehistory and has been revered (though not universally) ever since. Cats have been portrayed both as gods and as monsters by artists. They represent beauty, grace, friendship, happiness, and love. They represent bad luck, witchcraft, endless hunger, and cruelty. Humans cannot get enough of our bewhiskered predatory friends and their odd dual natures. Additionally, cats dominate the worldwide web–the hive mind conglomerate which has become so central to human activity (and upon which you are presumably reading this post).

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

I am personally celebrating International Cat Day with a rabbit fur mouse for Sepia Cat–my beloved middle aged tabby who sleeps purring on my legs (when she is not committing war crimes against mice). To celebrate on this blog, however, I am giving you a whimsical gallery of cat/fish hybrids which artists draw as puns to represent the siluridae. When I was a child I loved these kinds of endearing mixed animal cartoons (and they deeply influenced the Zoomorphs—a line of mix-and-match animal toys I designed). I hope you enjoy the chimerical fun—but more than that, I hope you are especially nice to your catfriends on this, their special day!

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Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

 

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

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Felix the Catfish

Felix the Catfish

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A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

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The carrot (Daucus carota sativus) has been in cultivation at least since classical antiquity (although Roman sources sometimes seemingly confuse the root vegetable with its close cousin, the parsnip). However don’t imagine toga-clad Romans walking around the Forum chewing on bright orange carrots like Bugs Bunny! In Classical antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, carrots were purple or white. It was not until the 16th century that far-sighted Dutch farmers stumbled upon a mutant orange carrot and hybridized it with other varieties to begin the now-familiar tradition of all orange carrots. It is said that the orange carrots were chosen not just for their patriotic Netherlandish color (the princely Dutch House of Orange was leading a revolt against the Spanish) but also because they were sweeter and milder than the ancient white and purple cultivars.

 

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

Apparently all humans (with our tastes skewed toward a primate color palate) like the color orange better. Despite the fact that other colors of the tasty root dominated the market for two thousand years, orange carrots have now thoroughly supplanted the old varieties. Even in diverse New York, you would have to go to an esoteric farmer’s market or a specialty shop like Dean & Deluca to maybe dredge up some purple carrots. However seed catalogs still sell them–so if you want to eat like a healthy Roman grandee (assuming grandees even ate carrots), you can always grow your own.  Additionally, it looks like health food aficionados have become convinced that purple carrots contain anti-oxidants, so maybe the color pendulum is about to swing back the other direction…

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Artist's Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Artist’s Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Devoted readers have most likely been fretting and worrying about what happened to the ESA spacecraft Rosetta which Ferrebeekeeper wrote about back in January. In that article, I wrote that the spacecraft was meant to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May—but that never happened. What’s the story? Did something go wrong?

Fortunately today’s space news is good: after a ten-year chase which has spanned back and forth across the solar system, the little spacecraft finally entered orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet and the spacecraft are currently about 405 million kilometers from Earth (which puts them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). It turns out that May was actually the date that pre-orbit maneuvers were first commenced—it has taken three months to bring the spacecraft into proper position for orbital insertion. I’m sorry I got your hopes up prematurely, but this is a good illustration of how delicately operations must be conducted when dealing with objects going 55,000 kilometers per hour (34,000 miles per hour).

 

 An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)


An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)

The probe has already taken some amazing pictures of the comet which has two distinct masses joined together by a narrow neck—rather like a rubber duck. We can expect even more stunning pictures of the weird icy surface of the comet as the probe edges nearer to the big dirty snowball over the next few months. The real excitement will(probably) take place in November which is when the probe Philae is tentatively scheduled to launch. Philae is a comet lander which looks curiously like a bacteriophage. It will shoot harpoons into the comet and then fasten down onto the surface to study the origins of the solar system! Get ready for a thrilling fall!

Artist's impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet's surface

Artist’s impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet’s surface

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

If you have been keeping your eyes on the internet lately you have probably seen the shimmering tapestry of pink, purple, red, and white blossoms which is the “tree of forty fruits”. This is a stone-fruit tree which has been agonizingly grafted together out of numerous branches from heritage peach, apricot, plum, apple, quince, cherry and other rose-family fruit trees into a frilly pink Frankenstein of a fruit tree. The root stock is a hardy plum tree to which the other stocks are added one by one. The effect is simultaneously garish and beautiful—particularly in blossom season (though it must be impressive to see the tree in early fall when it is laden with heterogenous fruits).

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The tree of forty fruits seems like it might have been designed by a mad scientist, a huge biotech corporation, or a high-minded super-villain (like Poison Ivy or someone), but it was actually the creation of an art professor, Sam Van Aken. Van Aken gre up in rural Pennsylvania and he wanted to save the vanishing heirloom fruits of his youth. In an article about his project in Epicurious, Van Aken explained why he is working to safeguard these classic fruits, “In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing,” To him the number forty has a talismanic quality which represents superabundance. He has already created 16 of the intricately grafted trees and he dreams of spreading them around the country and perhaps the globe.

Akkadian01

The tree of forty fruits is a living sculpture—a bizarre amalgam of trees, agriculture, and diligent manual artistry. It isn’t just a splicing together of different tree species, it is a hybridization of ancient fundamental human pursuits. If you told the nurserymen and sculptors of Babylon that we would live in a world with such a tree, they would applaud. So should we!

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Have you ever wondered about how deep humankind is capable of digging into the planet? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to answer this question with vast drilling projects. These two drilling operations were opposite but strangely complimentary. The United States tried to drill through the oceanic crust to reach the Earth’s mantle through an oceanic tectonic plate (which are much thinner than continental plates, but made of dense basalt). The Soviets attempted to drill through a continental plate–which are massively thick but not nearly as dense as oceanic plates (and not underneath thousands of feet of water!). Each operation failed due to the nature of geophysical reality and to the particular weaknesses of the respective nations. In the United States, the project was abandoned because of a lack of funding caused by congressional intransigence and general scientific apathy. The Soviet project was set aside because society collapsed and the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The American project was an outright attempt to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the line which separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle. The discontinuity is named after a Croatian geophysicist—and the project took its name from him as well when it came to be known as “the Mohole”. Various boreholes were sunk into the oceanic crust off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The deepest drill hole reached 183 m (600 feet) below the sea floor—which was already beneath 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) of seawater. Yet the oceanic crust is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) thick, so the project was still far from achieving its goal. The Mohole project was plagued by mismanagement, underfunding, and incongruities between the government, scientific, and private institutions which were working together. Yet it was the first time dynamic positioning technology was used for deep sea drilling—today this technology is critical to offshore oil projects. Additionally scientist learned more about the composition of oceanic plates. Unfortunately the project was canceled in 1967.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Soviet team began drilling began on 24 May, 1970. They chose to drill on the Kola Peninsula, which juts into the Arctic Circle between the Barents Sea and the White Sea (and is a sort of sinister eastern mirror to the great Scandinavian nations). The Soviet scientists and technicians were trying to drill through the Baltic continental crust which is estimated to be 35 kilometers (22 miles) in thickness. For decades, they worked on this project, sinking new holes as extant drillings became broken, collapsed, or unviable. The deepest they managed to drill was 12,262 metres (40,230 ft)—about a third of the distance through the continental plate. This remains the deepest drill hole in human history–although today there are a few boreholes which are longer than this (however they are not deeper–such super-long drillings are generally horizontal or diagonal for the specialized purposes of oil drilling). The Kola borehole project also produced useful and unexpected results. At the maximum depths which the drill bore reached, temperatures were much higher than expected and there was a great deal more water in the continental rock. The core samples from the drilling reached all the way through Earth’s geological history back to rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) although these were distorted by heat and pressure. Additionally the mud which came from the hole was described as boiling with hydrogen. As we dig into the underworld things get stranger and stranger! Sadly, the project was abandoned and the works are now a deserted ruin in the grim chaos of Putin’s Russia.

 

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

A perspicacious reader will note that we never actually got anywhere close to the Earth’s mantle with either of these projects. Geologists, geophysicists, and drilling engineers learned much from the attempts, but the fundamental questions about the Earth’s crust and mantle which lead to the two missions remain unanswered. All we know about the Earth’s mantle comes from the reading of various sorts of waves which pass through the Earth—not from direct observation. The only rocks we have seen from the mantle are strange xenoliths which became caught up in esoteric igneous events and traveled as tiny crystals from the mantle to the surface through volcanoes or basaltic flows. Fortunately the world’s scientists are putting together a new mission–the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to try again to reach the Earth’s mantle by penetrating the oceanic crust. This mission is being organized and funded mostly by the Japanese and the NSF (although there are a number of other contributing members and associate members). The Japanese in particular regard it as their premier scientific mission. Hopefully they can use today’s greatly advanced drilling technology to improve on the abortive attempts of the Americans and Soviets to pierce the crust of the planet.

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Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Altair (bottom left) and Deneb (middle right)

Vega is the second brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. It is more than twice the size of the sun and it is “only” 25 light years away. Altair is the head of the eagle constellation Aquila—it is the twelfth brightest star visible from Earth. In the West, the two brilliant stars form two of the vertices of the summer triangle. In China, these stars are known by different names—Vega is Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Altair is known as Niulang, the cowherd. They are the subjects of a sad love story which is at least 2600 years old.

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

The Celestial Weavergirl Zhinü

Zhinü was a beautiful celestial maiden tasked with weaving the flowing colored clouds of heaven. This chore was onerous to the vivacious young goddess so she ran away to earth to look for fun. There she found a handsome young mortal Niulang, a hard-working orphan who made his living as a cowherd. The two fell madly in love and were married in secret. The mixed marriage was very happy: Zhinü was a good wife and Niulang was a doting husband. They had two children and the family loved each other deeply. Unfortunately, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven—a principal sky deity—noticed that her celestial abode did not have nearly enough elaborately ornate clouds. Upon looking into the matter, the Queen Mother was utterly scandalized that a celestial being was married to a mortal—and a mere cowherd, no less. The sky queen used her divine power to lift Zhinü back into the heavens where the lesser goddess was sent back to her cloud weaving.

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Niulang was devastated that his wife had vanished. He searched high and low, but could find her nowhere on Earth. Finally the cows he had tended so dutifully took pity on him. His finest ox, a magic spirit beast, said “The Queen Mother of the West has taken Zhinü to heaven. Kill me and put my hide around yourself and your children. Then you may ascend to heaven to look for your dear wife.” Weeping, Niulang slew his faithful ox. When he wrapped the hide of the loyal animal around himself and his children, they transcended earth and flew up into the stars. The family was again united and Zhinü and Niulang covered each other in kisses.

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

Queen Mother of the Western Heaven by artist Liang Yuanjiang

When she heard about mortals entering heaven, the Queen Mother of Western Heaven became even more infuriated. She hurled the couple apart from each other, and used her long sharp nails to gouge out a river in the middle of the night sky—the Milky Way (which is known as “the Celestial River” in China). Love be damned–social stratification and rigid hierarchy is the iron will of the gods of China!

QiXiFestival

Yet, once again, animals took pity on the couple. Every year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, all of the magpies in China fly up into heaven and form a bridge across the Milky Way so that the lovers can be together. For one day, Zhinü gets to see her beloved husband and her children (who are the stars Auilae β and γ–or Hè Gu 1 and Hè Gu 3, to use their Chinese names). Lovers and couples across all of China celebrate the day with the Qixi festival–a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (or maybe I should say that the other way around, since Qixi is older, better and makes more sense). The holiday is celebrating with festoons, weaving, and needlework competitions. Romantic gifts are given. Maidens and newly-wed women offer face powder and cosmetics to Zhinü by throwing them up on the roof. In the evening, there is much romantic star-gazing at Vega and Altair and of course there is canoodling and physical intimacy. This year, the year of the horse, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month corresponds to August 2nd–tomorrow! Dear readers, may the stars shine bright on your romances. May you savor summer with someone special and never know the enmity of the gods! Happy Qixi Festival!

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Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

As paint manufacturers know, there is poetry to the names of colors which influences the way that people respond to said colors. Sadly, the newer names invented by sundry marketers, “taste-makers”, business people, and other such scallywags are often not as euphonic to my ear as the old classic names (although the people at Crayola are pretty good at coming up with jaunty color names which have a whisper of classic beauty). Of course this renaming/rebranding convention has been ongoing ever since the dawn of language. Some of the renaming debacles from past eras are as egregious as the most laughable names from the decorator paint samples at the hardware store. For example, during the Victorian era, an extremely popular color was a dusky shade of pink known as “ashes of roses” (I have included examples of the color at the top and bottom of this post). As the Edwardian era dawned, someone evidently thought that the name was too long and lugubrious—so the color was rechristened with the vastly less evocative name “old rose.” What a fall from grace! Everyone knows that Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But I feel that sometimes the names of things do indeed diminish them. Would ashes of rose be as pretty if it were called “old rose” like someone talking in hushed tones about their spinster great-aunt?

"Old Rose"

“Old Rose”

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Masami Teraoka is a Japanese-born artist who addresses contemporary issues and mores with ancient Ukiyo-e artistic style. The results of this fusion are not only visually stunning but frequently droll & ridiculous as well. Here is a mixed woodcut/etching print titled “Catfish Envy” which has been hand-tinted by the artist. A risible middle aged samurai is trying to snorkel his way up to a contemporary international femme fatale who, in turn, is embracing a wily catfish. The young woman seems contemptuous of the old fashioned warrior–who looks quite out of breath and rattled. The catfish is an enigma, but he seems to have shades of the mythical Namazu–the earthquake-causing catfish god who lives beneath Japan (and who sometimes represents wealth caused by corruption). There is something distinctly nouveau riche and jaded about that catfish. The beautiful lady snorkeler has a disdainful and mercenary light in her eyes. Even the tradition-bound samurai seems like he might be a bit lecherous and silly (although we sense that the lecherous, silly, tradition-bound printmaker sympathizes with him). The juxtaposition of the centuries-old technique, the old-school sexual/class moralizing, and the modern sporting equipment earns this print a place of high distinction in the annals of catfish-themed art (even if it might be somewhat lacking in egalitarian humanist values).

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