A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

A pair of Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) at Antwerp Zoo

Behold the majestic Congo peafowl Afropavo congensis! This attractive bird is the only member of its genus. It seems to share characteristics with both the famous Indian peafowl and the guinea fowl—so perhaps it is a link between the two respective families. Male Congo peacocks grow up to 64–70 cm (25–28 in) in length and are brilliantly colored. Females are smaller and have duller plumage.

 

Look at that crown!

Look at that crown!

Congo peafowl are omnivores: they feed on fruits, berries and seeds as well as hunting invertebrates such as insects and sundry other arthropods. Both males and females have lovely but chaotic feather crowns. The birds are found only in central lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and they are the national bird of that country.

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Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

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The Congo River is the world’s second largest river by volume of water discharged (which seems like the most worthwhile measure of a river). Portions of its watershed are both north and south of the equator—which ensures that some part will always be experiencing a rainy season. The Congo River flows through the world’s second largest rainforest, and, as you would expect, the waterway teems with exquisite animals of multitudinous variety. There are aquatic mammals, many different sorts of crocodilians, turtles, frogs, snakes, mollusks, insects, crustaceans, and there are fish fish fish! The piscine variety is staggering: stingrays, carp, cichlids, pufferfish, African tetras, and the highly predatory giant tigerfish. There are also some bizarre blind deep water fish—because the Congo is the world’s deepest river (with depths of at least 220 m (720 ft)).

A few Congo River Fish

A few Congo River Fish

Ferrebeekeeper has always been devoted to catfish which thrive everywhere other than the deep ocean or the arctic. Indeed there are all sorts of catfish in the Congo River—particularly squeakers (AKA upside-down catfish). However, as a special treat, let’s take a break from catfish and talk about an entirely different fish—the freshwater elephant fish (the Mormyridae family from the order Osteoglossiformes). According to the World Wildlife Fund, Elephant fish are the dominant fish fauna in the Congo River. And they are downright strange in so many ways.

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

Campylomormyrus rhynchophorus

As you might surmise, elephant fishes earned their common name from their long trunk-like mouths (although this feature is certainly not universal among the 200 plus different varieties). Different species vary greatly in size: the smallest elephant fish are only 5 cm (2 inch) when they reach adulthood whereas the largest grow to 1.9 meters (4.5 feet) in length. Like the electrical catfish and ghost knife fish of the Amazon, the elephant fish have electroreceptive sensory organs. These generate an electrical field and “read” the field so the fish can sense the world (and especially other living things) very clearly even in the murkiest waters and in complete darkness.

 (Image: Carl Hopkin)

(Image: Carl Hopkin)

Elephant fish are extremely intelligent fish with a greatly enlarged cerebellum. In fact the fish have a brain body ratio which is approximately the same as humans (although it seems that they use much of their mental power to operate their electrical sensory organs and interpret the electrical data). In humans, the cerebellum controls movement, motor control, and language so it is speculated that elephant fish may have greater abilities to communicate with each other than we currently understand.

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Campylomormyrus alces (from aquaria2.ru)

Oh, also the elephant fish (and their closest relatives the African knife fish) are unique in that their sperm lack flagellums. Of all vertebrates—from turkey to megabat to axolotl–these strange African fish are the only chordates not to have motile sperm. I wish I could tell you more about that business, but I cannot (and researching it on Google has not made me happier or wiser).

 

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

Genyomyrus donnyi (George Albert Boulenger)

I have tried to show some elephant fish which are endemic to the Congo River, but, alas, I am not an ichthyologist (although that might have been a good career choice) so I may have messed up. Hopefully these photos at least provide some small overview of this incredible family. Humankind needs to learn more about these splendid clever African fish which are so prevalent in the turbid waters of the great tropical river.

Mormyrops anguilloides

Mormyrops anguilloides

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

southern_africa_political-map

Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ah glorious summer is here, a time for reflection and relaxation when a person can kick back and…think about really beautifully colored parasitoid wasps. This is the ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) which lives in Western Europe and Great Britain. Although the wasp has a long stinger, it has no sting, so people who are afraid of bees and hornets can stop shuddering and enjoy the lovely iridescent blue-greens and purples of this jaunty little wasp. When the ruby-tailed Wasp is feeling alarmed, frightened, or just plain overwhelmed by modern life, it can curl into a protective ball. Although these wasps are very pretty, their behavior is less than beautiful–for they are a sort of cuckoo wasp. They find the nest of their hosts (ruby tailed wasps parasitize masonry bees) and lay their own eggs among the eggs of their victims. The different clutches of eggs hatch at the same time and the wasp larvae devour the bee larvae before morphing into adult insects. So, like nature itself, the ruby-tailed wasp is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too...

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too…

 

 

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

My favorite demiurge is the Chinese snake goddess Nüwa. Nüwa tends to be portrayed as a beneficent creator who loves humankind and goes out of her way to protect them (while modestly shunning the worship craved by lesser deities). There is, however, a scene in Chinese mythological literature where a presumptuous human manages to rile up the usually gentle goddess. In the Ming dynasty era epic Fengshen Yanyi (AKA “The Investiture of the Gods”) the last Shang ruler King Zhou, a legendary debauched ruler, visits the temple of Nüwa to ask for her blessing. The sybaritic king sees a pulchritudinous statue of the great goddess and makes extremely inappropriate remarks about her charms before defacing the temple with obscene poetry/graffiti. In response, Nüwa sets aside her traditional compassion and decrees that King Zhou will be the last ruler of the Shang kingdom. To make her pronouncement come true, Nüwa sends three spirits to destroy the king: a thousand-year old white vixen, a nine-headed phoenix, and a jade pipa. Each spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman and soon they are destroying the king and his empire with erotic wiles and the darkest treachery! I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tale for you, but perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that things go downhill for King Zhou… The moral of the story is to respect Nüwa, the mother goddess of humankind and maybe also beware if numerous supernaturally beautiful women are suddenly throwing themselves at you.

Chinese Fox Spirit

Chinese Fox Spirit

Nine-headed Phoenix

Nine-headed Phoenix

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

 

A Citrine (gemstone)

A Citrine (gemstone)

Citrine is the name of a deep rich golden yellow. It has been a color name in English since the 14th century (and it was the name for the same color in Medieval Latin—and before that in classical Latin). The word “citrine” also describes a gemstone which consists of yellow colored quartz crystal. Citrines are a semi-precious stone today, but they were once valuable and they can be found in various ancient crowns and classical jewelry. The word originally came from the deep yellow color of the citron, the wild ancestor of the lemon (which is a sacred fruit of the Old Testament), and because it is so descriptive of rich yellow it is used for the English name of numerous different birds and other creatures (like the citrine forktail below).

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

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