As we drift towards the darkest night of the year, it is an ideal time to check out some dark and troubling artwork. This is a painting by the contemporary artist Christopher Ulrich, a painter who creates fractured fables out of traditional religious iconography. In this work “Resurrection”, the world is entering the final apocalypse. A heavenly paladin fights the great dragon in the background as vast mythical beasts fill up the sky. Lightning crackles from their eyes as the world is remade. Naturally, the end of times is when the devout are resurrected in the flesh, and the savior passes through the world granting bodies to the devout. In the midst of terrible chaos, he stands beneath a proud lighthouse and dispenses miraculous rebirth while a lambent mother goddess stands at his side and helps him in his task. Of course the end of the world offers some surprises for everyone, and the deity of resurrection does look a trifle different than one might imagine, but coming back to physical life after the body has disintegrated (as the world tumbles down, no less) has always been a chancy proposition anyway.
Celadon is a lovely muted shade of pale green which became famous as a porcelain glaze long ago in ancient dynastic China. Although the technique for making the glaze was invented during the Tang dynasty, the zenith of celadon porcelain making was attained during the Sung dynasty when so many of the aesthetic conventions of Chinese culture came into flower.
The perfect serenity of well-made celadon vessels has been compared to Buddhist enlightenment. Additionally, according to ancient folklore, celadon serviceware and drinking vessels would change color in the presence of poison. Sadly this latter fact is an outright myth, however if the lie resulted in more celadon being produced then perhaps it was worth a few surprised dead Chinese nobles. Celadon porcelain is magnificent.
Earth is the only known home of life. For all of humankind’s aspirations and ambitions, we have only succeeded in walking on one other celestial body and putting a few people, rats, and ant colonies in some leaky tin cans in low Earth orbit (I’m sorry to be so brutally honest about Skylab, Mir, and ISS). This is deeply troubling since I believe humankind can only survive and redeem itself by moving into the heavens (although some of my cynical friends worry that we will only be exporting humankind’s problems and appetites wherever we go). Whatever the case, we are not moving very quickly towards the skies. Political gridlock, greed, and a lack of engineering and imagination have kept us from making any real progress at space-steading. So far we have proven to be maladroit stewards who are incapable of bearing life’s luminous seed into space (although we are amassing a nifty robot fleet around the solar system, and, despite our many flaws, we keep learning).
This is why I was so excited to see the most recent space exploration news: NASA recently announced that they are teaming up with the mad moguls of Google in a project to grow crops on the moon! The space agency is constructing a tiny (approximately 1 kilogram) capsule to grow a handful of plants on the lunar surface. The little growth capsule with its cargo of air water and seeds will be dropped off on the moon by the Moon Express (a lunar vehicle built by Google in hopes of obtaining the lunar X Prize).
The initial project will not exactly provide much produce for a lunar greengrocer. An online article by James Plafke describes the contents of the lunar garden canister, “Currently, the chamber can support 10 basil seeds, 10 turnip seeds, and around 100 Arabidopsis seeds. It also holds the bit of water that initiates the germination process, and uses the natural sunlight that reaches the moon to support the plant life.”
Arabidopsis is not exactly a favorite at the supermarket, but it was the first plant to be genetically sequenced and it is used in biology labs everywhere a model organism. In a pinch though, the basil and turnips might be good for some sort of impromptu Italian farm dish. NASA will monitor the seed growth and development from Earth with an eye on how lunar gravity and radiation levels impact the germinating seeds and the growing plants. Admittedly the microfarm is a small step towards colonies beyond Earth, but at least it is a step (and frankly the beginnings of agriculture here on Earth were similarly small and incremental). Or, who knows? Maybe the turnips will climb out of the canister and start dragging their knuckles along the lunar plains and throwing rocks at the Chinese landers.
As a whole, snakes are among the most colorful of animals, but some of these slithering reptiles elevate this characteristic to an entirely new level. Allow me to present Diadophis punctatus regalis, the regal ringneck snake. Indigenous to the desert southwest of North America, this snake is a more magnificently colored subspecies of the widely distributed ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). The regal ringneck snake is a charming shade of shiny blue-gray with a yellow clergyman’s collar and a jet black head—a color palette which would certainly get a person noticed at Delmonico’s but which hardly seems exceptional in an order of animals which includes parti-color beauties like the coral snake, the milk snake, and the paradise tree snake. But initial appearances can be deceptive! If the regal ringneck coral snake is threatened, it will roll over on its back and expose a belly which comes from the most lurid tropical dream of the nineteen-eighties.
The regal ringneck snake is a moderate-sized snake which measures from 20 to 80 cm (8 to 34 inches) in length and makes its home in the mountains which loom above the southwest deserts of the United States (and which stretch down into Northern Mexico). Expert hunters, these snakes are ophiophagous—they live almost entirely on a diet of smaller snakes. Since snakes are very fast and can slip into almost any space or climb almost any obstacle, the regal ringneck snake uses venom to slow down its elusive smaller cousins so it can devour them.
The regal ringneck snakes venom is effective on smaller snakes but has no impact on humans or animals large enough to prey on the snake. The bright orange and yellow belly display instead warns of another threat—like a skunk, these snakes can squirt an unpleasant musty secretion onto creatures which harass them. If you come across a regal ringneck snake showing off his splendiferous belly, it might be wise to leave him alone!
The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across). Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?
It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time. Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast). As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships. The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America. So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating. However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.
Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean). Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs. Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).
Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders? Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass? Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)? Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).
Today we feature a short post about ink…among other things. The other night I rediscovered my old dip pens and I was doing some doodling (more about that later). It reminded me of how wonderful dip pens, quills, and fountain pens really are. I did some online research and I found a contemporary ink company called “Noodler’s Ink” which is an American company which specializes in fancy inks and pigments for specialty pens. The reason this belongs on this blog is that they are obsessed with catfish—which feature heavily on their marketing and promotional material. Here are some of the endearing and whimsical catfish drawings which Noodler’s puts on their bottles and boxes of ink.
Noodling is a sort of loose word which can be used to describe doodling, but it is also a traditional southern method of fishing for catfish where the angler uses his or her fingers as a lure. The intrepid fisherperson reaches into promising holes and pits in the bottom of the waterway and wiggles his fingers provocatively in hopes that a catfish will mistake them for some sort of prey. If the catfish bites the angler’s hand he then uses brute strength to wrestle the fish bodily from the water. Below is a picture of a Lucy Millsap, a professional (?) noodler landing a monstrous flathead catfish. It sounds like an interesting sport I guess, but I think I’ll stick to noodlin’ with paper and ink.
As the winter solstice approaches, the deciduous trees are bare. My back yard is a desolation of fallen leaves, dead chrysanthemums, and scraggly ornamental cabbages. Yet in the winter ruins of the garden, one tree glistens with color: its shiny dark green leaves and gorgeous red berries have made it an emblem of the season since time immemorial. The tree is Ilex aquifolium, also known as the common holly (or English holly). The small trees grow in the understory of oak and beech forests of Europe and western Asia where they can grow up to 25 meters (75 feet) tall and live for half a millennium (although most specimens are much smaller and do not live so long). Hollies are famous not just for their robust good looks but also for their sharpened leaves which literally make them a pain to care for. The wood is a lovely ivory color and is fine for carving and tooling (in fact Harry Potter’s wand was made of holly wood in the popular children’s fantasy novels).
Holly was long worshiped by Celts and Vikings before its winter hardiness and blood-red berries made it emblematic for the resurrection of Christ. Yet even before there were any people in Europe the holly was a mainstay of the great laurel forests of Cenozoic Europe. The genus ilex is the sole remaining genus of the family Aquifoliaceae which were incredibly successful in the hot wet climates of the Eocene and Oligocene. The semi-tropical forests began to die out during the great dry period of the Pliocene and were almost entirely finished off by the Pleistocene Ice Ages, yet the holly survived and adapted as the other plants vanished. Today there are nearly 500 species of holly. In addition to the well-known common holly which is so very emblematic of Christmastime, there are tropical and subtropical hollies growing around the world. There are hollies which are evergreen and hollies which are deciduous. Even if they are not as common as they were when the Earth was hotter and wetter, they are one of the great success stories among flowering plants.
Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week. Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity. By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path. The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.
Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow. All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge. Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.
The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth. Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago! Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast. The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis. As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner. This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains. There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things. Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.
But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate. It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos). Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era. As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).
Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life. As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel. The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves. Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).
Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine. Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture). The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.
The world is a strange place filled with astonishing and bizarre animals. Among the strangest creatures are those which are transparent*—animals which barely seem to be there because the tissues that make up their bodies are permeable to light. There are transparent catfish, transparent insects, transparent crustaceans, and even transparent frogs (to say nothing of cnidarians, the majority of which are transparent!). Today’s post however concerns transparent mollusks. In addition to having transparent bodies some of these incredible invertebrates have transparent shells, can invert their bodies, or can glow. Check them out:
The Glass Squid (Teuthowenia pellucida) also known as the googly-eyed glass squid lives throughout the oceans of the southern hemisphere. The creature is about 200 millimeters (8 inches) long and has light organs on its eyes. Although transparent it has a bluish cast and it possesses the ability to roll into a ball or to inflate itself. These tricks do not always work and the little squid is frequently eaten by weird deep-sea fish and sharks.
Recently discovered in a huge cave system in Croatia, Zospeum tholussum, is a small delicate snail with a transparent shell.
This pterotracheid heteropod mollusk is a member of the Carinaria genus. It lives in the open ocean and flaps through the water scooping up plankton in a modified snail foot. Just as its snail foot has changed into a swimming/harvesting organ, the mollusk’s shell has shrunk into near nonexistence.
Vitrelladonella Richardi is a deepwater pelagic octopus found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. The little octopus only measures 80cm (2.6ft) in length. Like many of these almost invisible mollusks very little is known about how it lives, but it is certainly beautiful in a very alien and otherworldly way.
*The author of this opinion piece is opaque. His opinion may not represent the larger community of organisms.