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Last spring my flower garden was sad. I planted a ton of daffodils, crocuses, tulips, and irises, but, thanks to squirrel depredations, I ended up with one mangled tulip of indefinite color (which was ripped apart by a squirrel the day after it bloomed). The squirrels in my part of Brooklyn are angry hungry monsters. Rap music and powerful Jamaican curries have desensitized them to noises and smells which would scare off lesser squirrels. No one traps or shoots them–so they do not fear the fell hand of man.
This year I have been desperately trying to keep my bulbs alive long enough to bloom properly. Every evening since mid-March you can see me out back throwing hot pepper and garlic powder on the garden like some maddened chef. I have spritzed an ocean of animal repellent on the little green buds. I have studded the garden with glittering mylar pinwheels and festooned it with scary helium balloons. Yet every day another bud is taken. The crocuses were all ripped up. In the end, I wonder if anything will actually blossom, or if it was all once again in vain.
However there is one exception to this story of attrition and doom! Yesterday the first flower bloomed in my back yard…and it was not at all what I was expecting. Primulaceae, the primroses are native to Europe from Norway south to Portugal and from the Atlantic coast east all the way to Asia Minor. Perhaps I should not be surprised that the primrose is first to bloom considering it lives wild in Norway, the land of polar bears, glaciers, and marauders. Most garden primroses have been heavily hybridized, but last year I bought a specimen which looked most like the common European primrose, Primula vulgaris, and it survived a whole year to bloom again! The flower has five beautiful butter yellow petals with center around a bright yellow eye.
I was hoping to provide some exciting primrose lore, but the humble flower does not seem to feature in many myths and legends. According to Wikipedia, it was Benjamin Disraeli’s favorite flower, so crafty parliamentarians should at least be drawn to this article. Anyway, spring is finally here so prepare for everything to get better.
Mountbatten pink is a color invented by and named after Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, and the last Royal viceroy of India. Mountbatten was a nobleman and a Royal Navy officer (as you could probably tell from his rank and title there). In 1940 he was escorting a convoy carrying vital war supplies, when he noticed that one ship would constantly vanish from vision at twilight. This phantom ship was still painted a strange grayish pink color from pre-war days. Mountbatten became convinced that the pink was an ideal camouflage color and he had all of the destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer flotilla painted in the same shade (which not surprisingly came to be identified with him).
Mountbatten pink was a mixture of medium gray with a small amount of Venetian red. The resultant neutral pink mimicked ocean and atmospheric colors of dawn and dusk. Additionally, the German navy used pink marker dye to identify their shells, so Mountbatten pink ships often threw off spotters who were unable to tell ship from clouds of smoke (at least according to some Naval historians). One cruiser, the HMS Kenya, was even nicknamed the Pink Lady because of its color and panache.
Other British captains also painted their ships in Mountbatten pink (or used it as a component of the dazzle camouflage) either because of its effectiveness as battle camouflage, or to suck up to Lord Mountbatten, or out of genuine fondness for the surprisingly attractive lavender-pink, however the color had a critical flaw which ultimately caused the Royal navy to abandon it. Although Mountbatten pink blended into the offing at dawn and dusk, it stood out against the ocean at midday. By 1942 the color was phased out for large ships (although some smaller ships still had the color for a while). Most photos and films of the day were black and white. Imagine that some of the grim British fighting ships engaged in life & death fire fights with the Germans were actually pink!
So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death. The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being. He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child. Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch. Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.
However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood. The Keres represented violent senseless death. They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities. The Keres were associated with the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it. Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments. When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood. Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:
The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind. The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat. The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”
The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon. Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition. Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed. However they were a part of classical thought. It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld. The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.
Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses. His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods). In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings. This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators. Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.
Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index. This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry. The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony. The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine. Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected. Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power. Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:
1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity. The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire). Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description. I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.
In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist. If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.
Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings. The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet. At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest. The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness. This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened. The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us. Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not. Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened? Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy? Are the angels resurrecting him? Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting: when is this happening? This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop). Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity? It certainly seems like it! In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning. An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts. Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.
There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown. I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find. There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls. These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.
Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs. The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.
Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic). Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern. The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).
Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color. The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator. Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.
Many of the most amazing historical crowns were destroyed during the tumultuous hurly-burly of history. This is a reproduction of the crown worn by the infamous Henry VIII, the powerful plus-sized king with many wives. The original was made either for Henry VIII or his father Henry VII and was worn by subsequent Tudor and Stuart monarchs up until it was broken apart & melted down at the Tower of London in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell (when the monarchy was abolished and replaced by the Protectorate). The original crown was made of solid gold and inset with various rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels, and pearls. After Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church, tiny enameled sculptures of four saints and the Madonna and child were added to emphasize the monarchy’s authority over the Church of England.
Although the reproduction was not made with solid gold or natural pearls (which would be prohibitively expensive) it was painstakingly crafted by master jewel smiths using period techniques. The jewelers were able to recreate the original crown in great detail because many paintings and descriptions are available, including the amazing picture of Charles I by Daniel Mytens above. Charles I lost his head and the crown with his obdurate insistence on the absolute authority of the monarch—a point of view which Cromwell sharply disputed.
This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out. Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above). However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld. Like her mother Demeter, Persephone was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.
Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring. When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again. The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.
The vernal equinox will be here in a few days. This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night. However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear). A few bulbs have already flowered: one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant. The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.
There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants. The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests. Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.
Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring. For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry. [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]
Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering. Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties. In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes). Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers). The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture. The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).