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The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish. Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds). Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays. Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!
Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent). Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans. Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species. Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs: for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.
Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish! Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays. Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him. They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs. Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.
Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once. Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers. When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!
Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population. Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.
Today is Mardi Gras, the hedonistic final day of the carnival season! Tomorrow, practicing Catholics take up the austere self-privations of the Lent, but today is given over to parties and spectacle.
Every year, I vow to go down to New Orleans and look for exiguously clad replacements to the smoldering Delta flame of yesteryear, but every year I end up in some gray northern office celebrating with nothing more than an unhealthy sandwich and a stack of paperwork. This year…well the same thing happened, but at least I can celebrate the flamboyant colors of Mardi Gras–green, gold, and purple.
The official colors of Mardi Gras go back a long way. It has been claimed that the colors were chosen in 1872 by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanov, a naval officer who was on a goodwill tour of America–although it is possible that the Grand Duke, a famous bon vivant, was instead trying to describe and order a cocktail made of lemon, lime, and purple bitters (a reliable history of carnival is obscured by the mists of time and a generous fog of alcohol). In 1892, Rex, the ceremonial king of carnival, ascribed a symbolic virtue to each color and equated them with Christian holy days. Purple represents Justice (and Lent). Gold stands for power (and Easter). Green is symbolic of faith (and Epiphany).
Since those days the colors have become more and more pervasive and now they can be found festooned everywhere. The beads, toys, and false coins thrown from parade floats are frequently green, gold, and purple, as are many masks, costumes, decorations, and promotional materials/goods. The lurid colors allude obliquely to royalty and many Mardi Gras objects are additionally decorated with crowns and fleurs de lis.
Whatever the historical or symbolic significance of the colors, I can’t help but notice their similarity to the colors of spring’s first crocuses which begin to pop up at the end of winter (especially during warm winters like this). Like the bright Kelly green of Saint Patrick’s day, the gold, purple, and green of Mardi Gras always remind me that the seasons are changing for the better and the verdancy and fecundity of spring is right around the corner.
I have a book deal! Well sort of anyway… I have been contracted to create 75 craft projects out of recycled materials (aka common household rubbish). These projects are themed around “things that go” and will ultimately be incorporated by gifted editors into a project book for dexterous and clever children (and others). I’ll keep you updated on the publishing progress of this project. Wish me luck with my crafting!
In the real world what this means is that I have been spending a lot of time affixing cardboard and wooden wheels to myself with a hot glue gun (I suspect the dexterous children will be deft enough to avoid such burns and the clever ones will use a less molten adhesive). It also means I have been spending a great deal of time looking at illustrations of cars and other vehicles. When I was making some classic racecar models, I noticed that older racecars are almost always certain colors. I have noticed some of these relevant colors before on color lists which I have been consulting for my color topic: British racing green and bleu de France are particularly lovely colors that I contemplated writing about in the past.
As you could probably tell from the names, it turns out that these are national racing colors. In the era before commercial sponsorship completely took over every facet of automobile racing, national competition was a big part of the sport. In that era, which lasted from the 1900s up to the early 1970s, the nationality of the car or driver was denoted by standardized colors. The obvious colors which even casual racing fanciers know are British racing green for United Kingdom competitors, bleu de France for French competitors, rosso corsa (“racing red”) for Italian racers, white or silver for Germans, white with a red sun for the Japanese, and white with blue Cunningham stripes for Americans. Bleu de France was a traditional color for the livery of the kings of France since as early as the 12th century. Emperor Mommu used a flag of a red sun in his court in 701—hence the Japanese motif. Silver accurately reflects the German national character: although they originally used all white and maintained the rights to that scheme, an engineer realized that the car would weigh less with no paint and thereafter they left the shiny aluminum metalwork unpainted.
Italy apparently got to choose first–since bright red is a splendid color (also the Italian accounts of how this color was chosen are so…demonstrative…that I can’t figure out the truth).
The other colors are a bit more obscure and mysterious in origin. It turns out that British racing green—that quintessential elegant dark green which is eponymous with British-ness—came from a quirk of English law. The winner of the Gordon Bennet Cup, a prestigious early race named for a crazed industrialist, was expected to host the next year’s race. An English automobile had won the 1902 race from Paris to Innsbruck, but automobile racing was forbidden in England proper. The 1903 race was held in Ireland, and out of respect for this Irish surrogate, the English team chose a bright green. The color stuck, even though it darkened into a near black over the years.
The United States had two color schemes: white with blue racing stripes or blue with white racing stripes. This tradition was begun comparatively late by Briggs Cunningham, a racing aficionado (and evidently a lover of stripes) who wanted America to win the Le Mans race—an effort which proved to be a gallant failure.
Naturally the other nations of the world had their own racing colors as well (even if these did not always become as storied as rosso corsa or British racing green). The Cubans had an insectoid color combination of yellow with a black hood. The Hungarians raced cars which were white in front and green in back with red bonnets. Polish cars were the same as Polish flags: the top half was white and the bottom was red. Mexican cars were gold. Dutch cars were orange. A few nations which arrived late were stuck with very odd racing colors: like the Egyptians who raced in pale violet and the Brazilians who were stuck in pale yellow cars with green wheels. Here is a complete list of nations and colors.
Ironically, in the future, most cars will probably come from India and China–which never had racing colors and still seem to have none.
Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism. Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.” Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura). He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed. The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats. In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar. Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry. After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre. In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames. However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.
Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha. Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap. The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling. However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians
These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals. So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments. Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.