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The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches). Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.
The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee. The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is. Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.
Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets. The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring. A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure. Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion. When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter). Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide. Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process. However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.
While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years. There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.
So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design. Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem. This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood). It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!
The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash. Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down. Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely. Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside. Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans. The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants. Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.
Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine. Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.
Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?
Well no, not really. The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth. Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post). The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers). Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.
But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future. At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.
I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend. I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant). Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.
But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay. Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward. Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again. I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.
If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things. And of course happy new year to all of my readers!
[And as always--if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]
So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post. The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter). I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened. I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots. Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high. You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]
Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees. The tree is old and huge. It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.
Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era. Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility. The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees. Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees. Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.
Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan. A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties. Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals. Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.
As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard. It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood. All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.
I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud. I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys. Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.
The Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo, a third son from the royal dynasty of the neighboring Goguryeo kingdom. At the height of its power around 375 AD, Baekje was a powerful force in eastern Asia with colonies in parts of China, substantial sea power, and a strong alliance with Japanese rulers of the Kofun period. The Baekje kingdom’s territory stretched from the southern tip of Korea as far north as Pyongyang and included most of western Korea (ironically Korea was once divided along east/west lines). The state flourished until 660 AD when it fell to an alliance between the Tang Dynasty Chinese and the Korean Kindom of Silla (a conquest orchestrated by Emperor Gaozong, the son of our old friend Lǐ Shìmín).
I mention all of this, to explain the Geumjegwansik, a pair of two gold ornaments that were worn as a crown by King Muryeong, ruler of Baekje from AD 501 to AD 523. They were recovered in 1971 where they were discovered neatly stacked beside the dead king’s head inside his coffin. Today the two diadems are housed in Gongju National Museum (along with an identical pair found in the Queen’s coffin during the same excavation). They are cut out of plate gold a mere two millimeters in thickness and were attached to either side of a black silk cap like the one shown in the picture below. Resembling a mass of honeysuckle vines shaped into wings of flame, it is believed the diadems possessed a shamanistic magical significance. It is also possible they were influenced by Buddhist visual tradition which portrayed bodhisattvas with golden halos.
The crown is a pure example of Baekje craft, however the kingdom was famous for adopting many Chinese literary and artisitic influences which became melded into a unique creative tradition. The extremely close ties which the Kingdom of Baekje also maintained with Kofun Japan (during the era when the Japanese Imperial bloodlines and tradition were coming into being) has provided a continuing source of controversy. Baekje royalty resided in the Japanese royal court and, after the final collapse, emigrated to Japan. Speculation is rampant that a few Baekje bloodlines slipped into the composition of the Chrisanthemum throne.
The Wahpper’s website informs us that “ same artist that created “Wahpper” also created “Salem Sue” – the World’s Largest Holstein Cow in New Salem, North Dakota.”
Wow, what a folksy post!
Japan lies at the junction of four of the world’s great tectonic plates (including the three largest ones): the immense Pacific oceanic plate, the North American continental plate, the Eurasian continental plate, and the Philippine oceanic plate all intersect at or near the island nation. The continental plates wrench against each and smash the heavy basalt oceanic plates down into the depths of the planet. As this happens, Japan is wracked by earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.
Japan’s terrifying natural phenomena were not properly connected to these large scale movements of the lithosphere until the elegant plate tectonics paradigms of Arthur Holmes and Harry Hammond Hess became widely accepted (a fundamental breakthrough of planetary understanding which did not take place until the 1950’s and 1960’s!). Traditional Japanese mythology, however, has a surprisingly apt analogy. According to Shinto lore, the Japanese islands lie on top of an immense catfish, Namazu. Namazu is restrained by means of a huge rock controlled by the god Kashima (which seems like a reasonably good metaphor for the continental plates riding over the oceanic plates). Sometimes Kashima abandons his duties and the huge catfish’s struggles to escape cause particularly violent disasters.
Like many myths, the story of Namazu took on a political life of its own. During the late nineteenth century, because of a pun, the great catfish became conflated with the rapidly growing Meiji government bureaucracy. It was dangerous to make direct political statements in early industrial Japan and clever artists used fish as ambiguous stand-ins: bloated catfish could always be dismissed as harmless whimsy or traditional Shinto symbols. These Namazu-e woodblock prints are therefore peculiar and ambiguous in their own right. Sometimes the Namazu are the heroes who make the rich elite produce cash for the peasantry. Other times they crush all of the Japanese as they flounder. Still other pictures hearken back to ancient tradition and use the catfish to represent the horror of earthquakes and the capriciousness of the gods.
The Namazu has not disappeared in modern Japan. Bloated bureaucrats and terrible earthquakes still torment the islands. Fortunately Japan’s cult of the cute has come to the rescue and the great fish is less and less of an earthquake god and more of an endearing cartoon. In fact there is even a pokemon “Namazun” (bizarrely anglicized as “Whiscash”). I was going to tell you more about him but, for some reason, Whiscash’s Wiki page is vastly more complicated to understand than the pages concerning Shinto and plate tectonics.