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One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world. If one writes about the many sad or perplexing issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world? I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled. Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party. Sigh….
All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats. Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus. Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent. If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble
The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome. Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America. Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators). As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces. The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state. The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.
Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves). Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact. European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion. Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died. As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected. Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west. Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus). Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies. Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.
I personally love bats. I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits). Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat). A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.
This attitude is a big mistake.
Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening. Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests. Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.
Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine. Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests). Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.
An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss). So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money! Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus. Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this). Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone. Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry: the effect of a bat die off could be worse. But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us. If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.
On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion. Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death). The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.
In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era. Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy. Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity. Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.
Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints. The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles. Everything else, however points to their humanity. The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism). Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it. The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden. Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.
A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance. In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade. Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting. They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze. The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia. The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity. Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.
One of my favorite mawkish songs is “Cockles and Mussels.” Not only is it a stirring melodramatic ballad concerning the sad death of a young Irishwoman, it is probably the only known song to feature ghost mollusks! Let’s review the lyrics:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
“Alive, alive, oh,
Alive, alive, oh”,
Crying “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”.
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”
She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!
That seems pretty clear—the cockles and mussels travel beyond the grave with Molly and her ghost is left trying to sell their spirits in the variously sized thoroughfares of Ireland’s capital (even to me, that sounds like a futile business plan—who is the projected customer base here?). The harrowing supernatural drama reminds me that I need to add posts about cockles (which are tiny edible saltwater clams found on sandy beaches worldwide) and mussels to Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category.
Beyond her working connection to the vast phylum of mollusks, her sweetness, and her death, little is known concerning Molly Malone. This is ironic since the longstanding international success of the song has made her an unofficial mascot of Dublin and a mainstay of tourism there. Various amateur historians have unsuccessfully tried to link the song with a historical personage to no avail. It seems the ditty was created from imagination by a Scottish balladeer late in the nineteenth century and it was first published in the 1880s in America!
However the paucity of information has not stopped artists from portraying Molly (as is evident from the pictures dotted through this post). Even if the song was an invention there is a real sense of futility, heartbreak and loss to it. And just think of the poor ghostly shellfish spending eternity being hawked in the in-between neverworld of Dublintown.
In Greek mythology, King Oeneus of Calydon was one of the great mortal heroes of his day. Just as Demeter had taught Triptolemus the secrets of growing grain, Dionysus himself taught Oeneus the secrets of unsurpassed winemaking. The merry monarch brought grape culture and the vintner’s arts to all of Aetolia and he grew rich and beloved because of his teaching and his greatness at making wine. To this day “oenophiles” are people who love wine.
The monarch was even luckier in his family. He was married to Althea, a granddaughter of the gods who was said to be nearly as beautiful as her sister Leda, who drew the eye of Zeus himself. He had many sons and daughters: Deianeira (who wed Heracles), Meleager, Toxeus, Clymenus, Periphas, Agelaus, Thyreus (or Phereus or Pheres), Gorge, Eurymede, Mothone, Perimede and Melanippe. But of all these Oeneus’ eldest son Meleager stood out as the greatest hero of his era—a peerless spearman and warrior.
Meleager had nearly died in infancy. His mother Althea was spinning flax when she heard the three fates—the ancient and alien goddesses of all destiny– discussing the baby boy. Old Atropos had pulled out her scissors and was saying that as soon as the brand burning in the fireplace was consumed, the child’s life would end. Althea threw away her weaving and grabbed the blazing log out of fire. She smothered the blaze and hid the log away in a huge locked coffer. Thus Meleager grew into magnificent manhood.
King Oeneus loved the gods and he sacrificed generously to them, but he loved his wine and he drank generously too. One year as he sacrificed to the Olympians he forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt (who was not foremost on his mind anyway since he was a farmer and a wine maker). Alas, it was a terrible error. In her wrath the virgin huntress summoned the Calydonian boar, a descendant of the Crommyonian sow (which in turn was descended from Echidna herself). The immense boar ravaged the countryside. His tusks were huge like trees but sharp like razors and he impaled scores of Calydonian farmers along with their wives and children. He tore up the fields and ate the grape vines. The Corynthians huddled in their walled city and began to starve to death.
Oeneus sent Meleager out to gather the greatest heroes of the era for an epoch hunt and the spearman returned with the foremost fighting men of Greece. He also returned with a woman, the virgin Atalanta, who was beloved of Artemis and had been raised by she-bears. Atalanta could run faster and shoot better than any of her male peers. Her strength and beauty did not go unnoticed by Meleager, who began to pay court to her.
The hunt for the Calydonian boar was terrifying and bloody. Many heroes died under the creature’s iron hooves or upon its evil tusks. However, at last Atalanta shot a perfect arrow into a vulnerable spot in its bronze-like hide. Meleager followed up on the advantage and slew the great pig with his spear. Later, at the drunken feast, he presented the creature’s hide to Atalanta and he was on the verge of begging for her hand when his uncle and brother started a quarrel.
Arrogant and drunken, Meleager’s kinmen asserted that no virtuous woman would be hunting with men and that the shot was lucky anyway. Since everyone was drinking heavily of Oeneus’ fine wine (and since the guests were heavily armed) the quarrel flew out of control and, in the subsequent melee, Meleager slew both his own brother and his mother’s brother. In fury Althea rushed to her chambers and ripped the charred wood from its coffer. She ran back to the roaring bonfire where all the hunters and revelers were still stunned and hurled the brand into the fire where it was burned away in a moment leaving Meleander dead.
Thus was Artemis avenged on King Wine Man for slighting her in worship.
It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess. She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi. These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.
My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela. Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni. Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares). The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.
After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent. The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld. Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor. Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes. The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.
Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him. She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north. She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent. Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse. She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless. All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one. A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.
Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven. She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail. Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe. The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey. Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother. Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form. He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.
And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.
In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength. He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster. In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell). Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things. Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork. Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor. In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiang Yao.
Together Gong Gong and Xiang Yao brought about great destruction in the world. The tumult they unleashed killed countless people. But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven. They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south who fought with a great sword from the back of his tiger. Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright. Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven. Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky. The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse. Flood and fire swept earth. Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.
With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward. She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis. Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them. With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven. In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world. Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect. The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons. Even the North star was jarred from true north.
Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth. The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind. It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within. In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are thirty major characters and over four hundred minor characters in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages). The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos. From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines. The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien. And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth. Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone. He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw. Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life. I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is. I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.
When I was a child, I kept tropical fish. The first tank I had in my bedroom was an Amazon community tank where angelfish, neons, serpa tetras and hatchetfish lived in a little miniature paradise of plastic swordplants and petrified stone. Among the very first batch of fish I added to this tank were two adorable little masked Corydoras catfish. The Corydoras genus consists of over a hundred and fifty species of small friendly armored catfishes from South America. Corydoras means helmet-skin in Greek because these fish are armored catfish with two rows of bony plates running down their bodies (like the superfamily Loricarioidea). Most of the “cories” are only an inch or two in size.
These fish are popular with hobbyists because they are extremely endearing. They race around the tank in bursts and then root enthusiastically through sand and gravel (burying their bewhiskered snout to the level of their eyes). They like to have other cories for companions. Occasionally they dart to the top of the water for a little sip of air. Like most catfish, their fins have a leading spine for protection. Unfortunately when I got my two cories, one of the two fish freaked out and deployed his spine thereby injuring the other fish’s gills. It was very touching how the catfish which accidentally harmed its friend would hover near the hurt fish nudging him (or her) to eat and to swim up for sips of air. Unfortunately it was no good and there was no way I could help the tiny injured corydoras. After a few sad days, the poor catfish was the first fatality in my tropical tank. Death came quickly to my underwater paradise and would thereafter be a frequent guest. I was very upset. I buried the fish on a big hill in a little tiny cardboard box (according it an honor that few of my other fish ever received). It was the first of my many, many failures as an aquarium keeper, but it provided me with an abiding lesson about fish personality–which is more nuanced, deep, and likeable than most people suppose.
Once when I was on a long boring car ride from Rhode Island to New York, I began playing a hypothetical thought game with my friend Mike. I asked what sort of tree he would like to be. My old comrade did not respond by shouting out “purpleheart” or “bubinga” like a normal person, but rather, as is his wont, he asked a series of probing questions.
“Could I move around?” he asked.
“Of course not, you’re a tree,” I replied.
“Well, would I have the intellect of a tree?”
“No, you would have a human’s intellect and senses”
“Wait, could I do anything?”
“You could wave your arms–although it might be the breeze–and of course you could slowly grow…expand your roots deeper into the mountain, that sort of thing” I sagely relied. “I suppose you would be granted extremely long life though, unless you chose to be a…”
“Fie upon that!”* he interjected angrily. “I refuse to play your stupid game. I don’t want to be imprisoned for centuries in some sort of hell tree!”
So that was that. I still don’t know what kind of tree my friend would be (although, now that I think about it, that scenario does seem to be fairly dire). In hopes of enticing him to give me a better answer, here is a gallery of sentient, anthropomorphic trees I found around the internet. The one at the top of the post is a painting titled “General Sherman” by the disconcerting contemporary artist Mark Ryden from his 2007 “Tree Show” and the first one below is “the Brain Tree” a character from an online game who dispatches players on virtual scavenger hunts. As for the rest, I’m not sure. They were not properly attributed to the troubled individuals who designed them. I fear you will just have to let them wash over you without knowing who made them or why. So, without further ado, here are a bunch of anthropomorphic trees:
Wow, that…that got really creepy. It’s just possible (though unlikely) that Mike was right.
(*It should be noted that I have paraphrased this long-ago conversation–partly due to the distorting effects of memory and partly because of coarse language.)
Writing about a close-up of a fly’s foot has led me to thinking about the infinitesimal details in tempera paintings by Carlo Crivelli–particularly since my favorite Crivelli painting prominently includes a fly.
The enigmatic religious artist Carlo Crivelli painted this Madonna and Child some time around 1480. The painting is a masterpiece of gothic style: a bejeweled Mary with Byzantine eyes holds baby Jesus on a cracked parapet. Jesus grasps a struggling sparrow but his mood is somber. Both figures are contemplating a fat black fly which has landed near Christ’s embroidered pillow. Christ actually looks like a healthy baby (he frequently looks nothing like a real child in art) and Mary looks like a beautiful, wealthy noblewoman but the painting is still sad and intense. The fly seems to indicate that death and misery will soon mar whatever is most perfect and flawless. The great oversize pickle and peaches dangling by the Virgin’s face also hint at something earthy and corrupted about existence. In the background tiny figure hatch schemes and chase each other through the fulsome forests and orchards of Le Marche. After looking closely at this painting, it will come as no surprise that Crivelli also painted extremely visceral scenes of the torture of Christ and the suffering of his followers.
We know very little about Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 – c. 1495). The artists’ biographer, Vasari–with his Florence-centric worldview–elected not to not to write about him at all. Even the dates of Crivelli’s birth and death are unclear. Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where lovely sinister cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore–or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua? At any rate, he was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor. Additionally he was a vegetarian. Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail. He modeled raised objects in gesso on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension. Usually it is the gemstones and the tears which pop out from the panel. Although he had many commissions from the conservative religious community, his work fell steeply from fashion after his death. For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions, however Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.