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I’m going to expand upon yesterday’s post about invasive animals in Florida.  Pythons are indeed large aggressive predators, but it isn’t as though they chose to move to Florida like Aunt Edna when she retired.  Enthusiasts brought them from Burma.  The pythons escaped or were set free and they found a way to survive.

Florida’s groves of tasty, tasty oranges are hardly natives either.  Over long centuries, Spaniards carefully hybridized trees that bore perfect sweet fruit.  They then carried saplings across the oceans from the fragrant orchards of Iberia.

Fresh-squeezed, Ice-cold, Juicy…what was my point again?

We humans are ourselves an invasive tropical species from Africa.  As we have explored the world, we have encountered all sorts of useful and interesting plants and animals.  Thereafter we took those friends with us.  Dogs, ducks, and dairy cows, roses, rye and rice–all of our favorite living things are invaders of a sort.  Sometimes we make bad or dubious friends (pythons? really?) but our existence depends on the grains we harvest, the fruit we grow, and the animals we farm.  Such is the price of our success.  If we all returned to fishing, hunting, and gathering, we could expect to remove three or four zeros from our total population number of six billion.

The story of invasive species however extends far beyond humankind’s symbiotic alliances and restless propensities.  A couple of quick examples will clarify this point.  Like the pythons, Florida’s native manatees have a great deal of trouble with cold weather.  Every winter, many starve to death in the warm outflows from power stations where they shelter (or they freeze outright).  They must have expanded their range northwards as the ice ages ended.  The armadillos that live on the panhandle are edentates who began trekking out of South America during the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when the Ismuth of Panama formed and rejoined the sundered Americas.

This story goes on and on and gets bigger and bigger: flowering plants showed up from elsewhere, so did mammals and reptiles back in the Paleozoic Era.  In fact, if you go back far enough all life-forms are invaders.

Well, maybe some of us...

South Florida’s ecosystem has been trying to fend off an onslaught of non-native tropical animals, most notably the fearsome Burmese python, an apex predator from the haunted jungles of Southeast Asia.  Internet surfers and reptile enthusiasts might remember the dramatic photo of a 13 foot python which burst open after trying to swallow a live 6 foot alligator whole.

Florida’s native birds, lapdogs, toddlers, and alligators will therefore rejoice at the past winter’s severity, which put a big dent in the python population (and left other non-native fish and reptiles frozen stiff across the state).  Pythons fall into a catatonic stupor if temperatures plunge too low.  In the depths of January when the mercury dipped into the thirties, rangers reported finding live snakes being methodically devoured by vultures.  Homeowners were shocked by all of the iguana-cicles falling out of ornamental trees.  Spring and summer will reveal how badly the invaders have been set back in comparison with Florida’s cold-tolerant native species.

California's governor has already implemented measures to prevent a similar infestation.

Since a blustery cold front seems to have put spring on hold, I thought I would post a gardening update.  Although my stony north-facing garden runs a month behind everyone else’s, my tulips finally came up!  I have a large bed of delicate pink tulips (appropriately named “Don Quichotte”) along with a smattering of maroon-black “Queen of the Night” tulips around my rose.  It’s sad to think that my garden is probably as lovely on this cold windy workday as it will ever be again.

The tulips survived winter’s chill and put roots in the grim waste only to narrowly escape an unexpected adversary.  Just as they were about to bloom, a creature crept into my yard and gnawed the heads off my flowers!  What could it be?  Memories of raccoons and slinking possums ran through my head along with more esoteric terrors (wolverines? bears? giant sloths? harpies?) however, internet research revealed the culprit to be a humble squirrel.  After spraying a variety of vile “critter ridders” on my garden with no effect, I put up some jaunty mylar balloons.  Their shining, lurching presence has driven the culprit off.

Ignore the camera angle and pretend the heart balloon represents my appreciation for my readers.

Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma:  unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead.  They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?].  The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon.  As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below).  After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.

To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert.  Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed.  He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land.  Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.

Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt.  He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide.  Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them.  Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm.  Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set.  Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history.  Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run.  All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale.  Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands).  When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast.  Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history.  Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.

Grains of Pollen Photographed by an Electron Microscope

In continuing celebration of spring, I’m returning to the microscopic world to appreciate the beauty of pollen grains.  Ancient shamans intuited the generative nature of pollen and used it for ceremonial purposes: bright yellow pollen powder is still popular in Native American rituals today. However it was only with the advent of microscopy that we began to understand true range and beauty of pollen grains.

Acacia Pollen

Pollen grains contain male gametophytes which are ultimately meant to alight upon the proper carpel to unite with the female gametophyte cell and ultimately germinate into a genetically different offspring (my apologies to any impressionable readers out there).  Spring is such a difficult time for allergy sufferers because many common trees and grasses utilize this time of year for pollination: flowers are unblocked by mature leaves and a whole growing season stretches ahead.  It boggles the mind to imagine the immense community of tiny plant sex cells flying through the air around us and clinging to our bodies.

Himalayan Iris Pollen

Most of our favorite flowers and fruit have pollen which is entomophilous (i.e.carried by animals) and designed to stick to the leg of a bee or moth or some other pollinator.  Such grains tend to be like burs, with all sorts of strange miniscule hooks and spikes (they thus pose less of a problem for allergy sufferers–since they never make it to the nasal cavity).  Other plants literally cast their hopes upon the wind.  These anemophilous pollens are lightweight explorers produced in vast quantities and they get everywhere (to the misery of those with hay fever).

Pollen Nestling in the Cilia which Lines Your Upper Respiratory Tract

A Grain of Lavender Pollen Lying on a Lavendar Petal

Of course pollen is only one component of the microscopic jungle around us.  Right now you are sitting amidst an immense collection of fungal spores, infinitesimal mites, decaying skin cells, animal hair, bacteria, viruses, and even more esoteric flora and fauna.  Just imagine the coming world of nanotechnology where these various biological entities will be joined by infinitesimal man-made objects…

Insect Scales, Pollen, Hair, Manmade Fibers, Fungal Spores, and Dander

An executive from the central office arrived this morning in New York to meet VIPS for power breakfast in the conference room.  It was my job to facilitate this, and…in light of sundry morning timetable lapses, I was concerned about arriving at work in time.

I desperately pushed through the crowds in the Rockefeller mezzanine, sprinted down the long, long hall of shuffling commuters and, huffing and panting, reached the spiral staircase that leads up to the elevator bank.

There, sparkling in the center of the rotunda, was Richard Simmons, jogging in place, clapping and yelling encouragement at random hapless bystanders.

He looked exactly like this, except he was shinier and the onlookers were more frightened

“SAY Farewell TO FAT!  Oh my GOODNESS!  You HAVE to HUSTLE!  Move YOUR FANNY!  LET’S GO!!” he shouted as I ran, gray-faced, up the spiral stairwell.

He had a few…handlers…I guess, but they looked like they also were afraid to get too near him.  I have run into other celebrities in the corridors under Rockefeller Plaza before and they always basically look like New York’s other put-together professionals–checking blackberries and walking quickly to where they can make more money.  Richard Simmons looked exactly like he does on TV.  Is he always like that?  Perhaps midnight finds him at home, disco jogging in sequined shorts and shouting exercise instructions at his cats…

Well anyway, thanks Richard, for getting me up that flight of stairs.  The VIP breakfast was a success!

Earth's Most Endangered Parrot, the Kakapo

Sigh, well, it is Earth Day again.  I love this planet with its nitrogen skies, mighty oceans, super volcanoes, araucaria forests, and self-inflating parrots–to name a smattering of Earth’s numberless glories.  However this particular holiday always vexes me.  From the egregious murderer who claims to have co-invented it (and acted as MC at the countercultural first Earth Day in 1970), to the oodles of smug, media-friendly pseudo advice, to the “greenwash” which huge companies churn out to appear ecologically sensitive, the whole earth day movement seems a parody of humanity’s excess and hypocrisy rather than a real attempt to curb the same.

Nevertheless (if any readers are still with me) I have an earnest Earth Day post in the form of an apology to the poor dead whale whose garbage-filled carcass drifted up onto a Seattle beach two days ago.  The 37 foot long gray whale had 50 gallons of sludge in his stomach including plastic garbage like six-pack rings, sweat pants, and grocery bags. The whale was not killed by the waste in his system, but he was stressed, emaciated, alone, and had gashes on his head from being struck by boat propellers.

I’m a plastics manufacturer, a capitalist, and a consumer (although I am only really successful at consuming) and I feel like this is probably my fault as much as it is anyone’s.  I import vinyl China-goods from across the Pacific on container ships and ship them across the continent via petrol truck.  Additionally, I purchase all sorts of plastic things and trade goods from overseas.  I’m a carnivore who eats from factory farms.  It goes without saying that I eat as many anchovies, squid, crab and tasty sea creatures as I can fit in my stomach.  Likewise, I gorge myself on out-of-season fruits and vegetables (which must be shipped).  I like America’s big crazy military and I’m a technophile to boot.  I think that the solutions to our problems can only be found through learning more and building better stuff.

Can I defend these positions?  Yes: although I cast them in a stark light in that last paragraph, I think they are defensible and mostly logical—probably the best positions currently available given global realities.  Furthermore, reader, even if you say you are eco-friendly, your own actual positions are probably fairly similar: you may not like the military or own a toy company but you pay taxes and buy plastic junk. [I exempt vegetarians—you guys really are different and I rather admire you for it.]

But are my life and my outlook a problem for the earth’s ecosystem?  Yes, I think so.  We are eating the oceans empty and filling them with rubbish.  Frogs are dying off worldwide and crazy blights are everywhere killing bats and trees and bees (and whales).  Clearly something is wrong.

I am sorry, whale, for your death.  Like all good hearted people, I love cetaceans and it makes me sad that you are gone.  I accept my blame.  But I like people too: how many of our teaming billions must go unfed or unemployed if we really try to reign in capitalism?  How much will it truly help the whales (and the wee shrimpkins on which they feed) to be a locavore or wear a hemp mumu or create layer after layer of eco authority? I don’t know, and I don’t believe the people who claim to know.  From now on,  I’ll try harder to find out which ideas are workable solutions to our environmental ills and distinguish them from those which are only more subtle forms of greenwash.

Gray Whales are curious about people.

The Emperor Tang Taizong, Lǐ Shìmín

I am circling back to write about one of the most important men in history, Lǐ Shìmín, aka Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty.  Although he is the success against whom all subsequent rulers of China are judged, I am not going to address his remarkable reign (nor his mythical journey to hell) but rather how he killed two of his brothers in order to assume the throne.

Lǐ Shìmín lived from 599 AD to 649 AD and ruled from 626 AD to 649 AD.  It was he who convinced his father to rise up against the tyrannical Sui dynasty.  Leading his father’s troops, he crushed the Sui and dominated the ensuing civil war (a thrilling conflict which involved ominous prophecies, turncoat sisters, and the fall of princely houses).  He is thus credited as co-founder of the Tang dynasty–even though he was in fact its second emperor.

Although he was clearly the force behind the rebellion and the chief architect of the new dynasty, Lǐ Shìmín had an older brother who was crown prince and heir apparent.  Lǐ also had a younger brother who hated him and schemed together with the eldest brother to bring Lǐ down: united they tried to poison him and implicate him in various crimes.

Lǐ Shìmín went before his father, the Emperor Gaozu, and accused his two brothers of sleeping with the aging emperor’s concubines and plotting regicide.  A disloyal concubine informed the crown prince and the younger brother of this accusation, which lead the two to ride to the palace to find out the details from their father himself.  They were shocked to discover that Lǐ Shìmín and his loyal troops had seized control of the palace’s north gate (through which they habitually rode).  From horseback, as his younger brother fired arrow after arrow at him, Lǐ Shìmín shot his elder brother with an arrow and killed him.  Lǐ Shìmín’s faithful guard and favorite commander Yuchi Jingde then arrived with 70 handpicked soldiers, but Lǐ’s horse became spooked and bolted into a forest with the younger brother in close pursuit.  The horse slipped and fell on its rider, leaving Lǐ unable to escape as his younger brother tried to strangle him with a bow.  At this critical point the faithful Yuchi arrived in the glade and personally killed the malicious younger brother.  Two months later, the old Emperor Gaozu abdicated his throne in favor of his son, who quickly purged away his brother’s families.

The "Incident" at Xuanwu Gate

As a side note, posterity rewarded Yuchi Jingde richly for his loyalty: over the centuries he evolved into a guardian god whose image is still seen on doors today.

Zelda (photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio for Downtown Express)

Zelda is a wild turkey who has lived in Battery Park for six years.  She is street savvy and occasionally goes on walking tours of Tribeca and the village—or at least she used to.  I can’t find any sightings of her after Thanksgiving 2009.  Articles about her tend to allude to her deliciousness and feature aggressive quotes from hungry plebeians.  Maybe someone or something killed her and ate her!

At any rate, her long residence in Battery Park highlights the durability and intelligence of turkeys.  Unlike the hapless rabbits, turkeys have multiple bastions in Manhattan including Riverside Park and Inwood Hill Park.  They are clever flying animals who are extremely gifted at avoiding predators by means of guile.  You saw that I mentioned flying?  A wild turkey can fly at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.  It may be that Zelda is lying low or that (like all good hearted beings) she came to her senses and fled Wall Street as quickly as possible.

To celebrate getting through tax day last week, I am writing about Diyu, the Chinese underworld.  Although it shares many features with other underworlds (torture, damned souls, and animal headed monstrosities), the “Dark Mansion” is truly hellish because of its sprawling bureaucracy.  Featuring baffling rules, repeated performance evaluations, multiple redundant authorities, and numerous different levels with obscure links to one another, Chinese hell will be instantly familiar to all office workers.

"You've filled out a section incorrectly. Report dowstairs for boiling."

Although upright souls can be reborn after death or proceed to paradise (or even find immortality and apotheosize to godhood!), the average sinful person must make their way through the different levels of the afterlife by petitioning officials and serving time in various torture chambers.  Fortunately, the authorities of the Chinese afterlife are extremely venal.  Influence can be bought (and progress towards rebirth can be earned) for “hell dollars” which are burned by pious relatives on earth.

My favorite Chinese underworld story comes from Journey to the West, an epic poem from the Ming Dynasty.  It features Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, one of China’s most powerful and gifted rulers with his own fascinating (real) history.  The mythical story of his journey to the underworld begins when Emperor Taizong falls sick due to a magical illness.  This mortal sickness was visited upon the Emperor by the ghost of a powerful river dragon who nursed a grievance.  Fortunately one of Emperor Taizong’s courtiers was friends with an underworld official Cui Jue.  When Emperor Taizang died from the ghost dragon’s curse, the courtier sent a letter to the underworld official who in turn used his influence to allow Emperor Taizong to make a tour of hell and then return to the world of the living.  As a result of his trip, which brought spiritual and karmic debts, Emperor Taizang was forced to commission the “journey to the west” undertaken by a virtuous monk and his 4 disciples which is of course the true subject of the epic.  The Emperor’s journey and a more complete recounting of the events surrounding it can be found at this wonderful site.

The Chinese deities of Hell are like the powerful people of this world, trading favors for political and financial gain.  A devout Chinese Taoist who has lived a less than blameless life can expect to be the plaything of officialdom throughout this life and for many, many lifetimes to come.

"This system works really well."

*Forgive me for simplifying the tangled mythological/political web of eastern beliefs and for mangling the Chinese words and names in this article.

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