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Xolotl was a monstrous and deformed Aztec deity associated with sickness, misfortune, lightning, and dogs (which were useful but taboo animals to the Aztecs).  He was the twin of the glorious feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important and revered of Aztec deities.  Unfortunately twins were also taboo to Mesoamericans and Xolotl’s place in the pantheon in no way matches his brother’s.  Filthy and skeletal, with backwards feet, floppy ears, and a cowering, cringing demeanor, Xolotl was constantly getting into trouble.  Scarred by his own lightning, beset by his own sicknesses, his task was to help drag the sun through the underworld at night.

In one critical story, Xolotl traveled to the depths of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, to unearth the horrible rotting bones of an extinct race of beings.  He tricked Mictlantecuhtli, goddess of Mictlan, into allowing him to drag a filthy carcass up to the world of light where his brother and the radiant gods of heaven sprinkled it with their blood.  Thus was humankind born–from the blood of the sky gods and the bones of the dead.

What happened to luckless Xolotl?  One legend tells that he suffered setbacks in the tempestuous political affairs of the gods (recall, he was the deity of misfortune).  Fearing that he was about to be banished or killed, he transformed himself into an axolotl, the indigenous salamander of the Mexican basin.  The axolotl lacks the ability to transform into a land animal which other salamanders have.  Almost all of the population is perennibranchiate, trapped with gills and fins forever in the polluted shrinking waterways around Mexico city.



In our continuing exploration of the uneasy world of mascots, it’s time to meet Wenlock and Mandeville, mascots for the 2012 London Olympics.  Hmm, oh dear…  They each have a camera for an eye, which seems eerily appropriate given England’s dystopian fascination with Orwellian surveillance equipment.  They do not have mouths, probably so that they are unable to scream.  Understanding their back story makes them no less disquieting:  according to their creators, they are steel nuggets handicrafted by an eccentric grandfather and then given life by children’s love for sports.

“The mascot will help us engage with children which is what I believe passionately in,” London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe told Reuters.

“The message we were getting was that children didn’t want fluffy toys, they didn’t want them to be human but they did want them rooted in an interesting story. “By linking young people to the values of sport, Wenlock and Mandeville will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be.”

Um, what?  Toy designers know how easily children can be (mis)lead during marketing research. You have to watch their hands and eyes in order to find out their real answers. Or maybe I’m wrong and English children really do like mouthless, handless, soulless one-eyed robot-monsters.

Come on English designers! Just slap a bearskin on a bulldog and head for the pub.  Everyone would be happy and you would have an enduring winner instead of the travesties which Wenlock and Mandeville so clearly are.  As an added bonus, here are some alternate ideas for 2012 London Olympics mascots:

Trafalgar the pigeon (by Danny Ihns)

The lion and the unicorn from the UK coat of arms (as re-envisioned by Woodrow Phoenix)

‘Dodgee – the Olympic Hoodie’ (created by Aaron Robinson)

Eridu as envisioned by Balage Balogh

Although different people have advanced alternate claims (and new evidence continues to come from archaeological sites around the world), one of the first cities to rise up from the mud was the Mesopotamian city state Eridu.  Located in what was then a fertile estuary where the Euphrates emptied into the Persian Gulf, Eridu seems to have been founded circa 5400 BC by the confluence of three extremely different tribes each of which relied on a different ecosystem. According to Gwendolyn Leick, as paraphrased by the Museum of Knowledge:

The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterized by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral…may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu was the nomadic Semitic pastoralists of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas.

Somehow these three groups blended together and created the first city. Eridu was built along a pattern which became typical for Sumerian city states: a large central ziggurat of mudbrick was surrounded by a warren of mudbrick houses. The temple was sacred to Enki, the wise god of the abzu (the freshwater marsh).  Enki was the principal god for a reason:  it was the fresh water from the abzu which filled the irrigation ditches and made cultivation of newly domesticated grains possible.  In 4000 BC Eridu had about four thousand inhabitants.  If you wanted to buy goods at a marketplace, drink beer in a tavern, see a building larger than one story, or walk down an alley at night it was probably the only place on earth you could do so.  By 3700 B.C Eridu’s population had grown to approximately ten thousand inhabitants.

The Statue of Enki Sails from Eridu (also painted by the remarkable Balage Balogh)

Thereafter, Eridu was swiftly eclipsed by Uruk to the northwest which was founded by the same blend of people.  The citizens of Uruk looked to Eridu for their template (in fact Sumerian mythology features a story in which Inanna, the harlot goddess of Uruk was forced to visit Eridu’s god Enki in order to obtain the gifts of civilization). Uruk became the first city to boast more than 50,000 people.  It featured the first monumental architecture, the first writing, the first full-time bureaucrats, and the first professional soldiers.  It was the first civilization.

As the other city states of ancient Mesopotamia grew and prospered, Eridu, began to wither.  The once fertile soil lost its vigor and became salty after centuries of irrigation.  Farmers switched to salt-resistant barley but then even that failed. Wars and strife swept over the region as kings and their armies vied for supremacy. By 2050 the region was depopulated.  Neo-Babylonians built a purely ceremonial temple there to honor Eridu’s legacy as the first city and the birthplace of civilization, but by the 6th century BC, even that was abandoned forever.

Eridu Today

A physconect siphonophore, Marrus sp., photographed during NOAA's Arctic "Hidden Ocean" expedition in support of the Census of Marine Life. ©2005, Kevin Raskoff.

The Siphonophorae are a group of marine animals closely related to jellyfish and corals.  Like jellyfish, siphonophores are free to move around the ocean.  They hunt and capture fish and crustaceans by means of stinging tentacles.  However, like adult coral, siphonophores are colony animals.  A single siphonophore consists of multiple living animals–some of which are quite different from each other, since they serve different functions in the overall colony.  Their unusual nature makes them a focus of the scientific (and philosophical) question of what constitutes an individual organism as opposed to a group of organisms.

The best known siphonophore, the fearsome Portuguese man-of-war, possesses a gas filled bladder from which long colonies of stinging animals hang.   Most siphonophores however are not found near the surface.  Siphonophore colonies form delicate chains which can be quite long.  Some have been recorded to be 130 feet or more in length—substantially longer than the mighty blue whale.  Additionally some siphonophores are bioluminescent.

A Prayid Siphonophore in its Contracted Form

Marine biologists are beginning to think that siphonophores are more prevalent and important than initially believed.  Scientists once used nets and tows to capture specimens and calculate overall biomass.  These methods broke delicate siphonophores into unidentifiable pieces.  Now that biologists are using unmanned submarines to study the ocean, they have been finding many more siphonophores than they expected.

Siphonophorae illustrated by Haeckel

Joachim Patinir  (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).

Landscape with Charon Crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir

In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx.   On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands.  On the right lies the infernal city of the damned.  The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…

This painting is divided by color from front to back.  The foreground is the brown of earth.  Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks.  The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures.   The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.

The painting is also divided by color from left to right.  Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese.  Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red.  But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before.  Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive.  The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots.  It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out.  It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.

Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work.  The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong.  But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck.  The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac.  Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude.  Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society.  If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.

Patinir's hometown: Dinant in Wallonia

In an effort to boost ratings I am writing about sports! Specifically I am looking at the most grueling sporting event in the world, the Tour de France.

Everyone is familiar with the contemporary Tour de France: teams of mighty Spaniards and Germans on futuristic carbon bikes exchange thinly-veiled insults about steroids with each other and with Lance Armstrong.  The most exciting Tour de France, however, was the second, which took place in 1904.

The entire 1904 race was bedeviled by over-the-top scandals and cheating.  During the first stage, Maurice Garin and Lucien Pothier were attacked by four masked desperados driving a motor coach. The second phase took the riders through the birthplace of Antoine Fauré, where a mob of 200 Fauré supporters attempted to stop the remainder of the cyclists with brute force.  The riot was only dispersed by race officials firing pistols into the air!  Unfortunately, several riders were wounded in the melee.  In Nimes, the local supporters of Ferdinand Payan dropped stones down onto the riders. And on the final stage, the riders themselves (as well as various partisan miscreants) threw nails and glass on the road.  Henri Cornet was obliged to ride the last 40 kilometers with two flat tires and came in fifth.

Violence, riots, and booby traps were not the only way of cheating, several of the riders were found to have utilized motor cars to advance, none more flamboyantly than Hippolyte Aucouturier.  Hyppolyte had lost the first Tour de France in 1903 because someone spiked his water bottle (perhaps that race’s winner, a chain-smoking chimney sweep).  So determined was Hyppolyte not to lose the second race, that he enlisted an accomplice in a car to tow him up the steepest parts of the race.  To accomplish this Hyppolite used a long wire tied to a cork which he then gripped with his teeth.  Other riders, such as Ferdinand Payan, simply waited till dark and held onto car bumpers or climbed inside and rode.  During the evenings riders would deaden the pain from riding and fighting by drinking copious quantities of wine and huffing ether.

Hippolyte Aucouturier

At the conclusion of the race, 29 riders were disqualified, including Hyppolyte and all four of the other top-placed racers.  The fifth placed rider, Henri Comet won the 1904 Tour de France either through moral steadfastness or because he cheated more subtly than everyone else.

Wow, bicycle racing used to be amazing!

A life cycle diagram is a stylized pictorial representation of the path an organism must undergo in order to renew itself and continue living for multiple generations.  For example here is a very simple life cycle diagram of a human.

A few details might have been glossed over...

Straight forward enough:  the person begins where the two red lines intersect as a little zygote—with genes from both mother and father.  The zygote matures in the mother’s womb, is born, grows up to sexual maturity (notice the awkward puberty phase), and then contributes a single haploid reproductive cell to combine with the haploid reproductive cell of the opposite gender mate.  Voila: another zygote which becomes a fetus and begins the cycle again!  A more creative artist could have provided a bit more context (for example see the adorable penguin life cycle below), but, minus some snappy duds and sharp patter, humankind’s path to continued existence is pretty much all there.

Aw! It's like they're wearing little tuxedos!

The story starts getting more convoluted as we examine organisms that are less familiar.  Here for example is the life cycle of a hornwort.

Argh! What is going on here? In fact, what is a hornwort anyway?

To start with, hornworts are ancient land plants which trace their origin back to before the Devonian (416 million years ago).  These non-vascular plants were one of the first organisms to colonize the barren continents, back when life was mostly an ocean-only affair.  To allude to a different post, they were one of the original invasive species on land.

The hornwort’s life cycle is alien to us because the plant, like almost all plants and fungi (and like some protists), utilizes alternation of generations to reproduce.  Looking at the diagram it is hard to choose a place to start from: spore, egg, gametophyte?  But if our human diagram weren’t so familiar, it would be difficult to find the starting place on it too.  Life cycle diagrams have a “chicken or the egg?” paradox built in to them.

For the hornwort, let’s start with the spore.  There it is in the upper right corner like a little cube of cheese.  It is a haploid cell–having only one set of chromosomes just like a mammal’s sperm or egg.  But it is not like a sperm or egg!  Look at the diagram:  by itself, it turns into a protonema, the little transitional sprout which develops into the adult gametophyte.  The gametophyte is what we think of as the independent living hornwort plant.  Once this (still haploid) plant has grown to adult size it produces haploid sex cells in special structures called the antheridium (male cells) and the archegonium (female cells).

For the next stage, water is required so that the sperm can swim to the egg which remains stationary in the archegonium.  This is why hornworts could not leave damp watery areas.  The sperm and egg combine to form a diploid zygote (with two sets of chomosomes just like in the human zygote and the human adult!) which develops into a sporophyte.  The sporophyte remains dependent on the gametophyte out of which it sprouts.  The life cycle diagram magnifies a section of the sphorophyte–which is portrayed as a complicated green tube along the right of the picture.  Inside the sphorophyte, within sporogenous cells, meiosis takes place and new haploid spores are created.  When they are ready, the sporophyte capsule breaks open and the spores are released to in turn become protonema and begin the process again.

Although I have chosen the unfamiliar hornwort as an example, the underlying life cycle of familiar angiosperm (flowering) plants such as my beloved roses is not dissimilar.

Hmm, the terminology and morphology are pretty different though...

To quote Wikipedia, “alternation of generations implies that both the diploid and haploid stages are multicellular.”  This is important: if we thought of the unicellular sperm (or the egg) from the diagram at the top as a separate entity from ourselves, humans would reproduce by a sort of separation of generations, but we don’t really think of our conception that way!

It is now the middle of May and the spring plants are giving way to summer plants.  The tulips, crocuses, and muscari are long gone.  My iris never deployed–a few sad little shoots stuck their heads up–but there was no regal purple bearded head.  Unfortunately I don’t have peonies or lilacs.  But who cares?  It’s rose season now and the rose is truly the queen of flowers.

The end of May and the entirety of June are the apex of rose season.  For people with antique English and French roses this is the only time they get to see their flowers bloom (but what magnificent fulsome flowers!).  During the eighteenth century, however, European traders discovered that Chinese gardeners had entirely different rose species!  Chinese roses were smaller than the European roses and less fragrant, but they possessed the ability to bloom and bloom again throughout summer, into late autumn and even early winter.  Additionally their buds grew deeper in color as the flowers bloomed (unlike traditional European roses which faded and discolored immediately after opening).

My roses are all hybrid perpetuals: they bloom throughout the season and possess the best traits of European and Chinese roses.  Modern Rose breeders have created all manner of new colors, shapes, and smells to delight the senses.  The fashions in roses change from year to year and from decade to decade.  Roses are everybody’s favorite flower—they are a big business with their own festivals and awards and inner circles.  Whatever your tastes are, there was a period when rose breeders sought to appeal to them and there are breeders out there now working on even grander results.

The two photos in this article are pictures I took of my newest rose, a beautiful orange floribunda “Gingersnap” introduced in 1978.  Curiously 3 of my 4 roses were introduced in 1977 & 1978 (Double Delight–1977, Gingersnap–1978, & Pristine–1978).  Apparently that was the era of rose cultivation which appeals to me most (which seems ironic–since that era is in an infamous subject of laughter for fashionistas).

My garden--two days ago!

The fifth closest star to Earth is a red dwarf star currently located about six light years away (it is headed towards us so the distance changes).  It is named Barnard’s Star after the American astronomer E. E. Barnard who discovered it in 1916.  Sometimes it is called Barnard’s Runaway Star because it has the greatest proper motion of any star (proper motion is how much a star seems to move across the sky as seen from earth).

Barnard's Star Rockets through the heavens in this dramatic video

Barnard’s star has 17% of the Sun’s mass and is very dim.  It is invisible to the naked eye and must be viewed with a telescope.  The star has a very low metallicity which indicates that it is a Population II star.  Stars are roughly classed into three groups by age:

Population I: comparatively recent stars such as the sun

Population II: ancient low-metal stars formed after the first generation of stars had died but before the universe had great quantities of material heavier than simple gasses

Population III: the oldest stars which were metal free and believed to have all died in the universe’s infancy

Astronomers do not know how to clearly ascertain the age of a red dwarf so all that we can say for certain is that the star is between 7 and 12 billion years old.

Artist's Conception of Barnard's Star from a Planet which Probably Doesn't Exist

In the sixties an astronomy professor claimed to have discovered a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting Barnard’s Star, but more sophisticated readings taken with the Hubble Space Telescope have made this seem unlikely.  During the seventies and eighties Barnard’s Star was proposed as a destination for an interstellar space voyage known as Project Daedalus.  Interest in this idea has waned since the discovery that Barnard’s star is bereft of planets.  Additionally humankind has progressed more slowly than anticipated and the technology for such a mission still does not exist.

The Daedalus Starship Blasts Off from the Solar System Heading for Barnard's Star: Don't Look for This Anytime Soon

One of my readers commented about how much she enjoyed the fact that my “Swarm of Ideas” cloud ends with the words “Space Turkeys”, two very different topics which seem to be elided because apparently I write about turkeys as much as I write about the vast cosmos.  Well, I don’t have any stories about space turkeys, but I did have a rocket turkey back when I was ten.

Bronze Turkey Tom

My family had no luck raising our first batch of turkeys, which had been semi-feral specimens obtained from a disreputable stockman.  We next obtained a single pair of bronze turkeys, which are august and splendid birds.  The hen, Brown Sugar, was our favorite bird ever.  She would steal up to visitors, lay her head on their knees, and make delicate purring peeps of happiness as they stroked her iridescent feathers.  Unfortunately the tom turkey, Biff, went a bit…off and started attacking everything red.  Bronze toms are big: Biff probably weighed 50 pounds.  Since our chicken shed was red (as was my mother’s coat) the situation deteriorated and Thanksgiving time found us with only the hen turkey.  Brown Sugar was lonely, so next spring we ordered a large batch of bronze turkeys from the mail, and the flock of adorable little turkey chicks imprinted on me and followed me around field and hill as they grew to full size.

As all of this was happening, I was first tasting the joys of model rocketry.  Rocketry kits pictured a seductive spaceship ripping through the heavens, but when you opened the package what you got was a lot of unfinished balsa wood, some derelict cardboard tubes, a cheap plastic cone, and an immense fold-out sheet of finicky instructions.  You had to provide your own craft glue, exacto knife, and spray paint.  Anyway, I visited Grandma that year and prevailed upon her generosity and craftiness to participate in my new craze. Together she and I built a “Starship Vega” (it was mostly Grandma who built it, since I lacked the patience to properly set the fins).  But, when we went to launch it we discovered that the launching pad came separately!  For months thereafter, the glorious Starship Vega set on a shelf, taunting me. I had to wait till my grandparents visited the farm and brought me a birthday present before I could launch the thing.

The Starship Vega: except mine was spray painted the same burgundy as the family station wagon and had no decals (they all ripped or stuck together).

At launch time, turkey-raising collided abruptly with model rocketry. My flock of hand-raised bronze turkeys rushed over to see what my family was up to, and they were particularly curious about the rocket launch pad.  They kept sidling up to the pad just as I was done counting down, forcing me to initiate safety procedures, remove the launch key (yes Estes provided a safety key), and run onto the launch field to shoo away my turkeys.  Finally I got them all away from the miniature spaceship except for my favorite turkey, the dominant tom, Guy Smiley.  Guy was once again closing in on the launch pad, but still within a roughly safe distance.  All the other turkeys too started edging nearer.  The sun was beginning to head down.  I would never get a better chance.  I pushed the button.

My rocket leaped into the sky with a mighty hiss and a great white gunpowder cloud.  Poor Guy Smiley also leapt into the air.  He weighed over 40 pounds so it must have been a dreadful shock that propelled him up above our heads.  When he landed his poor head was a ghastly yellow (turkeys’ moods can be read by their head and wattle color, but this was the only time one turned yellow) and he uttered a weak croak before fainting and slumping into a heap.

In the mean time my rocket had turned into a distant twinkle above the cornfields.  Would the shoot deploy?  It did!  But unseen wind currents carried the spent vehicle far away, over the Amish neighbors’ cornfield.  I ran desperately, but it was no good—a botched recovery! For hours, I searched the August corn, until my mom called me in, but the Starship Vega was gone for good.  Only months later did a report emerge:  the Amish kids found it, and unable to comprehend the finer points of rocketry, crushed it to bits.

Pictured: The Right Stuff?

What about the poor swooning Guy Smiley?  Less ardent rocket enthusiasts among my family rushed to his aid, but he was already recovering.  After fifteen minutes of quivering, blanching, and muttering odd strangled chirps, he recomposed himself entirely.  His head grew ruddy again, his tail fanned up, and he strutted around the other turkeys with greater vanity then ever–having alone braved the noble pursuit of the heavens.  The incident also cemented my parents’ affection for Guy Smiley.  The other toms from our flock all eventually encountered the block and the axe, but, like Brown Sugar, Guy is buried under the old apple tree with my other beloved childhood pets.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2010