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A Baby Snow Leopard!

It’s a baby snow leopard (Uncia uncia)!  Wouldn’t it be fun to pet his furry spotted belly?

No, my blog is not becoming Cute Overload.  Unfortunately, various exigencies reared up today.  For the present you will  have to make due with this wee snow leopard instead of reading about hyraxes, rebecs, exoplanets or whatever I was going to write about.

Last spring, a comrade invited his friends over to make pysanky—chicken eggs decorated Ukrainian style with beeswax and potent Slavic dyes.

When I was a child, we made Easter eggs with non-toxic edible dyes.  This involved holding a hard boiled egg in a coffee mug of vinegar and dye for a ridiculously long time only to discover the egg had (barely) taken on a faint pastel hue.  Then you would add a decal of a bunny wearing a hair bow.  The decal would frequently split.  Eventually your dad would amble in and eat the thing to spare you from your feelings of embarrassment.

Even though my friend is a cool motorcycle racer, I expected his pysanky-making party to be pretty much the same sort of activity (or perhaps, at best, a drunken folk craft–like making toy soldiers out of round clothepins), but it was not at all similar.  People spent the whole day creating miniature artworks which truly reflected their personalities.  Some of the final pysanka were remarkably lovely and looked like the treasure you get at the end of a videogame when you beat a high level boss:  emerald scepter…famed coconut of Quendor… elf helmet of truesilver…ah, at last, the magical egg of Hutsul!

Eastern European Christians have claimed the egg dying tradition is their own.  According to folk legend, Mary tried to bribe Pontius Pilate with boiled eggs.  When he refused this meager buyoff, she began weeping.  Her tears stained the eggs and caused them to roll to Eastern Europe.  This somewhat feeble tale masks a much more compelling and ancient belief.  I‘m going to quote the website of New York’s foremost pysanky artist, Sofika (who apparently has one name—just like Madonna or Sting).  She writes:

The Hutsuls — mountain people of Western Ukraine – believed that the fate of the world depended upon the pysanka. As long as the egg-decorating custom continued, the world would exist. If this custom was abandoned, evil – in the form of a horrible monster, forever chained to a mountain cliff – would overrun the world. Each year this monster-serpent would send out his henchmen to see how many pysanky were created. If the number was low, the serpent’s chains were loosened and he was free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If, on the other hand, the number of pysanky increased, the chains were tightened and good would triumph over evil for yet another year.

Once again, the root of things is the simple fear of a giant evil serpent god!

A final note: my friend did not host his pysanky party this spring, but I am completely sure this has nothing to do with all of the earthquakes and giant snakes wreaking havoc around the world.

This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.  It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.

Psyche Entering Cupid's Garden (oil on canvas by John William Waterhouse, c.1904.)

I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting.  Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry.  Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros.  Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words.  She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid.  Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love.  Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal.  As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.

A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome.  The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests.  The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).

The walking catfish, Clarias batrachus, hails from Thailand, where it goes under the less-catchy title of Pla duk dam (dull colored wriggling-fish).  This walking catfish is indeed capable of leaving water to travel across dry land, which gives it a huge advantage over local fish who can’t escape pools and ponds that are drying out.  Additionally, the catfish is able to eat the tadpoles, insect larvae, and crayfish which live in seasonal pools and would ordinarily escape from fish predation.  In many ways it is analogous to snapping turtles and water tigers.

The catfish has spread across South East Asia, India, Australia, and the Middle East. It showed up in Florida in the 1960s (probably looking for a party).  Sometimes floods bring the catfish out of the storm sewers where they live and residents are shocked to find their gardens filled with writhing mustachioed fish.  They are successful despite the perils of living in populated areas:  route 41 occasionally becomes dangerously slippery because of all the smashed catfish.

Taking a Stroll through the 'Burbs

Although his catfishy head does look a bit insect-like, I find the walking catfish curiously endearing.  But don’t be taken in by his riverboat-gambler good looks!  The walking catfish (and all other members of the family Clariidae) have fallen afoul of the Feds.  They are classified as injurious wildlife and it is illegal to harbour them.  Some Floridians even devour them on sight, as in this picture which illustrates how society is protected by a thin blue line heron.

"Vodou Ceremony" by Andre Normil

A friend from the murky bayous of Louisiana asked me to write a post about Baron Samedi, for my Deities of the Underworld category.  I’m still writing it, but that post should really be published on a Saturday anyway.  First I had better explain an outline of the voodoo religion (and find some methods to protect myself in case anybody or anything thinks I am doing a libelous job with my explanation).

Voodoo is an intensely syncretic religion which came about as the new world was conquered by Europeans and re-peopled with African slaves.  The animist beliefs of the Yoruba, the Fon, and the Ewe (among with many other African groups) mixed together with Roman Catholicism and with the indigenous beliefs of the Native Americans to form a whole new faith.  Additionally the Celtic folk beliefs of Irish laborers seem to be involved in the simmering mix that is voodoo (along with Polish religious icons and goodness knows what else–the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a tumultuous and experimental time). Voodoo is most prevalent throughout the Caribbean, down the east coast of South America, and along the coasts of West Africa.  Like different stews, Haitian vodou has a subtly different flavor from Louisiana-style voodoo, which is quite different from Jamaica Obeia, which itself is only sort of similar to Brazilian Candomblé (and yet there are shared ingredients in all).

The top deity of voodoo is Bondye (or possibly Gran Met, who is Bondye’s wife… sister…mother…female incarnation?  I don’t know–ask your favorite voodoo priest).  The supreme god, however, has grown indifferent to the world he or she created.  The voodoo pantheon is thus built around powerful spirits known as loa who intercede with the creator on behalf of practitioners in the mortal realm.  One of the more intriguing concepts within voodoo is the relativist notion of propriety: a person’s moral nature depends on which loa that person serves.  A worshipper of the warrior-smith Ogou may have a different code of ethics than someone who venerates the ancestral fertility serpent Damballa.  There are wonderful and lovely loa in the Voodoo pantheon like Simbi Anpaka, the loa of plants, leaves, and poison, or Erzulie Dantor the fierce and buxom (and possibly lesbian) protector of single mothers and their children.

Each loa has associated colors and prefers certain specific sacrifices.  Damballa prefers the color white and likes a simple offering of a single egg.  Ougou loves rum and is represented by the colors green and black (as well as by his trademark sword).  Here is a list of popular loa. Additionally every loa is represented by a specific Vévé, a religious pictogram which serves as the loa’s representation in rituals.  Vévés are usually drawn on the floor with a powder such as cornmeal, red brick dust, or gunpowder (kids, do not try this at home).

The Vévé of Papa Legaba, Gatekeeper to the Spirit Realm

Loa are divided up into families who have differing realms of influence.    The Rada family represents morality, tradition, and ancestor worship.  The snaky Simbi family is associated with magic and water.  The Petro loa are fiery, impassioned and dangerous.  The family of spirits which embody fertility and death are the Guédé family.  The Guédé family of loa is powerful, scary and numerous.  Their leader is Baron Samedi.

I apologize for my absence yesterday.  My munificent otter and I spent a lovely vacation day visiting the Bronx Zoo.  I plan on writing a post about the history of zoos– which occupy a pivotal location in the often-murderous relationship between humans and wild animals.  Today however I am going to turn my back on that fraught topic to write about a remarkable animal I encountered yesterday.

The best experience at a zoo is to encounter a new animal and strike up a bond with it.  This is one of the things that makes a zoo visit rewarding–to return and visit old friends and see how they are doing (it can also make zoo outings terribly sad, when beloved animals and their families fall ill or die).

Yesterday I was standing beside an aviary cage, which was apparently empty except for big leafy bushes, when a spectacular bird leaped out of a flowering shrub, sprinted to a spot immediately in front of me and performed a friendly impromptu dance.  It was the Golden Pheasant or “Chinese Pheasant“, (Chrysolophus pictus).  Here’s a picture, but be aware that it does not do the bird justice at all.  This bird looks like something created by an eccentric Taoist god drunk upon the glories of the courts of heaven!

Chrysolophus pictus

When the pheasant at the zoo was done showing off, he stared beadily at me with as if demanding some sort of tribute.  As I moved away to look at lesser pheasants he displayed signs of great displeasure.  I could have stared at him all day.  This sort of pheasant is reported to be quite fearless and friendly and it seems that the Bronx Zoo’s specimen is no exception.

The Golden pheasant is a great success story.  Indigenous to the forests and mountains of western China, they have spread across China due to their popularity as ornamental birds (they have a long history in China’s art and literature).  They have also spread abroad, and today boast colonies in England and America.  Aristocrats and the sporting rich once imported them, released them into alien forests and fields, and then set out to gun them down.  Imagine The Most Dangerous Game or Hard Target (but with the part of John-Claude Van Damme played by a pheasant).  Fortunately, the hen of the species possesses a more prudent nature than the outgoing male.  Additionally both sexes can run like greyhounds and are capable of making themselves invisible, even in the teeming cities of China.

An all-yellow variant demonstrates the birds' expressiveness.

Eta Carinae is a star system 8,000 light years from the solar system.  It contains a luminous blue hypergiant star which probably has about 100 times the mass of the sun and shines 4 million times more brightly.  For those of you keeping tally, that gives the star approximately the same mass as 33 million earths!

Eta Carinae was originally cataloged by Edmond Halley in 1677 (hence its stylish Latin name) as a comparatively dim 4th magnitude star, however astronomers noticed that its brightness varied greatly over the decades.  In 1827 it began to become significantly more luminous and by 1843 it was the second brightest star in the night sky (after Sirius, our next door stellar neighbor which is only 8.6 light years away).  The star then dimmed down to the eighth magnitude—becoming invisible to the naked eye.  Today it is believed that this strange occurrence was a supernova impostor event in which the star nearly exploded.  Looking at Eta Carinae now through the Hubble telescope reveals two huge hemispheres of material ejected from the star.   Scientists have named this cloud the Homunculus nebula and it is nearly a light year in diameter.

Eta Carinae and the Homunculus Nebula as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

Stars as massive as Eta Carinae are very rare.  At this stage of galactic development there are perhaps a dozen in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way (which contains 200 billion to 400 billion stars).  Eta Carinae is probably fated to die in a hypernova explosion (an immense supernova event).  A similar impostor event to Eta Carinae’s 1843 flare-up was witnessed on SN 2006jc, a star within galaxy UGC 4904 (perhaps you now appreciate the Latin and Arabic names of familiar nearby astronomical objects).  SN 2006jc went hypernova two years after its impostor nova event.  It is very possible that Eta Carinae no longer exists but was destroyed a long time ago.  The light we see now is eight thousand years old.  Who knows what happened since then?

When Eta Carinae goes hypernova it will destroy star systems nearby.  Additionally,  a massive gamma ray burst will shoot from both of its poles as its center collapses into a black hole. Any living, earth-like world caught in such a beam would be sterilized completely–although we are mercifully not currently in Eta Carinae’s polar vector…

Eta Carinae’s Fate? A Hypothetical Illustration of a Hypernova Event with Gamma Ray Burst (Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller/NSF)

This weekend, a friend of mine who likes birds and works downtown let me know that Zelda, the wild turkey of Wall Street, is doing fine.  Zelda has been quietly going about her life in the various parklands on the south of Manhattan.  Apparently she is just not the media darling she used to be–I can’t find any contemporary news about her on the internet.  I guess that since she is, you know, a turkey, she hasn’t managed her publicity too well. Here is a shot of her from this spring.

Zelda the wild turkey (photograph by Robyn Shepherd)

In other animal news, I spent some time in Prospect Park this weekend but I didn’t see any rabbits.  The next step is to take a trip to Greenwood cemetery—cottontails will be there if they still live anywhere in New York City.  Additionally the cemetery is one of the prettiest places I know of.

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