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A pika (from a breathtaking gallery of photos of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by Yathin)

Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays:  1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011.  Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.

Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.

A Pika Gathers Hay

Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order.  Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage.  Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen.  Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes).  The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.

Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved.  Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy.  They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own.  The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.

Another pika (I'm sorry--online sources never tell me which species)

Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children.  The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes.  The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot).  Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s.  Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).

Pikachu Float in the 2005 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

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The Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)

I have written about the first domesticated animal—but what about the first domesticated plants? Nobody is currently sure which exact grain or bean was first farmed but there is a list of eight Neolithic “founder crops” which seem to have come into cultivation more or less at the same time (about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago). Of the 8 original crops, three are grains: Emmer wheat, Einkorn wheat, and good old Barley. One of the crops was flax (which provided both linen and flaxseed). The four remaining Neolithic crops were all pulses (legumes, when used for food) namely lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch.

These crops are surprisingly familiar. Just last summer I was sitting in my garden drinking beer (barley) and eating chickpea curry on flatbread (wheat—albeit a descendant of the first cultivars) while wearing a linen shirt. Peas and lentils are equally universal. However, there is one founder crop which has faded almost entirely from the modern world’s consciousness–bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). I am writing this post because I was reading a 2nd century Roman text and came across mention of the vetch. Unfamiliar with the plant I looked it up and found out its ancient lineage. Vicia ervilia has been found at Neolithic and Eneolithic sites across Eastern Europe, the trans-Balkan, and the Levant. The bitter vetch is a small green plant with delicate frond-like leaves and lovely purple flowers. It bears tiny irregular grains which somewhat resemble lentils when split. The grain is exceedingly bitter—when cooked for human consumption the bitterness must be leached out with multiple changes of boiling water (a process which must be followed to prevent poisoning oneself–see more below).

Bitter vetch may have been a staple crop at the dawn of civilization and it was for sale in the markets of the first cities but it fell from favor as tastier starchier grains were discovered. The Roman reference which I encountered was in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, and, because of the narrative peculiarity, of that text it was unclear whether the bitter vetch was meant for people or for livestock. Ascetics ate it throughout the middle ages as a proof they were turning their back on the world, and, because it was easy to grow, it found use among the abjectly poor. To quote, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s The History of Food, bitter vetch “featured in the frugal diet of the poor until the eighteenth century, and even reappeared on the black market in the South of France during the Second World War.”

Bitter Vetch Grain (I think--the image was kind of obliquely labeled)

I have never tried bitter vetch (commenters, I’d love to hear from you regarding this) but it doesn’t sound very good or very nutritious.  In fact it seems like it might be dangerous.  As with Taroc and faba beans, unless one carefully follows a paticular preparation process, the bitter vetch seeds contain toxins.  In an era where everyone is questioning monoculture, factory farming, and transgenic grains it is worth thinking about Bitter vetch. It is a reminder of how good we have it now.

In this time of blizzards and tornadoes, yet another winter storm passed over the East Coast yesterday and last night. Here is a picture of my garden this morning, followed by a photo of the neighbor’s angry Norway Maple bare of leaves and subdued under a coat of snow.  It’s hard to believe that all of the crocuses, tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are sleeping beneath the drifts.  Since I’m leaving before Spring and won’t get to appreciate the bulbs I planted, maybe it’s best not to think about them and to picture the garden this way from now on.  I can just imagine it as forever free from aphids and leaf rot and imperfection–permanently suspended under a pristine coat of white…

Argh no, it’s still a frustrating picture.  What is the point of gardening or painting or toymaking or starting anything?  It’s all just going to get ruined by the ineluctible forces of entropy.

Stupid winter!

Park Slope Garden on January 27th, 2011

The neighbor's Norway maple--for once not actively trying to kill all the plants around it

A Frost Giant pushing to end the world of order and crush all things under an endless cascade of ice...wait, a minute, how did this picture get in here?

The lovely shell of a Venus Comb Murex

One of the most delicate and exquisite shells of the world belongs to the Venus Comb Murex (Murex pectin) a predatory snail which hunts in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific.  The snail is covered by over one hundred tapered spines which protect it from predators and support the creature (in the fashion of a snowshoe) when it traverses soft muds.  The Venus Comb Murex hunts small mollusks, tunicates, worms, and crustaceans.  When one handles the delicate 15 cm long shell it is strange to imagine that it belonged to a fearsome hunter.  The Venus Comb Murex is a member of the Murexes, medium to large gastropods within the family Muricidae.  Murexes were described by Aristotle–who used the exact same name for them.

A Murex Hunting in Shallow Warm Waters

When the Japanese space program successfully launched the solar sail IKAROS last year, Ferrebeekeeper noted that NASA had its own solar sail missions planned.  Last Friday, January 21st 2011, the United States Space Agency successfully deployed a 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit.  To quote the Satellite Spotlight website, the tiny craft, unromantically named “NanoSail-D2” was, “designed to demonstration the deployment of a compact solar sail boom system for use in deorbiting satellites and as an alternate means of propulsion to move satellites in space that doesn’t require fuel.”

Artist's Conception of NanoSail-D2--Picured Actual Size (Ha! I'm just kidding--the actual craft has a 14 foot diameter)

Although NASA’s Nano press page does not dwell on the mission’s problems, it has hardly gone off as planned.  As the name indicates, NanoSail-D2 is a tiny satellite.  Furled up in preparation for launch it was only 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—about the size of a men’s size 12 shoe or a medium sour-dough loaf.  The satellite was supposed to be launched from its mother satellite, FASTSAT–a multi-experiment platform about the size of a dishwasher–on December 6th, but nothing happened.  Even though the launch door opened, the little sail remained folded up it in its launcher.   The solar sail mission was deemed a failure and NASA concentrated on the FASTSAT’s five other microsatellite experiments. Then, unexpectedly the solar sail spontaneously launched on January 19th.  It finished unfurling on the 21st and amateur ham radio enthusiasts tracked the craft’s beacon signals until its batteries wore out. You can find the satellite’s orbital path at the following link.  It should be quite visible traveling across the sky at night for another 70-120 days after which the drag of the sail will cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

NanoSail-D2 was the successor to the unsuccessful NanoSail-D which fell into the Pacific Ocean (along with an Air Force satellite, a pharmaceutical satellite meant to study yeast in zero gravity, and a canister of cremated human remains) on August 3rd, 2008 when the Falcon I rocket carrying these respective payloads veered off-course.  The FASTSAT (along with the NanoSail-D2 and sundry other payloads) were launched from Kodiak on a Minotaur IV—a Peacekeeper ICBM modified for commercial and research purposes.

A Minotaur IV Rocket Launched from Vandenberg on September 25, 2010

Although I applaud NASA’s ingenuity and celebrate the successful launch of an American solar sail, I note that on December 8th, as NanoSail D2 sat malfunctioning in its launch bay, the Japanese IKAROS sail completed its primary mission when it flew by Venus at a distance of about 80,800 km (50,000 miles).  Japan is now planning a series of larger and more spectacular solar sail missions which they hope will culminate with a mission to Jupiter.

Mathis Grünewald

Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Here is another portrayal of Saint Anthony tormented by demons—and what demons!  One is some sort of ambulatory stomach lined with teeth.  Another is a cross between a turkey and a mudpuppy.  A ghastly leprous frogman clutches at Saint Anthony while beings with stumps and fungi for heads lurch up out of the darkness.  High in the sky a glowing entity watches.  Is it God seen through a fog of pain or is it an ancient demon made of diaphanous glowing lunch meat?  The very forces of madness and hell are physically pulling Anthony apart.

Wow! What is this painting and what’s the story behind its hellishly vivid imagery?

This is one frame of a massive polyptych painted by Mathis Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar.  Grünewald painted the altarpiece between 1505 and 1515 and the completed work is difficult to describe because it has two sets of folding wings as well as a folding predella.

Wikipedia describes the altarpiece’s elaborate construction and its sad history:

The first view shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also. When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection. The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490. Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together. Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.

The world is fortunate indeed that the mad iconoclasts of the French Revolution did not destroy the altarpiece because it is one of the foremost works of Gothic religious art.

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

The Monastery at Isenheim was a healing facility: the Antonine monks who lived and worked there specialized in the treatment of skin diseases.  A prevalent malady the brothers saw among their patiets was ergotism—a poisoning caused by fungus growing on wet rye (in fact during the Middle Ages the affliction was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” because the Antonine Monks were so gifted at treating it).  Alkaloid compounds in ergot constricted sufferers’ blood vessels and brought on dry gangrene. In the altarpiece Christ himself is afflicted by the skin condition as he hangs on the cross in the central panel. Various secondary characters throughout the work also seem to be suffering from the skin disease.

Besides suppurating lesions and gangrene, two other effects of ergotism were convulsions and terrible vivid hallucinations.  The ergot alkaloid ergotamine shares many structural similarities with LSD.  It is poignant to imagine the sick and injured patients at Isenheim desperately praying before the altarpiece for relief from an ailment which was unhinging their minds and literally causing them to rot away.  When they looked up at Saint Anthony’s torment, the intended viewers knew exactly how he felt.

Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous.  Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain.  In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting.  This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself.  The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre).  The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD.  The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”.  Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer).  This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (The Master of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1340, tempera and gold on panel)

In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold.  The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel.  This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven.  God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down.  Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect.  The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints.  God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.

The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence.  Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world.  The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic.  They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor).  I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.

I am uncertain as to whether I should include demons and fallen angels in my “Deities of the Underworld” topic category.  They certainly seem to be immortal chthonic gods (or at least demigods) who are based in a land of torment and perdition beneath the ground, but, ever since the revelation at Sinai, monotheists get very touchy when one starts bandying about the G-word.  Irrespective, I think I will brave the scorn of the Abrahamic peoples and include this post in that thread.

Such a question is relevant because today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will feature three masterpieces of Gothic painting which portray demons!  Get out your asbestos gloves and put aside your squeamishness concerning scales, claws, talons, and horns because the great gothic painters lived in the medieval world where demons were taken very seriously

Bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, tempera on panel)

This first work is by Florentine artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni (1369 – 1415). Almost nothing is known of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, but it is believed he was originally a manuscript illuminator who made the jump to panel painter.  Whatever his background was, he has certainly given us a vivid demon painting. This is the bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints painted around 1390.  It depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony and what a temptation!  A bevy of rainbow colored demons, each wielding a unique implement of torture, torment the prostrate saint in order to convince him to renounce his faith.  Not for Cenni di Francesco the nubile lovelies who characteristically tempt the ascetic Anthony—this Saint is tempted by putting an end his pain!  On a deeper level the fiends may represent the privations and hardships of Anthony’s anchoretic life in Egypt’s eastern desert. These animal hybrid demons have particularly animated features and distinct personalities.  I wonder if Maurice Sendak happened across this image because his wild things bear a passing resemblance to Anthony’s tormentors.

Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, Tempera on panel)

This is a tiny portion of a magnificent edifice of individual paintings. Cenni di Francesco’s works all come together in a towering gothic structure dedicated to the glory of the saints and their faith. The work is so large and all-encompassing that the torments of a few demons seem almost like a minor matter–which is perhaps part of the artwork’s meaning.  The entire alterpiece is today located at the Getty Museum, so if you are around Los Angeles, you can drop in and look at the actual artwork.

Tomorrow…fallen angels….

Poison is very common in the animal kingdom (and throughout the other kingdoms of life) both as a means of defense and as a weapon for hunting, however only a tiny handful of mammals are poisonous.  A few shrews have mildly venomous bites.  The European mole has a toxin in its saliva which can send earthworms into a coma (allowing it to store them in the larder for later).  The Solenodon, a strange burrowing nocturnal insectivore is perhaps most toxic among the mammals–with one glaring exception. At the beginning of the month we wrote about the clever echidna–a monotreme with unusual brain physiology.  The echidna’s closest relative, and the world’s only other remaining monotreme, the duck-billed platypus is the planet’s most poisonous mammal by far.  Not only do platypuses have bills, lay eggs, and utilize electrical sensory apparatus to hunt, but the male has a moveable poisonous spur on his hind legs which is attached to a venom-producing crural gland.  Only the male platypus is capable of producing a toxic peptide cocktail and injecting it through his spurs. Female platypuses (and all echidnas) have rudimentary spurs which drop off and lack functioning crural glands. Platypus venom causes pain and hyperalgesia—which means an increased sensitivity to pain–so you shouldn’t cuddle male platypuses no matter how adorable their funny little bills may look to you.

The crural glands...and the spur!

The Stanford neuroblog (from whom I borrowed the attached image of a platypuses’ poisonous organs and appendages), notes the similarity of platypus venoms with reptile venoms, “One evolutionary curiosity: the defensin-like peptides found within the platypus venom are also found within reptile venom. However, genetic analysis in 2008 revealed that the platypus peptides evolved independently from the reptile peptides, although both were derived from the same gene family.”  Its curious to think of how our ties with reptile forbears are manifested in the curious and endearing (and poisonous!) platypus.

Eek! Get down...he's got a platypus!

Winter always leaves everyone a bit down–especially considering that it has hardly begun and we have already been shellacked by numerous terrible snow storms.  To raise everyone’s spirits, here is the photo of a lovely late Ming double gourd vase.  For some reason the top of the vase features wallowing water buffalos, but there on the bottom globe of this tiny 16th century porcelain masterpiece is a leaping quilin—the legendary beast of heaven whose appearance presages good fortune.  He is disporting himself among Chinese white pines and fire scrolls.

A late Ming Double Gourd Vase with Pines, Magical Creatures, Fire scrolls, and Buffaloes

I’m sorry I don’t have a better picture.  The English merchants who were selling this piece didn’t quite photograph the Quilin in focus.  However even in this blurry form, the graceful lines of the magic animal are evident and the artistry of the unknown creator is very apparent.  Perhaps it was made on a bleak winter day half a millenium ago by some Jingdezhen potter who was dreaming of good fortune and summer in the mountains.

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