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The Heath Pea (Lathyrus linifolius)

Last week Mark Goff, an alert reader with a deep knowledge of botany and herblore, informed me of a mistake in my column concerning the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Apparently a second plant goes by this common name and I accidentally reported on it as though it was Vicia ervilia. This second bitter vetch is Lathyrus linifolius, aka the “heath pea” (which is the name I’m going to use for it here on out). I have edited my earlier article and purged it of information and photos of the heath pea. Suffice to say, Vicia ervilia is indeed the Neolithic founder crop known for its bitterness. Please note that the seeds of Vicia ervilia are edible only if prepared properly (not that I imagine anyone running out to feast on the ancient legume). Vicia ervilia must be blanched and the water must be then be dumped out over and over again and again to ensure that the final dish is not toxic.

The heath pea (Lathyrus linifolius) is a fascinating plant in its own right. Native to the Highlands of Scotland it is a delicate fern-like plant with purple flowers. I had used photos of its lovely flowers in the Vicia ervilia article. I have replaced those images–and now I get to show the pretty heath pea once again (properly labeled this time). The heath pea produces a bitter tuber in its roots which was apparently consumed by higlanders in times of scarcity and famine to suppress hunger. Charles II is said to have given it to his mistress Nell Gwyn to help her lose weight (although I make it a practice not to believe everything I read about the restoration court). Mark Goff, who is brave as well as learned, reports that he has been eating the tubers and has noticed no side effects other than weight loss. Since obesity and weight-related health problems are becoming more pervasive in today’s world, contemporary scientists are studying the plant and analytically assessing the claims about it. Contemporary business people are close behind, trying to determine if they can make a fortune from Scottish weight-loss tubers.

 

Lathyrus linifolius

Whatever the end results of theses studies and hopes, I wish to apologize for conflating the two plants and offer my thanks to Mr. Goff. All of this is a massive vindication for Linnaeus who established binomial nomenclature to avoid precisely this sort of misunderstanding. To wrap up this article, here is a statue of the great taxonomist which was given to my alma mater by the king of Sweden!

 

A statue of Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), Founder of Binomial Taxonomy...

I’m a globalist who favors free trade and open markets, so I hope people won’t take me the wrong way when I take a certain amount of umbrage with today’s capitalism.  A new generation of leaders and thinkers need to rework the way in which decisions are made and resources are allocated. The actions of the market—which so many economists and businesspeople regard as sacrosanct–are hemming us in to a stale repetitive worldview, which is ultimately a trap.

The way we live now...

Capitalism is very good at creating captivating plastic rubbish, dangerous motor-vehicles, elaborate insurance for said vehicles, and erection pills, but it is less gifted at facilitating fundamental scientific research.  Most of the really important technological innovations of the last century came from the military, from universities, or from crazy monopolies (before they got busted up).  Capitalists refined these ideas and made them marketable, but they were not interested in the initial open-ended “blue sky” research which was expensive and did not always proceed logically to money making technologies.  Virtually every part of the aerospace industry originated in military technology for solving cold war (or World War I & II) tactical problems. The internet grew up out of defense department computer and communications experiments. The capacitor was created in one of Ma Bell’s laboratories before AT&T was broken up. Antibiotics were discovered by an absent-minded professor with a messy lab!

Capitalists are necessary to refine and popularize great ideas, but they do not see farther than the bottom line…and the truly worthwhile discoveries are lurking out there in the wilderness beyond immediate financial recompense.

Yes, yes but where exactly are we going?

There are indeed avenues by which money travels into pure research. Rich bankers give money to universities and research hospitals. Taxpayers give money to NASA and the military.  All of us give money to monopolies (which have an insidious way of forming despite legislation prohibiting them). These avenues are not enough.  We are stagnating.  Ask anyone.  Or just look outside at a fossil fuel & automobile based world which seems pretty fundamentally similar to the 1920’s.

Dammit, that's what I figured. Can't you think bigger here for just a few minutes?

There is a world of wonder out there and our future could be bright indeed: By the end of my life we should have nanobots that eat cancers and repair brain damage. We should have space elevators and brilliant robot superservants which (or maybe I should say who) beat the Turing test.  We should be crafting true artificial ecosystems that exist outside of this world (because it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are too many of us). However, the investment bankers and wallstreet power brokers need to rethink the utility of the (musty oligarchical) world they are building, and politicians are going to have to think beyond the end of their term. Otherwise the glowing future is never going to come.

A probabilistic functional gene network of the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (Image: Insuk Lee, Michael Ahn, Edward Marcotte, Seung Yon Rhee/Carnegie Institution for Science)

I have no idea how to incentivize these things better. Maybe we should ask an economist. But don’t you want to live a much longer life? Don’t you want space elevators and robot servants? Then write to your congressperson and ask them to send more money towards research (or better yet, vote for a new legislator—none of the current ones seem much good).  If you are a stockholder, vote out the current board.  I am blaming our shortsightedness on our leaders but they are a manifestation of all of us.  Our vaunted capitalist system needs to incentivize vastly more scientific research and it needs to reward bold long-term thinking (rather than myopic money-grubbing). We are going to have to stop thinking small and greedy–only then can we create a future which is truly big enough and great enough for our bright dreams.

A Bernal Sphere (painting by Don Davis)

The Iron Crown of Lombardy

I have written about the ancient Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Europe’s other truly ancient crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which doubles as a reliquary containing a nail reputedly used to crucify Jesus.  Myth relates that the nail was originally the property of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.  It is said that the sacred nail was later given to Princess Theodelinda of the Lombards in some unfathomable act of Byzantine diplomacy and she then incorporated it into her crown (which was given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in recognition for converting the Lombards to Christianity).

Although the actual age and make of the Iron Crown are unknown and shrouded in myth, laboratory tests performed on bits of wax and caustic from the crown seem to indicate it was made in the middle of the 8th century AD.  It is constructed of six segments of gold and enamel hinged together.  In addition to its famous band of iron, it is decorated with 22 jewels set inside relief forms of flowers and crosses.  The crown is small and may be missing segments (or may have actually been intended for some other use).

An illustration of the Iron Crown of Lombardy

It seems the Iron Crown was a sort of afterthought to the Holy Roman Emperors who traditionally traveled to Rome for their imperial coronations.  On the way back to Central Europe they would stop in Lombardy to be crowned as Kings of Italy. Napoleon followed this tradition and placed the crown on his own head in 1805 in Milan.  He even went so far as to proclaim the ancient ceremonial (grabby) words of coronation which go with the throne of Lombardy, “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche. (God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it.)” Admittedly he said the phrase in French.

Whoever wears the crown is King of Italy (albeit not always a united Italy), but it has not been claimed since 1838 when Emperor Ferdinand I proclaimed himself King of Lombardy and Venetia .  It can still be found in the cathedral of Monza near Milan where it has been for more than a millennium (except for the years when it was kept in Vienna among Ferdinand’s crown jewels).

Monza Cathedral where the Iron Crown is located today

The Iron Crown also has a rich literary tradition and appears in many stories and fables.  My favorite allusion comes in Moby Dick when Ahab watches a sunset and fantasizes that he is wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy as he contemplates his own madness.

Speaking of craziness, although I have no evidence, I know in my heart that Silvio Berlusconi has found a way to spend some time with the Crown of Lombardy and a mirror.  If you think about the nature of the current Prime Minister of Italy (who is also Italy’s wealthiest private citizen and a Lombard from Milan) you will come to the same conclusion.  The real question is whether he was wearing anything else when he put it on and how many other people were involved.

"Thats-a not nice! What did-a Silvio do to you, eh?"

Hellebore

Spring has not sprung in Brooklyn–not at all.  However, as winter marches on and the days slowly become longer, the garden begins to beckon. Nature’s ancient power will not be denied.  My garden may be ice and mud but, out there in the wider New York area, the very first flowers of the season have already come into bloom.  Looking at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden bloom list reveals that the hellebores have just opened up (unless you are reading this at some later point, in which case its still a great link).

Hellebores are also called Lenten roses because they come into blossom so early.  The name is a complete misnomer since they are actually part of the Ranunculaceae family along with buttercups and, um, ranunculuses.  The plants are very beautiful.  The pure white H. niger blooms even in the midst of frost and snow. Helleborus orientalis is widely grown for the many delicate colors of its flowers.  Despite its ghastly name, Helleborus foetidus is known and loved for its pale green flowers which stand out prettily against its dark evergreen leaves. Do not, however, be taken in by the beauty of the hellebores: they contain a very potent toxin. Some species such as H. viridis contain compounds which cause ringing of the ears, confusion, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, slowing of the heart, and ultimately death from cardiac arrest.  Even the virginal white Helleborus niger causes burning sensations, oral sores and terrifying gastritis when ingested so do not eat these plants!

Helleborus Niger

Hellebores grow widely across Europe and the near east, however the greatest concentration of species can be found around the Balkans.  Many myths and legends have come to be associated with the dangerous plants.  The flowers were sacred to Hecate the underworld godess of magic, sorcery, and crossroads.  This association with witchcraft and the underworld has made the hellebore the subject of much dark poetry.

Agh! It's Hecate!

In the absence of useful remedies, ancient Greek physicians treated psychological disorders with hellebore.  It has been speculated that Alexander the Great may have died from hellebore which he was self-administering.  Hellebore holds a further place in history as an early chemical warfare agent.  During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, the Greek besiegers poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore.  So many of the defenders were undone by the herb’s purgative effects that the city fell and the Greeks slaughtered all of the inhabitants.

Hmm, that got darker then I intended, my real point was to enjoy the first lovely blooms of the year.  Spring is finally on its way!

Pam's Early Purple Hellebore available from Pineknot farms

 

The Bailey Fountain (beautifully photographed with the arch behind it by Wally Gobetz)

I love fountains and my home, New York City, is an excellent place to witness all manner of lovely ornamental waterworks.  No doubt other bloggers have extolled Manhattan’s many famous fountains, so I thought I would briefly write about my favorite fountain in Brooklyn, the Bailey Fountain, which is located at Grand Army Plaza at the north end of Prospect Park.  The fountain lies beyond the huge triumphal arch which celebrates the victorious conclusion of the American Civil War.  Both fountain and arch lie on a traffic island surrounded at all times by dangerous rivers of vehicles.

Wisdom and Felicity form the Bailey Fountain (another fine photo by Wally Gobetz)

The Bailey Fountain was conceived of during the late nineteen twenties but it was built in 1932.  The tension between these two very different eras is noticeable in the ferocity and severity of the classical figures.  The fountain seems to be an allegory of abundance however the individual figures look like they instead portray greed, abandon, and resignation. The fountain is the work of architect Edgerton Swarthout and the bronze sculptures were crafted by Eugene Savage. I think the final work might transcend what either had initially intended.

The Bailey Fountain (photo from "Tugster: a Waterblog")

Bailey fountain portrays a pair of magnificent bronze nudes standing on the deck of a ship. The two respectively represent wisdom and felicity.  I assume the man is wisdom and the woman is felicity, but it is not easy to tell because she does not look happy and he does not look wise.  Although they both look powerful the figures seem wan and resigned.  Additionally, although they are connected, their backs are forever turned to each other. A bestial Neptune sprawls on the prow as grim Tritons sound horns and writhe on both sides of the boat.  Strange frog and fish faces spew white water around the tormented figures.  The boat and its inhabitants represent humankind and the figures in the water represent chance and the forces of nature.  When contemplating the fountain it is easy to pitch your mind back to the time of the great depression and see Neptune and his fierce watery compatriots as the unquenchable appetite and greed which spawned the many hardships of that era.

FFigure of King Neptune from the Bailey Fountain (www.nyc-architecture.com)

The Bailey fountain replaced a bizarre Victorian electric water show which was the rainbow-colored high-pressured wonder of its time (but which did not hold up well since it combined early electrical technology, 19th century plumbing, and Brooklyn winters).  I first saw the Bailey fountain in the mid-nineties when it was broken and dry: large portions of the work were painted the same aqua blue as swimming pools.  The plaza seemed deserted except for the eternal traffic, the sinister vine covered trees, and a huge tribe of rats.  Great hunks of granite pavement had been broken apart by frost heave (or some other urban force) and melancholy pervaded the scene.  A lone homeless person sidled up and sadly informed me that the fountain was haunted and, in the lugubrious twilight, I half believed him.  Today, however, the fountain has been restored, and you can contemplate its enigmatic meaning in a much more pleasant surrounding.

Bronze triton from the Bailey Fountain (photo from "Tugster: a Water Blog")

The Spanish Dancer, Hexabranchus sanguineus (photo by David Doubilet, National Geographic)

Nudibranchs are among my favorite animals to look at.  These tropical marine mollusks feature extraordinary colors and fantastical shapes which would make the most flamboyant nineteen eighties rock star weep with envy. One of the largest and most powerful nudibranchs is also one of the most beautiful.  Hexabranchus sanguineus lives thoughout the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean and can be found from the Red Sea to Hawaii. The creature’s common English name is the Spanish Dancer because, when it swims free, it undulates its bright red paradodia in the manner of a flamenco dancer.

A Spanish Flamenco Dancer

Hexabranchus sanguineus

Although the Spanish Dancer is surprisingly quick and agile when it uses this means of locomotion, it has an auxiliary method for getting around and can also be found crawling in a much more traditional slug-like manner.  The creature grows to be 40 centimeters or larger and has several distinctive color patterns ranging from bright red to bright yellow to pale pink (or sometimes various combinations of these colors).

The Spanish dancer can afford to be extravagantly colorful because it contains toxic chemicals inside its body (again one is drawn to comparisons with 1980’s musical entertainers).  Predators therefore avoid the creature as it proceeds about the reef feeding on various sponges and bryozoans.  Spanish Dancers are hermaphrodites.  Although each Spanish dancer possesses the reproductive organs of both genders, it is very rare for an individual to fertilize itself.  When they do mate, the parent carefully deposits a large pink rosette of eggs which is almost as distinctive and lovely as the adult.

The Egg Rose of a Spanish Dancer (photo by Peter Korn)

The Spanish dancer is sometimes inhabited by one or more Emperor Shrimps.  These little arthropods do not help their mollusk host, but neither do they harm it (a commensal relationship). Chameleon-like the little shrimp can adapt to the extraordinary coloring of their vivid hosts.

An Emperor shrimp living on a Spanish Dancer (photo by Goos van der Heide)

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

Journey of the Magi (Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461, fresco)

One of the metaphors commonly used to describe the entirety of humankind is the image of a parade. We hear it all the time and hardly think about it: the parade of nations, the march of progress, the triumph of man….I think it is a good image to hold in one’s head when thinking about people taken as a collective entity (and despite our pretensions of self-sufficiency, these days we are very much a super organism like a clonal colony or a hive of army ants).

Here’s how I picture it.

Imagine a new frontier (be it a virgin land, outer space, a scientific breakthrough, a manufacturing notion…anything).  Out there today are theoreticians and dreamers who are trying to envision a way to use new resources and new ideas.  Then suddenly someone has an epiphany based on a half-heard sentence, or a daydream, or a happy column of numbers and the true parade commences.  First come the explorers—robotic probes, Ponce de Leon, bathyspheres, runners-of-the-woods, and lonely obsessive men in labcoats.  Next are the early adapters: hipsters, the curious, the desperate, and the visionaries.  The progress begins to swell as politicians, business leaders, and media stars proceed past. Upon the backs and shoulders of the multitude, the great and the mighty are carried like juggernauts as ticker tape falls down around them and they preen on top of gilded palanquins.  Soldiers and legionnaires ride by frowning in their glittering armor.  The middle class pass by in sensible cars and comfortable shoes holding the hands of children with happy smiling faces.

Next come rank upon rank of the underemployed and the working poor. They are struggling to get along beneath the yellow checks cashed signs and the shadow of the workhouse. Finally at the back of the parade are the old and the sick.  The diseased and the lost are laboring to keep up.  The wounded conscript is lying in the muck barely crawling forward as the parade leaves him further and further behind.  A senile nonagenarian sits down in a rocking chair and never gets up.

And behind us all there is the detritus of our once great endeavors.  The landscape is strewn with rubbish and cast-offs.  A great winding pathway is built of garbage from gum wrappers to whale bone corsets to smashed bronze cannons to gnawed mammoth bones.  Along the empty road there are old cities waning away to irrelevance and there are cities entirely lost—burned, abandoned, or buried in the sand–going back to ancient Eridu itself.  And there is an endless trail of corpses slowly returning to the mud.

Ultimately the trail leads back to the dry highlands of eastern Africa, but where the parade is going is anyone’s guess.  Picture it in your head dear reader.  Smile and wave while the golden light shines on you and the horns play impossibly beautiful music tinged with sadness…

Lupercalia painted by Domenico Beccafumi

It’s St. Valentine’s Day and many newspapers are filled with complaints about how the occasion is a made-up “Hallmark” holiday.  Valentine’s Day is indeed made up (rather like all holidays) but it wasn’t made up recently and its pedigree stretches back before Hallmark Cards…or English…or Christianity.

The holiday we now celebrate as St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia–one of the most important festivals of the Roman year after Saturnalia.  Lupercalia was a fertility festival which celebrated the coming rebirth of the year in spring.  The day was partly in celebration of Lupa, the mythical quasi-divine she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.   But it was more actually in celebration of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.  The festival was overseen by the Luperci, priests of the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed.  The Luperci sacrificed two goats and a dog (the flamen dialis) to the gods of the grotto.  After a feast, the priests flayed the animals into long bloody strips. Then, clad in goatskins (or, more traditionally, in nothing), the young men among the luperci would dash about the city lashing young women with the bloody strips of skin.  This custom was believed to bring fertility and to prevent pain and difficulty during pregnancy and birth.

The most dramatic part of the holiday is described online at stvalentinesday.org:

Another unique custom of Feast of Lupercalia was the pairing of young boys and girls who otherwise lived a strictly separated lives. During the evening, all the young marriageable girls used to place a chit of their name in a big urn. Each young man used to draw out a name of a girl from the urn and became paired with that girl for the rest of the year. Quite often, the paired couple would fall in love and marry.

So Valentine’s Day has a very ancient tradition of matchmaking and romance–but with an entirely Roman nature which would make eharmony blush.

Among the Potawatomi nation, one of the most important clans was the fish clan.  Fish clan members were thought most likely to be teachers, medicine people, and diplomats.  They carefully observed the natural world, interpreted their experiences and passed this information on. The fish clan constituted the intellectuals of Potawatomi society.  Two of the most important fish clan families were the Wawaazisiigs and the Maanamegwugs, named after the Bullhead catfish and the channel catfish respectively.  Their ideas provided the philosophical underpinnings of the tribes understanding of life.  The catfish was a respected spirit guide.

That introduction, however, is a bit of a red herring for today’s post, which features tattoos of catfish.  I wonder if the individuals who decided to get permanent images of catfishes etched in their skin with needles were thinking along the same lines as the Potawatomi elders.  Did they hope for the deep thinking of the Wawaazisiigs and the Maanamegwugs?  Were they just enchanted by the charisma and personality of the Siluriformes?  Or were they just intoxicated or hopelessly young?  Unfortunately we have no context other than the images.

Whatever the case, here is a gallery of catfish tattoos which I found around the web. Enjoy!

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