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During the 1950’s, astronomers using the first radio telescopes started discovering a mysterious class of heavenly objects.  Certain discreet points in the sky blazed brightly with low-frequency electromagnetic radiation–yet when the scientists looked at the spots through conventional optic telescopes, it was impossible to discover a source for this energy.  Some of these radio flares came from incredibly faint smudges and some issued from what seemed like empty space. Astronomers called the mystery flares “quasi-stellar radio sources” (QUASAR) because they believed such discreetly focused energy must come from stellar-like objects.  Further study revealed that the photons issuing from quasars were red-shifted, which meant that the quasars were rushing away from the solar system at high velocities.

An Artist's interpretation of a Quasar

Only in the 60’s did optical telescopes become powerful enough to associate certain quasars with the cores of extremely distant galaxies.  The reason no luminous objects were initially associated with quasars was because quasars turned out to be profoundly distant—the closest were billions of light years away.  They were visible to early radio telescopes only because of their immense energy output and their beam-like focus.

An X-ray image shows the quasar PKS 1127-145 (credit: NASA)

Scientific consensus concerning these massive energy flares did not fully coalesce until the 1980s.  Today astronomers believe that quasars are powered by accretion of material into super-massive black holes which lie at the center of dynamic young galaxies.  Such phenomena are called “active galactic nuclei” (AGN). As radio telescopes and time-space modeling grew more sophisticated it became obvious that quasars (which produce low-frequency radiation) were not the only energy flares associated with AGN.  Giant beams of different spectrums of electromagnetic radiation are possible depending on the galaxy.  Quasars and their ilk produce incomprehensible amounts of energy—the most luminous active galactic nuclei radiate exotic energy at a rate that can exceed the output of an average galaxy by a thousand times (equivalent to the energy from two trillion suns).  To produce such energy the brightest known quasars consume roughly 1000 solar masses of matter within an earth year (which is equivalent to swallowing/burning 600 Earths per minute).


Galaxies change as they age. Today the Milky Way Galaxy is a mostly responsible middle aged galaxy (which only occasionally cuts lose with something crazy like the luminous blue hypergiant Eta Carinae) however there are reasons to think that in the past the Milky Way was a deeply troubled teen-aged galaxy ablaze with self-destructive fury just like the AGN galaxies we see at the far edges of space.  Assuming they exist, alien astronomers in galaxies billions of light years away probably see our galaxy as a blazing quasar–because they are looking at its distant violent past.

Active Galaxies Collide (painting by Don Dixon for "Scientific American")

Of course galaxies are not always quiescent.  Some astrophysicists theorize that in 3 to 5 billion years, when the Andromeda Galaxy collides with the Milky Way, the black holes in the center of one or both galaxies could begin swallowing up matter (or could merge) reigniting a super bright fountain of high energy particles again visible throughout the universe.

I am combining two important science discoveries from this week into one (small) post. This week astrophysicists working on the Keplar program discovered the three smallest known exoplanets (each of which is smaller than Earth) in orbit around a little red dwarf star.  In a completely unrelated field (and scale) of science, biologists in Papua New Guinea discovered the world’s tiniest known vertebrates, two species of miniscule rain forest frogs named Paedophryne amauensis and Paedophryne swiftorum.

Artist's concept of the KOI-961 solar system (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The exoplanets were discovered by a team led by scientists from Caltech who used data from NASA’s mission in conjunction with observations from the Palomar Observatory, (outside San Diego), and the W.M. Keck Observatory (on Mauna Kea in Hawaii). The three planets orbit tiny red dwarf star KOI-961 which has a volume only one-sixth that of our sun (making the star only about 70% bigger than the planet Jupiter). The planets are all very close to their star, and the most distant, takes less than two days to orbit around KOI-961. The three worlds have volumes of 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth.

image credit: Caltech

Red dwarf stars make up four out of five stars in the galaxy, but because they are so small and dim, the Keplar probe has only been assessing a relatively tiny group of red dwarf stars for the possibility of planets.  The fact that studying a small sample of red dwarfs already revealed three terrestrial planets strongly suggests that such planets are commonly found around red dwarfs. John Johnson, of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena summarized the data by saying, “This is the tiniest solar system found so far…It’s actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.”

An adult Paedophryne amauensis posing on a dime

The discovery of the tiny frogs was made by a team of zoologists in New Guinea led by Chris Austin, a herpetologist trained at LSU.   The team was in the forest of New Guinea when they heard a faint metallic song coming from the leaf litter on the forest floor.  Unable to see the animal producing the faint chorus of “tink” noises, the biologists grabbed up handfuls of leaf litter into a large transparent bag, and began carefully sorting it–expecting a singing insect to emerge.  They were stunned when the miniscule adult frog hopped off a leaf.  The fully grown creature only measured 7.7 millimeters (less than one-third of an inch).

Named Paedophryne amauensis the little amphibians are not just the smallest known frogs–they are also believed to be the smallest free-living vertebrates on Earth (supplanting a minute 8mm long translucent Indonesian carp for that title).  The frogs do not undergo tadpole metamorphosis in water like other frogs, but are born hopping.  They spend their entire lives in the leaf litter where they prey on miniscule arthropods and other invertebrates.  A similar species Paedophryne swiftorum was also discovered by the team, although P. swiftorum frogs were nearly a millimeter larger.

In an interview, the team leader Chris Austin said, “We now believe that these creatures aren’t just biological oddities, but instead represent a previously undocumented ecological guild — they occupy a habitat niche that no other vertebrate does.”

When I was younger and happier I worked as a drudge in an Investment Bank.  Actually, remove the happiness from that first sentence—the place was one of the most toxic & unpleasant environments ever.  Nobody there was happy.  The bank sucked away human life force…and so I destroyed it from within!  It’s gone now.  You’re welcome, world.

That all sounds pretty bad-ass, but unfortunately this story reads less like a John Grisham thriller and more like a Russian folktale about a slow witted bumpkin who kills a sorcerer by accident.  Although I worked at the investment bank, I was in no way an investment banker (thank goodness).  The bankers and analysts were all stressed-out type-A personalities who spent 14-18 hours a day currying favor and staring at columns of numbers.  A great many of them were hooked on amphetamines or other drugs.

I worked as a temp in the legal department where my job was to redline legal documents–a sort of grown-up “spot-the-difference” puzzle where one compares two nearly identical legal documents to see if the opposing bank has treacherously slipped new provisions into the contract (legal jobs tend to involve this kind of drudgery).  I also helped update and distribute officers and directors lists—a task which was especially onerous since the officers and directors changed with blinding speed.  Also the bank was really dozens of different legal entities and shell-corporations, each of which had its own board and officers all of whom overlapped considerably.  I completed these monotonous tasks in a freezing cold plastic workstation visible to everyone from all sides. My only joy was to surreptitiously cut arctic animals out of post-it notes with a pair of office scissors.  I had an entire Siberian ecosystem by the time I left.

The bank was on a 30somethingeth floor of a dull 80’s skyscraper in midtown.  The bankers were forever trying to modify the office to suit the whim of the latest leaders (who were always changing—see above), so what should have been a simple series of embedded corridors was instead a shifting warren of slate-green upholstery, sharp glass edges, faux mahogany, injured egos, and construction detritus.  The only constant (other than cold and fear) was an arrhythmic grandfather clock, which wheezed away the interminable hours.  Once I was sent to deliver a document to an obscure department on the far side of the bank.  On the way back, I got lost in a newly created hallway swathed with plastic sheets and plywood.  As I scurried along the passage I heard loud impatient footsteps behind me.  I turned and was horrified to see the president of the bank, a cold bossy woman, walking immediately behind me.  Why was she walking so fast?  How could I escape her? Then it occurred to me: there should be a doorway to the kitchen/breakroom ahead. I flung open the door to escape, but the president had ceased her rapid walking and was staring directly at me, her mouth hanging open in an “O” of surprise. With a touch of élan, I opened the door wider in order to let her pass (I was surprised she knew about the shortcut through the kitchen) and then I noticed the room beyond the door had pink tiles!  It was the women’s bathroom!  I screamed shrilly, dropped the door, and ran away down the hall.  It was not my best career moment… fortunately a new president was appointed shortly afterwards, and then another new president after him!

Anyway you want to hear about the destruction of the bank.

Above the little cubicle I was stuck in, there was a big air vent.  It roared incessantly all day, continuously delivering a stream of cold stale air on my shoulders.  One day, when the legal department was unexpectedly empty, I decided to try to do something about the vent.  Balancing precariously on top of my workspace I reached up into the evil grate and found a tiny rusted lever which would not budge, no matter how I pulled at it.  Desperate not to be caught, I swung my whole weight at the lever.  There was a rusty scream, a shower of dirty particles and a great dull “BOOM”.  I sprang down into my chair and looked busy, as martinets in pinstripes manifested from nowhere, but I heard an alveolar shift up inside the ducts of the skyscraper.   The hateful cold air was now directed somewhere else!

My moment of triumph it was short-lived.  The top boss of the legal department (famous for OCD & prickly disposition) came back to find that her fancy office was unbearably cold.  A normal person would have summoned the building engineers–who probably would have traced the problem back to the closed vent.  Fortunately that was not the way she did business.  Her first action was to have her paralegals find the contract with the building and flag the engineering/maintenance section.  Armed with contractual righteousness, she called the property firm and ordered them to raise the temperature on the floor by 15 degrees.

The legal department was on the cold dark side of the building.  The important bankers and financiers were portly men with window offices on the sunny side of the skyscraper.  While the rest of the bank suddenly became hot, their offices became ovens.  To lower the temperature, the bankers started working their way through successive levels of workmen, technicians, and engineers (I heard the angry conversations in the lobby) only to find that the temperature had already been changed by the legal department.  Both sides then began a violent squabble about the thermostat.

"...maybe I should go. You guys settle this on your own."

One day I just didn’t go back to the bank—in fact that was the only job I quit outright with no other prospects.  Later on I found out that, a few months after I left, the bank was gobbled up in its entirety by a huge New York capital management firm.  Perhaps it is wrong not to assume that some other factor was responsible for that place’s demise (its dysfunctional office culture or rapidly changing leadership, for example…or maybe the wave of banking mergers in the nineties) but I think anyone who has worked at an office where everyone is fighting about the temperature can correctly assign credit to me.

To celebrate the winter solstice, Ferrebeekeeper presented a gallery of winter monarchs—icy kings, queens, and princesses who symbolically represent the frozen majesty of winter.  However European history contains a real “winter king” Frederick V (1596 – 1632), a Calvinist intellectual and mystic who was famous for building the Hortus Palatinus, one of the most renowned of Baroque gardens.  Frederick V was not called “the winter king” because he personified the savage nature of winter.  He received the nickname from enemies who derisively predicted that he would only be king of Bohemia for a single winter–and his enemies were entirely right.  The short life of Frederick V was a series of missteps, blunders, catastrophes, and regrets.  Today he is principally remembered for starting the Thirty Years War—Europe’s most destructive conflict until the age of Napoleon (or maybe until World War I).

Portrait of Frederick (Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, 1613)

Frederick V was born as heir to the Electoral Palatinate, a powerful feudal territory whose lord was one of the hereditary electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor.  His father, Count Palatinate Frederick IV, died young from “extravagant living” (Frederick IV was an alcoholic who left control of his lands to a regent while he sat in the palace and drank).  Thus, when Frederick V was 14 he became one of Germany’s most powerful lords—although shadows were already gathering around him.  The Golden Bull of 1356 which determined important constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman Empire stipulated that “Frederick’s closest male relative would serve as his guardian and as regent of Electoral Palatinate until Frederick reached the age of majority.”  The tangled ancestry of German nobility is evident in Frederick’s crest–so chaotically garish that it would even make Nascar proud—but it was determined that (Catholic) Count Palatine of Neuburg was his closest relative.  Frederick V’s family was traditionally Calvinist and so this solution was not acceptable.  The ensuing dispute eventually resulted in an early majority for young Ferdinand V (who became his own master at the age of 17) but it ensured a toxic legacy among the religiously divided Electors.

The Coat of Arms of Frederick V of the Palatinate...Good grief...

Frederick V also was married at the age of 16 to Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James I) at the royal chapel at the Palace of Whitehall. In 1614, when he was 18,  Frederick attended a meeting of the Protestant Union (a group of powerful German Lords who championed the Protestant cause).  During the meeting, Frederick became ill with a fever.  Although he had displayed some initial promise as a ruler, after the illness Frederick’s character changed.  He became depressed and listless and left many critical decisions to his chancellor, Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (the same minister who had ruled on behalf of Frederick IV).  It was against such a background that the crown of Bohemia was thrust upon him.

Frederick V wearing the Crown of St. Wenceslas (Gerard van Honthorst, 1634, oil on canvas)

Bohemia was an elective monarchy which chose its own king, but, despite this high title, said king answered to the Holy Roman Emperor.  In fact since 1555 the Holy Roman Emperor had always also been the King of Bohemia, but thanks to religious controversy and schism sweeping Europe, Bohemia’s Protestant electors were in no mood to elect and affirm the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II.  Frederick V, callow, melancholic, and sick, was elected as king of Bohemia in 1619 amidst the turmoil of the Bohemian revolt.  Frederick was crowned with the (magical cursed) Crown of Saint Wenceslas in St. Vitus Cathedral on 4 November 1619. At the time Bohemia was not exactly a proper kingdom (having been held for so long by the Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick V soon found he had only very limited ability to raise funds.  This became important when Emperor Ferdinand II decided to take the field to contest Bohemia.  The Emperor’s army was ably led by Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, who seized Frederick V’s ancestral lands in the Central Palatinate before marching on Prague.  On 8 November 1620, Frederick V’s army was destroyed in the Battle of White Mountain.  Bohemia was lost, its people were cruelly ground beneath the popish & authoritarian foot of Ferdinand II, and Frederick V was forced into exile–first to Silesia and ultimately to the Hague in Holland.

The Battle of White Mountain (Peter Snayers, 1620)

Since he maintained the pageantry and splendor of a royal court while in the Hague, Frederick V quickly lavished away the huge sums of money which foreign potentates had granted him to pursue his cause.  He was unlucky too. On a trip to view the captured Spanish treasure fleet,  his boat capsized, which caused his eldest son, Frederick Henry of the Palatinate to drown (which also drowned hopes for a marriage between Frederick Henry and a Spanish princess).  Frederick V alienated and refused Gustavus Adolphus, the one sovereign who could have regained his throne and lands for him (although Gustavus would also have demanded that Frederick V become a subject).  Frederick died in1632, of a “pestilential fever”. His internal organs were buried in Oppenheim, but his preserved body was slated for final burial elsewhere.  Unfortunately, while in transit Frederick V’s dead body somehow got caught up in the Spanish assault on Frankenthal and vanished.  His final resting place is unknown (although we do know where his internal organs are interred).

Frederick V's daughter Sophia, dressed as an Indian (Painted by her sister, Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate around 1644)

Frederick’s life was ruined by reaching for a crown which should never have been his (and which, at the time, actually conferred little royal dignity or authority anyway). Yet this troubling legacy of ruination resulted in an end he would probably never have foreseen.  Frederick V had married the daughter of James I of England.  England had its own religious sectarian problems which were ended by Parliament when it signed the Act of Settlement in 1701.  The document settled the English secession for once and all on an obscure Protestant heir—Frederick’s  youngest daughter Sophia, Electress of Hanover.  Sophia, a patroness of art, philosophy, music, and culture, died in 1714, just before Queen Anne of England passed away, but her son George inherited the crown that would have been hers.  All subsequent monarchs of Great Britain were (and are) direct descendants of the unlucky Winter King.

Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

A previous Ferrebeekeeper post described the largest living bivalve mollusk–the magnificent giant clam which is indigenous to the South Pacific. However there are other large bivalve mollusks out there which are nearly as remarkable (and possibly even stranger looking).  One of these creatures, the geoduck clam (Panopea generosa), causes a unique amount of controversy, pride, consternation, and outright greed along the Northwest coast of North America where it lives

Geoduck Clam (Panopea generosa)

Geoducks are the largest burrowing clams in the world.  Specimens weighing up to three pounds (0.5–1.5 kg) are widely known and 15 kilogram monsters are alleged to exist.  Although the clams’ shells can grow quite large–sometimes exceeding 20 cm (8 inches) in length–the outstanding features of geoducks are their obscene siphons/necks which regularly reach 1 metre (3.3 ft) long (and can reputedly grow to twice that length).  Thanks to these long necks, geoducks can bury themselves deep in the coastal sands while still filtering huge amounts of plankton rich water through their digestive system. .  Geoduck (which is apparently pronounced “gooey duck”) is a word from the Lushootseed language, a tongue spoken by the Nisqually tribe.  It means “dig deep” although the Chinese name for the clams “xiàngbábàng” (which means “elephant-trunk clams”) seems equally apt.

Geoducks of Wasshington and British Colombia do not have many natural enemies (although apparently in Alaskan waters they are preyed on by sea otters and dogfish).  If left undisturbed, the bivalves can live to the fabulous age of a century-and-a-half.  Lately however, the geoducks, which dwell in giant cold-water colonies beneath Puget Sound, are being gobbled up en masse by humankind.  Although Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Pacific Northwest found the suggestive sight of the clams to be unbearable, the mollusks are hugely popular in China and Asia, where price can exceed US$168/lb (US$370/kg). Chinese diners believe that the geoduck’s…manly shape indicates that the unpreposessing mollusk will act as an aphrodisiac for those who consume its flesh. Price has shot upwards as China’s economy has grown.

Wow--Puget Sound is Beautiful.

In order to cash in on this bonanza, aquaculturists are attempting to stake out larger and larger swaths of coastline as geoduck farms. Such use of the tidelands causes consternation to real estate developers. Not only do developers object to the unaesthetic appearance of PVC pipes used as nurseries for juvenile geoducks, but the interests of both parties are entirely opposite.  Coastal land development involves bulkheaded beachfronts, deforested land, and nitrogen waste from gardens and septic systems—all of which are inimical to successful geoduck beds.

As the conflict rages on, some people (figuratively!) embrace the geoduck and its strange appearance for non-financial reasons. The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington has adopted the remarkable burrowing clam as a mascot.  Although the school’s official seal features a conifer tree, the unofficial coat of arms features a geoduck rampant d’or on a rondel azure (or however you say that in heraldry speak).  Additionally the school’s teams are all named the geoducks and they actually have a guy dressed up like a giant filter feeding clam to root for them.

"Speedy" the Geoduck--don't even ask about the fight song....

Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.


Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

The Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)

The genus Lynx consists of four furtive species of medium-sized wildcats which inhabit giant swaths of the northern hemisphere.  The cats are solitary hunters which prey on a wide range of animals including lagomorphs (rabbits and pikas), rodents, foxes, sheep, goats, various species of deer and chamois, as well as gamebirds such as grouses, turkeys, ptarmigans, and waterfowl.  This list is hardly comprehensive–all four species of lynx are opportunistic predators which will catch and eat all sorts of insects, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.

A Lynx Finishes Off a Hare.

Lynxes share common features such as bobbed tails, large paws, tufted ears, buff spotted coats, ruffs under the neck, and long whiskers.  All four species also utilize a common reproductive strategy.  Lynxes and bobcats mate in winter and the female then raises her litter of two to four kittens over the course of a second winter.  After one winter with their mother, the young adults move out on their own. Lynxes like to sleep in sheltered dens provided by caves, deadfalls, or hollow logs.  They are strongly territorial (although males maintain larger territories which overlap each other and may contain the territories of many females).

Baby Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Although the classification of the family Felidae is continuously being revised, the current members of the Lynx genus are as follow:

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the largest lynx, which ranges from Europe, across all of Siberia to China.  Male Eurasian Lynxes weigh from18 to 30 kg (40 to 66 lb) and can stand up to 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder.  Like all lynxes, the Eurasian lynx is a stalking predator which silently shadows its prey before pouncing for the kill.

The Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) a specialist of the arctic forests of Canada which preys largely on snowfoot hares.  The Canadian lynx has huge paws which spread its weight out over the snow in the manner of snowshoes.  In winter the Canadian lynx grows a thick multilayered coat.

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is an adaptable predator which ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Southern Canada deep into Mexico’s deserts.  An adaptable generalist, the bobcat can live in any type of forest, as well as in deserts, swamps, and mountains.  The successful creatures even live in agricultural or developed lands.

In contrast to the bobcat, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is the world’s most endangered cat species. At present there may be fewer than a hundred left in the wild.  Once overhunted, the Iberian lynx now suffers from habitat loss (thanks to overdevelopment) and attendant traffic fatalities.  In Spain and Portugal rabbit populations (the Iberian lynx’s preferred prey) have crashed because of myxomatosis, a viral disease from the Americas which was introduced to Europe by a short-sighted French bacteriologist.  Finally, the once diverse forests of Iberia were replaced with agricultural monoculture which exacerbated the ecosystem destruction.

The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus)

If the Iberian lynx does indeed go extinct, it will be the first cat to do so since Smilodon.  Fortunately the other 3 lynxes are all relatively secure in numbers (although habitat destruction sometimes drives them out of specific areas–particularly in Western Europe).

There is a bobcat (Lynx rufus) somewhere in there I think.

Superb stealthiness, nocturnal habits, and highly effective camouflage render the lynxes nearly invisible to humans (although people do sometimes hear their unearthly haunting yowls at night).  Because of this elusiveness (combined with their keen eyesight and hearing) lynxes have acquired a somewhat otherworldly reputation in folklore and myth.  In ancient legends and stories, bobcats and lynxes were said to hold secret wisdom hidden from the comprehension of men or other creatures.  They were animals of augury and foresight which occasionally appeared to sorcerers, oracles, and shamans with occult knowledge.  According to “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews, “The Greeks believed the lynx could see through solid objects. In fact it is named for Lynceus, a mythological character who could also do this.” During the middle ages and the Renaissance, the lynx’s ability to see without being seen was linked with the omniscient vision of Christ.

The Crest of Accademia dei Lincei

The long association of lynxes with sharp-sightedness lingered into the early modern world where the lynx’s piercing vision became a metaphor for scholarly insight and scientific breakthrough.   The world’s first Academy of Science (well, the first one which wasn’t disbanded by the Inquisition) took its name from the lynx:  The Accademia dei Lincei, (“Academy of the Lynx-Eyed”, or Lincean Academy), was an Italian science academy founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi, an aristocrat from Umbria.  Cesi was passionate about natural science (particularly botany) and he gathered a group of polymaths and geniuses together to observe the natural world and explain it by means of experiments and the inductive method.  The society was one of the first to use lenses for scientific purposes and they produced an important collection of micrographs—drawings created with the newly invented microscope.  Their most famous member, Galileo Galilei was famous the discoveries he made with a telescope—discoveries which altered the way humankind perceived the universe.  Even as the Church turned the zealous eye of the Inquisition upon Galileo, the society supported him and made sure his books were published and his ideas were disseminated (thanks largely to Cesi’s aristocratic connections and fortune).  In fact, after joining the society, Galileo always signed his name as Galileo Galilei Linceo.

Frontispiece of Galileo’s Istoria e Dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2012