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A Comparison of the relative sizes of the Fomalhaut system and the solar system (image created by NASA and ESA)

Fomalhaut is a star with twice the mass of the sun located approximately 25 light-years from Earth in the constellation Piscis Austrinus.  It is a bright young star 100 to 300 million years old (out of a projected lifespan of 1 billion years). Coinicientally  the name Fomalhaut is Arabic and means “mouth of the Southern fish.”  Fomalhaut has at least one planet—Fomalhaut b, which is believed to be approximately the same size as Jupiter (but could be anywhere from the size of Neptune to 3 times as large as Jupiter).  Just as Saturn is surrounded by a ring of debris, the entire star system of Fomalhaut is surrounded by a giant toroidal circumstellar disk.   This torus is vastly greater in diameter than our entire solar system (including the Oort Belt) and is made up of somewhere between 260 billion and 83 trillion comets which are constantly colliding and annihilating each other!  The Herschel Space Observatory recently captured an infrared image of this immense comet storm.

An infrared image of the Fomalhaut system--and its huge cloud of disintegrating comets) captured by the Herschel Space Observatory (credit: ESA)

A female velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related.   Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps.  So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science.  The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.

Male velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.”  Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting.  The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens.  The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on.  When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.

Blue velvet ant (female)

Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts.  The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white.  Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.

In Australia, rabbits are a curse.  The long-eared infestation started in 1859 when Thomas Austin, an estate owner, imported a mixture of wild and domestic rabbits from Europe to release on his large farm.  He hoped to recreate the hunting conditions of England where he had enjoyed shooting rabbits when younger.  He is famously quoted as saying  “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”

Rabbits in the Arid Australian Countryside

Thus began the greatest population explosion of mammals known in human history.  Within a decade, rabbits had overrun Southern Australia. Two million of the animals were harvested annually with no effect whatsoever on the larger population.  A combination of mild winters, no predators, and light scrub vegetation allowed the creatures to breed year round and increase their numbers exponentially with no natural resistance. They ate away whole ecosystems of scrub vegetation and outcompeted the little marsupial herbivores that lived there into extinction.  By gnawing down saplings they killed entire forests within the lifespan of the trees therein.  By digging warrens and denuding the vegetation they caused widespread erosion.  It was an ecological disaster of the first order–a mass extinction caused by bunnies(!)–and only humans were there to fight the fleet-footed enemy.

Australians responded gradually at first and then with increased alacrity and fury.  Shooting and trapping gave way to mass poisonings, ploughing, blasting, and fumigation. Tens of thousands of miles of rabbit proof fence were strung across the continent.  Wicked old world predators like rabbits and foxes were imported to stem the flood of rabbits (and naturally the predators first concentrated on eliminating remaining species of Marsupials).

Rabbits around a waterhole on Wardang Island (1930s)

Australians have gradually learned to make use of the rabbits.  In times of distress, depression, or famine they have provided a ready source of food for humans and farm animals (ground up rabbits were once a major source of chicken food for example).  The fur from so many rabbits created a fur industry and a felt industry.  But make no mistake, the Australians still hate the invasive creatures.   The twentieth century has seen a new campaign of biological war against the rabbits.  In the 1950s an introduced strain of Myxoma virus wiped out an estimated half a billion rabbits.  Then in the early 1990s a calicivirus escaped a secure biological research facility (where scientists were engineering the disease to kill rabbits) and quickly spread through wild and domestic populations.   Yet despite all of the measures taken to kill the creatures they have endured and thrived.  Rabbits are still there, still causing havoc.  It is one of the more vivid lessons in human history about the difficulties of controlling ecosystems.

Candlelight Cottage (Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” died Friday (April 6, 2012) in Los Gatos, California at the age of 54.  Kinkade was one of the world’s most successful artists with a business empire said to generate over 100 million dollars a year (at least back in the boom days before the recession).  In order to produce his vast cannon of work, he painted swiftly with a somewhat cartoony impressionist shorthand style, and then reproduced his work through a wide range of technologies.  Copies of his paintings were available in every price grade: if one was unable to buy original artworks, there were (and are) an endless choice of hand-signed lithographs, high-tech canvas prints, posters, printed materials (calendars, cards, books, etc.), as well as plates, sculptures, clocks, and on and on.  All of this was available through multiple sales channels including the internet, catalogs, galleries, and a line of brick-and-mortar stores.  Kinkade was a uniquely American artist who took William Turner’s famous sobriquet “Painter of Light” and literally trademarked it as his own.

Art by Thomas Kinkade

Although he frequently suffered the scorn of art critics, Kinkade was upbeat about his work, which he regarded as a means to create a pleasant emotional experience for the widest possible audience.  The subjects of his paintings include idealized cottages, gardens, small towns, and churches–all of which are bathed in a fluorescent haze.  The tiny cottages glow with nostalgic perfection and the June gardens are forever soaked in the hues of sunset.  Joan Didion, an essayist who explores the interplay between aesthetics and morality in contemporary American society did not seem to regard Kinkade very highly, yet she wrote the most evocative description of his art:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Thomas Kinkade did not usually paint people in his works.  The majority of his canvases display obvious hints of life, but the inhabitants themselves are missing.  Religious iconography however is much in evidence and Kinkade frequently talked about his oeuvres in context of his Christianity.

Stepping beyond Kinkade’s obvious and remarkable business genius, his work does seem to directly touch the nostalgic, religious, avaricious wellspring of American sentiment.  It is not for Ferrebeekeeper to judge the quality of his art [ good, we would have to fend off a libel suit from his estate–ed.];  instead, as is traditional on this blog, we judge his work solely on the gothic elements therein—and these are plentiful!  Underneath the colorful candy-floss veneer there is a gothic heart.  The little bungalows and miniature mansions sitting in the deserted suburbs share architectural kinship with the glowering ruins painted by Caper David Friedrich.  The treacle gardens and empty town squares betray a similarity with churchyards and standing stones of German romanticism.  Didion is fundamentally right with her Hansel and Gretel metaphor—there is a fairy tale lurking in Kincaid’s work (and under his highly successful life).  What happens to Hansel and Gretel in our world of melting mortgages, outsourced jobs, and ecological havoc is far from clear, but it is worth pausing a moment to remember Thomas Kinkade, the warlock who stole Turner’s epithet and ruined Monet’s style in order to spin a river of gold from candy houses.

A Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Happy Easter!  To celebrate, we head down under to the island continent of Australia.  There, in the arid scrubland, lives the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) an omnivorous nocturnal marsupial with long ears, silky fur, and a long black and white tail.  Bilbies belong to the Peramelemorphia order (along with bandicoots and sundry extinct kin), and they are renowned for their ability to dig elaborate spiraling burrows and for having one of the shortest gestation periods of all mammals–a dozen days from fertilization to birth.  As is the case with the loveable wombats, bilbies’ pouches face backwards to help the animals excavate burrows and dig up supper.

Baby Bilbies in a hat! (image credit: theage.com.au)

Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight.  They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit.  Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.

But wait a minute!  Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland?  Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter?  Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children).  The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.

The Easter Bunny and the Easter Bilby

Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies.  Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic.  For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:

“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.

I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation.   Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!

"I know I'm a symbol, but please put me down!"

Different pictures of grave side devotions which characterize the Qingming festival

Happy Tomb Sweeping Day!  The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.

As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead.  Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.

In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons.  People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.

Qingming kite making in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

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