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The Dwarf Planet Haumea

The Dwarf Planet Haumea

Haumea is a dwarf planet located in the Kuiper belt.  The little planetoid was discovered in December 2004 by a team of Caltech astronomers.  It is about a third the size of Pluto.  The team initially called it “Santa” but, in keeping with the IAU’s naming convention for Kuiper belt objects they eventually named the worldlet after a matronly fertility goddess from Hawaiian mythology.

Artist's conception of Haumea and its pink spot

Artist’s conception of Haumea and its pink spot

Although Haumea is typical of other dwarf planets in the Oort cloud in that it is a hunk of rock covered with ice, there are a couple of very unique things about the body.  Most notably Haumea is shaped like a lozenge (as opposed to being mostly spherical like other planets).   Astronomers believe that Haumea has sufficient gravity to overcome the compressive strength of its material.  In other words it chould be approximately spherical, however the planet is rotating with such velocity that it has become spindle shaped—like a water balloon thrown in a rifling spiral.

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The extreme rapidity of Haumea’s rotation is its other defining characteristic.  It rotates more rapidly than any planetlike object with a diameter greater than 100 kilometers.   Haumea rotates completely every 3.9 hours so days there are incredibly short (although its huge orbit takes 283 years to complete—so years are long).  It is believed that Haumea’s breakneck spin comes from a titanic collision with some other Oort belt object.  Haumea’s two dinky moons were probably also created by the impact.  Haumea has a large red spot on it–perhaps because of the presence of minerals–or the fractured perturbance left by an impact.

I work at Rockefeller Center and last night was the big Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  This happens every year and it makes the entire area into a complete circus.  There are teams of dancing Santas, groups of yetis, elves, and snipers.  The police put up barricades everywhere and entertainment types shine dazzling spotlights into all of the windows.  Worst of all, celebrities are everywhere so you could easily get roughed up by Mariah Carrey’s bodyguards or shunted to the side for Kenny Chesney’s posse.

Beware: Celebrity

To cut through the Christmas treacle a bit I am therefore presenting my own light show: a mini gallery of gothic chandeliers.  I realize that this would have worked during the Halloween season, but, unfortunately I didn’t think of it then. Additionally the aesthetic spirit of gothic artifice is appropriate any time of year.  Enjoy the dark illumination!

Common Tree Shrew (Tupaia glis)

According to contemporary taxonomy, the primates (whom I haven’t yet written about because they are so near and dear) are closely related to two other groups of living mammals—both of which are native to Southeast Asia.  The closest family, the Colugos, consist of two species of delicate tree-gliding mammals described here.   The other close relatives are treeshrews (aka banxrings), 20 species of (largely) arborial tree-shrews which make up an entire order, Scandentia.

A Northern Tree Shrew (Tupaia belangeri)

Actually “treeshrew” is a misnomer, the banxrings are not true shrews at all.  They are small slight animals with long tails and neutral colored fur.  They have large sophisticated eyes and they are largely diurnal.  The arborial species have binocular vision so they can navigate in a three-dimensional world of branches where leaps must be perfectly gauged.  The slightly larger terrestrial species uses its claws to dig for insects, grubs, and roots.  All banxrings are omnivorous, feeding on arthropods, tiny vertebrates, seeds, berries, and fruits.

The pen-tailed tree-shrew (Ptilocercus lowii)

Treeshrews live in jungles, forests, mixed woodlands and bamboo groves.  They range from India to Vietnam down through Southern China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  Of all mammals they have the largest brain to body mass ratio (although considering their slight mass that isn’t saying too much).   They are social and families mark out small territories which they mark and vigorously defend.   The treeshrews are anxious skittish creatures since they have numerous predators, including birds of prey, small carnivores, and snakes.

Treeshrew mothers leave their helpless silent babies for up to two days at a time.  When the mother returns the baby treeshrews can put on up to 60% of their weight in one feeding.  The mother is not inattentive: she interacts infrequently with her offspring so that they are not discovered by predators while they are completely helpless.  Once the treeshrews grow big enough to venture beyond the nest, the mother becomes extremely engaged with them and she helps them to learn about predators, gathering food, and climbing.

The Flag of the Ashanti (Featuring the Golden Stool)

The most important of Ghana’s crown jewels is not a crown at all but rather the legendary Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool which is believed to house the living spirit of all Ashanti people from all time.  According to lore, the Stool descended from heaven into the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Ashanti king in 1701.  At times struggle for control of the Golden Stool has devolved into war–including the eponymous “War for the Golden Stool” which broke out in 1900 when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the British Gold Coast demanded to be allowed to sit on the Stool (which is a ceremonial object which is not meant to be sat upon—or even to directly touch the ground).  Although the conflict left Great Britain in control of Ghana, the Golden Stool was hidden until 1920 when it was discovered and despoiled by a group of laborers who were promptly sentenced to death (although the British administrators commuted the sentence to perpetual banishment).

The Golden Stool of the Ashanti

The stool is 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide.  It is covered with gold ornaments and has bells attached to it to warn the Ashanti tribe if danger is eminent.  If you are confused by the above photo of the Golden Stool, that is because it is “lying down” (since it is not made to be sat upon anyway).  Below is a picture of another Ashanti stool to give you a better idea of the object’s form.  Even a non-royal, non-gold Ashanti stool is imbued with special meaning which edges toward the supernatural.

A Carved Ashanti Stool (Ghana, mid-20th century)

In 1999, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was crowned as the 16th leader of Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Ashanti (although at this time in history, the king’s role is ceremonial and he is barred from serving in Ghana’s government).   The golden stool made a fleeting ceremonial appearance before being returned to the secret location where it is kept.  However the royal family has many other crown jewels which are worn on various state occasions—or just in general.  On October 12, 2012, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was traveling in Oslo, Norway to attend a conference when jewel thieves made off with a bag containing many of the lesser crown jewels of Ghana (which they stole from the lobby of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel).  It seems like the King of the Ashanti might have lost some of the splendid gold headdresses pictured here.

Ashanti King Otumfo Osei-Tutu II

Today’s a post concerns Kahausibware, a dark ambiguous serpent-deity whose story is part of the mythology of Makira (which was known as San Cristóbal during the colonial era) an island in Solomon chain.  Kahausibware was a Hi’ona—a powerful supernatural being who created the world.  Like the Chinese serpent goddess Nüwa, Kahausibware was a demiurge—a primeval creator deity who gave life to humanity, however, Kahausibware was not as benevolent & understanding as gentle Nüwa.

According to myth, Kahausibware created pigs, cocoa-nut trees, and fruit trees.   Having created food, she then created animals and humans to use it.  Since the world was new, death was unknown.  Unfortunately Kahausibware was not patient with her creations and she had no tolerance for annoyances or distractions.  One day, a woman (who was an offspring of Kahausibware) requested that the serpent-deity babysit while she (the woman) went to harvest fruit.  The human child would not stop screaming and wailing, so Kahausibware wrapped around the infant and suffocated him—thus bringing death into the world.   At this fateful moment the woman returned with her fruit.  Seeing her child dead, she flew into a rage and began to hack Kahausibware into pieces with an axe.

Ornamented War Axe, Solomon Islands–19th century (photo by Hughes Dubois)

The snake-being was divine, so her dismembered pieces kept fusing back together, but the pain of the assault was overwhelming.  The serpent escaped into the ocean and swam away forever from the island of Makira, but, as she left she withdrew her blessings of abundance and ease.  Since that time, life in the Solomon Islands has become difficult.  Famines and crop failures became facts of life and death spread everywhere.   The islanders still venerate snakes, the mortal embodiment of Kahausibware—but where the amoral creator has gone is a mystery.

Custom Dancing on Makira (Photo by Bruce Hops)

Wild Cranberry Bog (by Chris Seufert)

The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys.  However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory.  Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall.  The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.

A group of men harvesting cranberries in Wisconsin.

Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries).  The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere.  Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.

Cranberries in a flooded man-made bog awaiting harvesting.

The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse).   As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food.    The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting.  They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages.  Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries”  (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).

Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is.  The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink.  Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color.  The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye.  Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.

Yarn dyed with Cranberries (from godeysknitsof1860)

 

The First Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler.  It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness.   They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them).  It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less.  Where did he learn that?  It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.

Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography).   Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614.  It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain.  Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618.   The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).

Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner.  Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet.  But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise.  The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead.  Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters.   Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.

As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations.  Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).

Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags, and his warriors

Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil.  He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels.  He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags.  Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community.  Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place.  They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands.    By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home.  During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags).   Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.

The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The magnificent timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a venomous pit viper which lives throughout the populated northeastern portion of the United States of America from Texas to New England.  Ferrebeekeeper has considerable affection for the dangerous reptile (at an appropriate distance, of course!) and has already referenced the timber rattler as a metaphor for national liberty and, strangely, as a point of comparison for a large sports venue.  But timber rattlesnakes are so much more.  They were one of the first new world animals to utterly fascinate and horrify European colonizers. In the colonial period a serious rattlesnake bite was a death sentence (although we now have anti-venom) but the original natural scientists did not appreciate how complicated and remarkable the snakes were in other aspects.

As I write this, it is November and the rattlesnakes are all abed for the winter.  Because they live in areas with harsh winters, timber rattlesnakes spend more than 7 months a year in hibernation.  Large numbers will nest together in a community den—sometimes together with other snakes such as blacksnakes and copperheads.  The den is usually a rocky chasm which extends deep beneath the frost line, and rattlesnakes may travel many miles to reach their hibernation den (a bi-annual journey which puts the snakes at great risk from predators and from cars).

Because of their large and diverse territory, timber rattlesnakes come in different sizes, colorations, and even have different venom types.  The average timber rattlesnake grows to 100 cm (39 in) long and weighs between a half kilo and a kilogram (1 to 2 pounds).  Much larger specimens are known (although there is considerable ridiculous dispute about the upper ranges of rattlesnake size).  Female timer rattlesnakes are viviparous although, unlike mammals, rattelsankes protect their eggs within their bodies until they hatch.  Rattlesnakes give birth to litters of 6-10 fully formed, fully poisonous little baby snakes, but they can only reproduce every few years since the experience is very hard on them.

Like catfishes, timber rattlesnakes have senses which we do not possess.  Pit vipers are so named because they have nostril like spots (pits!) on the side of the head which they use to perceive infrared electromagnetic radiation. These pits are quite sensitive and act as third eyes.  Snakes (and many other animals) also have special auxiliary olfactory sense organs called Jacobson’s organs which are extremely sensitive to various smells/tastes.  Snakes characteristically pick up chemical traces with their tongues and waft these smells before their Jacobson’s organs in the characteristic tongue-flicking which is such a trademark.

Of course rattlesnakes are not just sensitive—they are also expressive.  Among all other snakes they are distinctive in that they have a specialized structure at the end of their tail for making a warning noise. Rattlesnake rattles consists of hollow button-like segments which produce a distinctive buzzing when the snakes vibrate their tails.  As a rattlesnake sheds her skin (every few months), she adds a new button to her tail.  Rattles however are not perfect records of how many times snakes have shed their skin—sometimes buttons get knocked off, or just become brittle and fall away.  The rattle has a high frequency and varies in loudness between 60-80 decibels from a distance of one meter (which falls somewhere between the noise level of an animated conversation and a garbage disposal).  Ironically, the rattlesnakes themselves are deaf.

Timber Rattlesnakes can be masters of camouflage

The venom of timber rattlesnakes varies in toxicity depending on the subspecies, but the most toxic rattlesnakes are extremely venomous.  Type A venom is a neurotoxin whereas type B venom is hemorrhagic and proteolytic (which is to say it causes bleeding and breaks down fundamental body proteins).  Type C venom is largely harmless.  In Arkansas and Louisiana, timeber rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because cross-breeding has resulted in snakes which have type AB venom (yikes!). To a lesser extent rattlesnake venom also contains esoteric myotoxins which rapidly kill muscle tissues.  This deadly cocktail of different venoms is of great interest to pharmacologists who continue to study the various toxic proteins to tease out potential medicines.

watch?v=ZIrQet2LPUg

Fortunately timber rattlesnakes are good-natured and do not generally bite without much posturing, rattling, hissing, and feinting.  They keep their retractable fangs folded up in a mouth sheath when not in use and they are capable of varying the amount of venom they inject based on how they are feeling.  It is best not to antagonize rattlesnakes lest they abandon their amiable disposition.

Timber rattlesnakes are gifted ambush predators which particularly prey on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other rodents, but they also eat amphibians and birds.  In turn rattlesnakes  are preyed on by owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, crows, skunks, and even turkeys! Rattlesnakes are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, but they face serious threats from habitat loss and traffic (cars being indifferent to the protective poison of snakes).

C. horridus eating a chipmunk by unhinging its jaw (Photo taken by Kevin Ostanek)

Not only are many rattlesnakes killed by traffic, they must also face persecution. Many are killed by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.  Gawping Texans take this to a particular extreme and organize great “rattlesnake round-ups” where huge numbers of rattlesnakes are wantonly tormented and killed for no particular reason (except perhaps to demonstrate a hatred of the world and its creatures).  This is particularly sad since rattlesnakes, like whales, or elephants (or ourselves) are k-selected animals.  They live long but reproduce slowly, which makes them especially vulnerable to population crashes.

If, by some appalling circumstance, you have read this far while a timber rattlesnake sits nearby buzzing its tail, you should run away from the snake!  Do not attempt to molest it.  If you feel threatened, call animal control.  The timber rattlesnake is already vanishing from great expanses of its territory.  It would be a shame if this beautiful and fearsome serpent were to slip away from the earth.

Timber Rattlesnake by Hazel Galloway

Dioscorea alata

Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia.  Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa.  Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring.  The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed)  is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.

Purple Yam Ice Cream

Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific.  Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam.  Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.

Ube Cake

I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender.  I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”.   Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.

Ube Halaya

 

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