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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

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Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year.  Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset.  We will not see their like again.  All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues.  Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.

Illustration from Frederick Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees"

Illustration from Frederick Back’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”

Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013.  He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment.  ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) right up until her death on December 17, 2013.

Peter O'Toole in "Stardust"

Peter O’Toole in “Stardust”

Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013.  The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest.  I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence.  He finished the segment by reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).

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Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013.  I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).

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Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept across African nations after independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer==he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer–he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.

Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.

Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013.  He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Young Roger Ebert

Young Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic.  I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.

The mighty lion is clearly the king of beasts…or is he?  For your holiday pleasure, here is a gallery of octopuses wearing crowns.  Octopuses have short lives and they do not grow to immense sizes, but they are extremely intelligent.  All of the regal tentacles below put me in mind of the Ordovician, a geological age when mollusks (in the form of giant cephalopods) truly were the kings of the animal world.

A Young Lady with an Octopus wearing a Crown

A Young Lady with an Octopus wearing a Crown

A tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown and bearing a trident

A tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown and bearing a trident

A poster of an octopus wearing a crown by Octopus Wearing Crown by Pop Ink - CSA Images

A poster of an octopus wearing a crown by Octopus Wearing Crown by Pop Ink – CSA Images

An tiny tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown

An tiny tattoo of an octopus wearing a crown (Sidney Collins)

A rhinestone octopus wearing a crown (jewelry pendant)

A rhinestone octopus wearing a crown (jewelry pendant)

An Octopus Crown Indicolite Crystal European Bead (whatever that is)

An Octopus Crown Indicolite Crystal European Bead (whatever that is)

A tattoo of a crowned octopus collecting shells (by Jason Stephan)

A tattoo of a crowned octopus collecting shells (by Jason Stephan)

A sweater necklace

A sweater necklace

Retro hand drawn graphics of an octopus wearing a royal crown (from vector graphics)

Retro hand drawn graphics of an octopus wearing a royal crown (from vector graphics)

Decorative art Mixed Media Digital Illustration of an Octopus with golden crown (by Cocodeparis on Etsy)

Decorative art Mixed Media Digital Illustration of an Octopus with golden crown (by Cocodeparis on Etsy)

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Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

When I was a child, my best-loved emblem of the Christmas/holiday season was the reindeer (although, admittedly, I thought they were “rain deer”).  My poor mother had to track down reindeer-themed decorations and jumpers all over the place.  The magnificent antlered beasts were not just my favorite ornaments, but they were also the subjects of my most-preferred songs (in fact, I still find Rudolph’s ascendancy to personal empowerment through effulgent appendages and meteorological coincidence to be quite stirring).  Yet reindeer are not just mythical creatures made up for the holidays—the true nature of these magnificent cold weather specialists is even more remarkable than folklore.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large powerful cervids native to the trackless tundra of the Arctic and to the taiga and bogs of the subarctic (a vast habitat which encompasses most of Alaska,Canada, Siberia, and northern Europe).  The North American subspecies of reindeer are commonly known as caribou. Although the migratory caribou are rangier (with thinner bodies and longer legs than old world reindeer), they are fundamentally the same creature.  The caribou are the last animals in the Americas to still migrate across the wilderness en masse.  The largest herds number in the hundred thousands (!) and evoke thoughts of the Pliocene or of the Serengeti (although like most other wildlife, the great herds are quickly declining).

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

Adult male reindeer weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 lbs) although a few exceptionally huge bucks have been measured weighing nearly twice that.  The fur of reindeer has two layers: a layer of long hollow outer hairs and a down-like layer of dense fluff.  The fur can be all sorts of shades of stippled and variegated brown, black, cream, and white. Both genders of reindeer grow antlers, and the antlers are the largest in proportion to body mass of any cervid.

Reindeer have many special traits to help them survive the rigorous conditions of their northern habitat. In summer their hooves become sponge-like and flatten out to give them traction on mud.  In winter reindeer hooves harden into sharp wedges for cutting through ice and snow. Unlike white-tailed deer, reindeer can see into the indigo and ultraviolet spectrum.  This ability helps them survive in the grey tundra and the great monochromatic boreal forests.  Many things invisible in the (human) visible spectrum pop out in ultraviolet (most notably fur and urine).

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

Reindeer/caribou live predominantly on grasses, sedges, and tender tree shoots during the summer, but in winter their diet changes in accordance with the barrenness of their environment.  During the long lean dark times of winter reindeer largely live on lichen.  The reindeer are almost alone among animals in possessing the enzyme necessary to metabolize the tough lichen (only a handful of gastropod mollusks have been found to also produce lichenase).

DENA_ReindeerTundraYoung reindeer are hunted by golden eagles and wolverines.  Mature adults are largely invulnerable to any animals other than polar bears, brown bears, and above all wolves.  Wolves may be the ultimate predator of reindeer and certain packs live mutualistically with the reindeer herds and follow them all winter.

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

Humankind has a similarly ancient and intimate relationship with the reindeer and caribou. Since the depths of the ice age, human hunter-gatherers have stalked the great herds of deer. Some tribes began to follow the herds along their entire migratory routes and eventually the people and deer gradually became integrated.  The domestication of animals began similarly with goats (ibexes), cows (aurochs), and pigs, but, in the case of reindeer, the process stalled in the middle. Certain herds of reindeer are semi-domesticated: but the herders follow the deer as much as the reverse.  The reindeer provide skin, meat, milk, and transportation to the tough herding/hunting nomads of the north (mainly the Sami in the modern world).  The herders protect the reindeer from wolves, bear, and hunters.

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

Although they are not perfectly domesticated (and would probably keep on with their ancient migrations if humankind all dropped dead or decided to emigrate to Alfa-Centauri), reindeer are docile, gentle, and extremely beautiful.  They are a perfect emblem of the season (although Santa’s presumably male herd would shed their antlers before Christmas), but they are an even greater emblem of the last great wilds which can be found in the far north.  I devoutly hope that the great changes of the Anthropocene do not reduce the reindeer and caribou herds to a fraction of what they are today.  I guess I still love them as much as ever.  Where is that sweater with reindeer on it and the old Rudolph record?

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I'll be away for the next couple days...

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I’ll be away for the next couple days…

The Crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti

The Crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti

The Kingdom of Tahiti was founded when the chieftain Pōmare unified the islands of Tahiti, Moʻorea, Tetiaroa, Mehetia with help from the famous Captain Cook (and his vastly superior weapons and ships).  British missionaries and tradesmen subsequently helped Pomare and his heirs consolidate authority over the islands (in exchange for certain concessions and favors).  When King Pōmare III ascended to the throne in 1824, the London Missionary Society presented this crown to the monarch for use at the coronation. The somewhat unprepossessing crown of King Pōmare III is velvet and gilded metal. Though not especially regal, the royal headdress is at least very clearly labeled as the crown of Tahiti.  When the French outfoxed the British and claimed suzerainty over the islands, the kings and queens of Tahiti lost influence and were forced to abdicate in 1880.  Since then the crown of the Kingdom of Tahiti has become a museum piece and, indeed, it can today be found in the “Musée de Tahiti et des Îles” in Punaauia (should you inexplicably wish to see it).

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China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

Chang'e

Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

jade-rabbit-mortar

The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male & Female Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis) Photo by René Lausberg

Just in time for the holidays, here is a colorful fancy fowl to enjoy! The Palawan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) lives in the humid rainforests of the Palawan islands, a small chain of islands which are part of the Philippines and which are located in the Sulu Sea (to the southwest of Manila and just north of Malaysia).  If you count their splendid tails, male Palawan peacock-pheasants grow to be a half a meter (18 inches) long.  Females are much smaller and plainer.  The pheasants voraciously hunt the many invertebrates which live in the jungle and they live on a varied diet of insects, myriapods, mollusks, spiders, and isopods as well as smaller vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and baby snakes.  They also eat some berries and seeds.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

In a world of beautiful birds, the male Palawan peacock-pheasant stands out because of his black plumage, his svelte eye mask, his erectile crest, and above all because of the large iridescent green-blue ocelli on his magnificent tail (which he can fan above himself in the manner of a peacock).  From an earlier post, you will recall that ocelli are ornamental “eyes” made of feathers.  The birds are monogamous—which is to say they form tightly bonded pairs which look after the nest together.

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Sadly, peacock-pheasants are tropical birds which do not take well to aviaries and bird farms.  The species is listed as “vulnerable” because of the swift deforestation of the Philippine jungles and because of overcollecting of the magnificent feathers, however the Palawan peacock-pheasant does not seem to be very likely to go extinct soon—which is splendid news for bird-lovers and aesthetes!

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Male Palawan Peacock-Pheasants (Polyplectron napoleonis)

Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

Resurrection (Christopher Ulrich, circa 2005 to 2011, oil on canvas)

As we drift towards the darkest night of the year, it is an ideal time to check out some dark and troubling artwork.  This is a painting by the contemporary artist Christopher Ulrich, a painter who creates fractured fables out of traditional religious iconography.  In this work “Resurrection”, the world is entering the final apocalypse.  A heavenly paladin fights the great dragon in the background as vast mythical beasts fill up the sky.  Lightning crackles from their eyes as the world is remade.  Naturally, the end of times is when the devout are resurrected in the flesh, and the savior passes through the world granting bodies to the devout.  In the midst of terrible chaos, he stands beneath a proud lighthouse and dispenses miraculous rebirth while a lambent mother goddess stands at his side and helps him in his task.  Of course the end of the world offers some surprises for everyone, and the deity of resurrection does look a trifle different than one might imagine, but coming back to physical life after the body has disintegrated (as the world tumbles down, no less) has always been a chancy proposition anyway.

Song Dynasty celadon vase (circa 1100 AD)

Song Dynasty celadon vase (circa 1100 AD)

Celadon is a lovely muted shade of pale green which became famous as a porcelain glaze long ago in ancient dynastic China.  Although the technique for making the glaze was invented during the Tang dynasty, the zenith of celadon porcelain making was attained during the Sung dynasty when so many of the aesthetic conventions of Chinese culture came into flower.

A 'longquan' celadon 'lotus' bowl. Song dynasty. photo Sotheby's

A ‘longquan’ celadon ‘lotus’ bowl. Song dynasty. photo Sotheby’s

The perfect serenity of well-made celadon vessels has been compared to Buddhist enlightenment. Additionally, according to ancient folklore, celadon serviceware and drinking vessels would change color in the presence of poison.  Sadly this latter fact is an outright myth, however if the lie resulted in more celadon being produced then perhaps it was worth a few surprised dead Chinese nobles.  Celadon porcelain is magnificent.

A Longquan meiping vase with celadon glaze, (Early Ming dynasty)

A Longquan meiping vase with celadon glaze, (Early Ming dynasty)

An optimistic artist's conception of lunar farming

An optimistic artist’s conception of lunar farming

Earth is the only known home of life.  For all of humankind’s aspirations and ambitions, we have only succeeded in walking on one other celestial body and putting a few people, rats, and ant colonies in some leaky tin cans in low Earth orbit (I’m sorry to be so brutally honest about Skylab, Mir, and ISS). This is deeply troubling since I believe humankind can only survive and redeem itself by moving into the heavens (although some of my cynical friends worry that we will only be exporting humankind’s problems and appetites wherever we go).  Whatever the case, we are not moving very quickly towards the skies.  Political gridlock, greed, and a lack of engineering and imagination have kept us from making any real progress at space-steading.   So far we have proven to be maladroit stewards who are incapable of bearing life’s luminous seed into space (although we are amassing a nifty robot fleet around the solar system, and, despite our many flaws, we keep learning).

FullMoona

This is why I was so excited to see the most recent space exploration news:  NASA recently announced that they are teaming up with the mad moguls of Google in a project to grow crops on the moon!  The space agency is constructing a tiny (approximately 1 kilogram) capsule to grow a handful of plants on the lunar surface.  The little growth capsule with its cargo of air water and seeds will be dropped off on the moon by the Moon Express (a lunar vehicle built by Google in hopes of obtaining the lunar X Prize).

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The initial project will not exactly provide much produce for a lunar greengrocer.  An online article by James Plafke describes the contents of the lunar garden canister, “Currently, the chamber can support 10 basil seeds, 10 turnip seeds, and around 100 Arabidopsis seeds. It also holds the bit of water that initiates the germination process, and uses the natural sunlight that reaches the moon to support the plant life.”

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

Arabidopsis is not exactly a favorite at the supermarket, but it was the first plant to be genetically sequenced and it is used in biology labs everywhere as a model organism.  In a pinch though, the basil and turnips might be good for some sort of impromptu Italian farm-style dish.  NASA will monitor the seed growth and development from Earth with an eye on how lunar gravity and radiation levels impact the germinating seeds and the growing plants.  Admittedly the microfarm is a small step towards colonies beyond Earth, but at least it is a step (and frankly the beginnings of agriculture here on Earth were similarly small and incremental).  Or, who knows? Maybe the turnips will climb out of the canister and start dragging their knuckles along the lunar plains and throwing rocks at the Chinese landers.

You never know where science will take you

You never know where science will take you

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