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Composition of Earth's Atmosphere

Composition of Earth’s Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  Recently, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been swiftly rising.  We are not currently facing Apollo 13 style asphyxiation because carbon dioxide is captured by water to form carbonic acid.  As it happens, the oceans of planet Earth are made of water.

"Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project"

“Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project”

Ergo, we are turning the world’s oceans into seltzer water!  The results of such ocean acidification are devastating to the ocean’s inhabitants–as became tragically apparent this week when 10 million Canadian scallops died due to the rapidly dropping PH levels along the west coast of Canada.  The shellfish farming company “Island Scallops” lost three year’s worth of scallop harvest when the PH dropped from 8.2 to 7.3 in their scallop beds of the Georgia Strait.  Scallops have shells made of calcium carbonate—which dissolves in carbonic acid—so the creatures are unable to fight off predators and disease.

WHY?? They were so young...

WHY?? They were so young…

Of course most scallops and other sea creatures are not owned by Canadian farmers—so nobody notices when they go missing (because they have perished…or dissolved).  Most of the newspapers and news sites covering the scallop die-off have concentrated on what a blow the loss is to seafood lovers and fish farmers, but, it seems to me that this narrow financial approach ignores the fact that the majority of Earth’s surface is covered in ocean.

oceans Of course acidification of the oceans is only one part of a combined attack: the poor oceans are also being overfished, polluted, and subject to rapid temperature changes. The oceans are the cradle of life, and they remain crucial to all life on the planet.  Our amphibious ancestors climbed out of the sea long ago but the photosynthesizing algae that live there still remain critical to all life on Earth (unless you are an extremophile bacteria).  These tiny creatures are part of a vast web of life which is being torn to pieces and destroyed.  So join me in mourning the dead scallops.

Farewell to All That

Farewell to All That

The Flag of Madagascar (1958 to present)

The Flag of Madagascar (1958 to present)

This is the flag of Madagascar: three rectangles of white, red, and green.  The rectangles are nearly equal in size (although the vertical white rectangle is slightly wider).  The flag has been the symbol of Madagascar since 1958—which means it was adopted two years before the island nation became independent of the French empire in 1960.

indian-oceanMadagascar is an ancient island subcontinent which is currently located in the Indian Ocean just east of Sub Saharan Africa (it has actually moved around a great deal during geological history–but that is irrelevant for a post about the national flag).  The large island was colonized by two waves of human inhabitants.  The first Madagascar people were Austronesians who arrived between 350 BC and 550 AD via boat from the island of Borneo.  Boneo and Madagascar are about 7,600 kilometers (4760 miles) apart, so this was no trifling feat of navigation!  The second main wave of human colonization took place around 1000 AD, when many Bantu people crossed the Mozambique channel–which is a more manageable boat journey of 460 km (286 miles).

The Flag of Indonesia

The Flag of Indonesia

The red and the white of the Madagascar flag are said to represent both the Merina kingdom (which fell to the French in 1896) and the colors of the flag of Indonesia (red and white) which was where the first Madagascar people hailed from.  The Merina people are highlanders who culturally dominated the island for centuries.

The Modern Flag of the Merina People

The Modern Flag of the Merina People

The green of the flag is said to represent the Hova people—the free peasantry.  During the Merina kingdom, society was divided into three classes:  Merina aristocrats, Hova peasants, and slaves (coincidentally these slaves were obtained from raids on the Makua people during the 19th century).  The Hova apparently played a large part in the 1950s independence movement against the French colonial authorities.

imagesIn conclusion, the more I have studied the Madagascar flag, the less sure I am that it means anything.  I feel like some graphically inclined revolutionary might have made up the whole thing in 1958 because he liked the colors.  More importantly however, I have become fascinated by the strange human history of this perplexing mini continent which was inhabited so very recently.

madagascar

01016_RobinEggBlue-lI realized that this blog has done a poor job of addressing the color blue—which is one of people’s favorite colors.  Today therefore, in an early tribute to spring (which may eventually get here this year) we are writing about one of the most beautiful colors of blue there is.  The color takes its name directly from nature—from the nest of one of the most beloved birds of North America, Turdus migratorius, the American robin.  American robins are actually members of the thrush family: they superficially resemble old world robins (which are flycatchers), so European colonists lumbered us with the inaccurate name. Robins are migratory passerine birds which hunt the ground for worms and other small invertebrates as well as fruits and berries. The robin is famous for its jaunty orange breast, its vivacious style of hopping, and, above all, as a harbinger of spring.

robins-nest-web-1There are similarities between humans and robins. We are both bipedal omnivores.  Robins are unusually successful—perhaps more so than any other common passerine bird.  Additionally they are highly social and flock together to stay safe at night. However this blog post is not about the songbird (after all, when it comes to ornithology, ferrebeekeeper is solemnly devoted to galliformes and waterfowl), instead it is about the color of their eggs: robin egg blue.

eb4700e8774c6798119fd6c84a38ce55Robin egg blue is a lovely pale sky blue with a hint of green.  The name of the color has been in common use since the nineteenth century. The color appears everywhere: in crayola crayons, Tiffany jewelry boxes, spring frocks, giant bridges, and Air Force fighter jets.

Robins lay these eggs in nests which are 1.5 meters to 4 meters from the ground (5 to 15 feet).  Because the nests tend to be in low shrubby trees many children have had sad experiences watching things go wrong.  Fortunately robins are prolific parents and can sit as many as three clutches of eggs each season!  They also start nesting and laying early in April.

robin's eggCoincidentally, the aviary at the Bronx Zoo strongly featured the robin’s egg as an illustration of the powers of contingency and fatality in the world.  Visitors walk into a room with a large wall covered in hundreds of photos of lovely robin’s eggs. The next room has photos of robin hatchlings in exactly the same grid layout, but the little birds are far fewer than the eggs were: every space which lacks a hatchling photo features a little obituary of how the egg failed (or was eaten by a predator, or broken in an accident).  The next room features even fewer photos of fledgling birds–as nature continues to winnow out the unlucky.  The final room has only one or two adult robins to produce another suffusion of eggs.

robin eggI was at the zoo bird house many years ago with my then girlfriend and each of us randomly chose a particular egg in the first room to see how we fared.  My ex-girlfriend fell out of the nest and was eaten by an opossum almost immediately (!).  I survived to adolescence (which was quite rare) but was sadly captured and devoured by a hawk—so at least I had a thrilling aerial death!

Sometimes it seems like it's all hawks

Sometimes it seems like it’s all hawks

As I go through life, I often find myself thinking about the room of eggs. Although troubling, it resonates in a great many ways. The zoo meant it as a (quite effective) illustration of nature’s cruelty and caprice (and of the strategy of producing lots of offspring), but it also portrays larger themes of luck, planning, adversity, and perseverance.  In an even larger sense it represents how amazingly lucky any of us are to be here after billions of years of predation, foraging, and trying to impress fickle mates.  Yet we are indeed still here. We are the astonishingly lucky eggs who have survived by pluck and luck.  Spring will come again—and good times with it.  It’s time to buy some jaunty robin egg blue clothes and plan the next series of adventures and projects!

Baby-Robins-beeing-fedIMG_4104

sluaghIn Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world).  The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts.  Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom).  However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence.  A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.

shadow_peopleThe sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife.  Neither heaven nor hell wanted them.  Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world.  Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a malicious and deadly force.  They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist.  One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).

article-2077359-0F3F563E00000578-477_634x320Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt.  When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host.  After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.

Wodan's Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

The sluagh were thought to fly from the west.  They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.–that sounds dangerous too].  Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick.  From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear.  Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!

Irish Graves 3872

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) is a species of abalone found in the cool coastal waters around New Zealand (and nearby islands such as Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands).  Coincidentally, the word “Haliotis” derives from Ancient Greek and means sea ear—because abalones superficially resemble human ears.  Abalones are large marine gastropods (sea snails) which have long been prized by humans for having delicious meat and gorgeous shells.  The blackfoot paua is no exception—not only is it fished for its flesh, but the Māori people, who are indigenous to New Zealand, esteem it as a treasure to be used in culturally significant works of art. To quote thefeaturedcreature.com, “Typically, the blackfoot abalone is used in Māori carvings to represent eyes; these eyes are associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.”

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

The shells of blackfoot paua are not naturally iridescent: craft workers expend a great deal of energy grinding away the inconspicuous neutral colored exterior so that the brilliant whirls and swirling colors of the nacre are revealed.  In addition to its lovely shell and tasty flesh the blackfoot paua can also produce scintillating blue-green pearls which are known as blue eyris pearls.

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Like the giant triton, the blackfoot paua is suffering for its beauty.  New Zealand has many sensible regulations to prohibit overfishing the paua: divers must free dive for the mollusks, and fisherfolk can only collect a limited number of specimens of a certain size. Unfortunately even a first-world nation only has so many resources to devote to conservation, and marine experts expect that the blackfoot paua is suffering from overharvest.  Hopefully humankind can find a way to balance the demands of traditional carving with the needs of conservation:  Māori carving is very beautiful, but so too are the living shellfish…

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

He Jiaying is a contemporary Chinese painter.  Born in Tianjin in 1957, he is famous for his masterful figures painted with classical Chinese brush painting.  He Jiaying’s favorite subjects tend to be beautiful women lost in contemplation beneath trees or bamboo.  The models in his paintings are either attired in fluid dresses or, more often, in nothing at all. So deft is his style that he miraculously combines European-style hyper realistic portraiture with ancient Chinese style brushwork (which is famed for being free and spontaneous).  Because his paintings are masterpieces in two opposite styles, He Jiaying is widely known  both in China and abroad.

 

Painting by He Jiaying

Painting by He Jiaying

Here a wistful beauty walks pensively beneath autumn birch trees.  Despite the adroit brushstrokes, the woman’s figure possesses perfect verisimilitude–and the trunks of the trees are likewise simultaneously simple yet perfectly lifelike.  Despite the realism, the composition is anything but Western: the off-center figure, the abstract leaf-litter, and the empty background are all hallmarks of classical Chinese painting.

Swan Ice Sculpture

Swan Ice Sculpture

Hopefully the long winter is coming to a close (although I wouldn’t be surprised if 2014 still has a few mean tricks left).  Before the season of ice and snow ends, let’s give in to winter and celebrate frozen water itself with a gallery of exquisite ice sculptures.

ice sculpture swans2

The quintessential ice sculpture should feature elegance, sinuous curves, strength, and, well, iciness.  Of course nothing combines these qualities quite like swans.  The massive waterfowl are thematically and stylistically perfect for the medium.  Additionally, since swans form monogamous pair bonds which can last for years–or even for life—paired swans are the perfect symbol for weddings, romantic events, and, um… mergers I guess (hey, you try figuring out why swans are so omnipresent as ice sculptures).

An ice swan swimming on a bed of strawberries  (by Tampa Ice Sculpture)

An ice swan swimming on a bed of strawberries (by Tampa Ice Sculpture)

You can't have a fancy fund raiser without an ice swan!  (photo by: Barbara Nelson)

You can’t have a fancy fund raiser without an ice swan! (photo by: Barbara Nelson)

Hey! That's a digital image of a painting of a sculpture of a swan!  How ersatz can this blog get?

Hey! That’s a digital image of a painting of a sculpture of a swan! How ersatz can this blog get?

Bartender stands between two giant ice swan statues at the ice bar at Damenti's Restaurant

Bartender stands between two giant ice swan statues at the ice bar at Damenti’s Restaurant

Ok, maybe I wanted to write a quick waterfowl/winter theme blog post and was out of good ideas.  Yet ephemeral ice sculptures DO seem to represent the disposable decadence of our times. Who knows when global climate change, world economic meltdown, or zombie attack will sweep away our world of endless energy and leisure?  But in the mean time enjoy the flock of swan sculptures.  You can even buy an inexpensive plastic mold online if you want to have a brand new (but perfectly identical) swan statue for every meal.

swan resize

This one is filled with fruit!

This one is filled with fruit!

And this one is even better!

And this one is even better!

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

Let’s return once more to the Caucasus region and explore the region’s tumultuous political history—this time through the opulent window of crown jewels.  Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by crowns—which are constantly being crafted for the whims of various sovereigns and then stolen/usurped/destroyed as nations fight for political hegemony.  The Caucasus, which lies between East and West–and at the crossroads of multiple religions and empires—has been particularly susceptible to dynastic turnover.  The Kingdom of Georgia was created in the 10th century AD and burgeoned during the 11th–12th centuries but disintegrated completely at the end of the 15th century due to Turco-Mongol incursions.  In the late eighteenth century two of the smaller kingdoms left over from the wreck of old Georgia came together to form the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti.

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

The kings of the new kingdom aspired to create a powerful European state of the modern style, but the new realm soon came under attack from the marauding Qajar Dynasty of Persia (lead by the insatiable Shah Agha Muḥammad Khān Qājār.  The ancient crowns of old Georgia vanished in 1795 (apparently looted by the Persians).  King George XII of Georgia ordered a new crown of suitable modern design for his 1798 coronation.  The crown was crafted in Russia and was encrusted in cut jewels (including 145 diamonds, 58 rubies, 24 emeralds and 16 amethysts). The crown was a circlet surmounted by eight arches which supported a globe (with a red cross on top).  Ironically George XII had little time to enjoy his new crown: he petitioned the czar for assistance in squelching internal strife and Persian invasions—Czar Paul I acceded to his request by annexing Georgia as part of the Russian Empire.

As Explained in this Simple Map...

As Explained in this Simple Map…

In 1800, following the death of George XII, the crown was sent to Moscow and deposited in the Kremlin among Russian imperial crowns. In 1923 the Bolsheviks presented the crown to the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, but the communists could not keep their hands off the monarchist relic. In 1930 the crown of George XII was again sent to Moscow where it was broken apart and plundered—much like Georgia itself.

Sochi Winter Olympics from Space

Sochi Winter Olympics from Space

For another week the world’s eyes will remain on the Sochi Winter Olympics where fearless winter athletes from around the world are jumping off mountains on skis, hurtling down tunnels of ice on tiny sleds, or throwing glittering lady ice skaters high in the air. With our eyes so resolutely fixed on the tall white mountains around Sochi, it is easy to ignore the region’s dominant feature, the huge meromictic body of water which surrounds Sochi—the Black Sea.  The word “meromictic” describes a body of water in which the layers do not mix.  This means the depths of the Black Sea are oxygen free.  The sea’s anaerobic depths are largely free of light or life: the majority of the Black Sea is truly a black sea, dark and dead.

 

Ancient Greek Colonies on the Black Sea

Ancient Greek Colonies on the Black Sea

Yet the sea has an incredibly rich cultural tradition: for thousands of years it has been ringed by Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic, Turkish, Georgian, and Russian cities.  Merchant convoys and navies sailed upon the Black Sea through all of this time.  Whenever some Byzantine courtier screwed up beyond belief, he was sent in to exile at Cherson—the hellish end of the world for the Greeks (which would ironically become the most popular tourist destination for good Soviets).  Turks purchased goods from Russia across the water.  The Silk Road ended at the Black Sea ports to the East. Through all of these different eras, ships were lost to storms, battles, and the perils of sailing.  Hundreds (or thousands) of ships from different eras have sunk into the depths of the Black Sea and then vanished from human memory.  In other marine environments, these wooden ships would rot or be eaten by various boring creatures, but the Black Sea is lifeless below a certain depth.  The wrecks of countless ships from millennia are waiting at the bottom in shockingly good condition.

 

The Shipwreck of Sinop D

The Shipwreck of Sinop D

Early in the 2000s, the great marine adventurer and explorer, Robert Ballard came to the Black Sea in order to see if it was indeed the rich historical treasure trove which oceanographers and archeologists speculate.  His team quickly discovered the wreck of a sixth-century Byzantine merchant ship found in the Black Sea’s anoxic waters at a depth of 325 meters. Known as Sinop D, the ship was in shockingly pristine condition.  The timbers it was made of had not deteriorated–indeed, carved details could still be easily made out.  Dr. Ballard vowed to bring the wreck to the surface and restore the ancient ship, but so far, the ancient craft remains where it sank so long ago.  Just imagine all of the other amazing, pristine ship wrecks that are also out there!  How does one get into Black Sea Archaeology?

octopus-valentines-day-card

Today is Valentine’s Day!  Happy valentines to all my readers. You all really are the best and, although I don’t want to make any syrupy declarations of love, I truly do esteem you. I would bake you all a big heart-shaped cherry cake if such a thing were possible (ed’s note: logistical studies determined that baking a large delicious cake was indeed possible, but fulfillment—getting the cake to the esteemed blog readers—was far beyond the author’s shaky grasp of organization].

exps9880_TH10029C37B

Having said all of that, I am not the world’s biggest Valentine’s Day fan.  I dislike the slushy gray month of February when winter has long outstayed its welcome (but when spring remains far away).  Corporate forces pop into one’s love life (or absence thereof) to remind everyone to buy pink plastic junk and churn out some more consumers.  I can’t help but feel that they are being insincere and perhaps a bit greedy.

Or maybe they are trying to sell to people trapped in offices instead of lovers...

Or maybe they are trying to sell to people trapped in offices instead of lovers…

I was going to write about the color pink and how it became thoroughly conflated with romance and with the holiday.  Unfortunately, looking up “pink romantic history” on the web resulted in me finding out lots about the private life of popular musician Pink, but little about how pink came to dominate romance, women’s products, girl’s toys, and the month of February.

At least she found a supportive partner...

At least she found a supportive partner…

Probably any intelligent adult can surmise the fundamental reasons that the color pink and the physical aspects of romance are linked.  Irrespective, I really like the color pink a great deal—it is the color of sessile invertebrates, roses, animal’s noses, the sunset, and I find it frustrating that marketers overuse it because of gender stereotypes and lack of imagination.

There are too many chalky candies and not enough flamingos

There are too many chalky candies and not enough flamingos

Anyway, I’m rambling.  I guess the point was that, like most single people in America, I am frustrated by Valentine’s Day.  Maybe that is my fault instead of the fault of Hallmark.  I should learn to appreciate what I have—like my wonderful readers.  Happy Valentine’s Day!  You all really are the best!  Even if I didn’t bake a cake for you, come back on Monday and I’ll write a really good post!  Also, as a final note, there is one good thing about Valentine’s Day—it means the winter is finally coming to its last stages.  And  who knows, maybe next year, despite all of the failures, we’ll finally get romance right…

Tulip in spring snow (DI00800)

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