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Nerodia rhombifer overpowers a catfish (photo by David Sledge)

Nerodia rhombifer overpowers a catfish (photo by David Sledge)

Here is a dramatic photo of a snake killing a catfish. The snake is a nonvenomous species, the diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) which is commonly mistaken for the venomous cottonmouth–even though the later is less common. The reptile captured the fish by force and brute tenacity (and it succeeded in swallowing the fish even though the catfish’s head was bigger than its own). The amazing photo was captured by a gifted photographer, David Sledge, who had the further gift of being in the right place at the right time in order to catch a match between two formidable animals. The Daily News reported that, “Mr. Sledge was walking along a bayou just outside Sugar Land a suburb southwest of Houston, Texas, when he witnessed the remarkable struggle between predator and prey.”

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

The Skull and Crown of Erik IX of Sweden

Today we have an extremely special treat to counteract the treacle of yesterday’s fluffy movie review: it’s the skull of a Viking king complete with a period crown! Hooray! The skull is what remains of King Erik IX who ruled Sweden from 1156 until 1160 when a political misunderstanding resulted in his head violently flying off his body (admittedly with some help from a large man with an axe). Well, at least that is what we think happened…no historical records have survived from Erik’s reign so all we have are myths, legends, and archaeological evidence (like this bitchin’ skull and crown).

The skull and crown from a different angle

The skull and crown from a different angle

Like many Swedish royals, Erik IX seems to have hailed from Götaland (which is to say he was a Geat)! Erik claimed the throne in 1150 while Sverker the Elder was still king and the two men bitterly contested the throne. In 1156 some mysterious party ordered the murder of Sverker on Christmas day and thereafter Erik was the uncontested king until he himself was murdered while attending mass at Uppsala. Uppsala had long been the center of political and spiritual life in Sweden and it was once the site of a huge temple to the old gods (which stood surrounded by sacrificed human beings and the barrows of ancient kings), however in Erik’s era Christians were taking over and there was already a church at Uppsala in 1160.

The cathedral at Uppsala today

The cathedral at Uppsala today

A fair amount of whitewash seems to have been applied to Erik by Christians who were still in the process expunging the ancient pagan faith from Scandinavia. Additionally his son Knud was fighting for the throne with the Sverkers and shamelessly mixed together facts and legends about Erik to consolidate his position. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that Erik IX formalized Swedish law and led an invasion/crusade against the pagan Finns. Today Erik IX is known as Eric the Lawgiver, Erik the Saint, and Eric the Holy. His severed head is on the coat of arms of Stockholm.

 

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

The Coat of Arms of Stockholm

Although Erik was never formally recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, his skull and crown have long been held in Uppsala cathedral. Historians and archaeologists opened the casket in April of 2014, and the contents will go on public display in June. The crown of Erik is made of gilded copper inset with semi-precious jewels.

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It’s movie time here at Ferrebeekeeper! Tonight we are reviewing the DreamWorks animated children’s film “Turbo” which concerns Theo, a humble snail who lives in a garden in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the fact that snails are renowned for being slow and cautious, Theo dreams of blazing speed and obsessively follows Indy Car racing (particularly idolizing the French Canadian champion, Guy Gagné, whose legendary racing prowess is matched by an oversized personality).

 

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

I like gardening better than car racing so some of this was lost on me

The humdrum reality of Theo’s slow-paced life as a lowly “worker” in a vegetable garden seems to preclude him from following his dreams of speedway glory…but after he is cast out of snail society he undergoes a fateful magical (?) transformation and is reborn as Turbo, a supercharged snail capable of blazing speed. Will Turbo be able to find a way into the human world of high speed car racing? Can he make it to Indianapolis and compete in the big race? Could he even maybe win? People who have ever seen a children’s movie may somehow anticipate the answers to these burning questions (and guess that the French Canadian Gagné is less likable than he first seems), but I will try not to spoil the movie for the one person who is somehow both reader of my blog and looking forward to watching a children’s movie which came out last July.

 

(Dreamworks)

(Dreamworks)

In fact devoted readers may be somewhat surprised to find this blog reviewing a children’s movie–or indeed any movie—since the cinematic art has barely been featured here at all; yet Ferrebeekeeper is deeply concerned with mollusks, and Theo/Turbo is unique in being the mollusk hero of a major Hollywood motion picture (and a spinoff television show on Netflix). Additionally, although I found the movie to be a typical work of rags-to-riches whimsy for children, I enjoyed its message about the narrow and chancy ladders to fame and riches which exist for the little guy. Turbo finds a Chicano taco-shop worker who helps the snail find social media fame (which in turn allows him to pursue further ambitions). The crazy world of internet celebrity is the real turbo-boost which elevates the tiny abject creature to the rarified realms of status and importance. It seems significant that when Theo transforms to Turbo he is shown bouncing through the terrifying and incomprehensible labyrinth of a high tech machine he does not understand at all.

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah...

Stereotypes? In an animated movie? Nah…

The movie is most touching when it features the sundry immigrant shopkeepers who inhabit a run down strip mall where they dream simply of having customers. The filmmakers add some colorful urban Angelino snails (tricked out with customized shells) to give the movie some hip-hop “cred”, but it is obviously a movie about trying to compete in a world where the real contenders are playing in a vastly different league. The only aspect of mollusk existence which seemed true to life was the ever-present fear of being crushed or gobbled up (since Turbo and his snail friends are continuously and realistically threatened with being smashed by monopolistic giants and high speed machines).

Aaaaagh!

Aaaaagh!

I love animated movies and so I am giving Turbo a (very generous) rating of 3.5 shells out of a possible 5. Although the movie was colorful, well animated, and fun, it was much less involved with the bizarre and amazing world of mollusks than it might have been. It was almost as though the snail was a whimsical stand-in for omnipresent economic concerns about globalization. Also the 3D stuff did not work at all. Hollywood, stop featuring 3D! It is a horrible horrible feature which everyone hates!

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A Stellar Nursery in the Carina nebula: pillars of gas and dust three light years tall (NASA, JPL)

A Stellar Nursery in the Carina nebula: pillars of gas and dust three light years tall (NASA, JPL)

Stars develop in vast nebulae of swirling dust and gas that are light years across. Within these giant molecular clouds (GMCs), gravity gathers matter together into an accretion disk which then further compacts until the density and temperature of the central ball of gas reach the extremes necessary for nuclear fusion to begin. Different stars created in different GMCs thus have different spectrographic characteristics depending on the place of their creation, however GMCs tend to be inconceivably vast and multiple stars form in one stellar nursery at the same time. Such stars share similarities of composition.

The Sun

The Sun

For a long time, astronomers have sought the stars which formed at the same time in the same GMC as our beloved sun (which is approximately four and a half billion years old). Now, at long last, it seems we have found one of the sun’s bigger sisters. A yellow star in the constellation Hercules seems to have the same composition as the sun. Using elaborate computer models of stellar drift, scientists have traced the star (which goes by the unlovely name “HD 162826”) and the sun back to the same place of origin. HD 162826 is 15% larger than the sun (which is why I called it a big sister) and although it does not have any “super Jupiter” type planets, there is a possibility it may have some small rocky inner worlds. The sun has grown somewhat distant from its sibling: during the billions of years since their creation the two stars have drifted 110 light years from each other.

HD 162826

HD 162826

The discovery was made by a team of astronomers from around the world (lead by Ivan Ramirez from the University of Texas). The sun’s sister is not visible to the naked eye, but no doubt many telescopes will be trained on Hercules to discover if there is anything we can learn from our sun’s long sundered nursery mate.

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

One of the greatest still life painters of all time was Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin spent almost his entire life in Paris creating still life paintings of common kitchen and household items (and occasionally painting domestic scenes of maids, servants, and children). In an age dominated by Rococo excess and opulence, his works exalt the simple beauty of quotidian subjects. Additionally, he painted very slowly and turned out only 4 or 5 pieces a year. Chardin is one of Marcel Proust’s favorite artists and anyone who has read “Remembrance of Things Past” will recall long lyrical passages praising paintings such as “The Ray” (one of the Louvre’s prized masterpiece–which Proust saw often). Proust found a kindred spirit in Chardin—someone who found transcendent beauty, grandeur, and meaning within daily life. Chardin’s exquisite little works make a large aesthetic point about the nature of beauty and of truth—which are as often found in the servant’s little room as in the viscount’s vasty palace. A little hanging duck is as lovely as the goddess of the dawn.

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

I have chosen to show three paintings of fowl by Chardin (ranging from least, at the top, to best at the bottom). All are kitchen paintings of dead birds about to be plucked and cooked. The first is a simple brace of gamefowl hanging in the kitchen. The second work shows a splendid duck with one cream colored wing extended, the last is a magnificent turkey amidst copper pots and vegetables. Each of these paintings have a deep sense of longing: the melancholy of the dead birds is somewhat abated by the viewer’s hunger and by the wistful nostalgia created by a limited palette of grays and browns (with a few little flourishes of pink, orange, and yellow). Their very simplicity makes them rich and complex (although Chardin’s incomparable brushwork certainly is anything but simple).

 

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

The nymphs, clowns, and jeweled mistresses of 18th century French art seem to come from a world unimaginable—a world which even today’s jaded pop stars and sybaritic billionaires would find decadent. Chardin’s art however comes from some eternal place—a kitchen which we have all walked into in childhood. There in the plain light we are confronted with humble pots and pans and perhaps a bird or fish—but we are also confronted with the absolute beauty of the everyday world.

The hot pink Australian slug Triboniophorus aff. graeffei (Photo by Michael Murphy/NPWS)

The hot pink Australian slug Triboniophorus aff. graeffei (Photo by Michael Murphy/NPWS)

Two of the main subjects of this blog are mollusks and colors. One might reasonably believe that the two topics intersect most vividly in the form of nudibranch mollusks—the insanely colorful sea slugs which enliven even the coral reef with garish beauty. However in 2013 scientists discovered a brilliantly colored slug on land. Triboniophorus aff. graeffei was discovered on Mount Kaputar (which is part of the Nandewar range of Australia. The slug is brilliant fluorescent pink and grows to 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length.

The hot pink Australian slug Triboniophorus aff. graeffei (Photo by Michael Murphy/NPWS)

The hot pink Australian slug Triboniophorus aff. graeffei (Photo by Michael Murphy/NPWS)

Australia is famous for being arid—and dryness mixes poorly with slugs (in fact most mollusks prefer to be moist). Mount Nandewar however is an exception to the general climate of the island continent. A long-ago volcanic eruption sealed off a tiny corner of lush rainforest from the desertification which affected the rest of Australia. The hot pink slugs and their rainforest are in a little time capsule left from the great lush forests of Gondwana. It has been speculated that the bright pink coloration helps the slugs blend in with bright red tropical eucalyptus trees of Mount Nandewar—yet, since the slugs are not always on or near such trees their brilliant 1980s color scheme remains a mystery.

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

We all know that cats have mastered internet popularity. Whether through adorable antics on Youtube, elaborate pun-filled digital images, or just general grumpy demeanor, the felids have demonstrated an unparalleled ability to thrive in today’s new media environment. Therefore, to please the cat-loving legions of netizens, I am dedicating today’s post to sand cats (Felis margarita), which are small cats which live in the deep deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and southwest/central Asia. Also a trio of sand cat kittens was just born in Zoo Brno in the Czech Republic, so expect this post to get super cute!

 

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

With short legs, a stout body, and a long tail, sand cats are among the tiniest of cats. Full-grown adults weigh only 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). Sand cats live in discontiguous ranges—so they are separated into several subspecies which are evolving in different ways. The tough little cats thrive in the deepest hottest deserts—the Sahara, the Rub’ al Khali, the Lut—where they live without water by surviving on the moisture in their prey. Like all cats, they are formidable predators, but their hearing is superior even to other felids: sand cats have huge highly-refined ears which are capable of hearing tiny burrowing animals moving deep beneath the sand. They survive on rodents such as jerboas, gerbils, and spiny mice, but they also hunt small birds and reptiles (and they are known as a particularly adept killer of snakes). Sand cats have heavy fur on the pads of their paws so they can run across burning desert sands. They co-opt the abandoned burrows of other desert creatures as their own to hide from the scorching daytime heat.

 

A sand cat with a snake

A sand cat with a snake

Sand cat populations are diminishing in the wild as human development encroaches on the edge of their habitat–but the true depths of their hellish deserts are places where humans are unlikely to build condominiums, so sand cats are merely listed as near-threatened. Until recently sand cats did not do well in zoos, and they are a somewhat unfamiliar animal. Because they are used to profoundly arid climate, they would die of respiratory infections when brought into humid locations. Today zookeepers know to keep their sand cats in dry arid enclosures—which mean the creatures are beginning to do much better in captivity. In 2012, the first captive sand cat kittens were born in a zoo in Israel, and this year three kittens were born in the Czech Republic. Look at how adorable they are (well, assuming you are not some timid burrowing desert creature).

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

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I meant to finish off flower week last Friday with some photos of my garden in Brooklyn as it bursts into spring blossoms—but I was unable to find my camera (well actually I couldn’t find the charger for the battery of my camera). This past weekend I went through all sorts of drawers, shelves, and closets and finally found the missing unit in a cabinet which I swear I checked before—why don’t electronics manufacturers make these things the color of marine rescue equipment as opposed to matte black? Anyway, here is the back garden. After a long hard winter, it is pure joy to see the tulips, dogwoods, and bleeding hearts in bloom. I’m sorry I am not a very gifted photographer: the plants are so much prettier in the real world! However, maybe a little part of their beauty shows up in these photographs.

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Above all else, the star of the garden is the huge stately Kwanzan flowering cherry tree which overtops the house. The tree is so big that it is difficult to photograph all of it. Additionally no camera can do justice to the ineffable beauty of its stately pink blossoms (which I have written about in past posts about the Japanese blossom viewing festival and about the wistful poignancy of ephemeral beauty). I love that tree so much—maybe I’ll go out and take pictures of it tonight with the lanterns on (sorry about all of the ugly cords).

 

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There are some holes in the garden where summer plants have not yet sprouted (or where grim winter laid waste to the flower that was living there) but that is all part of the joy of gardening. I’ll try to post some more pictures with the irises, roses, and hydrangeas once they have bloomed. In the mean time it is a lovely season to head outside and enjoy the flowers!

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Victorian flower bouquet circa 1880

A visit to a museum of fine art with a collection of works older than a century quickly convinces the viewer that flowers have a symbolic language which has long been of paramount importance to human concerns. However, as one walks through rooms of Dutch still life bouquets, pre-Raphaelite garden scenes, and post-modern steel blossoms, one also longs for a symbolic guide. Flowers have long held a cryptographic significance but the idiom varies from culture to culture—even from person to person. The Victorians, who were positively crazy for flowers (but famously bashful in person) tried to standardize the language of flowers in order to make things more clear. They utilized classical poetry and art for certain long-held associations and invented a huge number themselves: the result was the famous “language of flowers”.

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Ideally a courting couple would exchange bouquets which included romantic-messages (the concept was possibly invented by horticulturists and the florists’ guild). Daily “talking bouquets” let couples know how each partner was feeling. Awkward suitors pinned their hopes on extravagant floral gifts. As the popular culture of the nineteenth century picked up on the concept, it became part of the literature, theater, and art of the time. Publishing houses sold floriographies—dictionaries of flowers—which can still be read or found online: You can look at a more comprehensive online “floriography” here, but I have isolated some choice examples below:

Heart’s Ease: thought

Hyacinth (yellow): jealousy

Larkspur (pink): fickleness

Nasturtium: Conquest and victory in battle

“To crush your enemies, to drive them before you and hear the lamentations of their women…”

“To crush your enemies, to drive them before you and hear the lamentations of their women…”

Mock Orange: Deceit

Orchid (Cattleya): Mature Charm

Peony: Shame; gay life; happy marriage

"Um..."

“Um…”

The experience is somewhat queasy-making. It is hard not to wince at all the inappropriate or offensive things I have said to various young ladies I have esteemed (or, indeed, to my friends–since I like to bring flowers as dinner gifts or thank you presents).

The language of flowers was most en vogue in Western Europe and the United States from 1810 to 1880. However just as it evolved from a long antecedent of flower symbolism it has also cast long shadows—and flowers have played substantial roles as signifiers in movies, television, and popular music up to this day. None-the-less the high formalism and stilted exactitude of the language of flowers has faded into the twilight (thankfully, since goodness knows what the Victorians would have thought of dyed orchids and anthuriums.

Censored by Parental Advisement Board

Censored by Parental Advisement Board

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