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magnificent adult Peltogyne purpurea tree (photo by Reinaldo Aguilar)

magnificent adult Peltogyne purpurea tree (photo by Reinaldo Aguilar)

Imagine a huge tropical tree with a heart of deep purple. OK—you don’t have to imagine it. Such trees exist: they are the Peltogyne genus of flowering trees. The Peltogyne are native to Central and South America. They are part of the larger Fabaceae family–the bean family–a vast family of plants which are extremely important to humankind. The beans and legumes make up subsistence food for much of the world’s population and are instantly familiar…but it is hard to see the family resemblance between a little bean runner and a purpleheart tree. The latter grows to heights of up to 30–50m (120–150 ft) tall and can have trunk diameters of up to 1.5 meters (5 feet). Only in the pod-like seed is there a ready family resemblance (at least to laypeople like me).

Agerminating purpleheart bean...er seed (Reinaldo Aguilar)

Agerminating purpleheart bean…er seed (Reinaldo Aguilar)

Purpleheart is one of the hardest and stiffest woods in the world. The heartwood cures into a rich purple hue of great beauty. The trees are coveted by woodworkers (even though craftsmen need razor sharp implements of hardened steel or carborundum to work the obdurate wood). As you can imagine this has put great pressure on the wild trees and some species are now endangered.

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Here are some pieces made from purpleheart wood. The wood is ideal for bows, gears, gun handles, tools, and any other application which requires hard wood which does not deteriorate, however because of its rarity and prohibitive price it is generally only seen in small accents and art pieces. If you are lucky enough to have an item made of purpleheart you should treat it carefully. Exposure to ultraviolet light causes the purple to deepen to an opaque medium brown (although it is still pretty and just as hard).

Purpleheart recurve bow (by bowyer for "Lumberjocks")

Purpleheart recurve bow (by bowyer for “Lumberjocks”)

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Fav-Afrique, the superb anti-venin which is going off the market because market incentives do not properly address real human concerns.  The anti-venin is a cocktail which is meant to counter the venom of numerous different snakes from central and West Africa. In that post, I promised to write about some of these venomous reptiles, which I have so far failed to do.  When I was looking at the list, one name stood out because it was the most dangerous snake in Africa (in terms of the number of people killed by its venom), yet I did not recognize the name at all-the West African carpet viper (Echis ocellatus).  This husky viper, which is camouflaged with a chaotic ladder of dark bars and pale stipples, is apparently Africa’s most dangerous snake—one of the deadliest animals in the word in terms of human mortality and suffering—but I have never heard of it.  Have you?

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The West African carpet viper doesn’t even have a good page (in English) on Wikipedia.  It is hard to find out about the creature without turning to 19th century explorers or freaks who raise it for a hobby.  Most of the web articles I found about it were scary medical papers about failed attempts to come up with effective anti-venins for the viper’s venom.  Here is what we do know about this tubby killer. Echis ocellatus can be found from Mauritania in the north down along the Bight of Benin to Cameroon.  It ranges east into the Sahel as far as Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  The snake is adept at surviving in dry scrubland on lizards and rodents. Females can lay immense clutches of up to sixty eggs!

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

That is all I could reliably find out, but we know that the animal is a viper—which provides us with a great deal of information.  Vipers are fearsome lurking predators capable of seeing infrared wavelength radiation (which means they can track prey in the dark based on body heat).  Some pit-vipers like American rattlesnakes are famous for warning intruders off—and apparently the carpet viper can rasp its saw-toothed scales together to make a warning sound, but this subtle warning often goes unheeded by firewood gatherers of the scrubland.  Based entirely on body count, Echis ocellatus must be an angry & short-tempered character (I have mercifully never met one—so my words are speculation).

There is more information about the venom of Echis ocellatus than there is data about the snake, but the information is frustratingly technical.  Suffice to say, the snake produces a formidable cytotoxin, a protein which is damaging to cells.  Bites from the viper are marked by terrible tissue necrosis and hemorrhage at the site of envenomation.  I’m really sorry—the main things I have found out from looking into this interesting but enigmatic animal is that: (1) The internet is still an imperfect information source about some really important things; (2) I need to read French to write about West Africa, and (3) do not mess with Echis ocellatus! Leave them be and tread with great caution in dust colored places of the Sahel!

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2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year's Mid-Autumn festival

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year’s Mid-Autumn festival

Today is a special day! Not only is it the Autumn Festival (Mooncake Day), a lunar harvest (and moon-viewing) festival celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese.  It is also the last “supermoon” full lunar eclipse for the next 18 years.  A “supermoon” happens when the moon is at the closest point in its orbit around Earth. From Earth’s surface (where most of my readers live) the moon thus appears 14% larger and 33% brighter than other full moons. When such a supermoon is eclipsed by the shadow of Earth, the event is known as a “blood moon” by imaginative neopagans and by fundamentalist Christians who hope the world will end soon (and by bloggers desperate for hits).  The blood moon designation comes not just because of cultists’ violent fantasy, but because the moon takes on a red tinge during the event.

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist's interpretation)

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist’s interpretation)

Bloodmoon eclipses are rare and there have been none for 33 years—then suddenly four in short succession: tonight’s eclipse will be the final of the batch.  I missed the last bloodmoons thanks to clouds and scheduling mishaps…and who knows what I will be doing 18 years from now (hopefully showing beautiful paintings in a fancy gallery or directing cyborgs on a floating city above Venus…but probably decomposing or still working as a lackey in title insurance).  Tonight’s event begins at 9:07 PM EST and maximum umbra (“shadow”) occurs at 10:48 PM.

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I baked a turkey and made an almond pie for the celestial event (although dark clouds are already swirling on the horizon).  Hopefully some of you will join me on rooftops, observatory turrets, and in special moon-viewing pavilions to watch the celestial show!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof...it's really hard to draw in the dark!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof…it’s really hard to draw in the dark!

Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Sancai Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel (Tang Dynasty)

Nobody makes more beautiful ceramics and porcelains than the Chinese.  They are the best at it, and they have been practically forever (or at least for the last 3000 years).  The Chinese were also among the first people to domesticate geese, those lovely, useful (and all-too-sadly delicious) fowl with big personalities.  It follows then, that nobody has made a more beautiful ceramic goose vessel than the Chinese…and here is the proof–a magnificent gooseware vessel from the Tang dynasty, a vast empire which from 618 AD to 9017 AD spanned the Chinese coast and stretched deep along the Silk Road into central Asia.  I am just kidding about gooseware…this vessel is properly called a Tang earthenware vessel with Sancai (three-color) glaze, however I am not kidding about the vast scope of the Tang dynasty, nor about the unfading splendor of this artwork.  Look at the expression on the goose—a sanguine curiosity tinged with hunger.  Look too at the beautiful expressionism of the transparent brown blue and yellow glaze, which straddles a fine line between pure abstraction and the natural color of a Medieval Chinese goose popping out of an algae-streaked mudhole.

Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

Sancai And Blue-Glazed Pottery Goose-Form Vessel

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a checkered history with ancient goose art.  We have been known to sometimes get suckered by beautiful forgeries and charismatic forgers, so you will have to look at this piece carefully assay its merit on your own!

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Allegory of Autumn (Workshop of Boticelli, ca. late 15th century, oil on canvas)

Allegory of Autumn (Workshop of Boticelli, ca. late 15th century, oil on canvas)

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, September 23rd is the Autumnal Equinox in 2015. Summer is officially over and autumn has begun. Now summer is my favorite season, and, more than ever before, it vanished like a racer snake diving into a thicket. I will miss it…and I worry that future summers will seem even shorter (if possible). But whatever the case concerning the swift passage of summer, autumn is not without its own substantial and fulsome delights. To celebrate the incipient season of harvest and abundance…and of winnowing and ending…I am putting up a gallery of fall crowns. Most of these are wreaths made of berries, chrysanthemums, and falling leaves, but a few are made of copper, bronze, and semi-precious stones.

A Bride Wearing an Autumn Crown (Photo by Nikki Cooper Via Love My Dress)

A Bride Wearing an Autumn Crown (Photo by Nikki Cooper Via Love My Dress)

Amber Autumn Fairy Circlet Tiara Crown (by Thyme2dream on Etsy)

Amber Autumn Fairy Circlet Tiara Crown (by Thyme2dream on Etsy)

Crown for the Autumn Queen by

Crown for the Autumn Queen by “Up from the Ashes”

Man's Wreath of Rose Hips, Berries, & Leaves (by BloomStudio of Etsy)

Man’s Wreath of Rose Hips, Berries, & Leaves (by BloomStudio of Etsy)

Autumn Leaves Crown (by hanatsukuri of Deviantart)

Autumn Leaves Crown (by hanatsukuri of Deviantart)

I feel like this prop crown from "A Game of Thrones" should count

I feel like this prop crown from “A Game of Thrones” should count

Fall Wedding Crown by "thehoneycomb" on Etsy

Fall Wedding Crown by “thehoneycomb” on Etsy

Autumn oak-leaf fairy crown and third-eye jewellery made (and sold) by

Autumn oak-leaf fairy crown and third-eye jewellery made (and sold) by “Atlantic Fae”

Golden Santos Doll Crown with Amber Rhinestones

Golden Santos Doll Crown with Amber Rhinestones

I am surprised at how many autumn wedding pieces there are! It gives one hope! And additionally I am gratified by the number of beautiful wreathes and handmade pieces available on Etsy…which also gives one hope. Maybe society is not wholly the mass-produced over-marketed aesthetic fiasco it seems like in the New York Times. Enjoy autumn! It is a beautiful season and there are many amazing things both fair and dark to come here on Ferrebeekeeper (and probably in the world too).

Sunflower and Wild Wheat Crown...again by "BloomDesignStudio on Etsy...gosh, those guys are the best!

Sunflower and Wild Wheat Crown…again by “BloomDesignStudio on Etsy…gosh, those guys are the best!

216 Kleopatra

216 Kleopatra

It’s time for Ferrebeekeeper to get back out to space.  This grotesque gray hambone-looking thing is a metallic asteroid approximately the size of New Jersey known as 216 Kleopatra.  The asteroid was discovered in 1880 by Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa when he was director of the Austrian naval observatory at the great Austrian naval port of Pula (!). The asteroid is 217 kilometers long by 94 kilometers deep by 81 kilometers long (135 miles by 58 miles by 50 miles).  It is composed of slurry of metal, dust, and…nothing: between 30 to 50% of the asteroid’s volume is empty space (which makes it sound a lot like the consumer goods for sale in American stores).

216 Kleopatra has been the subject of a fair amount of human scrutiny.  In 2008, a team of astronomers working from Hawaii’s Keck observatory (at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii discovered two tiny moons orbiting the asteroid.  These moons have diameters of about 5 km and 3 km respectively and they are named Alexhelios and Cleoselene for Cleopatra’s children.

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An obvious question is what knocked this doughty asteroid into a strangely shaped cloud of weird slurry and little moons.  The most obvious answer is an oblique impact, which astronomers estimate occurred about a hundred million years ago.  I wonder what other secrets this giant rubble pile in space is hiding.

Also...it rotates, as seen in this stunning animation.

Also…it rotates, as seen in this stunning animation.

Silver crown with gilt and carnelians (Unknown Turkmen Silversmith, 19th–early 20th century)

Silver crown with gilt and carnelians (Unknown Turkmen Silversmith, 19th–early 20th century)

Here is a beautiful crown made using plain materials and simple techniques.  It was crafted by a nomadic silversmith of the nomadic Turkmen people in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  The piece is at the edge of being a crown.  I guess purists or monarchists might argue that it is just a fine headpiece.  It is made with silver, plain carnelians, and cotton lining—perhaps for a chieftain or a high status nomad.  However the work is beautiful and cunningly made—it has much greater artistic merit than much fancier works.  I would argue that not only is it a crown, it illustrates a great truth about human affairs—If you are a nomad or a wanderer (or a member of some other society that  does not crawl before the great but runs away from them) monarchs do not mean as much.  Any nomad can put on a crown and declare himself a potentate. Of course, that line of thinking ignores what has happened to modern Turkmenistan where the entire society was enslaved by an evil alienist who wasted the entire treasury making huge marble follies in the desert.  Perhaps I need to tell that story!

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee...

Pity the flounder! Pity, I beg thee…

Adolescence is difficult. Puberty is an awkward transitional time when the winsome cuteness of childhood departs forever but is not fully replaced by the graceful strength and confidence of adulthood. But before you have a PTS flashback to those rough years, spare a moment of pity for the poor flounder. Flounders (and other flatfish like halibuts, soles, and flattest of them all, turbots) are born…err hatched like us with two eyes on either side of their skull. As tiny transparent larvae living among the zooplankton, flounder fry can see a panoramic view of the ocean so as to better evade predators. As they dart through three dimensions, their bilateral symmetry is like that of the rest of the vertebrates.

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

As searingly depicted in this stunning diagram

Then, as they grow into adult fish, a strange and remarkable metamorphosis occurs. Bones in the flounder’s skull distort and one eye migrates across its head so that both eyes are on one side of its face. Imagine if your left eye traveled over the bridge of your nose to permanently join your right eye on the right side of your face!

An adolescent flatfish--the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

An adolescent flatfish–the eyes are just beginning to creep to one side (photo for PBS Nova)

Of course eye migration is but one aspect of the flounder’s change to adulthood. The fish begin to swim at an angle. One side of their body becomes flecked with color while the other becomes white (the better to merge into the two dimensional world of the bottom). Speaking of color, the once transparent fry becomes opaque! Their mouth opens on one side of their head and they must learn to swim like a flying carpet.

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But don’t let their remarkable transition and their comic appearance deceive you. The flatfish are extraordinary predators and they are also geniuses at avoiding the many toothy hunters of the ocean. Their close set eyes protrude above the sand and see unwary prey with acuity and laser focus. Fossil finds from Monte Bolca, a beautifully preserved Eocene coral reef, show that the flatfish were evolving into their current form 45 million years ago (as the primates were taking to the trees, the bats were first taking wing, and the little dawn horses were scampering through the endless tropical groves). For at least 45 million years the flatfish (which, I should have mentioned, constitute the order Pleuronectiformes) have been camouflaged at the bottom of the sea feasting on shrimp and minnows while the world blinked and didn’t notice them. They are still out there thriving, even as whole parts of the ocean ecosystem collapse. It is a striking reminder that wrenching changes can work out for the best!

An adult Turbot

An adult Turbot

The Library at Strawberry Hill

The Library at Strawberry Hill

Horror writer Horace Walpole was one of the foremost figures responsible for the Gothic revival style which swept the English speaking world during the nineteenth century.  Ferrebeekeeper has dedicated a post to his bizarre literary monsterpiece “The Castle of Otranto” and we have described the history of his own bizarre Rococo Gothic manor house “Strawberry Hill”.  What we never showed you was the sumptuously decorated Gothic library of Strawberry Hill, which is surely one of England’s most splendid and eccentric rooms.

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In the library, great white pointed arches reach up a green ceiling (dark green prior to a recent restoration and pale green after) towards a sumptuously painted ceiling.  On the ceiling knights ride through intricate decorations around Walpole’s great “W”. Though he was the Prime Minister’s son, a baron, and a powerful politician, Horace Walpole was foremost a man of letters.  His beautiful library reflects that interest and is a real work of art in its own right.   It is not hard to see why the room, like the house, influenced a whole century of imitation and cast aesthetic echoes down to the present.

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The Ili pika photographed by Li Weidong in July 2014

The Ili pika photographed by Li Weidong in July 2014

Back during a week devoted to small furry herbivores, Ferrebeekeeper sketched in the general outlines of pikas—close relatives of rabbits. Pikas live in the mountains among high cliffs and alpine meadows where they practice a sort of rudimentary farming. They collect hay in order to dry and store it for the harsh mountain winters. You can read the general natural history here, however today we concentrate on a specific species of pika–the Ili pika (Ochotona iliensis) of northwest China. In 1983, a team of biologists and natural scientists discovered Ili pika in the rough and arid mountain terrain of western Xinjiang province. Then the animal was then not seen or documented by science again until last year (2014).

The Tian Shan Mountains, goodness help us...

The Tian Shan Mountains, goodness help us…

During the intervening years nobody necessarily thought the Ili pika was extinct (unlike the Gilbert’s potoroo which was thought to be deceased until rediscovered against all hope), instead the pika was not seen because almost nobody went into the remote mountain fastnesses where it lives. Having said that, almost nothing is known about the Ili pika. It was rediscovered in the bleak Tian Shan mountains but conservationists fear that it may have been extirpated from the Jilimalale and Hutubi mountains (even bleaker mountains which are subject to human resource extraction).

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Although we know little about the behavior or ecology of the Ili pika, we have pictures of it, and it is exceedingly adorable—like a cross between a terrier, a rabbit, and a tiny sage. It seems to have all of the charisma of the panda, the golden pheasant, the tragic baiji, and the gibbon. Perhaps Chinese mythmakers and cultural arbiters could surreptitiously slip it into the folklore pantheon. I would love to read some stories starring the Ili pika as a trickster or a magical mountain wise man.

I don't know what this is but I found it on the internet and thought it was compelling

I don’t know what this is but I found it on the internet and thought it was compelling

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