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We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world.  Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics.  I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty.  Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider.  I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate.  However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer.  The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….

Big bold color...in a small package

Big bold color…in a small package

Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!).  Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !

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If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him.  Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible.  If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them.  If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience.  At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it.  Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)

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Sunset in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

This past Sunday afternoon, I decided to get a haircut: it had been a while and my hair was getting all shaggy and seventies-looking.  Unfortunately I forgot it was Sunday afternoon.  All the local barber shops were closed. So I got on bicycle and cycled south deeper and deeper into Brooklyn until I came to a huge Jewish neighborhood in the middle of Midwood.  There were barbershops everywhere, but most of them were catering to groups of brothers from large Orthodox families.  Finally I found a shop that didn’t have a dozen kids in line before me and I sat down to get a haircut.  The barber swiftly and professionally gave me a short conservative haircut–but big families of little boys started pouring into the shop as soon as he began.  When I asked him how much he counted me and seemed surprised there was only one of me and that I am a grownup (more-or-less). It was a good cheap fast haircut and I am pleased by my choice!

Anyway, when I walked out of the shop it was sunset—and it was one of the prettiest sunsets I have ever seen.  The entire sky was glowing the bright golden yellow of a toucan’s beak.  Then illegible alien letters made of fire appeared near the horizon before the whole sky blew up into inflorescent pink cotton candy with glowing orange and purple streamers!  It was amazingly beautiful.  Fortunately I had my little sketchbook and a tin of fluorescent pencils! I swiftly drew the picture at the top, but it obviously doesn’t do justice to Brooklyn or to the exquisite sunset!

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The Precious Night Turkey (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Mixed Media)

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite animals is the turkey.  I am not alone. We Americans have a whole month dedicated to devotions of the magnificent bird: the turkey is literally at the center of our third (or second?) most important festival. However there is a distinctly Aztec aspect to the turkey’s key role in the holiday.  The fowl is not just a sacred animal of autumn—it is a sacred sacrifice of the dying year.

I love turkeys.  I love their appearance.  I love their personalities.  I love their furtive mastery of the eastern woodlands. I…uh…I love their flavor.  A lot. This strikes me as a noteworthy juxtaposition of its own: a troubling aspect not of turkeys, but of humankind.  Our kindness is always streaked through with appetite.  Our admiration is dark and terrible.

Anyway, I figured I had better make an artwork to capture some of these mixed feelings (and as a personal devotion to the consecrated bird).  Here is a picture of Chalchiuhtotolin, the jeweled night turkey of the Aztecs.  You can revisit the post here—the deity is a trickster, a sacrifice, a shapeshifter. I made it with paper cutouts, markers, colored pencils, and rhinestones—in the artistic style of an alimentary schoolchild, er, I mean an “elementary” schoolchild.  I wanted it to be like a Faberge jeweled egg, glistening in the purple night, but perhaps I should have made it more Aztec instead of Rococo.

Ominously, as I was pasting it all together I accidentally tore off the head (you can see the seam of where I glued it back if you blow up the work). It was an artistic mistake—but it works perfectly to capture the true ritualistic nature of November’s spirit animal.

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One of my favorite clothing colors is “French Blue” a brilliant bright ultramarine color which is best known for its use in men’s suits and shirts.  French Blue is the same color as French ultramarine—the synthetic version of ultramarine (a princely and ancient pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli).  It’s hard to tell if “French Blue” is really French or not—I couldn’t find the equivalent in this French dictionary of color, but it is certainly beautiful and fashionable.

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Illuminated Manuscript BNF 1

Bees in pastoral hives from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

Here are two bee-themed illuminations from a very beautiful hand-drawn book from early 16th century France.  The book’s theme is “Flowers of Virtue.”  In the illustration above, the hard-working bees are busily making honey–a model of industrious virtue.  In the illustration below, gluttonous thieving bears are spoiling all of the bees hard work by smashing the hives and gulping down the honey.  My grandfather kept a hive of bees in West Virginia, and this same thing happened to his bees (although the bears apparently ate the bees and a fair amount of the hive in addition to the sweet honey).

Illuminated Manuscript BNF 2

Gluttonous Bears Raid the Hives, from the archevêque de Lyon “Fleur de vertu” (François de Rohan, 1530, illuminated manuscript)

 

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Today we tell about the glorious and heroic heritage of the duke of Rouen!  No, wait…I read that wrong…this actually says the DUCK of Rouen. Well…an international success story is an international success story no matter the protagonist.

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Rouen ducks featured in Mrs.Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

French farmers are famous for their ancient breeds of livestock which have roots stretching back into the Middle Ages (and maybe beyond…all the way back to ancient Rome).   French breeds of cattle and horses—like the Charolaise, the Limousine, and the Percheron are universally known.  Similarly, there is an ancient tradition of poultry farming in France (to such an extent that the English word poultry originally comes from France).

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Rouen Hen

The Rouen duck is probably the most well-known French breed of duck. It is named after Rouen, the northern French town, however it seems like the birds are not necessarily from there, but have a pan-French heritage.  In France, the breed is known as Rouen Foncé (the dark Rouen) for its dark heavy colors.

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Sadly the Rouen duck does not come off well on the internet.  They just look like mallard ducks.  However, in the real world, the difference is extremely evident.  They are twice the size with a pronounced “boat-like” body.  These ducks weigh 4–5.5 kilograms (9–12 pounds).  They are not renowned for their egg-laying but rather for their mass–which suggests that they were bred expressly to contribute very directly to the renowned arts of French cuisine.

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francium

Francium is a naturally occurring element–a highly radioactive alkali metal with one valence electron. At any given moment there is 20-30 grams of Francium (about an ounce) present on Earth. This tiny sample is found in the form of individual atoms located within uranium and thorium ores around the Earth’s crust.   The half-life of the longest-lived isotope of francium is only 22 minutes. The weird transient metal continuously vanishes (decaying into astatine, radium, or radon)–only to be continuously replaced when actinium-227 decays into francium-223.

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Marguerite Catherine Perey (19 October 1909 – 13 May 1975), French physicist

How did we ever even find out about this stuff if it only exists as 20 grams of individual atoms scattered around the entire world like evanescent Easter eggs? I’m glad you asked! It was discovered by a French woman in 1939. Marguerite Catherine Perey (1909 – 1975) was born in 1909 in Villemomble, France (just outside Paris)–where Marie Curie’s Radium Institute also happened to be located. Perey aspired to be a medical doctor, but her family fell into financial difficulty so, at the age of 19, she took a job at a local spot–working directly for Marie Curie. Curie died of exotic cancer in 1934, but Perey kept up her mentor’s work purifying and studying actinium and looking for a theorized “eka-caesium” (a heretofore unknown alkali metal with an atomic number of 87). Through her methodic and painstaking work and observations, Perey discovered it just as World War II. broke out. Francium was the last element discovered in nature. The rest have been synthesized in labs.

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Marguerite Perey (second from left) at the Curie laboratory in 1930

After discovering an entirely new atom, Perey finally received a grant to pursue her university studies, and she received her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1960 she became an officer of the Legion of Honor. She founded the laboratory which ultimately grew into became the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry in the Center for Nuclear Research and she was the first woman to be elected to the French Académie des Sciences.

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True to her original dream of helping people as a doctor, Perey hoped that francium would help diagnose cancer and make the disease more treatable, but sadly, francium itself was carcinogenic (which is something to remember, if you find an atom of it sitting in some uranium ore). In her late life, Perey developed bone cancer which eventually killed her–a dark fruit of her pioneering research.

I mention francium this week, not because of its name (coincidentally, it is named after the great nation of France), but because of the life of the scientist who discovered it. Marguerite Catherine Perey had to struggle against prejudice and steroetypes, but she was able to overcome them and move to the foremost ranks of scientists and leaders of France. Her research helped that country become a nuclear leader (which it still is) and helped humankind better understand the nature of chemistry and physics.

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I’m sorry I haven’t yet said anything about the horrible Friday 13th mass slayings in Paris.  I love France and I love the French so I was too angry to write anything sensible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  Vive la France! I would wish that the terrorist perpetrators from the so-called Islamic State were in hell–but based on what I see in the news–they are actively trying to build hell here on earth.  It is what the IS aspires to. It is hard to know how to properly curse such people: they already eagerly bear a more terrible malediction than any I could invoke.

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Anyway, they have messed with the wrong folk.  The French are not just superb philosophers, bon vivants, aesthetes, and scientists, they are also extremely gifted warriors with one of the world’s finest armies.  Not only do they have similar high-precision weaponry to ours, they also have fearsome (albeit shadowy) special force squadrons who are battle hardened with field experience in Francophone North Africa.  The French are less keen on media-based warfare than we are.  A lot of times, their enemies just disappear without lots of splashy headlines.

But we will see how this unfolds in the real world in years to come.  In the meantime, to show solidarity with the French people, Ferrebeekeeper is going to spend this week writing about French subjects (which is something we should do every year anyway—perhaps around Bastille Day).

The Great Seal of France

The Great Seal of France

Let’s start with the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic.  Seals are an ancient cultural tradition in France dating back to the first Frankish kings, and before that to the ancient Romans. This particular seal was first adopted by the short-lived Second Republic of France (1848-1851) to replace both the royal seals of the Ancien Régime and the attainted seals of the First Revolution.  The great engraver Jean-Jacques Barre created the design which features the goddess liberty (or possibly Juno dressed as liberty) holding a fasces and leaning on a ship’s tiler with a Gallic cock upon it.  The goddess is wearing a seven arched crown with rays emanating from it—the same headdress which Bartholdi chose for the Statue of Liberty forty years later.

Around the goddess are symbols of knowledge, art, and power.  To quote Wikipedia:

At her feet is a vase with the letters “SU” (“Suffrage Universel“, “Universal suffrage”). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter’s tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE” (“French Republic, democratic, one and undividable”) and “24 FEV.1848” (24 February 1848) at the bottom.

The reverse bears the words “AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS” (“in the name of the French people”) surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perennity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with wheat and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ“.

The Great Seal is kept by the Minister of Justice, who is also the Keeper of the Seals.  It is used only for sealing the Constitution and Constitutional amendments—which are sealed with yellow or green wax on tricolour ribbons.

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Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

There are four living species of the genus Gallus.  The most familiar (by a ridiculously vast margin) is Gallus gallus—the red junglefowl, aka the chicken! Yet there are some other sorts of junglefowl still out there living in the primordial jungle.  My favorite (for purely aesthetic reasons) is the green junglefowl (Gallus varius), also known as the Javan junglefowl, the forktail or the green Javanese junglefowl.  Like the red junglefowl, the green junglefowl lives in tropical and semitropical forests and scrubland.  It is an omnivore, living largely on seeds, grain, and fruits which it supplements with whatever insects, arthropods, lizards, snakes, and tiny rodents it can catch.

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of "The Online Zoo" www.theonlinezoo.com)

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of “The Online Zoo” http://www.theonlinezoo.com)

The green junglefowl lives in Indonesia on the islands of Java, Bali, Lombok, Komodo, Flores, and Rinca (and on some smaller islands near to these large landmasses).   The birds live in small flocks of two to five.  Usually a single male lives with a few females which he protects with his sharp spurs and fast beak (although these are poor protection against Komodo dragons and tigers…to say nothing of Indonesian humans).  At day the junglefowl forage through the forests.  At night they roost about 15 feet up in small trees or bamboo.  They are slightly better at flying then the red junglefown of South Asia.  Males fight (sometimes to the death) over hens.

(photo via the featured creature)

(photo via the featured creature)

At first the common name would seem to be a misnomer.  The male junglefowl does not look green, but rather black with orange wings, gold highlights, and a dazzling superman-colored head of bright red, yellow and blue(!).  Yet close up, it becomes apparent that, like the ocellated turkey and the Cayuga duck, the green junglefowl has iridescent feathers which are many colors in different light—but mainly dark glistening green.   Aviary owners and exotic bird enthusiasts are quite familiar with the green junglefowl because of its dazzling appearance and its unique mating call “Cock-a-blargle-ack!”

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

These birds of the Indonesian jungle are shockingly beautiful and yet also oddly reptilian and alien. The undomesticated chickens are a reminder of just how strange our familiar farm animals really are. Although, in some ways the green junglefowl are swiftly becoming green chickens.  They keep interbreeding with domestic chickens to form a peculiar hybrid—the bekisar.

 

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