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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

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Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.

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Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.

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An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.

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With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.

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Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) by Healthy Home Gardening

Boy, I am ready for spring…but it hasn’t quite sprung yet here in Brooklyn. So far the only things blooming here are hellebores, snowdrops, and… the Oregon-grape? This sounds like some improbable status-item fruit from Whole Foods, but it is actually not a grape at all, instead it Mahonia aquifolium a member of the barberry family.   The plant takes the form of a shrub or tiny tree 1–2 m (3 feet –6 feet) tall which is covered in holly-like evergreen leaves. The plant is indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America where it can be found from southern Alaska to Northern California. It is exceedingly hardy and is one of the first plants to bloom in spring when it is covered with lovely little yellow flowers which look like ranunculuses (for good reason, since barberry plants are close relative of the buttercups and ranunculuses).

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The yellow flowers swiftly turn into little purple black fruits with a glaucous blush. These berries were a big part of the diet of Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest (although I am a bit surprised it is not poisonous like most of the buttercups). I guess I’ll keep my eyes open for these around the neighborhood (they have been widely planted as ornamentals), but I have more hope for seeing crocuses…if any survive the squirrels. Be of good cheer! Spring is coming!

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The fruit of the Oregon-grape

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Expanded-color image of Mercury’s 52-km Degas crater, showing an abundance of dark material (NASA)

Today brings interesting color themed news from outer space. The Messenger space craft (which was destroyed when it was deliberately crashed into Mercury in spring of 2015) spotted numerous mysterious dark spots on Mercury. Indeed the Messenger spacecraft probably now is a dark spot on Mercury. Apparently the small dense planet has a dark layer close beneath the surface. Asteroid impacts, volcanoes, space probe collisions, and other events which disturb the surface of the planet reveal this extremely dark black/gray layer.

Scientists have been analyzing the data from Messenger and it now seems that this black layer which is the color and texture of pencil lead is actually composed of…graphite, the same material as pencil lead! Apparently when Mercury formed (which featured strange geological processes unseen anywhere else in the solar system) a planet-sized ocean of lava covered the entire world. As Mercury cooled the heavier elements of this lava field crystallized and sank leaving the buoyant pure carbon at the top. This dark layer has been subsequently covered with ejecta, dust, and fragments, but any disruption shows the crystallized carbon is still there.

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

There is a lot more data from Messenger left to analyze. I wonder what other surprises the closest planet to the sun still holds.

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A quick post today from the bottom of the ocean where this unknown octopus species was just found by an unmanned robot probe. The endearing cephalopod was photographed by Deep Discoverer, a robot submarine which launches from the NOAA Ship “Okeanos Explorer” a federally funded research vessel. Since 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has been travelling the world’s oceans exploring and mapping unknown parts of the underwater world. The octopus was photographed on a barren ledge of rock 4,290 meters beneath the surface (just off the northeast coast of Hawaii). The octopus appears to have a complete lack of chromatophores—special pigment-containing cells which cephalopods manipulate in order to change colors—so it appears ghostly and transparent. Here is hoping we learn more about this amazing underwater creature!

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Furnace Edifice (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

Here are two more funny drawings from my little book.  The first is a drawing from February, when I can never get warm enough.  A strange furnace edifice of ovens and stoves chugs away: its fires produce delightful heat.  Two monsters have come to bask in the warmth (maybe the anglerfish is part of the mechanism for fueling the array).  At the top an attendant pours water onto the furnaces to produce great clouds of steam.  I am not sure if this is about cleanliness or energy or entrapment…or maybe all three.

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The Cave Beneath the Icing (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink)

In the next picture a glistening pink temple made of melting pink icing glistens above a purple cavern.  In the depths of the cavern an addict grovels for drugs and medicine as an anglerfish lures him further down into the darkness.  A glistening glazed doughnut sits in the middle of the composition as an avatar of appetite. Is this picture about illicit drugs or about legitimate medicine or about money?  Does it matter?

It is leap day! Every four years the niceties of the calendar give us this extra day. In the past, leap day has caused me to reflect about history, the calendar, and the ineluctable nature of time in general, but this year I am going a different direction. Instead of concentrating on the calendar aspect of the day, we will concentrate instead on “leaping.” And from there it is a short cognitive leap to the microcontinent of Madagascar where we find the masters of leaping, the lemurs.

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Ring-tailed Lemur jumping (Lemur Catta) photo by Luc V. de Zeeuw

Lemurs are strepsirrhine (wet-nosed) primates endemic to the island of Madagascar. They are ancestral primates—the monkeys, apes, and hominids evolved from them (though of course these branches diverged in the Eocene and the lemurs have been evolving in their own directions for 50 million years). In fact, let me say that last sentence differently and better: monkeys (and apes and people) descended from a very lemur-like ancestor.

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There are nearly 100 species of lemurs and they have spread through all sorts of evolutionary niches in Madagascar. It is hypothesized that they reached the island micro-continent by rafting there on masses of floating wood and vegetation. On Madagascar they were free to evolve in their own direction, as other primates back in the ultracompetitive African homeland went down different pathways. When humankind finally reached Madagascar 2000 years ago (from Indonesia!) there were even more strange lemurs, including some as large as gorillas, but the violent humans quickly snuffed them out (and indeed we are rapidly eating the remaining smaller lemurs out of house and home as well (or just eating them outright).

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Female Sclaters lemur with open mouth  (photo by “Tambako the Jaguar”)

Lemurs live in many habitats and specialize in many lifestyles. They are diurnal or nocturnal or crepuscular. They are fructivores, or herbivores, or insectivores. Some are omnivorous. With many different lifestyles come different habitats, but lemurs, like most other primates tend to be arboreal. While some lemurs imitate lorises and sloths and move with deliberate glacial slowness, the majority of lemurs have a different and far showier way of getting around—they leap from tree to tree like acrobats.

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Perhaps I should say acrobats are like lemurs. Not only were the latter here first, but they are also capable of thrilling flights that would cause the most air-worthy flying Wallenda to fall down dead (literally). Using their long powerful back legs, lemurs hurl themselves into the air and then flatten out. They can thus leap up to 10 m (33 feet). And this is not an isolated leap. They can leap again and again and again…thus springing through whole jungles in a series of breathtaking bounds.   The real masters of leaping—the ring-tailed lemur and Verreaux’s sifaka, hardly seem suited for any other sort of locomotion. When Verreaux’s sifaka is stranded in a tree island and is forced to cross open ground the poor creature looks quite ludicrous (see the gif below). It holds its arms above its head and leaps plaintively and swiftly across the hated land.   But Verreaux’s sifaka looks utterly at home in its preferred habitat—hurling itself between spiny trees covered with razor sharp needles.

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The more I read about lemurs, the more I realize I will have to come back and write more about them. It may be four years before the next leap day, but we will be back to lemurs before then!

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

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