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Here is an illuminated page from the Da Costa Book of Hours which was illustrated by Flemish master Simon Bening around 1515 AD.  Bening was regarded as the last great Flemish illuminator. His illustrations (somewhat like “The Shepheardes Calender“) chart the months of the year through sensitive landscapes filled with hard-working farmers and gardeners.   It is a remarkable and rare work in the canon or art in that the workers look like they are actually working, but are neither bumpkinish figures of fun nor beautiful superhumans (although they are brilliantly attired in expensive new garb).  The book was made for the Sá family of Portugal (it is a Sephardic surname).  This is the illustration for the month of March when winter has not yet left the land, yet the first green shoots are appearing.  The gardeners are hard at work laying in the new garden and repairing the trellised avenue as a fur clad nobleman explains what he wants. Note the courtly nobles holding hands on the bridge and the stork nesting on the chimney of the handsome little gothic chateau.

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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It is not a secret that my least favorite month is February.  Winter keeps holding on with grim ferocity while the joys of spring are, at best, far away.  Every year when the end of winter comes around I keep looking out at the garden waiting for the first green shoots to appear.  But the garden is still a sea of gray rubble and dead stalks (plus I failed to plant windflowers or snowdrops and the crocuses and hellebores have yet to flower).

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So this year, instead of going all the way outside (where it sounds like there is a windstorm), I went to the internet to find some early blooming flowers and I came across the witch hazels (the family Hamamelidaceae).  I have encountered them before–in liquid form as an astringent aftershave, however the living plants turn out to be very lovely in a small wilderness meadow sort of way. There are four North American species of witch hazels and two Asian species (one from China and one from Japan).  They are small deciduous shrubs/trees with large oval leaves. The American species are also known as winterbloom (which should have served as a hint that they bloomed in the cold season). The picture at the top of the post is the Chinese witch hazel ((H. mollis) currently blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic garden.

Witch hazels have red and yellow flowers with droopy corkscrew petals.  From a distance these have a winsome loveliness, but up close they are pretty crazy–like a Murano glassblower got the hiccups or an abstract expressionist sent you a bouquet. Here is a little gallery of witch hazels which I lovingly stole from around the web.

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Branding is a powerful force, and I have always assumed that these plants were used in ancient magics by various priestesses, enchantresses, sorceresses, and other suchlike lady thaumaturges.  Imagine my distress to learn that the witch hazels are in no way affiliated with witches or any other sort of dark magic.  Apparently this version of the word “witch” comes down to us from the Old English word “wice”, which means pliant or, uh,  bendy and is unrelated to the magical sort of witch.  Thanks a lot, English, what other misleading homonyms do you have lying around the garden beds.   Anyway enjoy the witch hazels and pretty soon we will go out and look at some proper spring flowers (if and when the wind calms down).

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(that witch better have an OED somewhere)

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Did you know it has been 30 years since a spacecraft swung by Neptune?  Voyager II was the first and last spacecraft to visit the strange ice world which (with the demotion of Pluto) is the outermost planet of our solar system.  A ball of gas, ice, rock and iron 17 times the size of Earth, Neptune is the third most massive planet and is the most dense of all the giant planets. However we know surprisingly little about this distant neighbor–a fact which was vividly demonstrated this week when astronomers discovered an unexpected new moon orbiting the planet.  This new moon brings the tally of Neptune’s moons to 14. Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI institute in California, discovered the little satellite accidentally, while working on another project and the new body was confirmed with the Hubble Space telescope (which is also still out there, by the way).

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Neptune’s largest moon is the retrograde Triton.  The second largest moon is Proteus, an irregular polyhedron with a diameter of 420 kilometers, named after the shape-shifting old man of the sea.  The new moon, which is named “Hippocamp”, after a seahorse like Greek sea monster (above) has a diameter of about 20 kilometers (about the length of Manhattan) and seems to have been formed from ejecta left over from when some primordial body slammed into Proteus.

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Astronomers have spent comparatively little time studying Uranus and Neptune compared to the other planets of the solar system–which is somewhat ironic since most of the exoplanets we are finding are ice giants.  It seems like they might be noticing this gap in their knowledge.  A new mission to the ice giants is the third top mission priority in a vote-based ranking of proposed probe missions (by astrophysicists…nobody asked me what I want *cough*  balloon mission to Venus’ atmosphere).  Hopefully we will get our act together and launch a modern robot out to the big blue ice worlds in the not-too-distant future.

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Did you grow up playing adventure games and reading fantasy literature (a la “Dragonlance”, “Lord of the Rings”, and “Harry Potter”)?  Well if so, you are familiar with a standardized stable of fantasy creatures from medieval lore–familiar mythical beasts such as Manticores, griffins, dragons, and trolls.  The creatures which didn’t come from classical mythology originated in bestiaries–medieval fieldguides of astonishing creatures.  These treatises didn’t just have made-up monsters they also had a moralizing flavor…and hopefully some illustrations!

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However there were some beasts in the bestiaries that didn’t make it past the red pencil of Tolkien and Gygax–like the unhappy subject of today’s post, the bonnacon.  The Bonnacon comes down to us from no less a source than Pliny the Elder (who thought it lived in Paeonia (which is modern Macedonia/Bulgaria).  The bonnacon was the comic relief monster in medieval bestiaries.  The medieval manuscript writers loved it because of its scatalogical hijinks, however the mythical animal’s means of defending itself was so uncouth that the prim myth-makers of the present left it out of the worlds which they built.

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I will leave it to the Aberdeen Bestiary to describe the creature to you in its own words.  I have stolen the translation from Wikipedia, but the page is immediately above this paragraph, if you want to translate the Latin yourself.

In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull’s with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.

The poor bonnacon thus seems like a beast which ate too much spicy Taco Bell.   This was obviously a source of much glee to the illuminators and scribes of yore, but it was too much for J.K. Rowling.  Even fantasy beasts have to get with the times and so the bonnacon has been left behind in the dark ages.  Even if it didn’t make it into adventure books and golden tales of magical enchantment, I wonder if there isn’t a place for the monster in contemporary music or modern stand-up.  This thing might fit right into Andrew Dice Clay’s act and who can doubt that it would naturalize instantly into Eminem’s lyrics.

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One of the more endearing woodland creatures of the Appalachian hardwoods where I grew up is the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans).  My uncle was always fighting with one that was storing its winter nuts in the roof of the ramshackle log cabin owned by my great-great grandfather.  The nocturnal creatures have huge anime eyes which glisten in their small anxious faces.  They are extremely social and clever at stocking their winter larder.  Although we think of them as subsisting on nuts, this is really their winter provender: during the clement months they eat a wide diet of berries, buds, mushrooms, and flowers…as well as invertebrates, small animals, eggs, and even nestlings (I always imagine the original ancestors of the primates were not unlike the clever and versatile squirrels).  Coincidentally, flying squirrels do not fly, but can glide from tree to tree by stretching out their special sheetlike membrane (which is called a patagium).

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One would think that we would know all there is to know about flying squirrels–perhaps not the species in remote forests of Vietnam, but at least the three American species (there are also two closely related northern species: Glaucomys sabrinus & Glaucomys oregonensis).  Yet this turns out to be wrong.  This year (2019), Jonathan Martin, a professor of forestry in Wisconsin, was exploring the forest at night with a black light when he made a shocking discovery.  He heard some squirrels rustling in his bird feeder and turned the light on them and discovered that, under ultraviolet light they fluoresce hot pink!  The North American genus (Glaucomys) of flying squirrels have a rave-tastic secret color. Sadly most of the photos I could find of this phenomena, were pictures of sad little moth eaten flying squirrel pelts in natural history museums, but here is a black light picture which shows that it is the pale bottom half of the squirrel which glows pink under UV light.

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Hidden UV patterns are common among flowers and invertebrates (spiders and scorpions are particular masters).  Even parrots and amphibians are known to utilize splotches of fluorescent color for secret in-species communications.  Yet fluorescent coloration was unknown in mammals until present.  The discovery is so new that we don’t yet know what it is for…or even whether it is a trait shared by some off the numerous old-world flying squirrels.  More research is necessary, and Ferrebeekeeper will try to keep up with the theories (I suspect that, as with parrots and spiders, it is a way for squirrels to keep track of each other in the three dimensional maze of dark forest canopies).  Still it is good to see that this mainstay of childhood joy from 1980s skateboards and puffy stickers has a natural home in the great forests of North America.  The producers of Miami Vice would be proud…although perhaps they would be dismayed to see that the squirrels’ white light colors are normal earth tones.

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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Well…it is the middle of the dreariest month.  There is nothing but gray cold outside and there are no prospects for romance or success anywhere on the horizon.  Spring will probably never come and civilization seems to be sinking…all of which means it is time once again for Valentine’s Day! [jazz hands] This frustrating winter pseudo-holiday is a sad vestigial leftover of Lupercalia, a once-great Roman holiday of ritual cleansing and savage fertility.  Yet in the modern world  seems to have become an affair for Hallmark and Brach’s (and maybe, somehow, the martyred Saint Valentine?).  Nothing about this holiday makes much sense (aside from the ancient human need for romance and affection) so I have prepared a somewhat nonsensical GIF to celebrate!

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Behold! It is the Great Flounder himself (or herself?) looking a bit like a cross between an anatomical diagram and a puff pastry.  Hopefully this rudimentary animation will help you enjoy Valentine’s Day, but, if not, you can always betake yourself to the online oracle and ask the all-knowing fish your questions about love, life, and the mysteries of what is in your sweetheart’s innermost heart.  Don’t take the answers too seriously though, since rumor has it that Great Flounder 2.0 is about to roll out with vastly enhanced psychic abilities!  Let me know if you have any questions or comments and rest assured that you are certainly MY favorite valentine (and will continue to be so for as long as you come here to read these posts).  Ferrebeekeeper adores you and believes that you can make this day special just by being yourself!

 

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Today’s post takes us back, once more, to Ultima Thule/2014 MU69, the distant snowman shaped planetoid at the edge of the solar system which was visited by the New Horizons space probe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt on its way out of the solar system (since that time, we also blogged about the color Thulian pink–which is based on the fantasy land at the northern edge of the medieval map).  Well, space can be a confusing place, and, even with digital cameras, the way we see objects tumbling through the void can be misleading.  As New Horizons flew away from Ultima Thule, it turned its cameras around and took the following shot (which hopefully shows up in all of its glory as an animated gif below).

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Holy hemispheres! What is with that bright edge?  Spheres certainly don’t have those! It turns out that Ultima Thule may not be a snowman as originally billed.  Instead it seems more like a double pancake.

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This news will please flat earthers (on the off chance they believe that New Horizons actually exists), but they shouldn’t read too much into it.  Planets are spherical because they are so massive that the force of gravity causes them to collapse into the most efficient shape – a sphere. This is broadly true for objects with a diameter greater than 1000 kilometers (621 miles) and Ultima Thule was not even remotely that big (indeed we didn’t think it was a sphere before).  I do wonder how these two smushed snowballs formed and came together though.

Enthusiasts of Kuiper Belt objects will have to discard the snowman analogy and look for an object which is a lumpy disk stuck to a smaller lumpy disk.  It sounds like a hogchoker to me (see a picture of the flatfish below), but this may merely be a shallow pretext to link to my flounder art on Instagram.  It might be a while before we discover anything even remotely shaped like a flatfish in space though so I am going to take what the universe offers.  If you have better topological analogies feel free to share in the comments (after you follow my Instagram).

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We often hear about people’s bonds with animals (and for good reason: a loving relationship with pets is one of life’s best aspects) but what about their bonds with plants?  Today’s (somewhat sad) story shines a touching light on this intra-kingdom devotion, but it also highlights a sinister new menace in modern society: bonsai bandits!   As enthusiasts of eastern gardens know, bonsai is an art/horticulture form which utilizes careful pruning and husbandry to make miniature trees which have the appearance and proportions of wild trees.  The more ancient a bonsai tree, the more realistic (and valuable) it becomes.

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This is why unknown thieves stole seven tiny trees from a garden in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo.  Among the rustled trees was a “shimpaku” juniper, an increasingly rare mountain conifer which is regarded as the nonpareil tree variety of the bonsai world.  The tree was over four centuries old and was collected in the wild back during the Edo period, when feuding Samurai clans vied for power (it is pictured immediately above).

The (human) victims of the theft were Seiji Iimura, who hales from a long lineage of bonsai keepers stretching back to the Edo period and his wife Fuyumi Iimura who wrote an anguished lament to the internet. “We treated these miniature trees like our children,” she said. “There are no words to describe how we feel. It’s like having your limbs lopped off.”  She then begged the thieves to return her trees, or barring that to water them and tend them with love.  She included complete instructions which I won’t include on the assumption that bonsai thieves don’t read my blog (also, in my world, a bonsai thief is a very small thief who looks just like a larger one because of careful pruning and staking).

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The juniper, with its crazy calligraphic lines and ancient gnarled roots has taken the majority of the international media attention in this heist, but other trees were stolen too including three more shimpakus (of less venerable age) and a trio of miniature pine trees, called “goyomatsus” (there are two unstolen examples in the picture below).  It is somewhat fun to imagine the thieves as little elf-people who made their getaway in a kei car and are now hiding out in a shoebox on a meter tall volcano and what not, but the victims seem legitimately heartbroken.  Theft of living things is a more serious matter than theft of mere valuables.  Why can’t people stick to nicking money and jewels from heavily insured oligarchs and drug kingpins? This is my message for the criminals: give the Iimuras their beloved trees back and grow up!
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