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Remember Ferrebeekeeper’s erstwhile roommate Jennifer? During the beginning of the pandemic she packed up her New York City life and moved off to Knoxville. With her went her youthful ward, Miloš Cat, a dashing orphaned street-tabby whom Jennifer plucked from the mean streets of East Flatbush. Living in a dinky backwater city sounds like a bit of a mixed bag–with a handful of positive aspects of urban living balanced against a lot of missing things. And there are elements of the country too! One thing I keep hearing about is the sheer mortality of little water snakes in Jennifer’s Knoxville domicile. Apparently Miloš Cat has taken a shine to the native fauna and sucks these poor guys up like spaghetti (you know, if you ate half of spaghetti and left the mutilated remaining portion on Jennifer’s pristine floor or pillow) [Editor’s note: Please DO NOT DO THIS with snakes or spaghetti].

Here is a JPEG of young Miloš, chomping on his own rather snakelike tail (photo credit: Jennifer Buffett)

Anyway, what does the story of a tabby cat eating snakes in the American South have to do with today’s post? A lot it turns out! Back at the dawn of Ferrebeekeeper, we wrote about the influx of predatory Burmese pythons which irresponsible exotic snake owners dumped in the Florida Everglades. The snakes, which grow to unnerving immensity, are apex predators of Southeast Asia (surely one of Earth’s most competitive ecosystems) and they have been wreaking havoc on the ‘glades. Florida winters have not diminished the invasive snake’s numbers and even teams of armed Florida men authorized to hunt the monsters with all of the firepower available from America’s finest gun shops have done little to stop the pythons. Apparently nothing can stand against the mighty serpents.

Or so it seemed…

Floridian biologists wanted to understand more about the pythons’ nesting behaviors so they set up a camouflaged camera to observe the nest of a 55 kilogram (120 pound) laying snake. What the camera revealed was a complete shock (sorry for the clickbait sentence here in paragraph 3). A feisty swamp bobcat showed up and harassed the mama snake on her nest. Later on, when she slithered off to do python errands (eating native wildlife I guess?), the cat returned and ate all the eggs! It was a real shock to the biologists who did not expect the native swamp denizens to stand up to the Burmese python so effectively. They are setting up a new snake camera elsewhere, however, at least a certain furry someone seems to have the python’s number. Biologists will now keep their eyes open to see whether other bobcats are wrecking snake nests and eating python eggs throughout south Florida (and how much of an impact this has on the snakes). Hopefully Miloš will take this lesson to heart too, and stop eating up the native fauna of Tennessee (lest some Appalachia hill snake strike back at the non-native).

An Artist’s Conception of the Extinct Vampyropod

Back during the dark depths of the great recession, this blog featured a post concerning the vampire squid. This poor creature (which has become famous as a sort of symbol of the anticompetitive and monopolistic practices of bulge-bracket banks) is neither a vampire nor a squid, but rather a “vampiromorphid” an enigmatic order of cephalopods which is currently represented by only a single living species (although there are many extinct species and maybe there are still new vampiromorphs to be found down in the depths somewhere). Anyway, the vampiromorphids sort of fell off of my radar for a little while until a few weeks ago, when a forgotten piece of 328 million year old limestone from Montana helped paleontologists determine that the vampiromorphids are more closely related to octopuses than to other cephalopods.

The piece of stone was collected in Montana and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum back in 1988. Nobody realized the significance of the ancient rock (above, which reveals little to a layperson) until scientists from the American Museum of Natural History examined it and determined that it was a whole new genus of cephalopod (in fact it probably exemplifies new orders and families as well–but taxonomists are still sorting it out). They named the little vampyropod Syllipsimopodi bideni in honor of the current U.S. President with hopes of bringing attention to his climate initiatives.

Syllipsimopodi bideni, which had ten legs covered in tiny suckers, seemingly shares a common ancestor with vampire squids (which, again, are not really squids) and octopuses. Back when it was alive, during the Carboniferous Period, Montana was a shallow tropical sea, not unlike the Bay of Bengal today. That map of the world the vampyropod lived on is pretty interesting as well!

The Virgin and Child ‘The Madonna with the Iris'(Workshop of Albrecht Durer, ca. 1500) oil on panel

Today is world pigment day(!), and I would like to celebrate by showcasing kermes red, one of my favorite pigments (sometimes also known as carmine in English). Not only is it a gorgeous shade of deep crimson pink, but explaining its name and the way it was manufactured provides a sort of educational primer on pigments. Also, since this pigment dates back to antiquity, it features in some amazing historical works–particularly as women’s lips, make-up, and dresses. Additionally, the pigment is made from living creatures, so there is a certain horror aspect to it. The only sad aspect to all of this is that I have never used real kermes pigment to paint: it is too expensive and I have always settled on synthetic substitutes.

Kermes scale insects on a branch union

I am saying “kermes red”, but the pigment’s true name is “kermes lake red”. A lake pigment is distinct from a pigment made from ground minerals (like say vermilion) because the dye is precipitated with a “mordant” (a chemical which acts as a binder). Another way of saying this is that lake pigments tend to be organic and are often quite fugitive as well. Kermes are actually nasty little scale insects which parasitically suck the roots of oak trees. The brightest reds are obtained by collecting the female insects with eggs still inside their bodies. Then they are dried, crushed, and bound with mordants! Kermes based inks and paints are beautifully translucent and were perfect for delicate washes. By building up multiple layers or by painting in Kermes atop vermilion, one could obtain gorgeous luminous effects. For example, in this tiny masterpiece by Perugino, note how newly resurrected Jesus is wearing a pink robe–more properly a kermes lake himation, whereas the lesser musicians, mercenaries, and mourners have vermilion pants and hats (well, not that guy in the front right corner, but you understand what I mean). This tiny picture is one of my favorite works in the whole Metropolitan museum, by the way (when they bother to show it).

The Resurrection (Perugino, 1502), oil on panel

Kermes dyes were used in Old Testament times when it was used to produce the scarlet yarn in the curtain of the temple of Solomon as well as various other holy vestments (I probably ought to write a post about this alone to go with the sacred lost blue of Israel post). The method of using these dyes was lost for a time, but seemingly revived in the middle ages when scarlet became the super-expensive pigment of the high aristocracy (and of church cardinals, of course). It was replaced by cochineal from the new world–a similar but even more vivid scale insect (which, for a time, was the second most valuable commodity from the Spanish colonies, after silver). Kermes now is a niche pigment and it has been superseded by all sorts of chemically refined dyes (particularly the quinacridone dyes).

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Every year, Ferrebeekeeper dedicates today’s blog post to the myths and legends of the fair green island. This tradition started back in 2011 with a post about Ireland’s unofficial mascots, the leprechauns (those little magical men did some heavy lifting in popularizing this blog and they are still the second or third most popular post of all time). Subsequent years featured the sad tale of Oisín and Niamh, a description of the dark sky spirits which haunt the night sky, the tale of Daghda’s harp (which is there on the old flag), the myth of the leannán sídhe (a vampire woman who represents life as an artist), and the story of the salmon of wisdom (a metaphorical fish of universal knowledge). These tales are wonderful (and horrible too) but they are all from Ireland’s pre-Christian past, so for this SAINT Patrick’s Day, let’s head to the Christian myths of Ireland.

Now the hagiography of Saint Patrick himself has always struck me as a bit dull (plus, old Patrick was really from England anyway!) however his contemporary, Saint Ciarán of Saigir was a churchman much more in the florid style of ancient Irish myth–and a noted animal lover rather than a persecutor of serpents. Although the details of the lives of (possibly mythological) magical bishops from the dark ages are a bit uncertain, it seems that Ciarán was born in the 5th century as a noble in Osraigh (that link is pretty interesting but also so painfully Irish that I felt like I was drinking Harp beer and listening to a lilting ancient in some stone tavern when I read it). Ciarán’s first miracle occurred when he was a child. A predatory kite swooped down and killed a little songbird sitting on a nest in front of the boy. Ciarán admonished the kite for its cruelty and then breathed life back into the little bird.

Realizing that the compassionate new faith was for him, Ciarán went abroad to learn the ways of the church. After studying Christianity at Tours and then at Rome, young Ciarán returned to Ireland in the 6th century and built a stone hermit’s cell in the woods of Upper Ossory. His first converts were forest creatures who took up the monastic habit upon hearing Ciarán’s sermons, so parts of his hagiography read like Redwall with Brother Badger, um, badgering Lay Brother Fox about the latter’s habit of stealing footwear. His miracles are a bit peculiar as well, and include transforming the water of a well into a potent intoxicant with the taste of honey and performing a magical abortion on a raped nun named Bruinnech (reading between the lines here, this seems like a story of preventing honor killings and stopping an ever-escalating cycle of vengeance before it started, but it is still a strange look for one of “the twelve apostles of Ireland”).

There are other tales of Ciarán’s life which I am leaving out (just as I am leaving out the various monasteries and churches he founded and his episcopal acts), however I will share the story of his death. Ciaran was not beheaded by pagans or crushed by Romans or anything like that–he died from old age surrounded by adoring monks, students, and parishioners (and probably hedgehogs, rabbits, and turtles wearing robes).

Winter always stays a bit too long, and, after the blustery snow storms of March, you can always find me out in the garden frowning at the mud and waiting the first living things to pop up out of the thawing earth. Usually the hellebores bloom first followed by the crocuses, and then the whole symphony of blooms truly begins in earnest. This year, however, featured an unexpected player sounding the first note of the overture. After a light snow, I went out into the garden and found that the dark, cold earth was packed with pretty little mushrooms strewn across a portion of the garden about the size of a queen sized mattress. The mushrooms ranged in size from pencil eraser to a quarter-dollar-piece and were a lovely shade of burnt sienna.

Mushrooms are really the fruiting bodies of much larger underground organisms which are composed of delicate networks of threadlike hyphae. These elaborate filament networks are mutualistic with the roots & bacteria which make up the mysterious subterranean ecosystem. I would tell you more about this, but I don’t know more. Mushrooms are a truly mysterious hidden kingdom of life to me. I know some strange factoids about their cellular structure: primitive fungal cells are motile (!) whereas higher fungi have cellular septae, which allow organelles to be shared by many cells! I know the largest living organism known is a fungus. And of course everyone knows about the aesthetic (and chemical) range of mushrooms which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (and can be poisonous, medicinal, nutritious, or horrid, depending on mushroom type).

These mushrooms were quite pretty (in an earthy way) however my camera was not very good at differentiating them from the bark and leaf litter. In real life, they did stand out to the human eye, which raises yet more questions about their nature and composition. I am glad they are there, waiting underground and I will think about them as a larger part of the true garden (along with strange wasps, brown creepers, pseudoscorpions and tiny fluorescent dayflowers). If anyone knows any actual facts about these little fungi, kindly let me know. We will commence the regularly scheduled floral part of the spring symphony in the immediate future!

Flag of Somovskoe, Voronezh Oblast

I realized that it has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper featured a catfish post so I fired up Firefox and set out to remedy the omission, and, in my search for thrilling catfish themed material to share with you, I accidentally stumbled onto these amazing Russian flags. Now, it is worth mentioning, that some of the most negative feedback Ferrebeekeeper has received over the years has involved flags (the commenter thought that the symbolism and history of national flags was tedious and repetitive). Additionally, due to current events, Russia is not exactly experiencing a worldwide rash of goodwill. Nonetheless, I think you will agree that both of these flags are marvels of the vexillographist’s art! I have placed the catfish flag at the top so you understand how I got here, however the flag below is my favorite. Does that woolly mammoth have a gold tusk? Also look at how tough both of these creatures look. This inspires me to write future posts about both the wels catfish (top flag) and the woolly mammoth (bottom flag). Keep your eyes peeled for those. Where this post falters somewhat is in explaining what these flags symbolize (and describing the places they are from). An honest answer is: I don’t know and it is too hard to find out at 11 PM on Thursday night. But be honest: if I told you a bunch of numbers about Ust-Yansky, which is about three times the size of Pennsylvania, but with a total population that could fit on a single Staten Island Ferry, would you be fascinated or would your eyes glaze over? Be honest. This gold-toothed Russian mammoth is watching you very closely.

Flag of Ust-Yansky district, Sakha Republic

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Happy Mardi Gras! Tonight at midnight, the Lenten season of austerity begins. Today is therefor a holiday of merriment and excess in Catholic parts of the world. The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is, of course, the great Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, finally returned to full glory this year after two long years of plague and quarantine. During the corona years, however, New Orleans natives (and members of the illustrious parade krewes which put the spectacle together) did not entirely give up! They decorated certain key houses around the Big Easy in the same manner as parade floats. For tonight’s carnival delectation, here is a little gallery of some of those lovely cottages wearing their mad finery:

(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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