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Electric blue is one of my favorite blues.  The hue is named for the color of an electrical discharge through the atmosphere (which is to say the fluorescent ion glow of nitrogen).  The name is older than you might imagine:  according to “A Dictionary of Color,” the first use of the name was in 1845.  The blue note of electrical sparks is readily apparent in photos of sparks and discharges—but somewhat less so in the real world where electrical discharges are bright, swift, and unpredictable. A lot of Victorians must have stared at wacky apparatuses for this to become codified as a standard blue.

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Nineteenth century scientists realized that there was some connection between electricity and the human nervous system, but they could not quite put it all together.  Electric blue therefore became a favorite color for indicating supernatural phenomena.  The color became immensely popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was used in all sorts of garments, sales brochures, and products.  It was a fad color which lasted a long time (since fads spread more slowly in those days).

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The color has faded from popularity somewhat, but in our era of glowing screens, glowing blue is never entirely irrelevant (plus, as noted, it has a basis in the physics of electricity and the composition of the atmosphere).

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Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD).  Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties.  Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time.  Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body.  A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”).  It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era.  It is a wonderful little vessel!

Temminck's tragopan (Tragopan temminckii)

Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii)

It’s hard for me to tell what you are thinking, but a fair guess is that you are disappointed that this blog hasn’t featured more pheasants.  These splendid Galliforme game birds have barely appeared here (except for the unbearably magnificent golden pheasant which has fascinated me ever since I met a gregarious specimen at the aviary). To remedy this lamentable deficit, allow me to present Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) a medium sized pheasant from the great forests of Southeast Asia.  These tragopans are common in the (once?) great forests of south central China.  They range west into the mountain forests of Arunachal Pradech and can be found in northern parts of Myanmar and Vietnam (and maybe Bhutan).

Temminck's tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) photo by John Corder

Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii) photo by John Corder

The Temminck’s tragopan is mostly vegetarian and lives on grasses, seeds, vegetables, and fruit.  The birds are experts at surviving in the forests and, even in some of the most populous forests of Earth they are flourishing.

Females are somewhat drab and they lay small clutches of two to four eggs.  The male birds are red orange with bright white spots.  What distinguishes the male birds from other birds–and everything else other than imaginary extraterrestrials–is their bright blue inflatable lappet (with stylish red detailing) and their feathery horns.  When the males are trying to impress the females they inflate their lappets into magnificent op art displays and leap around fantastically like Buster Poindexter with wings on a hotplate!

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I’m afraid I can’t really tell you much else about Temminck’s tragopan (for example: who was Temminck?)—so this will perforce be a largely visual post—but what a striking vision!

Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

This little flower is Vinca minor, the lesser periwinkle. It is native to Central Europe spreading down through Southern Europe into Asia Minor (although at this point it has naturalized throughout the temperate world as an invasive garden plant). In the United States they are sometimes confusingly (mis)called “myrtle”.

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo: landschaftsfotos.at)

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo: landschaftsfotos.at)

Lesser periwinkles are subshrubs (which would have made for a good insult in grade school). They grow only to 40 centimeters (16 inches) high and do not climb—though they spread rapidly into large clonal colonies. Periwinkles are members of the hardy Aster family (the plant family not the snooty otter-killing magnates from New York). With vigorous evergreen leaves and shapely five-petaled flowers, the plants can be used as perennial ground cover for flower gardens.

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The best and most famous feature of lesser periwinkles is the distinctive blue-purple color. In English the flower and its color have become synonymous—the latter surpassing the former in popular recognition! Periwinkle is a very lovely and soothing color which seems purple in some light and blue in others. It makes an ideal color for walls and home furnishings as well as garments.

Periwinkle

The River Styx (from achristouillustration.com)

The River Styx (from achristouillustration.com)

We have previously addressed the chimerical nature of magenta—a color which does not actually exist, but strongly seems to because of the way that humans perceive light.   In the intervening years, you have probably been wondering if there are other colors like this: hues which are not there except for tricks of the brain.  Today we bring you an amazing & impossible color from the underworld.  “Stygian blue” is a supersaturated blue/violet which is also as dark as the darkest black! It would be the coolest color in the rainbow except for the fact that it isn’t real…but you can still see it.  In fact, if you keep reading, I’ll show it to you right here!

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Before you call in the men with big white nets (who, like the bill collectors, are always creeping nearer anyway) allow me to explain.   Stygian blue appears to exist because of the opponent color theory (explained below in an utterly unhelpful and incomprehensible diagram) a theory of color pioneered by the dramatist, poet, and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe!

“Oh! THOSE opponent colors…yes, of course!”

Opponent color theory deals with how the eye (and the mind) process information received from the three types of color-receptive cones commonly found in the human retina.  Setting the biological details to the side, the theory essentially posits that certain colors reciprocally evoke fundamental opposite colors: blue and orange are opposites; red and green are opposites; yellow and purple are opposites; and so forth.  This blog has come near to this territory before (with a pumpkin-colored Chevy Chase?) and we will return to component colors again, since they lie at a nexus between physics, aesthetics, neural science, and the unknown. But right now we only need to recognize that the opposite of dark blue is pale orange (at least to the human eye).

Flags (Jasper Johns, ca. 1967-1968,color lithograph)

Flags (Jasper Johns, ca. 1967-1968,color lithograph)

In order to see stygian blue we must utilize a trick of physiology. If you stare long enough at a strong hue: you will see an afterimage of its component opposite—the negative reflection of the image you have looked at.  A famous example is hack artist Jasper John’s bizarro American flag in orange, black, and green.  If you stare at it for a few minutes, and then look at a white wall, you will see old glory proudly waving in your eyes…but there is no actual flag.

Likewise if you stare long enough at an orange/yellow blob, and then look at a black field, you will perceive a glistening phantasmagoric shade of ultra-blue which is as dark as the black, but is not black—stygian blue!  Here is the swath I stole from Wikipedia which allows to do this while staring at your own monitor in the comfort of whatever cubical farm/battlefield/hyper-space sarcophagus where you are reading this.

Please note you have to stare with unflagging diligence at

Please note you have to stare with unflagging diligence at “x” for quite a while!

As a bonus the image includes some two other chimerical colors, hyperbolic orange and self-luminous red (which I did not think were sufficiently interesting to lead this essay, but which “exist” based on the same basic principles).  Of course this does not actually involve any ghosts, supernatural entities, or Lovecraft colors which drive you insane (more so than usual anyway).  Stygian blue is merely a trick of the brain…but so are a lot of things we spend our lives striving for and working on.  I for one find the color quite pretty and I would wear it or use it in my paintings if such a thing were at all possible.

For example it would be a great color for a screaming Gorgon chariot!

For example it would be a great color for a screaming Gorgon chariot!

il_340x270.521166662_98j8The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories:  yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd.  It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

Two weeks ago, Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about the smallest known mammal, the Etruscan shrew. Today we head to the opposite extreme: the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is not merely the largest known living mammal, it is the largest animal of any sort known to have ever existed. The greatest dinosaurs, the colossal squid, and the most immense pliosaurs were pipsqueaks compared to the blue whale. The giant cetacean has been measured at lengths of 30 metres (98 ft). A single whale can weigh up to 180,000 kilograms (200 tons) which is about the weight of forty African elephants (or approximately one hundred million Etruscan shrews). Superlatives stop making sense when describing the blue whale: a human could swim through its largest veins; a whale can eat 4 tons of krill a day; it can make a noise louder than a jet engine. When I worked for the Smithsonian Institution back in the nineties, it was said that the longest object in the collection was the life-size blue whale model. It wasn’t until the Air & Space museum acquired a space shuttle that the Washington museums got something bigger (although maybe that’s because they decided not to assemble their Saturn V). If you want a true sense of the size of Balaenoptera musculus, here is a life size poster of one on the internet (be forewarned: unless your monitor is the size of a drive-in theater, you are just going to be scrolling hopelessly around an endless wall of blue-gray).

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Although there are different groups which have slightly different physical characteristics, blue whales can be found in all of the deep oceans of the world (with the exceptions of Europe’s seas, the great gulfs of the Middle East, and the Arctic Ocean). I would like to tell you more about the lifespan, breeding habits, vocalizations, and social life of the blue whale, but, incredibly, very little is known about these aspects of the creatures. Scientists speculate that blue whales live to be about 80 years old (or possibly older), but they don’t know for sure. How whales choose mates is unknown (although it presumably involves the remarkable range of noises which they make). Gestation lasts anywhere from 10 to 12 months.

Blue Whale Mother and Calf from Amos Photography

Blue Whale Mother and Calf from Amos Photography

Once baby blue whales are born they grow fast! Blue whale calves can put on 4 kilograms (9 pounds) an hour. Adults are masters of the deep: fully grown blue whales can dive for up to half an hour to depths of 500 meters 1,640 feet. They have two blow holes behind a streamlined spray guard. Like the other mysticeti, blue whales are filter feeders. They take huge amounts of water and krill into their mouths and then push the water out through long baleen plates. When adults fully open their mouths the area is equivalent to the volume of a boxcar!

blue-whales

Blue whales are capable of traveling 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph) over short bursts, so back in the days of sail, a blue whale encountering a ship would simply swim away. Only when humankind began to make modern ships powered by fossil fuels could we keep up with the gentle giants. Alas for the whales–we learned to build such ships (and explosively propelled harpoons) and soon we were killing the creatures by the hundreds of thousands so that they could be rendered into oil. Between the 1880s (when the whales first began to be hunted en masse) and the 1920s the whales’ population declined from 350,000 to perhaps a thousand. All nations stopped hunting the whales in the early 1970s. In less than a hundred years, humans almost eradicated the largest animal ever known…yet, in the end we have not yet wiped out the blue whales. They are still here. As you read this, there is a creature the size of a space shuttle eating millions of krill somewhere in the vasty oceans.

A diver with an immature blue whale

A diver with an immature blue whale

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus, the European cornflower is an aster which once grew as a weed across Europe (particularly in grain fields). As agriculture has grown more sophisticated (and herbicides more puissant), the cornflower has become uncommon to the point of extinction in its native habitat. Yet the cornflower is far from gone: its bright blue color means that some enthusiasts grow it as an ornamental garden plant. Additionally, in the era before herbicides and intensive agriculture, cornflower seeds frequently contaminated planting seeds—which meant that the cornflower traveled to Australia, the Americas, and Asia where it quickly became invasive.

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The cornflower, also known as the bachelor button or knapweed is the national flower of Germany.  It has long been traditional for unmarried men to wear one in their buttonhole (although I abjure this practice myself).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

The most famous aspect of cornflowers is their dazzling bright blue color which inclines very slightly towards purple. For centuries, this color has been a favorite of tailors, decorators, dressmakers, and artists. Cornflower blue is thus a classic traditional name for this brilliant midtone blue: indeed the color was very much a favorite of Vermeer. The name is still very much in use, so it is perfectly correct to imagine some charlatan or fop of the Restoration era donning a cornflower coat of the same color as the bridesmaids will be wearing at your cousins’ wedding next week.

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01016_RobinEggBlue-lI realized that this blog has done a poor job of addressing the color blue—which is one of people’s favorite colors.  Today therefore, in an early tribute to spring (which may eventually get here this year) we are writing about one of the most beautiful colors of blue there is.  The color takes its name directly from nature—from the nest of one of the most beloved birds of North America, Turdus migratorius, the American robin.  American robins are actually members of the thrush family: they superficially resemble old world robins (which are flycatchers), so European colonists lumbered us with the inaccurate name. Robins are migratory passerine birds which hunt the ground for worms and other small invertebrates as well as fruits and berries. The robin is famous for its jaunty orange breast, its vivacious style of hopping, and, above all, as a harbinger of spring.

robins-nest-web-1There are similarities between humans and robins. We are both bipedal omnivores.  Robins are unusually successful—perhaps more so than any other common passerine bird.  Additionally they are highly social and flock together to stay safe at night. However this blog post is not about the songbird (after all, when it comes to ornithology, ferrebeekeeper is solemnly devoted to galliformes and waterfowl), instead it is about the color of their eggs: robin egg blue.

eb4700e8774c6798119fd6c84a38ce55Robin egg blue is a lovely pale sky blue with a hint of green.  The name of the color has been in common use since the nineteenth century. The color appears everywhere: in crayola crayons, Tiffany jewelry boxes, spring frocks, giant bridges, and Air Force fighter jets.

Robins lay these eggs in nests which are 1.5 meters to 4 meters from the ground (5 to 15 feet).  Because the nests tend to be in low shrubby trees many children have had sad experiences watching things go wrong.  Fortunately robins are prolific parents and can sit as many as three clutches of eggs each season!  They also start nesting and laying early in April.

robin's eggCoincidentally, the aviary at the Bronx Zoo strongly featured the robin’s egg as an illustration of the powers of contingency and fatality in the world.  Visitors walk into a room with a large wall covered in hundreds of photos of lovely robin’s eggs. The next room has photos of robin hatchlings in exactly the same grid layout, but the little birds are far fewer than the eggs were: every space which lacks a hatchling photo features a little obituary of how the egg failed (or was eaten by a predator, or broken in an accident).  The next room features even fewer photos of fledgling birds–as nature continues to winnow out the unlucky.  The final room has only one or two adult robins to produce another suffusion of eggs.

robin eggI was at the zoo bird house many years ago with my then girlfriend and each of us randomly chose a particular egg in the first room to see how we fared.  My ex-girlfriend fell out of the nest and was eaten by an opossum almost immediately (!).  I survived to adolescence (which was quite rare) but was sadly captured and devoured by a hawk—so at least I had a thrilling aerial death!

Sometimes it seems like it's all hawks

Sometimes it seems like it’s all hawks

As I go through life, I often find myself thinking about the room of eggs. Although troubling, it resonates in a great many ways. The zoo meant it as a (quite effective) illustration of nature’s cruelty and caprice (and of the strategy of producing lots of offspring), but it also portrays larger themes of luck, planning, adversity, and perseverance.  In an even larger sense it represents how amazingly lucky any of us are to be here after billions of years of predation, foraging, and trying to impress fickle mates.  Yet we are indeed still here. We are the astonishingly lucky eggs who have survived by pluck and luck.  Spring will come again—and good times with it.  It’s time to buy some jaunty robin egg blue clothes and plan the next series of adventures and projects!

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The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The Shore Crab or European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas)

The green crab (Carcinus maenas) is a tiny brownish green crab native to the European shore line along the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.  Although it measures only 90 millimetres (3.5 in) across, it is voracious omnivore which feeds on all sorts of small mollusks, tiny arthropods, and worms (not to mention whatever dead flesh it happens across).  Green crabs are great and all, but this blog is not about crustaceans…Why is this little crab showing up here?

A green crab eating a clam

A green crab eating a clam

It turns out that the green crab is one of the most invasive species of our time.  Like the fiendish zebra mussel, the green crab is capable of traveling by boat (either among barnacles or in ballast).  As far back as the age of discovery they were hitching rides around the world on the hulls of wooden ships.  The little crabs seem to have piggy backed into temperate climes along with the British Empire and they have set up ranges in Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and both coasts of North America.  So far this has not been a big problem: for hundreds of years, cold waters and big hungry fish have kept the little crabs from proliferating.  However as humankind moves forward with its dastardly plans to kill off every fish in the ocean (and as ocean temperatures rise) the crabs are beginning to flourish in places where they were once barely holding on by their claws.

Green Crabs Spreading through the World's Oceans...Yikes!

Green Crabs Spreading through the World’s Oceans…Yikes!

Green crabs eat clams and juvenile oysters—so their success is causing hardship for mollusk fishers (while simultaneously removing filter feeders from the ocean).  Along the Mid Atlantic coast of North America, the native blue crab has proven effective at out-competing (or just straight-up eating) the invasive green crabs.  Similarly the rock crabs and Dungeness crabs of the Pacific northwest can hold their own against the invaders, but humans are overfishing these native crabs and allowing the invaders to proliferate (and seafood enthusiasts in America have not developed a taste for the tiny green crabs).

Not exactly a whole seafood platter...

Not exactly a whole seafood platter…

Will the warming of the oceans cause blue crabs to spread northward to defeat the invaders?  Will humankind stop killing every fish in the ocean so that the green crabs are eaten by sea bass?   Will we introduce a new species which preys on the green crabs (but brings its own problems)?  Only time will tell, but already coastal Maine is being swept by a tide of little green claws (and delicious east coast oysters are becoming more expensive and more rare).

"Dead or Alive", people...

“Dead or Alive”, people…

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