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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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Everybody loves squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses…and we all love all of the crazy belemnites, ammonites,  nautiloids, and orthocones which came before them. But, if you are like me, you have probably been sitting around wondering what came before that.  How old are cephalopods, really, and what were the first ones like?  Yet, although cephalopods are amply represented in the fossil record from the Ordovician onward, their very earliest origins are shrouded in controversy and mystery.  Although there are various fossils which might be cephalopods (or their antecedents) at present the oldest animals to be indisputably classified as cephalopods are the Ellesmerocerida.  This order of nautiloids flourished at the end of the Cambrian and into the Ordovician 9approximately half a billion years ago).

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Although they were definitely cephalopods, the Ellesmerocerida were somewhat mysterious themselves.  They were typically quite small—or even minute.  They seemingly had ten arms–although this is a conjecture based on where the muscles attached to their shells (and based on what we know of their descendants).  The soft parts of the first cephalopods were not preserved and so we don’t exactly know.

Their shells reveal close-spaced septa–closed off interior spaces within the shell, which provided buoyancy.  The  Ellesmerocerida  also had relatively large ventral siphuncles—tissues which pass longitudinally through the septa to allow buoyancy control.  So the first cephalopods we know about were more or less built on the same line as the subsequent ones (until belemnites internalized the shells).  I wonder what else we will find out about the origins of this fascinating group of animals as we learn more about paleontology.

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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

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Here are two early woodcuts from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. In the course of time, Escher would become extremely famous for intricate black and white prints which picture the paradoxical juxtaposition and interplay of seemingly irreconcilable moral, aesthetic, or mathematical concepts. These two works, however, date from 1919 when the artist was only twenty years old and was still finding his artistic path. World War I had just ended (as had the Spanish flu epidemic) and a dark pall seemed to still hover over humankind. Escher had been a sickly child who failed to excel at any particular course of studies in secondary school. He was studying (and failing) architecture at Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. In a few years he would reconcile himself with the artistic life and set off for Italy, but in these works some of the gloom of the war, and of his unhappy youth seems to linger in the solemn simple lines of the huge enigmatic trees.

 

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The two woodcuts here both show fractal trees against the cosmic backdrop of a black sky with a single luminous star burning in the heavens. In Tree, a tiny benighted human figure drops to his knees in front of the great tree which seems to hold a burning star within its interwoven branches. The Borger Oak is even starker: the boughs of the tree are becoming a simple recursive pattern against white hills. A glowing celestial body fitfully illuminates the scene. Already the themes which would dominate Escher’s life work are apparent: the recursive patterns of mathematic sequences are apparent in the prints (albeit not with the vertiginous intricacy which would characterize later works). Both works are simple and beautiful microcosms. The trees represent life, science, and even the entire universe itself (like Yggdrasil, the world tree of ancient northern myth). Living things and the laws of space are both part of an overarching pattern.

Model of a Moeritherium

Our story takes us back 37 million years ago to the hot moist swamps of the Eocene (again).  In the swamps of Africa lived a long low wallowing mammal 3 meters (9.8 feet long) and 70 centimeters (2.25 feet) tall.  This swamp dweller occupied the same sort of niche now taken by pygmy hippos and capybaras—it was an amphibious grazer which lived on soft water plants and could slip into the water to avoid land predators (and vice versa).  The animal was named Moeritherium, a genus consisting of several similar species, all now long extinct.

Moeritheriums (painting by Heinrich Harder)

Moeritheriums mostly had peg like teeth for grinding up vegetation, but the creatures’ second incisor teeth were elongated like daggers for display, defence, and rooting. So Moeritherium was really another saber toothed creature (like walrus, Smilodon, and Odobenocetops), but we never think of their closest living relatives as saber-toothed so it is hard for me to think of them that way.  In fact Moeritherium’s closest relatives overshadow all the details about the low-slung swamp-dwelling creature entirely because they are one of the most magnificent and intelligent orders of creature on planet Earth.  The Moeritheriums wallowing in the African swamps long ago were among the very first Proboscideans–an order of mammals including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and gomphotheres.

An artist’s conception of a Moeritherium

Moeritheriums probably did not have a long trunk like today’s elephants, but they did have a long flexible upper lip like tapirs.  Their eyes and ears were high up on their head so they could submerge themselves but still watch the surrounding landscape. They were not direct ancestors of the elephants and mammoths but instead descended from a common ancestor, Eritherium, a rabbit sized progenitor, which was rather like a hyrax.  Moeritheriums were highly successful in their day, but they disappeared as the Eocene climate dyed up and cooled down.  Fortunately several other families of proboscideans like the paleomastodons and the Phiomias were there to carry on the magnificent order of Proboscideans.

Paleomastodon (painting by Heinrich Harder)

During the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs, mammals were widespread, but they kept a low profile so as to avoid the baleful attention of the great reptiles.   A fossil of one of these furtive early mammals was discovered last November (2011) in Argentina.  The creature was christened as Cronopio dentiacutus, and not only does the animal’s partial skull give us a window into mammalian form in the late Cretaceous it also provides a special treat for regular readers of Ferrebeekeeper, for like the Smilodon, the walrus, and the Odobenocetops, Cronopio has distinctly pronounced saber teeth (despite being a small scurrying squirrel-like creature).

A model of the Cronopio dentiacutus–which was only 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches) long.

Cronopio dentiacutus was probably actually more shrew-like than squirrel-like and used its saber teeth for hunting insects.  Based on its large eye sockets, Cronopio most likely hunted its prey at night (when it could also more easily escape the attention of the dinosaurs and other larger predators.

Julio Cortázar, Argentine Surrealist author

Cronopio dentiacutus takes its species name from a Greek phrase meaning sharp teeth, but the origin of its genus name is rather more literary.  The Argentine surrealist writer Julio Cortázar wrote several books about abstracted categories of fictional entities and the Cronopio was the idealistic but disorganized type of being (as opposed to rigid, highly-organized “famas” and indolent, dull “esperanzas”).  It is unclear what creative/idealistic features of this insectivorous early mammal struck the fancy of the discovering paleontologist to provoke such a name, but it is nice to see scientists pay Argentine belles-lettres such an acknowledgement.

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

Magnolias at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Spring has come early this year and the beautiful tulip-like petals of New York City’s magnolia trees are already beginning to fall into great drifts of white and pink.  If you stop and pick up one of the pretty petals from such a pile you will be surprised by the leathery resilience of the delicate-looking petals.  The durability of the petals of magnolia flowers is not coincidental—the flowers are different from other common flowering trees because Magnoliidae trees were among the first flowering trees to evolve.  The earliest known fossils of such flowers date from the upper Cretaceous period around 130 million years ago. Magnoliidae petals are tough because they were originally meant to attract the attention of beetles rather than bees (which do not appear in the fossil record until 100 million years ago).  Since there were no insects specially adapted to live as pollinators when magnolia-like trees first appeared, the petals and reproductive structures of these first flowering trees had to be robust to survive attention from the hungry clumsy beetles (toughness which has passed on to the modern ornamental trees).

Paeleobotanists have not yet unraveled the entire history of the evolution of flowering plants (indeed, Charles Darwin called the abrupt appearance of flowers in the fossil record “the abominable mystery”) however magnolia-like trees appeared long before the great radiation of angiosperms which occurred approximately 100 million years ago.  The first magnoliid trees must have seemed tremendously strange–explosions of color and shape surrounded by great uniformly green forests of gymnosperm trees (like the familiar conifers). Magnolia blossoms betray evidence of their ancient lineage through several “primitive” features: the petals are nearly indistinguishable from the sepals; each flower has many stamens which are arranged in spiral rows; there are multiple pistils; and all of the stamens and pistils are supported by a “fingerlike receptacle.”

By attracting the attention of animals (either through the colorful appearance and appealing scent of flowers, or by the edible nectar and fruit) flowering plants were better able to reproduce themselves.  Magnolias spread around the temperate world and began the complicated interdependent relationship which all sorts of animals (including humans) have with flowering plants.

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

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