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According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from?  Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens.  Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.

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In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything.  Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable.  Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it.  This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity.  The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms.  P’an Ku slowly grew and grew.  He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg.  The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.

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Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where).  Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe.  Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order.  P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.

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But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered.  His creation was unfinished…and he died.  His breath became the clouds and the wind.  His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.

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It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything.  The beginning of the universe.

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Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do.  Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.

 

green eggs

Sorry for the empty space here last week.  But now I am back, refreshed, and ready for a whole theme week dedicated to eggs.  I conceived of this theme during Easter as I feverishly dyed goose eggs from my parents’ farm, but now that I start to write, the enormity of the subject hits me.  Almost all arthropods, vertebrates, and mollusks reproduce by laying eggs.  We mammals are in a minority among animals (and even then, there are certain exceptions).  The fertilized offspring of the vast majority of animals develop to viable lifeforms inside an egg.  Eggs consequently hold a huge place in mythology, biology, and agriculture.  A surprising number of cosmologies (and biographies) start with an egg cracking open.  Likewise, an understanding of animals beyond hydrozoans requires one to contemplate differing sorts of eggs (and indeed the universal name for female gametes happens to be “eggs” as well).

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So that is what I will be writing about for the rest of the week, however I am opening “egg week” with this little miniature essay as an introduction…and with the literary allusion pictured above.  Do you recognize it? It is green eggs and ham! It occurred to me as I began to unpeel the eggs that I had accidentally re-created Sam-I-Am’s famous feast. The eggs are really dyed chicken eggs.  This is the only mention I will make of eggs from a gastronomic context—but trust me, those eggs were quite delicious and, if we didn’t have so much ground to cover, we could dedicate an entire blog every day for a lifetime to eggs’ central position in cuisine.  But alas, there is no time for custard pie recipes—we need to move on.  Tune in tomorrow for one of those egg-based cosmologies!

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Professional wrestling is a very peculiar concoction.   It is a volatile mix of extreme athleticism, flamboyant theater, televised hype, steroids, advertising money, and ludicrous costumes. As you can imagine, this blend sometimes goes extraordinarily awry: professional wrestling can give birth to nightmare children. Keeping this in mind, let us journey back to the distant year of 1990. That autumn, during the weeks leading up to the World Wrestling Federation’s Survivor Series of 1990, wrestling producers stumbled upon a very…unusual…gimmick to drum up excitement for their title bout. A huge egg of indeterminate origin was placed in the middle of the arena. As the ripped, oiled, and be-sequined brawlers fought out their melodramatic matches, more and more hype was lavished upon this strange prop. What sort of wrestling sensation would hatch out of it?

Classy...

Classy…

Many animals lay eggs, so the possibilities were multitudinous and potentially thrilling. What if the giant egg turned out to be a horrifying serpent man or some sort of warrior dinosaur? Since professional wrestling has never been troubled by reality, the egg could even have contained a mythological being like a roc, a griffin, or a baby Godzilla. On Thanksgiving of 1990, the egg hatched and the answer was revealed.

When the egg blew open, out of it leapt…the Gobbledy Gooker–a hapless chump clad in an extraordinarily ugly turkey costume. Not only did the Gooker [ed. Can we even write that word on a family-friendly blog?] look horrid–he did not even wrestle. He capered around the ring and then danced with announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund to the minstrel hit “Turkey in the Straw”. Understandably, the Hartford audience hooted in derision. It is actually painful to hear “Rowdy“ Roddy Piper (the brilliant lead thespian of the dark allegorical sci-fi masterpiece “They Live”) shouting out canned enthusiasm for the bad gimmick. The Gobbledy Gooker appeared in a few more mercifully brief promotional spots and then was canned for good…

Time to retire with dignity...

Time to retire with dignity…

…or was he? Within the hallowed halls of professional wrestling, ethereal voices began to whisper about the Gobbledy Gooker. What terrible decisions led to the egg and the turkey costume? Who was beneath the patchy feathers? It turns out that the Gobbledy Gooker was a wrestling persona of Hector Guerrero, famed scion of Los Guerreros (arguably the world’s greatest multigenerational dynasty of professional wrestlers). Perhaps it is appropriate that a Mexican-American played the sacred turkey figure–since turkeys were first domesticated by the glorious pyramid civilizations of Mesoamerica.

Hector Guerrero as usually attired (thank goodness professional wrestling is able to avoid crude stereotypes)

Hector Guerrero as usually attired (thank goodness professional wrestling is able to avoid crude stereotypes)

Our culture has a raw appetite for spectacle. And the awfulness of the Gobbledy Gooker fulfilled some primal need. Soon the Gobbledy Gooker was back—albeit sometimes spelled as the Gobbly Gooker. In the 2000s the giant turkey (still played by Guerrero) competed in Wrestlemania X-Seven, a contest between over-the-top gimmick characters (sadly he lost in the second round). He also lent his name to the Gooker Award for the worst wrestling gimmicks. In recent years, he has become a sort of campy mascot of World Wrestling (although his already nebulous turkey identity has blurred a bit further). He even starred in a video about wacky office misadventures at WW headquarters!

Work is demeaning

Work is demeaning

Last Thanksgiving (2013), the Gobbledy Gooker stepped out of retirement and “appeared backstage on WWE Smackdown at a ‘post Thanksgiving party’ thrown by Smackdown General Manager Vickie Guerrero.” Will the Gobbledy Gooker reemerge this Thanksgiving as a magnificent and dismaying symbol of our gluttony, our strength, our vainglory? Keep your eyes peeled to find out…

The Gobbledy Gooker

The Gobbledy Gooker

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Today is World Egg Day! At first I had an image of the entire planet splitting open and some giant hatchling slithering out into the galaxy—WorldEgg Day–but a moment of reflection revealed that WED is instead a day for the entire world to celebrate eggs. Indeed the World Egg Day Website reassures us that, “World Egg Day is a unique opportunity to help raise awareness of the benefits of eggs and is celebrated in countries all around the world.”

Ogc3sEcThis website has been unflagging in its dedicated to oviparous creatures. Catfish, turkeys, the vast majority of snakes, all fowl, and even the amazing platypus and echidna are creatures which reproduce by means of eggs. They are all well worth celebrating! Hooray!

Yet somehow, I feel like the World Egg Day High Council (an arm of the even greater International Egg Commission) cares little about ovuliparity (external reproduction via egg). Instead they are concerned only with devouring eggs. They are in fact ovivores of the highest degree—to such an extent that they have built an international organization to promote the continuous eating of eggs to the exclusion of all else. We live in a strange world.

Dasypeltis scabra feeding on a fresh pigeon egg (from exotic-pets.co.uk)

Dasypeltis scabra feeding on a fresh pigeon egg

However, since I am an ovivore myself (although not exclusively) I support the council’s overarching plans—at least to a degree. In order to celebrate World Egg Day, allow me to propose a suitable mascot for the event—the egg-eating snake, Dasypeltis, a delightful genus of reptiles which lives up to the council’s ultimate utopian dreams of eating nothing but eggs. To quote exotic-pets.co.uk, “The Egg Eating Snake must be one of the nicest snakes we have ever come across. With no teeth, a calm nature, [the snake lives entirely] on eggs…no more defrosting rodents!”

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There are 11 species of snake within the Dasypeltis genus and all have evolved to feed exclusively on eggs. These non-venomous snakes live throughout Africa, but prefer wooded areas with large numbers of birds. The snakes possess acute senses which allow them to determine whether an unbroken egg is rotten or too developed for them to eat. Not only are the snakes gifted at hiding and climbing trees, they also have specialized anatomical features for egg consumption including supremely flexible jaws, supple necks, expandable balloon-like throats, and internal vertebral knobs for bursting the egg once consumed. The snakes regularly consume eggs much larger than their own heads. After eating breakfast, the poor creature looks like a maraca! Once the unbroken egg is swallowed whole, the snake’s internal organs burst it open and leech all nutrients out of it. The indigestible shell is regurgitated. Virtually no nutrients are wasted.

Common egg-eater snake (Dasypeltis scabra). Photo by Mond76

Common egg-eater snake (Dasypeltis scabra). Photo by Mond76

Finally, and best of all, Dasypeltis fasciata not only lives entirely on eggs: the snake also reproduces by egg! It is an Oviparous ovivore. Females lay one or two clutches of 6-25 eggs each. The little eggs measure 36 mm x 18 mm (1.4 x 0.7 inches) and are sometimes eaten by rodents or lizards.

dscf0643-300x225You could write to the International Egg Council and explain why this snake would be the perfect mascot to help them popularize eggs. Undoubtedly the exalted high egg commissioners would quickly acknowledge that there can be no purer avatar of the incredible edible egg than this lovable snake. Happy World Egg Day!

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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One of the Aspredinidae (banjo catfish) species, Bunocephalus amaurus, from Guyana

Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent.  Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name.  Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them.  Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised.  Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge.  Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.

Another species of Banjo catfish (Bunocephalus coracoideus)

Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs.  Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly.  Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.

More banjo catfish (Amaralia hypsiura)

In the impact crater of a giant meteor, an unknown ancient race built the largest snake effigy on the planet… Is this the beginning of a lurid sci-fi fantasy novel? No, it’s the description of an actual place.  This haunting structure which was built for unknown reasons by a mystery race can be found in deepest…um…Ohio!

The Great Serpent Mound is an ancient earthwork located in Adams County, Ohio.  Shaped like a snake devouring an egg, the mound is 410 meters (1,330 feet long) and a meter tall (3 feet).  The undulating form of the snake has been tied to astronomical phenomena but it is unclear why it was built or what purposes (if any) it served. It reminds me somewhat of the Rainbow Serpent, Wadjet, Nüwa, and other snake deities, but since there is no historical or ethnological record of its purpose, such connections are only airy speculation.

Possible Astronomical Significance of the Great Serpent Mound

An even greater mystery of the structure is who built it. Over the years scholars and archaeologists have variously posited that it was created by the Adena culture (1000 to 200 BC), or by tribes from the Hopewell tradition (200 BC to 500 AD), or by the Fort Ancient culture (1000 AD-1750 AD).  Of course the mound was known long before its “discovery” by European settlers. Unfortunately, the Native Americans of the region seemed just as confused about its provenance as anyone. For what it is worth, Native Americans of the Lenni Lenape (later Delaware) nation told missionaries that the mound was built by the Allegheny or Allegewi People, (who were also sometimes called the Tallegewi), a possibly mythical progenitor race who lived in the Ohio Valley in ancient times before 1200 BC.

The Great Serpent Mound from the Air

It is obvious that a date is thoroughly confused when it varies by as much as 3,000 years! Fortunately there are a few pieces of actual evidence associated with the mound. Adena graves were found and excavated near the Serpent Mound (Adena people were culturally and physically distinct from other peoples of the Ohio valley). Other Adena sites have revealed that these peoples built elaborate circular and winding earthworks and had a fascination with astronomical phenomena. The few pieces of Aedena art even seem to bear an aesthetic connection.

A Serpent Carved from Micah by the Adena or Hopewell

Frustratingly, carbon dating of charcoal taken from within the mound seems to indicate that it was built (or at least refurbished) long after the Adena culture declined and vanished. Conducted in the nineteen nineties, these tests indicated that parts (or all) of the Serpent Mound was built around 1070 AD.  The mound would thus have been made by people of the Fort Ancient Culture–but the Fort Ancient people do not seem to have evinced the same artistic and cosmological sensibilities as are reflected in the mound.  Additionally the mound was uncharacteristic of Fort Ancient culture in its lack of buried valuables.

A painting of Fort Ancient Civilization

Charcoal fragments are easily displaced by bioturbation and burrowing animals, so the carbon dating stands in question. The Fort Ancient people are known to have had contact with the intense pyramid building, city-dwelling (serpent worshipping) Mississippian cultures which were flourishing from Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps outside cultural influences lead to the mound’s construction. Furthermore the Fort Ancient people got their name from the fact that they lived on huge earthworks built by the vanished Hopewell people (who are also potential builders of the Great Serpent Mound). Perhaps the Fort Ancient tribes also renovated and re-purposed the Great Serpent Mound from older Adena or Hopewell builders.  We simply are not certain about who crafted the Great Serpent Mound–but it is to be hoped that further evidence will clarify the issue.

By now space enthusiast readers are probably chaffing at all of this human history: in the first paragraph I mentioned that the Great Serpent Mound is located in a meteor impact crater. Waymarking.com relates how the crater was discovered by scholars studying the Great Serpent Mound:

After the mound was discovered it was noticed that the geology of the surrounding area differed greatly from that found elsewhere in Ohio. John Locke, who explored the area in the 1830’s noted that “a region of no small extent had sunk down several hundred feet, producing faults, dislocations and upturnings of the layers of the rocks.” At the time he thought the he had discovered a “sunken mountain.” Some of the areas look like they have slid straight down while others have risen almost 1,000 feet straight up. Over time more evidence has been found. Eventually in the 1970’s, core samples were taken from the crater area. Scientists have found iridium at levels up to 10 times that normally found in the Earth’s crust, soot from what may be scorched limestone, deformed grains of sand, and quartz with microscopic fractures. In addition “shatter cones” have been found from the surface down similar to those found in Nevada at nuclear weapon test sites.  

Such features are the smoking gun evidence of meteor strikes and scientists have since concluded that the crater is about 250 million years old (which was approximately the same era the Paleozoic came to an end). Over a quarter of a billion years the crater has deformed greatly, to such an extent that it is not immediately recognizable (unlike more contemporary strike sites such as Lake Lonar).

Wild Turkey Poults

During February and March, tom turkeys beguile hens with their magnificent gobbles and vivid visual displays. Shortly thereafter the hens begin nesting. Not only are turkey eggs larger than chicken eggs, they are covered with delicate brown speckles and tend to have a more acute taper on one end than chicken eggs do.  The turkey hen constantly broods her eggs leaving only briefly to eat.  When she is sitting on her nest, the hen is extremely vulnerable to predators.

Turkey Eggs

A month later, turkey poults emerge from the eggs.  The tiny poults punch open the egg with egg teeth (sharpened ridges on the beak which quickly vanish as the young turkeys begin to grow). Wild turkey poults leave the nest about a day after they hatch.

Bourbon Red Turkey Poults on a farm

Wild turkeys face a terrifying host of predators including bobcats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, foxes, coyotes, armadillos, weasels, crows, owls, hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of snakes. To cope with this list wild poults quickly develop limited flight capability and begin roosting in trees two weeks after they hatch.  Domestic turkey poults need substantial warmth to thrive and must be kept under a hot lamp and never given cold water.  They need medicine supplements to prevent infection from chicken diseases and special calcium supplements to make up for the minerals which their wild cousins get from the bugs and arthropods which make up the bulk of their diet.

Day old Narragansett Turkey poults (photo by Cackle Hatchery)

One of the most endearing traits of poults is the way in which they imprint on their mother and then follow her around.  This trait is identical in domestic turkeys: when we ordered poults during my childhood, the little fluffy birds imprinted on me.  Thereafter they would follow me around the barnyard peeping–which was very cute but made me worry about their well-being (imprinting being a two-way street).  The young turkeys were affectionate and endlessly amusing.  Indeed the Aztec trickster god Tezcatlipoca was strongly associated with turkeys because of their playful tricks and the deity was said to sometimes manifest as a turkey.  In the picture below, Tezcatlipoca even looks a bit like a strutting Tom.

A Turkey and Tezcatlipoca. Do you see the ressemblance?

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