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When I was a five-year old child, my whole family went on a trip out west.  We traveled from Utah up through Wyoming, Boulder, and Idaho.  My parents rented a big taupe car, but my grandparents, my uncle, and my cousin all had trucks with campers (my cousin even had a CB radio!). It was amazing fun and the undiluted beauty of the mountains and the joy of family time made up for the long days of being trapped in a car with leg cramps from running up and down said  mountains.  Many are the storied adventures we had…and the western legends have grown in the telling.  A particular favorite is the tale of how my grandfather and my uncle obtained a special blacklight so they could spot uranium ore (which was at a great premium in the seventies).  They turned the light on in some forsaken midnight desert and not only did they discover a shocking number of scorpions EVERYWHERE, they also found huge mounds of uranium ore in immense abundance—a multi-million dollar strike!  But when they picked up the precious ore it was soft and friable, and when they fumbled their flashlights on, it turned out to be cow manure covered with a fungus that glows under black light….

At any rate, among all of these travel yarns, a story shines out in my mind as being unusually important.  Sadly the story paints me as a callow & greedy brat, but it is still worth recounting, because of the tremendous lesson embedded in it like a razorblade in a mallomar.  My great grandmother was traveling with us on the trip.  She would switch between vehicles and share her stories of the days before airplanes, motorcar, great wars, or radios.  It was wonderful to have her with us and I feel incredibly lucky that I got to know her and hear her stories, however some of her folk traditions caused…trouble…when I attempted to apply their mythical wisdom to the real world.

For example: we were camped in some paradisiacal glade in Wyoming, when  I found a winsome wildflower with little golden anthers  (in my memory, this flower looks like a cross between a mimulus and a columbine, but who can say what it really was) and I rashly picked one for grandma.  She was delighted by it and she said, “if you leave these out overnight, the fairies will turn them to gold” Just what I would have done with whole bushels of gold was somewhat unclear, but I was a tourist out west where every little tourist-trap is all about GOLD, plus I had some heady ideas from old-fashioned chivalric tales of dragons, knights, and kings.

I began making an altar of flower heads, when my mother, a modern woman with an abiding love for nature (and for rules) found me decapitating unknown wildflowers in a park in order to transmute them to gold via fairy magic.  This was the beginning of a stringent & powerful LESSON concerning (A) the nature of endangered plants, (B) wise environmental stewardship, and (C) national park rules.  I tried to interrupt the flow of the moral lecture with the puissant rejoinder that “Great Grandma says the fairies will transform them into gold!” However this did not have the desired effect.  In fact, in addition to learning about wildflowers in national parks, I also learned that (D) the mythical wisdom of beloved superannuated ancestors does not overrule parental fiat (or park rules). Not at all.

Of course there is only one truly ironclad rule in life, which all other things must pay obeisance to…and that is the primacy of what actually happens.  I assumed that after that long-ago summer night had passed I would have a great rock heaped with gold which would convince my mother that she was wrong and great grandma and I were right.  However, sadly, in the pink dawn light when I went out to my flat mudstone to look at the gold (maybe I would share some with my parents so they could see how foolish they had been) all that was there were a bunch of mangled wildflowers which I had mutilated with my lust for gold. Come to think of it, this was a real lesson about world history too, I guess.  Anyway it was obvious that dealing with the fairies is tricksy.  Dealing with reality is inexorable.  I killed a bunch of potentially endangered wildflowers for a pretty lie.  I felt so ashamed.  I still do.

After the fairy gold incident, the other supernatural entities in my life started to fall like big jeweled fabulated dominoes. The Easter Bunny was always pretty suspicious anyway—a magic rabbit who hands out chocolate malt balls (a confection which my mom and nobody else likes)?  Soon he was gone, never to hop back.  I learned to read, and I read up on UFOs and monsters: it became perfectly obvious to a second grader that they were all hallucinations of stressed or otherwise addled people.  It wasn’t long before Santa himself, the great undead demigod of winter and giving was exposed…well, not as a fraud (I still have some of his wonderful toys) but certainly not exactly real in the way that you and I are, gentle reader.  All that was left was the big bearded guys–the sort who flout the temple rules of the Pharisees or build allegorical gardens with forbidden trees–and the curiosity of adolescence (and knowledge of astronomy, biology, and history) put an end to them except as symbols.  It’s a humorous story…but it isn’t so funny when I see my roommate wishing away her life on horoscopes and homeopathy or look at the NY Times and catch a glimpse of what ISIL is up to.

Everywhere, still, I find people who believe in the fairy gold despite the irrefutable evidence of the dawn.  I almost didn’t write this because I was afraid somebody would push a wildflower towards extinction so they can make their car payments.  What are we going to do? How are we going to make our way to Venus (or anywhere other than extinction) in a world where fairy gold is still so much in circulation, even if nobody has ever seen a single speck?

number-1aOK! Here we go…The number one post of all time on this blog involved…leprechauns!   It seems people can not get enough of the wee little men in green frock coats. Of course there is a huge problem with writing non-fiction essays about leprechauns—namely, leprechauns are entirely fictional (although the inhabitants of Ireland and Portland (and Randy Quaid) might feel otherwise). I can write about the literary sources that leprechaun myths stem from and I can muse about what the wee fairy tricksters really symbolize, but, in the end, there is only so much that can be written before I am making stuff up for Ice Cube and Jennifer Anniston to star in.

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I classified leprechauns under the “Deities of the Underworld category, because the diminutive cobblers are said come from a mythical underworld beneath the stone burial cairns of Ireland. Additionally, there is a darkness and otherworldly viciousness to original stories of the leprechauns…a glimmer of the haunting madness which pervades all stories of Fairyland. Originally they were supernatural monsters rather than endearing imps.  Perhaps they remain popular because some of their edginess is still there no matter how many boxes of breakfast cereal and lottery tickets they sell in their contemporary guise as Irish stereotype/corporate shill.

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One aspect of leprechauns which classical and modern myths seem to agree upon is that the little green-coated men are greedy hoarders and they have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder. This is entirely in keeping with the fundamental nature of contemporary society—which is run by little old men who likewise are profoundly greedy and have more than a touch of obsession with numbers…all of which is my way of segueing to data analytics (which I hate, but which the world’s masters seemingly can not get enough of).

Here are the top ten Ferrebeekeeper posts and their subjects

  1. Leprechaun Mascots (Gods of the Underworld, Mascots, Color, Literature)
  2. The Wombat (Mammals)
  3. The White, Red, and Blue Crown of Egypt (Crowns, History, Color, Hymenopterans, History)
  4. Velvet Ants (Hymenopterans, Color, Invaders, Poison)
  5. Sensitive Siluriforms (Catfish)
  6. Cerberus (Gods of the Underworld)
  7. Poisonous Platypus (Mammals, Poison)
  8. Krampus (Gods of the Underworld, History)
  9. The Green Vine Snake of the Subcontinent (Snakes, Color)
  10. Cheetah Cubs (Mammals)

A breakdown of topics by popularity therefore looks like this:

Color (4)
Gods of the Underworld (3)
Mammals (3)
Snakes (2)
Hymenopterans (2)
Poison (2)
History (2)
Catfish (1)
Crowns (1)
Literature (1)
Mascots (1)

So, what have we learned here? Well, infuriatingly, neither mollusks, nor trees, nor turkeys even made it to the final top ten list! I love writing about these subjects—mollusks particularly since they are an ancient astonishing phylum of life omnipresent on Earth since the development of the earliest animals. How could people turn their back on colossal squid, the giant orthocone, or the delicious oyster?

Even more surprisingly, space did not crack the top ten! Not only is this topic filled with treasure supernovae, white dwarfs, and space colonies, it also encompasses all that exists! Obviously I need to write more eloquently!

Wanted: Publicist

Wanted: Publicist

In terms of what actually was in the top ten list, color was the most popular topic—but it was really a secondary category in “Leprechauns”, “Velvet Ants”, and “The Green Vine Snake”. Only in the article about color-coded crowns of Ancient Egypt did it share top billing with crowns.

Did someone say "color crowns"?

Did someone say “color crowns”?

The real number one topic of Ferrebeekeeper is thus “Deities of the Underworld”! People apparently love dark gods—the evil violent beings which dwell down in the depths of our hearts where they mutter constantly of ruin, bloodshed, death, and night. Having lived for these long years in New York City, I should be unsurprised that underworld gods are people’s favorite topic among my various themes…yet it still provides a frisson of shock. Even as you read this, what secret altars are people kneeling in front of?

Yeesh...but I guess it's my blog and i should have seen this coming...

Yeesh…but I guess it’s my blog and I should have seen this coming…

At any rate, the readers have spoken with numbers… and I  listen. The dark prayers of the internet ask for more chthonic gods–for ghosts and gloom and strife! Tomorrow will be the thousandth post on Ferrebeekeeper and I will write again about Deities of the Underworld.

In the mean time, may the dark gods beneath the Earth smile upon you gentle readers and grant you a safe and easy night. Prithee peace!

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

The Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus)

We boldly continue armor week with an overview of the magnificent armadillo family.  This order of armored mammals (Cingulata) is more diverse than any other sort of armored mammals–outshining even the scaled pangolins. Today the only living members of the Cingulata order are the armadillo family (a successful group consisting of more than 20 living species) but the armadillos’ extinct cousins were once far more widespread and bizarre.  These relatives included the pampatheres–long plantigrade browsing creatures covered in banded armor who roamed the continent from one end to the other.  Even more impressive were the glyptodonts, massive tank-like creatures bigger than a compact car.

A fossil glyptodon, fossil pamphathere, and armadillo skeleton (in the far right corner)

The Cingulata order is part of the superorder Xenarthra. Separated from all other placental mammals for over 100 million years (due to South America’s unique isolation after the breakup of the southern supercontinent Gondwana), xenarthrans evolved in different directions from other mammals. The unique challenges and opportunities of their island continent resulted in bony domed giants like the pampatheres and glyptodonts, both of which are characterized by tortoise-like body armor composed of bone segments (osteoderms).  The glyptodonts were unlike tortoises in that they could not draw their head beneath their shells: instead their heads were protected by bony caps atop their skulls. The largest glyptodonts could grow to 4 metres long, 1.5 metres high and have a mass of 3 tons (Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the smallest known Cingulata species—the pink fairy armadillo, which can still be found living in the central dry lands of Argentina).

Glyptodon

Thanks to convergent evolution the herbivorous glyptodonts resembled other armored giants like cryptodire turtles and ankylosaurs.  One species of glyptodont, Doedicurus clavicaudatus, even had a heavy spiked tail (although it is unclear whether this was used against predators or to compete for territory and mates).

Doedicurus clavicaudatus

When the first members of the Cingulata order emerged in the Myocene, the top predators of South America were giant running predatory birds–the Phorusrhacidae, which resembled giant dashing eagles up to 3.2 metres (10 ft) high.  The glyptodonts, pampatheres, and armadillos outlasted these terror birds and they then outlasted the carnivorous metatherian mammals (with terrible saber teeth) which followed.  When the Isthmus of Panama connected South America with North America (and therefore with an entirely new universe of ultra-competitive mammals), the armored cingulatans competed just fine with the newcomers.  Some glyptodonts and pamphatheres wandered up through Central America and found new homes in North America.  The armadillos are still there.  However at the end of the last ice-age, a new African species arrived and brought a devastating and final end to the glyptodonts, the pampatheres, and most of the armadillos. But even this newly arrived predator seemed impressed by the greatest of armored mammals.  An Argentine anthropologist even reports discovering a site twenty leagues from Buenos Aires where early human hunters had used glyptodont shells as dwelling places.

Human Hunters Stalk a Glyptodon (Heinrich Harder)

Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates)

There are twenty extant species of armadillos–new world placental mammals covered with armored plates. The smallest of these armored creatures is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates) which is only 9-12 centimeters in total length (about 4 or 5 inches).  The diminutive creature weighs slightly more than 100 grams when mature and inhabits the central drylands of Argentina.  It has multiple hard ring-like plates of delicate pink which it can close into a box form for protection (although its first defensive strategy is to dig into the ground).  The animal has tiny eyes and a torpedo-like head for pushing into the sand. The portions of the Pink Fairy Armadillo not covered with plates are covered in dense white fur. Like the golden mole of Namibia, the pink fairy armadillo is a sand swimmer:  the little animal agitates the fine, dry sand with its powerful claws and literally swims through the turbulence with its hard bullet shaped body.  The armadillos are also like the golden mole in that they can lower their metabolism to levels unheard of among other placental mammals.  However armadillos are not closely related to the golden mole—or indeed to any other placental mammals other than fellow Xenarthra (the sloths, armadillos, and anteaters).  South America spent a long portion of geological time as an island and the mammals there had a long time to develop on their own.  It is still not known whether Xenarthrans like the Pink Fairy Armadillo are truly Eutherians or whether they are the descendants of the ancestors of the Eutherians (sorry: the language of cladistics does not lend itself to eloquent explanations and all of the names sound like they come from a far-away planet—for example “Xenarthrans”).

I would like to tell you more about the Pink Fairy Armadillo, but I am unable to do so.  Since it lives underground, the animal is rarely seen in the wild.  It is even more unusual in captivity where it does not long survive the shocks and stresses of zoo living (additionally it seems unable to live on anything other than local invertebrates). This is unfortunate as it is believed that the Pink Fairy Armadillo is struggling in the wild.  It is presumed to be declining in numbers–a victim to habitat loss from human activity.  I used wiggle words like “believed” and “presumed” because nobody really has any idea about the actual populations of Pink Fairy Armadillos.

In the absence of real information here is a little gallery of Pink Fairy Armadillo artwork.  Enjoy these pictures, it is profoundly unlikely you will ever see a real Pink Fairy Armadillo in the real world (which is sad because I find them curiously endearing). I particularly like the cartoon of the Pink Fairy Armadillo dreaming of transcendence into a mythical fairy being.

Drawing by Frohickey

Digital Artwork by Loba Feroz

Art by Guertelmaus

Sculpture by Michelle de Bruin

Cartoon by Blade Zulah

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