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Happy April Fools Day—or Happy April Fish! (as it is known in France). This is a special day for several reasons.
Most importantly today is the anniversary of Ferrebeekeeper which came into existence 7 years ago today! Since then, there have been lots of snakes, Goths, catfish, and colorful stories. I have gotten some things completely and utterly wrong, but I have always tried to do my best and be honest and keep the content coming, even when I was tired or sick or sad at heart. This is the one thousand five hundred and twelfth post! That’s a lot of clams and crowns! To celebrate, I am putting up three flounder-themed artworks (literal poissons d’Avril) and I am also announcing the rollout of a bizarre and compelling new online toy to appear here soon. I won’t tell you what it is (although I guess a prophet could tell you) but I will drop hints during next week’s blog posts.
Unless you are a Dagon-worshiper or a Micronesian, April Fish is one of the few fish-themed holidays on the calendar and so it is very precious for me, as a fish-themed artist. Additionally, today celebrates being careful in the face of obviously fake news stories. Now lately there have been lots of weird propaganda statements and transparent lies issuing from certain albescent domiciles in Washington DC, so the waters are even more muddied than usual (almost as if antagonists to the east are deliberately throwing up lots of lies and fake stories to make the real news seem suspect to people who are not very good at reading), but it is wise to be eternally on guard. Getting to the bottom of things is difficult, but a good rule of thumb is that real news is messy and complicated and offers more questions than answers (and lots of seeming contradictions), whereas self-serving puffery is generally gloriously simple and shifts all blame onto some third party (like Freemasons, foreigners, witches, or journalists).
Thank you all so much for reading. I treasure your attention and your patience. Forgive me for being so tardy in responding to comments and kindly pardon my errors or mistakes in judgement. Keep reading and looking and I will keep on writing, drawing, and floundering. There are glorious things ahead for all of us.
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).
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.
The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.
It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who found dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.
And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!
The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tabley features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.
The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V he heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.
The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.
Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)
Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).
West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)
Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.
The nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.
This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.
The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.
Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?
Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.
At the end of last month (October 2015), marine researchers in the Indian Ocean captured the first ever moving images of Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) a “dwarf” rorqual about which very little is known. I put “dwarf” in quotation marks because Omura’s whale is still a rorqual, a family which includes the largest animals to have ever lived. Adult Omura’s whales range in length from 9.6 to 11.5 meters (31.5 to 37.7 feet)—not exactly a miniature animal.
The whale is mysterious because it is rare. The specimens which were observed (or killed) were thought to be a small subspecies of Bryde’s whale. Only in 2003 did Japanese cetologists demonstrate incontrovertibly that the whale was a separate species (largely through genetic evidence preserved from specimens taken in infamous hunts/research expeditions).
Insomuch as we know anything about it, the Omura’s whale (which is named in honor of a famous Japanese whale scientist) is like other rorquals. It is a huge pelagic filter feeder which captures plankton or small fish and invertebrates in its great baleen mouth and strains the water out. It superficially resembles Bryde’s whale, however DNA reveals that it is an early offshoot from the rorqual lineage (its skeleton also differs greatly from Bryde’s whale)
We didn’t even know this was a species until 12 years ago—which illustrates how vast and unknown our own oceans still are. The Omura’s whales in the video/film were spotted in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. Hopefully they are not as isolated as they seem and the oceans will continue to be graced by this mysterious creature far into the future.
Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from. Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea. Quinces are from the Near East. Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific). All of this leads to the question of what came from here? Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland? It is autumn and the answer is right outside. All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America. Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica. But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.
Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about). Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing). Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds. The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together. The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).
Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of). Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.
The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun. They are wonderful plants.
This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.
And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).
Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.
Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.
There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).
Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.
Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!
Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology. As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris. Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck). He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war. When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom. So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.
Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for). Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).
When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief. Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow. For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely. She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.
Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away. His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it. According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).
In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new. Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first. Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second. The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating. This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.
Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.
It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!
The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.
I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!