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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

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.

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