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Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

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For the first time in a long time, Ferrebeekeeper is presenting a theme week. This is mermaid week! We will explore the mythology and meaning of fish-people (a theme which occurs again and again throughout world culture). And there is a special treat waiting at the end of the week, when I reveal the project I have been working on for quite a while. I wonder if you can guess what creative project could I possibly be up to involving fish?

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We will get back to the exquisite long-haired beauties with perfect figures and beautiful green tails later this week, but let’s start out with the Ningyo, the poignant & disquieting Japanese “mermaid”.  The mythical Ningyo is indeed described as a sort of fish-person; but they were far more fish than person with a piscine body covered in jewel-bright scales.  They had a strange bestial human head, almost more like a monkey’s face and a quiet beautiful voice like a lilting songbird or a flute.

The Ningyo was reputedly quite delicious and anyone who ate one would experience tremendous longevity…but there was a price. Eating the creature would result in terrible storms and dire misfortune.  Additionally eating a magical sentient creature carried…spiritual risks which are hard to quantify but certainly sound detrimental to the immortal soul.

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One story about a Ningyo, starts with a humble fisherman from the Wakasa Province (the seafaring “land of seafood” for the Chūbu region of Honshū). He caught a fish with a human face, the likes of which he had never seen and he butchered and prepared the creature as a special banquet for his closest friends and neighbors.  Yet one of the guests peaked into the kitchen and saw the doleful eyes of the ningyo’s severed head and warned the other diners not to partake.  One woman hid her portion in her furoshiki, and forgot about it.  Later, her daughter was hungry and obtained the forgotten fish-morsel and gobbled it up.  The woman expected catastrophe, but nothing happened and the whole sorry incident was forgotten…

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Except…the little girl grew into womanhood and married and had a family.  The people around her lived their lives and, in the course of time, grew old and got sick and died, but she maintained her youth and kept on living and living and living. Everywhere she went the people she cared for grew old and died to the rhythm of human life, but she stood outside watching like a child watching mayflies.  She became a lonely religious recluse and eventually, after the better part of a millennium, she returned to the ruined, forgotten port of her childhood and took her own life, unable to bear existing in a world that she stood so far outside of.

The idea of the Ningyo asks uncomfortable question about our relationship with the natural world. Do we consume other beings for our own selfish amelioration or must we do so to survive? The fairytale above also asks painful questions about some of our most treasured fantasies.  Would extraordinarily long life be a blessing or would it be a curse?  Best of all (but hardest of all) it asks us to look again…at our relationship with the natural world and at our timeframe bias which prohibits us from seeing some of the things that are really happening (since our perspective is too brief).

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Actually I feel like fish already actually have bestial human faces and are precious in mysterious ways.  Yet we eat them anyway…in ever greater abundance… to the extent that almost all the fish are becoming scarce. Humankind is destroying the ocean, the cradle of life and all-sustaining backstop to every ecosystem. We are doing this, like the fisherman in the tale through a terrifying mixture of ignorance, hunger, and the attempt to impress other people. The Japanese (who have astonishing technological savvy, profound generosity, and enormous erudition) eat whales and dolphins with a special spiteful relish.  Is this then our fate, to gobble up our miraculous fellow beings and then live on and on in a world stripped of vitality and meaning?  Every thoughtful person I meet, worries that it is so.

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Then too there is the other half to the Ningyo myth (unadressed in the myth I told above… that abusing them would lead to storms, inundation, and catastrophe.  It is not hard to see parallels in contemporary society.  It isn’t only eschatologists, astrophysicists, and ecologists who note the changing temperatures and cannot find analogies in the strange and diverse climate history of our world. Humans live longer and longer (outside of America, I mean) yet the storms grow worse and worse.  Have we already eaten the Ningyo?

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Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).

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Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).

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Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?

Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live.  Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years.  Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go.  Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world.  When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!

Arctica islandica

As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years!  The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.

The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper.  The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas.  The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter.  Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!

James Fort at Jamestown ca. 1610 (to give some perspective on how long 400 years is)

The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear.  Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”

This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves.   Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.

The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Since prehistory, cinnabar (mercury sulfide) has been sought after for its brilliant red-orange hue. Crushed into a pigment, this mineral becomes vermilion, and it is one of history’s great colors.  The bright red-orange of vermilion is unmistakable and takes pride of place in many—maybe most–of the great paintings created prior to the introduction of modern cadmium paints. The villa of the mysteries in Pompeii was painted with vermilion. Medieval illuminators made extensive use of vermillion to color the bibles, codexes, and prayer books of the times.

Michael Battling Demons (from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

In the 8th century, Chinese chemists discovered how to artificially synthesize cinnabar.  The alchemists of medieval Europe mastered this trick later in the 12th century (after which both painting and chemistry made great strides forward).  The brightest reds in the great masterpieces of Renaissance art are vermillion as are the brightest reds in the masterpieces of Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic painting.

Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo (Titian, ca. 1540, oil on canvas)

Because of its high mercury content cinnabar is very toxic to humans. People affected by mercury poisoning develop tremors, violent mood swings, and tunnel vision.  They lose first their hearing, then their eyesight, and ultimately their sanity and lives. The Romans knew these problems were associated with cinnabar mining and so they sent criminals and war slaves to man the mines of Spain and Slovenia.  Such wretches had an average life span of only three years.

Powdered Cinnabar

Because of its magnificent red color, and because it could be refined to yield liquid mercury (which was regarded as a magical regent of life) cinnabar was thought to be one of the keys to the fabled elixir of life.  Taoist charlatans and magicians made extensive use of raw cinnabar for allegedly rejuvenating cups, trinkets, and potions. Contrasting this paragraph with the one prior to it yields an obvious irony: the magical life giving elixirs quaffed by Taoist mystics were toxic.  Many Chinese emperors, aristocrats, and elites probably greatly shortened their life by becoming too enamored with the deadly beauty of vermilion

Carved cinnabar lacquer gourd-shaped ewer with floral design Mid Ming Dynasty (c. late 15th-early 16th Century)

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