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My mother is an expert at sewing.  When I go home, it is a special treat to visit her store and look at her creative projects.  Textile art has never worked out very well for me and my few early attempts at making things out of fabric always resulted in a mass of tangled thread and ruined cloth. I did once make a pair of colossal pants out of heavy burlap-like poplin for home economics class (I assumed the largest pattern size would be right for me, but these pants would probably have fallen off of Manute Bol), but even those were shoddy at best.  Because of this gaping hole in my creative skills, fabric art has a special appeal for me and sometimes even objects in which I would generally have no interest can be fascinating.  Additionally, my mom is a master who makes one-of-a-kind objects which beautifully meld form, color, and utility.

lizar purse with rose.jpg

Such is the case with this…fabric purse.  I am not really a purse person… yet I couldn’t stop admiring this one because of the amazing Australian fabric which pictures frogs and ants carefully trying to forage without getting too close to the magnificent blue-tongued lizard.  Blue tongue lizards, by the way, are enormous skinks (enormous for skinks–they are still pretty small compared to cement trucks or small dogs) which live in Australia where they forage omnivorously in gardens and impress color aficionados with their dramatic blue tongues.  They are admired and collected as pets because of their mild temper and expressive faces (which somehow combine phlegmatic impassiveness with a gourmand’s interest in the world’s myriad foodstuffs).  All of this is amazingly on display in this had-made purse which my mother designed herself.  It is meant to look like an Australian garden: the lizard is hiding behind a too-small rose, but when you push the flower aside she is revealed in full disaffected glory.

lizard purse 2.jpg

Mom’s store (Market Street Yarn and Crafts in Parkersburg, West Virginia) is filled with gorgeous fabrics, yarns, and sewing tools.  Mom makes beautiful sample to show the patrons the sort of special bespoke objects which a gifted textile artist (seamstress? tailor? knitter? quilter?) can make.  I have greedily carried off quite a few choice pieces over the years (more on that later), but even in metrosexual New York, I have no need of a beautiful lizard handbag, so I merely photographed it so that you can share the amalgamated wonder of herpetology,  Australian gardens, and sewing.

My mother is also a blogger and you can read about her projects and her flocks of domesticated bird (including the famous LG) on her site.

This post isn’t just about compelling handbags, lizard with cerulean tongues, and selling sewing machines.  As our machines and our industrial mastery get better and better, humankind is moving towards a combined economic and spiritual crisis of what to do with our lives (to say nothing of our livelihoods).   I think the sewing shop and all of the beautiful clothes, quilts, and crafts on display there show how we can escape a robot-driven economic collapse and have better more beautiful lives to boot, but that idea is going to have to wait for another day.   In the mean time, enjoy this lizard purse.

On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

A Young Cheetah Threatens a Hat

Things have been a pretty grim here at Ferrebeekeeper lately, what with the inexorable takeover of the labor market by machines, the child-killing Christmas demon Krampus, and the death of the universe. To cheer things up as we go into the weekend, here is a post about baby cheetahs.  Some people may claim this topic is a cynical attempt to exploit the endearing cubs and drive up ratings.  To those naysayers I respond “baby cheetahs!”

Cheetah Cubs must survive by hiding (image from http://cutearoo.com)

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)are well known as the fastest land animal–capable of running at blazing speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph).  To run at such a velocity the cheetah was forced to forgo some offensive advantages possessed by other comparably-sized cats.  Cheetahs’ jaws are smaller and their claws are permanently fixed in place–which makes their slashing implements shorter and duller than the razor sharp claws of other hunting cats.  Because they concentrate on running prowess to hunt they can never risk a sports injury from fighting.  These adaptations make it difficult for mother cheetahs to defend their cubs from predators.  Naturally the tiny cubs can not rely on the mother cheetah’s best defense—her legendary speed.

A Mother Cheetah with her cubs at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

Female cheetahs gestate for ninety to ninety-eight days and give birth to a litter of 3 to 9 cubs which each weigh 150 to 300 g (5.3 to 11 oz.) at birth.  Since they are so small and slow, (and since they impede their mother’s hunting) cubs suffer from high mortality.  Evolution however has utilized certain tricks to minimize the danger they face.  Unlike many feline cubs, cheetahs are born already covered with spots. They are adept from a young age at hiding within thorny scrub. Additionally the cubs have a remarkable adaptation to aid their defense.  Until they are near maturity, they possess long punk-rock mantle of downy hair along their neck.  These wild manes act like ghillie suits—breaking up the cubs’ outlines when they are hidden in dense scrub.  The mantles also mimic the Don King style hair of the honey badger (well-known as one of the craziest, bravest, angriest small animals of the savannah).  No animals want to mess with honey badgers since the angry badgers despise their own lives only slightly less than those of other living things and are thus extremely unpredictable.

Cheetah Cub

Honey Badger

When cheetahs reach adolescence they lose their mantles and acquire their extraordinary speed, but they still have a certain kittenish playfulness.  I was once in the Washington DC zoo on Sunday morning (when the cheetahs are each given a frozen rabbit as a treat).  The cheetah run in the National Zoo is long and narrow giving the animals space to build up full speed.  The male adolescent cheetahs were excited for their rabbits.  They were crouching and slinking back and forth faster than most people could run.  One of the adolescent cheetahs got too close to the powerful electric fence surrounding the enclosure and there was a sizzling “pop” as he accidentally touched his delicate nose to the wire.  The young male ran off and, because cheetahs are bred to the bone for the chase, his brother ran after him.  They ran faster and faster, becoming an exquisite blur.  The elegant forms left footprints of fire behind them until the first cheetah slid to a (10 meter) sliding stop and emitted an otherworldly angry chirp-yowl. The spectacle only lasted a moment, but compared to those cheetahs, all other runners I have seen–athletes, racehorses, greyhounds, rabbits–all seemed slow and awkward.

Swan of Tuonela (Gabriel de Jongh)

It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess.  She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi.  These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.

My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela.  Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni.  Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares).  The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011)

After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent.  The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld.  Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor.  Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes.  The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.

Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him.  She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north.  She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent.  Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse.   She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless.  All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one.  A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897, tempera on canvas)

Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven.  She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail.  Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe.  The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey.  Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother.  Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form.  He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.

And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.

Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn.  These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong:  octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception.  The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species.  Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent).  Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs.  They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey.  However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration.  The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings.  If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it.  The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things.  Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.

Argh, I said don't touch it

The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane.  This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration.  This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim.  Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe.  If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).

Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers.  The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat).  When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year.  Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

Regular readers know how much I esteem turkeys.  Unfortunately I worry that my writings are not winning additional admirers for these astonishing birds.  It is time to play a trump card and reveal one of the great bizarre strengths of turkeys.  They are capable of virgin birth.

A New Mexico Whiptail (Aspidoscelis neomexicana). All New Mexico Whiptails are female. The entire species reproduces by parthenogenesis.

Before you spring up in alarm and start shouting, allow me to present a miniature biology lesson. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction. Some female organisms are capable of producing an ovum which develops into a new individual without being fertilized by a male gamete.  In these cases, the mother contributes her genetic material to the offspring.  Although natural parthenogenesis is frequently observed in rotifers, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and flatworms, this method of reproduction is much less common among vertebrates. However a few species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles are known to reproduce via parthenogenesis (movie-goers may recall that this happened to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.)  The turkey is very unusual in being a bird which can reproduce through this means (or at least we think it is unusual—perhaps parthenogenesis is more common among birds then we realize but we just don’t know about it except in settings like farms where it becomes obvious). Chickens can also produce self-fertilized eggs but they almost never develop beyond embryonic stages, whereas female turkeys can and frequently do produce living offspring which lack fathers.

This diagram from the BBC actually explains shark parthenogenesis but you get the idea.

Parthenogenesis occurs in turkeys through the doubling of haploid cells.  Biologists have discovered that the rate at which this occurs can be increased by selective breeding. Poults produced by parthenogenesis are capable of growing into healthy viable toms indistinguishable from toms with more traditional parentage.  You will note that I wrote “toms”—all turkeys conceived via parthenogenesis were created from doubled haploids and are are homogametic. Consequently they are all all male. (This will leave mammal enthusiasts scratching their heads–since female mammals are homogametic and have two x chromosomes. However for birds and for some reptiles, males have two Z chromosomes and thus are the homogametic sex. In such species, females have one Z and one W chromosome and are the heterogametic sex.)

Mammals do not naturally utilize parthenogenesis as a method of reproduction. Certain portions of mammalian genes consist of imprinted regions where portions of genetic data from one parent or the other are inactivated. Mammals born of parthenogenesis must therefore overcome the developmental abnormalities caused by having two sets of maternally imprinted genes.  In normal circumstances this is impossible and embryos created by parthenogenesis are spontaneously rejected from the womb. Biology researchers have now found ways to surmount such obstacles and a fatherless female mouse was successfully created in Tokyo in 2004. With genetic tinkering, human parthenogenesis is also biologically feasible. Before his research was discredited and he was dismissed from his position, the South Korean (mad?) scientist Hwang Woo-Suk unknowingly created human embryos via parthenogenesis. To quote a news article by Chris Williams, “In the course of research, which culminated with false claims that stem cells had been extracted from a cloned human embryo, Hwang’s team succeeded in extracting cells from eggs that had undergone parthenogenesis… The ability to extract embryonic stem cells produced by parthenogenesis means they will be genetically identical to the egg donor. The upshot is a supply of therapeutic cells for women which won’t be rejected by their immune system, without the need for cloning.”

All of which is fascinating to biology researchers (and those who would seek greatly prolonged life via biogenetic technologies), however it seems that in nature, the turkey is the most complicated creature capable of virgin birth.

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

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