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Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth.  Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous.  Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppediusSteatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.  The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese.  It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).

Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered.  Perhaps it will have the last laugh.  It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture.  This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal).  I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!

branch-of-red-orange-leaves_medium

Right now autumn colors are just hitting their brilliant peak in Brooklyn. Today, while I was running an errand, I saw a tree which had turned a perfect combination of bright orange, rich pink, and crimson. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the lovely tree (since I didn’t have my camera phone on me) but the color of its leaves was sublime. I ran home to look at the big list of color names to find this exquisite otherworldly hue—which seemed like it came from some paradise or celestial realm—and I was appalled when I discovered the name was “outrageous orange.”

Outrageous Orange

Outrageous Orange

The mystery to why the name was so jejune was promptly solved when I looked over at the source of the name: “outrageous orange” was a name conceived by Crayola in 1972. Crayola crayons are magnificent products, but they are marketed to children. The silly alliteration and facile name are thus explained. In fact, the color was renamed “ultra orange” in 1990 (which hardly seems like an improvement).

I feel like I remember this crayon from my own 70's childhood

I feel like I remember this crayon from my own 70’s childhood

Whatever the name, the color is exquisite, and perfectly evokes sunsets, autumn leaves, and slowly cooling magma. We need more words for beautiful bright orange tones other than “orange” but I’m not sure I am going to go around talking about “outrageous orange.”

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

The University where I went to school had many remarkable statues, but the most spectacular was an immense heroic bronze statue of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, biologist, and zoologist who invented the binomial nomenclature we still use to scientifically name and classify living organisms. Including its base, the statue was 20 feet tall and Linnaeus was splendidly dressed in both a Roman toga and an 18th century frock coat (which would probably excessive in most places but not in his native Sweden nor in Chicago).

 

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every picture of him!

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every likeness of him!

The statue of Linnaeus is remarkable not just for its size but for the wry look of scarcely contained mirth on the great natural philosopher’s countenance. I had always interpreted this expression as an artistic flourish, but last week, when I was writing about the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), I found reason to wonder whether the look was actually appropriate.

Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus

As I explained in that post, the blue whale is a creature of extraordinary size—an otherworldly giant which dwarfs every other animal ever known. Linnaeus knew this when he gave the whale its binomial scientific name “Balaenoptera musculus” and indeed the name is most appropriate. “Balaenoptera” is from Latin and means “fin whale” an appropriate name for the great rorquals. “Musculus” is also Latin and it means “muscle” an appropriate designation for the most powerful creature on earth. Yet “musculus” is a homonym in Latin: it also can be translated as “little mouse”. Linnaeus was a gifted scholar in both Greek and Latin. He surely knew the ironic double meaning. It must have been a stroke of humor which made him name the largest animal ever after a tiny mouse.

 

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

One of my favorite spring flowers suffers unjustly from a tainted name. When visitors to my garden see the beautiful dark colors and delicate fairy shapes of this plant and ask its name, I am always loathe to say “columbine” because people then want to talk about the infamous high school shooting which took place in Colorado in 1999 at Columbine High School (columbines grow naturally in Colorado and are the state flower there). Indeed when I googled the name of the flower to search for pretty floral pictures I got all sorts of insane teen gunmen, digital tributes to victims, and soppy made-for-tv movies. This is a shame, since columbines are not just lovely, but hardy (all the way to the frigid depths of Zone 3) and easy to grow. Columbines are flowers of the genus Aquilegia which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. They hybridize prolifically, so it is hard to pin down the exact wild species. In addition to their hardiness they easily germinate from seeds.

Columbines (Aquilegias)

Columbines (Aquilegias)

The flower’s common and scientific names are also weirdly at odds. Aquilegia is the Latin name for eagle. The flowers received this fearsome name because the long flower spurs were thought to resemble eagle’s claws. Columbine is Latin for dove—since it was thought the inverted flower looked like five doves nestled together. It is strange that gardeners use a (tainted) Latin name at the expense of a different yet equally euphonic Latin name. I think we should henceforth call columbines aquilegias and put the columbine name behind us. Indeed, forgetting the Columbine massacre itself might be for the best, since greater media attention may lead to copycat attacks. [I realize that I am now guilty of writing about Columbine too–so I earnestly entreat any teenagers who are somehow reading this blog post about flowers not to shoot up their high schools. Stay in school, kids, and grow up to write eclectic blogs about winsome spring flowers: that’ll really teach the bullies!]

columbine flower

With their elongated petal spurs and delicate shades of pink, blue, purple, and yellow, aquilegias are extremely pretty. Yet their prettiness belies their poisonous nature. Like many shade plants, aquilegias have poisonous seeds and roots. Indeed they are related to the infamous aconitums—which are also a part of the treacherous buttercup family. Hopefully other gardeners will follow my lead in calling columbines aquilegias—but more importantly, you should follow good example by growing them—they are really magical.

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

 

venussymbolThe astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender.  With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess.  Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).

venus-goddess-of-loveConsidering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women).  Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted.  Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…

-venus-b

 

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

Last year Ferrebeekeeper featured a two part article concerning turkey breeds which sketched the long agricultural history of the magnificent fowl. One thing that article failed to explain however, was how turkeys obtained their (wildly inappropriate) English name.  As you can imagine, the birds are named after the Ottoman nation which bestrides Europe and Asia Minor in what was once the heart of the Byzantine empire.  A trail of misidentification lies behind the name, which ultimately involves an entirely different genus of birds from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Aztec Trickster Deity who manifested as a turkey

Turkeys were first domesticated by the ancient people of Meso-America in the distant past (most particularly by the Aztecs who called the birds by the elegant and onomatopoeiac name “huexoloti”).  When Spaniards conquered the Aztec empire four hundred years ago, they brought turkeys back to Spain and selectively bred them to reflect Iberian tastes and preferences.  The Spanish called turkeys “Indian fowl” as a result of Columbus’ mistaken belief that the Americas were somehow part of Asia and were close to India.  This name became enshrined in the French word for turkeys “la dinde” (d’Inde meaning “from India”).

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

The English saw these Spanish turkeys and mistakenly thought that they were domesticated guineafowl (Numida meleagris) which at the time were believed to come from Turkey (a major shipping nation with long ties to East African commerce).  The name stuck and even became part of the scientific nomenclature for the genus–the genus name “Meleagris” comes from the species name of the helmeted guineafowl Numida meleagris.  Later as the English explored Africa, the the guineafowl received the more appropriate English name which it now enjoys (insomuch as birds care what they are called). However the unfortunate turkey–one of the most North American of all animals–is foolishly named after an African bird once mistakenly thought to come from Asia minor.

Oh history, why can you never make any sense?

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