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Hey remember last week when NASA’s robot spacecraft visited a remote double snowball in the farthest reaches of the solar system?  Well that was amazing, but there was an attendant nomenclature problem.  Internet space enthusiasts and NASA worked together to choose a proposed name for the flying space snowman, and they came up with “Ultima Thule”, which was the Roman name for the inaccessible frozen lands of the farthest north (inaccessible to Romans anyway).  This name, however, doesn’t become official until sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, which faces a conundrum, since apparently Nazis stupidly believed (or stupidly claimed to believe) that the Aryan race came from a mythical wonderland called Thule.

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This is clearly one of those stories that illustrate the dizzying heights of grandeur and terrifying depths of folly which accompany the human condition.  It is also an opportunity for a Ferrebeekeeper post about color since Thulian is also the English name for pink. “Thulian pink” is a striking pale pink with lavender highlights which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has gone down the girl’s toy aisle at a big box store.  Apparently the first recorded usage of this color name was in 1912, which was before the terrible events of the twenties and thirties swept a white nationalist autocracy to power in Germany.  Thulian pink doesn’t seem to have any white nationalist undertones that I can fathom (although I guess ruddy complexioned Caucasian people like me could theoretically turn the color of a Barbie Dream house if we received esoteric radiation burns or drank something toxic). Words are funny…(also I wonder if we sometimes invest them with too much power as we try to protect people from the ignorance and meanness of other people).  Anyway Thulian pink is also named after the fantastic lands to the far north, which makes me wonder what the association was for the people who first coined the name?  Is this the pink of the northern lands under the midnight sun at high summer or is it just regarded as an otherworldly color or ARE there unknown horrible racist associations? What is going on?

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Anyway, apparently this hue was rechristened as “First Lady” in 1948 as the interior decorators of the 50s started using it for everything.  I have always called in “Pepto-Bismol” pink.  Whatever it is called, I have always like the color, although it gets a trifle overused in the gendered marketing scheme of today’s toy world.

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Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

As I promised, here are some sketches from my little book which I carry around with me and draw in.  The first one, above, is another one of my enigmatic donuts.  This one seems to exist in the gloomy darkness of evening.  A fire burns on the horizon as a grub-man calls out to a woman with a scientific apparatus.  The reindeer seems largely unconcerned, by these human doings.  In the picture immediately below, an orchid-like flower blooms by some industrial docks. Inside the pedals it offers rows of cryptic symbols to the viewer.

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Here is a quick sketch of Manhattan’s San Gennaro festival.  I walked to the corner of the street to draw the lights, wile my roommate got her fortune read by a jocular and likable (yet ingeniously avaricious) fortune teller located in an alcove just to the right of the composition!

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

I sketched a cornucopia with some invertebrates while I was waiting in line at the post office (there was only one clerk who had to deal with a vast line of Wall Street characters sending elaborate registered packages around the world). It was not an ordeal for me–I had my sketch book, and was getting paid to wait in line!  The guy beside me stopped playing with his infernal phone-thingy to watch me draw.  Note the multiple mollusks which flourish in the painting.  I think the ammonite has real personality

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Last is a seasonal composition which I really like (maybe because I used my new brown pen, which thought I had lost).  A lovable land whale cavorts among autumn plants as monstrous invaders monopolize a cemetery.  For some unknowable reason there is also a bottle gourd.  The ghosts and bats are part of the October theme.  As ever I appreciate your comments!  Also I still have have some sketches (and general observations) from my weekend trip to Kingston, New York.

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata)

Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata)

Here is a beautiful marine mammal which is somewhat underappreciated. The ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) is a gorgeous medium sized true seal (Phocidae) which lives in the Arctic edges of the North Pacific. Populations of the seal range from northern Alaska down the Aleutians and from the Kamchatka Peninsula down along the coast of Asia to the Koreas and the northern tip of Japan. The ribbon seal is the sole surviving member of its genus and it is notable for its lovely yet bizarre coat—the adult seals are black with undulating ribbons of white running around their entire bodies.

Ribbon Seal, Photo by Michael Cameron.

Ribbon Seal, Photo by Michael Cameron.

Ribbon seals dive deep into the pelagic depths to hunt their prey. The diving mammals live on pollacks, eelpouts, cod, and cephalopods which they hunt at depths of 200 meters. The seals themselves are preyed on by polar bears, orcas, and large sharks—including sleeper sharks—huge predators of the benthic depths.

Pacific Sleeper Shark (Somniosus pacificus)

Pacific Sleeper Shark (Somniosus pacificus)

The seals are approximately human size: both males and females grow to about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) long, and weigh 95 kg (210 pounds). In ideal circumstances they can live longer than 25 years. Ribbon seals reach sexual maturity somewhere between the ages of two and six (depending on gender, diet, and heredity). They give birth to adorable fluffy white/silver pups who nurse for only four weeks before being forcd to hunt on their own!

Ribbon Seal Pup

Ribbon Seal Pup

Ribbon seals were overhunted by humans for their fur, but they live in such remote regions that they have probably never been in real danger of extinction. Their real numbers of ribbon seal populations are somewhat unknown but are estimated to be around 250,000. I can’t find any information about why they have such remarkable coats, so I will go ahead and guess that it is because they are fashionable!

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Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home--Lake Erie

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home–the open waters of Lake Erie (photo by Jim McCormac)

Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.

Mergansers desport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

Mergansers disport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!

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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!]

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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)

 

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China.  The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter.  Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold.  In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down).  They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”).  Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers.  More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage.  In winter they can fledge to become completely white.  In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches.  During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!

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In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level).  Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous.  Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.

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During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today).  Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

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It’s time to revisit our dear friends, the wombats.  Although this blog featured a post about the living wombats in general and a post about the extinct giant wombats which once roamed Australia, we have not concentrated individually on the extant species.  Today we will remedy that oversight by writing about the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) which is one of the world’s rarest large mammals.  The hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of the world’s three wombat species weighing up to 32 kgs (about 70 pounds).  The animal also has longer ears and softer (grayer) fur than other wombats but its behavior and general lifestyle is very similar to its relatives.

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat  (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii)

Although the hairy-nosed wombat is one of the most efficient of all mammals in turns of water consumption, the continuing desertification of Australia hit its territory hard and caused the species to decline.  The animal was already rare when English settlers came to the island continent and the population dropped even further when forced to compete with European predators and farm animals and contend with habitat loss to farming and development.  Perhaps most seriously (and insidiously) the grasses which the wombats prefer to graze are being replaced by invasive species.  By the 1970s, the entire species probably only numbered around 20 or 30 individuals.

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Range of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (exaggerated to be visible)

Today the hairy-nosed wombat numbers between 100 and 150 in the wild.  The creatures were long confined to a habitat about the size of Central Park (approximately 3 square kilometers) although a second wombat preserve has recently been created for them. Australians are kind people who have been trying hard to save the fetching whisker-nosed marsupial, but the fate of the species is still unclear.

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Southern Tamandua  (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Southern Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana).  Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies.  If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws).  The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals.  Tamanduas can live up to nine years.  They are widespread but comparatively scarce.

Tamandua hug

Tamandua hug

Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes.  During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo.    Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans.  The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation.    For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies.  Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers.  Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death.  The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.

Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs.  The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh.  These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story.  If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo.  After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold.  No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up).  Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.

It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled.  In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders.   Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions.  Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos.  The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.

If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream.  A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature.  What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr by See Reeves

Only 15 species of Eucalyptus trees occur naturally outside of Australia and of these 15 only Eucalyptus deglupta made it to the northern hemisphere without human help.  Eucalyptus deglupta is native to the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree grows rapidly to 75 meters in height (about 250 feet) which makes it one of the world’s giants.  Sometimes it becomes so large that it grows 3-4 meter tall buttresses to help it support itself.  Because of its rapid growth, large size, and medium-strength, slightly lustrous wood, these eucalyptus trees are grown commercially in huge monoculture plantations for pulping into paper.

 

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/amelia525/303048913/) by *amelia*

The most remarkable aspect of this huge useful tree is its remarkable bark color.  The tree sheds long strips of bark throughout the year which exposes greenish yellow inner bark.  The exposed stripes of green then change color to orange, purple, red, maroon, and dark green.  Since the tree is constantly shedding narrow strips of bark its trunk becomes dazzling vertically striped rainbow of lovely colors.  In wet tropical gardens around the world the Eucalyptus deglupta is grown as an ornamental highlight both because of its beautiful color and impressive size.

Close-up of Eucalyptus deglupta

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