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Porch ceilings in the American South are traditionally a pale blue green and they have been for centuries (which is amazing since our nation has barely even been around that long).  The evocative name of this traditional color is “haint blue” and the roots stretch back to before the revolution when pigments choices were limited.  In the Gullah culture of low country South Carolina (a culture created out of West African tradition, colonial greed, New World wetlands, tropical disease, and rice), blue was a special color which was anathema to spirits or “haints.”  According to tradition, ghosts either thought it was the sky (problematic) or running water (impassable) and left it alone.  There was plenty of indigo pigment to tint the whitewash, and so doors, casements, window frames, and ceilings all became haint blue.  And even robust materialists inured by reason against the perils of the supernatural can still agree it is a lovely & calming hue.

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But the use of haint blue didn’t stop along the Florida and South Carolina coast.  The tradition was admired and emulated throughout the south, and it has even continued to spread beyond North of the Mason Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi in the modern era.  I wish I had the time to select a whole “Southern Living” pictorial spread of exquisite southern porches (for, although we are better off without the ways of the old South, those porches are delightful and should be adopted everywhere), but I think these pictures convey the idea.

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Pōhutukawa trees in bloom at Christmas time

Around the world the Christmas season is celebrated with conifer trees–symbol of undying life in the winter darkness….except…in some places Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer! Some places don’t have pine trees.  This introduction takes us wayyyyy down south to the New Zealand archipelago, home of the pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) “The New Zealand Christmas tree.”

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Sort of “Gilding the Lily” but more so

‏Pōhutukawa trees‏ are indeed evergreens (of the myrtle family) but they are not pine trees…or conifers at all.  These hardy coastal trees are known for tenaciously clinging to sea cliffs, but, above all, they are known for brilliant displays of exquisitely colorful flowers.  The blossoms, which are composed of huge spiky masses of colorful stamens, peak just as summer begins—the end of December.   Some flowers are yellow, pink, white, or orange, but the most characteristic specimens have blooms of brilliant red.

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The trees are native to the northern island. Ancient specimens can grow to be 25 meters in height (about 83 feet) and they are wider than they are tall, but invasive animals and agricultural deforestation have reduced the great forests to a spectral shadow of their former glory.  The hungry brushtail possum is a particular menace to the tree since the marsupial invader strips it of all its leaves. Nineteenth century mariners were guilty as well—the tough arching boughs of the tree were ideally suited for building and repairing beams of wooden ships.

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Gasp! Bad Possum! Bad Possum!

Fortunately New Zealanders love the magnificent trees and plant them everywhere.  There are numerous cultivars growing in gardens throughout the lovely islands.  The trees are sometimes decorated at Christmas just like more familiar Christmas trees.  Devoted pōhutukawa conservationists are working to restore the forests. Additionally the trees are not without their own toughness. They are one of the most efficient plants at colonizing naked lava rock where volcanoes have spewed out new lands.

PohutukawaCornwallis

paint

Here is an elegant paint color with an interesting historical backstory.  Charleston green is a shade of green so dark that it seems black.  Indeed, Wikipedia just straight-out lists it under black instead of green, so perhaps Charleston Green really is black.  The story goes that, after the American Civil War, mass quantities of black paint were provided by the Federal government for reconstruction.  The proud (albeit economically ruined) aesthetes of Charleston could not bear to paint their lovely vintage houses black–so they mixed in small quantities of yellow in order to create an exceedingly dark green.

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Whether this story is true or not, the color is very dramatic and pretty, although admittedly subtle.  In the modern post-post-Civil War period, Charleston Green seems to mostly be used for shutters, doors, and accents where it looks especially good against white, cream, bricks, or pale green.  Maybe it is not necessarily so much a response to northern aggression as a solid aesthetic choice. I feel like I’ve seen a whole house or two painted this color in my own neighborhood in New York, and weren’t the carpetbaggers supposed to have come from here?

Charleston-pale-green

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

Snake-handling

Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia.  Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers.  Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley.  Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses.  Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  Mark 16: 17-18

And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)

While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman).  Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry.  The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond.  Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.

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A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing,  testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church.  Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies.  Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included.   The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons.  Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces.  If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith.  Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.

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Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men.  Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.

Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws.  In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed.  A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).

George Went Hensley

George Went Hensley

The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life.  After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister.  During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining.  After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee.   He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties.   During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes.  The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face.  After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite.  When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Contemporary Snake-Handlers (photo by Lauren Pond for the Wall Street Journal)

Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement.  Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).

The Mountains of Antarctica as seen from the Southern Ocean

The great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals.  Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods.  There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean.  In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate.  Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths.  Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites).  Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.

The Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)

The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering.  Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in).  A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long.  Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).

The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon.  It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them).  The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.

A rare specimen of colossal squid

There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”:  colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture.  The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long).  Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths.  Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem.  Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them.  Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand.  Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).

Basa in a Bucket

I have been writing a great deal about catfish–by which I mean any of the ray finned fish of the order Siluriforme.  There are literally thousands of individual species within this order—all united under the taxonomical rubric by certain shared features such as lack of scales, a well-developed Weberian apparatus, and a reduced gas bladder.  Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, only a tiny number of the Siluriformes are actually “catfish”.  What’s going on here?  Have I been lying to you about all of these fascinating catfish?

No.  Here is the ridiculous story of what happened.

During the 1990s, Vietnam began a widespread reform movement towards a market-driven economy.  The reforms were an instant and immense success:  the number of people living in poverty in Vietnam dropped from 70% of the population to 30% of the population.  Vietnam’s standard of living rose dramatically and the nations leaders began courting the United States as both a trade partner and an ally against the rising regional hegemony of China. One of Vietnam’s top exports was basa, freshwater catfish raised quickly and cheaply on fish farms along the tributary rivers of the Mekong. “Basa” can be used to describe several different catfish, usually Pangasius bocourti, Pangasius hypophthalmus, or Pangasius pangasius.  These fish are truly omnivorous and their ability to take sips of pure air means huge numbers can be raised in small spaces.

Pangasius

Vietnamese catfish exports to America exploded.  Thanks to cheap labor, inexpensive farm techniques (which probably involve a level of abuse to the Mekong river), and superior tasting flesh, basa quickly outcompeted channel catfish from the moribund catfish farms of the American South.

That’s when Catfish Farmers of America (an agricultural lobbying organization) lobbied Mississippi’s then Senator, Trent Lott, to act against the Vietnamese imports.  Lott duly appended a rider onto an important appropriations bill. This rider mandated that out of the thousands of catfish types, only the North American Ictaluridae could henceforth be called “catfish”. In the subsequent debate John McCain lashed out at this anti-free trade (and anti-ichthyology) legislation calling it, “a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons.” Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas, responded (and demonstrated a deplorable lack of taxonomical savvy) by stating that, “Vietnamese Basa is no more related to the Southern catfish than a cat is to a cow.”  [It is well known that cows are even toed ungulates and hence members of the order Artiodactyla, whereas cats are a member of an entirely different order of mammals, the Carnivora.  Both basa and chanel cats are in the same order of fish.].  Unfortunately the Senator’s failure to grasp biology was no bar to passing the anti-trade legislation and, in 2003, Congress passed laws preventing all non-Ictaluridae catfish from being labelled as catfish (as well as imposing additional tariffs on Vietnamese basa).

Say what you like about anti-trade agricultural lobbyists, but they have a neat logo and a great website.

There was a silver lining for Vietnamese fish exporters: basa is completely delicious and has continued to outsell “catfish”.  Indeed the Vietnamese began to rake in windfall profits because, despite punitive tariffs, their product was still cheaper than American catfish which soared in cost due to increased corn prices (corn, a catfish feedstock, became more expensive thanks to Congressionally mandated ethanol subsidies–but that is another story).  Also thanks to the noise and drama produced by Congress, basa acquired its own “brand recognition” and picked up a group of devoted consumers both here and abroad.

Pan-cooked Basa with Herbs

Indeed, when I buy catfish, I buy basa.  American catfish, particularly in the early days of aquiculture, could sometimes taste musty and dirty, whereas I have always found basa to have a clean, delicate flavor and wonderful light flaky texture.  After trying out a number of smear campaigns against basa (most of which ricocheted and cost consumer sentiment against all catfish) the Catfish Farmers of America have decided to rebrand their own product as “DELECATA™”.  This is (apparently) plain old channel catfish which has been rebranded and renamed.  To quote Saveur magazine,

Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. ‘Let’s face it, catfish is not the best name, especially for people outside the South,’ says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover.

Astonishingly the Ramey Agency, a corporate consultant, worked for three years coming up with the DELECATA™ concept and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing so.  Having said this, DELECATA™  looks pretty tasty and will probably actually sell in a world filled with dim consumers willing to pay for organic potatoes.  I’ll happily try it if I win the lottery (or ever see it in a Brooklyn supermarket).

I guess we’ll see how DELECATA™ works out.  In the mean time the catfish wars continue.  Both American producers and Vietnamese producers are coming under the shadow of Chinese catfish exports.  China is enormous and, as anyone trying to do business anywhere knows, Chinese producers can undersell anyone (unless the products in question require extraordinary technological finesse).  The Chinese are capable of flooding the catfish market and crushing both Vietnamese and American producers.  An intriguing idea being floated by the Vietnamese catfish farmers is to create a super hybrid between the more humble species of Pangasius being farmed today and the Mekong’s elusive giant catfish (which is a close relative).   So it looks like giant mutant catfish lie in our near future.  In the mean time enjoy a plate of tasty catfish/basa/delacata/whatever.

A Pangasius Processing Line–Feeding the planet is ugly work

A magnificent Bald Cypress towering over Weston, West Virginia

When I was on vacation last week, I took some pictures of the tree in my grandparents’ garden, a magnificent bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Whereas the Norway maple in my back yard is like a rat or a pigeon (ubiquitous and worthless–yet amazing for its hardiness and success) the bald cypress is huge, ancient, and stately–a monarch among the trees.  Bald cypresses, which are native to the great southern wetlands of the United States, can grow to immense size and live for over a thousand years.

Today bald cypresses are found in parks and gardens, frequently as stand alone specimen trees, but such was not always the case:  ancient bald cypress forests, consisting of huge groves of thousand year old trees, once dominated the southern swamps of the United States. An old-growth stand of the trees can still be found near Naples, Florida–the grove is around 500 years of age and some of the trees exceed 40 m in height.  Unfortunately for the great trees, they were extensively overharvested for their water-resistant rot-proof lumber.  Nutria rats, which gnaw the seedlings to death, have prevented the forests from growing back. Furriers brought these large invasive rodents from the jungles of South America.  The voracious creatures escaped into the Louisiana marshlands and have defied all predators and control efforts and proliferated throughout the southern states.

Argh! Why, oh why are the nutria's teeth so red?

Bald cypresses are deciduous conifers–they shed their fine leafy needles during the winter (and are hence “bald”).  Coincidentally, “cypress” is a misnomer: the tree is not in the same genus as the funereal cypresses although it is in the same family (the Cupressaceae) along with some of the world’s most spectacular trees, the redwoods, the sequoia, the dawn redwoods, and the Japanese Sugi (Sequoia, Sequoiadendron, Metasequoia, and Cryptomeria respectively).

Another View of the Same Tree

The specimen in my grandparents’ yard lives in the mountains rather than the swamp, yet it is among the largest known.  I’ll let the placard speak for itself, but it was written in 2005 and the tree has had a good 5 years of warm wet summers (which it loves).

Taxodium is an ancient genus of tree and various taxodium species were widespread throughout much of the Mesozoic Era.  Fossil specimens date back to the Jurassic period so once these giant trees towered above the dinosaurs.

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