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Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)

When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees.  The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia.  Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood.  Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.

Planta_da_Restituição_da_BAHIA,_por_João_Teixeira_Albernaz

The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood.  The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.

picmonkey-collage_brazilwood

Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse.  By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range.  Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.

amazon-rainforest-home-compressor

Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height).  However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC

The English word “ebony” comes from the Ancient Egyptian word “hbny” (well, that is actually an approximation: I cannot find the vulture, asp, or little man characters on my keyboard). An obsession with the dense sable wood has clearly been a long-standing feature of human culture. The Greek word for the trees is “Diospyros” which apparently means something like “God’s wheat” or “fruit of Zeus” (since the Greeks first encountered ebonies in the form of Caucasian Persimmon trees). There are over 700 separate species in the Diospyros Genus—many of these are weird little shrubs or deciduous persimmon trees–but some are evergreen tropical giants.

 

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Gabon Ebony for Carving

Arguably the most famous of all these ebony/persimmon trees is the Gabon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) which produces a close-grained black wood so dense that it sinks in water. This precious wood is beautiful for carving and cabinet making, but the magnificence of the timber has been the sad downfall of the actual living tree. Diospyros crassiflora lives in West Africa from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon down through the Central African Republic and through the two Congo Republics.

 

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set--East Africa (early 2oth century)

Ebony and Ivory Chess Set–East Africa (early 2oth century)

The tree grows very slowly and to great age. It tends to be solitary—but mature trees can grow to 20 meters (60 feet) in height. Sadly most of the large specimens have been cut down for the exotic timber trade and the tree is now listed as endangered.  Infuriatingly I can’t even find a picture of the living tree–it’s like I wanted to show you a bull, but could only find pictures of hamburger.

 

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The magnificent timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a venomous pit viper which lives throughout the populated northeastern portion of the United States of America from Texas to New England.  Ferrebeekeeper has considerable affection for the dangerous reptile (at an appropriate distance, of course!) and has already referenced the timber rattler as a metaphor for national liberty and, strangely, as a point of comparison for a large sports venue.  But timber rattlesnakes are so much more.  They were one of the first new world animals to utterly fascinate and horrify European colonizers. In the colonial period a serious rattlesnake bite was a death sentence (although we now have anti-venom) but the original natural scientists did not appreciate how complicated and remarkable the snakes were in other aspects.

As I write this, it is November and the rattlesnakes are all abed for the winter.  Because they live in areas with harsh winters, timber rattlesnakes spend more than 7 months a year in hibernation.  Large numbers will nest together in a community den—sometimes together with other snakes such as blacksnakes and copperheads.  The den is usually a rocky chasm which extends deep beneath the frost line, and rattlesnakes may travel many miles to reach their hibernation den (a bi-annual journey which puts the snakes at great risk from predators and from cars).

Because of their large and diverse territory, timber rattlesnakes come in different sizes, colorations, and even have different venom types.  The average timber rattlesnake grows to 100 cm (39 in) long and weighs between a half kilo and a kilogram (1 to 2 pounds).  Much larger specimens are known (although there is considerable ridiculous dispute about the upper ranges of rattlesnake size).  Female timer rattlesnakes are viviparous although, unlike mammals, rattelsankes protect their eggs within their bodies until they hatch.  Rattlesnakes give birth to litters of 6-10 fully formed, fully poisonous little baby snakes, but they can only reproduce every few years since the experience is very hard on them.

Like catfishes, timber rattlesnakes have senses which we do not possess.  Pit vipers are so named because they have nostril like spots (pits!) on the side of the head which they use to perceive infrared electromagnetic radiation. These pits are quite sensitive and act as third eyes.  Snakes (and many other animals) also have special auxiliary olfactory sense organs called Jacobson’s organs which are extremely sensitive to various smells/tastes.  Snakes characteristically pick up chemical traces with their tongues and waft these smells before their Jacobson’s organs in the characteristic tongue-flicking which is such a trademark.

Of course rattlesnakes are not just sensitive—they are also expressive.  Among all other snakes they are distinctive in that they have a specialized structure at the end of their tail for making a warning noise. Rattlesnake rattles consists of hollow button-like segments which produce a distinctive buzzing when the snakes vibrate their tails.  As a rattlesnake sheds her skin (every few months), she adds a new button to her tail.  Rattles however are not perfect records of how many times snakes have shed their skin—sometimes buttons get knocked off, or just become brittle and fall away.  The rattle has a high frequency and varies in loudness between 60-80 decibels from a distance of one meter (which falls somewhere between the noise level of an animated conversation and a garbage disposal).  Ironically, the rattlesnakes themselves are deaf.

Timber Rattlesnakes can be masters of camouflage

The venom of timber rattlesnakes varies in toxicity depending on the subspecies, but the most toxic rattlesnakes are extremely venomous.  Type A venom is a neurotoxin whereas type B venom is hemorrhagic and proteolytic (which is to say it causes bleeding and breaks down fundamental body proteins).  Type C venom is largely harmless.  In Arkansas and Louisiana, timeber rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because cross-breeding has resulted in snakes which have type AB venom (yikes!). To a lesser extent rattlesnake venom also contains esoteric myotoxins which rapidly kill muscle tissues.  This deadly cocktail of different venoms is of great interest to pharmacologists who continue to study the various toxic proteins to tease out potential medicines.

watch?v=ZIrQet2LPUg

Fortunately timber rattlesnakes are good-natured and do not generally bite without much posturing, rattling, hissing, and feinting.  They keep their retractable fangs folded up in a mouth sheath when not in use and they are capable of varying the amount of venom they inject based on how they are feeling.  It is best not to antagonize rattlesnakes lest they abandon their amiable disposition.

Timber rattlesnakes are gifted ambush predators which particularly prey on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other rodents, but they also eat amphibians and birds.  In turn rattlesnakes  are preyed on by owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, crows, skunks, and even turkeys! Rattlesnakes are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, but they face serious threats from habitat loss and traffic (cars being indifferent to the protective poison of snakes).

C. horridus eating a chipmunk by unhinging its jaw (Photo taken by Kevin Ostanek)

Not only are many rattlesnakes killed by traffic, they must also face persecution. Many are killed by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.  Gawping Texans take this to a particular extreme and organize great “rattlesnake round-ups” where huge numbers of rattlesnakes are wantonly tormented and killed for no particular reason (except perhaps to demonstrate a hatred of the world and its creatures).  This is particularly sad since rattlesnakes, like whales, or elephants (or ourselves) are k-selected animals.  They live long but reproduce slowly, which makes them especially vulnerable to population crashes.

If, by some appalling circumstance, you have read this far while a timber rattlesnake sits nearby buzzing its tail, you should run away from the snake!  Do not attempt to molest it.  If you feel threatened, call animal control.  The timber rattlesnake is already vanishing from great expanses of its territory.  It would be a shame if this beautiful and fearsome serpent were to slip away from the earth.

Timber Rattlesnake by Hazel Galloway

The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions.  To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols.  Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!

Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background).  This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem.  The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.”  There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism.  the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.

The Gadsden Flag

Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background.   Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag.  That rattlesnake is not kidding around.  It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake.  Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem.  In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships.  The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.

The First Navy Jack Flying on the USS Kitty Hawk

After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal.  In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later.  Franklin famously did not care for the eagle.  Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):

For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder.   on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).

Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating.  Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem.  These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole.  Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).

Orcinus orca

Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above.  There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas!  It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!]  Happy Fourth!

Do not pet this animal.

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