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[As a special weekend treat–and in keeping with this week’s theme, kindly find a repeat of a post about brown bullhead catfish from 3 years ago]

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions).

 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows:

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

“Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!”

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

Knotweed growing from a crack in the concrete

I used to be a tenant in a Brooklyn apartment with a concrete patio in the back (in fact I still am, but I’m describing a different place). I spent a lot of time back there grilling, talking with my friends, or just pacing around. Sometimes my roommates and I threw parties and we had huge groups of people over: naturally the largest groups of guests were usually packed on the patio. One day I was on the patio, quietly appreciating the garden plants, when I noticed that there was a crack in the concrete right next to the barbecue grill. Growing in this unfavorable environment was a flattened-out dark green plant.  It was spidery and sprawling with tiny leaves and wiry stems, but it was thriving right where everyone walked on it constantly.  In fact it was next to the grill!  I think I probably spent the whole summer standing on it and cooking without even noticing.

This plant was Polygonum arenastrum, more commonly called the common knotweed.  It has a prosaic name and it is not exactly a giant redwood in terms of magnificence, but perhaps the giant redwoods should look up to it.  Although it was originally from Europe, it is now on all of the continents except for Antarctica, and it can be easily found in most temperate locations.  It has made a living being underfoot.  A summer annual, the knotweed is a bicot with a long taproot. A member of the buckwheat family and a cousin to the smartweeds, it grows on footpaths, dirt roads, and in barnyards–anywhere it can find packed ground.  The foot traffic which is inimical to other plants is actually helpful to it.  The tiny plant has a great many common names.  To quote Edwin Rollin Spencer’s folk-lore treatise, All About Weeds, ”Like most of the weeds that came from the Old World this one has many English names: Ninety-knot, Centinode, Ninejoints, Allseed, Bird’s Tongue, Swynell grass, Swine’s grass, Redrobin, Armstrong, Cow-grass, Hog-weed and Pig rush.”  Spencer further underscored this point by calling the plant “knotgrass” throughout his little essay.

Most of the literature I have found concerning the knotweed/knotgrass is about how one can eradicate it (to summarize this accumulated body of wisdom: pull it up), however the lowly weed has found its way into some lofty places.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Athenian nobleman Lysander tells off his lover Hermia (when, thanks to the magical power of fairy herbs and plot contrivances, he has conceived a dislike for her):

Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.

This is an allusion to the folk belief that eating knotweed would retard a person’s growth. It was also reckoned by herbalists to be a astringent, coagulant, diuretic and expectorant, but I am not going to make any attempt to assess whether those things are true–I’m only reporting lore.  Small birds certainly enjoy the seeds as do some larger animals (hence some of the common names).  The Vietnamese make use of a closely related species Polygonum aviculare as rau đắng, an ingredient in hotpot.

A diagram of Polygonum aviculare which...um...happens to be in Italian

If you are feeling a bit trampled down you might pause to think of the knotweed.  It lives underfoot, but it lives everywhere.  Because of its humble appearance and lowly aspect (not to mention our haughty human tastes and perspectives) we call it a weed.  Looked at from a more expansive vantage (or maybe from the knotweed’s own perspective), we might call it a winner.

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions). 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows: 

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

"Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!"

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