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There is an enormous hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn which is large enough to drop the Earth into. Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by this giant yet geometrically-regular storm, and that was before we learned that the hexastorm…changes color!

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted, and, as with Earth, the tilt affects how much sunlight reaches different hemispheres of the planet as it proceeds around the sun. Since Saturn is rather farther from the sun than the Earth is, a Saturn “year” lasts for 29 Earth years. Due to this somewhat lengthened calendar (and because we have only recently acquired some of the necessary tools to study other planets) the seasonal variances on Saturn are only now being recognized.

Using the Hubble Space telescope, scientists have been keeping an eye on Saturn’s seasons (each of which last for 7.25 years). As summer in the northern hemisphere changes to fall, the color of the atmosphere is changing and so are the appearances of the bands within the atmosphere. NASA scientists speculate that increased sunlight may lead to increased photochemical hazes in the atmosphere which causes the shift from winter blue to summer gold. As we continue to study Saturn in years to come, it will be interesting to see how much of this color shift is seasonal and how much it changes based on larger cycles.

“Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”

It is mid-December and that means that it is time for Pantone to announce the color of the year for 2021 (on the outside chance that the longed-for new year ever actually arrives).  Through some sort of dark chromomancy, the Pantone high counsel of color wizards usually manages to correctly predict the trends of the coming year with their selections (for 2020 they presciently selected depression-colored blue).  After this epic disaster of a year (when the world was ravaged by a plague and the nation came an electoral inch from re-electing an evil fascist criminal) it is frightening to see what hue the oracles have chosen to represent our shared destiny.

Andddd…to be honest, the outlook does not look so great.  As in 2016, Pantone has cast a vote for transition, change, and uncertainty by naming two colors of the year. However, whereas the colors of 2016 (baby blue and pink) were at least pretty, for 2021 they have chosen the leaden hue of wet concrete and the vivid yellow of “checks cashed” & “liquor” signs.  It looks like driving through South Chicago in 1993! The colors’ proper trade names are “Illuminating” for the bright yellow and “Ultimate Gray” for the dark cold gray.

Good times…

Pantone chooses dull, ugly, neutral colors when they project a downturn and bright, splashy colors when they are predicting boom times.  By choosing both they are throwing up their hands in bafflement (which makes perfect sense, since the world’s economic sages are likewise shrugging and anxiously pulling their collars). The blathering spokespeople who have to spin this stuff into sales copy are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel” and “uplifting, smiley face yellow”, but I think the residents of East Flatbush can recognize down-and-out colors from shared urban experience.

The Colors of the Year for 2020 & 2021…and 2002 there on the letters, I guess

From Ferrebeekeeper’s perspective, there is indeed a hint of better times in these colors.  Bright yellow and wet concrete are not just the colors of the inner city shopping district, they are colors for building!  When you look at a new highway or a new airport, it is all “Illuminating” and “Ultimate Gray”!  Caterpillar paints its bulldozers, backhoes, road-graders, and cement mixers high-vis yellow for safety reasons (speaking of which, a season of safety would be nothing to sneeze at).  Brand new concrete is…the color of wet concrete.  Perhaps the color oracles are indicating that America and the world can indeed move forward, but only if we stop bickering, denying, and doting on cowardly con-artists and start building.

In fact I am writing sarcastically, as fits this publicity stunt non-event, but bright yellow really truly is a beautiful color on a yellow tang, a golden oriole, an autumn cherry tree, Oshun’s dress, or even a good number 2 pencil. All of which is to say: the 2021 color of the year is more of a choose-your-own affair than usual (and we are already talking about colors, any of which take on the meaning you ascribe to them).  Can we work together and dream and plan and rebuild?  Or are we going to spend the year blaming those other people for our problems as we walk down the gray boulevard of broken dreams to cash our sad tiny check before heading into the Dollar General?

Hey! Has anyone checked the Pantone people’s bank accounts to see if they just received a suspiciously large number of crumpled dollar bills?

We have had an awful lot of politics around here this autumn. How about today we just concentrate solely on autumn? As I often mention, there is a Kwanzan cherry tree in my back yard in Brooklyn. It is a beautiful tree (although neither my photographs, artworks, nor my essays have ever fully captured its ineffable loveliness).

The cherry tree is most famous for how it looks in spring, when it resembles a radiant pink cloud descended from paradise, yet it is always gorgeous–even in winter when its bare limbs look like Chinese seal calligraphy. Indeed in autumn it glows a brilliant bright yellow which is nearly as lovely as the soft pink of spring.

Alas, as always, my photos do the tree a terrible injustice (also, hopefully you are not put off by the ornamental bacteriophages which I hung up back in summer to contextualize our current plight). I wish you could see it in the real world. Looking at its graceful, winsome branches has kept me sane during this long sojourn in the city (I don’t think I have left since the beginning of last December!) and I wish I could share the beauty with you. After all, as pretty as the tree is in its golden autumn finery, this yellow cloak is soon to fall and the cherry tree will be bare through the gloom, mist, darkness, and chill of winter. How are we ever going to make it back back to the blossoms this pestilent year?

Enough human fripperies, let’s meet some real bats! These adorable little characters are Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba), AKA Caribbean white tent-making bats. Out of 1300 species of bats, this is one of only six varieties with all white fur, and yet that glistening snowy fur apparently serves them quite well. The bats roost under translucent leaves in their native rain forests. The green light shining through the leaves during the day colors the bats a vegetative green which is very hard to see. At other times of less bright light, they look like wasp’s nests, which their predators tend to assiduously avoid.

But wait, did somebody say these are tent-making bats? As anybody who has been in a Boy scout survival course/mishap can attest, it is not as easy as it sounds to make a tent. Are these bats actual building animals? Should I have included them in my building week special feature?

Well, the bats are not exactly weaverbirds, but they do go to great lengths to select perfect giant leaves of heliconia plants. Then working together a team of bats bite out the sideribs of the designated leaf and shape it in such a fashion that the leaf bends into a perfect tent. It sounds pretty snug & sophisticated to me (but maybe I am still aggrieved over that bad lean-to from scout camp).

“Decadent human, you would not last the night in Honduras!”

Living almost exclusively on a single species of fig (Ficus colubrinae), the Honduran white bat is one of the two smallest fruit eating bats in the world. Speaking of size, the bats have a body length of 5 centimeters (2 inches) at most. Little is known about their habits or reproductive behaviors. Females an bear a single offspring twice a year. Despite their tiny size, they are capable of living for more than 20 years.

Hahaha! This little bat is eating a little fig!

As you have probably noticed, the Honduran white bat is not exclusively white, its ears and its leaf shaped nose (it is one of the family of leaf nosed bats) are bright yellow. Interestingly, the yellowness of a bat’s appendages seems to be a sort of sexual selection trait, like the antlers of the Irish elk. The more yellow the nose, the more desirable the male bat is to discerning little lady bats!

“Oh, hiiiii ladies. I didn’t see you there…”

This yellow pigment is not interesting only to amorous bats. The yellow coloration comes from lutein, an esterified protein which the bat synthesizes from carotenoids in its figgy diet. This molecular biology is of great interest to biomedical researchers since lutein plays an important role in retinal health in mammals such as primates (like, say, uh, humans, for example). Our inability to esterify luteins in our eyes seems to contribute to vision loss and macular degeneration as we age. Perhaps we could learn some things from the Honduran white bats (in addition to tent-making, I mean).

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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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Let’s get back to triggerfish! This is Xanthichthys mento, a small triggerfish  (well, for triggerfish, I mean) which grows to a size of 20 cm (11 in) in length and hails from the mighty Pacific Ocean.  This triggerfish has a tiny anxious mouth for eating zooplankton.  Although triggerfish in general delight me, I am highlighting this particular species for three reasons: 1) it’s bright red/blue/yellow color scheme and endearing expression are wonderful; 2) the common/English name of Xanthichthys mento is the “crosshatch triggerfish–what could be more appropriate for artists?; and 3) it is the middle of the night, and I need a quick visual post.  I hope Xanthichthys mento provides a winter splash of color for you! I promise a better post tomorrow!

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Halloween this year featured scary clowns…but I just realized that I forgot to include one of the best posts on this subject before October ended.  This is Balistoides conspicillum, the clown triggerfish, one of the most beloved of all aquarium fishes because of its wild white spots and bright orange greasepaint mouth (along with sundry yellow/white stipples, squiggles, stripes and some translucent cornflower fins).  I promised I would showcase some Tetraodontiformes (my favorite order of fish), and there could hardly be a showier fish in the ocean!

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Don’t let this fish’s comic good looks deceive you though:  it is not some oceangoing fop.  Clown triggerfish live on coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific (and maybe in the Caribbean part of Atlantic, during these days of irresponsible hobbyists) and the adult fish prefer a solitary life at the edge of the reef where it drops off into the endless blue of the ocean.  The top of deep underwater cliffs is their favorite home, presumably so they can stare forbodingly into the depths like a melancholic hero from Romantic art. This means that clown triggerfish must cope with all of the denizens of the reef…and with pelagic outsiders who live by different standards than those of the bustling underwater “cities”.

Clown triggerfish stand up to other fish, even much larger ones, with an arsenal that includes strong muscles, nimble maneuverability, cleverness (they are reputed to be some of the smartest fish in the ocean), a locking “trigger” bone to make them hard to pry out of caves, and, oh yeah, a terrifying mouth filled with sharp rock-like teeth.  Their diet of tunicates, spiny sea urchins, large arthropods (crabs and lobsters), and bivalve mollusks such as clams necessitates formidably strong jaw muscles.  Apparently clown triggerfish can just bite right through lobster armor and clamshells. True to their common name, these fish sometimes become prankish with their owners and, at feeding time, they have been known to grunt comically and squirt water onto their favorite humans.   If they like a person they can be fed by hand or even caressed, but it is a risky venture since, obviously,  they can use their mouths for more than biting through clams.

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Adult clown triggerfish grow to be half a meter in size and they can live for up to 20 years in captivity.  When they spawn, the triggerfish dig a shallow nest in the coral rubble and lay eggs in it.  Together the couple fiercely guards the eggs until the babies hatch, then all parties go their own ways.  Juvenile clown triggerfish have a diamond shape and are completely covered in white spots (their other markings appear as they mature).

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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

Yesterday’s post was heartfelt and quite opulent…but it was also a bit of a downer, so today let’s get back to core strengths and feature one of those amazing Tetraodontiformes which I promised we would be seeing.

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Awww! it is a juvenile yellow boxfish…surely one of the most endearing fish in the ocean.  The yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) is not only as cute as a button, it is also extremely successful.  The fish ranges across the coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and can even be found in some parts of the south east Atlantic Ocean.  Adults grow to be 45 centimetres (18 in) and, as with all of us, their bright yellow fades with age.  The fishes mostly eat algae but they are omnivores and will also sample worms, sponges, corals, mollusks, arthropods, and even other fish.

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Because of its cube shape, the boxfish is not a swift swimmer, however it can swim very efficiently and precisely thanks to swift fluttering strokes from its nearly transparent rounded fanlike fins.  Its box shaped skeleton and armored plates gives it great strength and durability which means predators would pretty much have to eat it whole.  This would be a mistake not only because it is a difficult to swallow a hard, sharp cubical fish, but also because the boxfish is capable of releasing the neurotoxin tetrodoxin (TTX) from its skin if it stressed or frightened.  This protects the boxfish from predators (or being stuck in a dead-end job in a cubical), but it also makes this a difficult fish to have in an aquarium.

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This is why the young boxfish are so colorful:  it is a warning not to eat them (or even stress them out).  Can you imagine if this were the case in the affairs of hominids?  The 80s would have been the most poisonous decade ever.  Fortunately, color denotes other things for us primates…which is why looking at yellow boxfish is such a treat.

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This time of year, winter begins to drag on and I start to dream of the flower gardens of spring and summer.  Unfortunately, the garden is currently a lifeless grey ruin beneath a layer of frost (although I personally know there are some bulbs down there sleeping until April), so, in order to enjoy the beauty of flowers, we need some help from art…which is where anonymous master artisans of the Ching dynasty come in.  Above is an exceedingly fine famille rose tripod censer from the middle (?) of the Qianlong reign (the Qianlong emperor reigned longer than any sovereign in Chinese history from 1735 to 1796).  It features auspicious symbols like twinned fish and a lucky vase amidst an otherworldy garden of calligraphic vines and splendid pink and white florets…all against a backdrop of imperial yellow like some divine custard.  The censor’s amazing shape hearkens back to the ancient origins of Chinese ceremonial vessels and offers a glimpse of the shamanistic magics and animistic spirits (which are never far away from Chinese art), but its execution is pure 18th century ornate frivolity.  The fulsome garden and brilliant spring colors would not look out of place in a piece from the other side of the world from Rococo France, yet there is something more satisfying in the flourishes and rootlets and buds of this Chinese garden.  The brilliant colors will have to dispel the gray of winter and last until spring (but since they have been undiminished for more than 2 centuries, that should be no stretch.

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