Archive for the ‘Hobbies’ Category

Philip’s Guide to Seashells (sic), A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various dates)

Number is all, as the Pythagoreans recognized more than two millennia ago, but number is more obvious in some places than others. When you leaf through this book, you’re leafing through a catalogue of mathematical possibility: the endlessly varying shapes, sculptings, colours and patterns of seashells are in fact governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables. The black-spotted, drill-like spiral of Terebra sublata might look very different from the orange-tinged, flattened, scorpion-like Lambis crocata, with its seven curved spikes, but the two species descend from the same ancestor as every other shell on display.

From the same ancestor as shell-less land- and sea-slugs too. But readers should remember that this book is a morgue as well as a museum: rich and beautiful as the shells are, the living animals and their biology are richer and more beautiful still. The living animals are sometimes deadly too: the very beautiful cone-shells have killed humans with their stings.

But the shell remains when the animal is dead, and can be collected and studied in isolation. That’s why almost all of the book is devoted to the more or less snail-like univalves, with the more or less scallop-like bivalves given only a few pages at the end. Generally speaking, univalve shells are much stronger and much more durable. They’re also more varied in both architecture and patterning: anyone who’s played with cascading cellular automata will often find the designs on the shells of cowries and cone-shells startlingly familiar. But they were doing it millions of years before us.

The cowries have a sexual charge too, with their tight, pudendal slits: their generic name, Cypraea, is taken from a title of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The apertures of other genera gape and glisten even more suggestively, imitating the labia of every human race and many abhuman ones. Is that part of the appeal of shell-collecting? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be, because it doesn’t appear in every shell and can’t be seen when the shells in which it does appear are turned over.

And they look better like that: Cypraea caputdraconis (sic), or the dragon’s-head cowrie, looks like unzipped black jeans lying on its back, but like a black, silver-flecked jewel lying on its front. It’s found only on Easter Island too, which is one of the many interesting snippets you can pick up from the short descriptions accompanying each highly skilled illustration.

But the illustrations aren’t, alas, as highly skilled as they could have been: in the reflections on many of them you can see the wooden dividers in the window of the room in which they were painted. That might have been quirkily attractive once or twice, but repeated over and over it becomes irritating. It could have been avoided, or the artist could have set up other reflections: palms, sea-birds, clouds, and even the moon or stars, as though the shells were still lying on a tropical beach.

Fortunately, it affects only the shiny and relatively undistorting surfaces of genera like the cowries and it’s only a minor blemish in a beautifully designed and well-written guide to a fascinating subject. And as always, the scientific names can have an appeal all of their own: we’ve already seen Cypraea caputdraconis, but what about Conus thalassiarchus, the Sea-Lord Cone, or Cirsotrema zelebori, whose meaning I have no idea of?

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british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

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Moon Observer's Guide by Peter GregoPhilip’s Moon Observer’s Guide, Peter Grego (Philip’s 2015)

If you ask someone to name the most important inventions in history, two will often be overlooked: the microscope and the telescope. You could say that one lowered the floor of the universe and the other raised the ceiling: we suddenly became aware of wonders that had previously been too small or too far away for us to see.

Practically speaking, the microscope might seem by far the more important, because it’s taught us so much about life on earth, not least our own. But the continued existence of humanity may actually depend on the telescope. Geologists have discovered that the earth has repeatedly been struck by asteroids; astronomers may be able to spot the next one before it hits. Otherwise we may follow the dinosaurs, trilobites, eurypterids and countless other once-flourishing groups into extinction.

If you want to see what asteroids and other large rocks can do to a celestial body, Mother Nature has kindly provided us with a giant memento mori: the Moon. The biggest scars there are visible with the naked eye, but it took the telescope to reveal quite what they looked like and quite how pock-marked the lunar surface is. As Peter Grego writes:

All the Moon’s ringed basins, ‘walled plains’ and the overwhelming majority of craters visible through the telescope were formed by asteroidal impact. […] Copernicus was blasted out of the lunar crust about 800 million years ago by an asteroid measuring up to 10 km across. The 29 km diameter crater Kepler, 500 km to the west of Copernicus, was formed at around the same time. (“Lunar geology and the Moon’s features”, pp. 13-4)

Grego knows a lot about the Moon and this book is the fruit of more than thirty years of selenoscopy, dating back to his first “systematic observations” in 1982:

Since that time, through patient observing and recording, the lunar landscape has become to me a broadly familiar place, yet always full of wonder. Today only a sliver of moon is visible, and the eastern lunar seas and their surrounding craters provide a visual delight until the Moon sinks into the haze above the city and its image dims, shimmers and degrades. (pg. 5)

The city was Birmingham back in 2002. Cities aren’t just noisy, dirty and harmful to wildlife. They also deprive us of one of the greatest sights in nature: the night sky. Light pollution is silent, tasteless and physically harmless, but it deserves much more attention from conservationists. The Moon can be big enough and bright enough not to be wholly drowned by it, but it’s lèse-majesté against the Queen of the Night all the same.

It also makes life much harder for amateur astronomers. Then again, perhaps that increases the rewards. And the Moon isn’t confined to the night sky, of course: you can observe it in full daylight using nothing more than binoculars. Serious observation demands a telescope, however, and Grego devotes a full section to what’s available. Inter alia, he himself has a “150mm f/8 achromatic refractor with digital camcorder setup with a zoom eyepiece for afocal video photography” (ch. 5, “Recording Your Observations”, pg. 144). Digital imaging and enhancement are now routine: modern technology can get “startling results from a seemingly mediocre video sequence” (pg. 146), sharpening and focusing blurred images.

But Grego and his fellow selenographers are still doing what Galileo, Thomas Harriot and other early astronomers did centuries ago: drawing and sketching the Moon. There’s a good practical reason to do this, as recent science-news has confirmed: “drawing pictures of information that needs to be remembered is a strong and reliable strategy to enhance memory”. There is a lot of detail to learn on the Moon. It’s a fractal place: there are craters at every scale, from the microscopic to hundreds-of-kilometres wide and “it is estimated that the Moon’s surface is studded with more than 3 trillion (3,000,000,000,000) craters larger than a metre in diameter” (pg. 9).

So learning your way around the Moon is a fractal process: first you learn to recognize the giant features, like Copernicus, Kepler and the maria (seas), montes (mountains) and valles (valleys), then you begin to fill in the gaps, then the gaps between the gaps, then the gaps between those. Grego supplies maps and commentary to help you on your way:

The polygonal crater Timaeus (33 km) perches on W. Bond’s south-western wall and surveys across the plains of Mare Frigoris across to the Montes Alpes, 175 km to the south. Archytas (32 km) and Protagoras (21) are two sharp-rimmed but somewhat misshapen craters whose dark shadow-filled eyes keep watch over the northern approaches of Mare Frigoris. (ch. 4, “Moonwatching”, Day seven, pg. 87)

He’s never finished learning about the Moon, however, and neither will anyone else. It’s a life-long adventure and although the Moon might seem cold and unchanging, at least over a human life-span, there are rare events called TLP, or “Transient Lunar Phenomena”, to look out for. These are “apparent obscurations, glows or flashes on the Moon’s surface” that don’t have definitive explanations. Are rocks collapsing? Is sublunar gas leaking out? Might there even be life there after all?

Life is highly doubtful, but Grego notes that “lunar topography is virtually neglected by professional astronomers” (pg. 6), so amateurs still have the chance to make important discoveries. This book might help someone to do that, but the rewards of selenoscopy don’t depend on advancing science or using clever technology. Grego opens the book by asking “Why Observe the Moon?”, then quotes an excellent answer to that question from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion and his book Astronomy for Amateurs (1903). What Flammarion said more than a century ago is still true today:

From all time the Moon has had the privilege of charming the gaze, and attracting the particular attention of mortals. What thoughts have not risen to her pale, yet luminous disk? Orb of mystery and of solitude, brooding over our silent nights, this celestial luminary is at once sad and splendid in her glacial purity, and her limpid rays provoke a reverie full of charm and melancholy. (“Why Observe the Moon?”, pg. 4)

In fact, you could say that the Moon is a touchstone of human nature. Chimpanzees and gorillas may be almost identical to us in their genes, but they don’t talk, make art or gaze at the Moon in wonder. We still do and although we don’t usually worship the Moon any more, we may owe it our very existence. How important have the tides been in the evolution of life on earth? They provided a zone of transition for the emergence of plants and animals from the sea, and perhaps a Moon-less Earth would also be a Man-less Earth.

But the Earth could have Moon without Man if it’s struck by an asteroid of sufficient size. The scars on the Moon’s surface should be constant reminders of the vigilance that’s necessary and the technology that we still need to develop. But the Moon is memento mori in more ways than one. Asteroid strikes are pinpricks by comparison with what may have happened to the Earth in the remote past:

Now widely accepted to be the most likely origin of the Moon is the giant impact or ‘big splash’ theory. This theory suggests that a Mars-sized planet (around half the size of the Earth) smashed into the young Earth, disintegrating the impactor and the Earth’s mantle at the site of impact. A cloud of debris was splashed into near-Earth orbit, and the outer rings of this temporary ring of material coalesced to form the Moon. (ch. 1, pg. 21)

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character Professor Challenger pointed out in 1913: there are “many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend”. The Moon should frighten as well as awe and enchant us, or we might not survive to be awed and enchanted. This book will help you understand all these aspects of the Queen of the Night.

I also hope that Grego will write a sequel to it one day: Moon Tourist’s Guide. We’re still on schedule for at least some of the future envisaged by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel A Fall of Moondust (1961), which was set in the mid-twenty-first century. A moon-cruiser called Selene may not be sailing in a basin of dust as “fine as talcum-powder” by then, but there may still be lunar tourism. If so, selenographers like Peter Grego will be able to see close-up what they’ve long surveyed from afar.

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Rocks and Minerals by Ronald Louis BonewitzRocks and Minerals, Ronald Louis Bonewitz (Dorling Kindersley 2012)

When you read a book, you read your own brain. Somehow the chemicals inside your skull turn electrical signals into conscious experience. Colour is one of the most powerful examples: the difference between the red of cinnabar, the yellow of orpiment and the blue of hemimorphite is ultimately a difference in the firing-rate and strength of nerve-signals. But that’s true of the differences between sight and smell, smell and hearing, hearing and touch, and so on. The nerve-signals are essentially the same: it’s the encoding that changes, but the encoding is quantitative, not qualitative. So how do quanta turn into qualia?

This book brings these questions home very strongly, because its images are so powerful. Minerals can be beautiful or ugly, crystalline or formless, dazzling or dull. Yet all those differences, so sharp in the mind, arise from differing arrangements of the same set of subatomic particles. Smooth blue turquoise has the chemical formula CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•4H2O; the orange-red crystals of vanadinite have the formula Pb5(VO4)3Cl. Those very different formulas involve different elements, so it’s not surprising that turquoise and vandanite have very different appearances and chemical behaviour.

But all elements are built of three things: protons, neutrons and electrons. On every page of this book you’re just seeing variations on a threme – a theme of three. But “just” isn’t right for the vastness of what’s going on. The differences between minerals are numerical: the three particles are arranged differently and come in different quantities. Of course, there are sub-atomic forces involved too and smaller units at work in the three particles, but the fundaments of matter are far simpler than the shapes, colours and textures that can be produced by mixing those fundaments in varying proportions.

As you’ll see here: variety is the spice of this book. The geologist Ronald Louis Bonewitz discusses basic chemistry, crystallography and collecting techniques, then works his way systematically through the many families of mineral: native elements, sulphides, molybdates, arsenates, and so on, plus organics like coral and amber. Then there’s a shorter section on rocks: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary, plus meteorites. Each distinct mineral and rock has an individual page with a colour photograph, a formula, a key of its identification features, and a short text discussing its name, chemistry and uses:

Scorodite FeAsO4•2H2O3

A hydrated iron arsenate mineral, scorodite takes its name from the Greek word scorodion, which means “garlic-like” – an allusion to the odour emitted by the arsenic when specimens are heated. Scorodite can vary considerably in colour depending on the light under which it is seen: pale leek green, greyish green, liver brown, pale blue, violet, yellow, pale greyish, or colourless. It may be blue-green in daylight but bluish purple to greyish blue in incandescent light; in transmitted light it may appear colourless to pale shades of green or brown. Crystals are usually dipyramidal, appearing octohedral, and may have a number of modifying faces. They may also be tabular or short prisms. Drusy coatings are common. Scorodite may also be porous and earthy or massive. Scorodite is found in hydrothermal veins, hot spring deposits, and oxidized zones of arsenic-rich ore bodies. Associated minerals may be pharmacosiderite, vivianite (p. 157), adamite (p. 160), and various iron oxides. (“Minerals: Arsenates”, pg. 165)

There’s a lot here to delight the eye, stimulate the mind and twist the tongue, but chemistry always makes me think of consciousness. It’s a fundamental science and it’s been spectacularly successful in both explaining and altering the material world. This book is a triumph of chemistry both as an object and as an exposition.

But chemistry isn’t all-conquering: it’s helpless to explain the mental aspect of the world. My brain is made of the same basic particles as both this book I’m reading and the minerals it’s describing and depicting. But I’m conscious and they’re not. Science has absolutely no idea how to cross the chasm between matter and mind.

This book wasn’t intended to raise that question, but it does for me. And the better it succeeds in its obvious purpose – portraying, describing and explaining matter – the more strongly it knocks on that stubbornly closed metaphysical door.

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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World by Alex NewsonFifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Bicycles are good things. They’re cleaner, quieter and compacter than cars, but I understand the irritation that many people feel towards them. Bikes and pedestrians often compete for the same space and not all riders are considerate. But bike-ophobia isn’t a rational prejudice: for destruction and deadliness, bikes are to cars rather as the common cold is to cholera. Like trains, they’ve changed the world for the better, not the worse, because they don’t impose huge changes on cities and the countryside or poison the psychology of those who use them.

This book is a celebration of man-powered two-wheeled transport. It looks at fifty world-changing bikes, from the Laufmaschine of c. 1817, which had two wheels but no pedals, to the electric bikes of the early 21st century. These bikes, with their sophisticated long-life batteries, have finally ended what might be called “bicymplicity”. Bicycles were a machine that people could understand at a glance and repair for themselves in a few minutes. They’ve been a cheap and reliable form of transport right around the world for well over a century.

But how much have they actually changed the world? One big way may have been that they expanded the horizons not just of travellers but of suitors too, particularly in a big country like France. Exogamy became easier, so bikes may have changed our genetics and not just our muscles. Perhaps that exogamic assistance helps explain the popularity of cycling in France. But Great Britain has dominated the sport in recent years, as this book describes and illustrates: there’s a photograph of Chris Hoy, insect-eyed in a cycling helmet, celebrating his gold medal in the “London 2012 Olympic Games men’s keirin final” (pg. 103).

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics

Where has this British success come from? The book doesn’t have much text and doesn’t provide much of an answer. Nor does it explain some other patterns that are obvious as you look through it. Cycling is a very white sport, even though bikes are very popular in China:

The Flying Pigeon is synonymous with China. Since the first Flying Pigeon was produced in 1950 more than 500 millions units have been made, making it not just the most popular bicycle ever produced, but the most popular vehicle ever. (“Flying Pigeon PA-02, c. 1950”, pg. 34)

That page also notes that “China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as ‘a Flying Pigeon in every household’.” The definition of prosperity has changed in China since then, which is why the country has such a bad problem with pollution. Bikes don’t pollute and don’t cut us off from the natural world. In fact, they have almost become part of it. As you’ll see reading through this book, bike frames have evolved almost like skeletons and in the extreme environment of BMX competition they’ve even lost their seats, becoming a minimalist combination of wheels, pedals, chain and handlebars.

Bikes can take us further out into the natural world too, as the page about mountain biking describes. Like skateboarding, mountain biking began in California and there’s a good picture of two young men, bikes at the ready, gazing down into a mist-filled, pine-covered valley. But I don’t think bikes are the best way to travel through a wilderness. They churn up the ground less than motorbikes but more than boots. Walking is still the quintessentially human way of moving about on the earth’s surface. Or perhaps you could say quintessentially hominid. In which case, perhaps we’re at our most human on a bike.

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Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

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YaC Attack

The Great Grisby by Mikita BrottmanThe Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Exceptional Dogs, Mikita Brottman (William Collins 2014)

Unlike her fellow Oxonian Miriam Stimbers, Mikita Brottman has never seemed a plausible figure to me. Is she for real? Or is she in fact an under-cover performance artist parodying a neurotic Guardian-reading psychoanalyst with a PhD in the humanities? Will she unmask herself one day in dramatic circumstances at a conference engaging issues around post-Foucauldian hermeneutics? I’ve always had my suspicions.

Those suspicions were only deepened by The Great Grisby. This book is so Guardianista I half expected it to come with a free beard-trimmer and packet of fair-trade organic tampons. There’s no foreword by Polly Toynbee or afterword by Jonathan Freedland, but believe me: there should have been. The hum of the hive-mind was particularly loud in passages like this:

When you think about it, the idea of gangsters emerging from the ghetto to steal “our” innocent pets is really absurd; what’s more, it bespeaks all kinds of race and class anxieties. These sensitive issues also saturate the discourse around pit bull “rescue” campaigns, in which dogs are taken from young black men in the city’s run-down neighborhoods, inoculated, bathed, “altered”, given friendly names, adopted by middle-class families, and taken to live in the suburbs. We do to the dogs what we want to do to the barbarians who breed them: make them submit. (ch. 2, “Bull’s-eye”, pg. 20)

You can picture Guardianistas and NYT-wits nodding their heads wisely at that passage, then tutting sadly for the thousandth time over white racism. When will it end? When will the rainbow society begin and the Black Community be released from Its millennial bondage? But, as a keyly (and corely) committed anti-racist, I call bullshit. Ms B is pretending concern for Yoot-a-Color (YaC) while actually erecting toxic barriers to their participation in her own sunny world of white privilege.

Why do I say this? Simple. Look at the passage again. Note the verb “bespeaks” and the phrase “saturate the discourse around”. Guardianistas don’t notice the irony of expressing concern about Da Ghetto while using pretentious academic jargon so white it glows in the dark. Ms B’s own language is expressing a clear attitude towards YaC: she, from her lofty perch of white privilege, understands what causes their misery and deplores the hegemonic racism that systematically oppresses them.

Meanwhile, her actions speak louder than her words: she continues to benefit from that white hegemony and the unearned privilege it bestows 24/7/52 on jargon-juicing Guardianistas such as herself. This book is in fact an unabashed celebration of both the hegemony and the privilege. It interrogates issues around a series of white dog-owners and their dogs, with a nigh-on-nauseating emphasis on Dead White European Males like Charles Dickens, Sigmund Freud and Schopenhauer.

Got that? Then brace yourself – here’s a particularly appalling bit from chapter 7:

Blitz – as he’s usually called – now travels extensively with Lemmy and the boys. As you’ll readily imagine, it can get LOUD even backstage at a Motörhead gig and after some failed experiments with adapted ear-plugs and ear-muffs, Lemmy commissioned a special “acoustically opaque” sleeping-box for Blitz, in which, having been fed some doggie-chocs soaked with a herbal calmative, he’ll comfortably snooze out the earsplitting riffs of “Ace of Spades” and “Bomber” until the gig is over and he’s re-united with his besotted – and beloved – owner. With typical gruff honesty, Lemmy has declared that he prefers his dog to 99.9% of human beings: “There’s no bullshit with the bugger and I’m sure he’d lay down his fucking life for me, just as I’d lay down mine for him.” (ch. 7, “Blitzkrieg”, pg. 60)

Jesus. Could you get any whiter than heavy metal, herbal calmatives and truffle-hounds called Blitzkrieg? The closest Ms B gets to a Person of Color is Frida Kahlo. Which isn’t close enough, in my opinion. Interspersed with discussion of these hideously white dog-owners are Ms B’s musings on her own dog (now deceased). It was a French bulldog called Grisby, whose name came – in achingly arch Guardianista fashion – from a French film. But it gets worse. Grisby was a white French bulldog – just look at the cover. And the white dog/god is on a pedestal, forsooth! Could Ms B’s Eurocentric white-supremacist agenda be any clearer?

No. But think what this book could have been about. Rather than portraying a pampered pooch and writing about her fellow white privilegees, Ms B could have adopted an autistic Somali orphan with a missing limb and alopecia, recorded the child’s inspirational upbringing, and launched a real challenge to white supremacy and white privilege. Just think what a book that would have made. Instead, she chose to reinforce the white hegemonic power-structure while making vacuous rhetorical gestures towards solidarity with the ghetto.

Bad Brotty!

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Hill Kill KultMurderous Mersey: The Seriously Sinister Story of Stockport’s Slo-Mo Slayer, Dariusz Mecoghescu (Visceral Visions 2014)

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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Flora by Sandra KnappFlora: An Artistic Voyage through the World of Plants, Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum 2014)

There’s a phantom at this floral feast: photography. How much did we lose when it became easy to capture accurate images of the world with a camera? How much do we continue to lose? The botanical drawings and paintings here are almost sacramental in their intensity: beautiful natural objects receive the care and attention they deserve. Wordsworth said this: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give | Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

The artists represented here understood what he meant. So does Sandra Knapp, the botanist who collects and commentates their art in this beautiful book. She complements it with serious science too as she discusses twenty broad groups of plants, from arums and water-lilies to palms and grasses, from daffodils and poppies to roses and morning-glories. Tulips too, whose vivid patterns are produced in an unusual way:

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

The fantastic red and purple feathers and flames that appear as if by magic on tulips are not the result of man’s interference with nature, but are a viral disease transmitted by aphids. […] There are many varied viral diseases of plants, but tulip-breaking virus is the only one known to increase the infected plants’ value. Tulip plants infected by tulip-breaking virus have blotchy, mottled leaves and intricate and finely patterned petals, and appear as if hand-painted in pure colour. The variegated effect is caused by interference of the virus in the plant’s production of anthocyanins (pigments responsible for producing the reds and blues of flowers), without which the background colour shows through, pure white or yellow. (“Tulips”, pg. 294)

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

But this book isn’t just about colourful and scented plants: it also covers conifers, with their odd and interesting cones. They include some of the largest plants on earth, like Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant redwood. The heathers, on the other hand, are often tiny and easy to overlook, but they can introduce some big themes:

There are more than 750 species of Erica in South Africa – with the proteas and restionads, they are one of the three main constituents of fynbos, the characteristic and wonderful vegetation of the Cape region. The Cape fynbos [Afrikaans for “fine bush”] has been described as a wonder of the world, a statement with which it is impossible to disagree. Imagine an area the size of Portugal or the state of Virginia with more than 8000 native species of flowering plants, more than half of which are endemic (found nowhere else on earth). (“Heathers”, pg. 255)

Flora is a fynboek, a “fine book”. Serious science, enchanting images, and literary quotes that range from Robert Burns and Ovid to Frank L. Baum and Zhu Pu: Sandra Knapp has combed archives, combined disciplines and created something worthy of its beautiful subjects.

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