Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anser hamadryas

Now we arrive at the most risible display so far: an adult Wood-nymph goose, discovered in a typical place of rest (here the hollow trunk of a rotting juniper stump) by a young stoat, who, though still a good foot away from the jagged breach that exposes the bird, has already startled his potential prey. Her beak frozen in a silent honk of alarm, the goose’s wings have burst through the decayed walls of the trunk on either side, leaving the bark surrounding them intact — so that when viewed from the back, the display becomes simply a tree-stump with pinions, like some figure of folklore or primitive worship.

Questions goad the informed spectator: Does Mr. Urbilne [then director of the Natural History Museum at Tarpeath] feel that nature, accurately reproduced, cannot suffice for the average museumgoer? Does he prefer theatre to science? Do the absurdities fashioned under his watch form an immense rebus, yet to be finished or deciphered?

For contradicting the very premise of this exhibit are basic facts about the species of goose depicted. It is true that after feeding, this most torpid (or rather torpor-dependent) of all waterfowl will lodge itself in an enclosed space to slumber, preferably the hollow of a dead tree. But it ensconces its body deeply in this refuge, and would never be visible from the outside. Nor would rousing its cold, metabolically decelerated corpus be an easy task. Indeed, the entire display might begin to convince were the goose identified as a barnyard-variety Greylag, making a poor attempt to doze in the manner of its sylvan cousin.

From: O. O. Prutchitton, “Taxidermal gaffes and follies at the Natural History Museum.” Tarpeath Gazette, 17 June 1910.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Osmia vapularis

The aromatic adhesive paste made from the pulped flowers (but not the fruit) of the Ribbonleaf bramble (R. lemniscatus) is a surefire means of trapping, through olfactory deception, the Occidental umber-belted mason bee (O. vapularis). When stuck fast by this goo to a bundle of the plant’s thorny twigs, such insects can add a distinct flavor to corporal punishment. As Occidental umber-belteds possess reusable stingers, a flagellant may enjoy their fury (if properly administered) for a good number of lashes at a time.

Records of this practice date from the mid-18th Century in England, where Sir Hilary Trudicombe — amateur beekeeper, botanist and founder of the Garden Rakes’ Club — introduced it to his infamous “greenhouse of vices.” Further accounts, spanning into this century, reveal its continued popularity among libertines — that is, whenever both plant and bee were available. Its final mention of note as a contemporary pursuit was surely funk legend Rick James’s hit 1981 single “Super Freak,” which contains the lines: “Three's not a crowd to her, she says / ‘Room 714, I'll be waiting’ / When I get there she's got insects, slime and brambles / And vents her weekly spleen.” This prominent reference was already dated when the record hit the shelves on July 25th — two weeks after the passage of the Groydille Act, which ensured not only the illegality of Mason bee-birching, but also the near-impossibility of acquiring its paraphernalia in sufficient amounts.

From: Flann Brüthargalong, Hive Culture. Dublin: Clarennington Press, 1993: p. 144.

Monday, December 15, 2008

E. asinus cuniculi

ATSJ: But would not all of these factors, including your observation on loam density in lower Syria, point to the likelihood of an undetected subspecies of wild ass — a burrowing animal, with elongated, spade-shaped hooves and poor eyesight, that surfaces only after dark, sits upright on its haunches, and communicates with its peers by means of echolocative brays audible beneath the soil — and would not the presence of such an Equid explain the reports of “bull larvae” as well as the more recent “wailing ghoul” (ghūl), both reputed to haunt the outskirts of Damascus?

KW: Yes.

From: “Terse words with a busy man: an exclusive interview with Professor Kumburt Wielorther.” Animal Traction Studies Journal, vol. XXXVII, no. 4 (1987): pp.178-189.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rhamnus nilotica

The smallest plant to be mummified during the Twelfth Dynasty was the Nile buckthorn, a minuscule shrub with fruits of up to 5mm in length. Due to their curative benefits, a thousand of the tiny berries accompanied Senusret II on his descent to the underworld to ensure that his Ka would be free of catarrh and dropsy throughout the journey.

The embalming process began with removal of the mesocarp partitions, funiculus, and superior ovary. (The ovule, believed to house the soul of the fruit, was left unmolested.) This was all accomplished with a hooked pick as wide as a hair. The priests swabbed these entrails with half a droplet of palm wine, then placed them in canopic jars the size of capers. The eviscerated berry was gently stuffed with a few grains of natron salt and left to dry for a period of several days. Once dehydrated, the fruit (now so diminished it was often difficult to see) was perfumed, coated in resin and then in gilt. After that came the doubtless excruciating task of wrapping it in linen strips of usually two threads in diameter. The finished mummies each found homes within a series of nested sarcophagi, the innermost of which are surely the smallest fruit coffins ever made. Mention of the Nile buckthorn berry is bound to come up during any debate over the presence of magnifying devices in the time of the Middle Kingdom.

From: Brammuel Thauzich, The Lighter Side of Egyptology. Stratford: Muttnamp & co., 1933: p. 127.