Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Two Years, 400 Posts

Yesterday's was my 400th post, and also the second blog anniversary of Pocahontas County Fare. To commemorate these milestones, I thought about what I've blogged, and what I hope to blog in the future, and decided I had nothing that has not already been said well by other people. I also thought about my blog stats, but since I haven't been tracking hits and page views very long, I didn't have much to say there either.

(You can see my "hits/page views" counter results if you're interested. I usually only check for people who visit my site after searching for "inbred hillbilly cannibals." For one brief moment, Pocahontas County Fare was Google's top search result for that phrase, but competition is stiff in that field.)

Most blogs are either short-lived experiments or spam blogs, so Technorati's blog assay is less informative than one might wish.

Currently tracking 93.9 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of tagged social media.

The World Live Web is incredibly active, and according to Technorati data, there are over 175,000 new blogs (that's just blogs) every day. Bloggers update their blogs regularly to the tune of over 1.6 million posts per day, or over 18 updates a second.

I'd hoped to find where I fit in the distribution of blog longevity and post frequency, but every source I checked had completely different metrics. I did find an interesting and reasonable analysis of blogs by Caslon Analytics. They avoid specific numbers altogether, but they present a "literature" profile of blogs and the things said about them. I enjoyed their hype-deflating style:

The blog phenomenon in the English-speaking world has peaked and - as forecast in an earlier version of this page - most blogs are being stored in the part of cyberspace dedicated to hula hoops, pogo sticks and other fashions that reached their use-by date.

That does not mean people will stop blogging altogether....Some people will continue to find fulfilment through blogs that reach an audience of one or an audience of one million.

We should however be realistic: the 'blogging revolution' collided with human nature and human nature won. Most people do not like writing, even if they have something to write about. Many people do not have time to blog on an ongoing basis in a way that attracts a substantial audience. Some people will continue to write offline diaries, commonplace books and criticism - including work that relies on a pen or pencil rather than a keyboard.

I do like writing, and will continue, although it's for others to judge if I have something to write about.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Curing My Fear of Fiction

All the talk about J. K. Rowling's enormously popular kids' books got me thinking that I hadn't read a book for fun in a very long time. I've been reading some of the books that "defined" the "Appalachian people," like John Fox Jr.'s The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and Emma Bell Miles' stories and fictionalized essays, and James Dickey's Deliverance, and I've been dutifully reading fictionalized accounts of local history by Pocahontas County natives G.D. McNeill (father of nationally recognized poet Louise McNeill) and W. E. Blackhurst. Our Pocahontas County authors seem to have admired Fox's prose, and emulated him by writing some of the most wretched dialogue ever to come off a vanity press. Add to that my distance-education research reading (much use of buzzwords like "user-defined," "multiple perspectives," "blended learning") and you have the roots of my reading disphoria.

Book Cover: Bellefleur

I already know Harry Potter's not the answer for me. Last fall, I sat in a middle-school library waiting for my students, picked up the first Rowling book, and put it down again after 30 pages. Unlike Harold (Harry?) Bloom, I don't think Harry Potter prefigures the end of Western Civilization, but it wasn't fun for me. I'll wait for the Cliff Notes. My local library has plenty of reading about Appalachia and Pocahontas County, and I am grateful, but those books are how I came to this dreary state of mind in the first place. The library's fiction collection is skewed toward recent best-sellers in genres I don't care for, so my next move was to search my shelves for novels I hadn't already read that might be, somehow, "fun."

Usually, when I'm feeling grumpy, I reread old favorites (Austen, Dickens and Conrad, or perhaps John D. MacDonald or Tony Hillerman), but part of what I've been missing is that "What happens next?" feeling J. K. Rowling has been so concerned to preserve from "spoilers." I pulled out three books I thought might do the trick: E. R. Eddison's The Mezentian Gate, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Joyce Carol Oates' Bellefleur. I was surprised to find my unread novel collection so heavily skewed toward the Gothic.

First I opened E. R. Eddison's The Mezentian Gate. I found I had started it before and didn't finish it. The bookmark was a "STOP JOB" card, and the book was a Ballantine paperback with cover art by the same artist used for their Lord of the Rings edition. After I got over this seventies flashback, I discovered why I'd left off at page 73. Eddison's stylistic inspiration seems to be Gothic classics like The Castle of Otranto and The Duchess of Malfi, but he doesn't match their action-packed pace. Also, the made-up names make me giggle every time he introduces a new character. Rhodanthe of Upmire, daughter of Sidonius Parry.

I turned to Bellefleur next. I admire Joyce Carol Oates, but I tend to approach her novels the way I approach having blood drawn. It's a worthwhile endevour, but not usually fun. I was surprised to find that, although Bellefleur has its share of murders, rapes, agonies, and tortures, there is also mystery, magic, and mythology, adding a playful element where Oates winks at us. It's fiction, not a documentary.

On Celestial Timepiece, a Joyce Carol Oates page named after a quilt design in Bellefleur, I found an interesting essay by Oates from her "Preface to The [Franklin Library] First Edition" of Bellefleur:

The imaginative construction of a 'Gothic' novel involves the systematic transposition of realistic psychological and emotional experiences into 'Gothic' elements. We all experience mirrors that distort, we all age at different speeds, we have known people who want to suck our life's blood from us, like vampires; we feel haunted by the dead--if not precisely by the dead then by thoughts of them. We are forced at certain alarming periods in our lives not only to discover that other people are mysterious--and will remain mysterious--but that we ourselves, our motives, our passions, even our logic, are profoundly mysterious....If Gothicism has the power to move us (and it certainly has the power to fascinate the novelist) it is only because its roots are in psychological realism. Much of Bellefleur is a diary of my own life, and the lives of people I have known....

Bellefleur is more than a Gothic, of course, and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. It is also a critique of America; but it is in the service of a vision of America that stresses, for all its pessimism, the ultimate freedom of the individual. One by one the Bellefleur children free themselves of their family's curse (or blessing); one by one they disappear into America, to define themselves for themselves. The castle is destroyed, the Bellefleur children live. Theirs is the privilege of youth; and the 'America' of my imagination, despite the incursions of recent decades, is a nation still characterized by youth. Our past may weigh heavily upon us but it cannot contain us, let alone shape our future. America is a tale still being told--in many voices--and nowhere near its conclusion.

So I can still enjoy fiction. On to Faulkner!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Horsemint, Bee Balm, Oswego Tea

Horsemint, Monarda fistulosa

I learned this plant as "Horsemint," but it is called "Wild Bergamot" most often in field guides. It's also called "Oswego Tea" and "Bee Balm." Some links:

  • Wild Bergamot Monarda fistulosa from the Connecticut Botanical Society.
  • USDA Plants Profile for Monarda fistulosa L.. They provide this ethnobotanical information:
    The Tewa Indians...cooked Wild bergamot with meat. The Iroquois used the plant in the making of a beverage....The Ojibwe put a wad of chewed leaves of this plant into their nostrils to relieve headache. The tops of the plant were dried and used as a sternutatory for the relief of colds. The leaves were placed in warm water baths for babies. The Flambeau Ojibwe gathered and dried the whole plant, boiling it in a vessel to obtain the volatile oil to inhale to cure catarrh and bronchial affections. The Menomini also used this plant as a remedy for catarrh, steeping the leaves and inflorescences in a tea. The Meskwaki used this plant in combination with other plants to relieve colds. The Hocak (Winnebago) used wild bergamot in their sweat bath and inhaled the fumes to cure colds. A decoction of boiled leaves was used as a cure for eruptions on the face. The Cherokee made a warm poultice of the plant to relieve a headache. The Teton Dakota boiled together the leaves and flowers as a cure for abdominal pains. The Blackfoot made a tea from the blossoms and leaves to cure stomach pains. They also applied boiled leaves to the pustules of acne. The Tewa dried the plant and ground it into a powder that was rubbed over the head to cure headaches, over the body to cure fever, and as a remedy for sore eyes and colds. Early white settlers used it as a diaphoretic and carminative, and occasionally employed it for the relief of flatulent colic, nausea and vomiting.
  • Native Plant Database "Oswego Tea" entry from The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Would Jesus Read Harry Potter?

This week, the Pocahontas Times features a large print ad headlined "Would Jesus Read Harry Potter?" I was immediately intrigued, and read the ~500 word "question and answer" essay. I was disappointed to find that it never answers the titular question about Our Lord's reading habits. With quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus the author makes a strong case that God's Chosen People ought not to practice sorcery, but there is no advice about reading fiction. In fact, the author of this advertisement clearly has read the Bible, and demonstrates that the Good Book describes many acts of sorcery. From this, one might infer that it is OK to read books that describe sorcery.

The Greenbrier Better Living Center in Ronceverte doesn't give a clear answer to "Would Jesus read Harry Potter?" nor do they answer the more practical question they infer, "Should I (or my kids) read Harry Potter?" They don' even say what the Harry Potter books have to do with sorcery as described in the Bible. (You would have to read a Harry Potter book to find out.) It seems to me that if you shell out money to run an advertisement and write 500+ words of single-spaced text, you ought not leave your audience wondering "What's the point?"

Harold Bloom, in contrast, doesn't leave you wondering what he thinks. J.K. Rowling and other hugely popular novelists are signs of the End of Western Civilization.

Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter. A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.

While The Greenbrier Better Living Center probably doesn't agree with Bloom on reasons for disapproval of the Harry Potter books, its writers should take a lesson in rhetoric from him.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lethargic Kitty


Sometimes I teach chemistry to nursing students. Last night was one of those times. Today, my mental abilities are matched by those Princess illustrates here. Do you suppose she, like Oscar the famous cat, is showing some sort of empathy with my mental condition?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shrubby St. John's Wort

Shrubby St. John's Wort blossom

The St. John's Wort has been in bloom the last couple of weeks. They're small but beautiful flowers. Don't you love that cloud of anthers? Ours is a woody shrub, and it's abundant around the locust and hawthorn thickets overtaking the old field on top of our ridge.

I wasn't sure what species we have, so I turned to the incredibly frustrating but essential Flora of West Virginia (Strausbaugh and Core, WVU Press, Revised Edition, 1970). I know St. John's Wort on sight--it's genus is Hypericum. The Flora of West Virginia has no index, so the only way to find it in the book is through the key to families at the front of Volume 1. I skip to the Dicots couplet, 35. Yup, "Polypetalous plants," sends me to couplet 78, "Stamens numerous, usually more than 10." As a well-brought-up taxonomist, I pause to curse the use of "usually" in a key to families. However, I know we have WAY more than 10 stamens, so I continue to couplet 79--"Calyx free from ovary" vs. "Calyx more or less jointed to the ovary." "MORE OR LESS!" I snort. I know the answer, (the calyx is definitely free) but I can see I'm down to a short list of families, so I start skimming. There's Guttiferae, one of Linnaeus' eight conserved family names, venerable designations like Graminae that are kept even though they don't consist of a genus-name root plus the "aceae" family ending. Modern botanists scorn the conserved names, and call the St. John's Wort family either Hypericaceae (splitters) or Clusiaceae (lumpers, who put Hypericum in the Mangosteen family).

There it is in the Flora of West Virginia, Family Guttiferae, page 630. Now, I know page 630 is in Volume 3, so I pick up volume 3, turn to page 630, which is Family Tiliaceae, the Basswood family. The pages are misnumbered in the key, so I start leafing forward and backward. Guttiferae is on page 638. (I turn to the Guttiferae couplet in the Key to Families, and pencil in the correct number. In a few years, I will have a useful Key to Families.)

There I read that there are 12 species of St. John's Wort in West Virginia, and learn that

The common name St. John's Wort alludes to the flowering of many of the plants about St. John the Baptist's Day (June 24).
The key to species works nicely, and sends me to a couplet giving me a choice between Hypericum prolificum and Hypericum densiflorum. The two species are distinguished from one another by the size of the seed capsule. Although size of seed capsule can vary due to environmental factors, I'm reasonably comfortable offering an identification of Hypericum prolificum--"Shrubby St. John's Wort." I was surprised that this common shrub of old pastures and roadsides is not the introduced Palearctic St. John's Wort, but a native species that is uncommon in some parts of its range.

Some Web references for Hypericum species:

Shrubby St. John's Wort flowers, buds and leaves

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Glimpse of the Black Walnut Canopy

Black Walnut inflorescence

Canopy trees conduct most of their business out of our sight. Upward-facing leaves photosynthesize, flowers exchange pollen via wind or winged pollinators, and only a fraction of their fruits and seeds fall to the ground where we can see them. That's why trees like these black walnuts on the forest-edge are a special treat--they are open for business near ground-level.

Besides this glimpse of floral morphology, these black walnut trees (relative youngsters, with trunk diameters under 12 inches) have been displaying their canopy fauna for me. The most spectacular insects feeding on walnut are the saturniid moths. My Luna Moth and Imperial Moth both fed on walnut leaves as caterpillars, and I suspect this sphinx moth is from a walnut-feeding species as well.

The assassin bug (Zelus sp.) is a predator, not host-plant specific, but usually found on shrubs and trees with sunny exposures. With a busy assemblage of hemipterans, caterpillars, and flies, these walnuts provide a rich hunting ground.

In contrast, the spittlebugs and the membracids I've followed are probably host-plant specific to walnuts and their relatives. (There were also several tiny mirid species too small and quick to photograph, and I know some of these are host-plant specialists.) Walnut sap is rich in aromatic compounds and special enzymes allow sap-feeding specialists to detoxify their food.

The hemipteran insects I've been photographing completed their life cycles early in the season and disappeared by the first week in July. At this point, I'm only seeing generalists like Japanese beetle working the leaves. I'm still watching, though. There are some interesting gall-like growths on the lowest walnut branches, and I expect I will have more surprises before winter. Perhaps, if the walnut fruits don't abort, squirrels and bears will visit. A few years ago, a bear woke us at dawn with loud crunching. He was stretched out on the porch, chewing up my hulled walnuts, sucking out the meat, and spitting out the shells in a tidy little pile next to the walnut bag. Anyone who has cracked black walnuts can marvel at his strength of tooth and jaw.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Membracids on Black Walnut

Walnut membracid nymphs

In June, while I was following the spittlebugs through their lifecycle, I found these handsome membracid nymphs cohabiting with them on the black walnut trees in the yard. These treehoppers were attended by two different ant species. Some arboreal hemipterans exude a sugary fluid that attracts ants (and is known as "manna" when gathered by humans for food), and others exude a wax that ants find attractive. I don't know what's going on here, but the ants are not harming or disturbing the membracids.

Membracid nymphs tended by ant One membracid nymph with ant attendant

While poking around on BugGuide.net, I found photographs of these same treehopper nymphs on Black Walnut, and was surprised to read that it was an undescribed species, so designated by Andy Hamilton of The Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. I collected a few nymphs and, after the final molt, some adults. (I don't normally do this, and that's why my photos seldom have specific ephithets--no specimen, no species id.) I've always had a special (though certainly not "inordinate") fondess for treehoppers, but these green and black fellows are particularly striking.

Membracid adult Oair of adult Membracids

Monday, July 23, 2007

Spittlebugs on Black Walnut

Spittlebug spit

There was much hemipteran activity on the black walnut trees earlier this summer. Yesterday's assassin bug was a casual visitor, hunting for arthropod prey, but these spittlebugs (family Cercopidae) may be host-plant specific to black walnut, and related trees. First, the "spittle;"

spittlebug exposed

then the nymph in the spit,

spittlebug nymph head

(Doesn't he look a bit like a cicada?)

adult spittlebug

and finally, the adult cercopid.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Zelus sp. On the Walnut Tree

Zelus sp. on walnut tree, head and pronotum

I have a special fondness for assassin bugs, and when I lived in Our Nation's Capital, I saw several species often. However, here at the house on Droop Mountain, Zelus exsanguinus is the only species I've ever found. Fortunately, it's a handsome one.

Zelus sp. on walnut tree, Zelus sp. on walnut tree,

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cornstalk's Raid on the Greenbrier

I should have posted this entry from On This Day In West Virginia History last weekend, but because the exact dates are unknown, I may not be too late. Native Americans led by Cornstalk launched an attack on settlers in the Greenbrier Valley on July 15, 1763. The following quote is from Cornstalk's Raid on the Greenbrier - 1763, by A. E. Ewing, originally published in 1936 in West Virginia Review. This article gives good historical context to early settlement accounts for Pocahontas County and neighboring areas. Hillsboro was originally known as "Little Levels," and "Big Levels," mentioned in this article, refers to the area around Lewisburg (Greenbrier County).

Warning #1: The following quotation contains Politically Incorrect Language, which I have not attempted to ameliorate.

Warning #2: The following quotation contains Really Terrible Prose, some of which I have pruned away to make the actual events more intelligible. Many local histories here include a hefty helping of the writers' personal opinions on centuries-old events. I'm not sure whether they over-valued their opinions and literary stylings or simply hoped to spice up a dull recounting of facts. Personally, I prefer a dull recounting of facts.

...The Algonquin chieftains, in secret council near Detroit, summoned by king Pontiac April 27, 1763, agreed to attack all the English posts recently surrendered by the French....The plan was so successfully executed that nine or ten English posts from western New York and Pennsylvania to northern Michigan fell to the Algonquins practically without a struggle....Meantime, as a part of the original plan, the interior tribes fell savagely upon the trans-Allegheny settlers nearest to them.

These settlers, be it remembered, had no business in those parts at that time. Virginia lands west of the "front" were not then open to settlement and could not be purchased at any price. The Indians, particularly the Algonquin tribes of Ohio, had never ceased to claim them. The vast region constituted their prize "game preserve." They even regarded Virginia hunters as trespassers, and permanent settlers as outlaws to be shot down at sight. Moreover, all this was well known to Virginians.

By 1760....frontiersmen east of the "front," anticipating that the Indian border would be pushed back to the Ohio, lost no time in heading their wagon trains for new pastures on the Greenbrier and by 1763 were raising fields of wheat and corn, wholly ignorant of Pontiac's diabolical designs. Two or three years of quiet and safety had led them to regard Indian troubles as things of the past....

The business of scalping the Greenbrier settlements fell to Cornstalk, the Shawnee chieftain, who, with his warriors, resided on the Scioto, in Ohio....two white settlements...were the Muddy Creek settlement lying north of the Greenbrier and west of Muddy Creek Mountain, and the Clendenin settlement on the Big Levels near Lewisburg. They were about twenty miles apart, and the people comprising them have been variously estimated at from one to two hundred. Both settlements probably took root in 1760 and 1761.

....[A]llowing the Indians two weeks or more for covering the two hundred miles distance, they must have started on their tomahawking expedition on or before July 1, 1763....Authorities agree that Cornstalk's scalping band consisted of about sixty warriors. Crossing the Ohio in canoes, which they sank at the mouth of the Kanawha, they proceeded overland a distance of about 160 miles, to Muddy Creek, where several scattered families were living in imagined peace and security....in one short day, the Muddy Creek settlement was literally annihilated....[T]he Shawnees...proceeded up the Greenbrier about twenty miles to the Big Levels.

....For one reason or another, it appears that all the settlers were assembled at Clendenin's on that fateful July 15,1763....Con Yoakum was the only man of the settlement to escape slaughter. He hastened to the Jackson River settlements east of the divide and gave the alarm that frustrated the Indian attack upon the settlement at Carr's Creek....

This, in brief, is the story of the Cornstalk Raid on the Greenbrier settlements during the Pontiac War in 1763....The Greenbrier Valley was completely desolated and so remained for six or seven years.

Henceforth the frontiersmen of Virginia nursed an undying grudge against the Shawnees. Many of the soldiers who assisted in the defeat of Cornstalk at Point Pleasant in 1774, were but paying off an old score. And - from one way of looking at it - when Cornstalk and his son were murdered at Fort Randolph in 1777, the child-stealing, baby-killing old chieftain was but being paid an old standing debt in his own coin.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Six-Legged Spider

Spider with egg

All insects have six legs, but not everything with six legs is an insect. This spider on my clothesline post appears on the verge of reproductive success despite the loss of a couple of legs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More Garden Blossoms

Hillbilly tomato blossoms

These Hillbilly Potato-Leaf Tomatoes produce larger-than-average blossoms. They made me pay a little more attention than usual. Up close, they are quite attractive blossoms.

Hillbilly tomato blossom, close-up

Tomato ovaries are also quite pretty when they start to swell. This is an Amish Paste Tomato, with the dried-up pistil still attatched.

Amish Paste tomato, early development

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Spherical Onion Domes

Onion inflorescence,

Onions present a dilemma--should I pull them before they begin to set seeds, preserving their bulbs for the kitchen, or should I let them bloom? This year, I opted for these amazing spheres crowded with translucent tripartate flowers. (Also, I had plenty of well-behaved onions that didn't go to seed.)

Onion flowers

Monday, July 16, 2007

Wolf Spider With Cubs

Wolf spider in

We turned over this wolf spider's concrete lair yesterday, and noticed something a little different about her.

Wolf spider, showing

It wasn't just her big brown eyes.

Wolf spider, babies on

It was the brood of tiny spiders on her abdomen.

Wolf spider

She was still carrying her egg case on her spinnerets, and if you look closely, you can see the ghostly spiderling crawling up the egg case, and a delicate leg coming out of the egg case exit hole.

Wolf spider egg

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beans, Ready For Their Close-Ups

Logan Giant bean cotyledons

Green beans are not my favorite side dish, but I can't resist the plants for my garden--from the cotyledons of this Logan Giant seedling to the first little runners on the Cherokee Trail of Tears beans.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean runner

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Genomic Kiss-and-Tell

I've been following the goings-on of my former bosses, J. Craig Venter and Claire Fraser, for several years, but Forbes Magazine's online issue presents a handy summary of all the gossip since I fled the genome sequencing world. I worked for Craig and Claire from 1993 to 1999, longer than most scientists and technicians lasted. For several years, I found their Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) a stimulating, fun, and well-paying place to work.

The article portrays Craig as arrogant and Claire as more reasonable.

TIGR researchers had worked in lockstep behind Venter. But Fraser nurtured a more independent approach, akin to that of a university faculty. TIGR thrived and developed a reputation for understanding the genes of scary germs....

Perhaps the author favors Claire because Craig "won" and Fraser "lost" in the struggle for control of The Institute for Genomic Research (Now part of the J. Craig Venter Institute--why wait for someone else to name something after you?), or perhaps it is because Claire presents herself well to men, including journalists. Certainly, my own departure from TIGR was precipitated by Claire's "management style."

...Venter jumped at the chance for the big job, sequencing the entire human genome, at the biotech Celera. He took a select group of TIGR's best and brightest with him, creating hurt feelings among those left behind.

Researchers regularly jumped ship from TIGR, and in 1998 Craig took the remaining coworkers that had made TIGR enjoyable for me. Several people who felt "left behind" were able to get Celera jobs, but it didn't look like an attractive workplace for me. I could see then my days at TIGR were numbered. My work just wasn't interesting after Claire arbitrarily moved me from bioinformatics into microbial physiology. I might as well have been moved to the accounting department.

Being the Bono of genetics allows him to fund audacious ideas that might otherwise be starved of support, but here's the thing to know about Venter: He warps the reality field around genetic research through sheer force of ego and showmanship. Lots of researchers are already crafting synthetic organisms by modifying the genes of existing germs, but Venter is going for an entirely man-made organism. It's a huge, stupendous goal, but he's also using the smallest and most fragile bacteria around. Lots of researchers have been decoding the genes of rare microbes, but only Venter did it by scooping up gallons of seawater from the deck of his 100-foot yacht....

The behaviors Forbes' journalist finds so appalling in Craig Venter are rampant at NIH and in Big Science at universities. If you want to see someone "warp a reality field," spend some time with James Watson. The only difference between Craig and NIH's bigshots is that, when NIH-ers tried to squash Craig like a bug, as is their wont, he slipped out of their reach and turned to venture capitalists and the media for support. I admired him for his inventiveness, and I found the grandiose "public relations" statements humorous.

The "Bono" projects are the same ones Craig was promoting to prospective employees like me in 1993, and I wrote a pile of proposals and overviews on these topics through the years. I think I recognized a fragment of my text in a recent press release. The SeaTIGR was my favorite scrapped project--a North Sea trawler refitted with luxury accommodations, it was intended to turn Craig into Jacques Cousteau and also to impress venture capitalists and visiting dignitaries. Unfortunately, no one installed any scientific equipment, and, lacking holds full of herring, the boat wallowed like a hog even in a light breeze. It was a seasickness machine.

Besides providing a paycheck, working for Craig let me rub elbows with venture capitalists and Nobel laureates. I got to meet senators, see $4000 suits up close, and visit the interiors of multi-million-dollar mansions in Potomac. Neither the expensive suits nor the huge houses were as nice as I expected. The newsmakers were an interesting mix. Some Nobel laureates, like Hamilton Smith (mentioned as Craig's workhorse in the Forbes article) are charming and truly brilliant, and some of them are like James Watson, who has never been accused of being a nice man. It was a very instructive experience, showing me I could leave the bright lights of the sequencing facility for Droop Mountain and never miss a thing.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Chrysomelid on Hillbilly Tomato

chrysomelid beetle on tomato leaf

I've been withholding this photo until I could identify the chrysomelid beetle making lace of my Hillbilly tomato plants, but I have had no success, even though these are familiar, common garden pests. There are just so many tiny little chrysomelids, and garden pest websites seem to lack any fondness for beetles, simply asserting that you kill them all the same way. (Presumably, God, who is inordinately fond of them, will sort them out.) Fortunately, my tomato plants have grown vigorously, and the leaves are now too tough for these little eating machines.

I've explored the possibility that this is the Three-Lined Potato Beetle, but I don't think ths picture is adequate for identification.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Some Linnaeus Links

Here are some exerpts from my collection of Web articles about Linnaeus. I think they give a good hint at the variety and complexity of their subject.

  • Linnaeus: The Name Giver from National Geographic:

    ....Find the "natural method" of arranging plants into groups, and you would have discovered God's own secret logic of biological creation, just as Isaac Newton had discovered God's physical mathematics. Linnaeus knew that he hadn't achieved that, not even with his 24-class sexual system, which was convenient but artificial. He couldn't see, couldn't imagine, that the most natural classification of species reflects their degree of relatedness based on evolutionary descent. But his passion for order--for seeking a natural order--did move taxonomy toward the insights later delivered by Charles Darwin.

    As for nomenclature, it contributes to the same purpose. "If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too," he wrote in Philosophia Botanica. Naming species, like arranging them, became increasingly problematic as more and more were discovered; the old-fashioned method, linking long chains of adjectives and references into fully descriptive labels, grew unwieldy.

  • Organization Man: Carl Linnaeus, born 300 years ago, brought order to nature's blooming, buzzing confusion from Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2007.

    ...He foreshadowed Darwin in his belief in a universal struggle for survival. He was the first to classify human beings in the same genus as other primates, and he grouped whales with mammals (previously they had been considered fish). He advocated biological control as a means of dealing with insect pests (he was particularly keen to find the invertebrate "lion" that would control bedbugs), and he understood the importance of biodiversity: "I do not know how the world could persist gracefully if but a single animal species were to vanish from it," he wrote in his journal. He even conjectured that micro-organisms "smaller than the motes dancing in a beam of light" might be responsible for transmitting contagious diseases--long before medicine embraced the idea of pathogens. Linnaeus dabbled in aquaculture, successfully growing pearls in freshwater mussels. And he gave an important tweak to the Celsius scale of temperature measurement. Anders Celsius, a Linnaeus contemporary, had designated the boiling point of water to be 0 degrees and the freezing point to be 100. It was Linnaeus' idea to flip the scale.

    Though he didn't follow his father into the ministry, Linnaeus remained a devout Lutheran throughout his life, despite the clash of his scientific views with his theological conclusions. Faith led him to believe that human beings are "candles in God's palace," reflecting the "creator's shining majesty." Science took him to a far bleaker conclusion. "Pathologically," he wrote, "you are a swollen bubble till you burst, dangling from a single strand of hair in one brief moment of fleeting time." The man who classified the living world even wondered why there was any diversity in nature at all. Why did the Creator not make the earth out of cheese, he mused, "which we worms could have gnawed while we grew up, lived, and multiplied?"

    Linnaeus struggled with pendulum-like swings between exuberance and depression, ego and angst. At one moment he was God's chosen instrument, at the next a miserable failure. "Had I had rope and English courage," he wrote to a colleague, "I should long ago have hanged myself." Even when he was made a member of the Swedish nobility in 1762, taking the name von Linné, he chose as part of his heraldic emblem an unprepossessing Lapland flower called Linnaea borealis--a plant named after him. He describes the delicate species as "lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief space," adding that it was named "from Linnaeus who resembles it."

  • UCMP Linnaeus page at University of California Museum of Paleontology's Web site. It features a portrait of Linnaeus as a young man, wearing a traditional Lapp costume (acquired during his collecting trip in Lapland in 1731).
    In his early years, Linnaeus believed that the species was not only real, but unchangeable -- as he wrote, Unitas in omni specie ordinem ducit (The invariability of species is the condition for order [in nature]). But Linnaeus observed how different species of plant might hybridize, to create forms which looked like new species. He abandoned the concept that species were fixed and invariable, and suggested that some -- perhaps most -- species in a genus might have arisen after the creation of the world, through hybridization. In his attempts to grow foreign plants in Sweden, Linnaeus also theorized that plant species might be altered through the process of acclimitization. Towards the end of his life, Linnaeus investigated what he thought were cases of crosses between genera, and suggested that, perhaps, new genera might also arise through hybridization.
  • Linne Herbarium's "Carl Linnaeus: Botanical History"
    Nils Linnaeus was a devoted amateur botanist and gardener. His enthusiasm was infectious on the young Carl who early in life becomes interested in botany and at the age of 5 got his own garden to take care of. In 1717 Carl began school in Växjö. His parents had early decided that their son should, like his father, become a priest. Carl was not interested, he preferred to spend his time in the nature. In school therefor he was called "little botanicus". He was not successful in school and the teachers advised Nils against to let his son become a priest. After advise from the teacher in natural science, Dr. Rothman, Carl instead got permission to study medicine.
  • Carl Linnaeus--Botanical History--Department of Phanerogamic Botany--Swedish Museum of Natural History. The biography matches the one above, but there are links to other resources of interest.
  • Uppsala University's "Linne Online"
    On this website Uppsala University presents research, with the origin taken from the works of one of the most famous professors through its history, namely Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) (1707 - 1778). You can learn more about:
    • The Life of Linnaeus--childhood, schools, carreer and family
    • Linnaeus and Pharmacy--a journey among the pharmaceuticals of Nature
    • Plants and Animals--biological diversity in the 18th century and today
    • Physics and the Cosmos--what Linnaeus did not know about the Cosmos
    • The History of Ideas--Linnaeus, his epoch, his view of nature and a journey through the history of ideas
    • Linnaeus and ecology--Linnaeus' thoughts of "The Economy of Nature"
  • Linnaeus2007--The Linnaeus Celebration. Not much about the man, but a lot of interesting things.
  • The Linnean Society has a celebration, and biographical material. Perhaps by the end of the year they will have something more impressive on the Web.
  • The King of Flowers: Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778 from The Swedish Institute's Linnaeus300 Web site. This Website is developing into something quite impressive.
    Legend has it that young Carl ingested a love of plants and flowers already in the womb, as his mother Christina Brodersonia feasted her eyes on the magnificent and unusual flowers in her husband's garden during her pregnancy. Carl Linnaeus wrote poetically himself about being born "just when the spring was at its loveliest and the cuckoo was proclaiming summer" - in May, that is. According to the myth, his cradle was garlanded with luscious flowers.
  • The Linnaean Correspondence--Life of Linnaeus. An interesting biographical sketch, timeline, and an index to manuscripts and letters viewable on-line.
  • Carl Linnaeus - Carl von Linné from Uppsala University's Systematic Botany Department
  • The Unfinished Journey of Carl Linnaeus--by Paul Alan Cox, a charming essay/lecture on Linnaeus' collecting trip in Lapland, with a dramatic interlude.
  • The Class of Carl Linnaeus by Jim Endersby from Times Online.

    In 1771, the Scottish naturalist William Smellie used an article in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (of which he was the main compiler) to attack the "alluring seductions" of the Linnaean system of plant classification. Smellie accused Linnaeus of taking his analogies "beyond all decent limits," claiming that the Swedish naturalist's books were enough to make even the most "obscene romance writer" blush. His outrage was shared by the English naturalist William Goodenough, who was appalled by Linnaeus' "disgusting names, his nomenclatural wantonness, vulgar lasciviousness, and the gross prurience of his mind."

    The subject of all this moral outrage was the methodus propria of plant classification, devised by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, better known by the Latinized version of his name as Linnaeus.

  • Strange Science Linnaeus article
    From the time it was introduced, the Linnaean system had both competition and detractors. Michel Adanson of France proposed a different system that organized plants globally, and incorporated indigenous terms to name them. (Linnaeus scoffed that many of those terms "can scarcely be pronounced by our tongues.") Buffon, meanwhile, argued that nature "advances by imperceptible nuances" that no naming system could capture. If Linnaeus's critics chafed at his naming system, they were truly disgusted by something else he publicized: Plants reproduce sexually. Up to that time, the gentle study of botany had been sufficiently delicate to serve as a pastime for well-bred ladies. Then Linnaeus ruined everything. The Reverend Richard Polwhele observed "boys and girls botanizing together" with horror; the Bishop of Carlisle doubted that "virtuous students" would be able to follow the indecent analogies. (Not everybody was as shocked as you might suspect. In the mid 18th century, a Finnish medical student traveling through Quebec, Canada observed that even "priests and Jesuits," apparently inspired by Linnaeus's finds about plant reproduction, cheerfully collecting.) "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" sniffed academician Johann Siegesbeck. But Linnaeus had the last laugh; he named an ugly little weed Siegesbeckia orientalis.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Raccoons and Linnaeus

Raccoon eating coleslaw

This raccoon is enjoying the post-Fourth-of-July leftovers much more than he enjoyed our neighbors' kids' fireworks. In past years, we've had whole raccoon families visiting the porchlight for bugs, ransacking the shed in search of anything at all, and keeping company with Princess (most tolerant of cats) on the porch. This year, we haven't seen as many, although if the dry weather continues, they'll be here looking for water.

I recalled something about Linnaeus and a raccoon, and a quick search turned up Peter D. Tillman's synopsis of the March 15 Nature article on Linnaeus' pet.

Sjupp was a gift from King Adolf Fredrik around 1740; he was imported from New Sweden, a colony on the Delaware river in North America. Linnaeus observed that "what he liked best were eggs, almonds, raisins, sugared cakes, sugar and fruit" -- and he wasn't shy about asking for them, frisking any visitor for treats, no doubt a startling experience, as it was for Linnaeus's gardener, who panicked at Sjupp's demands, and suffered ever after: "Every time he smelt him [the gardener], [Sjupp] began making a noise like a seagull, a sign that he was extremely angry," Linnaeus reported. He had a watercolor of Sjupp hung in his summerhouse.

Sjupp met a sad end in the jaws of a dog in 1747. Linnaeus then dissected poor Sjupp, and published his description later in 1747.

Monday, July 09, 2007

More Porch Light Visitors

Here are a few more visitors to the porchlight, from mid-June. The hot dry weather has put a damper on nocturnal insect visitors lately. The first insect is a caddisfly, the second a dobsonfly, and the third a handsome but small moth. I see many nature fans post specific epithets on their backyard bugs, but my inner taxonomist balks at this. An erroneous identification is worse than non at all, and these groups are way outside my field of expertise. They are pretty, whatever they are.

Caddisfly Stonefly Moth

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sock Progress, and Knitters' Support Groups

Red wool sock and a half, on Ford tractor

I present this bit of sock progress to maintain my credibility as a fiber arts/knitting blogger. I posted a picture of the beginning of this red sock in April. This week, I finished the first sock, and have started the second, which always goes faster for me--I'm no longer making pattern decisions, and there is sock-momentum.

I carried the first sock all over the place, with much progress happening during frequent visits to the dentist's waiting room and at the first and only meeting of the Hillsboro Knitters' Support Group in May. Organized and advertised by two volunteers at Gesundheit, the meeting attracted four knitters, including only one of the organizers. Now, given the local population density and the natural reservation of rural people, I thought this was a pretty good turn-out, but the other three attendees were evidently disappointed. Although we scheduled a June meeting, the meeting room was never reserved, and there's been no follow-up. Gesundheit volunteers come and go, sometimes abruptly, so that may explain the group's demise, but ever since, I've been picturing the disillusionment of the other ladies. The Gesundheit gals probably hoped to leave an active, self-sustaining community behind, the avid quilter hoped for something resembling the well-established local quilting groups, and the lonely young mom hoped for friends her own age.

My own disappointment has not been sharp enough to move me to action. In fact, I'm of two minds about knitting as a social activity. On the one hand, it's stimulating and fun to share ideas and projects with other people. On the other hand, I've had quite a few hostile encounters with strangers about my knitting. Unprovoked old harpies have approached me in airports and waiting rooms to tell me I'm "doing it wrong," yarn shop proprietors have been unpleasant and dismissive, and acquaintances have sniped about my taste in yarn, needles, and patterns. My neighbors are mannerly people, and I wouldn't expect anything like that from them, but perhaps I should just mind my own knitting.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Prunella vulgaris (Healall), and a Pollinator

Prunella vulgaris, heal-all

Prunella vulgaris, a species described by Linnaeus, is an Old World member of the mint family. You can find it here in any meadow or hay field. It's neither big nor showy, but I've always thought it is very pretty. It has many common names, but I know it as heal-all. If even a few of the medicinal uses listed in the following links have any validity, "panacea" would be an equally appropriate name.

Prunella vulgaris, heal-all, with bumblebee Prunella vulgaris, heal-all

Friday, July 06, 2007

Botanizing With Linnaeus

May 23 was Carl Linnaeus' 300 birthday, and this year, 2007, various organizations have uploaded commemorative Web sites and articles. Linnaeus is a fascinating figure, a favorite of mine, seldom given his due in modern treatments of biology. For example, I've always bridled at how explicators of evolution cast Linnaeus as the unenlightened old school against which Darwin rebelled. Firstly, picturing Darwin as a rebel is quite funny, and secondly, Linnaeus laid the groundwork for understanding many biological processes, including evolution.

Even my stumbling reading of his taxonomic work in Latin showed me that he really delighted in plants, and this article from National Geographic, Linnaeus: The Name Giver, indicates that he was inspiring and fun, at least if you were in his good graces.

His life back in Uppsala entailed more than authorship. He was a wonderful teacher, with a vivid speaking style, clear and witty, and a terrific memory for facts. His lectures often packed the hall, his private tutoring earned him extra money, and he made botany both empirical and fun by leading big festive field trips into the countryside on summer Saturdays, complete with picnic lunches, banners and kettledrums, and a bugle sounding whenever someone found a rare plant. He had the instincts of an impresario. But he was also quietly effective in mentoring the most talented and serious of his students, of whom more than a dozen went off on adventuresome natural history explorations around the world, faithfully sending data and specimens back to the old man. With his typically sublime absence of modesty, he called those travelers the "apostles." In 1761, the government ennobled him, whereupon he upgraded his linden-tree name to von Linné. By then he was the most famous naturalist in Europe.

I've been in the field with entomologists, birders, and botanists, and botanists are definitely the most fun to travel with. Now I know it's a Linnaean tradition.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Leptopterna dolobrata

Leptopterna dolobrata

Leptopterna dolobrata is one of Linnaeus' own species, from the 1758 edition of Systema Natura. Although these mirids are reported from all sorts of grasses, I invariably find it on Dactylis glomerata (Orchard Grass), another Linnaeus species. I assume the mirid arrived in North America with its introduced host plant. It is much collected incidentally by researchers looking for other things, so most specimens in collections are sorry-looking, battered things, but in life they are handsome insects with orange coria on the males and green on the females. The adults in these photos were intent on making more Leptopterna dolobratae, and were apt to fly away. In flight they are rather slow, and of a size to be confused with nondescript "flies."

Leptopterna dolobrata Leptopterna dolobrata

Leptopterna dolobrata has the same Boola-Boola rhythm as Oncopeltus fasciatus, but the juxtaposition of the p's and t's keeps it from rolling off the tongue with the same ease. (Now you know my secret method for learning taxonomic names--in plant taxonomy class, we used to sing them.)

Leptopterna dolobrata mating pair Leptopterna dolobrata, mating pair

Some Leptopterna dolobrata and Dactylus glomerulus photos and references:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fun With Flies On the Fourth

Tephritid fly, showing head and mouthparts Tephritid fly showing abdomen and wings in courtship position

Flies are fascinating, horrifying, beautiful, ordinary, and really hard to photograph. The fly in the first two photos is "tephritoid," a new "hedge-your-bets" word I just discovered. It means it's either a member of the Tephritidae, the "True Fruit Flies," or in the same super-family.

This fly is a Picture-Winged Fly, Otitidae. It's both tiny and fast-moving, and the unusual wing tilt (also seen in the previous fly) is part of courtship behavior. The otitids are also tephritoid flies.

Picture-Winged Fly, in courtship mode

This robber fly (family Asilidae) has excellent vision and great agility, and never let me get close as I wanted for a portrait.

Robber fly Robber fly

Some fly links:

  • The Diptera Site--Information about the World's flies
  • Dr. Seuss's "Ann Anopheles"
    This Dr. Seuss piece on Ann was originally printed on the backside of NEWSMAP, distributed by the United States Army Orientation Course, overseas edition, volume II, number 29 [week of October 28 - November 4, 1943]. The piece was originally intended for GIs serving in the tropics. Therefore, some text may be considered dated, and NOT completely appropriate for very young children.