25 March 2008

The end of this quest

A great quest ends, not in "answers", but questions.

Ending this blog with a companionable greeting to all you questers everywhere – dirty with delving, riddled with confusion. Hearing, all of you, the resonance of bells that strike your minds. You know that the saying, "All good things come to an end" is as infinitely stupid as curiosity is, to a happy quester, infinite.

The greatest conservationists have no brains

They are simple, slow – and when times are bad, not even green.

These, just outside my door, were brown and hard as scabs, and as lively as students after all-nighters for most of the past 10 years of drought.

But after rain:

moss Triquetrella papillata with capsule
Bryophytes do not have roots, but are anchored by fine, hair-like rhizoids. Some species have a waxy covering and other adaptations that reduce water loss, but most do not, so that it might be expected that they cannot cope with desiccation for very long. Yet most have the remarkable ability to dry out almost to a crisp, then rehydrate with the first drop of rain and begin to photosynthesise almost immediately.
– David Meagher and Bruce Fuhrer, A field guide to the mosses & allied plants of southern Australia, Australian Biological Resources Study and The Field Naturalists Club of Victoria
Triquetrella papillata

A moss is a university, so much could we learn from it. Yet we treat mosses and their allies like codfish and the sea.
There is a lot of worry about how Sphagnum is being harvested for horticulture. I remember the time I opened a bale of Sphagnum and found a tiny, dead pitcher plant dried up with the moss. It broke my heart.
– Kay Klier, Biology Department, UNI, What is this controversy I hear about Sphagnum and peat bogs? The International Carnivorous Plant Society
(Another must-read from the Society: Are there any vegetarian carnivorous plants?)

22 March 2008

Optical illusions, spiders and waspishness

This spider on a printed surface

is one of the wasp-preserved that I showed you here a few days ago.

I placed it on the grey cover of The Workers' Paradise, the recently published anthology I wrote about here.

More pictures, taken yesterday, of this food and others chosen by the same wasp. Although now some days old and treated by me, with shaky hand and a pair of tweezers, as roughly as a warfie's forklift to a crate of whisky, they still look remarkably fresh, yet something more . . .

These are only a few of the many tiny spiders pulled from the smashed chambers made by that mud dauber, but each and every spider has one thing in common. They are so beautifully backed (and in many cases, fronted) that carpets less gorgeous have been the cause of murders.

A wasp couldn't be low enough on the intelligence scale to be swayed by packaging?

Or could these spiders be nutritionally superior as well as visually stimulating? If so, the definition of waspish should be changed from the warped "easily annoyed or angered" that more accurately defines our species, which reacts to the presence of wasps with thoughts of kill.

The wasps that filled these chambers were not only industrious to a fault but surprisingly tolerant of this gawking watcher. I have put my face to their backsides while they work, and they don't even change their 'happy' as some wasp-watchers have called it, hmmm.

As for their taste, we can but aspire to such discernment.

But you might like an update on the little wasp grubs in the nest that was not destroyed. Here they are in a photo taken five minutes ago, not so little any more. Sorry about the blurring in the left-hand chamber. The babe is shifting its body as it eats.

Lookdown at the lookout

If you, like me till a relative moment ago, think cryptogam means a leg with a secret, see The Australian National Botanic Gardens' fascinating Other Cryptogams.

Slightly jargonish but informative nonetheless, is Lichen Biology, part of the University of Sydney's extensive "Fungal Biology".

But "Other?" you say. Never fear. As Other Cryptogams says, "...even experienced bryologists occasionally get confused."

Bryologists now!
If you're confused by that (and who isn't, except for some other -ologists) go get unconfused and potentially obnoxiously informed, by The Australian National Botanic Gardens'
Bryophytes: the world of hornworts, liverworts and mosses

A fantastic field guide
I highly recommend A Field Guide to the mosses and allied plants of southern Australia by David Meagher and Bruce Fuhrer, published by (and available from) the Australian Biological Resources Study and The Field Naturalists Club of Victoria. The pictures are just what this amateur needs, and the thrill of being able to stick little bits of "found this" paper in the book is something I don't have words for. Especially the 'rare' capsule, about which possibly more, later.

And finally, a confession
Though my knees are dirty from crawling, I confess to be horridly disappointed that I have not yet found (or recognised?) a hornwort.

17 March 2008

Fresher than that from "the fresh food people"

"How immensely superior to our own pickling processes is that of the Wasp!" *

"certain of fresh meat until their banquet is finished" **
* & ** – J. H. Fabre, The Hunting Wasps, 1916

Mud wasp grubs (Family Vespidae) and smörgåsbord of spiders

"Apples on sale in supermarkets are up to 10 months old, an investigation by The Sun-Herald has revealed.

Woolworths, which advertises itself as "the fresh food people", was the worst culprit, with the oldest products on sale.

The Sun-Herald bought samples of Granny Smiths from Woolworths, Coles and the Norton Street Grocer in Bondi Junction after learning that, within the industry, some products are nicknamed "birthday apples" because they are up to a year old by the time they hit the shelves.

All the samples were Australian-grown.

The apples are kept in cold storage under controlled conditions from the time they are picked."

"Our tests show supermarket apples are up to 10 months old", Sydney Morning Herald, January 20, 2008

A spider a day, and Mum's the word
This is another nest, unfortunately broken but also packed with a spider assortment including the gorgeous St Andrews Cross, various luscious green Crabs, what I think is a Lynx that was not fast enough; and the exotic banquet-size Camel Spider Leucauge dromedaria, not shown below but shining hugely green and striped black and silver-white in the undisturbed right-hand chamber above.
That brilliant blue bit of shell in the foreground is something else . . .

The cuckoo in paradise

18/3 NOTE: For those of you losing sleep over the scene of ruin, those grubs have been quartered in other accomodation, where they are waxing fat.

10 March 2008

The sleep of bees

"Blue banded bees are not at all aggressive" says the Australian Native Bee Research Centre.

That is the first question asked about so many species. It's good to know the answer, but funny as too-tight shoes since our obnoxiousness to them is so often off the chart– especially when there's a camera involved.

No worries! The aggression is all mine

These are Common Blue-banded Bees or Blue Banded Bees (Amegilla cingulata) – males, settled for the night on a sorrel stem.
A number of bees, including the Green & Gold Bee, sleep in large groups of 8 or more. They also fight for their special resting spot with others in the group. These sleeping areas, usually only occupied by males, are simply a small branch or leaf to which the bees cling with their jaws.
– Simon Brown, Native Bees, Willoughby City Council Bushcare News
As I didn't know what they are nor what they were doing (if in doubt, the rules are: If it's people involved, it's a religious rite. If it's other species, it's s**) and as it was breezy, I not only took hold of their place of rest but twisted it around and over while I palpated the camera with my other hand.

Although I didn't ring their legs, notch their wings, glue radio transmitters to their backs (let alone have collecting glints in my eyes) one of the disturbed sleepers eventually fled, leaving the other to grip grimly, all alone. Here's a closeup of those jaws:

What is sleep to bees?

What role do eyelids play in sleep?

Do bees dream?

What does aggressive mean?

For more about these fascinating bees, including where those fortunate females sleep, see:
Blue-banded Bee by Warren and Gloria Sheather, Yallaroo Wildlife (A wonderful place!)
As they say, Unfortunately many gardeners have been conditioned to reach for poisons as soon as they see something with six legs and wings.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Gardening Australia Fact Sheet: Bees

To sleep, perchance to dream
beside you, brother, on this sorrel stem,

but no! Methinks to scream

but I can only Zzzzzzzz.

O! Wo- and men.

09 March 2008

Early 21st century art

Variation on a theme of Man Ray

Self-portrait with installation

The artist, B. Insignis, was unwilling or unable to be interviewed on the subject of self-as-subject. Perhaps it was a case of premonitive self-exclusion, given that Insignis' work isn't considered art by the art community, and will never win a prize.
Tony Schwensen cleverly staged his endurance video Weighty Weight Wait (2006) in the packing-room of the gallery, which has traditionally played the role of ‘cheeky’ annex to the Archibald Prize. With artists like Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and Ulay as exemplars, Schwensen’s twenty-four hours on the scales drew a neat line back through the historical use of video in conceptual performance, while remaining relevant to the artist-as-subject theme that is an undercurrent in all ‘prizes’ . . . This award offered a faithful and resonant affirmation to counter the faint-praise of the non-believers. To those who devalue the intrinsic worth of video art, desire it to be relegated to other screenic forms, who seek the digestive calm of attractive paintings and photographic portrait prizes, it must be said: “No, no, no, no.”
–Dougal Phillips, "Noun Torture" Broadsheet for the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media Arts, Art Galley of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 November 2006 - 11 February 2007

03 March 2008

from The Society's* Gallery

I remember when I was at Lilliput, the complexion of those diminutive people appeared to me the fairest in the world; and talking upon this subject with a person of learning there, who was an intimate friend of mine, he said that my face appeared much fairer and smoother when he looked on me from the ground, than it did upon a nearer view, when I took him up in my hand, and brought him close, which he confessed was at first a very shocking sight. He said, "he could discover great holes in my skin; that the stumps of my beard were ten times stronger than the bristles of a boar, and my complexion made up of several colours altogether disagreeable:" although I must beg leave to say for myself, that I am as fair as most of my sex and country, and very little sunburnt by all my travels.
Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift

*The Society for Unclean Enjoyment

01 March 2008

Ukridge and Edwin (of the daily acts of kindness) rise again

Great characters never die. They just reappear in different names — and once in a while, a character emerges who is two greats for the price of one (or in this case, for barter).
"After spending a night sleeping in a French toilet we arose full of spirit. The world was our oyster and we were ready to commit as many random acts of kindness as they could handle."
- Mark Boyle, quoted in this modern classic:
Pilgrim's trip to India ends at Calais as 'peace walk' is lost in translation by James McIntyre, The Independent, I March 2008

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
"Edwin was her young brother, who was spending his holidays at Easeby. He was a ferret-faced kid, whom I had disliked since birth . . . it was young blighted Edwin who, nine years before, had led his father to where I was smoking his cigar and caused all the unpleasantness. He was fourteen now and had just joined the Boy Scouts. He was one of those thorough kids, and took his responsibilities pretty seriously. He was always in a sort of fever because he was dropping behind schedule with his daily acts of kindness. However hard he tried, he'd fall behind; and then you would find him prowling about the house, setting such a clip to try and catch up with himself that Easeby was rapidly becoming a perfect hell for man and beast."
- Bertie Wooster, quoted in "Jeeves Takes Charge" by P.G. Wodehouse, The Saturday Evening Post, 28 November,1916
"Ukridge was the sort of man who asks you out to dinner, borrows the money from you to pay the bill, and winds up the evening by embroiling you in a fight with a cabman."
– Jeremy Garnet, describing a visitor he first tries to escape from before the inevitable happens. Ukridge embroils him in Love Among the Chickens, until, after magnificent failure, Garnet looks upon the great Ukridge gazing silently out over the waters and says to us: The dark moments of optimistic minds are sacred.
And wouldn't you know it. Only paragraphs later:
You cannot keep a good man down, and already Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge was himself again. His eyes sparkled buoyantly behind their pince-nez.

"Garny, old horse, I've been thinking, laddie! I've got an idea! The idea of a lifetime. The best ever, 'pon my Sam! I'm going to start a duck farm!"

"A duck farm?"

"A duck farm, laddie! And run it without water. My theory is, you see, that ducks get thin by taking exercise and swimming about all over the place, so that, if you kept them always on land, they'd get jolly fat in about half the time--and no trouble and expense. See? What? Not a flaw in it, old horse! I've thought the whole thing out." He took my arm affectionately.
"Not only," [says the smarting Mark Boyle] "did one not speak the language, they also see us as just a bunch freeloading backpackers, which is the complete opposite of what the pilgrimage is really about." . . . His original aim was to walk between 15 and 45 miles a day through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, before ending the mammoth journey in Porbandar, the west coast Indian town.

But Mr Boyle has now modified his ambition. "I will leave Brighton, on the south coast of the UK ... on foot with the same passion I had the day I left Bristol," he wrote. "Whilst walking in the UK I intend to learn French and to hit the continent again."

29 February 2008

The caterpillar, the afflicted leaf, and sea slugs

"It looks like a nudibranch," he said. And though it's only a landlubber, it does have that outrageously foudroyant* appeal.

So should sea slugs be called (in our vulgar common parlance) sea caterpillars?

Or, because
1) sea slugs cavorted way before caterpillars (let alone slugs) were even a glimmer in the big He's eye; and
2) since the sea is more what Earth is than land—
should caterpillars be called land (or false, or more modernly: aspirational) nudibranchs?

Whatever it's called, this

living caterpillar was found on this leaf

and is, I think, closely related to the powerful cup moth desiccating caterpillar featured earlier this month.

Here's a closeup of the afflicted leaf.which leads irresistibly to Patti Baugh's "Sea's Candies", and the rest of this site: nudibranch.com.au with splendid photos by Gary Cobb and David Mullins. Wander in the gallery. Stop by the beautiful and informative book, Undersea Jewels: A Colour Guide to the Nudibranch by Gary Cobb and Richard Willan.

Gary is described as a "nudibranch fanatic". But as anyone who's ever read my Virtuous Medlar Circle features knows because they've been launched on an adventure by the invited confession of the great Hans Bertsch: Why I like Nudibranchs — it's impossible to be a fanatic about nudibranchs. To know them is to be besotted. Their colours, shapes, their moves can lead sensible scientists to intemperate language—and if they knew, who knows what passions possible in the hearts of lepidoptera?

28 February 2008

Tristaniopsis laurina and friends

Bearing flowers that would look at home in the sea,

lovely creamy bark,
and shiny green leaves, the Tristaniopsis laurina (commonly called Kanooka, Kanuka, or Water Gum) is a small tree that is so beautiful, it has caught the eye of industry and inevitably been tarted up as a coarse, blowsy creature "well suited for use in street tree plantings".
Luscious is the new denser improved form of Tristaniopsis laurina. The Luscious features larger, shinier leaves almost double the size of the common... - Product News, Spec-Net
The pictures here are not of Luscious, but of the plant as described in the Australian National Botanical Gardens' site, so informative that I will just say Read: Tristaniopsis laurina.

The site says: Scale insects commonly attack this species and leaf-hoppers and leaf-eating beetles occasionally attack the leaves.

Not with these protectors!

Praying mantis instar nymphs on Tristaniopsis laurina

I could guess, but am not game to specify which species these mantids are, nor whether they're, say, the 4th or 5th instar stage of development.
At the Natural History Museum's restaurant
Waiter! There's a soup in my ministralis.

Sorry sir. We've run out of flies.
For an excellent post on mantids and the difficulties identification pleases to pose, see Gaye from the Hunter's #18 A mantid out of its territory.
And btw, this isn't the first time I've recommended her fascinating blog, Hunter Valley Backyard Nature.

And see the Chew family's Mantids page in their Insects in Brisbane site to find out much more than just about insects in Brisbane. This also gives me a chance to highly recommend their new
Insects and Spiders CD - Version 2007, and to say again that I think their site is one of the best and most generous on the web.

People like Gaye and the Chews are invaluable explorers.

But getting back to the water gum that is not a gum
Beauty is often beyond the beholder's grasp. If only you could smell these leaves, crush them between your fingers. Their fragrance is what first attracted me to this tree, and it is that scent that leads me to wherever it grows – in dense, shady tangles by a creek, in dips and places where runoff water is sure to reach. It is not a packaged-perfume scent. Far more than that.

The fragrance is what the tropics should smell like on an island combed by a breeze. Pineapple, bergamot, star fruit, camphor, bay, coriander seeds, basil, woodmoss and that delicious and sinuously clad charmer, the salak or snakefruit; with a topnote of a healthy ten-year-old boy.

Although it's related, it doesn't smell like any eucalypt I've met.

Refreshing, invigorating, seductive, and, uh, that description is utterly inadequate. I can't pin its scent down – illusive as fog in the hand. But it's one of those smells that never cloys. It's as lovely and classy as its flowers and the size of its leaves.

23 February 2008

A persimmon calyx

On the tip of his tongue

A great doctor swallows your dose for you.

Read Dr. Metablog's John Milton and Docosahexaenoic Acid
When I woke up next morning, there it was on the tip of my tongue (or the top of my brain) -– another line and a half of the sonnet: “Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled/ Mother with infant down the rocks.” Could it have been the DHA? Or did I do it all by myself?

22 February 2008

News on The Sunshine Project from New Scientist

Just out, an astounding piece on The Sunshine Project by Peter Aldhous, San Francisco Bureau Chief for New Scientist.

The title is Sunshine snuffed out, but as Aldhous makes abundantly clear, it would be pathetically easy to bring the sun out again.

Butner blogspot has also been following not only the Project's work, but Ed Hammond's Congressional Testimony, so see Butner's hours-old Sunshine Project Needs Our Help

Putting that laughable
$53,000 in perspective.

"The NIH total Biodefense budget level is $1,891 million, an increase of $110 million and 6.2 percent over FY 2006."
(US) National Institutes of Health Summary of the FY 2007 President's Budget

20 February 2008


The Sunshine Project - not RIP, but mayday

The Sunshine Project dead? Or are the RIP and Sun Sets headlines premature?
The end of their operations would create a vacuum. We'll go back to silence.
- Richard H. Ebright, professor of microbiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J
"Citizens Education Project would like to thank Ed Hammond and the Sunshine Project for their amazing contribution in monitoring chemical and biological issues. They will be sorely missed."
...in the past few years the bulk of the Sunshine Project's work focused on biodefense research in the United States, which rapidly expanded after the Sep 11 terrorist attacks. Much of the increase in biodefense research has been funded by Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion program passed in 2004 to speed the development of drugs and vaccines to combat the effects of biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiologic agents. The Sunshine Project had said it supported closer federal oversight of US biodefense labs, including legal reforms, mandatory accident reporting, and increased transparency
CIDRAP (Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, University of Minnesota)
A dirge too soon
This is the original headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ed Hammond is obsessed with Sunshine, not fundraising or a cushy life, but is that any reason to let the Project die when it would be so bloody easy (and cheap) to revive and keep going something so beneficial to us all?

19 February 2008

Is that an exoskeleton between your teeth?

Hearty congrats to Spencer Pate for winning an hon mensh in the VanderMeer New Weird Contest where the wonderfully weirdphilic winners are 'semi-anonymous' but their entries are boldly exposed.

And Spencer's entrée?

Read his Night of the Living Crickets with a glass of milk before bed.

18 February 2008

Deliciously coloured, but dropped as inedible

One of two beak-mangled Podacanthus typhon wings found together on the ground (they are so light that one flew off on a gust) in a coastal forest weird with scribbly gum, tea tree and bottlebrush.

17 February 2008

Alistair Rennie's eye

Picking on Alistair Rennie again, now to his sleighty eye.

His Shed at the end of the world teases unmercifully. Of all human structures, sheds must be the most mysterious. What does this one hold? Are there tool (or other) rituals associated with it? Are the contents held fast, and how? How does it react to the Elements?

And where is the end of the world?

I used to think that Alistair Rennie, man of mountains and -scapes, has the eye of an ungulate.

But that tease! He's got the eye of yet another species I can't identify, and he either stooped (or stumbled?) to write "The Gutter that Sees the Light that Never Shines", his brilliant story in this just-released anthology, The New Weird edited by
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

Lichen population(s?)

The study of lichen population biology has been lagging behind that of other groups of organisms, mostly due to technical problems rather than a lack of interest. Basic questions about lichen dispersal, biogeography, speciation and evolution are still largely unanswered because of this lack of population studies.
"Local population subdivision in the lichen Cladonia subcervicornis as revealed by mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 intron sequences",
by Christian Printzen and Stefan Ekman (Universitetet i Bergen, Botanisk Institutt, Allégaten 41, N-5007 Bergen, Norway), Mycologia, 95(3), 2003, pp. 399-406, published by The Mycological Society of America

15 February 2008

Buttermoths anonymous

Alistair Rennie's punningly titled beautiful winged creatures had me smiling healthily but oh-so-quickly thinking correcting thoughts. Look at those club antennae, that bright colour, the way their wings are held open, and . . .

But Hah!

I can't cry that I wrote Lolita
So thank you, Alistair, for liberating my ignorant admiration, my lack of knowledge for proper identification. Now I can post a portrait of a beauty I cannot put a name to.

For lack of an expert, my name is '?'

"How can they say they know me?"

13 February 2008

"Whatever happened to the Enlightenment?"

I've railed before about the growth of theocracy in Australia, but what Chris Lawson reports is brimstonic. The pictures he posts are almost unbelievable.
The sad fact remains that the RE (Religious Education) that I experienced in a private high-Anglican grammar school thirty years ago was more open-minded and educational than what is being taught in supposedly secular government schools today.
– Chris Lawson, Religious education in Australia today, Talking Squid

Religious education for all
When it comes to our schools, I am fervently in favour of religious education – a national curriculum, in fact. The curriculum would be, for every student in Australia, a complete education in:
  • History of religions
  • History of philosophies
  • Sacred texts
  • History of religions' involvement and imposition in public life, and of the secular movements to liberate people from them.
If students know the history of religions, they will be able to compare gods, goddesses, myths and so-called miracles. They will know, for instance, what happened to Mrs God.

They will know about Galileo's problems, the Scopes trial, and the reforms of Ataturk.

And since they'll also know the history of religions in public life, they will be able to assess what they want their taxes to support when they grow up–but well before that, they'll be able to use their brains for what brains are for–thinking instead of just soaking up dogma.

Rail is a funny word. If one person rails, that's a whinge. But two rails make a road.

11 February 2008

Spinerette envy

This lovely female looks the picture of what Ron Atkinson of the University of Queensland, in his excellent online Find-a-Spider Guide, calls a 'melanic female' (what makes them melanic?) of the species Austracantha minax, commonly known as the 'spiny', 'Christmas', or

'jewel' spider.

Although it is written that these spiders live in communal groups, as far as I could see, the populace lives not like that in some paradisiacal Leninville, but like people in modern inner-cities. Each spider is busy on her own web, and just as people don't react the same to evangelists at their doors, there is individualism in each spider's attitude to botherers.

The typical female did nothing when we humans visited till her web was touched, when she ran from the centre of her web to a guy-wire, and waited. But one melanic female surprised us by staying in the centre of her web and vibrating it at the sound of our voices, however quiet. She shook her web till it looked like a waterbed under, say, a dogfight.

Over the past month, this group has been very visible, both the bright and the dark. There were, in early December, about 8 females in a square metre, and then one day in late December there were none. A few days later on an overcast morning there were 8 again (whether they were the same ones as before, I never got to know them well enough to say) just about two metres from their original site, each at the same distance from her neighbour, and each building her new web.

The Austracantha minax does not build a web a day, but every female is keen on doing repairs and has a strong opinion on what thickness each line should be.

This particular group lives just above (human) knee-high heath about 100 metres inland from a sandy ocean beach.

The males are pathetically small, and not only did I not see one moving — the only one I saw looked more an uninviting morsel than a male.