NatGeo and social media on the Tonga eruption

There’s a lot of news and info online about the recent volcanic eruptions in Tonga, which occurred yesterday.

NatGeo has put together an explainer, covering everything from the tsunami warnings to sonic booms heard in and around Tonga:

Just a few weeks ago, a submarine volcano identifiable by two small uninhabitable islands in the Kingdom of Tonga began to erupt. Its outburst initially seemed innocuous, with ashen plumes and moderate explosions that few people living outside the archipelago noticed.

But in the past 24 hours, that volcano, named Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, forced the world to sit up and pay attention.

After a moment of calm earlier this month, its eruptive activity turned increasingly violent. The middle section of the island vanished on satellite imagery. Towering columns of ash began to produce record-breaking amounts of lightning.

There are also some interesting data visualisations from Reddit and Twitter if you’re into that sort of thing:

Volcano related: would you like a slice of volcano pizza and photos of La Soufrière’s eruption on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent

The blue cows of Latvia

blue cow

France24 reports that the once-ultra rare blue cows of Latvia are making a comeback:

The unique and hardy breed, driven to near extinction during the Soviet era, has made a comeback over the last few decades as an unlikely symbol of Latvian national identity.

“Their worst days are over,” said Arnis Bergmanis, head of the Ciruli animal park in the village of Kalvene, which serves as a breeding facility for the cattle.

“Blue cows are unique and wonderful. I’m glad we can help them thrive,” he told AFP while examining a baby calf.

In 2000 there were only 18 blue cows in Latvia, but today they number around 1,500 — thoroughbreds as well as hybrids.

Now imagining blue milk and blue chee-

Cow related: Daughters, milking cows, and etymological debates

Jago Hazzard on Phoenix Garden in West London

The Hidden Garden in the West End

Hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of West London is Phoenix Garden, community garden and registered charity. The garden is located near Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road and started life as a site for houses and a pub before it became a WWII bomb site, then a car park and finally a garden. As Jago explains, the garden nearly closed permanently in 2016 but reopened in 2017 thanks to charitable donations. And if like me, you recognised it from a recent film, that’s because it featured in the 2019 film, Last Christmas starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding.

L'évolution en voie d'Illumination

L'évolution en voie d'Illumination, la fabuleuse déambulation nocturne du Jardin des Plantes, vidéo

I saw this on the news yesterday and had to write about it. L’évolution en voie d’Illumination (Or ‘Illuminated Evolution’) is a spectacular night show exploring the evolution of life over the course of 600 million years. The show is held at Jardin des Plantes in Paris and goes through 4 eras of evolution, from the Precambrian times to the present day, with a load of dinosaurs, prehistoric insects, and sabretooth tigers in vibrant coloured lights.

Over a hundred new luminous structures, the fruit of the research and reconstruction work of the Muséum’s palaeontologists, represent the astonishing species that have inhabited the Earth over the last 600 million years. You will find there the “celebrities” of the past, such as dinosaurs, but also lesser-known species that will astound you with their astonishing forms and unique living habits.

All the species presented here existed in the past, but are now extinct.

Illuminated Evolution combines art, science and poetry.

If you’re in Paris (and it’s safe to visit), I highly recommend you do so.

Guy Shrubsole’s ambitious plan to map Britain's rainforests

Atlas Obscura spoke to Guy Shrubsole about his conversation project aiming to map the rainforests of Britain:

Woodland conservationists consider the few fragments of ancient temperate rainforests that survive in Britain to be in more danger than their tropical counterparts, says Shrubsole, who describes himself as a “very amateur, but very enthusiastic naturalist.” “Knowing where the rainforests are is a crucial part of knowing how to save them,” he says. So Shrubsole, using crowdsourced information collected through his Lost Rainforests of Britain website, has begun plotting Britain’s first comprehensive rainforest map.

I had no idea Britain had rainforests but, after reading, these aren’t the same kind as you find in the Amazon. Due to the wet and mild conditions, Britain has temperate rainforests where plants called epiphytes can grow on other plants. It’s an interesting project and I wish Guy the best of luck.

The Woodland Trust has a great page on temperate rainforests, noting that they’re possibly more threatened than tropical rainforests like the Amazon. But I think we need to save them all regardless of priority. Damn humans and their pollution and expediting of climate change.

The 13 birds of Christmas

Stephen Moss compiled a list of the 13 birds most associated with Christmas. Most of them are from The Twelve Days of Christmas with a bonus bird:

Like many ancient rhymes, stories and songs, The Twelve Days of Christmas has been the subject of countless explanations of its ‘real meaning’. Some have suggested that it is an ancient version of a wedding list – a series of increasingly lavish gifts presented to a married couple, from a humble partridge to an entire drumming band.

Others have seen a more sinister meaning in the verse, speculating that it was originally written in code during the Protestant Reformation, to teach Catholic children their faith. In this interpretation, three French hens represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; four colly birds, the gospels; 12 drummers drumming the Apostles, and so on.

As a lifelong birder, I have another suggestion: that each of the carol’s 12 lines represents a bird. Given that the first four lines, along with the sixth and seventh, are explicitly avian, I suggest that the whole verse was originally written to celebrate 12 different birds.

Spoiler alert: the 13th bird of Christmas is the robin but the reasons Moss gave for why this is are particularly interesting, from biblical robins to 19th-century postmen.

Figs and wasps: a mutual relationship

Do Figs Really Have Dead Wasps In Them?

My mum reminded me that I explained how figs were formed a while ago (I’d completely forgotten this but I blame that on the pandemic). The above video explains how wasps play a pivotal role in the survival of figs (their relationship is known as mutualism) but here’s a brief excerpt from Julie R. Thomson:

In simple terms, figs are technically not a fruit ― they are inverted flowers. Fig trees don’t flower like apples and peaches. Their flowers bloom inside the pear-shaped pod, which later matures into the fruit we eat. Each flower then produces a single, one-seeded, hard-shelled fruit called achene ― that’s what gives the fig the crunch we know ― and the fig is made up of multiple achene. So when we eat a fig we are actually eating multiple fruits.

But that’s not the end of the uniqueness that sets the fig apart.

Because fig flowers bloom internally, they need a special process for pollination. They cannot rely on the wind or bees to spread their pollen ― that’s where the fig wasp comes in. The fig cannot survive without the fig wasp to spread its genetic material, and the fig wasp cannot live without the fig, because that’s where it lays its larva ― this relationship is known as mutualism.

The female fig wasp enters the male fig ― we don’t eat the male figs, by the way ― to lay its eggs. The male fig is shaped in a way to accommodate the laying of wasp eggs. The female wasp’s wings and antennae break off when entering the small passage in the fig so once it’s in, there is no way out. It’s up to the baby wasps to continue the life cycle. Male baby wasps are born without wings, because their sole purpose is to mate with the female offspring ― technically their sister ― and dig a tunnel out of the fig. It’s the female offspring that make the journey out, bringing pollen with them.

If a fig wasp enters a female fig accidentally ― the ones we eat ― instead of a male one, there is no room in the interior for it to reproduce. And it cannot escape, because its wings and antennae have broken off. So the wasp dies inside, which is unfortunate but necessary because that’s how it delivers the pollen giving us the fruit we love.

Because of this relationship, figs aren’t considered vegan.

What is it with wasps and weird relationships with nature?

The cultural taboos of pointing at rainbows

TIL: it’s a no-no to point at a rainbow in many cultures around the world.

Robert Blust has spent the last few years exploring these rainbow-pointing taboos and why they all exist. His first encounter with the belief came in 1980 in Jakarta, when he was a university professor:

[…] One of the teachers, seeing Blust’s gesture, politely informed him that, in Sumatra, pointing to rainbows was considered a no-no. Another chimed in to say the same was true where he came from, in a different part of the archipelago. Both had learned as children that if you broke the taboo, your finger would become bent like a rainbow.

He later found that the forbidden gesture wasn’t specific to south-eastern Asia:

Blust began to cast a wider net. He sent questionnaires to colleagues and missionary stations around the world, inquiring about rainbows and taboos related to them. He would soon amass evidence for the rainbow taboo—in some form or another—in 124 cultures. The prohibition turned up in North America, among the Atsugewi of northern California and the Lakota of the northern plains; in remote parts of Australia and isolated islands in Melanesia; among the Nyabwa of Ivory Coast and the Kaiwá of Brazil. At one time it was present in Europe, too: one of the Grimm brothers noted it in his book on German mythology. The belief was not found in every culture, according to Blust’s search, but it was present globally, across all inhabited regions.

Although the reasons differ, the general idea behind the rainbow-pointing taboo is bad luck. I wonder how many “successful” or otherwise happy people have done it and how it affected them, if at all. And does it count for rainbow drawings (of which there have been loads in the UK during the pandemic)? Cultural anthropology is fascinating.

(via Atlas Obscura)

It's a federal crime to sell a pig carcass if it has a 'pronounced sexual odor.'

When I first read that quote from Mike Chase, a criminal defence lawyer, I had to re-read it about 4 times before I looked into what it meant. Krissy Clark explained what a ‘pronounced sexual odor’ was in more detail and it makes sense:

Between 10 and 20 percent of uncastrated male pigs have, well, the technical term is “boar taint.” It’s pheromones, which animals produce when they come into heat. Walter Jeffries, a pig farmer in rural Vermont, told us “sexual” doesn’t really do the smell justice.

“Go grab a guy and have him sweat on an undershirt for you real well, and that’s the smell,” he said. “To me it smells like shit and armpits.”

You still might be wondering though: Why did the government have to get involved? If people don’t want smelly meat, they don’t have to buy it, right? But here’s the thing: You can only smell boar taint when the meat is warm, not when you buy it refrigerated at the store.

So an unscrupulous pig farmer might be tempted to sell a little tainted meat, knowing it’d go unnoticed until some unsuspecting bacon-lover goes and cooks it. If enough sexual-smelling pork gets in to the pork supply, people are just going stop buying pork.  

Which is where title 21, sections 610 and 676 of the U.S. code of statutes, and title 9, section 311.20 of the Code of Federal Regulations come in. If you’re caught selling a pig carcass with a pronounced sexual odor, you could face up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. It’s a crime, one that’s maybe not quite as ridiculous as it first sounds.  

In summary, selling pork with strong sex smells could land you in jail and with a fine. Walter’s description was hilarious and may live with me longer than the title of this blog post. The downside is I can smell “shit and armpits” now and I’m nowhere near an abattoir.

Related to illegal animal meat: What was François Mitterrand’s final meal and why was it so controversial?

'We Are History' examines the links between art, colonialism and climate change

We are History | Trailer

For gal-dem, Lauren Dei spoke to the artists behind a new exhibition called ‘We Are History. The show, curated by Ekow Eshun, displays art that tells the stories of colonialism and its pivotal role in global warming and the harsh realities of climate change.

Featured artists include Alberta Whittle, Otobong Nkanga, and Malala Andrialavidrazana.

“We have a saying in Barbados charting the timeline of hurricane season,” Alberta tells gal-dem via phone call.“‘June – too soon, July – stand by, August – come it must, September – remember, October – all over.’ In 2021, the hurricane season began in April. Climate colonialism means the hurricane seasons are growing longer and longer, leaving the country on tenterhooks for over half the calendar year.”

An early scene in the film shows the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019. The camera pans above the wreckage of the decimated Bahama Islands. An estimated 13,000 homes were severely damaged or lost during the Category five storm that left the national airport underwater and saw over 6,000 evacuees rescued by air. 

Head over to Somerset House to see We Are History, which runs until 6th February 2022.

The natural photography of Théo de Gueltzl

Théo de Gueltzl is a Paris-born photographer who has found himself in a lot of different place since he left his native France.

When we last spoke to Théo in 2017, he was living in Bogota following a road trip he had undertaken from Los Angeles, through Mexico, and into South America. There he established a studio and began planning his future trips. He had “the bug for travelling” and, four years later, he still does. His recent photographic work is full of far-flung landscapes and portraits of different communities. This kind of work, he says, is integral to his practice and is the very reason he continues to pick up his camera. “I think I have been very much driven towards telling the stories of communities from other parts of the world in the hope of helping to preserve the diversity of culture,” he explains. “In a time where we are all looking at the world through the same filtered window, and living on a planet that is always growing and changing, I like the idea that photographs can act as proof, carrying information about how people lived in a certain place at a certain time.”

via It’s Nice That

Théo’s passion lies in nature and its richness. You’ll find jungles, beaches, lakes, and foliage in his work and beautiful backdrops to complement them.

Follow him on Instagram for more.

Argentinian capybaras reclaim their land; are called 'invaders'; memes ensue

There’s a gated community of rich people in Argentina called Nordelta. It was founded in 1999 and lies in the north of Buenos Aires, home to luxury homes, sports facilities, even a shopping mall. However, Nordelta also encroaches upon the Paraná wetlands, which is already under pressure from overfarming, and the extraction of natural resources. And capybaras live in those areas.

So what happens when humans build on or around animal habitats? The animals fight back and a group of plucky capybaras (known as carpinchos in Argentina) has been tearing through Nordelta, destroyed lawns and infrastructure, causing traffic jams, and even attacking pets.

So what happens when animals try to reclaim their homes that humans built on? They fight back with guns. According to The Guardian, some residents have brought out their hunting rifles to defend themselves and their property.

[…] But many other Argentinians have taken to social media to defend the rodents – known locally as carpinchos.

In politically polarized Argentina, progressive Peronists see Nordelta as the enclave of an upper class eager to exclude common people – and with tongue only partly in cheek, some have portrayed the capybaras as a rodent vanguard of the class struggle.

And that’s where the memes come in. I found these on a Tumblr post that brought the whole capybara story to my attention:

They’re magnificent and they warm my heart. As for the plight of the communist capybaras, it remains precarious but campaigners are still trying to pass legislation that will protect the wetlands from further development:

“Wealthy real-estate developers with government backing have to destroy nature in order to sell clients the dream of living in the wild – because the people who buy those homes want nature, but without the mosquitoes, snakes or carpinchos,” he [Enrique Viale] said.

Here at Cultrface, we are in full support of the capybaras. Solidarity with the rodents!

Related to animals in South America: Are Pablo Escobar’s hippos good for Colombia’s ecosystem?

What was François Mitterrand's final meal and why was it so controversial?

The ortolan is a small bird from the bunting family that lives in Europe and western Asia. It is also the last meal that former French president François Mitterrand ever ate, 8 days before his death. But eating ortolans is illegal in France (even though some chefs will still make it) and it comes with some… unique traditions:

[…] To prepare it, the ortolan is drowned in a glass of Armagnac. This is not a metaphor. It is actually drowned, and then it is cooked in a cassoulet.

[…]

You place a white cloth over your head and pick the bird up with your fingers, and then you eat it whole, wings, feet, organs, head, everything except the feet. The ortolan is supposed to represent the soul of France.

The white cloth is to create a closed sensory world of just taste and scent.

The cloth is also, traditionally, to hide the act from God.

via Interconnected

For more on Mitterand’s last meal and the ortolan, read Michael Paterniti’s 1998 piece for Esquire magazine. You can also read this Smithsonian article on the ortolan from 2018 and how it is/was eaten into extinction. (A note that while the ortolan’s global conservation listing is “Least Concern”, in France, it is “Endangered”.)

When Solomon Leyva took his titan arum to an abandoned gas station

Photo of a titan arum.
source: Flickr, via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), is a flowering plant also known as ‘the corpse flower’ due to its stench similar to a rotting corpse. Solomon Leyva owned one of these plants and decided to take it to the site of an abandoned gas station in California for others to admire. Atlas Obscura interviewed him about the idea:

What made you decide to take the flower out on the town?

What’s the point in having it? It was only going to bloom for a day—I mean, I have to share it. I don’t know what else I would have done.

There’s a really great, cute little community in the city that I live in, and I just thought everybody would enjoy seeing it. I was out from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and again the next day. The first day, it was really cold and [the plant] wasn’t enthusiastic about opening all the way. The second day, it had been in my greenhouse and opened more. Everybody was fascinated and happy—they’ve had their [vaccine] shots and are wanting to come out.

The cute Art Deco gas station that’s been out of commission for over 30 years across from city hall—I couldn’t think of any better place to bring it. Everywhere else has sidewalks or patio seating for restaurants. Also, I had to put in a wagon and was pulling it down the street, and I didn’t want to go across town. I couldn’t fit it in my van; it was too tall. I’m 5-foot-10, and it was a few inches shorter than me.

Nearly everyone remarked about the smell, but some didn’t find the smell until it wafted up with the breeze. Everyone took their mask off to smell it. I let kids play with it, dogs jump up on it. There’s no sense in protecting something that’s only going to live for a day. Everybody just has their memory, and that’s all you get. What better way to say goodbye to the pandemic than to watch a corpse flower bloom?

Not even the foul, deathly odour of a plant could stop people from keeping their masks on. Incredible.