‘Twas Pterodactyl, Sauropod

twas-gryphonOriginal pencil drawing of the sleeping Gryphon,
John Tenniel (1820 – 1914) 




“Jabberwocky” is a poem of nonsense verse written by Lewis Carroll, and was a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). The book tells of Alice’s travels within the back-to-front world through a looking glass.

While talking with the White King and White Queen (chess pieces), she finds a book written in a strange language that she can’t read. Understanding that she is travelling in an inverted world, she sees it is mirror-writing, finds a mirror, and holds it up to a poem on one of the pages, to read out the reflection of “Jabberwocky”. She finds it as puzzling as the odd land she has walked into, which we later discover is a dreamscape.

It is considered to be one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language, and became a source of nonsense words and neologisms such as “galumphing”, “chortle”, and “Jabberwocky” itself.

In 1855, when Carroll was 23, he printed the first stanza of the poem in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated himself for the amusement of his family. It was entitled “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” and originally read:
“Twas bryllyg and ye slythy toves, Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe: All mimsy were ye borogoves; And ye mome raths outgrabe. ”
The spelling was altered when it was published as part of the later book.
The first stanza was written in Croft on Tees, close to nearby Darlington, where Carroll lived as a boy. The rest of the poem was written during Lewis Carroll’s stay with relatives at Whitburn, near Sunderland.
The story may have been partly inspired by the local Sunderland area legend of the Lambton Worm.

Roger Lancelyn Green suggests that “Jabberwocky” is a parody of the old German ballad “The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains” in which a shepherd kills a griffin that is attacking his sheep.
The ballad had been translated into English in blank verse by Lewis Carroll’s cousin Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.
Historian Sean B. Palmer suggests that Carroll was inspired by a section from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, citing the lines: “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” from Act I, Scene i.

John Tenniel reluctantly agreed to illustrate the book in 1871, and his illustrations are still the defining images of the poem.
The illustration of the Jabberwock may reflect the contemporary Victorian obsession with natural history and the fast-evolving sciences of palaeontology and geology.
Stephen Prickett notes that in the context of Darwin and Mantell’s publications and vast exhibitions of dinosaurs, such as those at the Crystal Palace from 1845, it is unsurprising that Tenniel gave the Jabberwock “the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod.”

Many of the words in the poem are playful nonce words of Carroll’s own invention, without intended explicit meaning.
Although the poem contains many nonsensical words, it holds to English syntax, and poetic forms are observed, such as the quatrain verses, the general abab rhyme scheme, and the iambic meter.
The linguist Lucas notes that the term “nonsense poem” is inaccurate. The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”.

When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:
‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’
This may reflect Carroll’s intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream.

In later writings, he discussed some of his own created lexicon, commenting that he didn’t know his source for some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem may largely be the point.
In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty gives comments on the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem; however, Carroll’s personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty’s.
For example, following the poem, a “rath” is described by Humpty as “a sort of green pig”, whereas Carroll’s notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a “rath” is “a species of Badger” that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag.
The appendices to certain Looking Glass editions, however, state that the creature is “a species of land turtle” that lived on swallows and oysters.
Later commentators have added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll’s own contextual commentary.

In January 1868, Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, asking, “Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two of the next volume of Alice in reverse?” This may suggest that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillian responded that it would cost a great deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him

Multiple translations into Latin were made within the first weeks of Carroll’s original publication.


Legend of the Lambton Worm:



The Hedgehog

hh-learEdward Lear (1812 – 1888)


Letter from Ted Hughes to Edna Wholey, 1950

Last night as I was coming down the field I heard a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in.
After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a corner in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion.
I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs. Once when John & I threw one in the pond, it nearly broke my heart to see it swimming to the shore. It must be that they’re something my affection can’t touch, and as through all my life the things I’ve loved best have been prickles towards that love, hedgehogs have become a symbol of such unrequiteable desire, and move me so nostalgically.
I carried sad Harry outside and let him go—he wouldn’t even roll up he was so sad.


Published in: on December 18, 2016 at 9:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Pediculus cervi

fauna_germanica_diptera_1793_vol-1_p10_pediculus_cervi_fabrJacob Sturm (1771–1848)
Faunae insectorum germanicae initia Sturm

The Journeys of Birds

migration19th Century
Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi

At least 4,000 species of bird are known to be regular migrants, which is about 40 percent of the total number of birds in the world.
(Although this number will likely increase as we learn more about the habits of birds in tropical regions.)

Birds can reach great heights as they migrate.
Bar-headed Geese are the highest-flying migratory birds, regularly reaching altitudes of up to five and a half miles above sea level while flying over the Himalayas in India.
But the bird with the record for the highest altitude ever is the Ruppel’s Griffon Vulture.

The Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any bird in the world. They can fly more than 49,700 miles in a year, making a round trip between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where they spend their winters.
Over a lifespan of more than 30 years, the flights can add up to the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.

The Northern Wheatear travels up to 9,000 miles each way between the Arctic and Africa, giving it one of the largest ranges of any songbird.
What makes this an especially amazing feat is that the tiny bird weighs less than an ounce.

The Bar-tailed Godwit has the longest recorded non-stop flight, flying for nearly 7,000 miles, over eight days, without food or rest.

To prepare for the extremely taxing effort of migration, birds enter a state called hyperphagia, where they bulk up on food in the preceding weeks to store fat, which they’ll later use for energy on their long journeys.
Some, like the Blackpoll Warbler, almost double their body weight before flying 2,300 miles for 86 hours without stopping.

Even birds that don’t fly migrate.
Emus, the large Australian birds, often travel for miles on foot to find food, and many populations of Penguins migrate by swimming.

Migration can be terribly dangerous for birds, and they often don’t make it back to their starting point.
Sometimes natural occurrences like harsh weather play a role, but human activities are the cause of many deaths.
In the United States alone, up to one billion birds die each year from window collisions,
seven million from striking TV and radio towers.


American Buffalo

buff catlinGeorge Catlin
(1796, Wilkes-Barre, PA – 1872
Jersey City, NJ)



What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.

— Isapo-Muxika (1830 – 1890), chief of the Siksika First Nation


When the earth is sick and dying,
There will come a tribe of people
From all races . . .
Who will put their faith in deeds,
Not words, and make the planet
Green again . . .

— Cree prophecy

The idea of land being preserved for everyone to enjoy was first expressed in 1832 (that’s just 56 years after the birth of United States of America in 1776) and is credited to artist George Catlin. During a trip to the Dakota region in 1832, Catlin, best known for his paintings of Native Americans, pondered the impact the western expansion would have upon these civilizations, the wildlife and the wilderness. He wrote that they might be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government…in a magnificent park…a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty.”

Though Catlin’s idea was seemingly impractical at the time and “had no immediate effect,” just 32 years later the “national park idea came to partial fruition in 1864” when President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress to transfer the federally-owned Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California on condition that they would “be held for public use, resort, and recreation . . . inalienable for all time.”


A Gossamer World

spider-webAugust Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1759)

Two years ago, a research team led by the University of Oxford revealed that, when plucked like a guitar string, spider silk transmits vibrations across a wide range of frequencies, carrying information about prey, mates and even the structural integrity of a web.
Now, a new collaboration between Oxford and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has confirmed that spider webs are superbly tuned instruments for vibration transmission.

Web-dwelling spiders have poor vision and rely almost exclusively on web vibrations for their ‘view’ of the world.
The musical patterns coming from their tuned webs provide them with crucial information on the type of prey caught in the web and of predators approaching, as well as the quality of prospective mates.
Spiders carefully engineer their webs out of a range of silks to control web architecture, tension and stiffness, analogous to constructing and tuning a musical instrument.

High-powered lasers were able to experimentally measure the ultra-small vibrations, which allowed the team to generate and test computer models using mathematical finite element analysis.

Professor Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford Silk Group, added: ‘It is down to the interaction of the web materials, a range of bespoke web silks, and the spider with its highly tuned behaviour and armoury of sensors that allows this virtually blind animal to operate in a gossamer world of its own making, without vision and only relying on feeling. Perhaps the web spider can teach us something new about virtual vision.’


‘Tuning the instrument: sonic properties in the spider’s web’ is published in Journal of the Royal Society http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-07-tuning-instrument-spider-webs-vibration-transmission-structures#


A Marmoset Taking Sweets on a Painted Commode

marmoset-teacupLouis Tessier (c.1719 – 1781)


“Virtually every ‘uniquely human’ characteristic has turned out not to be so”, Matthew Cobb, The Guardian


It used to happen every day at the London Zoo: Out came the dainty table and chairs, the china cups and saucers — ­afternoon tea, set out for the inhabitants of the ape enclosure to throw and smash. It was supposed to be amusing — a ­comic, reckless collision of beasts and high ­culture. But, as Frans de Waal explains in “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”,  apes are actually innovative, agile tool-users.
Not surprisingly — to de Waal, at least — the apes in London quickly mastered the teacups and teapot too. They sat there civilly, having tea.
“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” de Waal writes. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout,” and so on.
The animals had to be taught to be as stupid as we assumed they were. But, of course, the fact that they could be taught to be stupid is only more perverse evidence of their intelligence.

For centuries, our understanding of animal intelligence has been obscured in just this kind of cloud of false assumptions and human egotism.
De Waal painstakingly untangles the confusion, then walks us through research revealing what a wide range of animal species are actually capable of.
Tool use, cooperation, awareness of individual identity, theory of mind, planning, metacognition and perceptions of time — we now know that all these archetypically human, cognitive feats are performed by some animals as well.
And not just primates: By the middle of ­Chapter 6, we’re reading about cooperation among leopard coral trout.

There are many different forms of intelligence; each should be valuated only relative to its environment. And yet, there’s apparently a long history of scientists ignoring this truth.
They’ve investigated chimpanzees’ ability to recognize faces by testing whether the chimps can recognize human faces, instead of faces of other chimps. (They do the former poorly and the latter quite well.)
They’ve performed the ­famous mirror test — to gauge whether an animal recognizes the figure in a mirror as itself — on elephants using a too-small, human-size mirror.
Such blind spots are, ultimately, a failure of empathy — a failure to imagine the experiment, or the form of intelligence it’s testing for, through the animal’s eyes. De Waal compares it to “throwing both fish and cats into a swimming pool” and seeing who can swim.

We sometimes fall into what de Waal calls “neo-creationist” thinking: We accept evolution but assume “evolution stopped at the human head” — believing our bodies may have evolved from monkeys, but that our brains are their own miraculous and discrete inventions.
But cognition must be understood as an evolutionary product, like any other biological phenomenon; it exists on a spectrum, de Waal argues, with familiar forms shading into absolutely alien-looking ones. He introduces what he calls the rule of “cognitive ripples”:
We tend to notice intelligence in primates because it’s most conspicuous, it looks the most like our intelligence.
“After the apes break down the dam between the humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species.”



Like An Injured Fan

crab-grJohann Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst (1743 – 1807)
Versuch einer Naturgeschichte der Krabben und Krebse


The Fish

through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
              in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
       of bodies. The water drives a wedge
       of iron through the iron edge
              of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
              toadstools, slide each on the other.

       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
              all the physical features of
       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
              out on it; the chasm-side is

       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what can not revive
              its youth. The sea grows old in it.


Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972)

White Carnation

attrib. Charlotte Brontë  (1816 – 1855)


All the Strange Hours

deer-mori-sosenMori Sosen  (1747 – 1821)


I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence. I see more faces watching, non-human faces.
Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.

Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)