A Jury of Slimy Philosophical Counselors

It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Greater St. Louis area as historic flash flooding has overwhelmed roadways, swamped cars, and caused a lot of damage to homes and businesses. By historic, I mean this was the biggest rain event this region has ever seen since records of such things exist starting in 1874.

According to the National Weather Service, in just six hours, the rainfall total surpassed the previous record set in a 24-hour period in 1915. To put it in a slightly different perspective, the St. Louis area received approximately 25% of its normal annual rainfall total in something like twelve hours, and closer to a third in some areas. It’s a hot mess.

This is one of the interstates we travel daily. A friend sent me this picture and I don’t know whose it is originally. I will gladly give credit or remove as requested.

Now, let me reassure you that though my suburban town did receive impressive rain totals and is in some places dealing with damage from the flood waters, my personal home is relatively elevated and has remained dry. I’m certainly very grateful for that. Other than having to alter schedules and commutes, my family hasn’t been particularly affected by the downpour.

Prior to the deluge, we St. Louisans had been experiencing a stretch of drought and we needed the rain, so we were more or less delighted when Monday brought us cloudy skies and occasional drizzles with the promise of a nice overnight thunderstorm. We just hadn’t anticipated so much rain so quickly.

It’s not that our weather forecasters hadn’t mentioned the possibility of a lot of precipitation and maybe even some flash flooding. We all accepted, I think, that it wasn’t going to be an ideal night to tent camp in a creek bed. But it’s not easy to anticipate an event that, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before.

Dr. Merryweather chose to use 12 leeches so his prognosticators wouldn’t feel “the affliction of solitary confinement,” which I admit is far more consideration that I have ever given to a leech. Image by István Asztalos from Pixabay

Even with all their university degrees, computer models, and fancy greenscreen maps, meteorologists have a pretty tough audience to try to reach. It’s just that they deal in probabilities and sometimes, the most probable thing that might happen, isn’t the thing that happens. The last highly anticipated St. Louis snow-pocalypse, for example, yielded less than an inch of light dusting. A little flash flood warning wasn’t going to scare us much.

Now if the meteorologists had run their prognostication by a “jury of philosophical counselors” consisting of at least twelve leeches, then that might’ve caught our attention. And if 19th century English physician and leech enthusiast George Merryweather had gotten his way, that might’ve been what happened.

As a practicing physician in the era of physicians not always knowing what they were doing, Dr. Merryweather spent a lot more time than the average non-physician thinking about leeches. One thing he observed was that their behavior tended to change with the weather. He wasn’t the first to realize this. For a long time, people who had nothing better to do had noted that leeches rise out of the water when a storm is coming and roll themselves into a ball when the storm is at hand.

But amazingly, Dr. Merryweather was the first to design a leech-powered weather predicting device. He called it the “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, Conducted by Animal Instinct,” which he then shortened to the “Tempest Prognosticator.”

You can see a replica of
Merryweather’s fancy contraption,
minus the leeches, in the Whitby Museum in the UK. I have no doubt it’s worth the trip. Badobadop, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creative
commons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was an impressive apparatus, consisting of a circle of twelve glass jars arranged around a large metal ball. Each jar contained a little bit of rain water, a leech, and a whale bone striker at the top, which when bumped by a leech climbing into the bottleneck in anticipation of a coming storm, would strike the metal ball and give a warning of impending inclement weather. When enough of Merryweather’s slimy little philosophical counselors sounded the alarm, he knew a storm was on its way.

The really weird part is that it worked, kind of. Or at least it worked as well as other weather predicting equipment of its day. It had limitations, of course. The leeches, who aren’t known to be great communicators, weren’t forthcoming with the direction of a storm, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have predicted record-breaking flash flooding any better than today’s computer models could.

In the end, Dr. Merryweather’s invention was not adopted as the gold standard of weather prediction he believed it would be. The tempest prognosticator was expensive and required some upkeep as water needed to be changed every week and the jury wanted feeding once in a while. Also, outside of the 19th century medical profession, most people agree leeches are slimy and gross.

But I’m picturing the article headline that might have been: “Leeches Predict Historic St. Louis Rain-Pocalypse.” Something like that would have lit up everyone’s social media feeds and gotten a fair number of clicks, I bet.

A Tuesday for the Rabbits

In July of 1807, Alexandre Berthier, then Chief of Staff to Napoleon Bonaparte, made a slight miscalculation that led to what has to be in the running for most epic battle in human history. This occurred shortly after the signing of the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended war and sealed an alliance between France and Russia and pieced apart Prussia. The treaties represented significant wins for Napoleon. The battle that followed, and which is regularly reenacted in my backyard, did not.

What you can’t see in this painting is the bunny that has caused Napoleon’s horse to rear back in sheer panic. Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon asked Berthier to help him celebrate his recent accomplishments by treating his men to a rabbit hunt. Berthier obliged, rounding up a couple hundred to a few thousand (depending on who you ask) of the fluffy-tailed, long-eared, twitchy-nosed spawns of Satan and caged them all at the edges of a field to await their fates at the ends of a large number of gun barrels.

What happened next comes as a surprise to no one who is me, but when the bunnies were released, they didn’t scatter away from the threat. Instead, they swarmed the hardened soldiers who, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rodents* coming after them in pursuit of carrots or whatever, dove for the cover of their carriages.

According to David G. Chandler, expert on Napoleon (and perhaps rabbits), the monstrous creatures flanked the hunters and converged on the imperial coach, some of them managing to leap inside and directly threaten the emperor, who was forced to prove his mettle by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, flinging the beasts from the windows in a highly imperial fashion.

Possibly the most epic battle in human history. An average Tuesday for most rabbits. Image by Ruben Porras from Pixabay

The history rumor mill would have us believe that the entire incident was Berthier’s fault, because instead of taking five minutes out of his busy schedule to round up a few thousand wild rabbits, he pulled together the hand-raised, relatively tame variety from nearby farmers. These rabbits didn’t know that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most feared military leaders in the world. They just knew he was some guy who didn’t seem to want to give them carrots.

Maybe. But I also think that Napoleon and his men underestimated their foe, because rabbits are just the worst.

Finally maybe sort of a kind of win.

I have been at war with the fluffy little jerks for nearly a decade. They eat all my flowers, tear up my garden, and torment my dog. They’ve even caused him permanent injury with their stupid little nest holes that pockmark my yard. And without the benefit of a waiting carriage to imperially jump into, I have been somewhat at my wits’ end.

That is until this year. In a stroke of genius, I took globs of the fur I brush out of the dog every day in springtime and stuffed them around the bases of the rabbits’ favorite munchy lilies, some of which have managed to bloom for the first time in years.

For this moment, I am winning the battle, but I know it won’t last long. The rabbits, who in previous years have been known to stand in front of the dog just beyond his invisible electric fence simply to mock him, are perfectly aware that he’s no more match for them than Napoleon was.

*I do acknowledge that rabbits are no longer classified as rodents, but until 1912 they were, because rodents or not, they are vermin with constantly growing teeth and terrible bloodlust.  

New Zealand Rips a Big One

Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time may have noticed that rarely does it venture into topics that could be considered very serious. You may have even wondered at times why a thoughtful writer such as myself would mostly avoid using my platform, which includes tens of people, to discuss the things that really matter.

Well, thanks to the nation of New Zealand and its necessary and impactful attention to a dangerous problem facing the entire world, I have reconsidered. That’s right, the time has come for us to have a critical conversation in this space about farts.

This cow clearly smelled it. And we all know what that means. Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

While absent through much of this blog’s own history, passing gas has been on the minds of humanity for millennia. This truth was revealed by the 2008 discovery of an ancient fart joke carved upon a Sumerian tablet that dates to around 1900 BC, making it the oldest joke so far discovered.

Other notable moments in the history of flatulence include a god in the mythology of the Innu people of Eastern Quebec and Newfoundland who communicates exclusively through the breaking of wind, the alleged Pythagorean belief that a careless person could accidentally fart out his soul, and a series of Japanese art pieces from the early 19th century depicting, probably satirically, battling samurais cutting a lot of cheese.

But Samurais were far from the only people to have killed with a good toot. Both first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus and the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus, known as the Father of History and Some Stuff He Mostly Made Up, attributed large, deadly battles to the offensiveness of well-timed flatus.

St. Augustine had a slightly more positive view of gaseous emanations, suggesting in his 5th century work The City of God that evidence of perfect bodily control as would have been enjoyed before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is that some people can produce song through their flatulence. We probably all have that one friend.

This is what it looks like to have the power to destroy the world. Image by Frauke Feind from Pixabay

For the most part, passing gas has always been a little bit funny and kind of rude and, apparently incredibly destructive. At least that is what New Zealand law makers have decided. It’s long been rumored that livestock farts are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases and in New Zealand, where people are outnumbered by cows two to one and by sheep more than five to one, the best way to combat the problem is, obviously, to tax the livestock. And so that is the plan, according to Climate Change Minister and apparent savior of Planet Earth James Shaw.

Now, I can almost hear the objections of you naysayers out there whining about the financial burden on farmers and ranchers. You may even go so far as to suggest that the effects of this move will certainly trickle out through the economy, transforming the industry into something much less sustainable and, as other nations follow New Zealand’s bold lead, ultimately contributing to the problems of already threatened global food supply chains.

To that I say that ridding the world of farts was never going to be easy. It was always going to require determination and sacrifice. Like all things worth doing, and most things that aren’t worth doing at all, it will come only at great cost. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s time for the cows to pay up.

Say What?!

In 1774, German naturalist Johann Matthaus Bechstein published a treatise on cage birds in which he mentioned an African Grey Parrot owned by Cardinal Ascanius. This bird could perfectly recite the Apostles’ Creed. I’m sure that took some dedication on the part of the cardinal, but it’s not terribly surprising that the parrot could accomplish such a feat.

African Greys, which live for a good sixty to seventy years, are known for their intelligence and loyalty as well as their ability to mimic the sounds and words that they hear, particularly those they hear frequently. Clearly, the cardinal was a pretty pious man, or at least it was important enough to him that his bird thought so.

Andrew Jackson, looking respectable and not at all like a man who swears at his parrot. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Evidently Andrew Jackson was not as careful about what was said around his pet bird, an African Grey Parrot named Poll. Jackson had purchased Poll when he won his presidential bid, thinking it would be a good companion for his wife Rachel. The Jacksons weren’t really part of the scene of political elites in the US and he feared Rachel would feel a little outclassed and isolated. Unfortunately, she died between his election and inauguration, leaving Poll in the president’s care.

But Poll must really have been a pretty good companion because the bird certainly had a lot to say when the then former president died in 1845. The parrot was present at Jackson’s funeral, along with thousands of mourners, and according to the account of the officiant Reverend William Menefree Norment, Poll had many words to share. The only problem was that those words were of the variety that might get one kicked out of a funeral.

The bird cussed up a storm and was carried away from the shocked crowd, who let’s face it, were probably just trying not to giggle. I mean, this was a man whose military prowess carried him to the White House where one of his first orders of business was to add a dozen spittoons to the place. He was a rough-around-the-edges kind of guy who was prone to fighting in duels, once gave the beat-down to potential presidential assassin, and who probably would have been banned from Twitter. Or at least his pet parrot would have been.

On standby under my desk, just in case I need to chat.

But he was also the kind of guy who carried on conversations with his pet. As a devoted pet conversationalist myself, I find that pretty charming. My dog Ozzie gets a lot of talking to. I bounce story ideas off of him, occasionally read him blog posts, and tell him the jokes no one else will appreciate. He’s a great listener, particularly when our talks include plenty of scratches behind the ears and the inclusion of the words “good dog.”

I don’t think he’s ever heard me recite the Apostles’ Creed, but I also don’t think he’s heard me do a great deal of cussing. Of course, if he has, I’m fairly confident that my secret is safe with him. With a life expectancy of only about fourteen or fifteen years, I sincerely hope Ozzie won’t be at my funeral. But even if he is, he’s a really good dog who loves me a lot. He won’t say a word.

Let’s Talk Turkey

In 1535, Spanish colonialist and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés published his General and Natural History of the Indies in which he described for the old world some of the elements of the new, including hammocks, pineapples, and turkeys.

Though the turkey had already been imported to Europe by this time and had been greeted with enthusiasm by farmers who found that they were kind of delicious and got to work domesticating them, Oviedo’s work offers the earliest really good description of the bird that graces most US Thanksgiving tables.

By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227219

But Europeans were far from the first to domesticate the wild turkey. More than two thousand years ago, the early people of Mexico could lay claim to that. Turkeys have long been an important part of most Native American cultures. Heavily featured in folklore, turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial headdresses, acted as insect control, and became a reliable food source when larger game proved more elusive. And in case you wanted to give one a try this Thanksgiving, the internet includes plenty of turkey recipes out of Mexico that claim to span millennia.

Image by MOHANN, via Pixabay.

Anthropological research from the last few years suggests Native Americans in what would become the southeastern US were also domesticating this most thankful of birds as early as 1200 AD. So, when Europeans started to do it, it wasn’t exactly a big deal.

It was, however, a pretty good idea because turkeys can be a challenge to hunt. They are incredibly skittish and can be difficult to lure in with calls, despite the fact that manufactured calls are better than they’ve ever been. And according to a lot of turkey hunters, it’s getting harder every year.

Part of the explanation for this is that in the early twentieth century, wild turkeys in North America were nearly extinct. They were facing increased habitat pressure and had been severely over-hunted. The fact that the population is flourishing today is a triumph of intense wildlife management, but also of the process of natural selection which obviously favored the birds that were too careful to get themselves successfully hunted.

As a person who has no particular desire to go turkey hunting, this doesn’t much bother me. But I do have friends and loved ones who enjoy the sport, or at least they are pretty sure they would if they could find success. Personally, I’m perfectly content to buy a domestic bird from the freezer section of my grocery store. Even if I have trouble finding the exact size I want, I have never failed to bag a turkey at the grocery store.

That is until this week.

If you read my post last week, you know that my family and I have been quarantined since my youngest son tested positive for Covid. He’s fully recovered and at this point none of the rest of us have developed symptoms, but the timing of our quarantine caused a problem.

Thanksgiving is saved!

With Thanksgiving coming up next week, we are really close to the time when we’d have to remove our frozen turkey to the refrigerator to begin thawing. Trouble is, though we did have plenty of toilet paper on hand, we didn’t yet have our frozen bird when we went into lockdown.

We do live in an area where it’s easy to get grocery delivery, but when my husband and I started thinking about a stranger picking out our Thanksgiving turkey for us, we hesitated. We realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you’re looking for a precise size, this close to Thanksgiving, sometimes the perfect turkey can prove a little elusive. And we didn’t want our delivery person to substitute seven Cornish game hens and some AA batteries when they couldn’t find the bird we wanted.

A smell this delicious transfers over Zoom I bet. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

It seems even domesticated turkey hunting can be a little tricky.

Fortunately, a hero emerged to rescue us from our predicament. My wonderful sister-in-law who lives a little more than an hour away from us, drove to our house to drop the perfect frozen bird on our doorstep. It should thaw in plenty of time for our favorite turkey recipe that doesn’t span millennia, but is still awfully good.

Barring any additional illness in the household, we should emerge from quarantine in time to hunt for all our own side dish ingredients, too. We have much to be thankful for this year!

I will be eating turkey next Thursday with my family, some live and most virtually, so I won’t be posting in this space. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday! If you don’t, then I wish you a very thankful Thursday!

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

It’s been kind of a rough week here in the United States. Anxieties are running high as we wait for the final results of what looks to be an incredibly tight hot mess of a presidential election between one guy that half the nation finds terrifying and another guy that the other half of the nation finds terrifying. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we’re all a little stressed out.

So, I want to take a moment to harken back to a time sixty years or so ago when a political movement of critical importance took the country by storm and caused the well-informed citizens of the United States to scratch our heads and in one more or less unified voice, say, “Wait, what?”

My dog Ozzie, just as brazenly pantsless as the day he was born.

I refer, of course, to the great cause of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), which actually traces its roots back even further to a man named G. Clifford Prout, Sr. who was tired of seeing indecency in the fields and backyards full of frolicking, naked pets, livestock, and wild animals.

It was in May of 1959 when G. Clifford Prout, Jr. finally broke into the mainstream to continue the important work his father had begun, with an appearance on the Today Show on NBC. There he explained that SINA was pushing for the clothing of “any dog, cat, horse, or cow that stands higher than four inches or longer than six inches,” and touted the SINA slogans: “Decency today means morality tomorrow” and my personal favorite, “A nude horse is a rude horse.”  

Finally. Decency. photo credit: Hanafan It is no dog? via photopin (license)

The American media was intrigued, and so was the public. Prout worked for several years to spread the message that to allow naked animals to run amok, causing all manner of accidents as motorists become distracted by fields of naked cows and bulls, was not only irresponsible, but immoral.

Based in New York, SINA gained momentum, claiming branch offices in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and even London. Anyone could join as long as they desired to decently clothe their pets, and if they could get away with it, their neighbor’s pets, too. The organization would not accept money, however, because Prout was independently wealthy and the bylaws disallowed it.

Does one have to apply for the job of hoakster? Because I think I might enjoy that. Alan Abel by Cranky Media Guy at English Wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Of course, good journalism is hard work rarely done, and so it took a while for anyone to uncover the fact that G. Clifford Prout, Jr. was less nutter than fictional. He was a character portrayed by actor, writer, and director Buck Henry and created by hoaxter and mockumentary filmmaker Alan Abel who played the part of SINA’a vice president Bruce Spencer.

After CBS aired an interview with Prout, conducted by America’s most trusted newsman Walter Cronkite, in which Cronkite displayed amazing fortitude by not laughing out loud at his ridiculous guest, some members of the crew put two and two together. They recognized Henry, who at the time, actually worked at CBS. Cronkite was furious, but word was out.

Time broke the story of the hoax shortly after that in 1963, the animals took off their pants, and everyone (except Walter Cronkite) had a good laugh about it.

SINA was one of the most successful hoaxes Abel ever pulled off, though far from the only one. He was the man behind Omar’s School for Beggars, Euthanasia Cruises, Ltd., and a mass coordinated fainting episode that briefly cleared the audience from a taping of The Phil Donahue Show. He even made a fake run for Congress on the platform of selling ambassadorships, infusing the water in the drinking fountains in the senate with truth serum, and eliminating Wednesday to create a four-day work week. Actually, I’m in favor of at least one of those.

If he hadn’t passed away in 2018, I might assume he was behind the cluster that is the 2020 presidential election, too. At least I kind of hope it’s a hoax. That sure would make the journalists mad, but I’d probably laugh. Because this is seriously as ridiculous as insisting that horses wear pants.

Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, UFOs

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been kind of avoiding watching/reading/listening to much news lately. Under normal circumstances, I’m not exactly a news junkie, but I do like to check in more or less regularly on the goings on in the world.

It’s just that right now, the goings on seem to be mostly a lot of speculation, irresponsible  political arguing, and sensationalism of the latest invasive species to hit the Pacific Northwest, which, by the way didn’t actually happen for the first time just this past month. Also, we don’t call them murder lions, even though they rip out the throats of their unfortunate victims, so why are these called murder hornets?

And that’s why I haven’t been keeping up too closely with the news lately. But I did catch the tiniest hint of a story the other day, and in case it slipped your attention, I wanted to make sure it didn’t. Because apparently, on April 27th, the US Navy released video evidence of UFOs.

Of course, this in itself is nothing particularly new. Alien spacecrafts have been visiting the Earth since at least somewhere around 1450 BC, during the reign of Egypt’s Thutmose III. That’s when it’s believed the papyrus was written that contains descriptions of flying circles of fire (sometimes translated as fiery disks, which frankly sounds way more alieny to me) that Vatican Museum Egyptology Director Albero Tulli found in a thrift shop in Cairo in 1933.

UFO
As the US Navy is quick to point out, “UFO” doesn’t necessarily mean alien spacecraft. It just means it could be a swarm of murder hornets for all we know. George Stock [4] / Public domain
Unfortunately, Tulli didn’t have a lot of cash on hand or something and so instead of finding a way to purchase a totally legitimate three thousand (and change)-year-old document collecting dust in a thrift shop, he just took some quick notes instead.

And that’s where it all would have ended, except that after Tulli’s death, Italian nobleman Boris de Rachewiltz, who’d gained a little bit of a reputation for competence in the area of Egyptology, discovered this dashed-off copy of Egyptian Hieratic text among Tulli’s papers. Rachewiltz got pretty excited about the whole fiery disks thing, threw together a fancier Hieroglyphic translation and called up some Egyptology contacts and the press.

That was in 1953 and it did create some excitement among UFOlogists (which is an actual thing that people call themselves), but it didn’t hold up in the opinion of the Condon Report produced by the University of Colorado UFO Project in the sixties, where it was pointed out that Tulli’s copy didn’t constitute a primary source and that meh, there probably wasn’t anything to see here.

blue angel
A much more intimidating Hornet. photo credit: wbaiv Blue Angels Fleet Week SF 2015 DSC_0670 (1) via photopin (license)

Sadly, the Navy UFO videos may not reveal much to get too excited about, either. In fact, the public has seen them before. Filmed from US Navy F/A-18 Hornets in November of 2004 and January of 2015, unauthorized copies of the videos have been circulating for several years already. The Navy has just gotten around finally to declassifying them, which is basically like saying meh, there’s nothing to see here. Officially.

And so, while the videos made a couple of headlines, they didn’t really stick around the news cycle for very long. It turned out there just wasn’t much to the story. Now, if the UFO footage had been taken from a US Navy F/A-18 MURDER Hornet, well, that would be a different story.

Why I Want to be a Science-y Lemming

The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.

Lemming_(1)
Lemming not in the process of committing suicide. Argus fin [Public domain]
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.

At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.

But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.

But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.

jump
I mean, it looks fun, yeah? photo credit: jeffschwartz decisive moment via photopin (license)

Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.

I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.

Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.

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And the award for Best Animal Cruelty in a Nature Documentary goes to. . .

I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.

To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.

But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”

Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.

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Admittedly this doesn’t look like as much fun as jumping off a bridge, but it doesn’t look so terrible, either.

I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.

Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.

A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

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Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

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There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

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A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

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Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.