Tag Archives: specimen

Beetles, form, art

In Emerging Infectious Diseases, each issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains a short essay that connects and contextualizes the artwork of the cover to the content of the issue (for a brief but interesting discussion of cover art on scientific journals, take a look at a post by biocreativity, another blog exploring the nexus of art, biology, creativity, science, design, and nature). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the producing body of the journal, writes that the cover art is selected on the basis of “artistic quality, technical reproducibility, stylistic continuity, communication effectiveness, and audience appeal.” The cover story, on the other hand,

has evolved by popular demand, literally out of the journal readers’ wish to know the art and how it relates to them and to what they do. A sketch of the artist, period, and work, provides contextual knowledge, and a brief interpretation offers a link between the art and the human elements and goals of public health. The reader becomes familiar with the work, and in the end is surprised and, we hope, enlightened.

A rather dry description of these clips, but the author, Cyprus-born Polyxeni Potter, is rather anything but. Potter’s contextualization of the art and artists of which she writes is lyrical and informative. For a 2005 issue of EID, containing research on Staphylococcus aureus infection in football teams, bed bug infestations, Lyssavirus prevalence in Scottish bats, and other outbreaks,  Potter chose a watercolor painting of a stag beetle, most likely the Europe-dominated member of the Lucanidae family, Lucanus cervus. Of her selection of this organism, this “tribute to the minutest in nature,” Potter writes:

Other critters, not so benign or visible, are also easy to ignore, their pestiferous history relegated to the past and quickly forgotten. Blood-thirsty ticks, bed bugs, and other insects, as if caught in some Gothic time machine, continue to torment humans, still claiming their lives, if not their souls. Renewed infestations of ticks causing meningoencephalitis in Germany and of bed bugs compromising health in Canada and elsewhere warn against ignorance and neglect regarding visible or invisible tiny creatures of nature.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Stag Beetle (1505).

L. cervus, most simply known as the stag beetle, was named as such—lucanus—by Publius Nigidius Figulus, a scholar of the Late Roman Republic and friend to Cicero, due to its ornamental use in the Lucania region of Italy. The latter end of the creature’s binomial nomenclature, cervus, the direct Latin for deer, the stag. The naming is gender-biased, typical of sexual dimorphism, as the reference to the stag—which itself refers to a male red deer—is more applicable to the males of the beetle, themselves characterized by the mammal’s antlers.

Stag beetle, Pavel Krasensky (2007).

It was in Italy, home of Nigidius, the lucanus label, and the Latin for stag, writes Potter, that Albrecht Dürer, the painter responsible for the above work, was drawn. But it was in Venice to the northeast, rather than the linguistic homeland of L. cervus, that the artist found inspiration and welcome. Of Venice, Dürer reflected, “In Venice, I am treated as a nobleman…. I really am somebody, whereas at home I am just a hack.” This home was Nürnberg, Germany, where Dürer had been trained in Gothic traditions, metallurgy, and mathematics. His move to Italy brought him to the Northern Renaissance, to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, to printmaking. Like other polymaths of his day, Dürer asserted that “art must be based upon science,” and, in agreement with da Vinci, on mathematics, on geometric form, on the golden ratio.

Ratios and antlers held a special place to mathematicians and artists of the day. Named by the Greeks—Dürer held a special reverence for Aristotle—the golden ratio has been considered the proportion of length to width of a rectangle most objectively pleasing to the eye.  The golden ratio draws from the Fibonacci sequence, introduced to the West by Leonardo Fibonacci in the 1100s and utilized to solve an issue of the growth of a population of rabbits . In the Fibonacci sequence, one produces a sequence of numbers by starting with 1 and 1 and adding the two together—the product is, of course, 2. Obtaining the subsequent number involves adding the latter two integers—the result is 3. Follow the natural pattern and the integers appear as 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The role of the golden ratio is in taking from Fibonacci’s order of numbers and dividing each pair (2 by 1, 3 by 2, 5 by 3, 8 by 5, etc.). The resulting quotients are, respectively, 2.0, 1.5, 1.67, and 1.6. Continue making these divisions, and one number will begin to hold as a constant quotient—1.618. Continue reading

Crow poems

A poem found within the pages of the beautiful and compact prose pieces of Creaturely and Other Essays, by Devin Johnston. The poem “Crows in Afternoon Sunlight,” however, comes from the Australian poet Robert Adamson. Of Adamson, the following has been said.

Robert Adamson is one of the truly great poets of place and deep meditation. […] From Bob Dylan to Wallace Stevens, from Arthur Rimbaud to Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Shelley to Zukovsky, Adamson winds a path through the abyssal forest of symbols to the natural world, driving Symbolism over the edge into the darkness of a nihilism still able to experience, praise, savour and celebrate the world in all its impossibility and presence.

“Crows in Afternoon sunlight” does indeed wind.

How close can a human get to a crow,
how much do we know about them?
It’s good to know we’ll never read their brains,
never know what it means to be a crow.

All those crow poems are about poets —
none of them get inside the crow’s head,
preen or rustle, let alone fly on crow wings.

No one knows what it is to sing crow song.

Five crows hop and stand around
the fish I have left for them on the wharf.
If I move their eyes follow me, I stand still
and they pick up a fish, test its weight.

They ruffle their feather manes and shine.

These black bird shapes outlined by the light.
Behind them, the river flowing out,
the light changing, soon it will be night

and they will be gone. Before that
I praise crows.


Wet specimens 2

Rana pipiens. BCFS-32. My gaze snaps away from the floor and wanders to a shelf of amphibians, to another dust-covered lid on a jar in the corner. The body of the northern leopard frog is upside-down, its hind legs and pseudo-webbed toes curled, twisted and arched in opposite directions. Unlike its vibrant green pigmentation in life, the frog’s skin is now an almost translucent white, a byproduct of the preservative alcohol. What remains of its lived color are the brown spots that pattern the creature’s back and legs. But this skin seems delicate, like thin paper, like gift-wrap. It is transparent enough to show the outlines of ribs and the blue tinge of organs—the lungs, the heart, the gut. The inner workings of the frog’s head are nearly visible too, exhibiting the full form of two gelatinous black eyes, the iris no longer its characteristic golden hue. From within its open mouth, I see more blue.

Wet specimens 1

[an excerpt description from a longer essay on voucher specimens in the Hudson River estuary]

Chelydra serpentina. BCFS-16. Like the other specimens here, these turtles are long dead, all five of them. Some were found at a railroad, others the consequences of an experiment. Parts of the labeling tag have been obscured by the 50 percent isopropenol–fixed bodies, but I can deduce the familiar beak-like jaws of these creatures. The latter part of their binomial nomenclature, serpentina, means “snake-like” in Latin, referring to the once mobile necks and heads before me. The shells of these baby snapping turtles are ridged, brown with yellowed stains. One of the reptiles, darker than the rest, is especially contorted. It’s tail and hind legs have twisted together from the preservation process and from the pressure of the other bodies. It is upside down, belly-up, and its right paw reaches upwards, protruding away from the rest of the body, toward the lid. The beak hangs open, its eyes bulging and dark. Underneath, another’s body is twisted too, like a poor man bent with tetanus. This one’s neck strains backwards, one claw stretching below the head, its nails extending in unnatural directions. The entire jar is a play on gravity, a hodgepodge of bodies, a distorted representation of a nest.