15 September 2015

Against the skin: Hidden colouration

Flaunt it

This chiton, typical of these rather dowdy creepers, is camouflaged on the outside to look part of the shadowed black and brown rocks it feeds upon. So why does the inside of its exoskeleton (as well as many others who wear their bones as coats ) look as if it's dressed for a mating dance?

BBC: Whoup are youp to cry coup?

Bloody hell! The BBC should know better than to headline "Australia: Coup capital of the democratic world". Calling it a coup is only showing ignorance of the flexibility of the parliamentary system. Americans and the world were stuck with George Bush until the term was over, but this change in Australia is hardly a violent and sudden takeover but a "finally" moment in answer to the secular prayers of such a majority that the Tonygov would be clobbered come Saturday.

So, Nick Bryant, though your description of the "bloodletting" is colourful, don't confuse your trade and its increasing propensity for covering politics/government as if they're gladiatorial contests that have rounds that can extend years before the final coup, with serious journalism and coverage of current affairs. By making all politics into drama about personalities and challengers, you have helped to reduce the complexity of democracy to gameshow, and to eliminate serious discussion let alone information about important issues.

In the case of this "spill", politicians' wishes to save their skins were for once, in harmony with the electorates' lazy but increasingly stroppy thoughts of—"Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

24 August 2015

Strawberries, grown interesting

Commercial strawberry producers have been pushed to grow ever more grossly enlarged monstrosities of shiny, deeply pitted red — as if we must all want to admire and devour drunkards' noses.

But do buy a punnet and don't take any out, to see true beauty grow.

a punnet of strawberry mould

21 May 2015

The brown bryozoan & the silk scarf

Bugula neritina on fine silk jacquard

The 'common fouling organism' Bugula neritina is a such a magnificent insignificant that it could be awarded a Magnificant Medal, but where would it wear it?
Under the microscope a living specimen looks very different indeed from the picture presented to the naked eye. Each delicate frond consists of two or three rows of little compartments set ened to end, those of the different rows being not quite opposite to each other. The compartments are about 1 mm long and vary from one-quarter to one-fifth of that in width, and each has an aperture from which a small but very beautiful crown of tentacles may be extruded.
In all probability the whole specimen will have arisen from one individual, the growth process being an extraordinarily extensive proliferation by budding . . .
– W.J. Dakin's classic study: Australian Seashores, fully revised and illustrated by Isobel Bennett, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1987

17 May 2015

The underbelly of a fungus

Hexagonia vesparia
on a blown-down eucalypt branch
Conjola forest, SE NSW, Australia

15 April 2015

I can't recommend The Butterflies of Australia too highly

Illustrated by Albert Orr
(Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2011)

Ever since reading Fabre, my favourite writing has been not fiction, but the truly fantastic--natural history. Albert Orr and Roger Kitching (with beautiful and highly informative illustrations by Orr) have created a classic. I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes the beauty and accuracy of description has pricked my eyes with tears as only the finest (and most able to communicate) have. They almost excuse the book's usefulness and seduction by saying that Orr's daughter "had a brief enthusiasm for butterflies which she chased in the back garden...There being no suitable guidebook in print at the time, her father prepared a series of rough sketches of butterflies in life, with a short text to help her identify her catch. It was from these notes and sketches that this book was conceived. Although it has since acquired a mature scientific perspective, we hope it retains its germinal spark, first ignited in the soul of a child racing across the lawn with a net almost her own size, excitedly calling out slightly unorthodox Latin names."

There is another Australian natural history book I treasure: Life Stories of Australian Insects by Mabel N. Brewster, Agnes A. Brewster, and Naomi Crouch (Dymock's Book Arcade, Sydney, 1946). Written for children and illustrated internally with simple line drawings, I've found it very useful over the years, because the authors were such great observers that the life cycles of insects deeply interested them, far more than just identifying 'that'.

The Butterflies of Australia contains and transmits that excitement, in such lucid text that it's a joy to read. This book alone could launch any number of children of all ages into a life of exploration--of the natural world. One of the most important aspects of this book is the emphasis it places on describing the lives of butterflies and portraying them in a kind of Frans Hals snapshot--caught in a moment of real life (in addition to the equally excellent line drawings when necessary, of their structure throughout their stages of life).

My only regret is that this book, which should be sold in the likes of London's Natural History Museum shop, might well be overlooked by people outside Australia. It has worldwide relevance, so much so that I hope to see a book by these two, for the world.

Finally, in a practical sense, this large-format book is not just a coffeetable beauty. The authors call it a handbook and wish it to be dog-eared, and they're so right. It used to be a joke that every brown butterfly I saw had to be a 'common brown', but within one day, I'd gone beyond, and not only that, but that gorgeous dead thing I found on the beach was, I found within moments of opening this book, a.... well, I'm not going to say because this book opened up much more than just the name bestowed upon it, but the door to its life.

I cannot recommend The Butterflies of Australia too highly.

10 April 2015

My new novelette in Asimov's

"The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers", a novelette, has just come out in the April/May edition of Asimov's Science Fiction.