July 30, 2021

Words of the Month - Collective Monsters

        Collective nouns - the “official” words used for groups of animals - range from the everyday, such as a herd of elephants or a flock of geese, to the distinctly unusual, such as a nye of pheasants or a clowder of cats.  You can see my previous post on these terms of venery for a little background and a number of other examples.  But what about when the animals themselves are… unusual?  Perhaps the argument might be made that it’s rare enough to see one unicorn, so that we hardly need a word for a large number of them together.  Nevertheless, writers of fantasy routinely imagine herds, flocks, nyes, and clowders of mythical magical monsters, and we clearly need words for them.
        When devising new nouns of assembly, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the sources of our old ones.  Generally speaking these words are based on characteristics of the animal they describe: sound, appearance, behavior, or habitat.  Or they may include a comment or moral judgement on the perceived worth of the creature.  And finally, there are terms that have come about through errors which have stuck, which we can ignore for purposes of devising our own terms!  (But if you want a couple of examples, check out the school of fish and the feamyng of ferrets.)
        My list today includes the suggestions of a number of other wordsmiths as well as my own, and I’ve indicated authors in the footnotes.  That’s how scholarly I am.  (If there's no listed author that means it’s my version.)  Also, although I mostly included on this list only the terms I like, sometimes I’ve included proposals from several people for comparison.  Throughout the list I’ve put my favorites in bold.
   a threatening of dragons - I can’t remember where I saw this given (heck, is it possible I made it up myself?), but I liked it enough to use it as the title of one of my books!  Jacqueline K. Ogburn suggests a dignity of dragons, while Karl Shuker would have a conflagration of dragons.  I’ve also seen a flight of dragons in various fantasy works.
   a hoard of griffins (KS), but I suggest that this, too, would work for dragons
   a flurry of yetis (JO) or an avalanche of yetis (KS)
   a grace of unicorns (JO) or a marvel of unicorns (from An Exaltation of Larks)
   a splash of mermaids (JO)
   a chord of sirens (JO) or a somnolence of sirens (KS) or a medley of sirens
   a menace of manticores (KS)
   a shock of Mongolian death worms (KS)
   a shriek of mandrakes (KS)
   a squadron of rocs (KS)
   a storm of thunderbirds (Curt Gleason)
   a flutter of Mothmen (Ian James Kidd)
   an awakening of kraken (KS) or an unleashing of kraken
   a foliation of Green Men (KS) or a thicket of Green Men
   a furnace of salamanders (KS) or a kindling of salamanders
   an assembly of chimaeras
   a corps of zombies
   a club of ogres
   a slew of vampires
   a riddle of sphinx (JO)
        Give it a try.  What collective terms can you devise?  What creatures do you think especially need them?  Let’s hear your ideas!

Sources: A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, 2010;
An Undulation of Sea Serpents, blog post by Karl Shuker, and including terms by Gleason and Kidd, 2021.
[Pictures: A menace of manticores, assorted illuminations from 9 bestiaries, first quarter of 13th century through 1566;
An assembly of chimaeras, photoshop fun with Chimaera of Arezzo, woodcut depicting the famous Etruscan bronze sculpture, from Monstrorum historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1642 (original image from AMS Historica of the University of Bologna).]

July 26, 2021

Periodic Table of Aliens

         Do you like my depictions of fantastical creatures?  Do you like weird and wild space aliens?  The properties of the elements of the periodic table?  Light verse?  Cute and quirky books?  If you replied “Yes” to any of those questions, you should zip straight over to Kickstarter to check out Miguel Mitchell’s new Kickstarter campaign!
        Miguel has written a poem with a humorous verse for each of the 86 naturally-occurring chemical elements in the universe, describing a property of the element and an imaginary space alien associated with it.  With a PhD in chemistry and plenty of speculative fiction cred, he knows whereof he rhymes.  I’m involved because he commissioned me to illustrate his verses.  Exactly how many of the illustrations I will do depends on how much backing the project gets — the more people pledge, the more illustrations I’ll do!  The remaining illustrations will be done by Miguel himself.
        Today I’m sharing with you the illustration for sodium and its associated alien, the oodleplop.  (You can read the verse as the sample shown on the Kickstarter page.  I’d share it here, but I want to make you go to Kickstarter — that’s what a marketing mastermind I am.  Bwaahaha!)  This is one of the first illustrations I’ve done because it really caught at my imagination, and the whole scene of the slime-monster tending a dark old-time apothecary came to me in a glorious flash.  In fact, the idea tickled me so much that I even wrote a short story inspired by it (although in my story the creature is on Earth).
        I’ll share one more illustration with you today.  This one is a faux block print, done digitally rather than actually carved and printed.  It illustrates a long-legged iverstahl, who is associated with strontium.  The other little alien doesn’t have a name.  Maybe it’s actually a larval iverstahl before it undergoes metamorphosis…  But I tend to think that it is indeed another species, receiving assistance from the tall iverstahl.  I know what it’s like to need help reaching high things.
        Anyway, I signed on to be an illustrator on Miguel’s project because I thought it was a fun combination of science and fiction, and because I thought it would be an interesting challenge to imagine all these crazy creatures.  If you, too, think this sounds like a fun project, please consider supporting the Kickstarter campaign to make it possible.  And forward this along to all your most wonderfully nerdy friends, so that they, too, can enjoy and support this delightful undertaking.

[Pictures: Na is for sodium, aka Love Potion, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Sr is for strontium, illustration by AEGN, 2021, both for Periodic Table of Alien Species by Miguel O. Mitchell.]

July 21, 2021

Travels with Covacevich

        Sue Jean Covacevich (USA, 1905-1998) spent some formative years in Mexico before settling in Kansas, but clearly she travelled widely and used the monuments she saw on those travels as subjects for block prints.  In general, Covacevich’s work is solid, workmanlike mid-century style, and while her style and technique don’t seem particularly distinctive, it is a style I always like.  What makes her work especially interesting, though, is the subject matter: fascinating buildings, both famous and less-so, with all their wonderful shadows, angles, and architectural details.
        Covacevich has the largest preponderance of images of Mexico, which is not surprising as she lived there for ten years.  I’ve included two today, both dating from 1941, but with very different lighting.  The first is brightly lit with strong 
outlines to all its edges.  I especially like the clouds, and 
the contrast of the flat white arch against the heavy clouds.  Looking through gateways is always a motif that appeals to me, and here I like the steps heading up to the hill, although I am curious about the view.  Are we looking out of the gate away from a large church or other complex, or in at the gate toward a destination that is far enough to be out of sight?  By contrast, the second piece shows not an open gate, but closed walls.  We can see the buildings but can’t get in.  Instead of bright light on flat surfaces, we see dark shadows on textured surfaces.  Once again, though, there are lots of interesting architectural details suggested through relatively rough carving.
        Next we travel to Spain to see a street corner in Malaga.  Unlike today’s other pieces, this is presumably not a landmark or particularly famous spot, but simply an interesting snippet of the city.  It is also the only piece today that doesn’t depict a religious building.  I like the blacks and whites of the walls and the texture of the roofs.  The sky is interestingly angular, with its sharp lines instead of trying to look like puffy clouds.  The over-all roughness of the carving gives texture to the walls and street that suggest a rustic feel.  Combined with the irregular architecture, it makes the street corner look organic rather than the result of modern city planning.
        I’ve always wanted to go to Mont-Saint-Michel, and Covacevich’s depiction of the famous abbey and town just adds to my desire.  This piece is more detailed than some of the others, with its many small outcroppings of architecture and rock.  She’s done a really masterful job with the shapes and textures of the rock, and all the little windows, arches, and turrets.  I also like the sweep of the sky and the hint of reflection in the bay at the bottom.
        And finally, the famous St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, another celebrated architectural extravaganza.  Although the black and white of the block print doesn’t show the wild exuberance of color for which the church is famous, it does make a great medium for pattern.  Once again, Covacevich has used her relatively rough carving style to suggest a great delicacy of detail.  Interestingly, the outline edges of the domes are not uniformly smooth, but are rather jiggly in several places.  Whether this was a deliberate choice or a by-product of the way Covacevich carved the sky, I don’t know.
        Covacevich was another of those artists for whom I had picked about twice as many images I wanted to share, and then had to cull them down to fit in a manageable post.  But if you’re curious, you can scroll through the link below to see more (plus random other paintings and sketches).  She obviously loved travel and ornate architecture, plus, of course, block printing — all things that I enjoy, too.

[Pictures: Gateway to El Calvario, block print by Sue Jean Covacevich, 1941;
Del Carmen Convent, block print by Covacevich, 1941;
Street Corner, Malaga, Spain, linoleum cut by Covacevich, c 1955;
Mont-Saint-Michel, block print by Covacevich, undated;
St. Basil, linoleum cut by Covacevich, undated, (All images from Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art).]

July 16, 2021

Tree Octopus

         Among the excerpts read at yesterday’s Strong Women-Strange Worlds on-line group author reading was one including far-future squid that hunt in packs.  (Sea Wolf by Anna Burke.  For more info about this and yesterday’s other authors and their amazing books, see here.  And you are most enthusiastically invited to attend our next event on August 6!)  At any rate, I do love cephalopods, and now seems a good time to share with you the tree octopus.
        I love the idea of highly intelligent octopuses swinging through the trees, and I am far from the only one who has found this idea marvelously appealing.  It’s not too outrageous to imagine that these inquisitive creatures could have crawled out of the oceans and adapted to live in coastal areas all around the world.  Many people have also imagined them living in space.  The thing is, cephalopods are perfect for speculative possibilities.  They are intelligent, but their intelligence is of a sort so alien to our own that it’s fascinating to imagine how it could develop further.  They don’t have opposable thumbs, but they are nevertheless capable of the same sorts of physical feats that were tied in with human evolution: holding things while moving, manipulating objects, fine motor coordination, and so on.  They have good eyesight and other senses, they demonstrate emotion, and they are altogether a perfect blend of strange and familiar.
        According to previous authors, most tree octopuses climb from branch to branch with their  well-adapted arms, but there are some other land species, including some that glide between trees by spinning frisbee-like, and some that spend more time walking on the ground.  Or what about using their legs almost as a spider uses its silk, both as web and as cable to drop down on?  These possibilities notwithstanding, my favorite image is still that of the agile and carefree  octopus swinging from branch to branch 
        The most in-depth look at the famous Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is on the web site by Lyle Zapato, where there’s lots of excellent information about the ecology and history of this beautiful species, as well as links to the astonishingly wide array of literature and other media featuring tree octopuses.  (Indeed, the web site is perhaps too good.  It has been used in a number of studies demonstrating how much difficulty children (and adults?) have in evaluating the reliability of information on the internet.  Should you have any questions, I direct you to remind yourself of the theme of this blog.)
        Octopuses that hunt velociraptors, octopuses that live in underground caverns, octopuses in space, octopuses in parallel dimensions, octopuses that devour humans, octopuses with fur or feathers or leaf-like integument, octopuses that sing, octopuses that use mind control…  What would you most like to see in the world of fantasy octopuses?
        And yes, as a little bonus Word action, the correct plural is octopusesOctopi is now generally accepted simply because it’s so commonly used, but it’s etymological nonsense.  It’s sticking a Latin plural on a Greek-derived word in an ill-informed effort to sound more educated than you clearly are.  (If you want to go the obnoxiously erudite route, use the proper Greek-derived plural, 
which would be octopodes.  But nobody does this!)
        If you’d like to see some of my previous posts featuring cephalopods both real and fantastical, try

[Pictures: A New Dawn for the Tree Octopus, poster design by Lyle Zapato (Image from ZPi);

Squibbon, still from The Future is Wild docufiction miniseries, 2002 (image from Fandom);

Leaf Octopus by Alex Konstadt, 2013 (Image from DeviantArt);

Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and Pine Clams by Iris Jay, 2015 (Image from irisjaycomics on weasyl).]

July 12, 2021

Landscapes by Loughridge

         This little relief block print caught my eye this morning because although it is apparently intended as a winter holiday card, it seems to me more like the green and grey rain we’ve been having so much of recently here.  It’s labelled as a reduction print, but I don’t believe it.  For one thing, in a reduction print the pink could not go over the blues in some places, as it does, unless the blues were under the pink everywhere, which they are not.   (For a refresher on how a reduction print works, see here.)  But even more interesting is the lighter green, which is clearly not any sort of woodcut at all.  It is a piece of burlap or similar coarse fabric, inked and printed.  So I’m seeing 5 colors printed on the white paper, and while the two blues may be printed reduction style (light blue block carved and printed, then the same block carved down further and printed with darker blue), the pink, and the two greens are probably 
each separate.  However it was made, though, I’m enjoying the color scheme, and the textures that are
 not trying to be “realistic” depictions of trees or rocks, and that fabulous unexpected burlap texture in the middle.
        The artist is Leon Loughridge (USA, b. 1952) who lives in Colorado and is indeed known for his reduction woodblock prints of western landscapes, which is probably why the image above got labelled as such.  I’ve included just a couple of these reduction prints of his that I particularly like.  These are actually not Loughridge's most complex images, because I generally prefer the ones where the carving is not so detailed that it disappears.  Even so, it looks like these have about half a dozen colors each, which interact in interesting ways as they layer.  He tends to capture beautiful light.  
        What sorts of colors is your world these days?  Look for the beauty in them, whatever they are!

[Pictures: Title unknown, relief print by Leon Loughridge, late 20th century (Image from Beach Museum of Art);
Peak Study, reduction woodcut by Loughridge, 2016 (Image from Breckenridge Gallery);
Morning Glow, reduction woodblock by Loughridge (Image from Reuben Saunders Gallery).]

July 7, 2021

People of All Possible Forms

         Camille Flammarion (France, 1842-1925) was a French astronomer who was an interesting character.  He was a believer in spiritism and the transmigration of souls and was fascinated by life after death and life on other planets, writing a number of books in both non-fiction and science fiction genres, in which he explored his ideas.  I first encountered him when I looked up the famous Flammarion woodcut, which is a very popular illustration.  I made further acquaintance with him when I quoted him as the “ancient writer” describing the infinite diversity of space creatures in my book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.
        Lumen, published in 1872, is sort of sci fi, but instead of a plot it consists of the dialogues in which a disembodied spirit who has travelled throughout time and the universe, describes all that he has seen and learned.  One of his main themes is the vast diversity of life, and specifically “human” life, by which he basically means sentient, intelligent life.  He lists all sorts of possibilities including people whose separate atoms are all able to come apart or rejoin each other at will, people who die immediately after sex, people who do not reproduce sexually at all, people who live for so long without war or disease that they all eventually commit suicide, people who never sleep, people who are various forms of plants or animal-plant hybrids, and more.  Here are a number of excerpts from Lumen, to give you an idea of what Flammarion was thinking.

        … The floating beings belonging to the world of Andromeda, where my antepenultimate existence was passed, are submitted to a still more degrading manner of sustaining life than are the inhabitants of the Earth. …They must work to obtain what may be called their oxygen, and, without ceasing, they are condemned to use their lungs in order to prepare the nutritious air they need, without sleeping, and without ever feeling satisfied, because, despite their incessant toil they cannot absorb more than a small quantity at a time. Thus they pass their entire life, and finally die victims to the struggle for existence.

        … The men of θ Orionis bear some likeness to [the saguaro cactus]. Only they move slowly, and maintain an upright position by means of a process of suction analogous to that of the ampullæ of certain plants. The lower part of the vertical stem, where it rests on the ground, is slightly elongated, like a starfish, with little appendages which fix themselves to the soil by means of suction. These beings often go in troops, and change their latitude according to the seasons.

        … There is an immense variety amongst the worlds. On one of the planets of the system of Aldebaran… the vegetables are all composed of a substance analogous to the lodestone, because silica and magnesia predominate in its constitution. The animals feed on this substance only. Most of the beings inhabiting this world are incombustible.

        … I visited, not long since, two worlds on which human beings have two senses of which we have not any idea on our Earth.  One of these senses may be described as electrical. One of the little nerve-threads of which I have just told you is developed into a multitude of ramifications which form a sort of cornet. These, under the scalpel and the microscope, appear to be tubes placed in juxtaposition, the outer extremity of which receives the electric fluid and transmits it to the brain, much as our optic nerves receive the waves of light, and our auditory nerves receive the undulations of sound.  The beings provided with this sense perceive the electrical condition of bodies, of material things, of plants and flowers, of animals, of the atmosphere, and of clouds. To these beings this electric sense is a source of knowledge which is wholly forbidden to us. Their organic sensations are all different from yours. Their eyes are not constructed like yours; they do not see what you see; they see what you do not see. They are conscious only of the invisible violet rays…
        Another sense with which I was still more struck, and which was of quite a different character, I found on a second world. This was the sense of orientation. Another of the nerve-threads proceeding from the brain produced a species of winged ear, very light, by means of which the living being perceives his direct bearings. He is conscious of the points of the compass, and turns to the north or the south, the east or the west, instinctively.

        … Terrestrial humanity, you understand, is, as regards moral as well as physical life, the result virtually of the forces of the Earth. Human strength, figure, weight, all depend on these forces. The organic functions are determined by the planet. If life is divided with you between work and rest, between activity and sleep, it is because of the rotation of the globe, and day and night. In the luminous globes, and those lighted by many Suns alternately, they do not sleep. If you need to eat and drink, it is in consequence of the insufficiency of the atmosphere. The bodies of the beings who do not eat are not constructed like yours, since they have no need of a stomach and intestines. The terrestrial eye enables you to see the universe in a certain way, the Saturnian eye sees in a different manner.
        There are senses which perceive other things than those which you perceive in nature. Each of the worlds is inhabited by a race essentially different, and sometimes the inhabitants are neither vegetables nor animals. There are men of all possible forms, of all dimensions, of all weights, of all colours, of all sensations, of every variety of characteristics. The universe is infinite. … An inexhaustible diversity enriches this marvellous field of the eternal Sower.

        I’ve been looking to Flammarion recently for a little inspiration, since I am embarking on a project that will involve illustrating a large number of whimsical alien species.  (You’ll be hearing more of this project in due time.)  In the meantime, you can read the entirety of Lumen, or several of Flammarion’s other speculative works on Project Gutenberg.

Quotations from Lumen by Camille Flammarion, translated by A.A.M. and R.M., 1897.

[Pictures: Assorted engravings from Un Autre Monde by J.J. Grandville, 1844 (Images from Carl Guderian on Flickr, and more about Grandville here);

The Cereus Giganteus or Monumental Cactus, wood engraving from The Countries of the World, c 1890 (Image from ebay);

Two woodcuts by Jean Porcher and/or François Desprez from Les Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel, 1565 (Images from Les Bibliothéques Virtuelles Humanistes, and more about these illustrations here).]

July 2, 2021

4th of July

         As we in the United States of America enter a long weekend to celebrate July 4, here are a few appropriate wood block prints to get you in the mood.  One of my favorite things about the 4th of July is the fireworks.  For the second year in a row our town will miss its fireworks show, so I am looking wistfully at this first piece, which shows the fireworks in Washington, D.C.  D lived there for several years before we married, and I would visit him in the summers and enjoy the huge fireworks displays over the National Mall and all the monuments, as shown in this piece.  It looks to have four different blocks: red, yellow, dark grey, and also a greenish color on the buildings to the right (although perhaps that's just the color of the grey ink on top of the yellow ink).  I especially like the glowing lights of the Lincoln Memorial on the left, and the wood grain in the sky.
        We haven’t gone to our town’s parade since the kids were young, but here are a couple of cute pieces showing the best kind of parade of all: happy people coming together to celebrate their togetherness.  These are printed with two blocks each, and although unfortunately I couldn’t find any higher-resolution images, you can probably make out enough of the details to make a guess as to their era!  I don’t have much information about these pieces, either, but they seemed appropriate enough to my theme that I wanted to share them anyway.
        Returning to fireworks, this last piece silhouettes the Statue of Liberty against a sky alight with sparkles.  Although I’m generally not a fan of pink, I do love the choice of it for the sky in this piece.  It’s so unexpected, and so magical.  I also love the use of the Statue of Liberty in a 4th of July celebration, because while she stands for the USA’s liberty from Britain, she also stands for much more than that.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  She stands for why this country is still, despite everything, worth loving and celebrating.  Because we do still have a dream.  Let’s make sure we do all we can to light up the night that sometimes seems to press from all directions, and that we light it up with welcome, and truth, and justice, and hope.  Let’s see those sparklers glow, people!

[Pictures: 4th of July, D.C., 1986, color woodcut by Bobby Donovan, 1986 (Image from National Gallery of Art);

Parade I, and Parade II, woodcuts by Margery Niblock (Images from WorthPoint and ChesterCountyRamblings);

Statue of Liberty July 4th, woodcut by Su-Li- Hung, 2006 (Image from The Providence Art Club).]