October 27, 2021

Words of the Month - Dinosaurs

         The field of dinosaurs includes some of the biggest, most exciting words your average four-year-old is learning, but this joy should not be confined to little kids.  Today we’re going to look at the etymologies and histories of some most excellent dino-related words.
        We should certainly start with dinosaur itself.  The word was coined in 1841 from the Greek roots for “terrible lizard.”  British naturalist Richard Owen came up with the word to describe the group to which several recently-discovered fossil specimens belonged, including Iguanadon (“iguana-tooth,” named in 1825 by Gideon Mantell), Megalosaurus (“great lizard,” named in 1824 by William Buckland, who also coined the word coprolite for fossilized feces), and Hylaeosaurus (“forest lizard,” named in 1832 by Mantell).
        Dinosaur names are probably most people’s introduction to the whole idea of identifying Latin and Greek roots.  Sometimes names are based on people or places involved in a fossil’s discovery, but often they are based on physical properties or other perceived qualities of the animal.  Here are a few that I think are rather interesting.
        Apatosaurus - “deceptive lizard,” named by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1877, based on certain bones that looked more like those of marine reptiles than other dinosaurs.  However, I like the name because I grew up in the era when we called them Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard,” also named by Marsh, but in 1879), and I consider it a sneaky trick to switch the name on us!  (Although apparently now Brontosaurus may be getting its own back again, as a separate genus.  So it seems that Brontosaurus is the deceptive one.)
- “elegant or dainty jaw,” named in 1859 by Johann A. Wagner.  It just strikes me as funny to call a theropod’s jaws “elegant,” even if it is a petite dinosaur.  (Theropod, by the way, means “wild beast foot.”)
        Oviraptor - “egg thief,” named in 1924 by Henry Fairfield Osborn because the first skeleton was found over a clutch of eggs which it was presumed to be preying upon.  However, this is a terribly slanderous name, as it is now known that the eggs were the same species, so the current belief is that this noble dinosaur was guarding its nest even unto death.  Interestingly, Osborn himself was not entirely convinced by the egg-eating theory, even as he bestowed the name, which just goes to show that one should always give the benefit of the doubt.
        Stegosaurus - “roof lizard,” named in 1877 by Marsh.  This is another mistake, as Marsh originally believed that the plates on the dinosaur’s back were arranged like shingles on a roof, rather than standing up on edge.
        In addition, lots of dinosaur names have been inspired by mythology, which is not surprising as dinosaurs certainly seem as fantastical as any imaginary dragon and as mighty as any hero of myth.  Some of the namers have gotten quite clever in their choices, finding referents with specific local and circumstantial significance.  Here are a smattering of examples:
        Achelousaurus - a hornless ceratopsian named in 1995 by Sampson for Achelous, a Greek river god whose horn was broken in battle.
        Anzu - a theropod named in 2014 by Lamanna et al for a feathered demon in ancient Mesopotamian mythology.
        Aorun - a theropod named in 2013 by Choiniere et al for Ao Run, a dragon king from a Mandarin epic.
        Balaur - a theropod named in 2010 by Csiki et al for a dragonoid beast from Romanian myth.
        Citipati - a species of Oviraptor named in 2001 by Norell and Barsbold for wrathful deities that are often portrayed in Buddhist tradition as dancing skeletons.
        Garudimimus - “Garuda mimic,” a theropod named in 1981 by Barsbold for the magical king of birds in Hindu tradition, and the national emblem of Indonesia and Thailand.
        Jobaria - a sauropod named in 1999 by Sereno et al for a giant mythical monster of the Tuareg, on whose land the fossils were found.  (Indeed, it is possible that the myths were inspired by the fossils.)
        Kakuru - an Australian theropod named in 1980 by Molnar and Pledge for one of the names for the “Rainbow Serpent” of Aboriginal mythology, appropriate because the bones of the dinosaur had fossilized as opal - the only known instance of this.
        Mercuriceratops - a ceratopsian named in 2014 by Ryan et al because its skull ornamentation was reminiscent of the wings on Mercury’s helmet.
        Oksoko - a theropod named in 2020 by Funston et al for a three-headed eagle from Altaic myth, because the original group of fossils discovered included three skulls (not, however, all from a single individual.  That would be a dinosaur to see!)
        Siats - a Utah theropod named in 2013 by Zanno and Makovicky for a monster of Ute legend.
        Xintianosaurus - a theropod named in 2019 by Qui et al for a Chinese deity.  XingTian continued to battle even after his decapitation, and the original fossil was missing its head.

        If we allow ourselves to consider other great prehistoric reptiles, there are many more, including:
        Alcione - a pterosaur named in 2018 by Longrich et al for Alcyone of Greek myth, who threw herself from a cliff in grief and was transformed into a seabird.
        Indrasaurus - a prehistoric lizard named in 2019 by O’Connor et al for Indra, who was once swallowed whole by a dragon.  The original fossil of the lizard was found swallowed whole inside the skeleton of a small dinosaur.
        Mauisaurus - a plesiosaur from New Zealand, named in 1874 by Hector for the famous Maori demi-god.
        Quetzalcoatlus - the largest known pterosaur, named in 1975 by Lawson for the Aztec feathered serpent god.
        Simurghia - a pterosaur named in 2018 by Longrish et al for the mythical bird from Persia.

        I will end with two more words that belong in any etymological discussion of dinosaurs:
        fossil - dating from the 1610s, the word originally meant anything dug up or obtained by digging (from French from Latin “dug up”).  Our fossil fuel retains that original sense.  The more specific meaning of “geological remains of ancient living things” dates to 1736.
        thagomizer - the array of spikes on the tails of some dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, the word was coined in 1982 by cartoonist Gary Larson.  Although originally just a joke, the word was adopted by paleontologists and is now an accepted term.

[Pictures: L’Iguanodon et le Mégalosaure, engraving by Riou from La Terre avant le déluge by Louise Figuier, 1863 (Image from Librairie de L. Hachette);

Stegosaurus and Compsognathus in a landscape of araucarias, engraving from De Wereld vóór de Schepping van den Mensch by Camille Flammarion, 1886 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Anzu, illustration from Monuments of Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard, 1853, portraying a Neo-Assyrian wall relief c865 BCE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Xingtian, drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th centurey (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Primitive World, color engraving by Adolphe François Pannemaker, 1857 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, 1982 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 22, 2021

How to Summon a Giant Skeleton

         As we get into the Hallowe’en season, now seems a good time to share this epic fantasy/horror Japanese wood block print.  It dates to about 1844 and is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japan, 1791-1861).  It illustrates a historical/mythological scene in which Takiyasha, the daughter of an executed rebellious warlord, uses her witchcraft to summon a giant skeleton monster.  You can see her using a scroll or spell book to work her magic, and the monster is menacing a government official who had come to search for any of her father’s allies.  The sheer size of the skeleton makes it absolutely monstrous, but apparently it was summoned up from the presumably vengeful bones of those who had died in the battle in which her father was defeated.  Another version of the myth says that Takiyasha unleashed this monster in vengeance for the disrespect shown to her father by displaying his head in Kyoto.  The monster wrought havoc on Kyoto until the head was taken down and treated properly.
        It is a rip-roaring illustration with wonderful use of contrasts for drama.  In the background we see slashes of shape and texture that make up the dilapidated manor where Takiyasha lives, as well as the monster tearing right through the wall and curtains.  The colors are dramatic, too, with dark blacks and reds punctuated by the huge whiteness of the skeleton.  The monster’s details are masterfully depicted with its shape barely even fitting into the borders of the print.  Indeed, it overwhelms two sheets of the triptych.  From my interpretation of wikipedia’s slightly contradictory explanation of giant skeleton monsters in Japanese mythology, this story - and largely this print itself - was the inspiration for a kind of monster popularized in the later 20th century.  Called Gashadokuro, these spirits are giant skeletons created from the ghosts of unburied dead.  Gashadokuro capture travelers at night, bite off their heads, and drink their spurting blood, until all their anger is finally sated.  If you are out after midnight, you can have warning of the approach of a Gashadokuro by the loud ringing sound of its rattling teeth, and Shinto charms can be of some protection from them.
        While my brief overview of the story doesn’t show any of the characters involved to be particularly noble or heroic, sorceress Princess Takiyasha certainly sounds like an interesting character.  I wonder what other magic she performed.

[Triptych of Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, wood block print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c 1844 (Image from Wikimedia Commons (from V&A)).]

October 18, 2021

Fantasy Fungus

         I said a couple of posts ago that when it comes to mushrooms, “for this blog it has to be block prints.”  But of course that’s not true; it can also be fantasy, and fantasy actually loves its fungus!  Here’s my most recent block print, which is one of the elemental aliens I was commissioned to illustrate (ruthenium).  I set it in a mushroom forest because that seems appropriately weird and alien.  And I’m not the only one to think mushrooms belong in the world of fantasy.  Tons of people have shared this sense that mushrooms are strange, alien, fantastical, magic, mysterious…  They appear on alien planets and have been a mark of fairyland for centuries.  Mushrooms become houses for magical creatures, tables and chairs, umbrellas, hats and skirts, island-like platforms… and that’s when they aren’t magical creatures themselves.
        In trying to find some images to share today, the problem is the ubiquity of fantasy mushroom art.  There are thousands of different illustrations of mushroom houses, from cutesy to creepy and everything in between.  There are endless parades of mushroom people, again in versions both adorable and terrifying.  I have chosen some older works, those by some of the more famous children’s illustrators, some that seemed to represent a bit of variety, and of course some I particularly like.  But this selection isn’t even close to being comprehensive.
        So the question is why there is such a prevalent sense of the appropriateness of mushrooms for sci fi and fantasy (and horror).  I think there are many reasons.  For one thing, the fact that some mushrooms are psychadelics and have been used in shamanic rituals for centuries gives them an association with magic, strange powers, and crossing into other worlds.  For another thing, they are neither animal,
plant, nor mineral, but belong in their own strange group that can’t be categorized with normal, everyday sorts of things.  On top of that, their growth habits are unlike the plants and animals we understand better: they can pop up overnight, seemingly fully grown out of nothing; they have bizarre structures, which can change color and form in strange ways; they are associated with decay and seem to flourish in the midst of death.  Their colors can be beautiful or dull, their shapes and sizes adorable or disgusting.  They can be nourishing delicacies or deadly poison.  I think people have always simply sensed their strangeness - that they really are something quite alien.
        Thus we see mushrooms personified as sweet little fairies and babies, and shambling monsters of death and decay - and everything in between.  We see mushrooms turned into charming cottages for gnomes or dark palaces of necromancers - and everything in between.  We see mushrooms as the right and proper settings for all manner of magical tea parties and sinister goblin gatherings
 - and everything in between.  We see planets of mushrooms as horrifying or (as in one of my recent short stories) utopian - and everything in between.  The one thing that everyone can agree on is that mushrooms are no ordinary form of life.  There can be no doubt that they are magical.

[Pictures: Webs in the Mist, rubber block print by AEGN, 2021;

Mushroom Forest, illustration by Obsidian, 2006 (Image from Deviant Art);

Mushroom Town, illustration by Shinya Komatsu (Image from The Pnakotic Manuscripts);

Sophies Slip, ceramic sculptures by Renee Lewis (Image from artist’s Etsy shop CurlyFernCeramics);

“Alice meets the Caterpillar,” illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865 (Image from Wikipedia Commons);

“The Elf and the Dormouse,” illustration from Artful Anticks by Oliver Herford 1894 (Image from British Library);

Illustration from Liliana by Apeles Mesttes, 1907 (Image from Biblioteca Digital Hispánica);

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, 1906 (Images from Wikimedia Commons);
Mushroom Folk, illustration by M0AI, 2010 (Image from Deviant Art);
Postcard illustration by Heinz Geilfus (1890-1956) (Image from Weirdland TV);

Mushrooms, illustration by Andrew McIntosh, 2015 (Image from ArtStation);

Morille, illustration by Xavier Collette, 2020 (Image from xaviercollette.com);

Zangarmarsh, screenshot from World of Warcraft (Image from Wowhead);

Cover art by Robert Henneberger from The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, 1954 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

October 13, 2021

She Moves! She Speaks!

         Today’s post is to share a number of recent videos featuring yours truly, star of words and pictures, and now moving pictures, too.  In truth, it’s always a little horrifying to see myself on video - the voice that sounds so strange, the hair that’s poking up all wrong - but I stand by my message, so I’m going to share.
        First up, the recording of my recent on-line author reading is now available on Strong Women-Strange Worlds’s YouTube channel.  The past three events are now available there, both in their entirety and each individual author’s reading as a separate snippet.  Here’s my snippet, in which I read three (very slightly abridged) creatures from On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  I hope you enjoy them!  And then by all means go enjoy some of the other readings.  (New videos will be added, both going forward and getting through our earlier events, so subscribe to the SWSW YouTube channel to be notified when new content is available.)
        Secondly, here’s a short video made last month by a group of local high school seniors for a school project highlighting a community organization.  They interviewed me about Needham Open Studios, as well as filming some scenes at our recent NOS Inside-Out art sale.
        While I’m at it, I’ll share some slightly less brand-new videos that are also available.  Here is the entirety of my talk about “The Fantastic Bestiary” as presented at Balticon 55 in May.  Unlike the other videos I’m sharing, it’s not a mere snippet, but it’s chock-full of fabulous medieval art - plus it also includes a reading of another creature from my bestiary at the 43:25 mark.  (Be sure to turn off the closed-captioning unless you actually need it, because it’s auto-generated and has some pretty bad inaccuracies!  Plus, it covers up some of the pictures.)
        Finally, I’ll include a video I may have linked before, made for the Medfield Holiday Art Show last December.  In it I talk mostly about making art, with just a little about writing.  (I’m hoping to take part in the Medfield Holiday Stroll in person this year, but we shall see what December brings…)
        And as a non-video bonus, an interview from the Boston Book Festival in June, in which I and fellow member of Broad Universe E.C. Ambrose discuss why speculative fiction by underrepresented voices is especially important (and fun).  You can read that here.
        Yeah, in all these interviews I’m hitting the same themes over and over: how art can remind us to appreciate and share the beauty all around us, how imagination can help us make the world a better place, how enjoying art and writing together can connect us…  But I think it’s worth repeating, and I hope you enjoy seeing at least some of these varied versions of the message!  (And please try to be tolerant of any bad hair you may witness.)

[Strong Women-Strange Worlds First Friday QuickReads, October 1, 2021;

Video made by K. Harris, N. Kelleher, and S. Cai for the Greater Boston Project, September 2021;

Balticon 55 presentation “The Fantastic Bestiary,” Baltimore Science Fiction Society, May 2021;

Medfield Holiday Stroll and Tree Lighting broadcast, December 2020.]

October 8, 2021

Monsters and Aliens - Poetry

         I decided to have a look at modern sci fi and fantasy poetry for children, and although my definition of “modern” is pretty broad (say, the past 60 years or so), it became evident that the subject matter has a narrower focus than I originally planned.  So much of fantasy poetry written for children is about creatures that for this post I focussed in on that.  And even within the poetry about creatures, I discovered that it’s almost entirely about monsters.  From Roald Dahl to Shel Silverstein to Jack Prelutsky, poets seem to be convinced that the way to a child’s heart is jocular horror.  Prelutsky wrote an entire book of poems about imaginary aliens from imaginary planets, and almost every single one of the poems tells how these aliens will slaughter you, or how you will die on that planet.  So much for the wonders of space exploration!
        But while there is no doubt that many children do enjoy such poems, I tend to prefer a wider range of marvels, inspiring delight as well as fear.  So I have a few poems for you today that introduce a variety of creatures.  First is one of Prelutsky’s few aliens that is not directly murderous.  Still horror, perhaps, but not actually violent.  (You can click on the picture to make it large enough to read the poem.)  I do like that the vocabulary and syntax in this poem are quite sophisticated and don’t talk down to children, and that it revels in 
dramatic sound, with rhythm, rhyme and other poetic stylings reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe.
        Next, another slightly dangerous monster, quickly dealt with in a very different style of poem, by Lilian Moore.  This one is more Ogden-Nash-esque, with its witty one-liner.
        I have to include one creature today that’s actually helpful and friendly, so here’s The Giraft by Jane Yolen.

If you’re out in the ocean, afloat on the deep,

With the sharks making straight for your craft,

Simply close your eyes tightly and whistle a shrill

S.O.S. for the nearest Giraft.

If you plan to be going away on a cruise

And you find your lifeboats understaffed,

Do not give it a thought, simply whistle a tune

That will call on the nearest Giraft.

For they sail very swiftly, can outpace a sub,

And their periscope necks fore and aft

Let them keep a sharp eye on the ocean so no

One can sneak up behind a Giraft.

I have rowed many miles and sailed quite a few,

And on none of those trips have I laughed,

For my travels all filled me with fear and with dread

Till I learned of the friendly Giraft.

        Since I like my creatures marvelous, I also have to include one by Dr. Seuss, although it’s perhaps a stretch to call his poems “modern.”  Nevertheless, he’s got plenty of fun beasties to choose from, and while some are ferocious, most are simply strange and silly rather than frightening.  This is an excerpt from If I Ran the Circus, which includes dozens of fantastical creatures.

And you’ll now meet the Foon!  The Remarkable Foon

Who eats sizzling hot pebbles that fall off the moon!

And the reason he likes them red hot, it appears,

Is he greatly enjoys blowing smoke from his ears.

        I shall conclude with a deadly monster from the swamps of Sleethe, to represent the common sort of screams-for-laughs poem.  After all, we are beginning to get into the season of Hallowe’en.  (For a couple more monsters, follow the links to Dahl and Silverstein above.)  It’s certainly a poem that takes exuberant delight in its own horror, and I like its eloquence.
        That’s plenty of creatures and plenty of poems for one post.  Which is your favorite?

[Pictures and Poems: The Beholder in the Silence, poem by Jack Prelutsky, illustration by Jimmy Pickering from The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from beyond the solar system, 2009;

Johnny Drew a Monster, poem by Lilian Moore 1972, illustration by Kevin Hawkes 1998, from Imagine That! Poems of Never-Was, selected by Prelutsky;

The Giraft, poem by Jane Yolen, 1994;

The Foon, poem and illustration by Dr. Seuss from If I Ran the Circus, 1956;

The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from beyond the solar system, by Prelutsky, illustration by Pickering, 2009.]

October 4, 2021

Fungus Among Us

         This is the time of year when mushrooms spring up everywhere overnight like aliens.  In my last couple of walks through the woods - not even very long walks - I have come across dozens of different species (close to 50) pushing up through the leaf mold and appearing on trees, some shy, others bold as brass.  I took lots of pictures and you can see a few that I shared on my daily Instagram; but for this blog  it has to be block prints.  
        I’ve started with a pleasing linocut print found on Etsy, where, to judge by my quick search, mushrooms are fairly popular.  I’ll admit that I’m not a true mushroom lover, either to eat or to decorate my house with, but I do find them quite fascinating scientifically.  This first piece is definitely not a 
scientific botanical print, but it does capture some of the sheer exuberance of mushroomage that I’ve been seeing on my recent walks.  There are also some fun hidden details, such as snails and caterpillars.
        If we want to see some attempts to depict fungi more scientifically, we can turn to the early botanical encyclopaedias of the Renaissance.  These assorted fungi appear in the pioneering work by Carolus Clusias, one of the most influential of sixteenth-century botanists, whose study of the mushrooms of Central Europe was particularly valuable.  You can see that the wood block prints that illustrate his work are not particularly artistic in the sense of attractive compositions, but they do include careful details, and varied views in order to highlight distinctive features.
        The Honzo Zufu, a Japanese botanical encyclopaedia from the nineteenth century, manages to add some artistic aesthetic into its scientific illustrations.  These hand-watercolored wood block prints are less detailed than those from Clusius, but may be among the most cheerful mushrooms ever seen!  (You can see more about the Honzo Zufu in this previous post.)
        Returning to views of mushrooms depicted chiefly as art, here are two pieces from some of my favorite twentieth-century printmakers.  These both depict the famously poisonous fly agaric mushroom.  The first, by Grace Albee (previous post about her here), seems to be purely 
decorative.  Its red ink grabs the attention just like the red caps of the mushroom - but there is one tiny hint of memento mori to set off the deadly mushrooms: the small black fly.  (On the other hand, maybe there is no significance to the fly other than the fact which gives the mushroom its name: it is traditionally used for catching flies.)  The piece by M.C. Escher, by contrast, seems to be all about the allegory of the strange toadstool, which can be hallucinogenic as well as poisonous.  The Dutch verse beneath translates (according to the best efforts of the internet) as “Growth of mystery, afterglow of the night, void is my resurrection: a sworn splendor.”  I really have no idea what that means, but it’s clearly Deep.
        Let’s wade back out of these deep waters by a return to one last scientific image: a plate from 1562 that shows a variety of mushrooms - except that it really depicts very little variety at all compared with the amazing array of shapes, colors, and growth habits exhibited by mushrooms even just within a mile of my house.  Mushrooms really are strange, alien things, and if you have the opportunity to walk anywhere where something can get a toehold and grow, keep your eyes out for them and prepare to be astounded!

[Pictures: Mushroom Kingdom, linocut print by Laura K. Murdoch (Image from her Etsy shop laurakmurdoch);

Fungus, wood block prints from Rariorum plantarum historia by Carolus Clusius, 1601 (Images from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Mushrooms, hand-colored wood block prints from Honzo Zufu by Iwasaki Tsunemasa, c 1828-1844 (Image from National Diet Library);

Fly Agaric, wood engraving by Grace Albee, 1973 (Image from Davis);

Emblemata, Toadstool, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1931 (Image from mcescher.com);

Fungi, hand-colored wood block print by Wolfgang Meyerpeck, from Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscoridis by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1562 (You can see an uncolored print from a 1565 edition at Biodiversity Heritage Library).]