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Monday, March 28, 2022

Amazing expedition, amazing goal


Believe it or not, this is not a fungus.  Or an alien species.  It is a flower that lurks in the deepest rainforests of Luzon, in the Philippines.  

It is a Rafflesia banaoana, a species of the genus that was named after Sir Stamford Raffles of Singapore fame.  Close relatives can be found in Sumatra, Java, Borneo, but they are all in southeast Asia.  And they are very, very rare.

Maybe it is alien.  It has no roots, leaves, or stems.  It is an utter parasite.  Not only does it get its sustenance from the vine in which it lives, but it takes over the genes of the host as well.  Weird, totally weird, like a manifestation of a virus in plant form.

So, the only part of the plant that exhibits itself is the flower.  And how!   A Rafflesia in Sumatra was measured at 120 centimeters -- almost four feet -- in diameter. The flower buds rise directly from the host vine, and spread out five huge petals, which smell like rotting flesh, and attract flies.  Which is why it is rather aptly dubbed by some people "the corpse flower." But no, they do not digest the flies, like the Venus fly trap.  The flies are for pollination purposes, like bees for more ordinary flowers.

Rafflesia was first discovered in the late eighteenth century in Java, by French naturalist Louis Deschamps, during the blossoming of the passion for natural history that was triggered by Joseph Banks and the Endeavour voyage. The first British naturalist to see a specimen was Joseph Arnold, when he was exploring the Sumatran rainforest in 1818.

Arnold got very excited, writing:

Here I rejoice to tell you I happened to meet with what I consider as the greatest prodigy of the vegetable world. I had ventured some way from the party, when one of the Malay servants came running to me ... To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and had there been no witnesses, I should, I think, have been fearful of mentioning the dimensions of this flower, so much does it exceed every flower I have seen or heard of.

Chris Thorogood, the deputy director of the Oxford Botanical Garden and Arboretum, got equally excited just recently. A prime ambition had been to find a specimen of what he calls 'the world's most whopping weird plant', and he did it!  

And here is Chris and the flower he found.

He looks hot and tired but triumphant, and deservedly so.  As The Guardian describes, the search was a real struggle.

By the time he got there he had been stung by vicious plants, and bitten by nasty leeches. 

But what a find!

Friday, March 25, 2022



When Helen Pederson enters the room at her estranged husband’s California estate, she expects to learn what hostess duties he needs her to perform this time. Instead, she is confronted by six individuals who together stir up a two-decades-old nightmare. Two she knows well. Her husband, Harold Pederson, runs the wealthy family empire that his grandfather founded. Once he makes a decision, it’s impossible to change his mind. The second is their daughter, Jewel, who suffers from a congenital mental illness that manifests itself in angry tantrums that have become more violent as she ages.

The other four people are Skye Hamilton, Maggie Bacchante, Jerry Giacomo, and Kate Giacomo. Skye is the business manager of Bacchante Wines. Maggie, whose family owns the winery, is an up-and-coming fashion designer. Although they are not related, she and Kate look amazingly like twins and they grew up together. Kate is a bestselling author. Her adopted father, Jerry, is a well-known fireman who specializes in fighting oil well fires.

Twenty years ago, in the midst of a hurricane, three babies were born: Jewel, Kate, and Maggie. Three little girls. Three identical cribs. Amid the chaos, no labels identified who was who or which baby belonged to which mother. Now, Harold wants to know which is truly his daughter. He has a plan to learn the truth – sail to the Pacific island where the hurricane hit – and he has the money to insure that no one refuses to accompany him on the cruise.

Druett steps away from her traditional historical fiction to craft a modern-day mystery. Her characters are well-developed and unique from each other, in spite of the similarities between Kate and Maggie. A shady sailing boat, a kidnapping, unexpected deaths, odd financial manipulations, a peculiar assistant, Jewel’s tantrums, and a brewing hurricane add further spice to the suspense. Stirring up the past is never a good idea and doing so often results in unintended consequences as Daughters of the Storm clearly demonstrates in a fashion similar to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Readers who enjoy this first offering in the Bacchante series will eagerly await the next book, Storm Swept.

With thanks to Cindy Vallar, Pirates and Privateers, who gave the book five stars.

Watch for Storm Swept, which is being published momentarily.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Blacks in Whaling


I was very interested today to receive a link to an item in the Guardian featuring the discovery of the wreck of a little 94-ton whaler.  A brig. Though the journalists insist on calling it a whaleship, technically it was not.  As it boasted only two masts, it was a brig.

It is pretty certain that it was the brig Industry of Westport, Massachusetts, which was sunk in 1836.  And the evidence that it was a whaler is the block of bricks with two cauldrons set inside: the tryworks, where the blubber was rendered into oil.  You can see it in the photo.

Industry was an old name for many old whaling vessels, a reflection of how hard the men in the trade worked.  There were ships called Industry that sailed out of Nantucket, Boston, New Bedford, and Dartmouth, as well as Westport.  The earliest, according to Judith Lund's compendious Whaling Masters and Whaling Voyages, sailed out of Dartmouth in 1758, and the captain was Isaiah Eldridge.  The captain of the Westport vessel when it foundered was Hiram Francis -- or so says Alexander Starbuck, in his ancient History of the American Whale Fishery

Very little is known about this particular little craft.  Her builders and owners and managing agents were not recorded, but it does have the distinction of being on the only whaler that sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. Luckily for the 15-strong crew, the Westport brigs whaled in proximity to each other, and so they were rescued by the Elizabeth, which was close by, and which, coincidentally, was captained by the same man who had been the Industry's master the previous voyage, George Sowle.

And it was doubly lucky, as if the crewlist had included runaway Blacks, which happened often, they would have had a bad time if they had been forced to row to shore.

As I found out when researching In the Wake of Madness, which was the grim story of the murder of a Black steward by the certifiable captain of the Sharon (sister ship of Acushnet, where Melville sailed at the same time), the whaling industry was a refuge for runaway slaves.  Dominated by Quakers, the whaling villages welcomed Blacks, and some, like Paul Cuffe and Lewis Temple (the inventor of the toggle harpoon), became prominent in the business.

There is even a statue devoted to Temple in New Bedford, a testament to a liberal past.

Friday, March 18, 2022



Well, we have all read the story of the giant whatever, that was dug out of a garden at a farm near Hamilton, in the North Island of New Zealand.

The couple who dug the giant whatever (promptly called "Doug") inspected it, weighed it, tasted it (that took courage!) and entered it into the giant Guiness Awards outfit, hoping to get it rated as the world's largest potato.

But, sadly, it was not a potato.  It was the tuber of a gourd.  Full stop.  Very frustrating.  Do gourds have tubers?  What did the parent plant look like? If Doug was dug back underground, what would sprout there-from?  But the mysteries are not to be solved.  Doug now languishes in the farmer's very large freezer.  Why?  I would like to know that, too.

The odd bit of news got published in the New York Times, which has a comments facility -- and readers took advantage of it, to display their witty puns.  Here are a few choice selections.

Charles E Dawson
Woodbridge, VA3h ago

Another sad example of the decline of the West. Doug, whatever it is, is fantastic, utterly cool. The response though is tragic. Science is by definition, curiosity. Yet it is not in evidence here; it ends with Doug is not a potato. I, for one, want to know more: What is it, is it edible, is it poisonous, what does it taste like, can it be grown, does it posses other beneficial properties ? Really, does this interest no one ? Are their souls so dead or jaded that some new lifeform is just shrugged off as another part of their daily drudgery ? It's not a potato. Done. Colonial Americans thought the tomato was poisonous; Spanish nuns created a business juggernaut when they added sugar to chocolate to aid people during fast days; George Washington Carver discovered a fabulous world in the peanut. Well, here's to Doug, the first, the best, and maybe the last, of his kind.Flag

Ryan Carlson
Minneapolis3h ago

Heads up guys, if you find a large deposit of apparent gravy nearby, don't taste it!

LaMancha5h ago

Poor Doug is an orphan, but loved nonetheless. Very cool and a lot happier than watching Putin destroy Ukraine.

Nevada City, Ca5h ago

I first read about this in the underground press.


Clearly not a tuber. Threeber, certainly, and quite possibly a fourber. And is it measured in metric, or in real math?

Peter Stix
Albany NY7h ago

They should put it on a webcam and stream it. A 17-pound youTuber (Sorry, but the proliferation of puns required further punishment.)

New York8h ago

This tuber, from down under Should not have had its hopes cast asunder It should have earned a Guinness award For being a unique organic abstract, in the form of gourd.

Linwood8h ago

tuber or not tuber, that is the question

Monday, March 14, 2022



From Stuff NZ

A Greenpeace flotilla of at least seven boats has arrived at Russian oligarch Alexander Abramov’s luxury resort in Northland.

So far six yachts, a local boat, two kayaks and a stand-up paddle board are part of the flotilla parked in the waters outside the resort, and protestors expect more will join them.

Greenpeace Aotearoa deployed its Ukraine Peace Flotilla from Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour on Thursday, with more boats set to meet them at Helena Bay.

The activists are calling on the Government to freeze Abramov’s assets, including the 215 hectare lodge, which they hope will pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his war on Ukraine.

Nearly 9400 people have signed a supporting petition. 

In response to the war on UkraineParliament passed legislation to sanction Russia on March 9.

The Government’s Russia Sanctions Bill was announced on Monday, then debated and passed under urgency.

“[The] legislation allows us to step up our response to Russia's grave unprovoked war on the Ukrainian people,” Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said at the time.

“It is evident that a united global approach to its actions will require sustained endurance and what I have called a wall of resistance.”

The Russia sanctions law allows the Government to sanction people, companies and assets that are tied to the invasion or are of “economic or strategic relevance” to the country.

Sanctions would be laid in the coming weeks, Mahuta said on Wednesday, as Ministry of Foreign and Trade officials were working urgently to determine what and who might be targeted.

Greenpeace says freezing Abramov’s assets would send a clear signal to Russia about how New Zealand feels about its war.

“If the Government is serious about using sanctions to pressure Putin, then they must go for the big fish quickly. That means freezing Alexander Abramov’s assets, as New Zealand’s richest Russian investor,” O’Flynn said.

Friday, March 4, 2022



I am particularly interested in conspiracy theories.  Back when I was researching and writing Rough Medicine, which was taken from the records kept by seven nineteenth century doctors at sea,  I came across a lot of crazy theories, including a method for making snake oil.  Naturally, most of this could not be included in a seafaring book, but the fascination stayed with me.  And this is enhanced by the craziness of the Ottawa-type protestors, who seem to believe either that Covid is a myth, or that the vaccines contain mind-altering substrances, or both.  So weird.  One wants to know a lot more.

Kelly Weill, who writes about conspiracy theories for Daily Beast, and is interviewed by organizations such as Al Jazeera, is a very creditable author when it comes to this kind of thing, so I immediately bought the digital book, and recommended to the Wellington (NZ) library service that they acquire it.  Amusingly, I got an entertained reply from the library service within minutes, informing me that of course they had acquired it already.  Which, given the Ottawa-type inchoate protest on the lawns of our Parliamentary buildings, was unsurprising.

Naturally, I read it right away.  On the TV screen ahead of me the police action to remove the rabble was evolving, with a great deal of violence.  The rabble even set the ancient pohutukawa trees on fire, and did their best to destroy the wonderful children's playground.  Even today, with a huge clean up in progress, the damage is heartbreaking. How can people do this? And why?  Wellingtonians, naturally proud of their beautiful city, feel desecrated, and a large group rapidly signed up to volunteer to help repair the grounds after the police have checked it for dangerous devices. 

The site was originally Pipitea Pa, an important village in pre-European times. Built by Ngāti Mutunga, after 1835 it was occupied by Te Āti Awa and was surrounded by cultivations

The iwi (local nation) still has a strong connection to the site, mana whenua -- territorial, historical, and cultural rights -- and objected strongly at what the so-called protestors were doing to the land.  The rabble were 'disrespecting' not only their land, but their sea, their sacred places, their traditional flags, and their elders, too.

The iwi, normally hospitable to manuhiri (guests), spoke out about its whenua (land) being tarnished, and condemned acts like sewage being poured down drains that lead to the harbour for which it acts as kaitiaki (guardians). It has seen protesters falsely claim their own mana whenua status; kuia and kaumatua have been abused, and Taranaki Whānui's offices and marae have been vandalised. 

Last week, it condemned attempts by some protesters to serve bogus trespass notices at Pipitea Marae, its ancestral home, in a flagrant breach of tikanga (protocol). On Monday, in a ceremony at dawn, Taranaki Whanui, with the support of the Kiingitanga, laid down Te Kahu o Te Raukawa, a cloak of peace and protection. The protesters had not honoured their role as manuhiri, it said. "We feel that [Wednesday's] actions did not uphold Te Kahu o Te Raukura. We laid down those expectations which I don't think were unreasonable. What we saw was the undermining of that."

Interestingly, the first commune devoted to flat-earthers, according to Weill's first chapter, was called 'Manea Fen,' which looks so like 'mana whenua' (the 'wh' is pronounced 'f') that it looks like a borrowing from te reo Maori.  And this was 1838, when borrowings from the New Zealand Maori were common.

But that is by-the-bye.  What did I think of the book?

I found it both very modern and most readable, and an important look at an explosive situation in our current society. There was also (surprisingly) humor to leaven the story, but the theme is very serious. Where the author starts with an amusing look at crazy theories, focusing on Flat Earthers, she progresses to a detailed view of the shocking harm these people commit. 

Chapter nine is particularly concerned and concerning. Graphically, it demonstrates how Donald Trump catered cynically to conspiracy theories, and dragged a worryingly large number of fellow politicians down the rabbit hole.   I had a personal experience of this, when trying to talk (online) to one of the Wellington protestors -- one who seemed intelligent, though he was very insulting.  But when he started banging Trump's ivermectin drum, I gave up and signed off.

My only criticism of the book was that the chapters are too long. Information this important needs to be absorbed and digested in small bites.

And oh! I would have liked illustrations.  There are plenty of crazy headlines, posters, and signs out there.  This one was put up in the London Underground, and when the cleaner tried to take it down, it was booby-trapped with a razor blade.