Category Archives: naturaleza

Chupacabras in Maine!

During my webby absence I did some traveling around the US, including a nice jaunt to Maine. While there, I took in the International Cryptozoology Museum, which is located in downtown Portland. I came on a good day because I was lucky enough to get a personal tour with Mr. Loren Coleman himself, who is the founder of the museum and is perhaps the most famous cryptozoologist in the United States.

Cryptozoology, if you don’t know, is the study of animals whose existence hasn’t yet been proven or which are thought to be extinct: dinosaurs, Big Foot, Ogopogo, my imaginary dog from 5th grade, etc. Keeping that in mind, I suppose it wasn’t too big of a surprise to me that Coleman keeps a small collection of chupacabras-related items in the old house of mysteries. But I was certainly happy that he does.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that chupacabras (chupar  “to suck” + cabra “goat” = goat sucker) are mythical creatures that were first reported in Puerto Rico in the mid-90s and which pop culture in the US usually associates with Mexico and Texas. The nasty little fellows are known for sucking the blood out of livestock—particularly goats. But what I loved about the museum’s collection on the topic is that beer bottle in the top photo: Cucapá Chupacabras Pale Ale. I had never heard of it before.
Apparently it’s a Mexican craft beer marketed to Americans who want the rich flavor of goat’s blood in the form of a cold, refreshing ale. So…drink up!

El Ramadán : Arabic words in Spanish

If you’ve spent any amount of time studying Spanish, you probably know that a lot of Spanish words actually come from Arabic…and I mean a lot. It’s estimated that perhaps as much as 8% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin. That puts it right up there with English as either the second or third largest linguistic contributor to Spanish next to Latin. So with Ramadan–the Islamic holiday of fasting and purification–having started this week, I had the brilliant idea to put together a list of Spanish words from Arabic that I particularly like. (I just discovered that Wikipedia is putting together a much more exhaustive list here.)

The exact linguistical nooks and crannies of how these words became part of the Spanish language is above my pay grade. But generally speaking, most of them came into common use because of the conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711 AD by the Moors and the hundreds of years of scientific, artistic, and general cultural influence Islam had in Spain because of it. Anyone who has been to Córdoba, for instance, knows what I’m talking about.

la zanahoria : carrot :: la naranja : orange
el aceite : oil ::  el arroz : rice
el azúcar : sugar :: el zumo : juice (peninsular Spanish)
la toronja : grapefruit :: el limón : lemon
la espinaca : spinach :: el café : coffee
la calabaza : pumpkin :: la albóndiga : meatball

la álgebra : algebra :: el cero : zero
la jirafa : giraffe :: el alcatraz : pelican
la almohada : pillow :: el algodón : cotton
el ajedrez : chess

el almacén : store :: el jarabe : syrup
el alcalde : mayor :: el baño : bathroom
el asesino : assassin :: la tarea : task

ojalá : I hope that… :: almorzar : to have lunch

Edimburgo Part IV : ¿maíz escocés?

One of the more interesting day trips you can take from Edinburgh is to the quaint little village of Roslin. All you need is £1.20 to catch the #15 bus from the city center, and then just sit back and enjoy the 35-minute ride.

If you squint and make that 2 look more like a 1, this could be the number 15 bus!

But you won’t be the only tourist in Roslin. The village has seen an astounding increase in visitor traffic since 2003 when a little old book you’ve probably never heard of came out … The Da Vinci Code. I think they may have even made a film version of it starring some no-name actor and with some washed-up former child star as the director. But apparently a couple of people have heard of it, because they’re coming by the thousands to see Rosslyn Chapel, which plays a crucial role in Dan Brown’s thriller and which happens to be located in a green space next to the village of Roslin’s graveyard.

Now whether you believe all the hype about the Templars and buried esoteric treasures or not, Rosslyn Chapel is a beautiful 15th-century structure with amazing stone carvings and is really worth a visit. Vices and virtues are on display, vines grow out of the mouths of little men, dragons surround pillars, and the devil even makes an appearance as a fallen angel. There also just might be some carvings along an arch of … corn?

Some folks posit that those chunky things with crowns and little beady things running up and down them are supposed to represent the stuff. But if that’s the case, then there is a mystery going on with this chapel that has nothing to do with any grail.

El maíz, as we all know, is a wonderful domestic grass that was cultivated by the Mayans and Aztecs throughout large parts of what is now Mexico well before any Europeans arrived in the area and shook up the place. It now stands as one of the most important grains in practically every culture in the Americas and is used in cuisines throughout the world. Heck, thanks to high fructose syrup and big agra, it now forms the bulk of the American diet. Oh, and I love the stuff! Not just because I’m a native Hoosier, but because it just plain tastes good.

The problem is that Europeans had—in theory—never seen, tasted, or heard of the stuff when the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel were made. So if those really are images of corn at the chapel … WTF??? (As the kids would say.)

Edimburgo Part II : Monkey Puzzle Tree

Part of the reason I was in Scotland was to catch up with my wife who was taking part in a botanical conference there. As part of her work in the UK, we were given a short tour of Benmore Botanic Garden, which is near the Firth of Clyde and is part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh‘s system of gardens. One of the prized features of Benmore is their Chilean Rainforest Glade, which the Garden undertook as a project in 1995. The following is my poor photograph of part of this area at Benmore.

This collection of Chilean flora includes all nine of the Chilean conifers, but the coolest one is that guy in the lower right hand corner, la araucaria or in English … the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana).

Monkey puzzles naturally occur in the south-central regions of the Andes in Argentina and Chile, but they became very popular garden trees in Great Britain beginning in the 19th century. Apparently there are also some in the coastal areas of the US as well, but I had never even heard of the tree before going to Benmore.

Monkey puzzles are considered sacred by some Mapuche tribes in Chile. They are also sometimes used for wood, but are more important as a food resource. Their seeds are edible and similar to pine nuts. Amazingly, however, trees don’t yield seeds until they are around 30 or 40 years old! But that’s still adolescence for a monkey puzzle tree; they can survive for upwards of 1,000 years. But the best thing about a monkey puzzle tree, of course, is its name. It seems to come from 19th-century England when a young owner remarked that the tree’s odd shape and reptilian design would make a monkey puzzle how to climb it. It also leads to many British school children mimicking monkey sounds when touring the garden (an event I’ve witnessed first hand!).

#5: The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham

“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”


John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) first published pulp stories in the 30s, but it wasn’t until this novel was published and he changed his pen name to just “John Wyndham” (thought by many to be a new writer because of it) that his career first took off. Triffids came from a long tradition of British science fiction, dating back as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which features disaster stories. Brian Aldiss refers to this narrative type disparagingly as “cosy catastrophes,” and Triffids is often held up as the quintessential novel of this type–middle-class values couched in mindless adventure narrative. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair description of Wyndham’s work, but this story is certainly about whites rebuilding white civilization.

The storyline is easy. Bill Masen, the narrator, wakes up one day in a hospital after a terrible tragedy (think 28 Days Later). Seemingly everyone but him is blind from a comet explosion/weapons system gone wrong/unknown reason. He was lucky enough to have been recovering from an eye injury during the event and thus avoided the effects. Anyway, London, Britain, and perhaps the world have gone crazy from the disaster. And then the triffids rise up. A triffid is an ambulatory plant perhaps developed by Trofim Lysenko or from outer space or originating from god knows where. They were once regarded as quaint by the Brits, showing up unannounced in cherished garden plots when Masen was a boy. Later it became clear that they could be dangerous–they can lash out with seriously damaging sting-y “tongues.” And they get totally out of control after the blinding event. Along the way, Masen finds others with sight, takes a trashy novelist to be his lover, considers joining a community based around plural wives, has a run in with a man who enslaves the sighted to care for the blind, is disgusted by a puritanical commune, deals with an out-of-control military unit, and finds lots and lots of triffids.

The novel is entertaining as all, but also quite strange. Wyndham never really explains things: where the triffids come from, what the blinding event was, whether the triffids are sentient, what’s going on outside of the UK (though many are unwisely convinced the mighty US was spared or is too resourceful to be in chaos), and even details about some of the more important characters in the book. Many folks in the novel make odd decisions, and there is much less emphasis on philosophical implications as there is in a book like Earth Abides. But that’s almost part of the fun. Wyndham’s narrative allows the mind to wander, which I often find is the point of such a disaster piece. He’s particularly full of innuendo and leading comments in the area of sexual relations and gender, and who can beat that (no pun intended)?

Triffids on the web:
-on the Gorillaz website there’s a potted triffid in the kitchen of Murdoc’s trailer
-this art piece
-a textile
-a nebula

-a craft project
-an Australian rock band from the 80s
-a nursery
-and so many more

like a plant distributor and the classic sf film and tv series