Readers’ wildlife photos

October 26, 2023 • 8:15 am

Send in your photos! Please. I guess I’ll have to beg again, and next comes the guilt trip. . . .

In honor of Halloween, which is around the corner, reader Steve Pollard has some new “wildlife” photos—if you count scarecrows as wildlife. I did last year, so here’s this year’s crop. Steve’s narration is indented, and click on the photos to enlarge them:

About a year ago, I submitted some photos of scarecrows near where I live in SE England. We agreed that their relevance to wildlife was effectively zero, but given the temporary dearth of real wildlife photos, you eventually posted them to fill the void.

Motts Mill is a tiny hamlet of about a dozen houses hidden in a secluded valley near Groombridge in NE Sussex. Every Autumn there is a display of scarecrows, all made by a local genius, throughout the village and surrounding countryside. Here are some of this year’s crop.

I like the one of the cop with a speed gun; the figure on the right may look familiar. I also like the image of our new Gracious King.

Oberlin makes another terrible move, refusing to give back artwork stolen by the Nazis from a Jew

October 3, 2023 • 9:20 am

In the past couple of years, Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, has embarrassed itself twice, costing it both big bucks and its reputation. The first episode was the Gibson’s Bakery fracas, when, after catching admitted student shoplifters stealing wine, Gibson’s was then punished, defamed, and accused of racism by Oberlin. The courts fined Oberlin $36.6 million for this behavior, which the school paid after trying at all costs to avoid owning up to their defamation (they still haven’t apologized), and now Oberlin’s suing their own insurance companies, which say the court fines aren’t indemnified.  Oberlin’s behavior was reprehensible since Gibson’s had no history of racism and was a respected local institution. (All my posts on this sorry episode are here.)

Incident #2: Kim Russell, the coach of Oberlin’s women’s lacrosse team, speaking privately on social media, implied that only biological women should compete on women’s athletic teams. (Russell didn’t count swimmer Lia Thomas, a self-declared trans female, as not the “real winner” of a woman’s swimming match.) Russell violated none of Oberlin’s rules, and it is in fact impossible to have a “women’s team” at Oberlin unless there’s a hormone-treated trans female who wishes to compete, and then the women’s team has to be called a “mixed team” for a year.  Medically untreated trans females cannot compete on women’s teams at Oberlin.

Russell was investigated by Oberlin, reproved, and then removed from contact with her beloved athletes and given a desk job.  All for supporting what science tells us: men who go through male puberty, and then transition to being trans women, retain their athletic advantages whether or not they’re medically treated. Russell, speaking personally, was exercising her freedom of speech, not making a policy statement.

Now, according to Legal Insurrection, Oberlin has made a third misstep. (Click to read).

Oberlin happens to be in possession, in its art museum, of a valuable drawing by the late Austrian painter Egon Schiele (one of my favorite artists). It turns out that that drawing was owned by a Jewish collector, who, imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau, was forced to sign over all his art to the Nazis.  The descendants of that deceased collector have been trying to get the drawing back from Oberlin since 2006:

The Manhattan D.A. recently issued a criminal seizure warrant for ‘Girl With Black Hair’ in the possession of Oberlin College’s Allen Museum. Court records in a civil case reveal that the college has been fighting at least since 2006 against return of the drawing. This is in contrast to the college’s repatriation of an item of Native American craft returned to the Nez Perce tribe in 2002. Are items stolen from Jews during the Holocaust less worthy of return than items obtained from Native American tribes?

The D.A. is attempting to recover that drawing and others located at other museums and private collections, which were stolen by the Nazis from Fritz Grünbaum, a prominent Jewish art collector and cabaret artist, who was forced under duress to sign over rights to his collection as part of the Nazi confiscation of Jewish property, while interned at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where he died in 1941.

While the criminal warrant to Oberlin College and two other institutions put the dispute in the current headlines, the Grünbaum heirs have have been trying at least since 2006 to get Oberlin College to return the drawing, to no avail. We have not seen that long history reported before, and we learned of it while reviewing court filings in a civil case filed against Oberlin College and others in late 2022, which Oberlin College also is fighting. Among other things, Oberlin College disputes the constitutionality of applying the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016.

The story is long, but first have a look at the lovely drawing (worth about $1.5 million) in the Oberlin’s Allen Museum (from the article):

In a move reminiscent of Oberlin’s recalcitrance in the face of moral rectitude, Oberlin still refuses to return the portrait because the statute of limitations under the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (“HEAR”) Act of 2016 has supposedly expired, even though the heirs of Grünbaum started trying to get the drawing back before that statute expired.

This is a simple matter of right and wrong, and the Manhattan D.A. doesn’t buy Oberlin’s defense (Oberlin’s still in possession of the drawing). What’s worse is that Oberlin voluntarily gave back Native American artifacts that were legally in its possession:

On April 27, 2002, the Oberlin College Department of Anthropology returned to the Nez Perce Tribe a twined root bag that had been lost in their ethnographic collections for over a hundred years. This bag was collected by Henry Harmon Spalding, missionary to the Nez Perce, in the 1840’s, and is part of the Spalding-Allen Collection that is on display at the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Spalding, Idaho. The symposium consisted of lectures on the history of the collection and the development of flat twined weaving in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as panel discussions on museum collections and repatriation of Native American cultural patrimony.

Here’s the returned Native American artifact, the root bag:

So Oberlin refuses to return a valuable Schiele drawing stolen from a Jewish collector, using legal excuses, but voluntarily returns a Native American artifact that was acquired legally.

Even if Oberlin had a legal leg to stand on with the Schiele drawing, it should return it. It’s the right thing to do. By keeping the drawing, Oberlin is implying that it’s okay to hold onto stolen art so long as it was stolen from a Jew, but not okay to hold onto any Native American art, even if acquired legally. As Legal Insurrection concludes,

. . .the question remains, why fight for so long the return of an item stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust? Why not treat it like the twined root bag returned to the Nez Perce tribe, where ethics and morality — not the law — led Oberlin College to give up its possession? Are items stolen from Jews during the Holocaust less worthy of non-legal ethical considerations than items obtained from Native American tribes?

Why wait until the legal and public pressure mounts? Why not have returned the artwork in 2006, or last year when a civil lawsuit seeking its return was filed. Will it really take a criminal seizure warrant to get back this stolen property?

It’s often said that “integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” No one was watching Oberlin College as relates to Girl With Black Hair for most of the 17 years Oberlin College has been fighting its return. Oberlin College had almost two decades to do the right thing as to the stolen drawing, when no one was watching. Now people are watching, so no virtue signaling is warranted if Oberlin College finally gives up possession of the drawing.

Oberlin College, which professes its social justice bona fides, apparently didn’t consider the return of a stolen drawing taken by the Nazis from a Jewish Holocaust victim to be social justice.

One thing is for sure, if I had a kid, I would not pay for it to go to Oberlin, and I would urge those parents or students considering the school to think twice.  It has acted immorally three times now, and shows no signs of having any conscience at all.

h/t: Malgorzata

Hamline University refuses to admit that they screwed up by firing an instructor who showed a picture of Muhammad’s face

September 26, 2023 • 9:45 am

I wrote ten posts on the 2022 “Muhammadgate” controversy at Hamline University, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota.  There’s now a new development, and it doesn’t look good for the administration of Hamline (see screenshot below).  Let me refresh you briefly on what happened.

1.) An instructor, since identified as Erika López Prater, was giving her class a unit on Islamic art as part of a “global history of art” semester.

2.) As part of the syllabus, she showed two photos of paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, one of which depicted his face. In some, but not all, sects of Islam, that’s considered a form of blasphemy.  In others it’s fine. Historically, however, it wasn’t.  The two paintings, which I’m going to put below, were shown because they are historically important, considered important part of the canon of Islamic art.

In this picture, from Wikipedia Commons (and here), Muhammad is receiving his first revelation (which became the Qur’an) from the angel Gabriel:

In this painring the face of Muhammad is obscured, in line with the tradition of other Muslim sects:

3.) On the syllabus she gave the students at the beginning of her class, López Prater issued a “trigger warning” about when the Muhammad paintings would be shown to students. She also gave that same warning on the day they were shown, so that students didn’t have to look at them if they thought they’d be upsetting. (Whether the face of Muhammad in an ancient artwork should be upsetting is dubious; I think what we have here is manufactured outrage.)

4.) The two trigger warnings didn’t matter. Aram Wedatalla (a Black Muslim who was President of the Muslim Students Association) complained to the administration, and, as I wrote at the time, “After that, the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence (AVPIE) declared the classroom exercise ‘undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic’.”

5.) López Prater apologized directly to the student, saying “I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in the email to Wedatalla, who shared it with the Oracle [the student newspaper.]

6.) Nevertheless, despite the two trigger warnings and her apology, López Prater was fired, facing campuswide accusations of racism and Islamophobia from the students and administration.

7.) Many people rose to López Prater’s defense, including the art-history faculty, a Muslim organization, Kenan Malik, and scholars from other institutions. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) condemned Hamline for violating the instructor’s academic freedom. The NYT had a big article on the controversy that generally took the instructor’s side, quoting Muslim art scholars who said the paintings at issue were masterpieces.

8.) In a stinging blow, 86% of Hamiline’s full-time faculty (71/83) voted to ask President Fayneese S. Miller, an African-American, to resign, and López Prater, who I believe has other job offers, sued the school.

9.) President Miller, who was instrumental in López Prater’s dismissal, said that she, Miller would retire. She apparently hasn’t, as you see below.

10.) In a further black mark on the school, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that Hamline University had arrantly violated López Prater’s academic freedom.

11.) As of this writing, López Prater’s suit against Hamline for religious discrimination, defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of Minnesota’s whistleblower law, and breach of contract is in federal court, A judge recently threw out four of the five claims (defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act), but allowed the religious discrimination claim to go forward. López Prater claims that she was discriminated against not only because she is not Muslim, but that she was fired because she didn’t conform to Muslim belief.  It’s hard for me to understand how the judge could toss the defamation, retaliation, and emotional distress claims, but I hope López Prater wins on the other claims.

In the meantime, other scholars weighed in supporting López Prater’s showing of the paintings and decrying her abysmal treatment by Hamline University.

In light of this, you’d think that Hamline would try to repair its damaged reputation. The article below shows that that isn’t the case. Hamline just held a seminar on the whole sordid affair, and it turned out to be the administration’s put-up job on academic freedom, a show designed to conclude that López Prater’s own academic freedom was superseded by the “harm” she inflicted on the students. (Don’t forget the two trigger warnings!).

Click below read about the seminar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fayneese Miller didn’t only not retire, but she’s adamantly defending what Hamline did, and the faculty apparently had no say in who was invited to speak during the seminar.  The school is simply refusing to admit that it did anything wrong, and is buying into the woke trope that academic freedom and freedom of speech has be be carefully balanced against the kind of confected emotional “harm” produced when a trigger-warned Muslim sees the visage of Muhammad:

You can read the piece for yourself; I’ll give just a summary of the proceedings. When the mild-mannered Chronicle is this critical of a school’s behavior, you know the school deserves it.

It has been almost one year since the classroom incident, and despite the damage to the university’s image, there has been no internal inquiry. Not a single administrator has issued an apology or taken responsibility. Instead, Hamline’s administration — after having had a long period to reflect on the media response, the AAUP report, and the statements of outraged faculty — organized “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow.” Despite its promising title, the event — which included introductions from David Everett, Hamline’s chief diversity officer, and Fayneese S. Miller, Hamline’s president; and a keynote address by Michael Eric Dyson — was essentially a full-throated defense of the administration’s actions against López Prater. Of the four panelists who convened after the keynote, only one, David Schultz, was drawn from the Hamline faculty. (Unsurprisingly, he alone seemed to evince any skepticism about the administration’s actions, albeit in a rather indirect way.) The others — Stacy Hawkins, of Rutgers Law School, and the antiracist activists Tim Wise and Robin DiAngelo — did not discuss the controversy in any substantive way.

Robin DiAngelo, for crying out loud!  Why were these outsiders brought in? Clearly to cast the whole incident as an example of racism, which of course it wasn’t.  Here’s President Miller justifying abrogation of academic freedom:

Next up was President Miller, who was eager to note that she did not see this event as a defensive move, “but rather an offensive” one (with the stress on the first syllable). Miller’s insistence that “this is not defensive” foreshadowed an event that was, in many ways, highly defensive.

Miller’s comments at the event were clearly directed at the faculty, who, she said, “continue to teach in ways that are more likely to mirror the educational experience that we endured.” When we exercise academic freedom, she said, we must “still see who is in our classrooms.” And she advised us that faculty must “not treat [students] as cattle to be prodded and moved in the direction we want.” The real threat to academic freedom, she concluded, occurs in places like Florida and Texas. “It is not being threatened that way in Minnesota. It is not being threatened that way at Hamline University.” Miller fails to see that there are many ways that academic freedom can be threatened. Despite the important differences, there is a key similarity between much of what is happening in places like Florida and Texas and what happened at Hamline last year. In both instances, a particular religious or ideological viewpoint is being used in an attempt to deny everyone in the community the opportunity to see certain material.

Indeed! Finally, the speakers not only set unconscionable limits to academic freedom, but also repeatedly conflated academic freedom with freedom of speech (what was violated was López Prater’s academic freedom to teach relevant material, not her freedom of speech), and then emphasized that both should be restricted when there’s the possibility of emotional “harm”.

 It is clear that López Prater had no intent to upset anyone. She was teaching an important work of Islamic art, which is part of her job. She showed concern for her Muslim students by giving them multiple warnings, in writing and orally, to avert their eyes when she showed the image if they so wanted. This is nothing like the examples — some given more than once by many speakers at the event — of Holocaust denial, flat earth theory, fomenting an insurrection, and using the N-word in the classroom. None of these absurdly inappropriate disanalogies are remotely similar to the challenge that arose in López Prater’s art history class and that many of us regularly face — responsibly teaching relevant and suitable academic content that might be disturbing to some students.

. . . What happened to López Prater, whose academic freedom was clearly denied, was outrageous and unfair. It also serves as a chilling cautionary tale to all of us, especially those of us who teach controversial subjects. An administration that issues statements professing their commitment to academic freedom, as Hamline’s did in the wake of the avalanche of criticism, must be willing to support faculty in such situations — including adjunct faculty — or the statements mean nothing. Nothing said at “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow” gave me confidence that our administration understands this.

That last paragraph is the important one.  Hamline University pays only lip service to academic freedom, for their decision to strongly defend what they did to López Prater is reprehensible.  The Hamline faculty, but not the administration, does understand academic freedom, but the administration apparently runs the show. (López Prater would never have been fired at The University of Chicago.)

The obvious conclusions are that if parents want their kids to have a real education—one in which controversial matters can be openly discussed—they shouldn’t send their kids to Hamline University. Further, it’s time for President Miller to go, as she said she would. She kept the faculty out of this seminar, for she knew, given their vote, that they don’t share her misguided ideas about “harm”.

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 26, 2023 • 8:15 am

Our wildlife photos today are of H. sapiens in the dancing mode, and are supplied by Doug Hayes of Richmond Virginia, creator of the “Breakfast Crew” series. Doug’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Just a few shots from the latest photoshoot I did for Starr Foster Dance. The photos are for use with publicity material for upcoming shows and to accompany the web site biographies of three new dancers who joined the company this month. I have been working with choreographer Starrene “Starr” Foster for the entire 20-year existence of her company. For more information on her work and the company members, visit

The dance company web site features each dancer executing a different jump, dancer’s choice:

SFD04 –   Yes, the dancer actually folded her legs under her body in mid-air at the peak of her jump. It did take several tries to catch that moment.

Costume shots for an upcoming show:

The core members of Starr Foster Dance. Three additional dancers (not shown) have joined the company this past month:

Jumps are always fun and a challenge to photograph, especially when multiple dancers are involved.

Photography info: Lighting provided by three White Lightning 800 watt-second flash units with silver umbrella reflectors, flashes triggered by a CyberSync radio controller, Sony A7R5 camera body set for daylight color temperature/ISO 320, Sony FE 24-105 zoom lens, 24’x12′ black backdrop.

Caturday felid trifecta: Non-surgical birth control in cats; cocktail named for a Disney cat; AI-enhanced art cats in Vienna; and lagniappe

June 10, 2023 • 9:15 am

Here’s an announcement from Harvard News that has big implications for cats. Click on the screenshot to read:

An excerpt:

For the first time, researchers have isolated a hormone that can prevent cats from getting pregnant.

A single dose of a viral vector containing anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH), a naturally occurring hormone, prevented ovulation and conception in female cats for at least two years, according to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and their collaborators.

. . . .In 2017, Pépin and his collaborators were the first to publish the contraceptive potential of AMH in rodents.

The team then turned their attention to felines. To raise AMH levels in female domestic cats, the researchers created an adeno-associated viral (AAV) gene therapy vector with a slightly altered version of the feline AMH gene. Human therapies using similar AAV vectors to deliver various therapeutic genes have proven to be safe and effective and have been approved by the FDA.

“A single injection of the gene therapy vector causes the cat’s muscles to produce AMH, which is normally only produced in the ovaries, and raises the overall level of AMH about 100 times higher than normal,” says Pépin.

The researchers treated six female cats with the gene therapy at two different doses, and three cats served as controls. A male cat was brought into the female colony for two four-month-long mating trials. The researchers followed the female cats for more than two years, assessing the effect of the treatment on reproductive hormones, ovarian cycles, and fertility.

All the control cats produced kittens, but none of the cats treated with the gene therapy got pregnant. Suppressing ovarian follicle development and ovulation did not affect important hormones such as estrogen. There were no adverse effects observed in any of the treated female cats, demonstrating that at the doses tested, the gene therapy was safe and well tolerated.

As the article notes, this therapy isn’t yet ready for prime time, but will be useful not only for keeping your own cat kitten-free without surgical intervention, but perhaps also to prevent wild cats from breeding, though every female will have to get a shot every two years. That means they’ll have to keep track of the immunization schedule of wild cats.

I expect that this may be on offer to the public within a few years.


In May, Nutmeg, one of the beloved feral cats who frequented Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim California, passed away. As the Disneyland website notes:

Nutmeg was one of Disneyland Resort’s feral cats, tasked with keeping the rat population down around the parks and ensuring the only rodents guests see are Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Nutmeg roamed the park quite often, but had an affinity for the Magic Key Terrace lounge at Disney California Adventure.

Nutmeg was so beloved by Imagineers and Disneyland Cast Members like in fact, that they were even integrated into the tiling when Magic Key Terrace was reimagined in 2021. Their frequent perch along the concrete wall is accented with tiling of them, front and center.

A photo of Nutmeg (a good name for a cat) on the wall:


Hardcore Disneyland fans may know that feral cats have become a staple of the resort’s after-hours operations. The cats are reportedly well cared for, with Disney providing stations for feeding, medical care, and neutering services. But this cat in particular was so beloved by Cast Members at Magic Key Terrace that there was a drink named for Nutmeg — made with Myers dark rum, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, and apricot liqueur and selling for $16 as a “secret menu” drink.

In 2021, the culinary director of Disney California Adventure, Jeremiah Balogh, explained to the Orange County Register, “We have lots of friends that like to visit us, and some of them are four-legged friends. We have a resident cat that will come and visit guests and Cast Members whenever he or she feels lonely.”

Many of these cats stay hidden throughout the day, although guests occasionally spot them out and about during opening time. It’s the overnight shift when they’re on the prowl, keeping the non-animated mice and rats out of the Disneyland Resort parks.

And here’s an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the Nutmeg drink (click on the screenshot to read):

An excerpt:

“Everyone who knows the @Disneyland cats is mourning the death of Nutmeg, a true celebrity amongst the beloved feral cats of @Disney,” tweeted cat behaviorist and YouTuber Jackson Galaxy. “We join everyone in mourning Nutmeg’s passing and give many thanks to Disney for elevating and embracing community cats!”

Nutmeg was so beloved by the staff of Magic Key Terrace that it created a cocktail in his (or her?) honor: a $16 concoction on the “secret menu” featuring dark rum, Irish cream, hazelnut liqueur and apricot liqueur. Another version, described by one blogger as “definitely a dessert drink,” is said to include half-and-half, raspberry flavoring and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg.

That’s definitely a dessert, not a drink!  More:

Sometimes called “queen of the Disneyland cats,” Nutmeg inspired part of the aesthetic at Magic Key Terrace, according to SFGate reporter Julie Tremaine, who has written about the famed Disney felines several times over the years. A portrait of Nutmeg adorns the wall, and the feline’s face decorates the mosaics.

. . .Disney eventually realized that this arrangement was mutually beneficial: The company could care for the cats and get rodent control in exchange. Staffers began to spay and neuter the felines to keep the population under control, and they established feeding stations throughout the parks, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010.

Now, as many as 200 cats patrol the area with Disney’s blessing.

“We are not trying to get rid of them,” Gina Mayberry, manager of the ranch where the park’s animals are housed, told the Times. “They keep the rodent population down.”

Among the cats’ fans is actor Ryan Gosling, who was once a Mouseketeer on the Disney Channel’s “The Mickey Mouse Club.” In a 2011 interview with comedian Conan O’Brien, Gosling said lore has it that the felines are “like commando cats” and live in barracks on the outskirts of the park.

Here’s the cocktail, which is a secret menu item (I can’t find the recipe, but that’s just as well. . .):

From reddit, labeled “A glamour shot of Nutmeg from when she popped in to say hello at Magic Key Terrace in February”:

From Cole and Marmalade, Walt admonishing a cat to stay away from Mickey:

“Walt Disney with cat”, Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain


Vienna is attracting visitors by using AI to dilute its famous artwork, which needs no dilution. Still, they put cats in it. Click below to read:

In an effort to inspire the next generation of travelers to visit Austria’s beguiling cultural capital, the Vienna Tourist Board has launched a cheeky new marketing campaign called UnArtificial Art and is asking viewers to dig a bit deeper and rediscover some of the city’s most iconic masterpieces. Using artificial intelligence (AI), some of the country’s most celebrated pieces of art have been re-created to include the internet’s beloved domestic pet—cats—in an effort to remind viewers to have a little fun, while also taking a moment to see and appreciate the “art behind the art.”

“The campaign aims to show that AI art is only possible because an algorithm references real works made by real humans, and these originals can often only be seen in Vienna,” Norbert Kettner, CEO of the Vienna Tourist Board, told ARTnews.

First a movie, than some augmented art:

In the short film that accompanies the UnArtificial Art campaign, art historian Markus Hübl takes viewers on an existential journey through some of Vienna’s most iconic masterpieces—including Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss and Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel—all of which have been enhanced using AI technology to encourage viewers to look deeper into the work of some of Austria’s most celebrated painters.

There are three cat-augmented paintings, and they’re good choices.

Here’s one of the paintings, the original created by Egon Schiele, one of my favorite artists, who died at only 28 in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

And, of course, “The Kiss,” by Gustav Klimt, a well known ailurophile.  Klimt died, aged 55, nine months before Schiele, also of the flu. What a loss for art!

It’s unclear how Klimt—who was famously known for surrounding himself with anywhere from eight to ten pet cats at any given time—would feel about the enhancements to one of his most illustrious and frequently reproduced paintings. But the campaign, which encourages travelers to “see the art behind AI art,” will surely open itself up to interpretation by all who bear witness.

Gustav Klimt with a cat in front of his studio in the Josefstädter Straße (Vienna). Photographed by Moriz Nähr around 1910.


Lagniappe: Linda Calhoun, who recently lost one of her older cats, has topped up her supply with two new kittens. She now has eight, four of them black, but the new ones are orange. Her description:

New arrivals!! They have been here a week.  They will live in the barn with Ebony and Bailey.  Barney died last February, and his remaining sisters are 13 years old, so it was time for some new blood.

Orangina (“Gina”) is on the left, and Orange Crush (“Crush”) on the right.  They are nine weeks old.

h/t: Barry, Winnie, Greg, Ginger K.

Reader’s wildlife photos

April 8, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have another text-and-photo odyssey from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His text is indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The long dead speak to us

The Ancient Greeks and Romans shaped Western culture with their philosophy, laws, plays, poetry, treatises, historical narratives and memories. By and large, these texts were the works of the elite: educated white men high up in the pecking order (naturally, then, the Church of Woke loathes the Classics). But women, soldiers, slaves, ordinary citizens and assorted hoi polloi left their impressions on a few texts, clay and wood tablets (such as the ones in the Vindolanda museum), and epitaphs. Some of latter sound surprisingly contemporary and touching, considering how odd, cruel and violent the Ancients often seem to us.

All but two of the following images are mine, but most of the information comes from their respective museums (in parenthesis).

This thin marble plaque with a Greek alphabet inscription must have been secured to a wall, as indicated by traces of studs in the corners. There are also traces of the original red colour in the first and fourth lines. 3rd century AD (Cyprus Museum, Nicosia – CM).

This grave belongs to Evodia who enjoyed a happy life; the immortal fame of her modest nature is shining. But the sweet end of life has been decreed by the gods for all mortals and this nobody can ever avoid.

This lyrical funerary epigram in Greek consists of five elegiac couplets, but the last three verses are illegible. It was placed on the grave of Sostratis by her father, who expresses his grief for the premature loss of his daughter, before he could see her married. It is written in the first person singular as if the deceased girl is speaking. 1st c. BC (CM).

I, Sostratis, like a tender olive tree branch, was cut off by the wind from my father’s chambers. My wedding is like a meaningless name to you because the girl you have so caringly raised will remain unmarried. Yes, but since god has divorced me from such things, you should now enjoy your children who are still alive while I pray to the gods of the underworld….

This Cypro-syllabic inscription on limestone, possibly from 6th c. BC, is not completely legible because of some unidentified script. So we will never know the objective of this funerary stele; was it to celebrate Nikanor the brave? Nikanor the influencer? Forever the mystery of Nikanor (CM).

Nikanor the… who fell in battle.

If you ever studied Latin from a textbook, you may have come across this famous transcript from a tablet or pillar found in Rome, now lost, from 135-120 BC (image © Clauss et al. EDCS-Journal).

Stranger, what I say is brief. Stand still and read it. Here is the scarcely beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman. Her parents named her Claudia. She loved her husband with her whole heart. She bore two sons; of these she leaves one on earth; under the earth she has placed the other. She was charming in conversation, yet proper in bearing. She kept house, she made wool. I have spoken. Go your way.

Here’s the original, with its faulty syntax:

Hospes quod deico paullum est asta ac pellege / h(e)ic est sepulcrum hau(d) pulc(h)rum pulc(h)rai feminae / nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam / su(ou)m mareitum corde deilexit s(o)uo / gnatos duos creavit horunc alterum / in terra linquit alium sub terra locat / sermone lepido tum autem incessu commodo / domum servavit lanam fecit dixi ab(e)i:

A plaque from 2nd c. AD (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

In this respectable tomb Glyconis lies serenely: sweet in name, but even sweeter in her soul. She never cared for splendid honours for her (too?) austere, but rather she preferred to be wild and pleasant, to be inebriated by wine (Bacchus) and to perform songs with simplicity. She often amused herself by weaving beautiful wreaths of flowers with sweet love for herself and for her children, who she left in puberty (the sons) she created were brothers in the likeness of Castor and Pollux. Worthy to enjoy a blessed and eternal life (lux), she hurried to where the good fates call (us). Publius Mattius Chariton saw to (the making of this tomb) for his well-deserving wife.

The original reads:

Hoc iacet in tumulo secura Glyconis honesto. / Dulcis nomine erat, anima quoque dulcior usque / que nucquam tetricos egit sibi lucis honores, / set magi(s) lascivos suabes, Bacchoq(ue) madere, / simplicitate sequi cantus. Mollesq(ue) coronas / lusibus ipsa suis generabat saepe et amore / dulce sibi natisque suis quos reliquit. / Castorea fratres sub imagine quos generavit. / Digna quidem frui perpetua de luce benigna. / set celerat quo nos fata benigna vocant. / P(ublius) Mattius toit Chariton coniugi b(ene) m(erenti) f(ecit):

The funerary stele of a Roman soldier who died naturally or was killed in Cyprus during Roman rule, 2nd c. AD. The Latin inscription speaks of a soldiers’ fate: to die before his time, away from home (CM).

Erected in memory of the centurion Caius Decimius, son of Titus from the tribe Stellatina.

A limestone funerary stele from the 5th c. BC. The middle-aged bearded man – the deceased – offered his right hand for a handshake, a sign of farewell. The parchment in the hand of the standing man suggests that the deceased was a man of letters (CM).

A marble funerary stele from Plakalona (Aptera), Crete, 3rd-4th c. AD (Heraklion Archaeological Museum).

Here I lie, Sympherousa, aged thirty, a foreigner of Libyan origin. Through prudence and affection in all my affairs I joined the dwelling of the gods and greatly for [my] attitude valued, in this valued city, among the people of Aptera, who too rewarded me with their grief at my sudden death, simply sending me off to Hades, [having laid me] in a grave. Farewell to all, you, passers-by, and you, people of Aptera, who with no hesitation laid me to rest in this great urn, with passion and honour. I, Nikon, wrote this. Her onetime husband. Now no more: a victim of the evil eye… the woman that I desired so much, for her prudence, as I wrote above, and I am helpless. I shout, but she does not hear. To hold on to [this] love, I will continue to be, who I was, but I can do nothing; she flew straight away like the wind.

An inscription by Philon dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, who punishes mortals for their sin of hubris (nemesis and hubris are much in vogue in the age of Putin). This limestone plaque may have been at the base of a statue or built into a wall of a temenos (a portion of land assigned as an official domain, or dedicated to a god). 1st c. AD (CM).

Philon, the son of Tryphon, made and erected me, the powerful goddess Nemesis and the personification of Justice, born to punish the irreverent and to bring, on the other hand, fortune to those who know how to be just, in the holy temenos, thus fulfilling a wish:

A Funerary stele of a hoplite (a citizen-soldier of Ancient Greek), who typically was kitted out with a helmet, a spear, a shield and a sword. The inscription mentions the name and the hoplite’s hometown: Kardia, in Thrace. This stele may have been dedicated to a soldier who fought on Cyprus during the Persian wars. ~400 BC (CM).

Dionysio(s) Kardiano(s)

Cypro-syllabic understatement on a funerary stele from 5th c. BC (CM).

[This stele belongs to] Divina, who has no life:

A wall graffito in cursive Latin found in Pompeii in 1913 but lost two years later when the wall fell after torrential rains. The graffito’s image survived thanks to a line drawing by the Italian archaeologist and epigraphist Matteo Della Corte (1875-1962) (image from Della Corte, 1965. Case ed abitanti di Pompei. Faustino Fiorentino, Naples). The poem has several versions; here are two of them:

Nothing is able to endure forever;
Once the sun has shone brightly, it returns to the ocean;
The moon grows smaller, who just now was full;
The savagery of winds often becomes a light breeze.


Nothing can last forever:
the sun, when its course is complete,
hides itself behind the sea; the moon, once full, now wanes.
Thus, love’s wounds shall heal and fresh breezes will blow once more.

And the original:

nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo
cum bene sol nituit redditur oceano
decrescit phoebe quae modo plena fui
ventorum feritas saepe fit aura l[e]vis:

This one is not about the dead, rather those hanging by a thread. This structure is a 5th c. alms box at the Congregation of St Michelle in Fano, Italy. This hole in the wall is a gateway to a tale of etymological evolution for word geeks. The expositorum part is straightforward: from the Latin verb exponere, it means abandoned, exposed: the pauper, in other words. But here’s the journey of Eleemosynis: from Ancient Greek ἔλεος (éleos, pity) and ἐλεημοσύνη (eleēmosúnē, alms, charity, mercy), it jumped to Latin as eleemosyna(alms); it then morphed into eleemosynarius in Medieval Latin before being shortened by natural selection and becoming almes in Old German and ælmesse in Old English. From there it mutated into ‘alms’, ‘almonry’ and ‘almoner’. But the word’s ancestral English branch did not go extinct, so today we also have the rare and endangered ‘eleemosynary’. The eleemosyna that did not migrate to Anglo-Saxon territories metamorphosed into the Italian elemosina and the Portuguese esmola for ‘alms’:

Death is not all about doom & gloom. This 3rd to 2nd c. BC double-sided votive relief depicts the head of Dionysus on the front side. On the reverse, a couple is engaged in the oldest of all couple’s games (CM).

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today our “wildlife” constitutes art: fascinating aboriginal rock art from Australia, in photos sent by reader Rodney Graetz. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

Australian Aboriginal Rock art

A rainbow revealed.  A creek has exposed a layered rock face of bright colours, from yellow orange to deep purple.  These rocks all contain iron compounds which, on exposure to the atmosphere, have been differently weathered to produce many coloured ochres:

Converting weathered rock to pigment requires first grinding it into a powder, then suspending it in water, blood, fat, or plant gums to make a thick (adhesive?) liquid for painting bodies, weapons, or other rocks:

Globally, ochre was evidently a valued pigment by humans, and our antecedents, with recorded use back 300 thousand years.  Nationally, two strands of evidence demonstrate Aboriginal Australians also placed a high value on ochre.  The first evidence is that wherever an exposure of high quality and colour ochre was found, quarrying, and even large scale mining, was done to extract it.  This is an open-face, multicolour ochre quarry located near Alice Springs, in the centre of the continent.  The digging would have been by hands and simple wooden tools.  Aboriginal Australians had no metal technology:

The second evidence is the effort and astonishing distances over which the extracted ochre was carried (on foot) and traded.  The carriers and traders would have been as this (colourised) man in carrying only a spear or two, to feed and defend himself.  Here is a historical description (1874) of the extraction and transport by a group of men from a highly regarded ochre site (Pukardu/Bookartoo) in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia to far away Western Queensland – about 400 km (250 mi) – and beyond.

“the party travels about twenty miles a day, and on arrival at the mine each member of it digs out his own ochre, mixes it with water, making it into loaves of about 20 lbs weight, which are dried.  Each man carries an average of 70 lbs of ochre, invariably on his head, and has to procure his own food; the party seldom resting a day while on the journey, which lasts usually from six to eight weeks.”:

What are the properties of ochre that made it so valuable to people?  I think the fundamental property is its principal colour – red.  Our 3-colour visual system enhances our ability to detect red objects.  Note how your eyesight is first attracted to, and then returned to, the tomatoes, and not the three different green objects.  The importance of the colour red is captured in many languages; most of which have a word for the colour red, with some languages having only two colour words – red and not-red.

The next most important ochre property is that, based on its red colour, imagination can easily make it represent, or symbolise, blood, and thereby relate to important emotional events of our lives, such as life and death.  This excavated skeleton is ‘Mungo Man’ (aka LM3), ritually buried 40,000 years ago, and sprinkled with more than 1 kilogram of ochre, the source of which was 200 km away.  So, ochre transport and trading is at least 40,000 years old.  What was the purpose of adding an appreciable amount of valuable ochre?  Did it signify status, or was it for an afterlife?  Why, today, do people throw flowers into graves?

The final and most important ochre property is the one that has driven fundamental changes in human culture.  In pre-literate cultures, ochre-based painting made non-verbal, self-expression possible and memorable for individuals, groups, and cultures.  Contemplate the message this artist wanted to say.  The large Wandjina figures are relatively modern, but in the lower left corner there is a small, partly overpainted Bradshaw figure with a possible age of 20,000 years.  It is very likely that this large light-coloured rock face has been a busy noticeboard for painters over thousands of years.

This style of ochre painting (Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion) is generally agreed to be the oldest, and in my opinion, the most finely executed.  I find them fascinating.  The ‘brushes’ were likely chewed sticks or grass stems.  Debate about the Who and When of the Gwion Gwion artists continues:

This style of painting is typical of rock overhangs and caves by being big and coarse, with finger-painted ochre figures.  Another similar site illustrates the simplicity of their production and information content:

A gallery of ‘I was here’ graffiti stencils.  Ochre must have been plentiful and painting skill not considered important.  Simply, the artist had a mouthful of ochre suspended in water that he sprayed over his hand or weapon.  Only the net structures appear to have been painted by finger or thick brush:

As traditional aboriginal life dissipated, so followed their painting, no longer important, no longer renewed.  This happened fastest in southern Australia, and slowest in tropical northern Australia, where the culture persisted, with paintings still being renewed into the 1960s.  To describe the painting quality and quantity shown here as vibrant is an understatement.  The blue paintings in this crowded site used a store-bought laundry powder (‘Reckitt’s Blue’):

Another example of extraordinary artistic skill.  The pigments are still ochres, the brushes were chewed sticks, and the fine detail very impressive.  Done on boulder, it is no longer renewed, but non-Aboriginal technology – a small silicone-bead boundary – preserve it by diverting rainwater:

Today’s reality is that ochre-based rock art is dead, as this example shows.  It is now unwanted, unrenewed, and becoming lifeless:

This is what has replaced the ochre-only painting.  Vibrant in colour and design, it was catalysed in 1971 by an Art teacher, who introduced synthetic paints and colours to an Aboriginal community with wildfire success.  It is a remarkable story.  The ‘dot’ style is to hide secret mythological (‘Dreaming’) components of a story.  We purchased this painting – by a female painter – and it never fails to lift our mood.

Female Western Desert artists at work out in the ‘bush’, inspired by the harsh, arid landscapes they were born into (and still love), and by their ‘Dreaming’ (Tjukurpa).  Back in ochre-only times, women were forbidden to paint, or even see the men-only galleries.  In some desert groups, the punishment was death.  Now, with acrylic paints, they have both creative and financial independence.  Their clothing reflects their sense of utility, style, and freedom.  My understanding is that now, women painters are more artistically interesting, skilled, and thereby, more financially successful, than are the men – a very welcome change!  I borrowed four (black-edged) photos to complete this story.

Was Leonardo da Vinci Jewish?

April 5, 2023 • 1:15 pm

I paid particular attention to this piece because it was published in Tablet, which has a decent history of accurate reporting. That doesn’t mean I believe the claim that one of history’s greatest painters was Jewish, but they do cite a Leonardo da Vinci authority who came to the conclusion, despite his leanings to the contrary, that this was indeed the case.  If he’s right, and Leonardo was a landsmann, then perhaps we should change his name to Lenny da Vinci.

This isn’t a joke, though; click on the article below to see the facts, which are suggestive but not strong enough to convince me of Leonardo’s semitism with a high probability

I’ll have to quote a bit to show you the evidence. Here’s the new theory:

In all likelihood, Leonardo da Vinci was only half Italian. His mother, Caterina, was a Circassian Jew born somewhere in the Caucasus, abducted as a teenager and sold as a sex slave several times in Russia, Constantinople, and Venice before finally being freed in Florence at age 15. This, at least, is the conclusion reached in the new book Il sorriso di Caterina, la madre di Leonardo, by the historian Carlo Vecce, one of the most distinguished specialists on Leonardo da Vinci.

And the conventional wisdom as adumbrated in the 2019 article below (click screenshot) from the Jerusalem Post (quote is from Tablet piece):

The official version of da Vinci’s birth is that it was the fruit of a brief fling between the Florentine solicitor Piero da Vinci and a young peasant from Tuscany called Caterina, of whom almost nothing was known. Yet there had long been a seemingly unfounded theory that Leonardo had foreign origins and that Caterina was an Arab slave. Six years ago, professor Vecce decided to kill the rumor for good. “I simply found it impossible to believe that the mother of the greatest Italian genius would be a non-Italian slave,” he told me. “Now, not only do I believe it, but the most probable hypothesis, given what I found, is that Caterina was Jewish.”

The new evidence (my emphasis):

Vecce was the right man for the job—he published an anthology of da Vinci’s writings and a biography, Leonardo, translated into several languages, and he collaborated on the exhibition of da Vinci’s drawings and manuscripts at the Louvre and Metropolitan Museum in 2003. He embarked on the research for his latest book during the reconstruction of da Vinci’s library, which is where he found the document that changed everything. Dated Nov. 2, 1452, seven months after Leonardo’s birth, and signed by Piero da Vinci [Leonardo’s father] in his professional capacity, it is an emancipation act regarding the daughter of a certain Jacob, originating from the Caucasian mountains,” and named Caterina. According to the document, Catarina’s owner appears to have been the wife of rich merchant Donato di Filippo, who lived near the San Michele Visdomini church in Florence, and whose usual solicitor for business was Piero da Vinci. The date on the document is underlined several times, as if da Vinci’s hand was shaking as he proceeds to the liberation of the woman who just gave him a child.

Leonardo’s mom Caterina, instead of being Italian, is hypothesized as coming from Russia, and brought to Italy to be the property of Leonardo’s father, who made her work and also impregnated her several times. Vecce argues that Caterina was brought to Italy through Constantinople to Venice and then to Florence, where she became pregnant by Piero:

From there, we can follow Caterina to Venice, and then to Florence where she was brought by her new master, Donato di Filippo, who put her to work both in his clothing workshop and at the service of his wife. That she was a sex slave is attested by the fact that she already had several children by Filippo when, at 15, she met da Vinci, Filippo’s solicitor, who at first “borrowed” her as a nanny for his daughter Marie and then fell so much in love with her that he freed her from slavery after Leonardo’s birth. “Da Vinci himself was no stranger to the Jews,” says professor Vecce. “His main customers were among the Jewish community of Florence.”

So much for that. Leonardo’s dad left Florence for Milan, where Caterina, Leonardo’s putative mom, died in 1493. There’s a bit of unconvincing evidence that Leonardo’s painting “Annunciation” has hints of his mother’s origin, but would he really have known?

I’m not sure if the above convinces you (and I’m on the fence), but it did convince the skeptic Carlo Vecce, who is no tyro when it comes to Leonardo.

For counterevidence, though, read this article from 2019. Note that in all likelihood, the “evidence” that convinced Vecce was not available to author Erol Araf:

At the time there were already several claims that Leonardo was Jewish (under Jewish law, if your mother is a Jew, so are you; Jewishness can be regarded as traveling along with mitochondrial DNA). But here Araf takes issue:

As additional proof that he was ashamed of his mother’s origins as a lowly Jewish slave, the implausible argument has been advanced that he treated her funeral as an embarrassment. This contention is not supported by facts: The burial costs listed in the Codex Foster – under a receipt containing wax and lemon juice – includes expenses for a doctor, sugar, wax for the candles, bier with a cross, four priests and four altar boys, the bells and the gravediggers. It all costs a very tidy sum of 123 soldi; a not-insignificant amount.

So much for that. And the best evidence Araf could adduce at the time is this:

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University and recognized as a leading Leonardo scholar, has researched the origins of Leonardo’s mother hoping it will put an end to “totally implausible myths” that have built up about Leonardo’s life. He analyzed 15th-century tax records kept in Vinci, Florence. In various interviews, preceding the publication of his book Mona Lisa: the People and the Painting, written together with Dr. Giuseppe Pallanti, an economist and art researcher, Kemp argued that the evidence was obtained by meticulously kept real estate taxation declarations.

“In the case of Vinci, “Kemp said, “they verified that Caterina’s father, who seems to be pretty useless, had a rickety house which wasn’t lived in and they couldn’t tax him…. He had disappeared and then apparently died young. So Caterina’s was a real sob story.” The records also showed that Caterina had an infant stepbrother, Papo, and her grandmother died shortly before 1451, leaving them with no assets or support, apart from an uncle with a “half-ruined” house and cattle. In short, she was a poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father.

The crucial question, then, since Leonardo was born in 1452, was whether they could establish that Caterina had a real Italian father whose existence can be established with a paper record. Also, Kemp’s claim that mother Caterina was a “poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father” doesn’t comport with Carlo Vecce’s claim that Caterina was the slave of Leonardo’s father’s solicitor, who impregnated her several times before giving her to Leonardo’s father. And was a child produced while Caterina was under the thumb of Piero da Vinci?

So we have a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Are there any living relatives of Leonardo who could be used to establish whether his mitochondria came from Russia? I don’t know, and can’t be arsed to find out. Only history will adjudicate this one, and Vecce’s book is available, though only yet in Italian. The title means “Catherine’s smile”:

One of my favorite Leonardos, Lady with an Ermine (1498-1491). I was lucky enough to see it at the  Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.