Monday, April 29, 2019

Norway Finds 'Russian Spy Whale' off Arctic Coast

The whale was keen to make new friends - and was set free of its equipment

 BBC April 29, 2019 writer not credited

A beluga whale found off Norway's coast wearing a special Russian harness was probably trained by the Russian navy, a Norwegian expert says.

Marine biologist Prof Audun Rikardsen said the harness had a GoPro camera holder and a label sourcing it to St Petersburg. A Norwegian fisherman managed to remove it from the whale.

He said a Russian fellow scientist had told him that it was not the sort of kit that Russian scientists would use.

Russia has a naval base in the region.

The tame beluga repeatedly approached Norwegian boats off Ingoya, an Arctic island about 415km (258 miles) from Murmansk, where Russia's Northern Fleet is based. Belugas are native to Arctic waters.

Norway's public broadcaster NRK has put out a video showing the beluga's harness being released.

Prof Rikardsen told the BBC that the harness "was attached really tightly round its head, in front of its pectoral fins and it had clips". He said there was a GoPro attachment, but no camera.

"A Russian colleague said they don't do such experiments, but she knows the navy has caught belugas for some years and trained them - most likely it's related to that," he said.

A Russian reserve colonel, who has written previously about the military use of marine mammals, shrugged off Norway's concern about the beluga. But he did not deny that it could have escaped from the Russian navy.

'Combat roles'

Interviewed by Russian broadcaster Govorit Moskva, Col Viktor Baranets said "if we were using this animal for spying do you really think we'd attach a mobile phone number with the message 'please call this number'?"

"We have military dolphins for combat roles, we don't cover that up," he said.

"In Sevastopol (in Crimea) we have a centre for military dolphins, trained to solve various tasks, from analysing the seabed to protecting a stretch of water, killing foreign divers, attaching mines to the hulls of foreign ships."

The dolphin facility in Crimea used to be under Ukrainian control, but was seized by the Russian navy in 2014, when Russian forces took over the peninsula.

Prof Rikardsen, who teaches at the University of Tromso, said "belugas, like dolphins and killer whales, are quite intelligent - they are Arctic animals and quite social, they can be trained like a dog".
He said the harness was difficult to remove - the last clip was undone by attaching a hook to it and letting the whale drag the Norwegian fishing boat.

"The beluga had come to the boats repeatedly for two or three days, looking for food, with its mouth open," he told the BBC.

"It's a challenge now if the whale will adjust to natural food. Also it needs to find a group - if not, it will probably still come up to a boat."

US Navy dolphin in the Gulf in 2003 - helping US forces in the Iraq War - Getty Images 

US Navy dolphins

During the Cold War the US Navy set up a special programme for training dolphins and sea lions in California. 

The US Navy Marine Mammal Program, based in San Diego, uses bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions for locating mines and other dangerous objects on the ocean floor. 

The navy website also says the animals are used to detect unauthorised personnel underwater who could potentially harm US ships.

The US Navy deployed dolphins to the Gulf during the Iraq War in 2003 to help mine-clearance teams.

The Digital Divide – When Even the Beggars Need Smartphones

I was standing in Penn Station the other day waiting for a train and someone passed through begging for change. I’ve lived in New York City long enough that I don’t just start taking my wallet out and going through it in crowded public spaces, but beyond that, I don’t have change. I normally don’t carry cash. If I have cash on me its for one of two reasons, either someone has paid me back for something in cash (which in these days of Venmo is increasingly unlikely) or I have a hair or nail appointment where they like their tips in cash. So even if I have cash, it’s bigger bills and certainly no coins. And I’m sure I’m not unusual. I pay for things with credit cards. I pay other people using Apple Pay or Venmo. I mentioned this thought to someone who told me that they had seen someone begging in New York with details of their Venmo account. On the one hand, there seems to be a certain chutzpah to that, after all, if you have a bank account to receive the money in and some kind of smart phone to access it, is your situation as dire as you’re making out? On the other hand, it’s pretty smart. 

Of course, there are serious privacy issues involved in giving money to a random stranger through an app like Venmo, it’s not private, so I probably wouldn’t do that either, but it’s an interesting idea, if it could be made more anonymous and secure. Apparently, at least in China, the virtual beggar is a thing, “Even beggars have begun to accept wireless payments by offering QR codes…That’s mostly down to the proliferation of cheaper smartphones in China and the dominance of the WeChat and Alipay apps – which both support direct mobile payments.”

What this whole thing makes me think about though is that this is yet another way that modern digital life is exacerbating the divide between rich and poor.

Of course we’ve known this for a while; as middle class schools and student get increasing access to technology, poor, often minority students are left behind, “Although underrepresented minorities and women are increasingly entering engineering and related fields, they face barriers to doing so throughout the K-12 pipeline and into college. That can include a lack of funding and resources targeted specifically at minorities, fewer role models, and limited access to the necessary technology and instruction among low-income students at lower-resourced schools.”

And of course, it’s not just at school, “the most glaring inequity for low-income children is in their access to technology. Regardless of their school environment, low-income students have less access to technology than middle- or high-income students. According to data collected from the 2000 census, only 15 percent of homes where the annual income was between $20,000 and $25,000 (roughly the amount a family would earn if they lived in poverty) had a computer. Furthermore, of the 15 percent who had computers, well over half did not have access to broadband Internet.”

I remember when my children first started using USB drives in middle school to give and receive homework. The other day I offered my 16-year-old a spare USB drive I had, and she looked at me with disdain and said, “Why would I use that, all our homework is in the cloud?”. Which of course both assumes a computer at home and a good internet connection. And at her school, I’m sure that’s a reasonable assumption. So maybe schools that cater to low-income children don’t give out homework in the cloud, but then what are these children losing? Because, of course, even though my daughter doesn’t consider it, she’s not only doing her homework, she’s gaining valuable digital skills that are going to be necessary in college and the workplace. She’s a digital native and that’s something she’s able to take for granted. But as this article goes on to say, “What the lack of technology means for low-income students is that, in addition to trailing in academic achievement, they are missing out on opportunities to learn the technical skills they will need to succeed in a highly competitive global workforce. Having limited access to Internet-connected computers means that they don’t have time to tinker or explore. They don’t have time to practice basic skills like typing or writing emails, or more complex skills like researching or coding.”

So while there’s a lot of negative things that can be said about the “addiction” that kids like mine (and me, let’s be honest) have to our devices and digital lives, what can’t be denied is that digital literacy and competency are increasingly necessary skills in the workplace. 

In fact, just getting a job these days usually requires some kind of online presence and literacy. I volunteer with an organization, Refugee Employment Program, that helps refugees and asylum seekers to the US get jobs. And part of what we do is to help them create professional LinkedIn profiles and make good use of digital employment tools.

A New York times piece this week notes that not only is this digital invisibility prevalent and challenging for the poor and indigent, but they also often suffer from hypervisibility, “the poor often bear the burden of both ends of the spectrum of privacy harms; they are subjected to greater suspicion and monitoring when they apply for government benefits and live in heavily policed neighborhoods, but they can also lose out on education and job opportunities when their online profiles and employment histories aren’t visible (or curated) enough.” And beyond their increased likelihood of “legal” digital surveillance, they’re also more vulnerable to the effects of the wide range of cyber-threats that we all live with these days, “while societal fears about data breaches are widespread, identity theft poses a much heavier burden for people living on the margins.” And they may be even more at risk because many of them have such a dependency on mobile devices for internet access, “low-income Americans, and in particular, foreign-born Hispanic adults, are disproportionately reliant on mobile devices as their primary source of internet access. While internet connectivity has become essential to these communities, it also creates privacy and security vulnerabilities that they don’t feel prepared to navigate. The survey findings illustrate a substantial demand for educational resources among low-socioeconomic-status groups, but many feel as though it would be difficult to get access to the tools and strategies they would need to learn more about protecting their personal information online.”

The industrial revolution and the surrounding political and societal changes resulted in all children in Britain getting an education. As agricultural and jobs in manufacturing, such as working in the cotton mills disappeared, they were replaced by better, safer, less manual higher paying jobs that overall raised the standard of living that those children were now educated for. Will this next revolution, this digital, automation revolution have a similarly overall positive outcome? It certainly could. But just as something needed to happen in Britain in the 19th century, education had to become free and mandatory for all children, do we as a society have to do more to make sure that our already too wide gap between rich and poor isn’t further exacerbated by the technology that is an increasingly necessary part of most aspects of our lives?

Business Today July 2, 2018 1 min. 44 sec.

India has taken a liking to cashless transactions in the past couple of years, but it is nothing compared to China's love for digital payments. For starters, the beggars in China have been soliciting alms using QR codes and e-wallets. Watch BusinessToday.In's video to know more about these tech-savvy beggars of China.

Do Octopuses Have Souls? (On the Nature of Animal Consciousness)

Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.

They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.

Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!

My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths!

2.  Is consciousness a function of intelligence? Are more intelligent creatures more conscious?

Peter Godfrey-Smith, in his book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, points out just how far back in time human beings and octopuses diverged from each other on the evolutionary tree of life. As fellow primates, human beings shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees as recently as six million years ago. Chimpanzees are our living cousins. But compared to octopuses, so are cats. While not as close to us as our mammalian brethren, we know that parrots, magpies, and crows (also vertebrates) are highly intelligent. But to find our common ancestor with birds, you would have to go back more than five times further than to that of chimpanzees– all the way back to a lizard-like creature who lived around 320 million years ago.

Guess how far back you have to go to find a common ancestor with an octopus?

You have to go very far back indeed, to a worm-like creature that scuttled on the ocean’s floor around 600 million years ago. And to keep this in perspective, recall that dinosaurs only arrived on the scene around 230 million years ago. This is all to say that we are very distantly related to octopuses. And this fact alone could go far in explaining what we find so unsettling about the octopus gaze.

Sy Montgomery, in her Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, says it like this about octopus intelligence:

We split from our common ancestor with the octopus half a billion years ago. And yet, you can make friends with an octopus.

3. Can a computer be conscious? How about a network of trees?

Octopuses have existed over a thousand times longer than humans. They have neuron numbers comparable to those of mammals, but their “brains” are distributed throughout their bodies. Their tentacles, for example, have nearly twice as many neurons as their central brain. These tentacles appear to be autonomous, having neural loops that may even give the tentacles their own form of memory. Wonderful to imagine that an octopus can “see” light with their skin. To try and get at just how differently evolved they are from us, Peter Godfrey-Smith goes to great care in explaining the way an octopus body is so suffused with its nervous system that it has no clear brain-body boundary.

This is a crucial point of entry into the question of consciousness.
Last month, I wrote about Descartes and the tradition of mind-body duality that has been passed down in the European philosophical tradition. Considering current on-going research into brain science and consciousness, I mentioned recent books by Caltech’s Christof Koch and Douglas Hoftstadter of Godel, Escher and Bach fame. It was interesting for me to discover that the hard-core reductionist mentioned in that post (books below) are aligned with the two octopus-watchers mentioned above in their vehement rejection of Cartesian dualism. Indeed, we find ourselves, at long last, moving beyond the traditional European notion of a non-corporeal mind encapsulated inside the shell of our physical bodies. It is important to note that in this traditional understanding, it is only human beings which are granted consciousness. Koch, who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, movingly describes how his own scientific journey in the field of consciousness studies began with his vehement rejection of the church’s insistence that dogs don’t go to heaven. And this was religious notion was carried into science and informs much of our industrial animal and agricultural practices. Indeed, you will cringe to learn that until quite recently, scientists were performing amputations on octopus limbs without any pain relief, because they did not recognize that animals feel pain as we do.

Rejecting this kind of Western dualism, the scientists and philosophers mentioned above see consciousness as existing in degrees –on a spectrum–from lower to higher forms. “Souls of different sizes,” in Hofstadter’s language. Hofstadter even has a name for this degree, calling it “a Huneker” after the music critic James Huneker who wrote an essay that captured the attention of the young Douglas Hofstadter about Chopin’s eleventh etude Opus 25. In the essay, Huneker cautioned fellow pianists that: “Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.” Hofstadter knows it is dangerous to entertain the idea of small and large souled men in today’s world. But he does see consciousness as existing in all kinds of organisms on a sliding scale (See Note below).

4. Can consciousness be shared? Can it be uploaded? Downloaded? Can it exist on wildly different timescales; for example, very slowly in trees?  

Peter Wohllenben, the author of the Hidden Life of Trees, began his career in forestry; where he says, “I knew as much about trees as a butcher knows about animals.” Trees were resources to be efficiently managed, eventually turned into commodities. It was only much later on in his career, when he began leading nature walks into the forest, that he began to see trees in a very different light. And what he found (all backed up by recent science) is that not only are trees a crucial part of the network of life (which I think we already know), but that they are social. What does he mean by this? Well, he found them to be capable of sharing resources. And more, that they “consciously” band together to do so. While having different projects from human beings, he tells us that trees feel pain and also learn  –and possibly even communicate. Calling this communication network the “woodwide web,” Wohllenben paints a picture of trees communicating using electrical signals via their roots and across fungi networks (“like our nervous system”) to other trees nearby. Wohllenberg is not arguing that trees as individuals have minds, but rather that that the ecosystem itself does. Donna Haraway, in her book, Staying with the Trouble, also focuses on paradigms that look at interconnectedness and ecosystems. How are we co-evolving and what are the kinships that exist between the three kingdoms? “Every species is a multispecies crowd,” she says.

When asked whether he feels trees have souls, Christof Koch likewise responded that in the same way that individual neurons don’t have consciousness, it is the forest ecosystem that we need to look at when we study question of consciousness in trees. Maybe someday complex computer networks like the world wide web could likewise develop consciousness–like the trees in the forest. We already even have a word for this phenomenon: “hive mind.” Bees display this–but so do ants. There is a wonderful article in Nautilus about Stanford entomologist Deborah Gordon’s recent book Ants at Work, called “Ants Swarm Like Brains Think,” which makes a similar point, that the problem of consciousness should be approached in terms of networks, which are themselves embedded in local ecosystems.

From soil to plants to animals: we must acknowledge that we ourselves are embedded in this ecosystem–not set apart from it.

5. Our future depends on our ability to be able to expand our consciousness and reconnect with the rich web of life into which we were born.
When did our lives become so isolated? Hunkered down in nuclear family units and plugged into what seems like some pretty heavy-duty echo chambers, sometimes it doesn’t seem that we are very capable of listening to each other anymore–-much less listening to the world of non-human animals, plants and trees around us.

In what was the most unusual book I read last year, Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing begins her long meditation on late-capitalist commodity chains and devastated landscapes by looking at the way Enlightenment philosophy was itself built on this concept of mind-body duality, coming to view nature (lacking in mind and soul) as being set apart from human beings. While nature may be grand and universal, it is also passive and mechanical, she says. Nature is seen as more of a backdrop and resource. Something to be used; for which “the moral intentionality of man could tame and master.” Her book is interesting as it avoids the use of the word “Anthropocene,” instead describing our current paradigm as one of “post-capitalist ruin.” This is crucial, for according to Lowenhaupt Tsing , the history of the human accumulation of wealth has turned not just the environment, but human beings as well, into resources and this has led to the state of deep alienation we find ourselves in. From economic theories of self-interest to scientific theories of the “selfish gene,” we have come to view ourselves as being isolated. And it is in this lack of understanding of interconnectedness that is leading to our ruin.

6. Time for a new understanding of being
As early as the 1950s, German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his book The Question Concerning Technology explored the way in which technological ways of seeing (not the technologies themselves) poison our imagination in turning everything around us into resources to be efficiently managed and utilized. Like all of the thinkers mentioned in this essay, Heidegger was asking how we can relate ourselves to the world in a way that not only resists its devastation but generates positive new relationships. How can we make peace with the non-human world in the face of possible climate disaster? Scientists do not understand what consciousness is, or where it is located, and one could argue it is in fact not located anywhere and is instead a product of a complex web of connections, and has diverse forms working over vast scales of complexity, time and space. We share it with animals that are similar to us, and with beings that seem completely foreign (octopuses, cockroaches, trees), i.e. we all share this nature. Humanity is becoming more and more estranged from its natural roots and context, removing ourselves from and destroying these complex webs of interdependency and connection in the service of utility and efficiency and the predominance of the individual ego.

Co-evolution implies the necessity of co-existence. And we must move beyond treating everything in the world (including our own selves) as resources for efficient utilization. A first step will be to uncover the latent commons around us—to learn to speak the language of nature before it is too late. So, maybe when we find ourselves locked in a staring contest with an octopus, we believe we are seeing our own conscious minds mirrored in the eyes of the octopus. That this looking eye is pointing back to our own hearts. 

But this not a very healthy way of looking, is it? Wouldn’t it be better to see reflected the entire ocean of being there within the eyes of the octopus? This kind of “seeing” probably has more in common with listening. What is nature saying to us? Just because we don’t speak its language doesn’t mean we stand apart from it. And indeed, it is seeming more and more like our future depends on our ability to be able to reconnect and be in communion with each and with the rest of all nature. We don’t listen at our own peril.
Note: Consciousness is usually loosely defined as the inner, qualitative, subjective, and processes associated with states of sentience or awareness. It is something that diminishes or even disappears when we sleep, for example. For a different understand, I recommend Evan Thompson’s ‘Waking, Dreaming, Being. Thompson looks at consciousness through the lens of Indian and Tibetan contemplative traditions, where consciousness is present even during deep sleep. I also recommend this TED talk by Christof Koch on animal soul/minds, the scientific pursuit of consciousness and the imperative of reducing suffering in all creatures
For Jim (original title was on the path toward vegetarianism)
Anselm Kiefer (1971) Kopf im Wald (Thanks Brooks!!)
Jean‐Michel Basquiat (1982) Beef Ribs Longhorn & Eyes and Eggs (1983)
Further Reading
Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees
Deborah Gordon’s Ants at Work
Union of Concerned Scientist’s Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World
Also recommend Sean Carroll’s podcast with David Chalmers (who is working on a new book on the subject) on Consciousness, the Hard Problem, and Living in a Simulation
And Paul Stamets (who has a new book coming out called Fantastic Fungi) video Fantastic Fungi
Documentary Film: Soil! The Movie

Found: The Goofiest Crab That Ever Lived

It has the legs of a sea scorpion, the body of a lobster, and the eyes of an enormous larva.

<em>Callichimaera perplexa</em> on the prowl, as imagined by a paleoartist.
Callichimaera perplexa on the prowl, as imagined by a paleoartist. Oksana Vernygor
Javier Luque’s soulmate isn’t just any other crab. Its legs aren’t slender and long like the gams on most crabs, but rather huge, flapping paddles. Its carapace, the hard upper shell of its body, isn’t round but elongated, rather like a lobster. Its eyes aren’t the typical crustacean pinpricks, but soft and glassy orbs so huge that they would be the equivalent of eyes the size of soccer balls on the average human. But still, Luque—who, it’s worth mentioning, is a human, and not a crustacean—loves this crab. “This animal came into my life without asking, like a lucky strike,” Luque says. “I know we were meant for each other.”

Luque, who works as a postdoctoral paleontologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and Yale University, named the newly described and very confusing crab Callichimaera perplexa, or “perplexing beautiful chimera,” in homage to its strange hodgepodge of features, according to a study published on April 24, 2019, in Science Advances. The name references the chimera of Greek mythology: a creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a snake’s tail. This odd crab is just as terrifying as its namesake, but on a smaller scale.

The chimeric fossil first entered Luque’s life in 2005, when he was an undergraduate student in geology. While hunting for fossils in Pesca, a town high in the Colombian Andes Mountains, Luque and a friend had stopped to catch their breath while walking back home after a long day in the field. As any budding geologist is wont to do, Luque hammered a nearby rock, which split to reveal a layer crammed with hundreds of crustaceans. As Luque looked closer, he recognized many fossils of comma shrimp and ammonites, as well as, he initially thought, some strange kind of spider, with eight flappy legs and huge bulky eyes. But as he peered closer, he saw the creature had pincers.
Luque and his bean-sized soulmate.
Luque and his bean-sized soulmate. Daniel Ocampo
Luque proceeded to call several experts in fossilized crustaceans to see if anyone could identify his bizarre discovery. To his surprise, everyone else was just as stumped by the perfectly preserved specimen. “If you get to baffle the most knowledgeable experts on fossil crustaceans in the world, imagine how baffled I was!” Luque says. The creature transfixed him so deeply that Luque switched gears from dinosaurs and toward prehistoric crustaceans. Officially a crab—though technically a mystery—Callichimaera represents a novel branch in the modern crab’s ancestral tree, though its body parts bear an uncanny resemblance to animals from other groups. For this reason, Luque calls it “the platypus of the crab world.”

One of the quarter-sized crab’s most bizarre features are its mysteriously enormous eyes, which likely swiveled freely, too large to be contained by any eye socket. Luque finds them extremely cute. “We think the chimera might have had development similar to an axolotl, where it retained its baby features,” Luque says. “Which is why it looks like a pocket Pokémon.” He says these eyes suggest Callichimaera was a predator, as scavengers have little need for good vision. “If you had to have eyes that big, you would be using them actively,” he says. The crab might have dined on comma shrimp, which Luque calls “the noodles of the shrimp world.”

<em>Callichimaera</em> surrounded by many "noodles of the shrimp world."
Callichimaera surrounded by many “noodles of the shrimp world.” Elissa Martin
While most long-legged crabs crawled on the seafloor, Callichimaera swam. Its elongated body was much more hydrodynamic than a regular crab’s, and its oar-like legs helped it paddle through the water. “Most crabs in the world are crawly critters,” Luque says. “But this one was a dreamer! It dared to swim away into the water column, like a bird. Not many crabs do that.”

Beyond its evolutionary absurdity, Callichimaera has even greater significance as a fossil discovery made in the tropics. It’s quite understandable that very few researchers go to the tropics to find fossils, as the region has dense layers of vegetation and harsh weather that can make quick work of a fossil. But this lack of focus means researchers know very little about the prehistoric critters of those regions, according to Luque. “We are beginning to scratch the tip of an iceberg,” he says, adding that research institutions in the tropics often lack the budget and resources afforded to institutions in North America, Asia, and Australia.

For now, Luque will continue to investigate his goofy soulmate. He hopes to ascertain how the creature swam, what it ate, and, most importantly, how it saw the world. When Luque lies in bed at night, he often finds himself unable to sleep because he is too transfixed by the crab’s enormous, wobbly, and woefully unprotected eyes. “What were you using those eyes for!” Luque nearly shouts into the phone. “I must know.”

Why Victorian People Loved Posing Next to Aspidistra Plants

Aspidistra victorian photographs

Potted plants have been a part of households for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all kept houseplants in their sprawling estates. The Romans, in particular, were fascinated with showy flowers and often decorated their homes with the largest and brightest variety of roses and violets. 

After the fall of the Roman empire, decorative gardening largely disappeared from Europe, and was replaced by a more utilitarian approach of growing herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Houseplants did not become fashionable again until the European Renaissance, when the wealthy and the affluent began to see them as a symbol of social status. Exotic varieties such as nasturtiums and sunflowers were shipped from the New World to Europe and gifted to monarchs. These delicate flowers required special environments similar to their native climes in order to bloom, that could only be created inside orangeries and glasshouses. 

Those who couldn’t afford a glasshouse and the army of servants needed to look after the plants often borrowed plants from nurseries when they had guests coming over for dinner. Others would send their potted plants to the nurseries for the winter where gardeners would take care of them for a fee. 

The most difficult times were the 1800s, when many Victorian homes began to have indoor lighting powered by gas. Gas lights produced toxic fumes that induced headache and nausea, blackened ceilings, discolored curtains, corroded metals and left a layer of soot on every flat surface. Flowers and most houseplants wilted. Only two particularly hardy plants managed to survive the dismal environment of a Victorian home—the Kentia palm and the aspidistra. These two plants, especially the aspidistra, became a mainstay of every Victorian parlour, drawing room, lobby and upscale ballroom. 

Aspidistra victorian photographs
A bride and her guests surrounded by potted aspidistra and Kentai palms. circa 1897.

Aspidistra is an interesting plant. Native to Japan and Taiwan, this slow-growing, evergreen perennial plant with glossy dark green leaves, was brought to Europe during the 1820s where it quickly earned the nickname “cast iron plant” because of its remarkable tolerance to neglect and abuse. The plant can survive extreme temperature fluctuations, withstand drought, most pests, and even thrive in low light and the poor air quality of a Victorian gas-lit house. The aspidistra became such a popular houseplant in Victorian Britain that it came to represent—as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it—”a symbol of full middle class respectability.”

George Orwell, in his satirical novel Keep the Aspidistra flying, published in 1936, used the aspidistra as a symbol of the stuffiness of Victorian middle-class society. The plant also appeared in music hall routines, such as Gracie Fields' The biggest aspidistra in the world, which in turn inspired the British Secret Service to name its 600 kilowatt transmitter, built during World War 2 to disrupt enemy communication, Aspidistra.

Aspidistra victorian photographs

Another plant that became popular among Victorian households is the Kentai palm (Howea forsteriana). The Kentai is native to Lord Howe Island of Australia, from where seeds were brought and cultivated across Europe and the United States during the late Victorian period. Like aspidistra, the Kentai can thrive in conditions where other plants cannot such as low light, low humidity, poor air quality and cool temperatures. Queen Victoria absolutely loved them. She grew Kentai palm in all of her homes, and this association with royalty gave those who could furnish their homes with them a certain prestige. 

Many Edwardian hotels like The Ritz Hotel in London or the Plaza Hotel in New York featured Kentia palms. They continue to be used in many modern hotel lobbies, casinos, and shopping malls.

Aspidistra victorian photographs
A family poses around their aspidistra in front of their house in Hellidon, Northamptonshire. c1896-c1920.

Aspidistra elatior
Aspidistra elatior. Photo credit: Furiarossa/

Human Decomposition in Japanese Artwork


In traditional Buddhist teachings, contemplating about death is an integral part of meditation. Buddha himself said that death is “the greatest of all teachers”, for it teaches us to be humble, destroys vanity and pride, and crumbles all the barriers of caste, creed and race that divide humans, for all living beings are unescapably destined to die. Many Buddhist cultures also practice sky burials, where human corpses are left out in the open, such as mountain tops and forests, to be eaten by wild animals. This may seem macabre and gruesome for people of other cultures, but for practicing Buddhists, sky burial is yet another way of acknowledging the impermanence of life.

Such pragmatic and mature approach to the subject of death is the rationale behind the gory and unapologetic Japanese art form called kusôzu that appeared in the 13th century and continued until the late 19th century. Kusôzu, which means “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse”, portrays the sequential decay of a cadaver, usually female, in graphic detail. The shocking art genre appeared routinely for more than five hundred years in various formats, including scrolls and printed books.

One of the earliest examples of this genre is a 14th-century scroll titled Kusōshi emaki, whose English translation is rare lengthy—”Illustrated handscroll of the poem of the nine stages of decaying corpse”. The scroll consist of ten narrative illustrations portraying the nine stages of decomposition starting with a healthy subject—an aristocratic female who has been identified as the 9th-century poetess, Ono no Komachi. In the second panel, she has died and is laid out on the floor and covered with a blanket. In subsequent panels, her body, now in the open, can be seen getting progressively decomposed and putrefied until all remaining flesh and bones had been pecked clean by scavenging animals. 

Below: Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition. Ink and color on silk, circa 1870s. Courtesy: British Museum

Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition
Kusozu-Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition

“The function of these works is to demonstrate the effects of impermanence and the gross nature of the human form, especially the female one,” writes Gail Chin. “The pictorial function is attuned to Buddhist meditation on the corpse, which is to instill a deep sense of revulsion for the human body, particularly that of the opposite sex, so that the monk or devotee will not be tempted by the flesh and realize the impermanence of the body, especially their own, and renounce it.”

In Buddhism, overcoming sexual desire is a necessary step towards achieving enlightenment. Since the female body was a source of desire for men, meditating on a decaying corpse became a form of aversion therapy for Buddhist monks. Not only men, women too were asked to meditate on the repulsive aspects of their own body.

The use of the female cadaver as a tool to despise one’s own body has a long tradition in Buddhist literature dating back to medieval times. However, the visual depiction of this theme is a specifically Japanese adaptation.

Some modern scholars have interpreted the exclusive use of female corpses in the kusōzu genre as a testament to the prevalence of misogyny in Japanese Buddhist thought. But Gail Chin denies this claim by arguing that because the female body is used to teach one of the most important Buddhist lessons, she must be inherently valued as representing Buddhist truth. 

Below: The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. circa 1700s

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
In the first painting a court lady in a kimono is seated indoors at a low red table, with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem: she is pallid, and her expression is preoccupied.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
In the second painting, she has died, and is laid out on the floor covered to her shoulders with a blanket, with a lady and a gentleman in attendance.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
In this painting, her body is out of doors, naked apart from a loincloth, on a mat, the lower part of which is folded up over her legs; her skin now has flesh tones.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
In the fourth painting, putrefaction has just begun.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
Here her body is decaying in the advanced stages of putrefaction.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
The putrefying body is now carrion for scavenging birds and small animals.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
The flesh has almost all decayed revealing the skeleton. There are wisteria flowers in blossom above her body.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
Only a few fragments of bone, including the skull and fragments of rib. hand and vertebrae remain visible.

kusozu-The death of a noble lady and the decay of her body
The final image is of a memorial structure upon which her Buddhist death-name is inscribed in Sanskrit.