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For Centuries, People Thought Lambs Grew on Trees

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Imagine you're strolling through the woods in Central Asia, in a region formerly called Tartary, sometime during the Middle Ages. As you adjust your woollen cloak, you spot an eye-catching plant. A long, swaying stalk juts out from the ground, bearing a bleating, life-sized lamb hovering a few feet off the ground.

According to ancient lore, you’ve encountered the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Luckily there’s no need to run, as it’s solidly tethered to the ground. But though this animal-plant hybrid couldn’t go very far, the legend of it did—although completely imaginary, the vegetable lamb of Tartary crops up in ancient Hebrew texts, medieval literature, and even poetry, philosophy, and scientific musings of the Renaissance. Also called the borametz, the Scythian lamb, the lamb-tree, and the Tartarian lamb, this mythical zoophyte intrigued, inspired, and perplexed writers, philosophers, and scientists for centuries.

According to Henry Lee, a 19th-century naturalist who wrote rather extensively on the vegetable lamb, the woolly plant first appeared in literature around 436 A.D., in the Jewish text, Talmud Hierosolimitanum. According to Lee, Rabbi Jochanan included a passage detailing the plant-animal that is “in form like a lamb, and from its navel grew a stem or root by which this zoophyte ... was fixed ... like a gourd, to the soil below the surface of the ground.”

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Later, Sir John Mandeville would refer to these creatures in his travel writings on Tartary. He refers, rather sweetly, to the lambs borne from gourd-like fruits as “little beasts,” and rather quickly follows that with, “of that fruit I have eaten.” Though we now know Mandeville wasn’t the most reliable narrator, his thoughts on the lamb-tree were taken seriously in medieval England.

In Mandeville’s imagined anatomy of the zoophyte, the plant branched out into several seed pods from which newborn lambs would spring forth. But Mandeville’s configuration wasn’t the only one in existence. In another version, each plant bore a single fully grown lamb, with a thick coat of wool “as white as snow.” The fabled creature hovered off the ground on a highly flexible stalk, which allowed it to bend deeply enough to chomp on the grass below. There was a catch to this seemingly laid-back life: Eventually, the grass would run out. Once it had devoured all the vegetation within reach, the lamb-plant would die.

Though it may have seemed helpless, swinging around aimlessly on its stem until it starved to death, procuring a vegetable lamb for one’s own was apparently a difficult task. Most iterations claim that, because the lamb could not be extracted from the plant without severing the stem, the borametz could not be hunted, except by wolves, who somehow always get the best of the poor lamb in folklore. A human looking for a leafy lamb could track one down, too, but would have to shoot arrows or darts at the stem until fully severing it to get the woolly prize. (Writers of the time did not specify why knives could not be used.)

If one could track down a live vegetable lamb, however, it was a delicacy. Both humans and wolves alike loved the taste of lamb-plant meat, which, according to ancient writer Maase Tobia, tasted “like the flesh of fish.” And as if a lamb-vegetable that tasted like fish flesh weren’t peculiar enough, it allegedly also contained “blood as sweet as honey.”

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But there was a more sinister version of the narrative. Lee includes a passage from Rabbi Simeon, who hints that the zoophyte was not a lamb-plant hybrid, but rather a human-plant hybrid. He claims that, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, the ‘Jadua,’ was a plant found in the mountains that grows "just as gourds and melons," but in the form of a human—with a face, body, hands, and feet. Similar to the vegetable lamb, it was connected at the navel to the stem, which, if cut, would cause the Jadua's demise. "No creature can approach within the tether of the stem, for it seizes and kills them,” he wrote. It seems that iteration was too dark for philosophers of the Dark Ages to stomach, as most devout believers of the borametz seemed to stick to the version featuring the fluffy, tasty, non-human plant.

Whether one believed the zoophyte to be lamb-like or man-like, it took until the 16th century for scientists and philosophers to begin publicly questioning the Scythian lamb. The renowned Italian polymath, Girolamo Cardano, tried to disprove it by pointing out that soil alone couldn’t provide sufficient heat for a lamb to survive embryonic development. But his argument was highly controversial. Claude Duret, an Italian linguist, botanist, and, above all, firm believer in the existence of the lamb-plant, passionately denounced Cardono. Echoing a common claim at the time, he affirmed that “in a place filled with heavy and dense air (such as is Tartary), the Borametz—true plant-animals—might exist.”

Soon enough, however, naturalists began to make the point that, maybe, there were plants that simply looked like lambs. In 1698, Sir Hans Sloane brought forth a lamb-like specimen from China, the rootstock of a fern, which was “covered with a down of dark yellowish snuff colour.” It seemed, he argued, that it had been manipulated by a clever artist to look strikingly similar to a lamb. However, there was an issue with this argument: The species that birthed these lamb-like sculptures wasn't native to Tartary. Besides, Lee argues, the coat of the lamb-plant was depicted as “snowy-white,” while the woolly substance produced by the rootstocks was decidedly orange. There’s a better theory, Lee offers, and it looks a lot like a poorly played game of ancient Greek telephone.

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Cotton was likely brought to Western Asia and Eastern Europe from India—and while the ancient Greeks didn’t really know much about the cotton plant, they felt very comfortable waxing poetic about it. Greek historian Herodotus’s writings refer to the cotton padding of a corselet sent from Egypt as “fleeces from the trees.” Alexander the Great's admiral would later write that “there were in India trees bearing ... flocks or bunches of wool.” A bit further down the line, Pliny the Elder (whom Lee calls “admirable as a writer,” but “incompetent and worthless as a naturalist”) went further off-script, erroneously claiming that “these trees bear gourds ... which burst when ripe.”

And then, there’s the fact that the Greek word for “melon” can be translated into “fruit,” “apple,” or “sheep.” It’s possible that, throughout various translations of early texts describing the cotton plant among other trees, the “fruits” resembling “spring-apples” could have been misinterpreted as “spring-lambs.”

Though the vegetable lamb isn’t real, its story paints a very real picture of how science and mythology, fact and fiction, are closely connected—and often resemble one another. And while the vegetable lamb has disappeared from the minds of scientists and philosophers today, it will likely persist as a strange scientific history, an overblown origin story, and perhaps, a far-away fantasy for vegetarians with a craving for lamb.

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rraszews
1 day ago
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A lot of these plant-animal legends weren't for the most part sincerely believed, but were passed around with a wink and a nod by folks in Catholic countries looking for loophole in fasting rules.

Colcannon

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Colcannon with scallions and bacon.

Colcannon is a simple dish with hidden depths. It consists of mashed potatoes mixed with kale or cabbage, traditionally topped with butter, and some variations feature scallions, leeks, onions, or chives. In order to predict the future, it may also contain a thimble, button, or ring.

It is believed that potatoes arrived in Ireland in the late 16th century, where they were embraced like no where else in Europe: While the rest of the continent still viewed them as new and circumspect, the Irish were eating their fill. The word “colcannon,” however, preserves parts of Irish linguistic and culinary history that long predate the tuber's vaunted arrival. “Cál” is Irish for “cabbage,” and “cainnen” suggests old Irish translations of garlic, onion, and leek. So the Emerald Isle may well have long enjoyed a potato-less prototype for the dish.

Over time, colcannon became associated with various Irish rituals, most of them observed on Halloween (or Oíche Shamhna, a harvest festival). The dish was often served with a small trinket hidden inside, each carrying a symbolic meaning: Buttons signaled to boys and thimbles to girls that they would not soon be married. Rings meant the opposite, and coins portended wealth on the horizon. Some women even hung colcannon-filled socks from their doors, mistletoe-like, in hopes of ensnaring a husband. These traditions illustrate colcannon’s centrality to Irish folk identity—as do these lovely lyrics from "The Skillet Pot":

Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?

With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.

Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake

Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.

And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.

Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,

And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.

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rraszews
2 days ago
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Since we discovered it, whenever an occasion calls for makng mashed potatoes, my family always makes colcannon instead. I like to think the cabbage counts toward making it a healthier choice... Up until I add the bacon.

A Town Named Asbestos Once Produced Most of the World's Asbestos Supply

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Hidden in old buildings and under streets, asbestos—once thought of as a “miracle mineral”—is always lurking. Though today it might seem like a relic of the past, under new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. government could approve new uses of asbestos in consumer products going forward, reports Fast Company.

There are still places where asbestos mining is a notable industry: Canada’s asbestos mines—including the mine at Asbestos, Quebec, once the largest in the world—only closed within the last 10 years, and in Russia, the town of Asbest is still a major center of asbestos production.

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Asbestos has many strange properties and has been incorporated into manmade products going back thousands of years. Manufactured, it often comes into human environments as a textile or a dangerous powder, but in nature it appears as six different types of natural silicates. Part of what makes it uniquely useful is how its crystals form, into tiny, thin fibers. It can be woven into fabric, it’s resistant to fire, it dampens sound.

Modern asbestos mining started in the 19th century, and Canada became one of the leading producers of asbestos early on. In the 1850s, significant deposits of chrysotile, the most commonly used form of asbestos, were found in Thetford, Quebec, south of Quebec City. By the end of the 19th century, the Jeffrey Mine, about 50 miles southwest, had also become a major source of asbestos, and when workers settled near the mine, they called their town Asbestos.

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At the height of asbestos mining, around the 1970s, there were dozens of asbestos mines in the U.S., but about half of the asbestos used around the world was coming from this one mine in Canada. Usually, asbestos mining required several long and linear mines, but because of a rare circular pattern in this deposit, the miners could simply create a pit mine and start digging out the mineral. Over time, as the pit expanded, the workers had to move their town to keep it away from the expanding circumference of the mine.

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Of course, there were problems with asbestos mining. By the middle of the 20th century, the health effects of breathing in asbestos fibers, which can cause cancer, were becoming well known. Environmental agencies starting controlling its use more tightly, and workers sickened by their jobs started demanding compensation and greater protections. Still, the mines themselves were slow to close, as there was still demand in India and other parts of the world for the product. The last asbestos mine in the U.S. closed in 2002; Canada shut down its asbestos mines in 2012.

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Today, the town of Asbestos, Quebec, is still tied to its mineral legacy. A local brewery has named its beers Mineur (Miner); Spello, a mining term, and L’Or Blanc—white gold, as asbestos was known. The brewery also made a pale ale with water drawn from the bottom of the mine. They tested the water, one brewer told the BBC, and it was “perfect.” There’s also an Asbestos Mineral Museum, and it’s possible to tour the old mine or see it from a platform at the museum.

In Asbest, Russia, though, mining is ongoing. “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” one resident told the New York Times in 2013. Regulators there consider it safe when properly handled, they told the Times. Most of the asbestos used in the U.S. in recent years has come from Brazil, but now those mines are shutting, too. Russia could become an asbestos supplier to the U.S., and the people of Asbest are looking forward to it. In the U.S., asbestos is still used in roofing materials and floor tiles, for fire protections, and in other consumer products. It's a small market and, even under the new rules, unlikely to grow fast. But when your town is named for a toxic substance that many people are afraid to be around at all, you look for business anywhere you can.

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rraszews
8 days ago
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Technically, asbestos IS pretty safe if you take the right precautions, it's just that those precautions include a lot of things like "Hermetically seal the building during even the most minor renovation" and "Under no circumstances ever let the building fall down, get knocked down, burn down, or be damaged by a storm"

Squad Composition

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rraszews
28 days ago
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"I am proficient at all weapons" is kinda the cutest thing Bubbles has ever said.

15 Powerful Women Shaping How We Eat in America Today — Women in Food

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Who shapes what you eat? We all know the cool girls, the women who inspire us to eat deliciously, from the ur-influencer Julia Child to the spotlight idols of today: Ina Garten, Chrissy Teigen, Alison Roman and her ubiquitous cookies, the bloggers and tastemakers of Instagram.

But beyond taste there is power — the power to affect what millions of people crave, eat, and buy. There are powerful women behind your grocery store experience and everyday choices, in the spaces where your food is made, packaged, and sold.

Today we're giving you an inside look at 15 women wielding real power in how we shop, cook, and eat in America today.

READ MORE »

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rraszews
64 days ago
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The COO of Starbucks is named "Brewer"? That's positively Dickensian.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Words

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Can we please just agree that by the conventional usage of the term I am a God? I don't see why that's even controversial.

New comic!
Today's News:
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rraszews
72 days ago
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So.... Do you say "Thank Man you're here, SuperGod?" Because "Thank God you're here, SuperGod" doesn't scan well.
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