Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What does a poisonous Southwestern plant, its insect pollinator, some famous paintings, Native American pottery and an eye exam have in common?

After visiting a number of museums in Italy during the summer, a curious coincidence occurred while hiking in Utah's Zion Canyon in the fall. But, it didn't stop there and continued the following week in Santa Fe and back home in Boston. The explanation requires a little geology, botany, neuroanatomy, lepidopterology, anthecology, phylogenetics, pharmacotoxicology, organic chemistry, ophthalmology and a basic knowledge of Italian Renaissance and American abstract art (though not in that order).

Angels Landing of Zion National Park
Constructed primarily of Navajo Sandstone, the infamous, ominous and vertiginous rocky sentinel towers 1,488 feet over the floor of Zion Canyon. 

As secularism took hold in Europe during the Renaissance, although far from abandonment, there was a shift away from the emphasis of Christianity, faith and salvation that existed during the Middle Ages. In addition to rediscovering the classical ancient past, there was an interest in the everyday "new world" that had emerged. Literature and art became more temporal and demonstrated that life was worth living for its own sake.

Renaissance subject matter paid more attention to scenery, nature, perspective and humanism than ever before. No longer sponsored solely by or for the church in the Medieval period, Italian portraiture, largely in the 15th century, became commissioned by the nobility and the wealthy. In particular, the female body and face was depicted by artists in a new manner, light and perspective.

One aspect involved the manipulation of the eyes. A familiar and famous example is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, painted in softly shaded, sfumato style.

The Most Famous Gaze of All Time
A four-year project starting around 1503, the Renaissance masterpiece possesses a gentle smile rivaled only by her mysterious eyes, wide open with large excited or interested pupils. Are they smiling along with the lips? Do they really follow you across the room? Both have been exhaustively analyzed and endlessly discussed. 

Lisa Gherardini's enigmatic gaze and alluring smile have been interpreted and debated about by every art historian, critic and member of the viewing public since the masterpiece's creation. Even geologists have studied the undulating valleys and rivers of the landscape behind the sitter and how the horizon focuses attention to her eyes. And yet, there's more than meets the eye. Not only is there a tiny letter "L" for Leonardo in the right pupil, but, easily overlooked, both pupils appear slightly enlarged. 

Another Renaissance example is "Woman with a Mirror" completed around 1515 by Venetian artist Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. Also painted in typical sfumato fashion, the female subject possesses an idealized form of beauty: attractive, virtuous, poised and well-dressed with a well-proportioned face, high forehead, ruby lips, realistic flesh tones with fair but not pale skin with rosy cheeks, graceful hands and lively dark eyes with large seductive pupils.

Again, it's the latter attribute where our interest lies.

"Woman with a Mirror", 1515
While admiring her lovely coiffure in the mirror, might the woman in the portrait also have applied belladonna to dilate her eyes? If so, what's in the little jar? Renaissance artist Titian of the 16th Century Venetian school.

Fashionable Italian Renaissance women and ladies of the court, in order to achieve their definition of beauty (undoubtedly with the intent of attracting a male suitor), placed a drop of an extract from the berries of the Atropa belladonna plant in each eye or likely even rubbed a slice of the fruit itself over the eyelids. Meaning "beautiful lady" in Italian, the concentrate greatly enlarged the pupils to purposefully afford the user with a dreamy gaze and the artist with a seductive subject to paint.

Unbeknownst to the user, the desired look was accomplished with neurochemicals, naturally occurring and plant-based substances. As a result, a small Atropa belladonna extract will chemically stimulate two tiny smooth muscles, one in each eye, and cause the pupils to dilate or widen.

The Extremely Toxic Foliage and Enticingly Edible Purplish Berries of Deadly Nightshade
Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish physician and founder of modern taxonomy, captured the essentials of the plant by not only naming it "belladonna" but "Atropas." The latter refers to the oldest of the three Greek Moiras or Fates that was the cutter of the thread of life.

Dilation (enlarging) and constriction (shrinking) changes pupil size and thereby regulates the amount of light that reaches the retina at the back of the eye. That enhances night vision in low-light conditions in order to increase the depth of field and the reverse in bright light. The pupil also dilates in response to increased cognitive activity, such as when aroused, although I'm getting ahead of myself. 

As we all know, light reaching the eye passes through the dome-shaped, protective lens of the cornea and the transparent opening of the pupil. Surrounding the lens within the iris are two tiny sets of antagonistic muscles (encircled below). Their action is similar to that of the diaphragm and aperture of a camera (not digital ones).

The dilator pupillae muscle encircles the pupil in a spoke-like arrangement and pulls the iris open to dilate the pupil (Remember: the pupil is a black-appearing hole or opening in the center of the iris). It's action is antagonistic to the sphincter pupillae that is arranged radially around the pupil. Its contraction constricts the pupil making it smaller.

As we shall see, the contraction of these tiny muscles is NOT under our cognitive, conscious control but under the influence of our 'automatic', unconscious nervous system AND various externally administered chemical agents! 

Anatomy of the Human Eye in Cross-Section
Light that passes through the lens is focused on the retina, the photoreceptor-endowed sensory membrane that lines the back of the eye. It sends signals through the optic nerve to the brain's visual cortex that coverts them to the images that we see. Voila! Sight.


It turns out that the Italian Renaissance ladies were correct. Numerous psychological studies have confirmed that the curious pupillary-Atropa belladonna practice did in fact make them appear more seductive by mimicking the physiologic response of sexual arousal. It's because the berries contain various neuro-substances notably atropine (more on that later). 

Not only does atropine cause transient photophobia (light sensitivity), overuse can cause permanent blindness, and higher doses can dangerously increase heart rate and even kill. And yet, when used appropriately, neurochemicals are highly beneficial as analgesics, stimulants, antidotes in certain chemical poisonings and in the treatment of diseases and conditions such as malaria, asthma, cancer, nausea, fungal infections and more.

Pupillary Science and Product Sales
Body language experts assert that dilated pupils are a sign of attraction. It's neurologically akin to sweating and blushing, all bodily responses beyond our conscious control that can't be faked or prevented. Commercial proof occurred in a direct mailing campaign by Revlon when pupils were artificially enlarged by photoediting and catalog product sales increased by 45%.

After returning from Italy, my son and I headed to southern Utah and Zion Canyon, intent on climbing the National Park's legendary and vertiginous Angels Landing. Sculpted by erosion, the canyon was carved by the North Fork of the Virgin River over the course of two million years.

The geology includes nine Mesozoic-age sedimentary formations that span over 150 million years. Between the basalmost stratum of the Moenkopi and overlying Chinle Formations and extending upward through the uppermost Carmel Formation, the cross-bedded Middle Jurassic eolian Navajo Sandstone forms steep cliffs up to 2,200 feet. It's the signature rock formation that is responsible for Zion's majesty, popularity and incredible beauty. 

Zion Canyon, the Virgin River and Angels Landing
Mostly buff-colored, Navajo Sandstone takes on reds and browns from the varying amounts of oxidized iron and other minerals and white regions from chemical-bleaching via ground water that flowed through the porous rock. Awaiting our ascent, Angels Landing looms in the distance some 457 meters (1,500 feet) above the canyon floor. 

Zion is located on the lofty Colorado Plateau and borders two geological and ecological provinces: the Great Basin and Mohave Desert. With elevations from 3,600 to 8,700 feet, the landscape contains a mix of canyon, desert, high plateau, sandstone slickrock, hanging garden and riparian environments, each with their distinctive biomes. As a result, Zion is home to a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, where an astounding 982 taxa of plants can be found.

One plant in particular became part of the coincidence. 

Southeast View of Zion Canyon
From the switchbacks of Walter's Wiggles, a narrow section of Zion Canyon is seen through the sun-deprived Refrigerator Canyon that developed in a series of closely-spaced joints. A portion of Scout Lookout and the eroded fin of Angels Landing is high up to the left. On the far side of the canyon, Red Arch Mountain displays exfoliation joints in pinkish Navajo Sandstone.

The Zion shuttle bus dropped us off at the Grotto Trailhead deep in the canyon along the Virgin River. With leaves of summer succumbing to the colors of fall in the crisp morning sun and the river running cold and clear, we couldn't resist a stroll along its banks. A familiar plant caught my eye sprawling weed-like on a sandy terrace. Pointing skyward, its trumpet-shaped, five-lobed white flowers with lavender tips were unmistakable.

Datura wrighti or Sacred Datura, its common name, is in the same angiosperm (flowering plant) family as the plant Atropa belladonna. What's more, both contain the same or similar neurochemicals and are therefore capable of pupillary dilation and far more with an incredible history of use and abuse. Standing along the river, my son and I mused about the bodily actions of the two plants. He was astonished by the use of atropine by proper ladies and portrait painters of the Italian Renaissance and Sacred Datura's highly poisonous nature.

Sacred Datura on the Banks of the Virgin River
The flowers of of genus Datura resemble closely-related and familiar Petunia of the same family. Some botanists contend that the genus of plants evolved an alkaloid poison to deter unwanted insects from feasting on their sumptuous flowers. Not seen on our hike and also indigenous and common to the park is a close relative of Datura wrighti, the prickled-stem, star-shaped Solanum elaeagnifolium or the Silverleaf Nettle.

Like its close relative, Sacred Datura is extremely poisonous. Within minutes, if any part of it from root to seedpod is ingested, inhaled or applied topically, one's mouth becomes severely dry followed by nausea, vomiting and difficulty swallowing. Respiration and heart rate begin to dramatically increase as speech becomes slurred and pupils begin to dilate.

 "Eat a little, and go to sleep.
Eat some more, and have a dream.
Eat some more, and don't wake up."
An old Navajo saying

With high doses, confusion ensues with changes in emotion followed by severe and uncontrollable psychotropic symptoms of incoherence and delirium with bizarre auditory and visual hallucinations. The "bad trip" can last for days, since gastric emptying is suppressed. Often the subject must be restrained to prevent personal injury. Higher doses may lead to sleep, coma, seizures and even death. 

 "Blind as a bat (loss of vision).
 Hot as a hare (feverish).
Dry as a bone (no secretions of tears, saliva and sweat).
Red as a beet (flushing).
Mad as a hatter (delirious).
Full as a flask (urine retention)."
Old Medical school mnemonic 

Sacred Datura blooms later in summer and early fall from dusk through mid-morning but curiously at night. I had an inkling why but didn't know the specifics. A little research confirmed that its curious blooming schedule is the result of nocturnal pollination by a night-flying moth that is attracted to the flowers' sweet-scent.

The Hawk Moth (aka Hawkmoth) pollinator was predicted by Darwin even before its existence was confirmed. To the mutual benefit of both plant and pollinator, he correctly theorized that the insect would require an elongated proboscis (hollow straw-like tongue) that evolved in order to reach Datura's deeply-buried nectarous bounty.

Datura's nocturnal mode of pollination occurs in contrast to flowers that bloom diurnally and those that rely on fragrance and color. Some night-blooming flowers such as black peppers and tomatoes possess an intense and unpleasant sulfurous smell and are pollinated by bats. These plants are also in the large Datura-Atropa plant family! 

A Characteristically Long-Tongued, Datura Hawkmoth Nocturnal Pollinator
From USDA Forest Service, Alfred University and Joseph Scheer

The powerful Hawk Moth is a member of insect family Sphingidae that includes 1,450 species. Although the moth is seldom seen, it's capable, as many others in the family, of hovering mid-air in hummingbird-fashion to obtain nectar as do bats, also nocturnal pollinators. It's an example of convergent evolution (independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages). 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Hawk Moth would become part of the curious connection! 

I also discovered that Sacred Datura has a number of colorful monikers. It was 'sacred' to various Southwest Native American tribes that used it as an intoxicant in ritual ceremonies and rites of passage. It's called "Devil's Weed" due to its nefarious actions if ingested, "Devil's Trumpet" for the shape of the flower, "Sacred Thorn-Apple" after its spiny, round seedpods, "Indian Whiskey" by early California settlers for obvious reasons, and "Nightshade" and "Moonflower" since it blooms at night. In fact, the entire family of plants from which Sacred Datura belongs are referred to as the "Nightshades."

The Seed-Bearing Spiny Fruit of Sacred Datura
The word 'Datura' is derived from the Hindu vernacular, dhatura meaning "thorn-apple." It has been suggested that spiny fruits are adapted for long-distance dispersal by hitching a ride on an unsuspecting animal vector, while the naked ones are to maintain the local population. The spikes may also act to deter ingestion. 

Although somewhat of a misnomer, Sacred Datura is also known as "Jimson Weed", since it resembles its botanical cousin Datura stramonium, the 'true' Jimson. Its common name is a corruption of "Jamestown Weed" of colonial Virginia and involved a documented case of accidental ingestion. Here's an excerpt recorded in the "History and Present State of Virginia" in 1705.  

"British soldiers were sent to stop the Rebellion of Bacon (between Virginia settlers and the King's appointed governor). The Jamestown weed was boiled for inclusion in a salad, which the soldiers readily ate...In this frantic situation (that ensued), they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves."

Sacred Datura and many of its nightshade cousins have been used for over 6,000 years in sacred rituals as intoxicants, for medicinal practices and for assorted nefarious activities. Various ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans employed henbane and mandrake for political advantage. There are many references to both in the Old and New Testaments. The Datura flower Yangjinhua was used in China to treat asthma, convulsions, pain and rheumatism.  

 "a double dose causes downright insanity...any repeated ingestion moreover
...bringing instant death...(and) kills quicker than opium."
The Roman Pliny the Edler 

In the Americas, the Cherokee and Rappahannock smoked Datura for respiratory problems such as asthma and for ceremonial purposes. The Yaqui of Mexico made an ointment for its hallucinatory effects and to lessen the pain of childbirth. Charred seeds in various sites in the Southwest confirm its use. Polychrome pictographs on the walls of a cave in Southern California are thought to have been created by delirium-induced shaman priests of the Chumash tribe. Some shapes resemble the spiny, round seedpods of Datura. 

Petroglyph in Chumash Painted Cave Historic Park
The Chumash of coastal Southern California near Santa Barbara created cave wall pictographs with charcoal, red ochre and powdered shells. They practiced an initiation rite that likely documented the ritual use of Datura. The images are thought to depict animals, everyday objects and a variety of distorted geometric entities, possibly supernatural or celestial (such as eclipse that occurred in 1677). From Wikipedia 

Both Datura wrighti and Datura stramonium belong to genus Datura, while its relative Atropa belladonna belongs to genus Atropa. Along with safe-to-eat eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, cherries, tobacco and a host of flowering plants, they're members of the large plant family Solanaceae. The name was derived from the encompassing order Solanum, which means from the "sun" or "soothing", possibly related to the calming affect of some of the plants on GI spasms.

The plants of Solanaceae are the "Nightshades", and because of Atropa belladonna's high concentration of atropine (and chemical relationship to scopolamine found in Sacred Datura), it's referred to as "Deadly Nightshade." A small handful of wild berries are fatal for the unsuspecting ingester. "Magical" mandrake within genus Mandragora is also a highly poisonous nightshade used in witchcraft and herbal medicine, as is henbane called "stinking nightshade" of genus Hyoscymus. 

The Nightshade Family Solanaceae and a few of its 90 Genera
Plant species Sacred Datura and Atropa belladonna are found in sister genera.

Many of the active ingredients in nightshade plants are nitrogen-containing substances. They're a diverse group of compounds found not only in plants, animals and even microorganisms but are manufactured synthetically for medicinal purposes.

They are a collection of over 200 potent organic compounds called tropane alkaloids, many of which are toxic. An incredible 64 different ones have been identified in species D. Stramonium. For everyone that took organic chemistry back in school, they contain a seven-carbon ring and a singular nitrogen atom.

Molecular Structure of a Typical Tropane Alkaloid
The seven-carbon tropane ring and singular nitrogen atom, derived from ammonia, make the compound an alkaloid. Found in all parts of the plant, they occur naturally and are the oldest plant medicines.


Nightshade alkaloids are classified as deliriants and anticholinergic agents. The latter means they oppose the action of nerve cells that use the chemical neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Its release in the central nervous system (CNS) activates certain muscles.

You see, our CNS (brain and spinal cord) connects to a peripheral system that runs throughout the body. It has two divisions: a somatic system under voluntary control that allows us to do things at will and an autonomic (or visceralsystem that operates involuntarily, sort of automatically. It regulates functions that don't require conscious thought, that is active brain-control, such as sweating, breathing, heart rate, digestion and (you guessed it) pupillary size. There's more.

The autonomic system also has two sub-divisions: a quick-response sympathetic (or adrenergic) system for "flight or fright" and an energy-conserving parasympathetic (or cholinergic) system for "resting and digesting." They're antagonistic systems but work together to maintain homeostasis (state of balance) by feeding-back on each other, similar in action to a thermostat that regulates room temperature. So, what's the point?

The Yin and Yang of the Autonomic Nervous System
The 'automatic' system is under involuntary control. It has two opposing subdivisions - parasympathetic and sympathetic - that work in conjunction to maintain homeostasis, that is, keep us balanced. Pupil dilation (encircled), a sympathetic activity, is induced by the anticholinergic Datura alkaloid that targets and blocks the parasympathetic system.

"Think: Parasympathetic-iris constrictor and sympathetic-iris dilator"

As mentioned, nightshade alkaloids are anticholinergic substances. That means they block the action of parasympathetic nerve impulses, which allows the sympathetic system to "take over." In order to fight or flee from harm, the heart beats faster, respiration increases, glucose is liberated for energy and the pupils dilate to let in more light in.

It also explains how Italian Renaissance ladies and their artists pharmochemically dilated their pupils with Atropa belladonna and how the plant Sacred Datura acts similarly.

The coincidence didn't end in Zion.

After hiking Zion Canyon, I joined my wife in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We strolled around town and savored the region's famous Southwestern cuisine, especially the red and green chili sauces, which, by the way, are made from safe-to-eat nightshade plants. We also visited a number of museums and galleries that displayed Native American artifacts and pottery and the wonderful Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, dedicated to the life, art and legacy of the twentieth century artist.

Ristras of Drying Red and Green Chile Peppers and Sun-bleached Cow Skulls
Both are iconic trademarks of New Mexico

O'Keeffe is a legendary name for those familiar with her vibrantly-colored, larger-than-life, iconic paintings of Southwestern desert flowers, floating sun-bleached cow skulls and bones bedecked with flowers, and favorite sweeping vistas and landscapes of northern New Mexico. She is referred to as the Mother of American Modernism, and her name is synonymous with the American abstract impressionist movement.

Born in rural Wisconsin in 1887 and after a marriage to Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneering 
New York City photographer, art promoter and gallery owner where O'Keeffe became well-established as a Modernist artist, she was inextricably drawn to New Mexico. First seasonally, it eventually became her home where her artistry reached a creative pinnacle and where she worked for over 40 years until her death in 1986 at the age of 98. 

Alfred Stieglitz Photographic Portrait of O'Keeffe in NYC, 1918

O'Keeffe's principal residence and studio was in the rural, tiny northern New Mexican village of Abiquiú, about 53 miles north of Santa Fe. The surrounding landscapes were a never-ending source of inspiration to the artist, which she repeatedly reproduced and reinterpreted on canvas throughout her life. 

O'Keeffe in 1960 with 'Pelvis Series Red With Yellow' 

Inspired to investigate the geology of northern New Mexico and O'Keeffe's favorite landscapes, we drove to her studio at the remote 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch some 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe. It was there that the artist could work, be alone and take time out from the real world. She was captivated by New Mexico's piercing sunlight, the clarity of the air, its expansive skies and the stark beauty and extreme solitude of the high-desert landscape.

"I wish you could see what I see out the window - 
the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north - 
the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky - 
pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars - 
and a feeling of much space. It is a very beautiful world."

Ghost Ranch has a fascinating history of ownership beginning in the early 1900s with the Archuleta family of cattle rustlers, who penned the name "ghost" to dispel unwanted visitation from curious neighbors. Following a deed acquisition during a lost poker game and a subsequent sale to Arthur Pack of Nature Magazine, he donated the property to the Presbyterian Church to which it remains. O'Keeffe acquired her adobe house and six acres from them and became her Ranchos de los Burros in 1940.

"I can think of no greater luxury than being at the ranch — 
even if the lights didn’t work and the sink wouldn’t drain.”

Sign at the Entrance to Ghost Ranch with O'Keeffe's Skull Logo

Today, the ranch is a National Landmark designated in 1975 and run by the church as an education, workshop, retreat and conference center. The ranch is famous both archaeologically and paleontologically, the former for 8,000 and 2,000 year-old rock-shelter sites and artifacts from several different indigenous tribes that lived and hunted in the region and the latter for its fossil quarries and museum.

Concentrated numbers of the significant and important Late Triassic early theropod dinosaur Coelophysis and a number of non-dinosaurian reptiles have been excavated are found in high concentration. The excavation site was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1976. Book your tour in advance!

The Geologic Landscape of Ghost Ranch
It's in the region of the shallow, downwarpped Chama Basin that formed during the Laramide compressional deformation event beginning about 75 million years ago. It's along the eastern margin of the lofty Colorado Plateau near the transition zone with the Rio Grande rift to the east.

A tremendous source of inspiration to the artist, O'Keeffe repeatedly reproduced and interpreted on canvas the stratigraphy at Ghost Ranch and the vistas she both observed and loved. Her ashes are scattered over the distant volcanics of "her mountain", the flat-topped, dark mesa of Cerro Pedernal in the Jémez Mountains.

The 700 feet-high sedimentary rocks at the ranch begin with multi-hued Late Triassic Chinle mudstones, siltstones and sandstones - the dino-rich stratum. Following a gap of some 44 million years, it's overlain by the highly recognizable, tri-banded, cliff-forming Jurassic eolian Entrada Sandstone and capped by Summerville Sandstones and Todilto Limestones.

The Jurassic strata were deposited in and around the Sundance Sea, which was a large incursion or embayment of the paleo-Pacific Ocean in an arid climate. It was the last marine invasion into the interior from the west.

"My Back Yard", 1943

“I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore,
unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”

"Red and Yellow Cliffs", 1949

Having seen O'Keeffe's landscape inspirations firsthand and after having achieved a greater understanding of the artist as a person, we returned to Santa Fe to tour the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

The moment we entered the first salon we were confronted with a large 70 x 83.5 inch, beautiful oil-on-canvas painting of Sacred Datura entitled "Bella Donna" completed in 1939. O'Keeffe is best known for her enlarged and close-up paintings of flowers especially Sacred Datura, which she often referred to as "Bella Donna." The flower comprised a significant percentage of her work, which was painted with numbered versions.

By this time the coincidences had became anticipated. 

"Bella Donna", 1939
The painting was created in New Mexico during a period of the artist's economic independence and popularity but also bitter turmoil and loneliness. It was a time when Stieglitz, her impresario, promoter and later husband, took on a new protégé and lover. The artist was torn between Stieglitz's useless sponsorship being successful and New Mexico, where she found a life of inspiration, innovation and creativity.

O'Keeffe also painted Sacred Datura, which she called "Jimson Weed." As early as the 1920s, O'Keeffe created a number of large close-ups. She was immensely fond of the heavily-scented, night blooming plant and painted it throughout her career. Ignoring its well-known toxicity if mistakenly (or intentionally) eaten, she allowed it to flourish around the patio of her Ghost Ranch studio.

"When I think of the delicate fragrance of the flowers,
I almost feel the coolness and sweetness of the evening."

Jimson Weed, 1936

"When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it,
 it's your world for the moment.
 I want to give that world to someone else." 

"Datura and Pedernal"

"Nobody sees a flower really — it is so small — we haven't time,
and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time."

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932
This painting sold for $44,405,000 at Sotheby’s American Art sale in 2014. It was the highest price paid for a painting created by a female artist in the US.

The many galleries and museums in Santa Fe provide an exposure to the diversity and creativity of Native American rugs, baskets, jewelry, pottery and gourds. Fired from clay gathered from the banks of regional rivers and lakes, pottery was used for cooking, storage and ritual ceremonial and burial purposes. 

Many items are covered with a range of carved and painted decorative and symbolic designs. In addition to zig-zag geometrics, snake-like spirals, florals and solar images, many of the lifeforms include birds, rattlesnakes and insects such as grasshoppers, spiders, caterpillars, butterflies and moths.

Animals and insects are frequently mentioned in Native American mythology. They not only indicate a close association with nature, but call attention to the power attached to them. For instance, the power of flight is evoked with motifs of wings and feathers as well as depictions of the animals themselves. The butterfly symbolizes love, temptation and foolishness, especially to the Navajo, whereas moths are associated with maladies of spells, frenzy, trembling and seizures.

Sound familiar? Does this appear to be a Hawk Moth painted on the pottery and gourds?

Various Moths on Navajo Pottery and Gourds both Old and New

With thoughts and visions of my wonderful summer experiences in Italy and autumnal visit to Zion, Santa Fe and O'Keeffe country, we finally heading back to Boston. Among other things, it was time for my yearly eye exam. As we all know, one's eyes are typically dilated with an Atropa belladonna-like, synthetic neurochemical relative.

Mydryiasis - the pharmacological enlargement of the pupils - allows an unimpeded examination of the retina at the back of the eye. Synthetic medicines are now used that have shorter half-life of hours as opposed to days with no risk of central nervous system ill-effects. One type stimulates the contracting muscles that opens the pupil, while the other relaxes muscles that make it constrict, an example of pharmacological antagonism. Sometimes they're used together.  

A Medically Dilated Eye (not mine)

When will the coincidences end?

While composing this post and researching Italian Renaissance art on-line, I discovered an interesting panel painted by Sandro Botticelli in c.1485. Entitled "Venus and Mars", it depicts a lovely mythological Venus, the goddess of love, and a scantily clad Mars, the god of war, who is fast asleep on a forest floor surrounded by a bevy of playful, horned satyrs.

The painting is typical of the Renaissance period in that it contains symbolism and hidden meaning. Even period still life paintings that are literal in their subject matter surprisingly contain such abstruse innuendos and subtle metaphors. The classical interpretation of the panel is that it's a conjugal setting in which Venus is watching a sexually exhausted Mars, implied by the lance and conch that are futilely being used to awaken him by the woodland creatures. It gets more interesting.

"Mars and Venus" by Sandro Botticelli, c.1485 

Surfing the Web further, by coincidence (yet another) I stumbled on a reinterpretation of the painting by Piero di Cosimo entitled "Venus, Mars and Cupid." Completed in 1490, the subject matter was also infused with wit and fantasy and a few additional symbols. Cupid was nestled beside the breast of Venus, while a long-eared, white rabbit rests on her hip. The former, with breasts exposed, symbolizes love, attraction and devotion, whereas the cute bunny indicates sexual excess, in keeping with the earlier Botticeli creation.

But, notice a brightly colored moth resting on Venus's right leg. Why is it there, and what is its meaning? A few historians have suggested that it symbolizes the fragility of life or even the gaudy portent of death. If so, might this explain the condition of the limp-wristed Mars and not merely post-conjugal exhaustion? Might the moth be the nocturnal pollinator of a nightshade plant such as Sacred Datura? Has Mars succumbed to an anticholinergic, parasympathetically-blocked hypnotic sleep or worse?

"Venus, Mars and Cupid" by Piero di Cosimo, 1490

Pursuing the unlikely (my forte), I submitted the image to three well-known North American etymologists and one in the UK in an attempt to identify the moth. Everyone confirmed it was a Tiger Moth, in the same family as the Hawk Moth, although one expert conceded that "European Hawk Moths have some variability in color and pattern that may copy the former."

This would be an example of Müllerian mimicry in which two or more noxious species develop similar appearances as a shared protective device so that a predator will avoid both. If the insect is indeed a Hawk Moth, it would have lent an entirely different interpretation to the painting. 

A few weeks after our return to Boston, we headed out for a celebratory dinner to revel and reminisce on our year's travels and experiences. Picking up a menu, there it was, a final reminder of my countless "Nightshade Connections" - a cocktail called Belladonna.