Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hilary Melton-Butcher: Meet Some Unusual Dragons!

Today's guest, Hilary Melton-Butcher barely needs an introduction.  She's the prolific and terrific lady whom we admire for her uniquely told stories of history and mystery.  A visit to Positive letters...inspirational stories  is always a treat.  Today she's doubling up with two linked posts, one here, one at Life is Good.  Don't miss either one!

Weedy Seadragon …

Art, Science, ‘Down Under’ and bloggers … Tina of Life is Good asked if I’d do a guest post for the A-Z blog and as a guest blogger on her blog … theoretically these might have been on Vikings (these will follow) – but as is the way with my eclectic brain I’ve settled on the Weedy Seadragon and the Great Australian Coast Road.

I expect many of you will have seen or heard of the BBC tv programmes ‘Coast’, where Neil Oliver, archaeologist, historian, author and broadcaster, tells us about Britain and Europe …

he has now moved to Australia (well perhaps he’s travelled there for the programmes!) – this is where these two ideas stemmed from.

 "Weedy Seadragon - taken from the sketchbook of William Buelow Gould - 1832"

Weedy Seadragon – who could ignore such a wonderful name for ‘Phyllopteryx Taeniolatus’? This amazing little seadragon and its sister, the Leafy Seadragon’ are found around the shores of southern Australia.

"Leafy Seadragon"

These endangered, endemic to the south Australian coast, little ‘prehistoric monsters’ are just a delight to see and to have found.

Perhaps, now I’ve looked, even more interestingly … they were drawn and painted by William Buelow Gould, a convict – who had been caught stealing a coat and then was sentenced in 1826 to “seven years beyond the seas”, a phrase indicating transportation to the then penal colony of Australia.

He had a wife and two children … but once shipped out, few convicts returned. He also didn’t change his ways … and got sentenced to the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, one of the harshest, for forging a banknote.

The only way to the prison was by ship … but it got weather bound … and the convicts aboard mutinied with half of them taking the ship. Gould and the other convicts stuck with the officers … before setting off overland to get help.

For this Gould’s term was commuted; he was assigned as a house servant to the colonial surgeon Dr James Scott, who was also an amateur naturalist.

Scott put Gould’s artistic talents to use, having him paint watercolours of native flora – which today are regarded as being of a high technical standard.

Even now he couldn’t remain out of trouble and so was again sentenced to Macquarie Harbour, but based on his reputation he worked for another amateur natural historian, Dr William de Little on Sarah Island at the penal station.

This time he produced landscape sketches about life at the penal stations, as well as still life watercolours of botanical specimens, birds, fishes and other sea life.

Despite being granted his Certificate of Freedom in June 1835 he descended into a cycle of drunkenness, poverty and prison sentences for theft … he had remarried in 1836, but eventually died in 1853, aged 52 or thereabouts.

His sketchbooks and works are now highly acclaimed; his “Sketchbook of Fishes” being inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of World Register … this is the equivalent of a World Heritage listing for historic documentary material.

It is noted that Gould sketched a number of species for the first time; and his works are recognised as being of enormous value to scientists today … and he’s even had a novel written by Richard Flanagan, published in 2001, from his Sketchbook of Fishes.

I’d better return to my little prehistoric monsters … the Weedy Seadragon and Leafy Seadragon … are marine fish related to the seahorse.

The weedy appendages provide camouflage … but don’t have the prehensile tail like the seahorse … they drift or move very slowly … not far at all.

They blend in so well to their natural surroundings … that they aren’t detected as a food source … the real threat is from us humans as when there is so much pollution in the water it makes it very difficult for them to survive … but when their natural habitat is taken away then it is a real threat for them to blend in and remain hidden.

Like seahorses the males nurture the young … the female lays them into her mate’s pouch on his abdomen … about nine weeks later they are born and have immediately to care for themselves.

The southern coast of Australia was full of prehistoric, now extinct, monsters five million years ago … the seas were 2 – 3 degrees warmer and contained life that we don’t see today …

  • A huge shark – as big as a bus
  • A penguin as tall as a man
  • A killer mammoth sperm whale

We know this from the wealth of fossils that can be found around this area of coast today …

Then these pretty little prehistoric monsters have a wonderful tale to tell – let alone the fact that we have had a record of them for about 180 years
they probably evolved from those aquatic vertebrates now buried by this ever changing earth of ours.

I say here’s to the Weedy Seadragon and to the Leafy Seadragon … you have made me smile while I think about you both … and increased my desire to go down under!

Hilary Melton-Butcher

©2014 All Rights Reserved
Photo credit: Weedy Seadragon
Photo credit: Leafy Seadragon

Thanks, Hilary.  It's always so fun to learn about the people behind the books, and that back story, which wow, I would not have predicted!  Readers, time to go see about the Australian Coast!  See you at my place.



Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Tina for putting up .. I hope everyone enjoys both the posts about southern Australia .. cheers Hilary

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Shame Gould never learned.
Many aquariums have those seahorse. Might be the only way they survive.
A penguin as big as a man? Morgan Freeman, look out!

Jo said...

I loved this Hilary, absolutely fascinating. I had come across the sea dragons before, but how interesting to read about Gould. Such a pity that he couldn't overcome his thieving ways when he was so brilliant as a natural artist. Off to Tina's now.

Nick Wilford said...

So many tidbits of fascinating information here, Hilary. I'm glad that Gould's talent was discovered. A shame he didn't change his ways although it's funny to think if he hadn't been transported, we wouldn't have all these records he made. I loved the part about the bus-sized shark and also nice to encounter those seadragons for the first time.

Mason Canyon said...

Hilary, this was truly fascinating. It is such a shame that Gould never straightened up in life, but then who knows he may not have sketched as beautifully. The seadragons are amazing. I like penguins and would love to see one as tall as a man, how interesting.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Alex - but what a life ... deported - yet perhaps his talent shone here and might well not have had that opportunity back in the UK ...

I saw that the weedy seadragon and leafy seadragon (different to sea horses - the dragons don't have the curved tail/prehensile tail) are to be found in Aquaria in the States .. and they're trying to breed from them .. as they are relatively endangered.

@ Jo - thanks - I'd never seen these little creatures before and was completely taken with them. But I suspect as I said to Alex without being deported we might never have heard of him ..

@ Nick - you're so right about the 'transportation' aspect - Gould might never have made his way, or been known to us today if we hadn't shipped him out .. aren't the little seadragons a delight .. and the information about the pre-historic creatures .. the kind of thing I love hearing about ..

Cheers to three .. thanks for the support - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mason - yes .. as you say pity about Gould not straightening his life out .. we might have had many more drawings if he had, but at least he found his talent after being transported.

Prehistoric creatures can be amazing and how they evolved ... so fascinating to see ..

Cheers and thanks for commenting - Hilary

Tina said...

I've learned SO much in the years we've been friends. You find the most fascinating topics! Thanks for all the work you put into this double treat of posts.
Tina @ Life is Good
On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

D.G. Hudson said...

Hilary always teaches us something new! Great post, and I love those little seahorse type fishes. I love the way nature creates. Those BIG real monsters sound very scary. Who needs killer anything that's as big as a bus?
Nice to see you here Hilary!!

Birgit said...

If that man only knew how well his drawings would be received. That was quite the story and I love those Seahorses.. They seem so much to the fairy world

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Sometimes, Hillary, I think the brilliant or most talented are their worst enemies. Too bad he had to give into destroying himself.

PS the weedy sea dragon needs to stay out of my dreams. :)

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

That is such a cool lesson. I've never heard of these creatures. Thanks for the info and the story about that poor lost soul who couldn't stay on the straight path.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Tina - all I can say is I'm glad other bloggers seem to relate to my kind of world .. learning about this part of Australia was interesting and highlighted so many aspects I'd no idea about. Glad I could help.

@ DG - the posts were fun to write and find out more about our pre-history and what's around now .. and as you say how nature creates .. but earth is constantly changing ... we have enough killer things as big as a bus - and they're usually metal now anyway .. even more dangerous. Not necessary and definitely not part of nature ..

@ Birgit - lovely to see you here ... Gould has really achieved fame hasn't he and the drawings are just wonderful .. fairy world - I can see where you're heading .. great thought.

@ Teresa - yes there's that side of life isn't there .. when you're talented we can be so destructive to seek perfection or want it .. today we might come through it ... but back then in raw Australia there wouldn't be much hope - thankfully some of his talent remains in the museums and archives in Western Australia ...

Oh dear the weedy sea-dragon only floats around and probably would hide if you were around! So I think you're safe - not sure about your dreams though!! I hope they don't invade - they're not that sort ...

@ Susan - the seadragons are fun to know about and to hear about Gould - I love Naturalists and what they portray for us now ...

Thanks so much - so pleased you've been entertained by the seadragons and the art and the coastline .. cheers Hilary

Barbara In Caneyhead said...

Thanks for the dragon education, Tina! - Barbara
Life & Faith in Caneyhead

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Barbara - thanks for checking in ... glad you enjoyed the dragon education! Cheers Hilary

Sara said...

wow. I now know a lot more about the Weedy Seadragon and it was fascinating. I enjoyed the section about the artist and his difficulties staying out of trouble. Obviously, he had a talent for both -- art and trouble:~)

Well, I thank Tina for inviting you to give us this post and for the post itself:~)

Warm regards to both of you.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sara - good to see you here with Tina .. I just loved the story of the seadragons and also the naturalist ... wonderful talent - and perhaps it was a good thing he couldn't stay out of trouble .. he's given us much back for his misdemeanors ...

Thank you for popping across and reading another snippet about the Australian coast .. cheers Hilary