Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


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Despite what you’ll find frequently quoted, Mark Twain didn’t say “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” That’s an exaggeration. Here’s the explanation from dictionary.com:

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated is a popular misquote attributed to author Samuel Clemens, known by his pen name, Mark Twain. The humorous quote is based on a letter Twain sent to a newspaper reporter who had asked Twain about rumors that he was dying.

Although it’s not an accurate quote, The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated remains associated with Twain. Twain was known for his humor, which the quote perfectly represents. Often, this quote is brought up to praise Twain’s skill as a humorist.

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated is often used to humorously comment on a person’s absence from society or to refer to something that appears dead or hopeless but still has a slim chance of success.

In May 1897, there was a rumor among journalists that author Mark Twain was either dead or dying of a serious illness. Looking for confirmation, journalist Frank Marshall White of the New York Journal contacted Twain to see if there was any truth to the rumors. Twain responded to White with a letter in which he humorously said “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” In classic Twain fashion, the author jokingly expressed more offense with the rumors that he was poor than the rumors of his death.

The popular misquote of Twain’s words seems to come from a biography written by Albert Paine in the early 1900s. In the biography, Paine alters the incident so that Twain speaks to an unnamed reporter in person and humorously tells him that “The report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.” This misquote then changed over time to use the word greatly instead of grossly.

I bring this up because the word millipede is also an exaggeration. Latin mille meant ‘a thousand,’ and millipede therefore means ‘a thousand feet,’ but obviously each of the little critters in today’s photographs, which are in fact millipedes, has far fewer than a thousand limbs. On the other hand, there might be a thousand strands in the webbing around the millipedes, which I can say with no exaggeration were dead.

These pictures come from December 22, 2021, along the Shoal Creek Trail. The first section of the trail heading south from 32nd St. closely skirts a rock cliff with some overhangs in it, and that’s where the millipedes hang out, as shown in the two top photographs. In the third picture, the webbing served to anchor a dry leaf, which became the star of that portrait.

To get enough light to photograph in those shaded places I had to use flash, which also revealed the colors in some of the rocks themselves, which unaided eyes might not have noticed.

UPDATE: Scientists have discovered a new species of millipede with 1306 legs.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 11, 2022 at 4:38 AM

51 Responses

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  1. great post, steve


    January 11, 2022 at 4:53 AM

  2. I love how you’ve linked this in Steve. Also, I believe, some other reports in msm are greatly exaggerated😁 although bad decisions by politicians are definitely minimized.


    January 11, 2022 at 4:56 AM

    • I’ve sometimes started a post with nature and then extrapolated to something else. This may be the first time I started elsewhere and then brought the thought around to nature.

      In politics we find both praise even when accomplishments are lacking and criticism in spite of accomplishments.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 6:28 AM

  3. I really love that last image – the vein and so much muted color. It’s a very earthy and calming abstract. I wonder what happened to the millipedes?

    You nailed it about exaggerations these days. I can’t watch MSM anymore. I am beginning to wonder if I’ve lived my entire life believing a lot of lies.


    January 11, 2022 at 7:55 AM

    • I created this post a couple of weeks ago. Just last night I added the fourth picture, and your comment makes me glad I did. Unfortunately I know nothing about millipedes, so have no idea what might have killed the ones shown here.

      You’ll have to tell me what you meant by MSM. Might it have been msn.com, the Microsoft website that posts news? You’re right that a lot of false information is floating around out there. Even with good will it can be hard to figure out what’s true. With bad will, a person can claim anything.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 1:42 PM

      • I meant mainstream media. A lot of what we hear is a narrative we’re being fed. I’m surprised and disgusted by the numbers of people who do not question what they see on television. And I’m even more horrified by social media. I had a 30 year-old niece here to visit recently who gets all of her news from Facebook, and is quite addicted to TikTok. She says I “need to get with the program” and that I’m out of sync with today’s happenings. I think she isn’t in reality. Today’s “program” is dumbing down the population.


        January 11, 2022 at 3:36 PM

  4. I esp. like the colors and textures in the stone. Reminds me of a print or painting you’d see in a furniture store because it would ‘tie in’ to the decorator colors. 🙂

    Eliza Waters

    January 11, 2022 at 8:49 AM

    • I like your take on that. In my previous reply just now I mentioned that I added the fourth picture at the last minute and am glad I did. You can call it tying in decorator colors to millipedes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 1:43 PM

  5. Our trend to exaggerate leads to a distortion of reality. We are guilty of overusing hyperbole in describing ordinary events, such as getting a cold or experiencing minor mishaps. Consequently, the words have lost their impact when describing natural disasters.

    Peter Klopp

    January 11, 2022 at 9:28 AM

    • My training in linguistics left me with a sensitivity to what you might call word inflation. People often don’t stop at saying a statement is right but feel they have to say it’s exactly right. Something isn’t just unusual but very unusual and more recently incredibly unusual. There’s also grade inflation in our schools, which parallels the building up of many molehills into mountains in the news.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 1:50 PM

  6. Really interesting patterns.


    January 11, 2022 at 10:40 AM

    • Patterns intrigue me, and a lot of my photography is given over to recording them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 1:51 PM

      • Yes, I think so too.
        I usually use patterns for overlays, but then I mainly do composites these days.


        January 12, 2022 at 5:08 AM

        • The only composites I’ve done are in the very limited sense of using a well-focused portion of one image to replace the corresponding not-as-well-focused part of a similar image.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 12, 2022 at 6:47 AM

  7. Twain’s actual statement is even drier and funnier than the misquote. Love the sandstone photo, Steve – beautiful variations of color.


    January 11, 2022 at 10:43 AM

    • You make a good point that the drier version of Twain’s statement is more direct and therefore funnier. Too bad Twain’s biographer and later embellishers couldn’t have left well enough alone.

      You’re the third commenter to single out the sandstone. I’m glad I added that last picture before posting.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 1:59 PM

  8. I like how you started with one narrative and finished with a completely different one after connecting them through a word. Quotes do get distorted, assigned to the wrong person, used out of context etc. It’s human nature.

    Alessandra Chaves

    January 11, 2022 at 10:49 AM

    • I’ve long been fond of poems that seem to be taking you one place and then suddenly take you somewhere else. That technique worked well here.

      We can replace the Latin adage “errare humanum est” with the faux-Latin one “misquotare humanum est.” I always try to verify that a quotation is correct before I use it. For most people, though, it’s “monkey see, monkey copy.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 2:04 PM

  9. Sometimes the adaptation is so much snappier than the original. I wish Virginia Woolf had actually said “Anonymous was a woman” instead of ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Far too wordy to have an impact which I guess is why it got polished.

    • Do you know if Virginia Woolf was still alive after “Anonymous was a woman” became popular, and if so, whether she approved of the shortened version?

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2022 at 5:06 PM

      • That I don’t know – I’ve never seen it more precisely described than “over time”! It comes from her book A Room of One’s Own which is about the status of women artists so I’m guessing she would have approved of the sentiment even though she didn’t put it so forcefully herself. I use it when I give Women’s History talks (but always point out it’s an adaptation) which is how I came to realise what I thought was a quote wasn’t.

  10. I imagine it was easier to attribute a thousand legs to the millipede than to try to count every single one. Out of interest, I just did a quick internet search and millipedes are reported to have between 24 and 750 legs. But apparently there is one with 1,306 legs, so “milli” would not be an exaggeration in that particular case:

    If you don’t already know it, I recommend a 2001 documentary about Mark Twain by Ken Burns which I found utterly enthralling. Your library might carry it, and I doubt it has as many holds as “Braiding Sweetgrass.”


    January 11, 2022 at 9:02 PM

    • I’ve added an update at the end of the post so people can learn about the millipede with 1306 legs.

      We’ve seen the excellent Ken Burns documentary about Mark Twain at least twice. PBS (Public Broadcasting System) repeats it on television every once in a while, as they do with other Ken Burns documentaries.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2022 at 6:08 AM

      • Until I found that link, I had no idea how many legs most millipedes have, but I think it’s exciting that there is at least one with more than “milli” pedes.
        I have also seen the Mark Twain special twice and wouldn’t mind seeing it again at some point. It had so much information and one doesn’t grasp all of it during each viewing.


        January 12, 2022 at 10:11 PM

        • I wonder how many times the scientists had to count to make sure there are 1306 legs.

          If you’re a PBS member, you can watch it whenever you like:

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 12, 2022 at 10:15 PM

          • I imagine that particular millipede specimen was either anesthetized or worse…

            And thank you for the link.


            January 14, 2022 at 9:56 AM

            • Now you’ve reminded me of how T.S. Eliot began “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

              “Let us go then, you and I,
              When the evening is spread out against the sky
              Like a patient etherized upon a table….”

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 14, 2022 at 10:17 AM

              • I know very little (English) poetry by heart, Steve, but I’m glad to have triggered some of your poetic memories.


                January 14, 2022 at 6:14 PM

                • I expect you know your fair share in German. I used to know some poems by heart, but I doubt I could fully recite any now.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 14, 2022 at 6:29 PM

  11. I favor the leaf-and-webbing photo; I like the way the black background complements the black spots on the leaf, and the general attractiveness of the brown, black, and white color scheme.

    That said, I looked and looked at your photos of these millipedes, trying to decide if they were just dead, or if those were exoskeletons. I found something resembling them at the Artist Boat on Galveston. Those clearly weren’t alive, and they reminded me of cicada exoskeletons, but they sure did look like these. I read that millipedes molt multiple times, and eat their exoskeletons in the same way that lizards will eat their skin, but the ones I found clearly hadn’t made a meal for anyone. I’ll send a photo over to BugGuide and see what they have to say.

    When I looked at your millipedes, they seemed vaguely familiar. Sure enough: I found they’re related to crawfish, lobsters, and shrimp. Some of those at your rock look for all the world like little curled-up shrimp.


    January 11, 2022 at 9:10 PM

    • Unsure of what these critters are, I’d posted a picture to BugGuide. The one response I got identified them as millipedes, with no further information. Speaking of more information, Tanja (in the previous comment) sent a link, which I’ve added at the end of my text, describing the discovery of a new millipede species with over a thousand legs. The books about heredity that I read a couple of years ago make clear that repeated DNA segments and repeated body segments are common; sometimes the repeated segments are duplicates, and other times they get modified.

      I’m glad you suggested exoskeletons. The things in my pictures look like they could be that. Maybe I should have probed one or a few of them while I was there.

      As you once pointed out, black backgrounds have been a staple of mine for the past couple of years, coincident with the pandemic. Whether correlation is causation in this case remains to be determined.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2022 at 6:24 AM

      • Last night I learned that millipedes have two pairs of short legs on each body segment, a rounded body, and a hard external skeleton, while centipedes have one pair of legs on each segment and flattened bodies. I’m sure now that mine were millipedes, in one form or another. We’ll see what BugGuide says.


        January 12, 2022 at 6:39 AM

        • Your comment has taught me more about millipedes and centipedes than I learned in all my previous life. Let’s hope you get more information from BugGuide about your specimen than I got about mine.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 12, 2022 at 6:49 AM

  12. I’d seen an article recently about that find in Australia, Eumillipes persephone, hard to believe there’s a creature with that many legs

    Robert Parker

    January 12, 2022 at 12:25 PM

  13. A very amusing post and just read your recent ones too on icicles, statistics and the need for Truth with Justice. We do live in times where exaggeration, lies and spin are ready to trap us in their webs.


    February 7, 2022 at 4:58 AM

    • I assume that exaggeration, lies, and spin have been a part of the human condition for a long, long time. What’s new is the electronic ability for the ill-intentioned to spread those things almost instantaneously to vast numbers of people. People with good intentions are struggling to figure out how to counteract that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 7, 2022 at 6:39 AM

      • Yes, I am sure. And it was taught at Eton too along with British values! Learnt well by our dear PM.


        February 7, 2022 at 7:24 AM

        • I’ve heard on television here that your dear PM has been having problems.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 7, 2022 at 7:27 AM

          • Indeed, most amusing but not good for the country. And there are many wondering what happened to traditional conservative values.


            February 7, 2022 at 7:29 AM

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