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What a long week! What with mad bombers and North Korea and taxes and sexy exes and goodness knows what else, I am totally ready to phone in today’s blog post. Fortunately I have the ideal solution for a quick but fun post! This year I forgot to celebrate Ferrebeekeeper’s 3rd anniversary. For our first year celebration I published a group of doodles. These are little drawings which I do at the Monday morning staff meeting at the beginning of every work week. This might sound well…sketchy, but I assure you doodling keeps me alert and allows me to remember what was said at each meeting. As you can see from the strange eclectic subjects, I think the whimsy and freedom of the weekend hasn’t quite worn off when I draw these. Sometimes, during my lunch break I color my little doodles in with highlighters or crayons. So here are 21 weeks’ worth of Monday morning staff meeting doodles. These little throw-away doodles open up a world into the subconscious where our true feelings about the universe can be found. Strangely these doodles reveal that I really like melting Middle Eastern cities of arabesques and angels (?). Less surprisingly I love fantasy beasts, gardens, fish, and mammals. I’m not sure why I love paisleys so much—maybe the sixties had a greater influence on me than I know (though I certainly wasn’t around back then).
My favorite is the little purple pleasure garden where a flamingo watches a phoenix fly away from the ruins of an alien robot (below), but I also like the bat and the geometric widget beast relaxing by a tree at sunset, as well as the underwater city of sharks and biomechanical walking buildings. Which ones do you like? Please leave a comment–I promise I’ll respond next week!
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
According to contemporary taxonomy, the primates (whom I haven’t yet written about because they are so near and dear) are closely related to two other groups of living mammals—both of which are native to Southeast Asia. The closest family, the Colugos, consist of two species of delicate tree-gliding mammals described here. The other close relatives are treeshrews (aka banxrings), 20 species of (largely) arborial tree-shrews which make up an entire order, Scandentia.
Actually “treeshrew” is a misnomer, the banxrings are not true shrews at all. They are small slight animals with long tails and neutral colored fur. They have large sophisticated eyes and they are largely diurnal. The arborial species have binocular vision so they can navigate in a three-dimensional world of branches where leaps must be perfectly gauged. The slightly larger terrestrial species uses its claws to dig for insects, grubs, and roots. All banxrings are omnivorous, feeding on arthropods, tiny vertebrates, seeds, berries, and fruits.
Treeshrews live in jungles, forests, mixed woodlands and bamboo groves. They range from India to Vietnam down through Southern China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Of all mammals they have the largest brain to body mass ratio (although considering their slight mass that isn’t saying too much). They are social and families mark out small territories which they mark and vigorously defend. The treeshrews are anxious skittish creatures since they have numerous predators, including birds of prey, small carnivores, and snakes.
Treeshrew mothers leave their helpless silent babies for up to two days at a time. When the mother returns the baby treeshrews can put on up to 60% of their weight in one feeding. The mother is not inattentive: she interacts infrequently with her offspring so that they are not discovered by predators while they are completely helpless. Once the treeshrews grow big enough to venture beyond the nest, the mother becomes extremely engaged with them and she helps them to learn about predators, gathering food, and climbing.
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter. From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy. He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time. Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals. Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners. These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.
In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness. Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards. In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance). Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness. Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society. A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage. A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag. This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together: there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.
Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad. As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars. Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus. The huge felines are one more the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].
There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well. He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter. In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum. Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s emotional breakdown. I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.
On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion. Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death). The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.
In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era. Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy. Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity. Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.
Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints. The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles. Everything else, however points to their humanity. The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism). Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it. The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden. Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.
A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance. In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade. Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting. They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze. The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia. The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity. Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.
This past April, I announced with some fanfare (or at least with bold letters) that Ferrebeekeeper was going to expand to feature a digital gallery of my paintings and other artworks. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have made that statement on April Fool’s Day (although that is the day I started blogging). Circumstances have indeed made a fool of me, and my projected site expansion has been delayed again and again. More than a season has gone by and still there is no art gallery. Fortunately, I am now confident that my gallery launch really is just around the corner! To give you a little teaser until the final version is launched, here are two of my miniature allegorical paintings from a series which I started more than a year ago.
Here’s the story behind the genesis of these works: when I was cleaning my pockets before doing a load of laundry I found a sketch of a centaur, a clock, and a snail trapped in a miniature torus-shaped universe. Although I’m not sure what prompted that initial sketch, I have since made several tiny paintings based around toruses which, as explained here are elegant metaphors for insular universes. Indeed some cosmologists and topologists feel that the actual universe might well be torus-shaped (or more precisely, shaped like a triple torus) an idea which appeals to my inner gourmand. The paintings are obviously echoes of each other. Both feature huge predatory animals lurking under pastries floating in outer space. The splendid toadfish (Sanopus splendidus) in the first painting and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) in the second are even facing the same way as if both waiting in ambush. Each panel also has an invertebrate, a galactic backdrop, and ancient beings brandishing hand weapons. However the cast and the props are quite different–a bold Assyrian warrior takes the place of the desiccated mummy while the gothic clock sunk in icing is replaced by a mournful bagpipe floating in space. A yellow lipped sea krait seems intent on escaping the entire scene.
What does all of this mean? Well, as Socrates surmised, artists don’t know what their works mean. Like everyone else we have to guess, but the reoccurrence of similar roles in the two paintings—even as the setting and the circumstances change–suggest to me the circular nature of interaction between living things. This theme is highlighted by the circular nature of the main subject, the torus. And of course there is something obviously and purposefully missing from both paintings, a physical and metaphysical emptiness exemplified by the famous hole in the donut, and the void of the universe. Whether this additionally reflects the hunger of the animals, the soundlessness of the bagpipe, the lifelessness of the mummy, and the timelessness of the stopped clock is an open question.
My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy. You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:
- Phlylum: Mollusca
- Class: Mammalia (mammals)
- Order: Siluriformes (catfish)
- Suborder: Serpentes (serpents)
- Genus: Meleagris (turkeys)
I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions). Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence). The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).
Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.
I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories. I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird. Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue. Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.
Any insight or feedback would be appreciated. I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column. Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).
The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions. To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols. Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!
Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background). This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem. The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.” There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism. the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.
Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background. Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag. That rattlesnake is not kidding around. It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake. Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem. In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships. The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.
After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal. In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later. Franklin famously did not care for the eagle. Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):
For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.
This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder. on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).
Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating. Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem. These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole. Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).
Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above. There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas! It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!] Happy Fourth!