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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!
So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
It has been a long time since we had a post about mascots, which is a real shame, since they tend to be the weirdest posts on Ferrebeekeeper (which is saying something since this is a blog about dark gods, strange art, exotic mollusks, and brain vivisection). Therefore today we highlight space-themed mascots—symbolic beings/objects which represent a group or entity by means of anthropomorphized celestial bodies (or other zany astronomical concepts). I am pleased by all of the stars and suns but somehow I wanted something more celestial and mysterious. Also why are so many of them yellow?
We mentioned the troubles Ole Miss was having phasing out their previous mascot in favor of something less divisive. Here is Star War’s own Admiral Ackbar filling in that role.
Hmm, I’m not sure whether that has furthered my dearly-held and oft’ stated goal to prod humankind back towards the exploration of outer space, but you never know what will work best with different people and, at least we saw some really strange mascots.
The African Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate meet together deep beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean in a long line of tectonic divergence known as the Central Indian Ridge (CIR). As new seafloor is created hydrothermal vents pour out molten hot fluids rich with minerals and an alien landscape is formed. The hot minerals precipitate to form high cylindrical chimneys called smokers and strange communities of life form along these structures. This ecosystem is entirely based upon chemosynthetic archaea (ancient one-celled life forms which take energy directly from the oxidation of inorganic compounds). Great communities of eyeless shrimp, giant tubeworms, and annelids support themselves on the archaea. Among the strange creatures is a very weird gastropod mollusk, the scaly-foot snail (Crysomallon squamiferum), which is different from every other mollusk (and indeed every other animal) because of the material it uses for its bizarre scale-mail armor.
The scaly foot gastropod has an armored foot which is covered in little scales made of iron sulfides. Additionally the deep-sea snail has a triple layer shell. The outermost shell layer is composed of iron sulfides, the middle is a thick protein coat, and the inner shell layer is composed of aragonite (a calcium carbonate).
I wish I could tell you more about the habits of this snail but since it is found in super heated water at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it has not been extensively studied. However, The US military is interested in the creature as a possible inspiration for next generation composite military armor so maybe we will all learn more about the scaly foot snail.
One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space. Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects. Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.
Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist. His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery. The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects. Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.
The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”. The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death. Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.
The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world. The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements. Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity. Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above. A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer. Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea. Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points. A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.
Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in. The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery. Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.
In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air. In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything). It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.
However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture. There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight. Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites. Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all. They leach nourishment out of other vegetation. One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand. Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.
Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family are anything but clear. The plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees. It has not roots and no leaves but I connected to its host via a stem. The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure. The plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed Bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) which the native Maori call by the evocative name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto” however the flowers also produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat. This apparently attracts possums who carry pollen between male and female plants (and perhaps did long before the evolution of the unusual short tailed bat—a creature which deserves its own post).
Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find. Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown. However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild. The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create. In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.
Tomorrow evening will feature the first game of the Detroit Red Wings season. This bold team of lovable* misfits will take to the ice against the hockey team from Ottawa–the name isn’t listed but they have some sort of classical footsoldier as a mascot so we’ll call them the Ottawa Hopelites. [maybe you should understand at least something about hockey before writing about it—ed.]
Anyway, even more exciting than the actual game between the Redwings and the Hopelites is the unofficial mascot of the Red Wings. In a post concerning mollusk mascots from around the world, alert reader Ryon Lancaster commented that we had overlooked the mascot for the Detroit Red Wings, a purple hockey-playing octopus named Al. Apparently the legend of Al started back in April 15, 1952, when fishmongers Pete and Jerry Cusimano decided to throw an octopus onto the ice at Olympia Stadium. The eight tentacles of the cephalopod were meant to mystically represent the eight victories required to win the Stanley Cup (the ice hockey championship trophy). Sure enough the magical mollusk brought the team to championship victory and ever since then fans have thrown deceased octopuses onto the ice at their home stadium—especially during playoff matches. As the Red Wings’ octopus tradition deepened, the purple mascot Al coalesced from fan art and from oral tradition. Al takes his name from a former building operations manager, Al Sobotka, who exhibited great elan whenever he removed octopuses from the ice. Apparently Sobotka had a special octopus twirling technique which whipped the fans up (albeit at the expense of distributing octopus particles onto the ice and the crowd).
As you might imagine, NHL officials have mixed feelings about this fan tradition. In 2008 hockey officials banned Al Sobotka’s octopus twirling and the duty of removing octopus corpses has fallen to linesmen and icegirls. The stadium itself added a large octopus prop during the 1995 playoffs. This huge octopus totem was ceremonially raised to introduce the team. Later on it was given glowing red eyes (which light up during goals), a number eight hockey jersey, and a broken tooth. Since it now requires winning 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, there are two Al the octopuses hanging above the ice at playoff time.
Naturally a number of other teams have tried to imitate the seafood throwing craze including San Jose, (where fans threw a shark), Boston (lobster), and Vancouver (Salmon). The only other team which appears to be establishing a continuing tradition of throwing deceased aquatic creatures on the ice is the Nashville Predators (why does Nashville have a hockey team?): predators fans have been known to throw large catfish onto the ice. A weary ice attendant, Jessica Hanley is reported to have said “’They are so gross. They’re huge, they’re heavy, they stink and they leave this slimy trail on the ice. But, hey, if it’s good for the team, I guess we can deal with it.”
*actual boldness and lovability may vary
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.