Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

Tripod Fish (Bathypterois grallator)

I promised more weird fish this year, and here is a fish which amply delivers on this promise.  This is a tripod fish (Bathypterois grallator), an eyeless wonder of the deep ocean plains.  The fish spends most of its time standing completely motionless on its elongated fins which reach up to a meter (three feet) off the seafloor.  It mostly copies the feeding habits of sessile invertebrates such as sea anemones and barnacles and feeds on tiny creatures which bump into its elongated (and highly sensitive) front and top fins.  It walks extremely slowly along the ocean bottom on these high fins with its mouth facing into the deep currents.

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Despite its sedentary preferences and circumscribed lifestyle, the tripod fish has not given up its brain or its ability to swim.   If and when the fish decides to swim, its stilt like fins deflate and become flexible.  Scientists have not pinpointed the exact mechanism for this transformation, but erectile tissues are not unknown in the animal world. Speaking of which…

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Mating is difficult in the abyssal zone (as any Tinder user could readily aver) so the tripod fish is a true hermaphrodite possessing both male and female reproductive organs.  If two tripod fish chance to meet, they mate together in all sorts of crazy troubling ways, however, if the fish never finds a partner it produces both sperm and eggs and mates with itself!

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Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997,  mixed media)

Martian Gothic (James Beoddy, 1997, mixed media)

Time sort of escaped me today, so here is a strange and intricate painting to think about.  This is “Martian Gothic” by James Beoddy.  It is an exciting retro-future tapestry of techno-humans piecing together a patchwork future. The networked world of the painting looks alien but also strangely familiar—as though today’s political and consumerist trends just moved a bit further down the road.  The dark glittering society is not as dark as some visions of tomorrow—but it does seem to have lots of sharp edges.

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The Great Basin on Saturn's Tethys  (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

The Great Basin on Saturn’s Tethys (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

It’s been too long since we headed out to space.  This is true of humankind, but it is also true of this blog…so today we are going to cast our eyes across the solar system to Tethys a mid-sized moon of Saturn. In 1684 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered Tethys. He initially named the moon in honor of Louis XIV, but his choice was later changed so that the moon is named for a first generation Greek titan-goddess.  The moon has been approached by several human spacecraft, most notably…Cassini, which has dropped by several times (the robot space probe is named after the astronomer—the poor fellow has not been drifting in space since the 17th century).

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

Of all the major moons in the solar system, Tethys has the lowest density: 0.98 g/cm3 ! This means that almost the entire moon is made of frozen water—it is essentially a huge round ice cube floating around Saturn. Tethys has two extremely prominent features—a giant crater 450 kilometers (280 miles) across (named Odysseus) and a huge ice canyon 2000 kilometers (1200 miles) long, 100 km (62 miles) wide, and 3 km (1.8 miles) deep, which stretches most of the way across the moon.  Unsurprisingly astronomers speculate that the two features are related and the massive impact which created Odysseus melted a chasm along the entire side of the planetoid.

Tethys

Although you might be inclined not to expect much activity from a ball of ice in the depths of space, Tethys seems like it may be geologically active, or, at least, it may have been once.  The area around the hemisphere is comparatively flat and free of craters—which suggests that tidal flux from Saturn causes some melting—and possibly cryovolcanoes.

Ithaca Chasma: The Great Rift on Saturn's Tethys  (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

Ithaca Chasma: The Great Rift on Saturn’s Tethys
(Credit: Cassini Imaging Team)

Paleontologists and sharp-eyed readers already know the name Tethys.  During the age of Pangaea (when all of the world’s continents joined to form a single land mass), the great ocean in the midst was named the Tethys Ocean. In Greek mythology, Tethys was the daughter of Gaea (the mother earth) and Uranus (the heavens).  She was regarded as the mother of all waters and was married to her brother Oceanus, the first lord of the seas.  The astronomers of the age of enlightenment who renamed the moon, could not have known it was composed mostly of water, but they chose well.

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Whimsical Seascape (Wayne Ferrebee. 2015, watercolor, ink, and colored pencils on paper)

Whimsical Seascape (Wayne Ferrebee. 2015, watercolor, ink, and colored pencils on paper)

My New Year’s resolution wayyyy back in January was to show more of my art.  As with most New Year’s resolutions, I am having a pretty mixed record with that, but at least I have made a great deal more art, and I even had a couple of small local shows.  Anyway, to get back on track, I thought I would show you a piece from a big exciting project I have been working on.  I have been making an ornate & intricate art toy: this is one of the illustrations that goes with it.

I didn’t scan or format this properly. As you can see it’s just lying on my bedspread (I think my cat is just off screen waiting to pounce up and down on it).  However it should interest you because it has a surprising number of Ferrebeekeeper themes which got included by accident because they are always on my mind. A galleon is cutting through the azure waters off of some colonial trading post (probably in Indonesia, though this is really a fantasy piece, and it is hard to say anything for certain).  The European ship is passing a Chinese junk.  Both craft are menaced by a passing colossal squid as an oarfish undulates decoratively in the background.

The principle drama of the composition comes from a volcanic eruption which threatens the trading colony.  The spume of lava and dust from within the Earth is faintly echoed by a passing whale.  My favorite part of the composition is the pelican gobbling up a displaced moth (or maybe a fluttering soul expelled from the fires of the underworld by the eruption).  It is hard to tell whether this is a white pelican or a brown pelican—just like that infernal dress which took over the internet a few weeks ago.

I have no commentary on the frigate bird, the flying fish, or the canoe filled with hapless people being attacked by a giant shark.  You will have to find your own meaning for them.  Likewise, the Easter-egg colored balloon filled with aeronauts is a whimsical and fun addition.  Although I will say that maybe we, the viewers, are meant to identify most with the travelers in the balloon’s basket who are being whirled through this fabulous fantasy landscapes for pure amusement and delight.

Update: The way this is published hideously crops off the right side of my picture! I presume this is part of WordPress’ ongoing quest to make blogging a baffling anti-aesthetic nightmare (seriously, what is up with this new-ish GUI, “beep beep boop”?). Anyway, you can see the actual image (and bigger!) by clicking on it. Sigh…

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Geese Descending on a Sandbank (Bian Shoumin, 1730, ink on scroll)

Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature.  According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means).  Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss.  Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death).  Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).

In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life.  Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.”  He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).

Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:

Just now wild geese came into the sky,

As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];

Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts

As I stand beside I know not who.

Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself.  The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby.  It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem.  Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…

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LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement.  Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….

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My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it).  He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you.  If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons.  Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous.  Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry).  Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day.  He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.

"We were just minding our business...He probably just slipped."

“We were just minding our business…He probably just slipped.”

I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen.  When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us?  We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet).  I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.

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I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating.  They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous).  Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?

...like looking in a mirror

…like looking in a mirror

My parents' geese

My parents’ geese

My parents have a lovely flock of pilgrim geese: I think these geese are mostly a hobby, but I suppose if society ever falls down, Mom & Dad could probably ramp up production and live on them.  The geese spend most of their time in a big pond in a field next to a pretty meadow (which in turn is next to an oak forest). The birds play and frolic and pursue their goose romances all the while conniving against one another like Roman patricians.  They practice a very intense form of goose politics (goosetics?) which involves lots of self-aggrandizing honking, aggressive jostling, and occasional political murders.  The ganders even look a bit like Roman senators with haughty hungry expressions and cloud-white plumage in place of togas (although the females are gray and slightly gentler).

Pilgrim Gander

Pilgrim Gander

Today’s flock has reached a parity point where new hatchlings replace unfortunate geese lost to the hardships of nature, society, and misadventure, but it was not always so. The first generation of geese arrived as gormless puffballs in the mail.  With no elders to teach them of coyotes, foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, and bobcats, they had to learn some hard lessons on their own. But even once they learned to survive against the wild animals which live in the forest, they still had a lot to learn about the world (like how to fly).

LG the Canada Goose

LG the Canada Goose

This is where a very strange character enters the story.  One day a wild Canada goose landed on the pond with a female mallard duck.  It became obvious that this unhappy duck was the unwilling paramour of the goose, but whenever she tried to fly away from him (I am calling this goose a he, but who really knows?), he would leap into the sky and coral her back down to the pond with his mighty wings and expert flight skills.  This weird pair kept to themselves and my parents watched their dysfunctional relationship with bemusement, christening the big strange goose as “LG” (which is short for Lonely Goose). One day a vast flock of migrating ducks landed on the pond, as they made their way to some rich wetland.  When they flew off, the mallard female joined them, and LG could not find her among the throng so she escaped and rejoined her kind and her further adventures are unknown.

My mother feeding LG

My mother feeding LG

LG however stuck around and began to insinuate himself into my parents’ flock of ignorant catalog-bought adolescent domestic geese.  At first they were standoffish and he was sadly alone at the bottom of the gooseatics hierarchy, but soon he was whispering in ears, teaching useful life lessons, and plotting against less-popular geese. When he moved into the middle of their society he was able to teach them to fly.  I have a distinct memory of LG flying from the farmyard down to the pond with the pilgrims flying after him. He landed gracefully on the pond and bobbed scerenely on the water as the pilgrims crash landed pathetically into the mud and the fields like the aftermath of some WWI aerial battle.  Indeed, flying lessons were not without casualties and my mother’s favorite pet goose swerved into a barn in order not to fly into her (which illustrates a degree of self-sacrificing care).

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Once the flock knew how to fly, LG ascended to the top of the hierarchy and he has been a top goose ever since.  At first my parents were afraid that he would fly off with the whole flock and the domestic geese would all turn feral, but the opposite seems to have happened.  Who knows what LG’s real back story is?  He has a hole in his foot and he looks somewhat old.  I speculate that he spent his life flying back and forth between the Arctic Ocean and Alabama until one day he saw a farm pond where he could retire and work his wiles on perfectly naïve geese. Geese live loooong lives (they can get to be more than 30 years old) so this may be true.  Or maybe he is some sort of bird-sanctuary renegade or just a big human-loving freak.

Whatever the case, these days LG has a special pilgrim goose girlfriend whom he looks after when she is nesting.  He doesn’t seem to be fertile with pilgrim geese and they raise broods of pure pilgrim goslings… but maybe it’s best not to pry too closely into other people’s domestic arrangements.

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG leading the pilgrims!

LG is mean as a serpent to the other geese (aside from his mate, with whom he is exceedingly tender) however he is very adroit at managing the humans in his circle.  He enjoys eating corn out of people’s hands (which most of the domestic geese will not do) and he tolerates being petted.  He is a very weird, weird wild animal.  I kind of love LG, and I always get angry when people badmouth Canada geese for defecating on golf courses or aggressively chasing dumpy middle managers into mud holes.  He makes his own way in life.  If he ever got tired of his girlfriend and his minions and being hand-fed corn he still has mighty wings and he could fly back to the enduring freedom of the sky above, but I really think he has retired and settled down.  I still wish he could narrate his biography, but I guess his friendship will have to suffice.

Today’s goose post features shocking questions about the truthfulness of a respected and beloved blog—Ferrebeekeeper!  That’s right; this very site, an esteemed font of knowledge which you regularly tell all your friends to read (right?), has been caught in the midst of a scandal which spans the centuries…the millennia even! This mysterious controversy encompasses the greatest family of pharaohs ever, an enigmatic nineteenth-century archaeologist, and the fundamental meaning of art and objects.  At the center of the swirling allegations lies the enigma behind the identity of a pair of geese.

"Meidum Geese" (Age and artist unclear)

“Meidum Geese” (Age and artist unclear)

It all began with this post about an ancient Egyptian masterpiece, the famous goose frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (Nefermaat being a nobleman of Egypt’s renowned Fourth dynasty).  The geese in that ancient picture are gorgeous, they look like real birds which might hop down from the forty-six-hundred year old artwork and open up their beaks begging for corn (a fact appreciated by aesthetes among Ferrebeekeeper readers—as you can see in the original comments). However after I posted the article, cracks also began to appear in the story.  Sharp-eyed readers wrote in with questions about my ornithology. There are three pairs of geese in the painting: a pair to the left, a pair to the right, and a split pair grazing, like bookends, on each side.  With unwarranted ambiguity, I identified the birds as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), based on the bird identification in an essay I had read concerning the paintings (and also based on the fact I wanted to write about a certain breed of domesticated geese).  I was wrong to be so blithesome, for it is extremely clear that the two center pairs are very different species.  The split pair may or may not be the same species as the pair on the left.

 Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus).  Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus). Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Ferrebeekeeper readers vigorously noted the problems with both my essay and with the supposedly ancient painting.  Dave Dunford wrote:

The birds are not Egyptian Geese, which are distinctive birds. The central pair facing left appear to be White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), and the central pair facing right are indisputably Red-breasted Geese (Brant ruficollis). Interestingly, the latter is a rare vagrant in modern-day Egypt. The outer birds are somewhat trickier – they could also be White-fronted (which don’t always have the white face markings) but they could be Greylag Geese (Anser anser, also not found regularly in modern Egypt).

It turns out my readers were not the only people to notice and question this discrepancy. The painting (which is more popularly known as “Meidum Geese” since it was allegedly discovered in 1871 in a tomb beside the Meidum Pyramid), is one of the most famous in the Cairo museum—a masterpiece of the ancient world–but now, in 2015, experts are questioning its validity.  This post from livescience.com by Owen Jarus describes how the painting is probably a fake, or, at least a doctored original.  These charges are being leveled by Francesco Tiradritti, a professor at the Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt.  Tiradritti came up with yet another species designation for the left-facing geese as bean geese (Anser fabalis) a tundra goose, which certainly don’t belong in Egypt (even if the ancient climate were somewhat different).

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis).  I'm not entirely convinced--I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis). I’m not entirely convinced–I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Now sometimes when I draw or paint (particularly when my subject is self-willed, like geese) I replace or invent some of the details with the magic of art (i.e. I make stuff up). Egyptian artists seemingly did the same thing—unless there were a lot of personified deities with animal heads actually roaming the Nile Valley. However the question of what sort of goddamn geese these really are caused Tiradritti to reexamine the whole painting with a fresh eye, and suddenly innumerable problems sprang to light.

Snefru's Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

Snefru’s Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

The naturalistic perspective/size of the geese in the painting is unusual for Egyptian art (although common in modern western painting). Also the colors are off. To quote Francesco Tiradritti, “Some of the hues (especially beige and marc) are unique in the Egyptian art. Even the shades of more common colors, like orange and red, are not even comparable with the same colors used in other fragments of painting coming from Atet’s chapel.”  Perhaps most damningly, the fresco does not have the sort of cracks one would expect from a 4.5 thousand year old painting cut from a wall.

This painting was discovered in 1871 by a colorful Italian archaeologist named Luigi Vassalli.  Vasalli’s history is fascinating in its own right: he spent his youth as a revolutionary and as a portrait painter before being captured and sentenced to death for his attempts to unify Italy.  His sentence was commuted to exile, and he traveled Europe before finding his way to Egypt where he became an Egyptologist.  He rose to be Egypt’s interim Director of Antiquities, but he ultimately died by his own hand.

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 - 1887)

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 – 1887)

Vasalli was a great self-promoter and he exhaustively wrote/bragged about everything he found and did. Yet somehow he never wrote about (or apparently talked about) how he discovered “Meidum Geese”. Tiradetti reasonably posits that Vasalli painted “Meidum Gees” himself.  Whether he did so as a joke, or for glory, or to restore a botched excavation is anyone’s guess.

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The allegations spawn sinister questions regarding the fundamental nature of art.  If the geese were painted by Luigi Vassalli—who apparently also defaced an actual work to do so–we take away the designation “masterpiece” and instead label the work as a forgery.  It is fair and right to strip it the painting of its accolades and to erase all the effusive words of praise written for it (of course I mean this figuratively: I am leaving up my old blog post so that you can see what I am talking about—but how empty my words ring, now).  Yet what happened? The painting still looks the same.  Does the fact that it was painted by a nineteenth century artist/revolutionary/con-man/scholar instead of an Old Kingdom artisan take all of its meaning and beauty away?  Do the geese no longer look like they might hop out of the frieze? Do they now look oddly flat and childlike?  Was the provenance all that made this work worthwhile?  We live in an age when the appearance of authenticity means everything—in our art, our leaders, even ourselves.  But what is left when the illusion of authenticity is taken away?

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Welcome to goose week on Ferrebeekeeper.  This week we are celebrating our big honking feathery friends with some posts about the place of geese in history, the arts, and in mythology…and in the real world too, where they can be found in oceans, ponds, fields, marshes, or the sky noisily eating everything with their serrated bills and um, redistributing nutrients in leal service to the nitrogen cycle.

inflatable-goose-island-mascot-costume

But before we get to all of that, we are going to start with a comic visual post, because, despite the fact that geese are formidable mixed terrain omnivores, I find them somehow hilarious.  Costume makers and cartoonists seem to agree with me. Here is a small gallery of goose ridiculous goose mascots.

Honker the goose and Larry Longspur

Honker the goose and Larry Longspur

Born in 1997, the Canada Goose named Canoose, came to life as Canada's Team Mascot

Born in 1997, the Canada Goose named Canoose, came to life as Canada’s Team Mascot

This beautiful costume realistically evokes the precious moment of birth, as a gosling first pushes from its shell (it is not at all a horrifying mass of cheap cloth and nightmares)

This beautiful costume realistically evokes the precious moment of birth, as a gosling first pushes from its shell (it is not at all a horrifying mass of cheap cloth and nightmares)

Washington College's own "Gus the Goose"

Washington College’s own “Gus the Goose”

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Are we really sure this is a goose?

Are we really sure this is a goose?

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I forgot all about Wawa--a store for petrol and chocolate milk

I forgot all about Wawa–a store for petrol and chocolate milk

Does Mother Goose count?

Does Mother Goose count?

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Argh!  I mean...a vintage mascot head from the eighties...

Argh! I mean…a vintage mascot head from the eighties…

OK, that got a bit strange there at the end, but I think I have illustrated the hold that geese have on our heart (and it reminded me about Mother Goose–the whimsical, mythical all-mother at the center of fairytales).  Get ready! There are more geese on the way…

 

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1460, tempera on panel)

Here is Andrea Mantegna’s exquisite tempera masterpiece showing the crucifixion of Jesus.  I am going to present it without much comment except to note that it is a high-resolution file so you can (and should!) click on it to see a larger version. By doing so you will be sucked into the disturbing, beautiful 15th century world of Mantegna where everything and everyone seems to be carved of some aristocratic stone (quarried perhaps from the Golgotha they stand upon). Tempera paint gives an artist the ability to paint with disquieting hyper-realism, but it takes away some of the velvety shadows and lifelike glow which have made oil paint the preferred medium for western art for six centuries.  In the hands of an all-time master like Mantegna tempera’s strengths and limitations creates an unearthly effect fully appropriate for the death of the savior.

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