Paleontologists argue about which living organisms were first. In exchange, we living organisms get to argue about who was the the first paleontologist. There are many potential answers: the Greek philosophers/natural scientists Xenophanes, Herodotus, & Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils and recognized that parts of the land were once under water. Likewise the Roman geographer Strabo theorized about volcanism, subduction, and, most importantly, deposition. Pliny labored to apprehend the relationships between living creatures (and how they related to vanished or mythological beasts). A Medieval Perisan Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe) came up with a theory concerning the petrification of living things while the Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo recognized that climate and ecology changed over time (based on his studies of petrified bamboo).

However, to my eyes, the first paleontologist was an altogether more peculiar figure–a Baroque Danish polymath named Nicolas Steno who lived from 1638 to 1686. The son of a goldsmith, Steno moved through the scintillant aristocratic courts of Northern Europe in his era and thus knew Spinoza, de Graaf Ruysch, Lister, and Bourdelot (along with lots of aristocrats and churchmen who were probably all-important for securing patronage back then but about whom we are no longer obliged to care). As you can probably tell from the list of names I have given, Steno was dirst an anatomist, and it is through a strange quirk of dissection that he made a name for himself as a geology/paleontology pioneer.

In 1666 two Ligurian fishermen caught a colossal shark which they presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who had the presence of mind to order it sent to Steno for dissection. Steno dissected the shark’s head and discovered that its teeth were extremely similar to stony objects discovered within the earth (then known as “tongue stones” but now called “fossilized shark teeth”). These mysterious triangles were once thought to have been hidden by imps or to have fallen from the moon. Steno recognized they came from sharks (perhaps giant sharks killed by the Biblical flood ?) and he devised a hypothesis for how they further came to be inside of rocks. Steno devised a theory of stratigraphy (a discipline of which he is arguably the founder). His four principles of stratigraphy laid the bedrock (heh heh heh) for Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin to piece together an accurate record of events on Earth. These four principles are:

  1. the law of superposition (older layers lie beneath more recent layers…just like upon a cluttered desk)
  2. the principle of original horizontality: (thanks to gravity, layers are horizontal when deposited)
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: (layers within a basin extend in all directions according to the manner and order of their deposition and are contiguous)
  4. the principle of cross-cutting relationships: if a disconuity cuts through a layer, it must be more recent than the strata

These principles seem childishly obvious to anyone who has ever made a sand sculpture–and they are in fact beautifully brilliantly obvious. Yet nobody had stated them together in the context of natural history or applied them properly to the stones beneath us. Indeed it would take another hundred years for scientific consensus to grasp their astonishing power and scope.

Sadly, Steno became interested in theological conundrums (and in the worldly power of the church). He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Soon he became involved in the counter reformation (where he found a new role arguing with Leibniz and censoring Spinoza). Thanks to his self-abnegating piety and devotion he was even raised to the rank of auxiliary bishop. His story becomes filled with weird hagiographic details like how he sold the bishop’s ring and cross to help the poor and how he ate so little that he, um died.

Steno was not unique among geology pioneers in being a churchman. However he is unique in that he has been beatified (Pope John Paul beatified him in 1988). According to the tenants of Catholicism, if you pray to Nicolas Steno he can intercede upon your behalf in heaven! However I recommend that you do not pay attention to such holy claptrap, but instead keep looking at interesting rocks and cool fish. That is where the real beatification occurs.

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

Worldwide there are about 17,000 species of bees…and most of them seem to be is some sort of trouble. However it is not easy to keep track of 17,000 anythings…much less 17,000 species of small flying insects. So the plight of all bees is not clearly understood (even if we have shocking anecdotes of how poorly some individual bee species are doing). To remedy our ignorance of the bigger picture, a group of apiculturists, hymenopterists, ecologists, data scientists, and biology-minded cartologists collaborated to create a worldwide bee map.

Assembled from piecing together millions of individual data points, The bee map is a god’s eye overview of how bees are doing across the entire planet. Just glancing at it reveals some strange patterns about our little flying friends. Unlike most animals, bees are more numerous and various in temperate and arid habitats than in tropical forests. I wonder if this is because tropical forests do not offer the sheer acreage of uncontested flowers that prairies, croplands, & blooming scrublands do, or if it because nobody is marking down data points about tiny flying (and stinging) insects in the middle of the trackless Amazon. Perhaps as the bee map evolves into greater complexity and thoroughness we will have a definitive answer to that question.

The bee map should also help us to track the results of habitat loss and climate change on bee populations (and distinguish the impact of such vectors from natural bee predilections/behaviors). Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore expresses this point with greater clarity: “By establishing a more reliable baseline we can more precisely characterize bee declines and better distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing.”

I hope the bee map fulfills its purpose and helps nature’s hard-working pollinators and flying fieldhands to worldwide recovery. But beyond that wish, I am excited to see more visual representations of vast ecological datasets. Big data had such promise…but so far it seemingly has mostly been used for targeted marketing, tearing apart democracy, and crafting esoteric financial schemes. Sigh… Let’s have more thoughtful use of the tools that technology gives us to solve actual important problems.

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

Back in the 15th century an exiled German goldsmith radically altered society with his strange claptrap invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type screw-press vastly improved on all previous printing presses (to say nothing of hand-transcription of books) and began an information revolution which has continuously accelerated ever since then. The written word, once the domain of super wealthy elite (or of a monopolistic church with an exceedingly parochial interest in knowledge), became available to everyone. The printing press chased away the ghastly fog of religious obscurantism and paved the way for democracy, reform, intellectual collaboration, empiricism, exploration, emancipation, and liberalization. Humankind stepped forward towards the reformation, enlightenment and the scientific revolution.


When printing technology first became widely available, the impact which it had on society was chaotic. Ordinary people of the time were not necessarily gifted at critical reasoning, and Europe was a powderkeg of antagonistic factions greedily angling for any advantage (speaking of which, gunpowder and artillery first came into widespread use in the 15th century, and their adaptation and improvement were hastened by publishing breakthroughs).

“Well…if it’s in a book, I guess it must be true.”

Suddenly society was awash in new ideas, incentives, and imperatives–all delivered with the magisterial force of the written word, once the sole domain of a cloistered master class. In this new world, you could show up at night and tack up a poster that said witches were a real & widespread malady which could only be defeated with fire. Suddenly gormless rubes would be running around burning everyone they had a problem with. After all, the anti-witch message was written down, and written things were known known to have the infallible weight of divine authority!

Blue Lives Matter

Indeed this is a thing that actually happened! Historians estimate that between a quarter of a million and a half million non-sorcerous people were killed as part of the witch panics which swept Europe in the early modern era. Fraud, calumny, conspiracy theories, and wild dangerous political invective swept the European continent (and the increasingly wider world which was a part of European colonial enterprise).

I am bringing this up not because I am an anti-literate or anything, but because, obviously, global society is deep in the midst of a similar revolution–except today’s information revolution is compressed and amplified by the speed and scope of globalized tech culture.

When I was a child, if you saw something on a glowing screen, it had gone through a long and expensive process to get there (and had passed a lot of powerful gatekeepers). Nowadays, any self-proclaimed expert with access to Youtube (or, uh, WordPress) can instantly disseminate their ravings worldwide to a self-selecting audience.

There is no easy to answer to all of this..nor should there be. On balance, the new manifestations of super-abundant information are wonderful and liberating. However, after living through the malignant Trump era (and the Trump pandemic), it is obvious there is more of a red column to the ledger than we initially imagined. Wish-fulfilling mendacity flies through the ethernet even faster than it ever traveled by means of broadsheet. Whole new taxonomies of demagogues, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, quacks, and frauds invent & broadcast “fake news” more swiftly than rational and conscientious folk can debunk such things. And who is an authority anyway, in a world where so many truly powerful authorities are authoritarian?

There are no answers to today’s plague of misinformation and filter bubbles other than classic enlightenment solutions of critical thinking, empiricism, and cross referencing (with maybe a dash of deconstructionism thrown in to burst the filter bubble of whiggish liberal WASPS like myself). Obviously we need to ensure that teaching such values is at the heart of universal free (mandatory) education for all young people.

P.S. Although, frankly, the young people I have met around the city have developed great sophistication at parsing new media and roll their eyes at Nigerian princes, Breitbarts, Qanons, and essential oils the way a philosophe would sneer at a witch poster.

Here is a feel good wildlife story from that thriving wilderness of…New York City?

Well, actually there is some wilderness here in New York City out at Jamaica Bay (A swampy tidal estuary in the shadow of JFK airport). That is where Ariel Cordova-Rojas was riding her bike when she saw a female mute swan (Cygnus olor) which was hunched up and unable to move properly. Cordova-Rojas grabbed the injured swan (that is when she really knew it was hurting, since grabbing an uninjured swan is effectively the same as grabbing a wyvern, an angry forklift, or a live electrical wire) and called some friends to deal with her bike. Then she began a two hour odyssey with the irascible 10 kilogram (20 pound) waterfowl.


After hiking for miles and riding for ages on the corona-addled (but open-minded!) subway, the good Samaritan finally brought the beautiful dinosaur descendant to Nostrand Avenue (right by where I live). There she got a car to the Wild Bird Fund, where bird-rescue specialists diagnosed the bird as suffering from lead poisoning (swans sometimes dabble up lead pieces when they are feeding).

After emergency treatment, the lovely (albeit invasive) bird is recuperating in style at New York City’s premier wildlife rehabilitation center (where she has apparently met a convalescing cob (a male swan). If only Tchaikovsky had known the good-hearted (and strong & fearless) Cordova-Rojas then Swan Lake might have ended up being a feel-good blockbuster with a happily ever after ending!

We have had an awful lot of politics around here this autumn. How about today we just concentrate solely on autumn? As I often mention, there is a Kwanzan cherry tree in my back yard in Brooklyn. It is a beautiful tree (although neither my photographs, artworks, nor my essays have ever fully captured its ineffable loveliness).

The cherry tree is most famous for how it looks in spring, when it resembles a radiant pink cloud descended from paradise, yet it is always gorgeous–even in winter when its bare limbs look like Chinese seal calligraphy. Indeed in autumn it glows a brilliant bright yellow which is nearly as lovely as the soft pink of spring.

Alas, as always, my photos do the tree a terrible injustice (also, hopefully you are not put off by the ornamental bacteriophages which I hung up back in summer to contextualize our current plight). I wish you could see it in the real world. Looking at its graceful, winsome branches has kept me sane during this long sojourn in the city (I don’t think I have left since the beginning of last December!) and I wish I could share the beauty with you. After all, as pretty as the tree is in its golden autumn finery, this yellow cloak is soon to fall and the cherry tree will be bare through the gloom, mist, darkness, and chill of winter. How are we ever going to make it back back to the blossoms this pestilent year?

It really is impossible to tell what direction a soul will take in this world of crossroads and unexpected pathways. Back in 2018, Ferrebeekeeper featured a short flippant essay about Gritty, the hirsute maniacal entity who (which?) is the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, a gang of icebound stick fighters. How were any of us to know what Gritty would become?

I have very mixed memories concerning my time in the Philadelphia suburbs (my family lived there from when I was 13 to 15). Moving from a very rural part of America to a toffee-nosed suburb during the 1980s felt like being trapped in a John Hughes movie. Perhaps I have always subconsciously held the awkwardness of that time against Philadelphia and the bedraggled ball of psych(opathic)adelic fur which they have chosen as their mascot. But it turns out I was wrong about Gritty…

Back in 2018, when I wrote my essay, Gritty was the object of much good-natured derision and mockery. It can be hard to write comic pieces, but Gritty’s deranged countenance & straggly fluorescent orange fur (and his weird backstory) seemed sure to get a cheap laugh. Frankly I assumed the mascot would quickly be retired. But Gritty was not who I thought and he (it?) has made good!

First of all Gritty quickly beat all the charges against him (In January he was accused of punching a little boy at a photo shoot, however the authorities were unimpressed by the accusations and Gritty walked away scot-free). Then Gritty became a beloved figure representing the casual insouciance and low grade threat of violence which pervade Philadelphia. Finally he became ubiquitous as a left-wing political symbol and a dull-fledged symbol of what Philadelphia really is.

When soon-to-be ex President Trump disrespected Philadelphia by making them the subject of the only honest declaration he has been known to utter (“Bad things happen in Philadelphia”), Gritty leapt into action. Countless Philadelphia themed memes depicted the strange orange miscreant taking revenge or bringing down the president. Then the memes became true when Philadelphia’s slowly tallied mail-in votes put Joe Biden over the top in the national electoral college tally.

Now Gritty has risen high in the world of mascots. Papers around the world are analyzing him with perplexed respect. The French daily newspaper Le Monde even proclaimed him to be “la coqueluche du mouvement antifasciste” the face of the antifascist movement! Apparently Gritty now represents the world’s disgust with the malevolent demagogues who have been proliferating around the globe!

This will be a hard act to follow. Hopefully citizens will soon regain their political sense and vote out the treacherous far right-wing legislators who have enabled Trump and suchlike despicable demogogues to flourish. However until then we will need Gritty. Go forward in glory, Gritty, you are now America’s foremost crazy-haired orange nightmare!

Like everything else in the year of our Lord 2020, the American election of 2020 was an ugly mess. As I write this, it looks like Joe Biden will probably manage to scratch out a meager victory, however any hope he had of accomplishing anything as president is already comprehensively and utterly ruined. Mitch McConnell’s icy skeletal grip upon the Senate remains, and McConnell will not allow any legislation that would benefit any non-billionaire to ever pass that ghastly house. There will be no new fiscal stimulus, or, if there is, it will be a miserable pretense which really only helps billionaires. There will be no improved medical care system. Indeed, the Supreme Court is almost certain to strike down the ACA in the immediate future, driving tens of millions of citizens out of medical care and into bankruptcy (to say nothing of what those charlatans in robes will do to reproductive rights or gun control rules). The next four years will feature no technological innovations, discoveries, or breakthroughs of any significance (Republicans and their corporate overlords have no interest in such things when the current status quo serves their purposes just fine). There will be no infrastructure deal to rebuild our crumbling nation. Americans will become poorer, sicker, and face greater day-to-day insecurity. The coronavirus will continue to kill us off and keep us separated from each other for the next several years until it burns out on its own (or do you envision folks from Kansas rushing to follow President Biden’s health initiatives?) Our standing in the world will keep on plummeting, as our autocratic foes coerce lesser nations into their thrall. Worst of all, environmental devastation will continue at a breakneck pace. Soon most ecosystems will be irrecoverably degraded and most wild lifeforms will be impossibly rare or outright extinct.

So…was the election a complete disaster? It was not! Getting rid of Donald Trump was the most important thing, and, unless he manages some Robert-Mugabe-style dark contrivance in the immediate future, he will be mercifully gone within a few looooooooong months. I am not looking forward to the cash grabs, parade of pardons, and graceless & dangerous transfer of power which we will witness during those months. However Donald Trump was the biggest threat to representative government in modern U.S history, and staving off such a threat is not nothing!. The fact that 48% of the electorate joyously voted for a white supremacist con man who has looted & preened while a quarter of a million Americans died is discouraging. Yet with Trump out of the picture (in exile, prison, or the grave) his cult of personality will recede and we will be able to look to the future and solve some of the problems which are destroying us.

Except will we really?

I did not write that first paragraph for no reason. I believe everything I said will come to pass. It is the future which Mitch McConnell is building even as I write this. And, as soon as we (non-billionaires) are being crushed beneath it, he will blame it all on Joe Biden. “Government is the problem” McConnell (or his mouthpieces) will say. Just privatize everything and let business cartels write their own rules and there will be no problem! Americans are already figuratively corporate slaves. The terrible years to come are all about making us into literal slaves.

We need to prepare for this as soon as possible. Harden your heart and stiffen your upper lip. Things in America are about to get much worse than they have been for the last 4 years. This will be entirely the fault of the Republicans. It is not even a mistake or miscalculation. It is their plan! Only by carefully explaining this again and again and again will we be able to help voters understand where their misery is truly coming from. Right now voters seem to think it is liberal snowflakes raiding their bank accounts, raising their insurance premiums, and threatening their social security. Perhaps if we can help voters understand who the true villains are (McConnell and his cronies!) we can escape some of the harm which is about to cascade down on us.

Unfortunately, before we can get back to bats and artwork, we must deal with the misbegotten election of 2020, a dark tempest which has been blackening the national offing ever since it became evident that Republicans have no interest in laws, public well-being, or representative democracy but are instead trying to use underhanded means to ensure permanent authoritarian one-party rule in the United States of America.

For the election of 2016 I wrote a thoughtful and fair-spoken endorsement which stands the test of timeā€¦and yet is also clearly from the halcyon era before Trump pulled us all onto the road to hell which we are now walking together as a nation. You should go back and check it out! I used to write so prettily before it became evident that nobody cares about that sort of thing!

The outrageous acrimony of the 2020 election however calls for a different approach. When disputes devolve to pure emotional terms of screaming, fighting, and breathless accusations of lies & criminality, it becomes hard for conscientious arbiters to figure out who is lying. There is a story from the Bible about this(confused Evangelical Christians might recognize this unknown text as the mysterious black rectangular prop which their lord and savior, Donald Trump, was holding in his June 1st photo op).

“How does this thing go in the VCR?”

Solomon the Wise, the heir of King David of Israel, was renowned for his probity, honor, and good sense in adjudicating other people’s disputes (sadly his wisdom abandoned him in his own family affairs, which were a mess, but we can talk about that later if at all). Anyway, two women came to Kind Solomon with a seemingly insoluble dispute about an infant. Here is the relevant passage from the King James Bible (Kings, Chapter 3, Verses 16 to 28):

Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it. And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear. And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.

Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living. And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

The real mother was the woman who actually cared about the child and would rather see him given to a lying stranger than be destroyed. Again and again this year, similar choices have been put before America’s two different parties and their answers have revealed exactly which party is concerned with the national well-being and which party does not care if the nation is destroyed so long as they can cling to power and appoint incompetent judges (no matter how little of a national mandate they have).

The most telling of these incidents involved the second round of stimulus money, which is necessary to forestall a ruinous recession on Main Street. The Democratic House passed a generous second stimulus bill back at the end of spring. The Republican senate keeps tearing it to pieces and filling it with poisonous pills so that it cannot pass. Even if the stimulus money would help the entire nation (and help Donald Trump get re-elected) it is unacceptable to Mitch McConnell if it gives anything to needy Americans or gives the Democrats the appearance of a win. A truly cynical (but probably correct) interpretation is that McConnell has decided that Biden will win the election and he wants the nation to fail as precipitously and absolutely as possible during a Biden administration. (McConnell, one of American history’s greatest villains, is like the harlot who does not care if the child is killed…if that harlot were 300 million times more vindictive, spiteful, & murderous and somehow also looked like a melted turtle).

Other similar “Go ahead and cut him in half” moments include the Trumpist stance in the national argument over face masks & lockdowns, the acquittal of Donald Trump in the Senate despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the grotesque mischaracterization of the Muller report, the abandonment of longstanding national allies, the jettisoning of the emoluments clause etc etc etc…

So, to be nakedly blunt about my political endorsements, every Republican other than Mitt Romney should be voted out of office as quickly as possible (if you are in Utah, Massachusetts, Michigan or France…or wherever it is the plutocratic-yet-honest Romney calls home these days, you can judge him on his own merits). The GOP is now a party of Quislings, liars, extortionists, criminals, and outright white supremacists who are not worthy of holding public office. When Solomon said “cut the United States of America in half” Republicans happily got out their saws, scalpels, lasers, calipers, and scales to ensure that they have exactly enough of the corpse to claim complete control in accordance with the rigged anti-Democratic rules they have been foisting upon us. The health of the child in this endeavor has never entered GOP calculations at all.

I have traditionally been in sympathy with Republican’s stated platform of strong national defense and sufficient R&D to keep the nation competitive in the future (and you know…find solve problems and make life better). Their actions have revealed that their true motivation is naked love of power and all other items are pretexts which will be abandoned.

Of course intelligent people will recognize there is a problem for all of us within the parameters of my metaphor. The Republicans do not care in any way about the nation but are happy to threaten our collective well-being in order to take what they and their billionaire masters want. Our current crisis arguably stems from past episodes where Democrats sighed heavily and let the Republicans walk away with the living child instead of cutting him in half (the controversial Bush/Gore election of 2000, the terms of the financial bailout of 2008, and the Obama administration’s capitulation to government shutdown theatrics all spring to mind). What if there were no Solomon? What if the loud and aggressive bad harlot had walked off with the baby because its true mother was afraid of hurting it by fighting? How can we save a hostage which the Republican party is perfectly happy to kill?

In days to come, we will find out if there is an answer. But fellow citizens, remember: you are not merely the threatened child in this scenario, you are Solomon too. The power to find a good solution belongs to you, dear voter…and nobody can take that decision from you. Well…they can’t take our capacity to make decisions about our lives unless we vote for Trump to become King of America (and, appallingly, that horrible scenario happens to be on the ballot tomorrow).

[P.S. Coincidentally, Joe Biden is a very decent person and a gifted leader who might actually have it in him to be a great president. However the shocking malfeasance of Republicans during the last four years has made writing about Biden unnecessary. Biden is a patriot and he is not a criminal. Sadly that is all we are required to know about him until Donald Trump is out of the White House]

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2020