One hundred and forty years ago, ornithologists discovered a very rare and mysterious bird on an obscure island named Fergusson (which is part of the D’Entrecasteaux Archipelago just northeast of Papua New Guinea)…uh…then they sort of lost track of it for the next 14 decades. The bird was the black-naped pheasant-pigeon (Otidiphaps insularis) a lovely–albeit reclusive–ground dwelling pigeon with a black body and orange/red wings (and glittering blood red eyes). Very little is known about the bird because it has not been officially documented nor studied by scientists since it was discovered in 1884. Indeed, researchers who returned to Fergusson in 2019 were hard pressed to find anyone there who has seen the bird since the 1990s. The black-naped pigeon seemed to have quietly receded into extinction–if it ever even existed.

But the black-naped pigeon did exist! It still does! After talking to Augustin Gregory, a hunter who had seen the “auwo” (the local Papuan name for the pigeon) the ornithologists put hidden cameras on Fergusson’s highest peak, the 6,801 feet (2,073 meter) tall Mt. Kilkerran. This year, just as the expedition was wrapping up, the cameras took a picture of one of the furtive pigeons! These lovely birds have not yet flown away from Earth to join the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the lordly crested Choiseul pigeon, and the pink pigeon of Réunion (some famous extinct pigeons).

Of course, who knows how much longer the black-naped pigeon will continue to be with us? Researchers found a single bird (and it was located in a part of the forest scheduled to be timbered). It is unclear how large the remaining population is or whether the birds will be able to survive the changes coming to Fergusson (and the larger changes coming to the entire planetary atmosphere). But for now, this shy yet lovely bird is still here! Most of the beautiful and amazing animals of the Holocene still are (admittedly in greatly reduced numbers). If only humankind could find a way to show off for each other which did not involve super-use of earth’s resources maybe we could keep not just the black-naped pigeon, but also the black rhino, the panda, the Asian elephant and so many other endangered creatures. Maybe instead of clothes which we wear once and then throw out, or cars which are too fast to drive, we could impress potential mates with a beautiful fan of svelte black tail feathers! (although, to be honest, human females have been unenthused about my beautiful ruddy sweater vest–so maybe we are stuck with over-the-top materialism (or some even-harder-to-obtain status signifier) for the foreseeable future).

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Well, we have reached the Midterms. Thus far, I haven’t blogged so much about this important election for reasons of emotional health: which is to say that watching America’s political crisis grind the nation’s progress to a standstill and turn us all against each other is both alarming and depressing!  However, the election takes place tomorrow and it is now necessary to endorse candidates. Obviously, you should vote for the Democratic Party and its candidates for all elections on all tickets

It is unfortunate to issue such a blanket endorsement. In better times, when the affairs of the nation were more ordered (and one of the two parties hadn’t gone completely rotten), it was necessary to assess candidates by their individual merits and positions. Hopefully that time will come again! Alas, right now, the GOP consists of anti-American fascists who are working as hard as possible to neuter and dismantle the United States of America and steal all of its assets to distribute to crooked kleptocrats and oligarchs. Their reasons any voter would want this outcome may be worth exploring later (I believe rich Republicans want to destroy the nation so they can loot it, whereas religious Republicans are unable to see that truth and instead think that treating people cruelly and badly is what Jesus would want).  Yet the net result is the same—Democracy destroyed; the country rendered subordinate to Russia and hollowed out.

Americans like to pretend to be smart and cynical, so a lot of voters say “All politicians are crooked” Then these voters don’t vote…or they vote for grandstanding populists who mask graft with home-spun hucksterism. Such a fundamental mistake is understandable (since elucidating what is going on right now involves looking past the clicks-at-any-cost misdirection favored by large media-conglomerates). Also, in recent times, when the parties were very similar, pretending to be cynical so that one could be lazy and not vote was not a particularly grave sin. Yet this election demands voters’ full attention. We are nearing a point of no-return in the Republicans’ long planned doom loop (the mechanism they have used to ratchet a permanent hold of control despite commanding only a minority of votes). Read about the anti-government doom loop here!

The Republican party has not published a political platform. They believe that lies, coercion, rigged districts, and infinite dark money (from unknown payers) will be sufficient to win enough state-houses and gerrymandered house seats to permanently end representative government.  They might be right! But before we just believe what they say and give up on self-governance, let’s take a closer look at what they actually want.

The real Republican Platform is horrifying. When you listen to what Republican politicians say, bear in mind that these are their true aims. In the absence of a published list of their agenda, here is an unvarnished list of their objectives and principles based on their words and actions:

  • Russia is always right. Vladimir Putin is Emperor of the World and must be obeyed accordingly
  • Government by self-determination should be destroyed. Monopolists, oligarchs, and foreign governments should make all of Americans’ choices for us.
  • You and your family should be silent indentured servants to these same moneyed interests
  • Hypocritical religious extremists should be allowed to dictate what you read, whom you love, and, above all, deny medical treatment to those they disfavor.   
  • Social Security and Medicare should be abolished and seniors should die in the street

It is not a surprise that the Republicans did not codify this totalitarian evil into a platform (although Greg Abbot tried). What is a surprise is that Republicans have sold anyone on any of these ideas! These corrupt and evil positions run directly counter to the universal ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice which our system was founded on. Once the Christian nationalists realize that banning abortion does not prevent abortion and that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are very interested in replacing the safety net with tax tax breaks for billionaires (but care very little for the false pieties of evangelical Christianity), then perhaps the great masses of illiterates who dully stand by as these con-artists destroy the Constitution will be jolted out of their pretend cynicism, but by then it will be too late to retrieve the nation from “Big Lie” adherents who believe that only their party should be legally allowed to win.

It has probably not escaped your attention that I have said a great deal against the Republican/Fascist party and not said as much for the Democrats.   

I was underwhelmed by President Obama. His inability to craft political consensus and break the nation out of this political deadlock struck me as being a result of his own political inexperience. I now see that this was exactly how his Republican political enemies wanted things to look. Also President Obama cared about the hostage–I mean nation–and gave up on some of his political aims for the greater good of the country. Obviously it does not matter to Republicans if the nation is destroyed, since that is their intention anyway (after all, it’s much easier to steal from a nation where everything has been ruined and the only remaining law-enforcement agents are proudboys and hollowed-out rent-a-cops). The rule of Solomon the Wise stands against Republicans. They are happy to kill the child just so that they can have control of it (BTW you should click on that link to a previous endorsement which says what I am saying now, but with greater Biblical eloquence and better examples). Nobody should vote for any Republican this year for that alone.

The Democratic Party has an unfortunate tendency to see problems in the world as being entirely America’s fault.  They are eager to coddle foreign enemies while censoriously blaming our own diplomats, military, and intelligence agents (and straight middle aged white guys) for all of the world’s troubles. Yet for all of their wonkish idealism and dogmatic identity politics, they keep coming up with policy ideas, and they keep earnestly believing in the rules of democracy. They keep fighting the Russians and Chinese (and all of their downstream villains). They keep trying to make sure that people have enough to eat asnd can go to the doctor and can look after their kids. Most importantly, they want America…and you and your family to succeed. Republicans want you to die so that a billionaire can have all of your stuff. Then they want the world to die from climate change and habitat loss ( I don’t think the Republicans have fully thought this through but have merely embraced mass extinction because it fits with their other choices)

(Also I actually think Biden has done a decent job considering all of the interlocking crises we face…AND considering that the previous guy stacked the deck so that things would be impossible for him, but political operators say not to talk about how well Biden has done, so I guess I won’t).

But you should take Biden’s integrity into consideration and you should take the wholesale moral abomination of the cowardly, lying, traitorous criminal Republican Party into consideration as well when you go to cast what they undoubtedly hope will be the last (or next-to-last) vote you are ever allowed to cast. Republicans hate democracy, they hate nature, they hate your family, and above all, they hate YOU with all of their malice and malignancy. Vote accordingly.

Doomscrolling (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Halloween! As a special inktober treat for the special day, here is another little allegorical ink drawing of our times featuring strange orchid bishops sheltering in their Romanesque monasteries. The churchmen (who do not seem especially holy or worthwhile) interact with their doomed milieu through their little handheld personal communication devices. Meanwhile the haunted world outside is subject to dragon attack, volcanic eruption, war, and doom.

As ever, the strip of nature in the foreground is the true key to the meaning of the composition.

Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

Drawing of Desert Lizard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

This year’s Inktober-themed Halloween week continues with an orange-black-and-white lizard living in an arid scrubland filled with prickly plants and desert insects. I have been trying to make some drawings with a limited palette of inks and I had the idea for this drawing when looking at a bag of green, orange, and taupe rubber bands in the office supply closet. It is unclear if the bipedal green figure in the background is a nature spirit, a costumed desert inhabitant, or a figment of the imagination. The little adobe mission seems real enough, though. The best part of the drawing is probably the big grasshopper/locust in the corner, which makes me think I need to draw some more bugs!

Coati in the Central American Rainforest (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

It is already the end of October…which means it is time for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween theme week! This year we are going to celebrate artistically…which is to say with a series of Inktober drawings. For those of you who somehow manage to spend your life away from the electric seduction of the internet, “Inktober” is an awkward portmanteau made by sewing “ink” and “October” together. The word and the concept were invented by draftspeople who wanted the world to take a longer look at the ink drawings which we ruined our clothes and furniture to produce for you.

This is a little drawing made with various indelible inks on terra-cotta colored Canson paper. In the image, a racoon-like coati scurries through the rainforests of Central America surrounded by various beetles, orchids, vines, slime molds, butterflies, and glass frogs. In the background a volcano spews out lava and broiling clouds of ash and gas. While in the foreground someone has thoughtfully cut open a delicious soursop fruit for us. Yum! (More about this delicious fruit in following posts).

The coati may not strike you as an ideally spooky Halloween animal (even with their bandit masks and cunning hands, I find them endearing and winsome). However Europeans of the 16th century were much more alarmed by the clever New World mammals, and coatis somehow became an emblem of witchcraft during that unhappy century of witch-hunts and religious pogroms. In order to evoke this feeling I have included a Pre-Columbian sculpture with a mysterious fungus (or miniature civilization?) spilling out of its dark belly. The tumbled-down ruins of some MesoAmerican step-temple likewise hint at the doom which humankind carries with us like a curse. Hopefully the coati and the rainforest denizens can escape the consequences of our folly…but probably not. Let me know what you think, and get ready for more Inktober artworks!

Today’s news contained an astonishing (albeit rather sad) piece of news concerning the Tetraodontiforme order of fish.

In December 2021, a dead giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) was discovered in the ocean off Faial Island (which is part of the Azores–a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic). “Giant sunfish” is the common name for this sort of sunfish–but this time it was more than a name. The dead fish was enormous. When scientists dragged it to shore and weighed it with a special forklift, they discovered it had a mass of 2,744 kilograms (6,050 pounds), which means it is the largest teleost (bony fish) ever recorded (although, obviously, some long extinct fossil species were much larger). The fish was 3.59 meters long and had a huge blunt contusion on its head which was clearly caused by a boat collision (as evinced by the fact that there were fragments of boat paint on the affected area).

Scientists are still studying the specimen (indeed, they only just released word of it to the world) and a full necropsy has not yet been performed to determine the cause of death. Perhaps a boat hit the fish after it was dead. Still, it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to start connecting the dots (which is to say, I have a feeling the fish was killed by a fast moving boat–a fate which is all to common among the larger and faster rorquals). The death of this giant is a tragedy in its own right. Yet it is stunning to me that we only just found the largest specimen of bony fish on record. The ocean still abounds with life and miraculous secrets. It could recover… if only humankind would allow such a thing!

A few years ago, I wrote about Mola alexandrini’s close relative Mola mola, the ocean sunfish (which I misidentified as the world’s largest bony fish). Obviously I was mistaken! However that post summarizes what we know about the way both these pelagic giants live. It also addresses baby sunfish–for both species go through a larval stage when the 2 millimeter long babies (!) drift around as part of the plankton. Weighing less than a gram, the li’l baby sunfish are spherical and covered with translucent triangular spikes to deter predators. The sunfish got its name because it likes to sunbathe near the ocean’s surface (another piece of evidence in determining how the Azores giant specimen met its end), however, I think the little ones actually look like the suns drawn in Renaissance woodcuts.

I will keep you updated when (or if) we learn more, but in the meantime I hope you are struck with wonder by these magnificent denizens of the ocean (and, if you are a boater or mariner, I hope you drive your vessel with care and consideration).

Cuttlefish and Merman (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Last week I finished up the AtlasObscura course on cephalopods, a Zoom mini-survey of this astonishing class of mollusks.  The course was a delightful romp through morphology, taxonomy, paleontology, and ecology and featured some virtuous side lessons about how to protect Earth’s ecosphere (and ourselves). 

The incredible diversity, beauty, and wonder of cephalopods reminded me that I have not blogged about them…or any molluscs…or anything else for far too long. Ergo, as a promise of more posts to come, here are two little cephalopod drawings I made to share with the class.

The first picture (top) is an Indo-Pacific cuttlefish enjoying the reef and trying to overlook the whimsical Thai/Malay merman who has appeared out of the realm of fantasy (note also the reef shark, giant clam, and mantis shrimp).  The second image (as per “homework” instructions) is a cooperoceras flashing iridophores which it may or may not have had as various lower Permian sea creatures (most notably Helicoprian) look on in dazzled envy.

Cooperoceras and Permian animals (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

We will talk more about these creatures in weeks to come (and maybe more about the Permian too, since I keep thinking about how the Paleozoic ended), but for now just enjoy the little tentacled faces! Also, it is “inktober” and I have been obsessed with classic pen and ink, so maybe get ready for more drawings as well (to say nothing of our traditional Halloween theme week, which will be coming up quite soon).

The Dart Impactor (gold) being loaded into the faring of the launch vehicle at Vandenberg Launch Facility

Wow! Have you been following NASA’s DART mission? “DART” is one of those Ghastly-Acronyms-which-Spell-out-the-Project (GASP!) which stands for “Double Asteroid Reflection Test”. Scientists are always discouraged that their jaw-dropping projects conducted in outer space can never garner the same level of attention as inane sports and celebrity folderol–so they give missions these names with futile hopes of grasping the popular imagination. Speaking of whipping up attention, you should immediately google “DART” to see Google’s unprecedented graphic/animation (uh, and all of the information and scientific details about this project, of course).

Anyway, the project’s name aside, DART is a smashing success and something which humankind should have been working on since the dawn of the space age. Ever since we finally understood what caused those craters on the moon (which took longer than you might expect) and the Alvarez hypothesis explained what caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, scientists and engineers have realized that humankind needs a proper planetary defense system to protect us from meteors, bolides, comets, space shards, and whatever cosmic flotsam and jetsam has been drifting around out there waiting to wreck us the same way the poor dinosaurs got creamed.

“Grawwwwwr! Why did we spend so much on stock buybacks and so little on basic science?”

Although some previous asteroid and comet exploration missions have edged towards testing the behaviors of space objects subjected to manmade impacts and forces, the DART mission was designed specifically for the purpose of finding out about such things. Back in November of 2021 NASA launched a 610 kilogram impactor spacecraft to crash into Dimorphos (a tiny asteroid which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos). On September 26 (2022) the impactor crashed into Dimorphos as the Italian mini-satellite LICIACube looked on (as did many of our best telescopes).

Here is a NASA schematic which explains the mission (and its hypothesized outcome) far better than I could.

Of course in the grand scheme of things 610 kilograms is not very much mass–although a 610 kilogram (1340 lb) linebacker smashing into you would probably wreck your day–especially if he was running 6.6 kilometers per second (15,000 miles per hour) which was the closing velocity of the projectile and Dimorphos. Indeed, the Hubble and Webb space observatories were both keeping an eye on the collision and the results were pretty explosive.

We will await the exact numbers (scientists speculate that such an impact should release 20-30 gigajoules of energy–approximately equivalent to detonating 6 or 7 tons of TNT). Also, an EU spaceship named Hera is being dispatched to survey the results in 2026 (so more to follow). For now though, I am already breathing easier knowing that someone is finally working on this problem. Now we just need to work on the 8 billion other problems which are affecting Earth and casting a pall over humankind’s glorious future,

We knew that, if the Webb telescope could make it to the L2 Lagrange Point in one piece and deploy properly, this would be an exciting season for astronomers–but, even so, the parade of stunning new images from outer space are marvelous and demand comment. Today’s treasure is a picture of Planet Neptune and its moons as imaged by the near-infrared camera on Webb. The ice giant Neptune is made of strange cold things with a great pall of methane gas over them. Methane gas is very opaque to infrared light (which it absorbs) and so the planet looks like a frosty, haunted bowling ball with glass rings.

Ever since Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet”, Neptune is the outermost world of our solar system. Yet the great gas giants…or even the trans-Neptunian objects like Eris and Haumea get all of the attention. No space craft has even visited Neptune since Voyage II rolled by in 1989 (the first and last time a probe entered the Neptune system).

Aside from the spectral rings, the image shows some bright sparks in a line along Neptune’s Tropic of Capricorn (which is not called that, but you get the idea). These bright spots are caused by high altitude methane clouds which are made of methane ice (which reflects infrared light better than methane gas does).

The full Webb photo has a striking focal point! Pulling back we see that Neptune’s largest and strangest moon Triton outshines the giant world it orbits. This is because Triton (which is named for the Greco-Roman deity Neptune’s merman super-son) is covered in a sheet of frozen nitrogen which reflects 70% of the sunlight which strikes it–so Triton glows like an aquamarine star in this photo. Ultimately Triton might well turn out to be be more interesting than Neptune: it is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit (an orbit opposite of the planet’s rotation). Such an unusual orbit suggests that the moon was a little world captured by the ice giant long ago.

Triton is larger than Pluto and is one of five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active (the others being Io, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus). Voyager II spotted geysers of nitrogen gas venting from the moon. Clearly cryovolcanic activity is taking place below the strange patchwork of old ice (as explained in this confusing yet compelling map/diagram) and lakes of liquid water may exist below the moon’s crust.

I am going to keep staring at images of our strange far-off neighbor world, but I can’t wait to see what Webb photographs next!

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