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Today we head to the other side of the world to check out a very special mollusk— the black lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). This oyster is a suspension feeder which thrives in tropical coral seas amidst the colorful darting fish, exquisite anemones, and amazing biodiversity of reef life. The black lip oyster lives from the Persian Gulf, throughout the northern Indian Ocean across the IndoPacific divide up to Japan and around the islands of Micronesia, and Polynesia. However it is not the oyster’s (enviable) lifestyle that makes it famous, but what it produces –Tahitian pearls aka black pearls.
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Tahitian pearls are one of the four great categories of cultured pearls. They occur in a rainbow variety of colors but mostly are charcoal, silver, or dark green with an iridescent sheen of green, purple, silver, blue, or gold. Since the black lip oyster is an exceedingly large mollusk, which can grow to weight of more than 4 kilograms (8-10 pounds), it can produce a capacious harvest of cultured pearls and can also produce extremely large pearls. The name black pearls is evocative and poetic and descriptive (since the pearls are dark), however true black Tahitian pearls are rare and precious.
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When I was growing up in southwest Ohio, far from the beach, I remember encountering all sorts of stories concerning black pearls–thrilling tales of pearl divers, pirates, mermaid, giant Manta rays and such-like exoticism of a past era–however seemingly the internet, globalized commerce, and industrial aquaculture have taken some of the luster from these bright dreams (or do preadolescents still have feverish conversations about black pearls?). Maybe that was all because of the eighties and that decades taste for the darkly exotic and colorful….yet whatever the tastes and tides of fashion, I still find black pearls remarkably beautiful, and I would like to seek out some crowns and myths for you to adorn Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category. Hopefully I can avoid being cursed by a manta ray spirit (which, in retrospect, sounds beautiful and gentle)…but I promise nothing!
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Last week I blogged about the end of the desmostylians, a group of aquatic mammals driven into extinction by competition from the gentle (but implacably hungry) manatees. Since then, I have been worried that people are going to think I am anti-manatee. That is why I would like us all to take a moment to say farewell to Snooty the manatee, the world’s oldest captive manatee who died on Sunday (July 23, 2017) a day after his 69th birthday party. Since 1949 Snooty has been entertaining and educating visitors to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. His death was not a result of old age, but was instead a tragic accident involving the failure of a protective hatch which closed off a maintenance-only section of the aquarium.
Apparently in the modern era, manatees in the wild usually live less than 10 years (due largely to aquatic mishaps) but a few lucky individuals have made it into their 50s. In his late 60s, Snooty was going strong and was an active, intelligent, and gregarious manatee until that cursed hatch failed. This makes one wonder how long manatees actually live when they don’t get run over with speedboats or eaten up by Portuguese conquistadors (and it also leads to other troubling thoughts about humankind’s interactions with other living creatures). I interacted with the late Ivak the walrus and Grandpa the lungfish, but I never had the chance to see Snooty. Yet I am still upset by his loss. I worry about the future of animals in our ultra-competitive dangerous world where even the world’s most respected and well-cared for manatee can have a fatal accident in his own tank. Let us say farewell to poor Snooty and keep working to better the lot of his brothers and sisters in captivity and in the wild.

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Let’s look back through the mists of time to peak at one of the most mysterious and perplexing of mammals, the desmostylians, the only extinct order of marine mammals (although in dark moments I worry that more are soon to follow). Desmostylians were large quadrupeds adapted to life in the water. They had short tails and mighty limbs. Because of this morphology, taxonomists initially thought that they were cousins of proboscideans and sirenians (elephants and manatees), but the fact that their remains have only been found far from Africa (the origin point of elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and manatees & sea cows) along with perplexingly alien traits has caused a rethink of that hypothesis.
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(Art by Ray Troll fror SMU)

Extant between the late Oligocene and late Miocene, the desmostylians had powerful tusklike cylindrical teeth and dense heavy bones. The smallest (and oldest) were peccary sized creatures whereas the largest grew to the size of medium whales. It seems like desmostylians lived in littoral parts of the ocean—near coasts and shores where they used their pillar like teeth to graze great kelp forests. They scraped or rasped up the kelp and sucked it down their voracious vacuum maws like spaghetti! It must have been an astonishing sight! My favorite marine paleoartist, Ray Troll has made exquisite pictures of these majestic creatures which help us to visualize them. I really hope they looked this funny and friendly (if they were anything like herbivorous manatees, they probably did!).
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(Art by Ray Troll, courtesy SMU)

Speaking of manatees, the gentle sirenians had a hand (or flipper?) in the demise of the poor desmostylians. The dugongs and manatees would never fight anyone or even protect themselves with force—they simply outcompeted the less nimble desmostylians for resources, although one wonders if climate-change and the continuing evolution of different coastal sea plants might also have helped do in the great desmostylians.

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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

Last Friday I took a walk from my company’s office on Wall Street up to a dinner party in Alphabet City. It was a lovely foggy night and lower Manhattan looked splendid and foreboding: the skyscrapers disappeared into the clouds as though they had no tops and weird glowing halos wreathed the many lights of the finance district. I decided to walk through City Hall Park (which has a big Victorian fountain surrounded by flickering gaslamps which I like to look at), however, when I walked into the park I was stunned to see a large photoshopped sculpture/poster thing of two enormous cuttlefish mating on the entire planet! What could it mean? Has the mayor been reading Ferrebeekeeper? Have the cephalopods finally won a stake in city government?

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(also note the ammonite patterns on this shirt my mom made me)

Here is a shameless selfie of me with the aforementioned work…and it turned out it was not alone: the whole park was full of tentacles, sticky lizard limbs, and planetary bodies.

These sculptures are the environmentally themed artworks of Estonian artist, Katja Novitskova. I had wandered into her show by accident! She used digital technology (and microscopes and satellite imaging) to bring us a juxtaposition of small curious grasping creatures against a background of entire worlds. She particularly specializes in creatures which are the subject of extensive biomedical or biomechanical research—literal and figurative model organisms like the axolotl, the cuttlefish, and the little hydra.
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“EARTH POTENTIAL” (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

This theme is much in keeping with my own artwork which involves biological and historical cycles seen at differing temporal and spatial vantages. Yet because her works are so colorful and pleasing (and so photographic and digital) I am not inclined to view the successful Miss Novitskova with envy. The photographic sculptures remind me of Ranger Rick, the wonderful ecology-themed magazine of my childhood which always featured a “What in the World?” section of photographic sections removed from their original context and blown up. It was a real puzzle to figure out if you were looking at a vascular wall, a butterfly wing, or an aerial photo of the Nile Delta. Just thinking about these different scales (and the discomfiting similarities of appearance and perhaps even function) always blew my mind. So does Katja Novitskova’s artwork! I would like to thank her for putting it up in New York and wish her every success.
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EARTH POTENTIAL (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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Today’s post combines the splendor of summer, the loveliness of gardens, and the foreboding beauty of gothic architecture. How can we accomplish such a juxtaposition? By featuring a small gallery of Gothic summerhouses from estate gardens of the great and powerful (mostly in England).
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A summerhouse is a garden feature found in grander gardens than mine! It is a sort of folly building: a small open building in a garden or park where someone can sit during the summer time. Of course great aristocrats of yore had a different idea of what constitutes “small” or “open” than I do, so some of the summer houses in European gardens are practically houses in their own right. Looking at certain examples here makes me realize that for an Earl or Duke, summerhouse probably means “surplus house where you can party with a viscount and 20 retainers.” Still some of these houses are actually on the smaller side and could almost be gazeboes, playhouses, or “cots” (as simple huts were sometimes called).
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My old roommate Jennifer has decamped to the great Smokey Mountains to work remotely for a month and I am told she is doing all of her work from a splendid summerhouse. I wonder if she has something like these. Unfortunately the lords of Wall Street won’t let me out of the building during summer (which is most wise, since I would undoubtedly wander off or start drawing or gardening if not shackled to my workstation). Still one can dream about these beautiful structures and lazing away the golden months on high summer in such opulent magnificence!
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Sometimes I discover pictures of extremely beautiful items of immense interest on the internet, but there isn’t much information with them. That is the case for this gold diadem which was discovered in a Greek tomb at Madytos by the Hellespont. The exquisite beaten gold crown was probably made in 300-350 BC by master goldsmiths of the Hellenic era. It features the marriage of Ariadne (the princess of Crete who rescued Theseus) and Dionysus, the only Olympian deity born of a human mother. Dionysus and Ariadne each hold their own thyrsus, a cult object betokening the divinity of Dionysus (usually they are seen in art in the hands of frenzied maenads, but the royal pair are too august to be thus besotted by sacred wine).

Around the couple are exquisite floral motifs of field, farm, and forest wedded together. A pair of lyre players (one off screen to the left) serenade the apotheosized gods while doves strut at their feet. It is a beautiful crown…however since it has spent 2300 years lying in a tomb there is not much to say of its story other than what you can see for yourself writ in imperishable gold.

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Welcome back! I enjoyed some summer vacation for the Fourth of July weekend so the posts were a bit thin (or, uh, nonexistent), but now I can share the highlight of my long weekend. In addition to making a cherry pie, gardening, and going out to the beach on far Rockaway, I attended the ballet at Lincoln Center for the final performance of “Whipped Cream” a ballet by Richard Strauss! My erstwhile roommate, whom I miss greatly (despite her many misinformed ideas regarding empirical knowledge), arranged the outing. The ballet was enchantingly whimsical and beautifully danced, and the Strauss music was like a delicious classical confection in itself, but the highlight (for me) was the costume and set design by “pop-surrealist” painter Mark Ryden. There were huge sinister heads, weird meat stores, animatronic bees, and a giant dancing snow yak! Hooray!
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The plot of “Whipped Cream” is oddly similar to my favorite TV show “Adventure Time” (or maybe I should say that the other way around since the ballet arrived first by about 90 years) in that large swaths of both productions are dominated by the affairs of sentient candies and confections. The dance begins with a group of children going to the candy shop for a special treat after their first communion. The boy protagonist eats too much whipped cream and becomes ill. What follows is a fantastical montage of dancing candies, sweets, and beverages (of varying stimulating and intoxicating natures) and travel in and out of hospital wards and fabulous realms of pure unbridled flavor.
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The ballet was created in the mid nineteen twenties by Richard Strauss and was regarded at the time as a symptom of the fatuous extravagance of the twenties. A NY Times blurb I am reading says:

Strauss planned his ballet — “Schlagobers” in the original — as the biggest of several projects hoped to restore the fortunes of the Vienna State Ballet after the Hapsburg Empire collapsed; it was part of a decades-long fascination with dance on his part. Mr. Ratmansky has made welcome tweaks to the original story. (Strauss included, as part of the original plot for Act II, a failed revolution by the candy proletariat, with Jewish matzos throwing Communist pamphlets. This aspect was denounced by some as anti-Semitic at the time of the 1924 premiere and swiftly adjusted.) But Mr. Ratmansky’s response to this music doesn’t feel diplomatic; it feels energetically impish.

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Our seats were literally the last row in the house. Which gave me a great view of the entire stage, orchestra, and audience (you will recall from my Marsyas Theater, that I am interested by different sorts of stages). I drew the main stage at Lincoln Center for you here (immediately above). Additionally, I created my own whimsical surreal ballet design on the train ride over (which wasn’t so far from how the production looked.) I don’t know how to critique or even describe ballet properly so I will say that the choreography and costumes were enthralling and moved the viewer to a different and wholly fantastical dream world. Additionally, the main dancer Daniil Simkin, somehow seemed exactly like a naughty hungry little boy, until the most important dance passages, when he seemed like a professional athlete or possibly a super being. There were some moments where he really appeared to fly above the stage in defiance of physics. Although I acknowledge that this is a cliché of ballet, the effect was quite different in person—like watching Mariano Rivera throw fastballs on TV (where most things are all digital or animated anyway), versus going out to Yankees stadium to see him throw a ball faster than I have ever seen anyone throw something.
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Also there were three dancing liquor bottles (who were the comic relief) and Mademoiselle Chartreuse, was quite enchanting. Now not only do I want to go back to the ballet, I want to work with a composer to craft a magnificent and tragic fish ballet about the oceans today! Has anyone seen Richard Strauss around lately? Well, anyway, in a nod to our self-indulgent era, here is a picture of me in my opera clothes before the production. It’s nice to go out sometimes!

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We are coming up on the Fourth of July, our national holiday here in America when we all get together to celebrate being American. Mostly we celebrate by blowing things up, eating fattening food, and getting drunk—but whatever…we are after all American and those activities suit our national character. Yet lately there are real troubles in the USA: everyone is always fighting with everyone else over everything. The rich and the poor apparently regard each other as separate species (most unwisely in my humble opinion, since those states, seemingly so infinitely distant are not nearly so far apart as one might suppose). Ethnic and racial groups are sorting apart and clustering together even as like-minded individuals enter into their own echo chambers on the web. Drivers hate pedestrians. Dog owners and cat owners tsk at each other (although both sorts of animals are lovely pets). And beyond everything else there is the yawning chasm down the middle—the chasm between blue and red. This widening political gulf between left and right is paralyzing our nation and leaving us all poorer—both financially and in terms of experience, friendship, and opportunities. I have been disquieted by America’s growing animosity and fractiousness and I really hope you share my unhappiness. This is bad.

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What is going to happen when the latest economic bubble breaks and all of these divisions are thrown into sharp contrast as the money all sluices off to wherever it goes? I am a West Virginian who grew up In southern Ohio, Mainline Philadelphia, and Virginia. I went to college in South Chicago. I have seen red and blue America and they aren’t even that different! I feel like this tribal nastiness is being manufactured just so a bunch of narcissistic freaks can cling to power.
We are going to talk more about how to deal with this in later posts. If our country was united we could solve all of these logistical, moral, and fiscal problems which bedevil us in short order and resume building a future of beauty, meaning, and wonder. We will get there, but to celebrate the Fourth, let’s flee into a starkly different political climate: the past.
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For the 4th of July I decided to peak back through the history of my congressional district, which today is arguably the most diverse in the United States (consisting of unimaginably rich burgher-paradise of Park Slope, the inner city ‘hoods of Brownsville, the vast orthodox Jewish enclaves of Midwood, and the Russian and Central Asian immigrant districts of Sheepshead Bay).
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The history of the 9th Congressional District of New York was hilarious and remarkable. This congressional district has changed shape, color, and composition again and again like a cuttlefish at a rave. It has been redistricted and torn apart and pasted into so many different coalitions and coteries.
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Although it has mostly been a Democratic stronghold (with some congressmen and women who became famous (or infamous)—like Chuck Schumer, Geraldine Ferraro, and Anthony Weiner), there have been a fair number of Republicans representing the 9th District too. However, if you go back far enough there were other affiliations as well: Federalists, Whigs, and more than one candidate who were simply Anti-Jacksonian or “Opposition”. All the first representatives had Dutch names!
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The famous journalist Joseph Pulitzer was a congressman of the ninth district so was Thomas Bradley, a Tammany-era lawyer who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 31. There were remarkable beards and moustaches aplenty: there were weirdoes and heroes and forgettable placeholders. The only constant was change.
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We Americans aren’t just different in different regions: we change a lot not over time. If you are unhappy now, keep your chin up and keep lobbying to keep the democracy fair, civil, educated, and unbiased. Affairs will work out in the end so long as we remain democratic and bound by fair rules. History keep changing faster than you might think and mostly for the better. That trend will resume and we can start being the UNITED States of America again. We can build bridges instead of walls and canyons (which suits Brooklyn better anyway). Happy Fourth of July!
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