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Stauroteuthis syrtensis (photo by David Shale and Claire Nouvian)

One of the reasons I chose mollusks as a topic is to illustrate how diverse life on our own planet is. The mollusks are an insanely heterogeneous phylum of creatures and they have been successful around the globe for the last 540 million years (at least). Even today in the ultracompetitive Holocene world, mollusks thrive just about everywhere.  To illustrate this point I am showcasing the enigmatic deep water octopus Stauroteuthis, of which two species are currently known.  These octopuses are only found more than 700 meters underwater in the Atlantic Ocean.  Although they are most common around 2 kilometers beneath the surface the creatures have been spotted as far as 4 kilometers down.  The Stauroteuthids are small benthopelagic octopuses (they are free-swimming but live in close proximity to the ocean floor).

(photo by David Shale)

The Tree of Life Web Project gives us the following overview of Stauroteuthid morphology:

Stauroteuthids are peculiar, gelatinous cirrates with a mantle opening that forms a complete tube around the funnel. They also have peculiar gills and internal shells and a large web that is nearly equally developed between all arms. When observed from submersibles, this octopod commonly has its arms and web formed into a bell-shape (bell-shape posture). Sometimes when the octopod is disturbed, it will inflate the web and draw the arms together at their tips to form a “balloon” with the arms and web (balloon posture). These postures are thought to be involved in feeding and/or defense.

That is nearly all we know about them—it is difficult to study creatures which live 2 kilometers underwater. However I have left out the most exciting fact: the Stauroteuthids are bioluminescent.  Certain muscle cells around the suckers have been replaced with photophores which allow the Stauroteuthid octopuses to light up their eight legs like plane runways.  The purpose of this luminescence is unknown but it is believed to be for predatory purposes (the lights are thought to direct prey to the octopus’ beak). Possibly the lights also help the octopuses to find and communicate with mates.

Bioluminescent Suckers (photo by ORCA)

Since I have already written so many mammal posts I am creating a new blog category for mammals (I will leave out human concerns to concentrate on zoologic overviews of other species, but please remember that technically we too are mammals and all of the posts on this and every website could fall under this category).  To make way for the mammals I deleted the “celebrity” topic for good (I had hoped to make fun of our queasy fascination with lackwit celebrities–but other than an one sighting of the disquieting Richard Simmons, I had nothing). Begone vile celebrities! The age of the mammals has dawned.

The Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis

I already have plenty of posts about goats, pigs, wombats, hyraxes, and bizarre intelligent monotremes with which to populate this category, but to kick the topic off properly I am writing today about the alpha-predator of the Amazon.  This mammal is the king of the Mustelidae (also known as the weasel family) and, if you have ever seen a lightning fast stoat hunting a rabbit, or smelled a skunk, or watched a badger drive off a bear, or witnessed a wolverine tear apart a moose, you will know that the weasel family is not joking around. [ed: what? When did you see any of this?] The largest mustelid is a particularly magnificent creature—the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) which lives throughout the Amazon basin and Pantanal.  The giant otter is a long animal and males are up to six feet (2 meters in length) and weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms).  Much longer males measuring nearly 8 feet in length were once reported but it is believed that extensive hunting may have eradicated all of the really giant giant otters.

An Immature Giant Otter held by Wildlife Conservation Worker Diane McTurk in Guyana

Giant otters are tremendously accomplished fishers living largely on cichlids, characins (such as piranha), and catfish, but, as an apex predator they are opportunists who supplement their diet with snakes, crabs, turtles, and caimans.  Although the otters are diurnal predators who hunt at daytime using their large acute eyes to find their prey, their hearing is also excellent and they possess extremely sensitive vibrissae (whiskers) to gauge the faintest water current.  Like other mustelids, giant otters have fast metabolisms and they eat about 10% of their body weight per day.  Their adaptations to aquatic life include webbed feet, ears and nostrils which clamp shut, powerful tails for swimming, and incredibly dense fur.  As with their cousins the sea otters, this valuable fur proved to be their undoing. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hunted to the very threshold of extinction by furriers (and by fishermen who regard them as a clever nuisance). Their numbers still remain low today: only 2,000-5,000 giant otters are estimated to live in the wild.

Orphaned Giant Otter Cubs

Giant otters form family groups around a mated pair.  Older offspring from years past stay with this pair and help out rearing the young cubs before venturing off on their own. They travel widely through the inundated forest during flood seasons and spend the rest of the year based around a fishing camp which they build beside a lake or a choice stretch of river.  These camps consist of large multiple entrance home dens built under and around tree roots as well as several secondary locations (along with communal latrine areas).  The otters might also alter river beaches to be more to their liking by removing vegetation.  The fur of the giant otter is usually brown, red, or fawn and the otter’s bib is marked with cream and white stipples.  These are for identification purposes: otters “persiscope” up out of the water to get a better view of each other and to learn whom they are meeting.  Giant Otters are also famous for their complicated (and loud) vocalizations.

A Giant Otter "periscoping" (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

Although the adult giant otter has no natural predators, young otters must look out for caimans, jaguars, and anacondas. Additionally the giant otters compete for prey with these creatures as well as with river dolphins, large predatory fish, and large turtles.  The otters are always on the lookout for dangerous stingrays and electric eels.  None of these natural threats, however, are particularly significant compared with the threat from habitat loss, logging, mining, and industrial pollution.

Some of the native humans indigenous to the great river basins believed the otters were river spirits who had, once taught valuable lessons to the first humans.  Other native peoples (particularly fishing people) held that the otters were worthless nuisances to be killed or run off whenever sighted.  Such sightings however grow increasingly rare as the giant otter, the longest mustelid, vanishes forever away from all but the wildest places in the rainforest.

A Wild Giant Otter Devouring an Armoured Catfish (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

A Hellmouth Structure from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster.  This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology.  Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.

Hellmouth close-up from "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art.  The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440.  The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise.  The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys.  Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.

From "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum.  Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).

A full page from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

Today, Ferrebeekeeper ventures far far beyond my comfort zone into that most esoteric and pure realm of thought, mathematics.  But don’t worry, we are concentrating on topology and geometry only for long enough to introduce a beautiful, intriguing shape, the torus, and then it is straight back to the real world for us…  Well, hopefully that will prove to be the case–the torus is anything but straight.  It is, in fact, very circular indeed, and, as we all know, it has at least one big hole in it….

Wikipedia defines a torus as “a surface of revolution generated by revolving a circle in three dimensional space about an axis coplanar with the circle.” That’s hard for me to wrap by head around but the meaning becomes much more comprehensible in the following illustration.

So a torus is a circle wrapped around in a circular path.  You can find a variety of other ways of mathematically representing the torus here, but the simple definition suits our purpose.

One ring toroid them all....

I admire torus shapes because I think they are very beautiful.  Just as the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence are aesthetically appealing, there is a pleasure to merely beholding or touching a torus: ask anyone who has contemplated a ring, a golden diadem, or a cinnamon donut.  Talk to an indolent adolescent sprawled on an inner-tube bobbing on the surf, and you will immediately grasp the hold that toroids have on humankind.

And beyond humankind....

In addition to its obvious aesthetic merits, however, there is a mysterious aspect to the torus, a hint at hidden dimensions, negative space, and infinity.  Kindly contemplate the old eighties video game Asteroid (you can play the game here if you are too young to remember: amusingly, your ship is an “A” which reminds me of Petrus Christus’ enigmatic painting).  If you pilot your ship to the far left of the screen you emerge on the right side of the screen: the flat screen represents a cylinder. However, to quote Bryan Clare from Strange Horizons, “the bottom of the screen is connected to the top as well. This has the same effect as if the screen were rolled into a cylinder, and then bent again to glue the two circular ends together, forming the familiar donut shape.” So, when you play asteroids you are trapped in a miniature toroid universe which appears 2-dimensional. Try to blast your way out of that!

The following famous math problem further illustrates the nature of the torus.  Three utility companies need to connect their respective lines (gas, water, and electric) to three different houses without ever crossing the lines.

Connect each utility to each house. Don't cross the lines.

The problem is impossible on a two-dimensional Euclidean plain and even on a sphere, however topologists realized that if you poke a hole through the plane or the sphere (thereby making it a torus) the lines can be connected.

To finish the article here is a movie of a torus being punctured and turned inside out. The result is a torus of the same dimensions but with reversed latitude and longitude.  It’s hard not to love such a funny shape.  But it is hard for me to wrap my mind around the larger implications.  I think I’m going to stop trying and head off for some donuts.

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have reviewed giant catfish, upside down catfish, coral reef catfish, and tiny parasitic catfish.  We have described electrical catfish that jolt their prey with great sizzling bolts of energy and catfish that walk on land. There is such a bewildering proliferation of different catfish that surely we must finally be running out of these magnificent creatures.

Phreatobius cisternarum (photo from Janice Muriel-Cunha on Planet Catfish)

Not at all.  Today’s featured species of catfish is Phreatobius cisternarum, a Brazilian fish which is lives in phreatic habitats.  Hydrologists will be sitting up in alarm because this means the catfish lives beneath the water table: it is literally an underground catfish.  When people in parts of Brazil dig wells they find this catfish is already there!  Although to be fair, the fishes are discovered in shallow wells but do not live deep down in confined aquifers (at least not that we know of).

The Water Table with Confined and Unconfined Aquifers (USGS)

Phreatobius cisternarum lives both to the north and the south of the Amazon River delta as well as on the Island of Marajó (a freshwater island approximately the same area as Switzerland). It is not a large fish.  The biggest specimens grow to 2.2 inches in length (5.5 centimetres). Phreatobius cisternarum also does not seem to be a particularly gregarious catfish: individuals pass their time in the darkness hiding motionlessly in crevices waiting for the macro-invertebrates they feed on (worms being a particular favorite).  With broad heads, vestigial eyes, and vermiform fins, there is something chthonic about these little catfish.

The fish are a distinctive blood red color because they exchange oxygen through their gas permeable skin. Not only do the tiny fish utilize cutaneous respiration, they also are known (like many catfish) to sip air for its gaseous oxygen. Living in subterranean waters which have little soluble oxygen, these catfish have learned to maximize every atom of the precious gas. For a long time Phreatobius cisternarum was the only known member of this genus, but in 2007 two new Phreatobius species were discovered underground.  These two species, P. dracunculus and P. sanguijuela, are entirely eyeless.  Little is known of Phreatobius cisternarum: the creature’s mating rituals, lifespan, and habits remain a mystery.  Even less is known of the two new species.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud.  Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms.  It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America.  Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.

Cercis siliquastrum in Greece (a stunning photo by Waqas Ahmed)

The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California.  Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.

Aagh! Why you gotta be that way, religion?

Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.

There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

Lichen (by WiseAcre)

Cast your imagination back half a billion years ago to the Cambrian geological period.  Although Earth’s oceans were seething with strange experimental life forms, the alien continents were bleak and empty.  Huge brown mountains sloughed away into giant canyons. Black volcanoes eroded into naked black beaches. Great flash floods poured over a landscape bare of plants and animals. No horsetails grew.  No dragonfly buzzed.  Not even a miserable liverwort crouched by the empty streams. But were the ancient continents entirely bare? No—bacterial films and single cell algae were believed to have covered the land, and looming above that primitive slime were the first lichens, symbiotic life forms so hardy that they alone thrive on continental Antarctica today.

Red Lichen living in Antarctica (photo by Gerhard Hüdepohl from

Lichen is a bizarre composite organism in which a fungus is paired with a photosynthesizing partner (either green algae or cyanobacteria).  The thallus of lichen (which makes up the organism’s body) is very different from either the fungal or algal components living on their own.  The fungi surround and hold up the algae by sinking tendrils through the algal cell walls (in much the same manner parasitic fungi attack their hosts).  By sharing the resources of the two different partners the organism is capable of surviving extreme desiccation, and, when the lichen is again exposed to moisture, a flood of nutrients becomes available to both partners.

Lichen (from "Art Forms of Nature" E. Haeckel)

The partnership makes for an extraordinarily resilient organism which can be found everywhere on land from the rainforests to the deserts to the highest mountains to the harsh frozen rocks of Antarctica. The European Space agency explored the durability of lichen by blasting living specimens into outer space where, to quote the ESA, the organisms were “exposed to vacuum, wide fluctuations of temperature, the complete spectrum of solar UV light and bombarded with cosmic radiation. During the Foton-M2 mission, which was launched into low-Earth orbit on 31 May 2005, the lichens…(Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans) were exposed for a total 14.6 days before being returned to Earth….Analysis post flight showed a full rate of survival and an unchanged ability for photosynthesis.”

Lichen dot the face of a Song Dynasty statue on Qingyuan Mountain, China.

Lichens’ strange partnership also creates strange morphological forms. In many circumstances these organisms resemble exotic corals, sponges, or plants. Additionally, many lichens are brightly colored.  The result is often a miniature landscape of bizarre beauty.  I have included some photos from sundry sources but you should check out the lichen photos at Stephen Sharnoff’s site (even disfigured by the trademark, his lichen photos are the best on the net).

Competing Lichens Growing on a Rock

Since it involves both algae and fungi, lichen reproduction can be complicated and takes many different forms depending on the species and the circumstance.  Some lichens form soredia, small groups of algal cells surrounded by fungal filaments which are dispersed as a group by wind. Others produce isidia, elongated outgrowths from the thallus which break away.  During the dry season, certain lichens crumble into dusty flakes which are blown across the landscape.  When the rains come the flakes burst into full growths.  In the most interesting and complicated pattern of reproduction, the fungal portion of the lichen produces spores (as a result of sexual exchange and meiosis) these spores are disseminated across the landscape and then must find compatible algae or cyanobacteria with which to partner.


Community Lichens is in the Sawtooth Mountains (photo by Mark Dimmitt)

Lichens are probably long lived and it is possible that somewhere there are those that make the bristlecone pines seem young and have lasted as long as Pando, but who knows?  We have not explored and documented the world’s lichens very completely…or even fully understood the mechanisms of their partnership.  What is certain is that they are one of life’s most efficient colonizers: in areas such as the Atacama Desert and Antarctica, plants cannot grow unless lichen lived there previously (in fact I am going to include this post in my “invaders” category for just this reason). Lichens are also efficient at exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, and they are a critical link in the carbon cycle capable of fixing elemental carbon back into the soil and into the ecosystem.  When you look at a tundra landscape and savor the beauty of reindeer, mountains, and arctic birds, spare a thought for the ancient lichen, one of the first organisms on the land and still one of the most important.

Lichen slowly colonize a New England gravestone from the 1700's.

The Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) is revered as an aesthetic high-water mark in Chinese civilization.   During this period (and later during the Yuan Dynasty) the city of Quanzhou in Fujian was one of the largest seaports in the world–if not the largest.  Although Quanzhou was the starting point of the maritime silk route, diverse ships from around Asia came to the port to trade for tea, herbs, lychees, rice, paper, porcelain, and art as well as for precious silk. At some point during this Song era of prosperity, unknown craftsmen carved a magnificent 20 foot tall statue of an old man on the nearby Qingyuan Mountain (which means Pure Water-source Mountain).

Originally known as the “Rock of Immortals”, the statue is believed to represent Laozi, the founder of Taoism.  The carved stone sage still looks surprisingly good despite its approximate thousand year age. The great statue of Qingyuan Mountain was originally at the heart of a complex of temples and related buildings. Although these architectural structures were destroyed a few hundred years later, the statue was carved from the durable bedrock of the mountain itself and so it survived. The statue still stands looking down on Quanzhou which is again growing prosperous from the same trade goods and from some new ones including footwear, fashion apparel, packaging, machinery, and petrochemicals.

Covered in lichen, Laozi is surrounded by freely growing flowers and trees.  The great green bulk of Qingyuan mountain rises up behind the serene old sage. Laozi wears a peaceful but solemn expression.  His fine flowing robes cascade down over his solid form like waterfalls 9which proliferate from local springs) and his hand rests on a table as he looks off into the clouds. Although the kind face and grandfatherly beard of the sage speak of benevolence, the antiquity of the statue and its penetrating gaze hint at otherworldly secrets.  Laozi was famed for his knowledge of the secrets of magic and his mastery of the elixir of immortality.  The statue at Qingyuan is surely one of the loveliest in the world.  Surrounded by nature but overlooking an ever changing city, the work is a perfect homage to the founder of Taoism.

In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture).  Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.

Abtei im Eichwald (Caspar David Friedrich, 1810, oil on canvas)

Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes.  Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether).  By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence.  He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War.  Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch.  Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.

Huenengrab im Schnee (Caspar David Friedrich, 1807, oil on canvas)

Friedrich came back to this theme again and again.  Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald.  The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees.  The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation.  Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness.  Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2011