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The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

The three spirits sent by Nüwa as seen in a contemporary Chinese theatrical production

My favorite demiurge is the Chinese snake goddess Nüwa. Nüwa tends to be portrayed as a beneficent creator who loves humankind and goes out of her way to protect them (while modestly shunning the worship craved by lesser deities). There is, however, a scene in Chinese mythological literature where a presumptuous human manages to rile up the usually gentle goddess. In the Ming dynasty era epic Fengshen Yanyi (AKA “The Investiture of the Gods”) the last Shang ruler King Zhou, a legendary debauched ruler, visits the temple of Nüwa to ask for her blessing. The sybaritic king sees a pulchritudinous statue of the great goddess and makes extremely inappropriate remarks about her charms before defacing the temple with obscene poetry/graffiti. In response, Nüwa sets aside her traditional compassion and decrees that King Zhou will be the last ruler of the Shang kingdom. To make her pronouncement come true, Nüwa sends three spirits to destroy the king: a thousand-year old white vixen, a nine-headed phoenix, and a jade pipa. Each spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman and soon they are destroying the king and his empire with erotic wiles and the darkest treachery! I don’t want to spoil the rest of the tale for you, but perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that things go downhill for King Zhou… The moral of the story is to respect Nüwa, the mother goddess of humankind and maybe also beware if numerous supernaturally beautiful women are suddenly throwing themselves at you.

Chinese Fox Spirit

Chinese Fox Spirit

Nine-headed Phoenix

Nine-headed Phoenix

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

A woman holding a pipa (Chinese lute)

 

A Citrine (gemstone)

A Citrine (gemstone)

Citrine is the name of a deep rich golden yellow. It has been a color name in English since the 14th century (and it was the name for the same color in Medieval Latin—and before that in classical Latin). The word “citrine” also describes a gemstone which consists of yellow colored quartz crystal. Citrines are a semi-precious stone today, but they were once valuable and they can be found in various ancient crowns and classical jewelry. The word originally came from the deep yellow color of the citron, the wild ancestor of the lemon (which is a sacred fruit of the Old Testament), and because it is so descriptive of rich yellow it is used for the English name of numerous different birds and other creatures (like the citrine forktail below).

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Different fossil plants and animals from the lacustrine deposits of the McAbee Flora of the Eocene (British Columbia, Canada)

Today we return to the long-vanished summer world of the Eocene (the third epoch of the Cenezoic era). During most of the Eocene, there was no polar ice on Earth: a balmy temperate summer held sway from Antarctica to Svalbard. British Colombia was covered by a tropical rainforest where palm trees and cycads contended with warm weather conifers (and with the ancestors of elms, cherries, maples, and alders). Within this warm diverse forest, which thrived between 55 and 50 million years ago, lived numerous strange magnificent birds and insects. Shoals of tropical fish thronged in the acidic foaming waters (which were practically carbonated—since the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of the Eocene were probably double that of the present).   The mammals of this lovely bygone forest were equally splendid–strange proto-carnivores not closely related to today’s mammalian predators,  weird lemur analogs, and strange ur-rodents. This week the discovery of two new mammal species was announced.  These remarkable fossil finds provide us with an even better picture of the time and place.

a reconstruction of the early Eocene  in northern British Columbia, a tapir-like creature from the genus heptodon with a while tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

a reconstruction of the early Eocene in northern British Columbia: a tapir-like creature (genus Heptodon) with a tiny proto-hedgehog in the foreground. (Julius T. Csotonyi)

One of the two creatures discovered was a tapir-like perissodactyl from the genus Heptodon. The newly discover tapir was probably about the size of a large terrier. I really like tapirs (and their close relatives) but these remains are not a huge surprise–since many perissodactyls thrived in North America during the Eocene. The other fossil which paleontologists found is a surprise—an adorable surprise! Within a stone within a coal seam was a tiny jaw the size of a fingernail. Such a fossil would have been all but impossible to study in the past, but the paleontological team led by David Greenwood, sent the little fossil to be scanned by a CT scanner and then imaged with a 3D scanner. The tiny jaw was from a diminutive hedgehog relative since named Silvacola acares.  The little hedgehog grew to a maximum adult size of about 6 cm (2.3 inches) long or approximately thumb-sized. Since it probably lacked spines, this miniature hedgehog was a bit different than the modern hedgehog, but it was definitely a relative.

As discussed in previous posts, I like to imagine the balmy Eocene, when so many mammals which are now the mainstay of our familiar Holocene/Anthropocene world got their first start. It makes it even better to imagine that the thickets were filled with endearing hedgehogs the size of bumble bees.

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa,  ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

In Japan, the seven propitious gods are deities of luck, happiness, wealth and all good things. They are often depicted traveling on their treasure ship, the Takarabune (which is itself a major cultural symbol in Japan) which will sometimes suddenly moor at a town or province bringing overnight success and riches. Not only do these seven generous deities dispense wealth from their ship, they sometimes travel alone to find mortals to shower with gifts and boons.  In the above woodblock print, Fukurokuju, one of the seven propitious gods has disguised himself as an octopus, much to the raucous delight of two bystanders. The disguise is far from complete (!) which adds greatly to the comic effect.  Fukurokuju was a syncretized Japanese version of the Chinese god of the south polar star.  He was particularly affiliated with longevity and deep wisdom–a fact which makes his ludicrous antics all the more uproarious.  There is an additional pun/joke within the composition: in Japanese, people who are comically and completely bald are known as tako-nyudo (octopus monster).

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.

Fireworks-mulit-color

Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

In past years we have celebrated Independence Day with an historic picture gallery, possible national animals, and an essay concerning the lackluster national mascot, Uncle Sam. This year, let’s return to the basics: recreational explosives, or, as they are more commonly called “fireworks”. Blowing things up artistically in the sky has been the preferred method of celebrating this nation’s birthday since the 18th century.

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Fireworks were first made in China, but today they are almost entirely manufactured in, um, China. As such, Chinese symbols and names are a big part of fireworks. This is lucky for ferrebeekeeper since snakes, poultry, bees, wasps, flowers, and badass mammals like tigers, cats, and wolves are mainstay names for mass produced fireworks.

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I live in Brooklyn, and I can’t buy fireworks (much less light them off). Nevertheless the best part of fireworks is looking at the packages and fantasizing about the awesomeness which is just a spark away. Here is a gallery of firework packages which fit in Ferrebeekeeper’s topics array. Bees and birds are the best represented since not only do they fly but they are also beautiful and dazzling. I especially like the egg-laying hens which shoot exploding “eggs” out of their tail feathers. Unsurprisingly there are plenty of flowers, snakes, tigers, and hissing cats, but I was surprised to find pine trees, crowns, and octopus fireworks. Naturally outer space was featured, yet sadly there were no fireworks named for gods of the underworld (although I did find some “banshees”, which almost count).

Y22131-revised1 45160 320285-Chicken-Coup-8f1ddc9f3e29f9bff840150b0fc2f725 200791211379467 black_snake_toy_fireworks cd227 cob Consumer_fireworks_Ground_Bloom_Flowers_Ground_Spinners Crown Jewels by Epic Fireworks Fireworks-Color-Flowers-W026A- Giant-Octopus H-064 Hen_Laying_Eggs  J-005 KILLER-BEE L-017 panda_mecurial_bee_med Peacock_brick-4 Peacock-l Pheasant16s screaming-banshee small_strong_style_color_b82220_bumble_bee_strong_fireworks_revolving_shooting_strong_style_color_b82220_toy_strong_fireworks UKF-R8-SPACE-BLASTERS Wasp_Floral_Firework_electric_matchWild_Tiger_4da717f6d280aF-022F-500x500blackcat

Wow! I’m sorry we can’t wait for dusk and light these all off, but local laws prohibit that (as does the nature of reality). Enjoy the colorful exploding anemones in the sky at your local show and have a lovely weekend of feasting and drinking with your family and friends (and, for my international readers, I guess just keep savoring the world cup…your own national fireworks celebrations should be just around the corner).  Fireworks remind everyone that life is brief and it isn’t safe, but it is beautiful and amazing!

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Huzzah!

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

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Wake up, soccer fans! Today I will celebrate the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship which is currently being played in Brazil. Well actually I was going to write about this year’s world cup tournament, but nothing interesting has happened so far except for that Uruguayan player who repeatedly bites people (and apparently he has already been captured, sedated, and returned to his native habitat without further human injuries).

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Since nothing exciting has happened in this tournament, I will write about the previous World Cup Soccer Championship Tournament which took place in South Africa in 2010. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything that happened on the pitch in South Africa. Clearly I was otherwise preoccupied…plus I am an American and we are famously obdurate in our inability to understand soccer (also we already have several dozen better sports to follow). Only two aspects of those matches stick in my memory: 1) the fearsome buzz of the vuvuzela, AKA “the devil stick”, a horrid musical instrument which first arrived on Earth inside a radioactive comet (probably because humankind failed to win a cosmic moral bet); and 2) Paul the octopus, a magical cephalopod who could predict soccer matches with greater accuracy than any of the world’s human pundits, psychics, and bookies.

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon...

The vuvuzela being played by a lesser demon…

I believe that in-depth writing about the vuvuzela is now prohibited by international treaty, and I have nothing comprehensible to say about soccer (which seems to be a sort of agonizingly slow hockey with arcane kabuki-like dramatic conventions), but I would like to take a moment to eulogize Paul, who was not just a remarkable octopus but also a first-rate showman. Like soccer, Paul originated in England. In 2008, he hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England. Paul soon moved to Oberhausen, Germany, which, Wikipedia informs us, is an anchor point on the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Paul was a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), a species known for intelligence, lively personality, tool-use, and acute senses. His oracular abilities soon became apparent during the UEFA Euro 2008 tournament. Before each match, Paul’s keepers would offer him two identical seafood treats in bags or boxes which were identical except for national flags of soccer playing nations. Whichever bag Paul chose to eat from first was reckoned to be his choice for match winner.

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul chooses between Spain and Germany

Paul was a German Octopus and initially he only voiced his opinion concerning German matches. He distinguished himself by correctly choosing the outcome of 4 out of 6 of Germany’s matches. But 2008 was only a lead-up to his remarkable World Cup predictions. During the 2010 World Cup, Paul correctly predicted every match which he was consulted about. This resulted in unprecedented world popularity (and infamy) for the tiny sea creature. Fans of the losing teams threatened Paul’s life, (which ultimately lead the Spanish Prime Minister to offer him state protection). The president of Iran denounced Paul as a symbol of Western Imperial corruption. The German press speculated that 2008 Paul had died and been replaced with a savvier octopus in 2010. PETA demanded that he be released to the wild (which would certainly have spelled the end of the aging tank-raised celebrity mollusk).

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Paul chooses the winners of this World Cup from the great hereafter

Sadly, Paul passed away on October 10th, 2010 at the age of two and a half (ripe old age for a cephalopod). He was memorialized with a statue and the very funny Google doodle seen above. Paul’s life illustrates that through PR savvy and complete random chance anyone or anything can become an International celebrity (although skeptical marine biologists note that Common Octopuses betray a preference for bright surfaces and horizontal lines—so those national flags may have played a bigger role than thought). Since I failed to blog about him in 2010, I thought I would take this opportunity to eulogize the most famous octopus in the world of sports (which is saying something, considering the role of Al the Octopus in hockey). His tragic passing marks the last time soccer (which is also known as “football”) was enjoyable…although maybe somebody will find a cuttlefish who can correctly calculate penalty kicks or a whelk that can play the Croatian national anthem…

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