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The dominant religion of Burma/Myanmar is Theravāda Buddhism.  But there is a pervasive older animism which lies just beneath the surface of Burmese Buddhism.  This ancient folk religion centers around the worship of “nats”, spirit beings which can be found in natural things.  Nats are complex and take on different forms and meanings depending on local custom and belief (although lesser nats tend to be tricksome and irascible).  Human beings can become nats, particularly if they die gruesome violent deaths. The worship of nats takes various individualistic shamanistic forms, but the universal practice throughout the land involves placating the nats with little shrines and offerings of bananas and coconuts.

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The stolid Buddhist monarch, King Anawrahta (1044-1077 AD) was frustrated with the widespread worship of nats and he tried to stamp it out with royal edicts and persecutions, yet people merely worshiped on the sly, replacing their nat statues with coconuts (which could always be passed off as, well, just coconuts).   Anawrahta realized he could not eradicate the people’s folk belief, so he formalized it by introducing 37 greater nats and giving them a chief with a Buddhist name. Additionally he tried to tie the 37 nats closer to Buddhist iconography and practice.  Yet the ancient traditions still persisted and the 37 nats (who endure as a national pantheon to this day) are not entirely convincing as Buddhist devas, which is how they tend to be portrayed).  For one thing, almost all of the 37 died in terrible carnage (which is known as “green death” in Burmese).  Likewise, they don’t quite seem to have the divine perfection and blissful superhuman happiness/tranquility of devas or Bodhisattvas.

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Shingon “Lady Hunchback” from Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s “The Thirty Seven Nats”

For example, this is Shingon (ရှင်ကုန်း) aka “Lady Humpback.”  She was a “maid” of the handsome womanizing King Thihathu of Ava, but it sort of seems like she was maybe a concubine or a sorceress since she accompanied the monarch in battle.  She was on her way back to the capital Ava when she “died”…which also seems like a euphemism (?) for being poisoned (Thihathu was also murdered with arrows at the order of the beautiful evil queen Shin Bo-Me).  After her “death”. Lady Humpback transcended into a nat, but, despite her godhood, she thereafter walked bent over in agony with her arms swaying lifelessly.  If I apotheosized into a Burmese deity. this is not how I would want to be!  Does anyone out there have a more comprehensive version of this tale?  I think I am going to have to go to the New York Public library and look at actual books to find out more, but, even so, I get the feeling the real story might not be written in any language other than Burmese.

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A nat shrine of bananas and coconuts

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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

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La belle Hortense (Francine Huot) acrylic

Here is some contemporary chicken art by Canadian painter, Francine Huot.  Huot was born in Chateau-Richer,  a town near Quebec City and she came to professional painting later in life, after raising a family and making a career as a nurse. 

Look at the splendid bravura lines of jagged red, white yellow and brown which form a ball of abstract calligraphic squiggles…which is somehow a perfect hen striding through the summer countryside.  Some paintings are filled with allusions, deeper meanings, and extraordinary portents of doom and glory.  This painting is not like that at all.  It is a beautiful swift impression of a chicken.  Yet its bravura freshness and speed also convey real feelings of the darting hungry energy of the poultry yard.  It is a lovely work of contemporary impressionism.  I wonder if Huot’s life as a nurse (a profession where one does extremely neccessary things with swift economy) influenced her life painting chickens with a flurry of swordsman’s brushstrokes!

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As I was researching medieval Gothic shoes the other day, I kept stumbling across modern Goth shoes for young people who enjoy black clothes and heavy metal flair.  It is worth contrasting these remarkable examples of footwear with the Gothic shoes of yesteryear and enjoying the boundless creativity and energy which humans pour into fashion and self-expression!

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In addition to black leather and studs/spikes, the Goth shoes are noteworthy for their incredibly thick soles and high heels.  Looking at the pointed Crakow shoes of yesteryear, I marveled that anyone could walk with such long shoes.  Looking at the contemporary Gothic shoes I marvel that anyone could even lift up their feet while wearing them.  As the years go by, styles change enormously, yet it seems that some things never change–like our tendency to take fashion statements to ridiculous extremes in order to score status points (are “crocs” ever actually fashionable though?).

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I did however find this one pair of shoes that combines the Medieval AND Modern Gothic sensibilities! Check out these puppies:

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This is the elephant foot palm.  Despite the name, it is not a true palm (nor an elephant!) but is instead a member of the asparagus family.  The genus name is Beaucarnea and the most common of the 10 or so species is Beaucarnea recurvata, which is widely grown as an ornamental houseplant.

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Beaucarnea recurvata

This species is from Eastern Mexico (from the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí) where it grows in dry lowland forests.  It is capable of reaching a height of 5 meters (15 feet) but is usually much smaller and it grows slowly (although it is capable of living for centuries).   The most striking feature of the little tree is the swollen caudex at the base of the trunk, which is used for storing water in the trees arid home range.

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Beaucarnea gracilis in the Huntington Garden, Pasadena

This caudex, combined with the punk rock leaves/fronds gives the tree an irresistible Dr. Seuss-esque appearance which has made the plants popular in the nursery trade (if you get one, be sure to keep it warm and don’t overwater it).  Alas, its popularity has been detrimental to the wild trees which have been overharvested for sale to nurseries and ornamental gardens.  However with the world’s climate warming up as fast as it is, maybe they will take over Texas or California or France or something.  Who knows anymore?

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Beaucarnea recurvata in Parrot Jungle, Miami

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I am extremely sorry that my posts have been so thin on the ground for the last fortnight.  I don’t have very good excuses for last week (although maybe the brain-melting heat wave which swept through the region provides some cover), but last night there was a blackout in Brooklyn, and there was no way I could write anything in the digital realm!  Being cast back in time made me reflect on the world before the internet and electricity.  Specifically I became fascinated by non-electrical lamps (which you never really think about until you need them).

Although I filled up my darkened house with LED tea candles and glowsticks, other peoples have not always had recourse to such safe options–like the Romans, who were forced to rely on candles, fires, torches, and their favorite night time standby, the oil lamp.  Ferrebeekeeper has touched on how the symbols and visual culture of Ancient Rome do not always make sense to us today…and indeed today’s post offers a powerful example of that.  Oil lamps came in all sorts of shapes and sizes (some of them seem to have been commemorative, or tourist trap items), but one of the absolute favorite lamp shapes was a foot.  These oil foot-lamps were sometimes bare and sometimes super ornate, but most often they are wearing handsome sandals.

So, why are these things shaped like feet?  Trying to research this question on Google resulted in me being whisked to various strange theological explanations of the Book of Romans by Dr. Lightfoot!  I was hoping that this was the foot of Mercury or something, but I never did get to the bottom of what is going on.  Speaking of which, the best hint I got was that the lamps may have been placed at the bottom of a mural so that the painting glittered in the darkness…which is to say these were the original and literal footlights.  This makes no sense to me, but it is sort of a modern English pun, I guess.  Perhaps it was a pun or a satisfying visual cue to the Romans as well.

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Roman Foot Lamp with Sphinx Handle (Excavated in Libya, manufactured ca.1st century AD) Pottery

Whatever the case is, I love the feet!  These lamps are truly satisfying to look at, so maybe the Romans were on to something (they got roads and aqueducts right, after all).  If anybody wants to make a new old-style lamp company I am opened to that.  Also, if there are any classics majors out there who could explain this, please help us out in the comments!  I am unhappy with the “footlight” explanation and I long for a real understanding of what is going on with these charming feet!

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Roman Imperial Foot-Lamp (Ca. 3RD-4TH Century A.D.) bronze

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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Tiger Flounder Omega

Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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Today is Nunavut Day!  Long ago, on July 9th of the far distant year of…uh…1993 the Parliament of Canada established the territory of Nunavut, which was carved out of the catch-all Northwest Territories (a vast expanse of tundra, wilderness, and ice at the northern end of the Americas).  Nunavut includes most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as well an innumerable northern islands–including some which are quite huge.  The region has an area of  2,038,722 square km (787,155 sq mi) meaning it is the same size as Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany combined, however Nunavut is rather more sparsely populated than these locations and has a total population of less than 40,000 humans (whereas the collective population of Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany totals approximately half a billion people).

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But we are not here to quibble about a variation of a few zeroes in population size. The important thing about Nunavut is its rich cultural heritage! This is reflected in the flag of Nunavut, which is what I really want to talk about in this blog post.

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Here it is! This flag was crafted in 1999 by an unholy process involving 800 hand drawn submissions from across Canada, a committee of Inuit elders and artists, and Queen Elizabeth II.  This improbable group collaborated to make a vividly unique and colorful  banner.  The red device in the middle of the flag is an inuksuk, a ceremonial land marker from Inuit culture, and the blue star is Niqirtsuituq, the North star.   According to Wikipedia “The colours blue and gold were selected to represent the “riches of land, sea, and sky”, while red is used to represent Canada as a whole.”  Apparently there is no explanation for the white (although a traveler in Nunavut at any time other than mid-July would probably not need an explanation for that particular color).

Although the flag is unique in its appearance and imagery, it has been criticized by vexillologists for having too many colors, having two bright colors as a background, and for the placement of the star.  Seemingly vexillologists are as vexatious as their name makes them sound.  Join me in the future to criticize their flag! In the meantime enjoy Nunavut Day and try to imagine the serene coolness of that vast northern land.

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