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hart-island

Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

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As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

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In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

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The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

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That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

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52768 (1998 OR2)

On Wednesday morning at 5:56 a.m. (New York Time), the world will receive a reminder that things could always be a lot worse when a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) asteroid zips by Earth at 31319 kilometers per hour (19,461 miles per hour).  The great boulder goes by the not-very-lovely name 52768 (1998 OR2).  It was discovered in 1998 by NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, a program established to protect the denizens of Earth from possible space collisions (although our current terrestrial troubles suggest we may need to get our act together a bit better if we ever hope to, you know, actually do anything if one of these things comes straight towards us).

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“But I voted to make dinosaurs great again!”

Fortunately during this pass-by, the asteroid will be a comfortable 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) away.  That sounds disturbingly close, but it is really 16 times farther than the moon. Astronomers are carefully measuring the fly-by though, in order to learn what they can about asteroids, and because 52768 (1998 OR2) will be back…and next time it will be much closer.  In 2079 it will probably be 3.5 times closer than it is this time, so mark your calendars for that: it might be a bit more exciting than this time around.

StadiumToday we are taking a peek at the future where new things are being built.  Unfortunately, the United States has decided never to make (or even fix) anything ever again, so we have to look abroad for exciting (or just outlandish) new edifices.  All of which is a way of introducing this incredible new stadium which is being built in China.  Behold the concept drawings for the Guangzhou Evergrande Football stadium.

When I say “football” in this context, I don’t mean the American game of proxy warfare, but instead the accepted international name for soccer, a dull game which is sort of like slow hockey on a big grassy field.  But who cares if the game is not worth watching?  The stadium itself should prove to be so interesting that it will distract from the bland sporting spectacle.

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An hour and a half of this

The Guangzhou Evergrande is designed in the shape of a sacred lotus,  Nelumbo nucifera (a plant which we need to write about more). With seating capacity in excess of 100,000, it will take the crown of world’s largest soccer stadium from the Camp Nou Stadium in soccer-crazed Spain.  If you are wondering what the grandiloquent name “Evergrande” means, it is the name of the real estate consortium building this giant concrete flower.  I wish I could tell you more about the actual building of one of the mega stadiums (because I have a feeling that even the most general parameters are breathtaking), but alas, all I have is this picture of heavy lorries preparing for groundbreaking last week.

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The stadium should be finished in 2022.  Only time will tell if it turns into a beautiful world-famous landmark or if it is just another CAD torus with some fripperies on it.  The lovable Chinese practice of building whimsical buildings which look like things makes me hope for the former, but the interchangeable tax-payer subsidized sports stadiums of the United States make me skeptical.  We also need to know more about the lights which will be installed on it, because the 2008 Olympics revealed that the Chinese have a true flare for such things.   Above all else, it is just a pleasure to see somebody actually working on something ambitious (even if it is a soul-devouring Chinese real estate consortium).  Do you think we could learn to like soccer by 2022?  I guess we will have to appreciate it as uhhh…novelty floral sculpture.

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This picture certainly makes it look like it would be delicious if you ordered it at TGIFridays

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April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

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The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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Cherry Tree at Dusk (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020), watercolor and colored pencil on paper

There is a large & venerable Kwanzan Cherry Tree in my backyard in Brooklyn.  Each year it blooms for a week (or less) and during that time the garden becomes transcendent in its sublime pink beauty.  Nothing symbolizes the sacred renewal of spring more than the cherry blossoms (which I have blogged about often in the past).

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Rennie Burning the Broken Fence (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

Year after year the blossoms come and go so quickly, and, stumbling along behind, I try to capture their evanescent glory with my art.  Yet I am never satisfied.  This strange pandemic year, I had a bit more time in the garden to draw (after all there were no blossom parties to prepare for) and…for a moment I thought that perhaps I got a bit closer to capturing a smidgen of the tree’s beauty.  Yet, now that I have photographed the drawings and watercolor paintings, suddenly they seem alien from the tree’s living glory.

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Cherry Blossoms and Holly at Night (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor

So it goes with human endeavor, I suppose.  At any rate, here are the drawings.  There is a fierce wind howling outside right now (and near freezing temps) so I have a feeling that this is the blossom art portfolio for this year (although maybe I will try some more tulip paintings before those go too).  It all goes so fast.  it is all so beautiful.

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Cherry Blossoms and Tulips (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

Anyway, here are my cherry blossom paintings this year.  Take care of yourself and be safe.  There will be another spring next year when we can have the full party with all of the trappings!

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Cherry Blossoms on Easter (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor and Colored Pencil on Paper

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April is poetry month! Since this is a downright peculiar April, I was hoping to reach back through history to 542 AD, 1350 AD, or 1666 AD in order feature some monumental poems about pandemics and how to get through these harrowing eras of fear….

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Yikes! I guess things could be going worse…

Uh, that effort is still ongoing…  Whereas visual artists address pestilence head-on by painting landscapes filled with grim reapers, corpse wagons, Catherine wheels, walking nightmares, undead armies, and whatnot, apparently famous poets address plague by writing about something else entirely.  I guess professional writers know that one of the secrets to living off of your art is to write about things people want to read about (speaking of which, this post should probably be about Miley Cyrus instead of worldwide plague (insomuch as there is a difference)).

Anyway, while we continue to comb the anthologies for the perfect poem from yesteryear, for today’s post, here is a poem from today.  As noted, poets shy away from this theme, so we had to bring in a visual artist, the indelible Yayoi Kusama, world renowned grand master of polka dot art, in order to get a Coronavirus poem.

Here is what she writes

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
Revolutionist of the world by the Art
From Yayoi Kusama
Although from a pure literary perspective, this poem is perhaps a bit spotty (hehehe), what it lacks in allusion, symbolism, or meter is more than made for with earnest goodwill and sincerity.  Kusama also does not want for temerity, directly adjuring the virus to disappear from Earth (an idea which is about as lovely as any I have come upon recently).
Perhaps the poem’s greatest weakness is that it speaks so guilelessly for itself that there is little to say about it.  Thus to round off the post, here is one of Kusama’s lovely polka dot artworks.  I surmise that her choice of themes–vines, corals,  or mushrooms (which are the fruiting bodies of much larger hidden underground networks of mycelium)  is really about how nodes form much larger networks.  Maybe she will paint some rangeomorphs!
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Mushrooms (Yayoi Kusama, 2005) acrylic on canvas

It is worth further noting that, Kusama’s great lifetime retrospective at the New York Botanic Garden was interrupted by the pandemic. If/when this quarantine lifts we can look forward to seeing that show in person and writing more about networks and nodes.  For now though it is back to Facebook and Zoom.  We’ll talk more next week!

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Here is an illuminated page of the Grimani Breviary (which is named after a Venetian cardinal who purchased it in 1520 for 500 gold ducates).  The breviary takes the form of a calendar and here is the page for April, which features a party of nobles out in the spring countryside falconing.  The work is filled with infinitesimal details, but my favorite parts are the capering jester (who has somehow become entangled with a tree as he brandishes his grotesque marotte) and the opulent yet ethereal carriage of Time which, unseen, flies above the procession.  The work was completed sometime around 1510 in Flanders.  Note also the Crakow shoes worn by the foppish noble in shimmering green and scarlet at the right.

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As our civilization swiftly declines due to incompetent leadership, exploitative economic practices, and overuse of natural resources, it is worth looking back through history at some of North America’s other societies to see how they solved the problems of food, housing, and defense.  Most complex civilizations rely on a base of agriculture in order to assure a food supply for their population (and agricultural concerns then become enshrined in society’s fundamental compacts–as in feudalism or slave-based latifundias or what have you), yet some civilizations have formed in locations so rich in natural resources that urban societies can be built without agriculture. Such is the case with the Calusa civilization of southern Florida, AKA “the shell people.”

Calusa society was built upon a single animal…literally!  The fisher-folk constructed enormous artificial islands (and other aquatic structures) out of oyster shells.  These edifices were built over generations out of hundreds of millions of individual shells.  The greatest artificial islands seem to date from around 1300 and 1400 A.D.  The Spanish wrote compelling descriptions of the Calusa capital at Mound Key, where the Calusa chief (or king?) had a ceremonial palace/keep capable of holding 2000 people which was built atop a massive man-made island which loomed ten meters above sea level.

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From their capital, the warlike Calusa ranged north to what is now Tampa, east to Lake Okeechobee, and south through their heartland in the keys down to the thousand islands.  The Calusa people were impressive traders who obtained goods through vast extended trade circles and apparently they were even more noteworthy warriors (“Calusa” means fierce). Yet what is most striking to modern researchers is that they were apparently pioneers of aquiculture.  Some of the great constructions made of oyster shells seem to have been water corrals, where schools of fish were driven to be stored live for later consumption.  The largest watercourts were several times the size of an NBA basketball court and were probably used to hold schools of mullet, pinfish and herring.

The estuarine fisheries of the Calusa seem to have been robust (witness how many oysters they harvested!) and they successfully withstood Spanish hegemony for 200 years, yet disease and colonial wars took a heavy toll and the society was conquered by Creek and Yamasee raiders early in the 18th century.  Shortly afterwards the Spanish Empire ceded its Florida lands to Great Britain and the British forcibly evacuated the last remnants of the tribe to Cuba.

 

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Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1638) Oil on Canvas

To celebrate Easter, Ferrebeekeeper usually posts a crucifixion image on Good Friday, but, this year, we are highlighting a different part of the story.  Here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt showing the moment when the resurrected Jesus (apparently wearing a 17th century pirate costume which must have obtained on the other side of the grave) reveals himself to Mary Magdalen.  Poor Mary is unable to fully grasp what is going on.  The expression on her face vacillates between raw astonishment, delight, disbelief, grief, and madness as the human mind grapples unsuccessfully to categorize and grasp divinity.

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