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A short pictorial post today…but a good one. Behold: baby skunks!

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The world seems to little appreciate skunks and gleeful stories of them being crushed or poisoned were common when I was growing up.  It strikes me as terribly sad, since skunks are mild-mannered, non-confrontational, and eat all sorts of pests.  Also look at them! They are as adorable as kittens, and that is really saying something.

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Anyway, this isn’t really supposed to be a public service announcement (although I do hope you will be kind to skunks (although, like all of us placental mammals they can catch rabies, so avoid any that show up in daytime behaving strangely).  In the mean time, have a good week and stay healthy!

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Here is an interesting story from days gone by.  Back at the beginning of the 21st century, when there was a faint sense that things could be improved somewhat (a sentiment which has entirely vanished from the present moment) the world famous engineers of Mercedes Benz looked afresh at the animal world to see if they could find a way to maximize maneuverability, structural integrity, flow resistance, AND maximize space for a small fuel efficient car.  In the past such design exercises always centered around racing–and thus concentrated on sharks, falcons, and swordfish–animals which are fast and maneuverable but not really suited for carrying a little passenger cubicle.

The engineers of Stuttgart found an unexpected animal to mimic–the boxfish!  It turns out that boxfish are maneuverable, spacious, and tough but have an astonishingly low drag coefficient of 0.06 (as opposed to a swimming penguin which seems like the height of sleekness but has a drag coefficient of 0.19). Their amazing design capyured some of the sleek simple lines of the boxfish, while still keeping the functional practical aspects of a smart small hatchback (although the engineers could not figure out or incorporate the fish’s elegant heat-exchange mechanism (located in the tiny gill opening) nor could they utilize the creature’s three point tessellated scale plates (speaking of which, we need to talk about tessellation, if I can ever bring myself to look into the underlying math).

This car looks awesome to me, and I wish they had pursued the idea further. Probably some automobile executive informed the team that car companies are in the business of killing the world as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and so ended the quixotic project, but you never know, perhaps some boxfish elements will crop up again if and when autonomous super-efficient cars start to make their way onto the road (assuming that ever happens).

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Ok…here is one more bee story.  The blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) is an ultra-specialized bee which is found only upon a particular ridge of hills in Central Florida.  Or that is the way that things used to be: the shiny metallic blue bee has not been spotted since 2016 and it was presumed extinct. Above is a sad picture of a museum specimen.  The bee’s trademark shiny blueness is fading because of, you know, impalement and death and extinction and stuff (although, in fairness, it seems like the bee’s exoskeleton is blue, but its fuzz is grayish white).

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But wait! This story turns out not to be over after all.  On March 9th, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Chase Kimmel, discovered a living blue calamintha bee.  The busy little insect was rubbing its furry head on Ashe’s calamint flower in order to collect the pollen.  Since then, additional blue bees have been spotted, so the species is hanging on. The first bee was not a Martian manhunter style “last-of-its-kind” survivor.

Unfortunately, scientists and ecologists have not been able to further study the insects due to troubles in the human world…or maybe that is fortunate. Perhaps the last blue calamintha bees just need some privacy and human free bee time to rebuild the shattered kernel of their population.  Let’s wish them well, and I will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

 

The giant murder hornet story is fading from the public conscience and maybe that is for the best.  I was saddened to hear all sorts of stories of people going berserk and wiping out hives of honeybees and suchlike overreactions (although if anyone attacked any yellowjackets, I maybe wouldn’t shed too many tears over such an outcome–not that yellowjackets are apt to be phased by anyone coming after them with anything less than a flamethrower anyway). But the bigger point here is that bees are our lovable friends and we need to cherish them!

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To underline this, here is an annex story to go with all of the little watercolor pictures I painted in the flower garden during quarantine.  This is a carpenter bee, one of 500 difficult-to-tell-apart species in the genus Xylocopa.  Carpenter bees are gentle bees: Male bees have no stinger and female bees rarely sting anyone unless they are severely provoked.   They are called carpenter bees because they like to raise their families within little chambers inside bamboo or timber (which means you may want to watch poorly stored stacks of lumber to keep these guys from boring perfectly round holes in the boards).

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Anyway, as I was painting there was a sad buzz and a little thud.  A furry black bee fell out of the sky and was lying on one of the bricks in my garden! He lay there dazed for a bit and then tried to take off,  but only emitted an arrhythmic hum before keeling over on his side like The Dying Gaul (albeit with far more appendages and eyes). I don’t know how to resuscitate bees, but they are famously needy of energy (and strongly affiliated with a certain sugary natural source of metabolic energy) so I went inside and put some honey on a little stick and put it next to him. The bee weakly crawled over to the honey and eagerly lapped at the sweet amber like an addict, but then after a few more timorous buzzes he just sat there in the sunshine.

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I sort of expected to see a brown creeper fly down and eat the tired carpenter bee like a socialite gobbling up a fig wrapped in bacon, however it seems like my scheme worked:  an hour later there was a more substantial buzz from the brick and then moments later I saw a pair of carpenter bees slaloming off into the crabapple blossoms overhead! Of course the bee didn’t really do anything for me in this story (aside from pollinating my crops, holding up the ecosystem, and not stinging me) yet the whole incident gave me a sort of happy glow.  Here is a blurry picture I took of the little guy.  I hope he is ok out there in Brooklyn these days.  Maybe I need to get one of those little carpenter bee houses.

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My neighbor, the carpenter bee

 

As you can imagine, this year, my garden has been a particular source of solace and inspiration!  Alas, spring’s explosion of flowers is already fading away for another year.  As always, I tried desperately to hold onto the beauty through the magic of art, but (also as always) the ineffable beauty slipped away as I tried to capture it with paint. In fairness, the true thrust of my artwork lately concerns the crisis of life in the modern oceans (which is a rather different subject than pretty pleasure gardens).

A few weeks ago I posted the watercolor paintings which I made of the garden’s cherry blossom phase.  Here are some little sketches I made during the tulip florescence which followed.

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Leen Van Der Mark Tulips in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

These tulips are called Leen Van der Mark, and they are my favorite (since they look even more Dutch than they sound).  Initially there were even more tulips than this, but the squirrels beheaded quite a lot of them.  The strange metal mushroom is some sort of industrial vent/fan thing. Probably best not to think about it too much.

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The Broken Pot with Crabapple Blossoms (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is a melancholic picture of the non-flower part of the garden.  The neighbor’s cypress wall fell down in a spring gale revealing the wire, garbage, and urban chaos on the other side. I tried to capture the madness (along with the poignant broken pot and withered elephant ear), but I feel like I only managed to draw a blue halo around the fake plastic urn.

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Bleeding Heart Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

There are some small casts of classical sculptures in my garden.  This little sphinx always topples over unless it is secured to a brick or a paver.  The strange taupe “hands” are meant to be hellebore flowers–which are actually that color but which possess a winsome troubling beauty wholly absent here (although I guess they are a bit troubling). Once again we can see bits of the detritus in the neighbor’s exposed yard.

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Rhododendron in Spring Flower Bed (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is the opposite side of the garden,with some summer impatiens popping up.  I have forgotten what these orange and yellow tulips are called, but they remind me forcefully of my childhood (when I gave one to my schoolbus driver in kindergarten). The extreme right of the composition features a very beautiful and robust fern (although we can only see one of the surviving fronds from winter). In front of the frond is a species tulip, Tulipa clusiana, which is native to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the western Himalayas.  Those places are usually much scarier than Brooklyn, so perhaps it will naturalize and take over.

Thanks for looking at these pictures.  I am a flounderist rather than a garden painter, but it was good to have a pretext to just sit in the sunny garden and stare at the flowers for hours.  I will see if I can take the watercolor set out to the stoop and do a street scene as summer gets closer.  The police have been scuffling with quarantine scofflaws out front, so that painting might actually be an exciting picture (if I can watercolor fast enough to paint a near-riot).  Speaking of which, stay safe out there and best wishes for continuing health and some floral joy of your own.

 

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Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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Here at Ferrebeekeeper, we have featured some very ancient crowns (like this ancient Greek funerary crown, the legendary grass crown, the polos, or the pharaoh’s crowns from Ancient Egypt).  All of these rich and venerable royal headdresses beg the question: what is the oldest crown we know about? As with most questions, the correct answer depends on how you define the terms of the question.  Is a crown a chieftain’s hat or an ornamental star-shaped thing made of precious materials or a very specific royal object made a very specific way?  We fed these queries into the Ferrebeekeeper crown algorithm, and it spat out this strong contender for the oldest crown: a copper-age headpiece from the Judaean Desert (by the Dead Sea in what is now modern Israel) which was discovered in 1961 as part of the mysterious “Nahal Mishar” Hoard.

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Dating to circa 4000 – 3500 BC, the crown is wrought of copper and features two vultures next to two strange  shamanistic portals (or that is how the shapes are generally construed, at any rate…maybe they are elderly flamingos next to peg boards.  Maybe this isn’t a crown at all! Perhaps it is a trivet or a potholder or something. The piece did not come with an explanation).   Based on the other objects in the hoard (pottery vessels, ossuaries, religious statues, and wands/scepters) it is believed that this crown was utilized in the funerary ceremonies for high status individuals.  However the Nahal Mishar hoard is still perplexing to archaeologists.  Their best guess is that is that the objects are the sacred regalia of a shrine at Ein Gedi, (a habitation site twelve kilometers away), but nobody really knows what most of the objects are or why they were hidden in a cave.  Just to add to the ambiguities of today’s post, here are some of the other objects (sans explanation, of course).

 

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After posts about giant hornets which can dissolve flesh with their stings,  a huge asteroid passing by Earth, and a mass cemetery in New York City, it is hard to know what to write about next… Thankfully, astronomers are way ahead of me!  This week featured the announcement that scientists have discovered a black hole “right in our backyard.”

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Fortunately, what counts as our backyard to astronomers is not really our backyard by any quotidian definition.  Located in the southern constellation Telescopium, the newfound black hole is 1,000 light-years away: although it is the closest black hole to Earth discovered thus far, it is still 9.5 quadrillion kilometers away (5.88 quadrillion miles).  We probably won’t blunder into it by accident when we sneak downstairs for a midnight snack.

Black holes, as you know, are deformed patches of spacetime where gravity is so strong that all proximate matter and electronic radiation (like light) are pulled into the gravity well.  Black holes form when exceedingly massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle:  they become more massive as additional matter accretes into them.   For example the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is believed to have the mass of 431 million suns!

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The black hole’s orbit in the star system is marked in red

The newly discovered Telescopium black hole is nothing like that though.  Scientists estimate its mass to be mere 4 to 5 times that of the sun.  Astronomers were able to discover the object only because the other two stars in its solar system (which they were studying in order to better understand binary stars) were not orbiting each other in a comprehensible fashion.  Some massive third party was implicated…yet nothing was visible. Ergo, a black hole.  There are believed to be hundreds of millions or even billions of these invisible horrifying objects in our galaxy alone, but they are nearly impossible to find unless there are nearby objects for them to interact with (yet which have not been slurped down into the ravenous maw).

I wonder where the actual closest black hole to Earth is located? Maybe we don’t really want to find out…

Let’s get back to talking about New York City’s enormous sad potter’s field at Hart Island (hey, why are all of  my readers leaving?) Well anyway, when we left off, we had explained that the island is rich in poignant, important-to-remember narratives.  For example, the island’s history strongly contextualizes mistakes made early in the 1980s HIV crisis (not that we’ll ever have another viral pandemic hideously mismanaged by pro-big business apparatchiks in national government).  How can we draw attention to this history and properly memorialize the souls whose mortal remains are interred there?

As an artistic exercise, I thought about what sort of memorial would fit a small coastal island next to one of the world’s busiest ports.  Despite advocacy by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization (which also helps family members locate graves and works to beautify the site) , it is still difficult to visit the island, so the monument needs to be visible from the water or the coast. However, New York is already a chaotic place! We don’t need any more giant light beacons or 100 meter tall green ladies (although if you know of a friend for Lady Liberty, maybe let me know in the comments).

There is a sort of building from the past which fits all of these criteria perfectly: a lighthouse! Most of New York’s original lighthouses have been retired or are now cultural sites/tourist spots instead of working maritime devices.  I am sure we could fit a memorial sculpture in (in fact my favorite New York memorial is exactly such a thing), but how would we make it obvious that it is a monument to victims of HIV?

As a preliminary attempt, I designed this lighthouse  in the shape of a virus.  I painted it a cheerful pink to make it pop-out from the muted coastline colors of Hart Island, and of course to call attention to the unhappy stigmatization of queer communities which made the ravages of AIDS so much worse than what should have been.

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Model for Hart Island AIDS Cemetery Memorial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019)

Let me back up slightly and explain this somewhat peculiar model. The base is largely irrelevant (it is meant to illustrate that the lighthouse/sculpture needs to be landscaped into an appropriate vantage point on the old AIDS cemetery on Hart Island).  There is, however, one important landscape feature which doesn’t read very well in this little diorama: I hoped that the pathway from the main path over to the memorial plaque at the base of the lighthouse/sculpture might be a site where mourners and interested entities could place mementos.  I thought if these were all the same color (a chromatic convergence easily accomplished with an inexpensive vat of enamel) it would make the overall presentation more powerful and emotional. I chose pink since it is a sacred color to the LGBTQ community (I also thought the light beacon might be pink as well), however there are other virtues to pink.  It is visually bold and highly visual, however it conveys renewal, joy, and beauty. It is an unusual memorial color for an unusual memorial. But it is just an idea (pink is also one of my favorite colors). Black, white, or rainbow would all work too and each of those options also have many strong supporting reasons.

A virologist might point out that this actually a bacteriophage (or actually an abstracted  symbolic likeness of one).  That is entirely correct.  I wanted this to be a symbolic likeness so as to not have people’s final resting place overshadowed by an overly realistic version of the disease which killed them.  in the past, such a memorial would probably have had robed allegorical deities and subdued personifications of Death and suchlike figures (in the manner of the extremely beautiful USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle), however in the modern world I don’t think we have many (or any) sculptors capable of such exquisite figurative work, plus such a sculpture would fail to feature the component of hard-won medical knowledge which needs to be central to this monument.

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Speaking of which, why have a monument at all? I am sure there are readers thinking this is all “too much” or something we don’t need in a world of monetary woes and immediate problems.  I am more sympathetic with such a point of view than you might expect from someone designing abstruse neoteric memorials! However I think we really DO need pandemic memorials.  Consider the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We swept it under the rug and moved on with jazz age excess as fast as possible.  In doing so we forgot about the critical lessons of the Spanish Flu (to say nothing of its victims and its stringent hardships), and that was obviously a terrible mistake.  There are, of course, even more victims of Spanish flu than there are AIDS victims right there at Hart Island.  Maybe we actually need a comprehensive viral pandemic monument to honor them and the AIDS victims, and the souls who have suffered and perished in the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  That final post of this three-part series will have to wait though (since I need to get back to my studio).

In the mean time, please take care of yourself. Be safe and be of stout heart.  Hart Island reminds us that these terrible times have happened before (how could we have forgotten??) but it also reminds us that the pain and loss and suffering have all been endured before and that we grieved and kept moving forward.  Perhaps that is the real secret to navigating treacherous passages which are memorialized in funeral monuments.

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Oh, one more thing. Please leave your comments and opinions below.  The more points of view presented, the better that memorials are able to represent all sorts of different viewpoints!

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We will get back to plans for a Hart Island memorial in the immediate future, but right now there is something which needs to be dealt with right now.  Eight years ago, Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the nightmarish Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) a 5 centimeter (2 inch) long flying murder machine from East Asia.  The Asian giant hornet’s sting contains neurotoxins and an enzyme which dissolves flesh.  They are capable of stinging again & again & again…and then going home and living long successful lives untroubled by regret (unlike poor honey bees which perish after delivering one sting).  Every year the giant hornets kill dozens of innocent people who aren’t even allergic to bees.

And now they are here…

To quote ABC News,

The hornet was sighted for the first time in the U.S. last December, when the state Department of Agriculture verified two reports near Blaine, Washington, close to the Canadian border. It also received two probable, but unconfirmed reports from sites in Custer, Washington, south of Blaine.

This is obviously bad news for humankind…but, let’s be honest…nobody is really that worried about us.  We are already the Asian Giant Hornet of the primate world (and primates are truly aggressive, cunning animals).  Plus there are billions of us and we have all sorts of diabolical machines and contraptions.  The ones who are really in trouble because of this terrifying invasive hornet are bees.  Asian Giant Hornets live by hunting other insects like smaller hornets, praying mantises, and, especially honey bees.  Washington is the nation’s orchard.  It’s honey bees were already in trouble and they are not ready for this (did yoou click that link to the earlier post).  Gentle, kindly honeybees may never be ready.

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All of this means the giant hornets have got to go. We have a brief window where we could maybe stamp them out (figuratively…even our big feet might not be big enough to stamp them out literally).  So if you see a hornet the size of a goldfinch with Deadpool’s face (except the color of a finely aged, um, schoolbus) kindly call the Washington Department of Agriculture  as soon as possible*.  Do not grab a machete and a flamethrower and try to tackle these things on your own:  you will just end up on the Schmidt pain index.

(*Seriously? It’s only May, how much weirder are public service announcements going to get this year?)

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