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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

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Quarantine Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood, Polymer, Mixed Media

America is still floundering quite a lot…and so am I! To prove it, here is a quarantine flatfish bas relief which I made on commission during the pandemic.  The Gothic-style sculpture is carved of wood and the little inhabitants (who are sheltering in place in their elegant town houses and cottages) are crafted of polymer.  I also carved the spires with a lathe, however goldsmithing is beyond me, so I ordered the base-metal crown online from a discount crown-dealer (who even knew there were such things?).  My favorite part of the work is the poor fish’s anxious expression and worried eyes.  In the upper right golden arch a fatuous king stares blearily at his malady-filled kingdom.  His vacuous first lady queen is his bookend and stares at him malevolently from the opposite side of the continent fish.  Between them is a crypt filled with sad little figures in shrouds, burial wrappings, and body bags.  A plague doctor winds his way through the virus-shrouded landscape as a gormless (and mask-less) yokel breaks quarantine near the flounder’s tail.

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Above them all, a dark spirit of pestilence wearing costly robes orchestrates events from the sunset heavens.  This is the realm of coronavirus now.   Let’s get our act together so I can build a beautiful new flounder of radiant health and justice! (Also let’s quickly go back to being a democratic republic: we may be experiencing a medieval type event, but there is no reason to go back to the venereal-disease-ridden mad king model of government).

Oh! Also…if you like my flounder art, go to Instagram and check out an endless ocean of flounder.  Now is definitely the time!

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This summer I have spent a great deal of time in the garden which has been my refuge from the plague, turmoil, and strife.  I keep hoping that the carpenter bees will return, but I have barely seen any hymenopterans at all thus far (aside from little black and brown ants which seem to be as numerous as ever).  That all changed the other day, though, when a magnificent visitor swept into the garden!  A lot of hymenoptera are strikingly colored (as the velvet ants will testify) , however this dapper character looked like a refugee from a 1980s musical video or a disturbing anime.  Not only was this wasp’s jet fighter body the deepest brown (which was so dark it might have been black), but all four of its wings were the same color too! Not only was the whole creature sable, but its dark brown coloring was also iridescent blue/purple–so it gleamed like a blue revolver.  There was one noteworthy contrasting color on the wasp’s face– its huge antennae were fluorescent orange!

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Although the wasp seemed like it was preening on my hostas, as soon as I moved to get my camera it was gone.  So, alas, I have no photos of the strange visitor.  Fortunately though, this wasp was more visually unique than a Dick Tracy villain so I quickly found a match in the rogue’s gallery of wasps online: Gnamptopelta obsidianator, the “bent-shield beseiger wasp”

Now you would think that if crazy creatures like this were flying all over New York City, there would be plenty of information about them online, but you would be wrong.  It speaks of our human myopia that, although I easily found pictures of it, I could barely find out anything about the lifestyle of the beseiger (although one website opined that I had actually seen the lookalike wasp Thyreodon atricolor–so keep that in mind, for what it is worth). According to the internet, these wasps are both ichneumonids– parasitoid predators which lays eggs inside living hosts.  Paralyzed, the hosts still-living flesh provides a decay-resistant larger for the wasp larvae [shudders].

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Whatever you might think about the terrible things this wasp does to make ends meet, there is no denying that it belongs here just for its sheer fashion sensibility alone.  I will keep my eyes peeled for more of these magnificent yet troubling wasps–both in the garden and online.  I still can’t believe we know so little about creatures which literally live right next to us!

Imagine a flood of pure inky darkness spreading inexorably across the land and destroying all living things in Stygian gloom.  Well…actually you don’t have to imagine it.  Such a phenomena exists! When rain falls immediately after forest fires, the baked earth can not absorb any water and all of the ash, char, and soot become a gelatinous flash flood.  I have never mastered the WordPress tool for videos, but you can see such a flood by following this link.  I was fascinated by the horrible, otherworldly sight and I watched the clip again and again, but, be warned, it is as troubling and awful as it sounds (perhaps more so, since such events spell toxic doom for any aquatic or amphibious animals living in arroyos, riverbeds, and floodways so afflicted).

So why am I posting this unwholesome sight during this already dark plague year?  It is a warning, obviously.  After one thing goes horribly awry, it is all too easy to start a chain reaction of bad things which ruin the land itself.  Lately (since 2016) things have been going wrong in all sorts of directions.  We need to prepare for attendant woes and gird ourselves against them.  We also need to guard our forests against fire (and axes, invasive pests, and industrial mayhem).

 

 

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Orvieto

In the center of Italy is Umbria, a green land of deep forests and medieval hill towns. One of the most dramatic of these hill towns is the small city of Orvieto which is located atop a volcanic plug of tuff.  Atop the taupe butte, the ancient towers and campaniles of Orvietto rise above the dark green hills.  One building stands out beyond the others, the Duomo di Orvieto which is universally acclaimed for having the consummate masterpiece of Italian Gothic cathedral facades.

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Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the Cathedral of Orvieto was commissioned by Pope Urban IV sometime around 1263 as a suitable place to keep the Corporal of Bolsena, a miraculous uhhh cloth which soaked up the miraculous blood of Jesus which spouted out of a miraculous host (the sacred bread) in the nearby town of Bolsena.  The Cathedral was begun in earnest in 1290 as a classic Romanesque basilica, however progress was fitful.  When Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate as principal architect (project manager?) of the cathedral, the design morphed from Romanesqe to Italian Gothic.  It was an inspired upgrade which incorporated the best of both styles in the breathtaking facade (which is said to have been the creation of the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani).

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Creation of Eve (probably by Maitani)

The Facade is such a masterpiece, with so many things going on, that it is nearly impossible to describe properly.  Wikipedia resolutely approaches the task by breaking down the individual elements as follows:

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310.

The glittering mosaics of Mary’s life which make up such an impressive part of the facade have been redesigned and replaced since the originals were installed in 1390. However the great central rose window is an original by Orcagna.  The widow is surrounded by statues of Apostles within niches in the manner of French Gothic style.

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Naturally I was unable to find any high-resolution photos that really do justice to this supremely complicated book of a building, but here is a link to a clickable high resolution image if you want to examine particular individual elements.

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Actually the interior of the church might really be the feature of greatest interest to artists, featuring exquisite murals by Fra Angelico and crazy violent “Antichrist” mural by Luca Signorelli, but we will address those another day. How much apocalyptic stuff can we handle right now?  Let’s just enjoy the exquisite outside of this Italian Gothic wonder.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

 

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In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.

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Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.

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Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

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We have written about all sorts of jeweled crowns here at ferrebeekeeper (I particularly like spinels and aquamarines), but we have avoided taking about the gemstone which is most often reputed to be accursed–the chaotic & iridescent opal!  Can you imagine a cursed opal tiara? That sounds like it could be the McGuffin at the center of a sprawling fantasy epic…or at least a prop in a cozy mystery set in a sprawling manor somewhere.  Yet sadly, when I went online and started poking around, opal crowns (and crown-adjacent aristocratic headdresses) seemed a great deal less accursed than folklore would make them sound.

Whatever your thoughts about this superstition, opal headdresses are certainly beautiful.  Here is a little gallery of opal tiaras, diadems, coronets, and crowns.  Look at the beguiling rainbow of mysterious supernatural stones…

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Perhaps opal tiaras are just rare.  It has been speculated that the reason opals are reputed to be cursed is because they are fragile.  Trapped water inside of amorphous silica is what gives opals their “fire” but it also makes them prone to unexpectedly breaking.  Semi-precious jade has a similar problem, but jade sellers solved the problem by creating their own myth–that if your jade talisman or jewelry cracks, it has absorbed a dreadful misfortune aimed at the wearer.  Now that is how you do marketing.

Alas, the finest opals are more expensive than jade, and if you spend a king’s ransom on a glittering stone that unexpectedly blows apart into sand and jagged glassy pebbles, it is probably hard to see it as anything other than a curse.

These worries however are for the jewel buying class. We can simply enjoy these opal pieces without worrying about them breaking. Ahhhh, isn’t it delightful not to be overly burdened with fragile costly gemstones?

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These are troubled times for the nation as we sort out what portions of archaic, outworn, or unethical philosophy have brought us to this ghastly low point.  Our national leaders have conducted some focus groups, examined some metrics, and taken a great deal of money from interested private parties.  This has allowed America’s leaders to comprehensively conclude that they are certainly in no way to blame for mass death, unemployment, and nationwide unrest.  We still need a scapegoat though, and one prominent group has been singled out for particular moral censure.  This time next year a great many of these familiar figures may be missing–gently lead out to pasture, forcibly retired, or worse.

I am speaking about mascots of course! Not only has Gritty been accused of punching children in the back (so far he has, surprisingly, been cleared of all charges) but Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and, almost certainly, the Washington Redskins are on their way out too. Yet this is the great thing about mascots. They are designed to reflect our values by selling us corn syrup, wood pulp, and brain damage.  When it is obviously time for them to go we can just take them out and put them by the curb (unlike say Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, or Ted Cruz who have decided to take the country straight down into hell along with them).

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Is this who we are…or who we were?

We all know about what happened to Aunt Jemima, but an equally famous frontman mascot is also being surreptitiously mothballed (although, looking at him, it seems quite possible that he will fight his way back from the basement). I am talking about “Big Boy” an iconic brand of the bygone automobile age.  Big Boy began in Glendale California in the 1930s and quickly became the name, logo, and emblem of a chain of diner-type restaurants across the country.  During the ’50s and ’60s when American life was conducted entirely from cars (as far as I can tell based on anecdotes) the oversized statues of the shiny anime-eyed be-pompadoured lad in checked suspenders were everywhere.  I have my own fond memories of hamburgers and sundaes with grandparents during the 1970s and 80s.  Indeed I even took the winsome Lorraine Hahn to a Big Boy in Falls Church when I was a junior in high school (an all-time apogee for the brand…and for my young dating life).

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However tastes change and Big Boy has really been losing steam in the last few decades.  Even though he isn’t exactly a problematic mascot as such, his cisgender (?) Warner Brother cartoon masculinity and his eagerness to serve don’t seem to quite fit our times.  Therefor, Big Boy is being given emeritus mascot status and the job of shilling new food offerings at Big Boy franchise locations will be handed over to…

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Dolly! Dolly has been an obscure supporting character from “Big Boy” comic books of the 1950s, but now 70 years later she is getting her chance to helm the franchise.  It has been a confusing year and Dolly looks comforting and nice, maybe she will breath some fresh vitality into a restaurant chain that I really do have a surprising number of fond memories about.  I hadn’t thought about Big Boy restaurants for years until writing this post, and then suddenly long vanished vacations and special meetings with family members have come flooding back and now I am blinking away tears thinking about how all of those fudge cake sundaes really meant that Grandma loved me.

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Anyway best wishes to Dolly.  She has some big shoes to fill (snicker) but I feel she is up to it.  Big Boy himself will still remain enshrined in the name. Additionally, I suspect that a number of franchise locations will look at the cost of tearing down a 14 foot concrete statue during a pandemic and discover new appreciation for old boys.  In the meantime I wish everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry the very best. That is always such hard work…and frankly it seems impossible right now.  I promise I will come buy a hamburger from you all as soon as I can (you are invited too Lorraine, if you are somewhere out there).  This post was supposed to be funny and snarky, but it has made me reflect on the real sentimental power of silly shared kitsch.  I wonder if people 70 years from now will be misting up over memories of diner food with loved ones under the familiar shadow of Dolly…

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Ancient Clam Shell Jewelry from Prehistoric Israel

Intriguing archaeological news from Qafzeh Cave, a prehistoric burial site located at the bottom of Mount Precipice in Israel.  The anatomically modern human remains found interred in the cave are 92,000 years old–among the oldest Homo Sapiens remains discovered outside of Africa.  However the cave did not just contain ancient skeletal remains–indeed the upper levels of the cave (which is to say, the younger/newer layers) were filled with stoves, stone tools, animal bones and all manner of campsite detritus.  Yet, we are interested in the layers below the ancient graves which predate them by tens of thousands of years.  In these strata, anthropologists discovered the shells of Glycymeris bivalves, carried from the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers away.

The shells bear evidence of having been prepared (perferrated/polished) and hung on wild flax string.  Some shells even had ochre stains on them.  These were special adornments–jewelry–for the humans who dwelt in the Lower Galilee region of Israel 120,000 years ago.  They are striking in their lack of obvious utility, and are among the first cultural artifacts known.

Alas, we can not know the precise meaning which these adornments had for the hunter-gatherer folks of prehistoric Galilee, but, based on everything we know about subsequent humans we can certainly make intelligent guesses. The shells were ornaments which indicated status.  They could also have indicated group identity or reflected personal beliefs of the wearer.  Another nearby cave had shells from 160,000 years ago–which must also have been carried by ancient humans to that site.  Yet the 160,000 year old shells had no perforations or marks of wear from string.  Somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 years ago we made some real leaps forward in terms of string and accessories!  It doesn’t surprise me that the phylum Mollusca was involved (obviously clams had been important to us as food and tools for tens of thousands of years before we discovered their use as stringed body ornaments), yet I do find it worthy of comment.

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