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Scooby-gang-1969

We’ll get back to talking about the fear and ignorance which is tearing America apart in later posts.  For right now, I would like to say goodbye to one of the people who defined my childhood and provided me with endless delight back in the Saturday mornings of the 1970s.  Joe Ruby (1933-2020) was a writer and producer who worked with Ken Spears to create “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” a hit animated series about four teenagers and a Great Dane who traveled around in a groovy van, solving various mysteries.

Each episode featured a supernatural mystery, which, upon closer inspection was revealed to not be supernatural at all.  The ghosts, monsters, phantasms, and sorcerers were always revealed to be scary tricks employed by grifters and con-artists (usually as part of a real estate scam or a smuggling ring).  The gang would unravel the mystery and unmask the villain through classical sleuthing, slapstick, and ratiocination.  Although the gang occasionally collaborated with other classical American cultural heroes, such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Batman & Robin, and the Addams Family, the real break in the case usually came from the group’s intellectual, Velma, who would spot a loose thread and pull at it until the villain’s ridiculous scheme lay exposed in its full venality.

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“Scooby Doo” debuted in 1969 and eschewed the violence which was a staple in other cartoons because the studio was concerned about the the wave of political assassinations which had rocked the sixties.  Although some of the various spin-offs (of which there were many) abandoned Ruby’s core principle that the supernatural stuff was not real, the original series was actually a show about enlightenment values and reason (albeit dressed up with plenty of hijinks and a talking dog).

In most cases of “Scooby Doo Where Are You” the gang was able to figure out who the monster really was by means of a simple question: who would benefit from scaring people?  Then it was a simple matter of conquering their own fear to  unmask the villain.

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Joe Ruby also wrote “Thundarr the Barbarian” a post apocalyptic show about a distant future where everything is hopelessly ruined and grotesque warlords oppress the world’s beleaguered survivors.  Maybe if everyone had asked more “Scooby-Doo” type questions centered around rational, material evidence, the dark world of Thundarr would never have come into being.  You must cling to reason, even if you are scared, otherwise the monsters step out of the smoke and mirrors and become real.

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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

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Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

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Commencement at Liberty

The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

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Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

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I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

Kindly accept my sincere apologies for not writing any posts last week!  It is late August, the last moment of proximate calm before the big election, and it seemed like an ideal moment to take some summer vacation (also I have had to keep on trucking to the office this whole time, so I needed some downtime).

Anyway, to get back to the affairs of the world, the 2020 United States presidential election is indeed coming up!  Unfortunately I find it completely enervating to write about the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump is a criminal, a con-artist, and a would-be-dictator.  Despite how eagerly he is embraced by Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical leaders of such ilk, Trump is no Christian at all: Trump’s true master is not Jesus but Vladimir Putin.  If you doubt it, just compare Trump’s (nonexistent) deference to Jesus to his (supine) deference to Putin. In New York it is widely speculated that the only way Donald Trump was able to borrow money after multiple high-profile bankruptcies was because the Russian mafia (which is, again, to say Vladimir Putin) backed exorbitant loans to Trump so that he would help them launder money through his crooked real estate empire.  So far Trump has successfully fought off all of the (somewhat feeble) attempts by investigators to get to the bottom of his financial relations with Russia, but the truth will eventually come out someday.  Since even the most dim Americans would probably (?) object somewhat to an American president who openly works for Russia only, Trump has confused the issue by attacking the concept that anything at all is knowable in any way.   Attacking knowledge itself (!) has had more severe ramifications than usual in this time of pestilence (although all of the other terrible harms which Trump has done the nation will become more obvious in time). All of which is to say nothing of Trump’s self-evident tyranny, cruelty, idiocy, sexism, mendacity, anti-environmentalism, racism, cronyism, nepotism, cowardly personal behavior, and unpleasant personal appearance.

And here is another problem: today I had meant to write about the Democratic National Convention (which was much more earnest, heartfelt, and effective than I had imagined it would be), however outrage over Trump has trumped my message of support for Biden. Trump derangement syndrome is not a real thing (there is no effective way for Americans of conscience to accept or even comprehend this corrupt oaf is indeed in the nation’s highest office where he is happily destroying everyone’s future), yet just beginning to look at Trump’s corruption  drowns out all other themes! It is yet another terrible emotional trap of these Trumpian times. My old anti-Trump posts were more thoughtful than today’s self defeating screed because everything hadn’t become Trump all of the time!

I promise I will write about the Democratic convention tomorrow.  It was an improvement on old-fashioned political conventions and I have a feeling we will be seeing more things like it, (even in a blessed Covid-free future).  In the mean time, perhaps it is necessary to begin coverage of election 2020 by denouncing the brazen & outlandish criminal who today sits at the Resolute desk. Joe Biden can and must beat him (otherwise the nation is going to break and a lot of us are headed off to concentration camps).  Tomorrow we will deliberately look away from the Walpurgisnacht rituals currently happening in Charlotte and talk about why a Biden/Harris victory will be a good thing even if we omit Donald Trump from the picture entirely.  Then we will get to work omitting Trump from the picture entirely.

After the horrible election of 2016, a friend of mine who is more sanguine about life  than I (and more effective at predicting what markets will do) opined that we don’t have to worry about Trump and the Republicans.  “Trump is like the pied piper leading Republicans into a crack in the mountain” my friend said. “The fact that he won, merely means that they are truly following him all the way into the unseelie darkness before the crack slams shut and vanishes.”

And yet I wonder if Trump hasn’t already taken all of us into the darkness already.  The Democratic convention gave me a moment of hope that there are still some people and things which won’t be destroyed by Trump’s final act. We will talk about it tomorrow.

 

Today is World Elephant Day.  I love and esteem our great gray friends with all of my heart. Not only are they exceedingly intelligent, they also have human length lives and humanlike webs of lifelong social connections (to say nothing of their deeply heartfelt and entirely relatable emotional depth).  The conclusion that elephants are our peers and worthy of personhood (a strange word which has only existed since the 1950s, but which implies autonomy and legal rights) should be inescapable.  Yet a shocking number of people are incapable of seeing how much we share with our non-human fellow Earth organisms. Such folk draw a shining line around people (or certain categories of people!) which no counter-argument or evidence can ever seem to breach.  Perhaps this state of affairs was tolerable in the past when there were never-ending herds of elephants and humankind was trying to eke out a precarious existence–yet that is not the way of things today.  With our overpopulation, infinite appetite, and our grotesque battle for status in the eyes of other humans (which is how resources and hierarchy are allocated) we are causing the extinction of elephants.  We talk so much about seeking intelligent life in the universe, but we are killing off the intelligent life which is already right here on order to make ivory fripperies and unproductive farmland (which will all be desert in five years).

Worst of all, the remedies for this malady lie beyond the reach of people of conscience.  We cannot force people to stop trying to feed their families. We can’t allocate the affairs of impoverishes nations whose kleptocrat leaders are happy to trade away all of the elephants for predatory Chinese loans.  I don’t know what the solution is (although my private heart whispers that the proper home for tomorrow’s humans lies far beyond the beautiful fragile world which gave us life).  Yet world elephant day asks us to think about the problem before it stops being a soluble one and the elephants are gone forever.  I suspect that if we allow such a thing to happen, we will follow the giants in to the abyss not very long afterwards (if you doubt me, take a hard look around you).  Think about the problem as you gaze out at Venus and write down your ideas in the comments below.  In the meantime, to make up for this troubling post, here is a charming Chinese painting of a little elephant family together in the forest.  Look at how happy the little elephant is!

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Nothing irreversible has happened yet…at least on a planetary scale… but fixing the problems caused by humankind’s prolonged adolescent growth spurt is going to take self-discipline, cooperation, and imagination on an elephantine scale.

Here is a Cretaceous drama (including both original players) captured in amber and perfectly preserved for 99 million years.  A predatory “hell ant” (haidomyrmecine) was grasping a proto-cockroach (Caputoraptor elegans) in its strange vertical mandibles when a dollop of sap preserved both creatures in resin.  Because it was so well preserved, we can see how the hell ant’s mouth parts are completely different from those of modern ants. Today’s ants all have horizontal side to side scissor-like mandibles.  The ancient hell ant has scythelike vertical mandibles which meet up with horn like appendages on its forehead (like a platybelodon…if its upper tusks came out above its eyes).

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The ant was found in a piece of amber from modern Myanmar and gives us a precious window into the lives of ancient ants (which were seemingly as widespread in the age of the dinosaurs as they are now, yet were also completely different than they are now).  The first ants evolved during the Jurassic (170 million years ago) so the hell ant is nearly as far removed from its first ancestors as today’s ants are from it.  Sometimes it seems like the way we picture the world–an empire belonging to dinosaurs, Andrewsarchus, or humans–must be ridiculous to ants.  To them we macrofauna must seem like ludicrous obscene monsters who dwell in a different world and are doomed to disappear in the immediate future (the same as Kardassians appear to us normal people).

The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

In all of these posts about crowns, I have been ignoring/omitting the royal headdresses which I think are most gorgeous.  This is because crowns from this vast syncretic archipelago nation often defy traditional interpretation and classification as crowns (which sounds weird now, but which will become more comprehensible when you see today’s example).

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Also, Indonesia is enormous

Indonesia is a land of more than 17000 islands, including Java, the world’s most populous island.  Lying between major continents, oceans, hemispheres, and eco-regions, these islands have been reassembled in countless different forms into all manner of different empires, kingdoms, principalities, alliances, satrapies, colonies, and what ever other political units you can think of (although perhaps the most influential was the Majapahit Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist sea-based empire which was headquartered in Java and provided the cultural and aesthetic roots for contemporary Indonesian society).  Sometimes almost all of Indonesia has been unified.  Other times the islands have gone in different directions.

Anyway, as you can imagine, the complex history of these seventeen thousand islands partakes greatly of Indian, Chinese, South East Asian, Japanese, African, Australian, European (particularly Dutch), Melanesian, Polynesian, Papuan, Philippine, and American influences.  The gifted Indonesians (who have a particular genius for sculpture) have figured out ways to take all of these different flavors and make something which is breathtaking and uniquely their own.  Here is a crown from Singaraja, a Balinese City which was the courtly center for Dutch influence over Bali and the Sunda Islands between 1850 and 1950.  Like the British in India, the Dutch preferred to rule by subalterning small regional kingdoms into the merciless clutches of an anodyne-sounding “company” (The Dutch East India Company).

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King’s Crown from the Balinese Royal Court of Singaraja

This crown is from the second half of the nineteenth century (or maybe the early 20th century) when some local monarch had it made in emulation of a Dutch officer’s hat.  Look at how much it resembles an [American]  civil war cap!  And yet, despite its shape, this hat is nothing like an American/European military hat of that era.  It is made of gold and gemstones with undulating floral zoomorphic patterns on every inch!

Is this a crown?  Certainly. And yet if I pulled it out of a prop box, it would probably not pass muster.  Indonesian history has many similar caps, but I have never written about them, because of how hard it is to write about the baffling history of this enormous and complicated (yet not well-studied) part of the world.  Keep your eyes open for unfamiliar opulence ans (sigh) confusing and wordy explanations like this one!

One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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