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Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

I am sorry the new posts have been a bit exiguous here during holiday time. For some reason, I have felt a bit worn out at the end of this painful and distressing year and I was hoping to recharge a bit. This is also why today does not feature a real post about pangolins, spacefaring, or fashionable baroque colors, but is instead a short look back at 2020 (goodness help us) and a look forwards at some of the things that are next for Ferrebeekeeper and my allied creative projects in the new year.

Speaking of creativity, when I am working on big projects, I like to sometimes take breaks and work on other things for a little while. This is obviously NOT the way the great obsessive-compulsive masters of world capitalism do things (they prefer to burn people out by doing things as quickly and cheaply as possible without any breaks), and it is true that stopping work on a particular painting to work on some other drawing makes the painting take longer overall. Yet sometimes a hiatus allows the artist to return to the project with that most valuable of creative tools…a fresh eye. After a break, one can (sometimes) escape the mistakes and feedback loops that were ruining a cherished piece.

I mention all of this not just to hype my own creative projects (and explain why they are taking longer than I wanted), but also to mention that this pandemic year of fallow projects has a silver lining of sorts. As when the master comes back to a half finished allegory after a sojourn in Italy, we can now clearly see all of the flaws and virtues of the great unfinished work.

And looking at our society (after a year of not using it or working on it) obvious flaws of every sort pop out! For example, we learned that we are not ready for a pandemic! If this had been a virulently deadly contagion (or heaven help us, a disease which was hardest on children) we would be well and truly screwed. Our national healthcare system, once the paragon of effective medical research and care, currently resembles a grotesque, bloated leech! And attempts to remedy that problem (or anything else) are stymied by political paralysis. Partially because of demographic change and partly due to sabotage from one of the two parties (and from deep-pocketed special interest groups), our political machinery has stopped working properly. And speaking of giant machines which do not work right, globalized “just-in-time” supply chains do indeed allow for a paradise of cheap products, but the model is brittle and fragile. Everyone with an MBA is taught to see the world through exactly the same metrics. Those metrics do not reward creativity, elasticity, or sustainability. Our short-term business models are poisonous for our long-term goals.

But good things about this giant picture have also become evident. For one thing, the laser-fast targeted vaccines suggest that the long delayed biotech revolution we were promised in the ’80s and ’90s might finally be right around the corner. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology, AI, and materials science (and in cellular biology) mean that vast bio-medical breakthroughs are possible (if we could just evict the parasitic MBA types from making the top-decisions about what to pursue). Likewise the flaws of Reaganomics and Grover Norquist type thinking have suddenly become painfully obvious to everyone with any sort of brain or shred of honesty/decency. Political reform is very possible now too, but the whole electorate must work together to stop the Mitch McConnell (and allied corporate villains) from paralyzing and destroying our society.

Actually with a few political and economic reforms (and with a lot of ecological consciousness as well) society could be at the cusp of an all-time great decade! However we must work together to stop parasitic oligarchs, demagogues, and monopolists from leading us to more disastrous floundering of the sort which has been universally in evidence this year.

Not me though! I have plenty more floundering planned for 2021 (the good, creative sort). I will tell you about it tomorrow (since I went long complaining about MBAs and cartels). Suffice it to say, this will be a long winter at the drawing board for all of us… But we can make it work and fix everything and make all of our dreams come true. It’s just going to take [checks notes]…a lot of hard work, dedication, and organization? Argh! Maybe the outcome of the twenties is still up in the air. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow…

I wanted to post a follow-up picture from that last post of the full Christmas tree with my elderly housecat Sepia under it (and one of Grandpa’s wayang dolls hanging by the side). No matter how I photograph this tree the picture never looks right (and, of course, my photos are filled with tool boxes and chaotic art supplies which are everywhere when your studio is your house), but at least you get to see Sepia Cat emerging from her big puffy cat bed to look at the tree of life!

Also, below is a picture which is important to my big 2020 wrap up post (a special treat coming later this week). I drew a pandemic journal this summer as I sat in my walled garden and rode my bike around the strange plague-addled New York City, however it hasn’t quite been ready to post on the blog until just now. I will show you what I mean later this week (and also my digital flounder oracle is nearly ready for a relaunch). So many holiday treats! Enjoy the season and thanks again for reading and commenting!

The Pandemic Journal, middle panel (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) India ink on paper

It is December 16th and a winter storm is blanketing New York City in snow and howling at the windows. I wish I had taken some pictures in Midtown (I work on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building), but, alas, I was hurrying towards the subway instead of standing around taking photos like a tourist. You will have to be content with these candid winter shots from my garden and front stoop in merry olde Brooklyn. At least you can see the holly tree (immediately below) and the beautiful plane trees which live on my street.

Speaking of trees, it is the Christmas/Yule season and I have put up my sacred tree of life to shine brightly in these dark times (you can read more about it, in these posts from past years). I need to think of how to liven it up, if I am going to post it year after year, but all of the animals make me happy (and, since there are hundreds, I don’t think I can add any more). You can also see some of the flounders peaking out from behind it.

We will say more about the holidays as we near the solstice and the end of the year (thank goodness this year is ending…but have we learned anything?). Until then, I am going to drink some cocoa and take a winter nap. Stay warm and be safe! Happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

Here is the golden crown of the Sultan of Banten. Manufactured around AD 1700, the crown is made of gold and silver filigree with non-faceted precious stones (presumably rubies, spinels, and garnets). The foliate design of the piece are typical of the Islamic goldsmithing and sculptural traditions of Java.

Straddling the western tip of Java and the south eastern end of Sumatra, the Sultanate of Banten was one of the most important of the Indonesian Islamic kingdoms which the Dutch worked so hard to subaltern and ultimately conquer. You might note that Indonesia’s contemporary capital Jakarta (assuming they haven’t moved it yet) is located in what was once Banten territory. The sultans of Banten derived their wealth and power from trading, and they were initially eager to trade with the Dutch and the English (whom they played against each other). Unfortunately for the Bantens, the Dutch destroyed Jayakarta and built a fortified town, Batavia on the ruins. Throughout the 17th century, Banten influence and wealth waned as the Dutch grew in power. A disastrous fight between father and son rivals for the sultanate allowed the Dutch to seize power and reduce the once powerful sultanate to a puppet kingdom.

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

“Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”

It is mid-December and that means that it is time for Pantone to announce the color of the year for 2021 (on the outside chance that the longed-for new year ever actually arrives).  Through some sort of dark chromomancy, the Pantone high counsel of color wizards usually manages to correctly predict the trends of the coming year with their selections (for 2020 they presciently selected depression-colored blue).  After this epic disaster of a year (when the world was ravaged by a plague and the nation came an electoral inch from re-electing an evil fascist criminal) it is frightening to see what hue the oracles have chosen to represent our shared destiny.

Andddd…to be honest, the outlook does not look so great.  As in 2016, Pantone has cast a vote for transition, change, and uncertainty by naming two colors of the year. However, whereas the colors of 2016 (baby blue and pink) were at least pretty, for 2021 they have chosen the leaden hue of wet concrete and the vivid yellow of “checks cashed” & “liquor” signs.  It looks like driving through South Chicago in 1993! The colors’ proper trade names are “Illuminating” for the bright yellow and “Ultimate Gray” for the dark cold gray.

Good times…

Pantone chooses dull, ugly, neutral colors when they project a downturn and bright, splashy colors when they are predicting boom times.  By choosing both they are throwing up their hands in bafflement (which makes perfect sense, since the world’s economic sages are likewise shrugging and anxiously pulling their collars). The blathering spokespeople who have to spin this stuff into sales copy are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel” and “uplifting, smiley face yellow”, but I think the residents of East Flatbush can recognize down-and-out colors from shared urban experience.

The Colors of the Year for 2020 & 2021…and 2002 there on the letters, I guess

From Ferrebeekeeper’s perspective, there is indeed a hint of better times in these colors.  Bright yellow and wet concrete are not just the colors of the inner city shopping district, they are colors for building!  When you look at a new highway or a new airport, it is all “Illuminating” and “Ultimate Gray”!  Caterpillar paints its bulldozers, backhoes, road-graders, and cement mixers high-vis yellow for safety reasons (speaking of which, a season of safety would be nothing to sneeze at).  Brand new concrete is…the color of wet concrete.  Perhaps the color oracles are indicating that America and the world can indeed move forward, but only if we stop bickering, denying, and doting on cowardly con-artists and start building.

In fact I am writing sarcastically, as fits this publicity stunt non-event, but bright yellow really truly is a beautiful color on a yellow tang, a golden oriole, an autumn cherry tree, Oshun’s dress, or even a good number 2 pencil. All of which is to say: the 2021 color of the year is more of a choose-your-own affair than usual (and we are already talking about colors, any of which take on the meaning you ascribe to them).  Can we work together and dream and plan and rebuild?  Or are we going to spend the year blaming those other people for our problems as we walk down the gray boulevard of broken dreams to cash our sad tiny check before heading into the Dollar General?

Hey! Has anyone checked the Pantone people’s bank accounts to see if they just received a suspiciously large number of crumpled dollar bills?

The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) with a normal honeybee for scale

After all of the hullabaloo this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that the largest hymenopteran is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia aka “murder hornet”), a formidable insect which can measure up to 40 mm (1.6 inches) long with a 60 mm (2.5 inches) wingspan. But the murder hornet might be outweighed by a behemoth bug from the Moluccas…assuming it still exists.

Way back in 1858, the renowned British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (who was working on the theory of evolution on the opposite side of the world from Darwin, without either man knowing it) was cataloguing the wildlife of the Moluccas when he found a colossal black resin bee. Resin bees are pretty interesting (they are also known as mason bees) since they carefully cut up pieces of leaves and then glue them together into little houses. We probably need to talk more about them at some point. But what was remarkable about the bee Wallace found was not that it was gluing together tiny houses, but rather that it was an enormous insect, a veritable flying bulldog. Wallace’s giant bee was given the cool scientific name Megachile pluto (although the Indonesian name rotu ofu, “queen of bees” might be even cooler). Female bees measure in at a length of 38 mm (1.5 in), with a wingspan of 63.5 mm (2.5 in), however, with their huge mandibles and heavy tanklike bodies they look heavier than the Asian giant hornets [eds note: sadly we do not have the mass for either insect and, although we here at the Ferrebeekeeper division of weights and measurements tried to coax them up onto the bathroom scale for a weigh in, we were quickly dissuaded by…ummm…the modesty of these colossal stinging creatures).

Wallace’s giant bee disappeared from the public eye and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981, but the bees again vanished. Once again they were believed to be gone from the world until last year (2019) when they were re-rediscovered on the internet! Somebody even filmed a live one! (ed’s note: please don’t harass Wallace’s giant bee or try to buy specimens online)

You are probably wondering where these bees were for all of those long years of presumed extinction. Well it turns out that they do indeed build little houses just like other resin bees, however they build them inside living colonies of tree-dwelling termites! This is why they are so robust and have such terrifying mandibles–for bulldozing into termite mounds and doing as they wish! Wallace’s giant bees are hopefully doing just fine snug in their little homes, built safely inside a writhing river of biting termites inside rotting trees within the remote rainforests of quasi- inaccessible Indonesian islands. We could all learn from their fine example of staying home. Let’s not molest them so that they are a pleasant surprise when they are re-re-rediscovered in 2107 (assuming any of us self-destructive are around to be cataloging tropical bugs then).

Since we were thinking about Baroque, um, geologists yesterday, I decided to stay in the same era and present this magnificent harpsichord which was made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1643. Just look at this incredible instrument! I really wish we had a sound clip so you could hear the harpsichord’s sweet voice which has apparently staid lovely over all of these years (the resonant soundboard was apparently the true irreducible component of the device). The rest of the instrument though is a bit like the ship of Theseus. The keyboard and action were enlarged and replaced in France in the 19th century which is also when the gold baroque ornaments were added all over the case. Evidently actual baroque harpsichords were more simple and had cleaner lines, but the 19th century owners had little use for the harpsichord as a musical instrument and kept it as a work of art (and so they wanted it to be more ornamental).

The actual artwork on the case is from the 17th century (although it has been retouched) and shows Greco Roman gods and goddesses making music and desporting themselves among melancholy classical ruins. The soundboard itself may be an even finer artwork and is filled with birds, flowers, summer insects, and shrimp.

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