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The colors we use to make art and artifacts tend to reflect the affairs of the time in a way which is hard to quickly characterize (but which jumps out at you if you wonder though a really comprehensive museum like the Met). Thus cave paintings are made with ochre; Roman textiles are made with decayed molluscs; Han funerary art is made with sophisticated kiln-fired purple; and Victorian wallpaper is made of industrial poisons. During the twentieth century a broad range of sophisticated (albeit not-always-perfect and often fugitive) pigments came onto the market and pushed the nineteenth century colors like Hooker’s green and Prussian blue to the back of the box. But what about the 21st century? Do we have anything yet other than a disconcerting black which is so dark and expensive it is hard to comprehend?

Yes! Back in 2009, pigment makers discovered how to synthesize a new blue out of rare earth elements yttrium, indium, and manganese (my tube of manganese blue–the color of a tropical swimming pool–is probably my favorite blue in my paint box, but I don’t use it a whole lot). The new blue is known by the not-very-pronounceable name of YInMn blue and is finally reaching the shelves of art supply stores (albeit at exorbitant costs). According to artists who have used it, it is delightful because it is so opaque (this perhaps doesn’t sound exciting until you start seeing all of your drawings and paintings turn into muddy, fussy messes).

One of the more interesting things about YinMn blue is that it is strongly extraspectral/hyper-spectral and reflects frequencies of electromagnetic radiation which are not visual to humans. The pigment does not just strongly reflect blue light, it strongly reflects infrared radiation (which may mean we will be seeing all sorts of stunningly blue refrigerated cartons and devices). Naturally I can’t really show you this color on a computer, but we can look at pictures and they make me excited for a future where this is cheap enough that impoverished Brooklyn artist/bloggers can get their hands on it!

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

Bluebirds (Sialia) are a traditional symbol of happiness and optimism in American society. Ethnographers tell us that this association existed prior to European colonization: in Iroquois mythology, the call of the bluebird could ward off the cold, dark power of Sawiskera, the cruel deity of winter (we need to write more about that character some other winter day!). Members of the thrush family, bluebirds are insectivores which raise two broods of fledglings a year in nests which they build in small elevated cavities in trees or old fence posts (or, these days, in bluebird houses helpfully put up by enthusiasts). Bluebirds live on insects and small arthropods which they supplement with berries and they are preyed on by more or less everything (skunks, owls, kestrels, snakes, cats, cars, chipmunks, foxes, flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, etc…etc). There are three closely related species of bluebirds living in North America, although each of the pictures here shows the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) which I grew up with and which was a sort of totemic creature of the family farm where the handsome birds flourished.

This may be the world’s oldest known representational artwork– a red ochre painting of a warty pig recently discovered in the Leang Tedongnge cave of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The full work is actually three pigs–two pigs fighting (?) while one pig watches from a distance, but the fighting pigs have been effaced by scores of millennia, whereas the bystander pig has somehow avoided the elements as well as the fray.

Archaeologists believe the painting is 45,000 years old, an extraordinary age in dealing with human artifacts. They arrived at that number by means of measuring the decay of infinitesimal amounts of uranium in mineral deposits formed on top of the image (this methodology is not without drawbacks and controversies, but remains the go-to mechanism of dating for 45,000 year old non-carboniferous artworks). Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh largest island. Because it is located at the nexus of three small and two giant tectonic plates it resembles a squashed asterisk. Homo Erectus found a home in Indonesia as early as 2 million years ago, but Homo Sapiens reached the island, around the time this painting was made, 45,000 years ago. Modern Austronesian people (who make up the majority of Indonesia’s living population) only arrived 2000 years ago.

The pig portrayed here is interesting as well! It is a Celebes Warty pig (Sus celebensis), a medium sized pig which was originally native solely to Sulawesi. The warty pig is the only pig species to be domesticated other than Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild pig, which probably makes up 99 percent (or more) or the world pig population. Clearly such pigs were of enormous importance to the first homo sapiens of Indonesia–a nearby cave painting from 43.900 years ago (previously the world’s oldest known representative artwork) shows spear-wielding humans approaching pigs and small buffalo. Yet, as with all art, the full reasons behind the creation of the work remain elusive. What is certain is that it is rather good! In addition to an expressive sense of lively movement, the pig has true character and personality. Just look at its hungry face!

During this pandemic we can’t really travel internationally (or domestically, even, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean we can’t mentally visit amazing places around the world. Thus, today’s post features an astonishing place which I have always wanted to visit (even if I will probably never make it there in reality). Behold the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a great Cistercian monastery located at the edge of the Great North York Moors of Yorkshire.

If you were wondering about the French name, Rievaulx Abbey was founded in AD 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvoux Abbey, the birthplace of the Cistercian order (Saint Barnard founded Clairvoux in 1115). The Cistercian order was a reform order of monasticism, meant to undo the worldly excesses which had crept into the Benedictine order (the dominant form of cloistered life throughout Europe since the 9th century). Barnard and his followers wanted to embrace a much starker asceticism so they could truly focus on divinity.

Perhaps because of this austere zeal, Rievaulx Abbey flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries. In order that they could properly concentrate on their Christian devotions, the monks created a substantial commercial empire based around mining lead and tin, producing and selling fine wool throughout Europe, and smelting iron! For a time Rievaulx Abbey was one of the greatest and most prosperous abbeys of England. Yet, inevitably, the rot set in. A sheep disease ruined the abbey’s wool trade and the diminished number of actual brothers began to live in much more comfortable and luxurious manner off of the incomes of their estate.

Like all great English monasteries, Rievaulx was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. The rapacious but far-sighted king discovered a way to purge the Catholic Church from his kingdom and his private life while also obtaining vast productive estates to grant to his most loyal supporters (or his own royal household). The buildings were stripped of valuables and “rendered uninhabitable”. However the superb stonework remains, testament to the organization which, at its height, consisted of hundreds of monks and lay brothers running thousands of acres of land (and attendant enterprises and pursuits).

In this glorious new era of planet hunting, astronomers have been discovering all sorts of freakish & unexpected worlds. To date scientists have confirmed over 4300 exoplanets (and they have partial data or leads on thousands of others). Among the 4300 known planets there are some true odd balls–a carbon planet nine times the size of Earth made of diamond, a super ghost planet twice the volume of Jupiter with half the mass, “hot Jupiter” worlds which are bigger than Jupiter but closer to their suns than Mercury. Today scientists have announced a whole new superlative: they discovered the oldest known planet, a world which dates back to the roaring infancy of the galaxy. This world goes by the name TOI-561b and, before our sun spun into existence, it was already older than the sun is now.

To put this in proper context, we need some astronomical ages (which are highly revealing in their own right). Here is a useful table of the known ages of various galaxies, stars, and, uh, everything. These dates are in Earth years (in case you are reading this elsewhere, I guess) as of AD 2021. The dates may be subject to some revision, although we keep zeroing in with greater and greater precision so I do not anticipate any large shifts:

Age of Universe13.77 Billion Years
Age of Milky Way Galaxy13.4 Billion Years
Age of TOI-561b10 Billion Years
Age of Sun4.6 Billion Years
Age of Planet Earth4.543 billion years
Age of Cher74 Years

The exoplanet TOI-561b is located in the thick disk of the Milky Way. The planet is close to its home star which it orbits twice an Earth Day (ergo, a TOI-561b year lasts about twelve hours). Because TOI-561b is so close to its star, it is hot, the surface temperature is reckoned to be about 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit). The rocky world has a volume 50 percent larger than Earth and a mass three times as great. The density of TOI-561b, however, is much less than that of Earth and this is because the planet is largely lacking in metals. The reason for this absence is disconcerting: TOI-561b formed before many stars had exploded, back in a time when metal was rare in the universe. There may not be many planets older than TOI-561b anywhere because there was nothing to make planets out of in the time before it formed. A generation or two of stars needed to live and die before such elements existed!

Thinking of how different things were when Cher was young is hard for me! (I like Cher and I put her up there because she is still a dynamic star). Thinking of what things were like when TOI-561b formed out of the first matter more complex than hydrogen and lithium and whatnot is practically inconceivable! It must have been quite a view though: hovering above a glowing brand-new galaxy sparkling with supernovae. I wonder if there was ever any sort of (non metallic) life there before its star became old and giant and hot.

Outside Knoxville, (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and watercolor

Now that the holidays have passed, it has occurred to me that I should post some of the India ink and watercolor illustrations which I have been making lately for fun (or, more accurately, because my subconscious torments me unless I draw them). The first (above) is a little illustration which I made as a gift for my erstwhile roommate, Jennifer. Sadly, Jennifer gave up on the germinal chaos of Brooklyn and fled away forever to live in the bosky dells of Knoxville (or whatever it is they have down there). But she used the epistolary arts to request a drawing of a magical elf desporting among many varieties of fungi just outside of her new home city.

Here is the picture I drew. I have envisioned the magical elf in the style of the Nats, the joyous syncretic deities of Burmese Buddhism. Various seeds, spores, and small creatures lurk beneath the mushrooms, wood ears, and coral fungus. In the background, modern Knoxville spreads through the wooded hills watched by a vulture, an ermine, and a whitetail deer (as a mysterious being of pure creativity fruits into fungoid darkness). Above it all looms the mighty “Sun Sphere”, a dazzling feat of 80 architecture which is uh, eighty meters tall.

As a historical aside, I encountered that very tower myself, in 1982, when my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, my sister, and I traveled to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair for which it was built. Although I was only eight, I was struck by how crummy and chaotic the World’s Fair was and how the Sun Sphere looked like off-brand deodorant rather than a mighty futuristic skyscraper. For her birthday, my little sister (who was five or six) had asked for a fine suitcase so she could be a world traveler. My parents (or grandparents?) bought her a beautiful new fuchsia case of finest sampsonite, which was the nicest piece of luggage among our entourage. Alas, a would-be larcenist broke into our hotel room and rifled through the nicest suitcase (which was all full of crayons, dolls, and little girl’s clothing). The fair was too crowded to see anything, although, come to think of it, I am not sure there were any actual attractions other than an endless field of bumpkins and insurance-salesman-looking characters. Then a bird pooped on my grandmother’s head. Good times in Knoxville!

A Dab for Breakfast (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and Watercolor

Here is a similar drawing which I made in my little sketch book. I guess this picture portrays…breakfast? Since I am not a morning person, I refuse to acknowledge the International Morning Person (IMP) propaganda that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This tableau helps to deconstruct that tenacious myth. In the foreground a pelican enjoys a live flounder and some froot loops–even though this is properly a cereal for toucans! A sentient pineapple throws up his arms in consternation at the proceedings as a masked ghost (or possibly some very very runny scrambled eggs) shrugs indifferently. On the picture’s left side, a featureless pink humanoid…or maybe an embryonic ghost…or a representation of how the artist/author feels in the morning is likewise overwhelmed by breakfast. The entity drinks copious amounts of coffee, possibly going so far as to pour the stimulant directly into the grotesque organ-like aperture in its center. No wonder the little guy is so anxious! Frankly, only the ravenous pelican seems happy to be there.

Even if flatfish are not the sole protagonists of these small drawings, they are still there, lurking beneath (or becoming part of the food chain). Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to again advertise the all-knowing digital flounder which my friends and I built to delight and perplex you (or maybe as a disguised lure to beguile you into my digital realm). Let me know what you think and we will keep on floundering through this winter!

Yesterday’s deplorable rampage at the United States Capitol has left me thinking about Washington D.C. which used to be the city I knew best (I went to high school in Falls Church, VA, which is inside the beltway). Outside of the famous federal district at the city’s heart, Washington in the 1990s was a dangerous place! Murders spiked there in 1991, when there were 482 murders within a city of 600,000 people. Since those days, the USA’s power and prestige has declined, but Washington has burgeoned. Now the federal part of DC around the capitol is apparently filled with armed lunatics in crazy clothes and Columbia Heights is a thriving posh neighborhood! (it was quite the opposite 30 years ago).

I only went to the Capitol on school field trips or when relatives were in town, however, I used to know the museums, the Library of Congress, and Union Station very well. I hadn’t thought too much about all of this for years (except for the Smithsonian, which I think about often). However, yesterday’s debacle made me reflect upon the Victorian/Greco-Roman splendor of the Capitol itself and suddenly I remembered the United States Botanic Garden, which is tucked away on the Capitol’s Southwest Corner! The garden has been there, in one form or another, since 1820. The centerpiece of the garden is a Victorian style glass house where various rare tropical plants from the Wilkes expedition were originally housed (and which has featured beautiful collections of warm-temperature plants ever since). When I was younger I used to go there and marvel at the sumptuous tropical luxury combined with 19th century visual opulence. The resultant mixture is difficult to describe but entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of the Capitol complex. (Additionally, Grandma Connie loved the Botanic Garden and would sometimes enthuse about it as one of Washington DC’s true treasures).

A model of the U.S. Capitol…inside the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory

I was trying to write a garden essay to try and get us through this anxious fortnight until January 20th. However that hasn’t quite happened. I suppose this somewhat maundering essay is a paean to Washington DC, always a city of perplexing & vertiginous juxtapositions. Seeing Donald Trump’s brownshirts and proudboys looting the Capitol like Visigoths was a private emotional injury to add to the grotesque civic affront of Trump’s electoral assault. Perhaps there is a metaphor there: the Capitol (and its surrounding complex) are the home of American democracy. Use of these buildings (and the franchise they represent) is a shared responsibility and privilege for all Americans. To see the Capitol abused by fascists hellbent on overturning our democracy for the personal and private benefit of their godking (the ludicrous Donald Trump!) is a shared national trauma. We can and will refurbish and reopen everything, but we have some regrowing (and some weeding) we need to tend to!

To celebrate Bird Day, Here is a lovely picture of an amazing prairie bird, the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), a large grouse of the North American sagebrush ecosystem (a sort of shrubbery steppe which rolls out of the grasslands as they march up towards the Rockies). This is a male bird as you can tell by his prominent gular sacs.

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