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Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

There is an enormous hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn which is large enough to drop the Earth into. Ferrebeekeeper has long been fascinated by this giant yet geometrically-regular storm, and that was before we learned that the hexastorm…changes color!

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted, and, as with Earth, the tilt affects how much sunlight reaches different hemispheres of the planet as it proceeds around the sun. Since Saturn is rather farther from the sun than the Earth is, a Saturn “year” lasts for 29 Earth years. Due to this somewhat lengthened calendar (and because we have only recently acquired some of the necessary tools to study other planets) the seasonal variances on Saturn are only now being recognized.

Using the Hubble Space telescope, scientists have been keeping an eye on Saturn’s seasons (each of which last for 7.25 years). As summer in the northern hemisphere changes to fall, the color of the atmosphere is changing and so are the appearances of the bands within the atmosphere. NASA scientists speculate that increased sunlight may lead to increased photochemical hazes in the atmosphere which causes the shift from winter blue to summer gold. As we continue to study Saturn in years to come, it will be interesting to see how much of this color shift is seasonal and how much it changes based on larger cycles.

Yesterday’s post was about the intellectual and emotional dissonance of realizing that all of the stuff American schoolchildren are taught about how our democracy works is no longer true. Our quarter-of-a-millenium long experiment in self-government is starting to fail. Thanks to the decades-old legislative logjam in the Senate, meaningful far-reaching legislation is nearly impossible to pass. In place of well-crafted legislation, we have been muddling forward with a baffling hodgepodge of conflicting executive orders and judicial rulings. American citizens (who are not the most patient people to begin with) see this dysfunction and tune out of politics–or start believing in crazed strongmen or weird conspiracy theories. How did we get here?

Although gerrymandering, political polarization, “media bubbling,” and demographic factors have all contributed to the mess, the biggest problem in American politics at this moment is the filibuster, a procedural rule which means that any United States senator can derail legislation by refusing to yield the floor unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote for cloture (which ends the debate and brings the legislation to a vote whereupon a simple majority of 51 senators can then pass the legislation). The founding fathers meant for the Senate to be counter majoritarian (since pathetic little states have the same 2 senators as large worthwhile states) however they wanted legislators to be able to make deals and pass laws! The filibuster is not in the Constitution but is a part of the senate’s self-created rules (which can arguably be changed–under certain specific circumstances–by a simple majority). The current state of affairs vis-à-vis the filibuster was made possible in 1806 thanks to the advice of the infamous Aaron Burr (who was then vice-president and thus the presiding officer of the Senate). Burr recommended the Senate get rid of a rule which allowed for a simple majority to force a vote on the underlying question being debated.

Yesterday I mischaracterized the filibuster as requiring a senator to continuously talk on the floor. For many years–from 1837 (the first time the filibuster was used) through the Civil War and up to World War I–that is how the rule was construed; however, in the modern era, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened. I think my civics teacher was hoping to explain that back in 1988, but the exigencies of middle school prevented him from properly explaining the Byzantine complexities of Senate rules. Speaking of which, this excellent overview by the Brookings Institute actually explains all of the filibuster/cloture rules and all of their possible ramifications. Within that article we find the following troubling graph which is a fair representation of the growing importance of the ever-growing power of the minority to balk legislation.

I worry that the real point of this essay is being lost as I try to explain esoteric parliamentary rules (hardly my métier, anyway). Yet that worry should focus everyone’s attention, since it is what has effectively already happened. Mitch McConnell, the “grim reaper” of the Senate believes that Americans will not care if, through inaction and executive rulings he strips them of their rights, their wealth, and their future. He believes that faced with a complex procedural problem, Americans will blame both political parties. This benefits the Republicans who hardly care if government accomplishes nothing, since it allows them to say “government accomplishes nothing” and then pilfer the system and flout rules designed for a lifetime ago. When faced with such obfuscation and bad intentions, Americans should be furious! The U.S. government is not designed to allow Mitch McConnell to hollow out society and shovel money to his billionaire masters while China takes over the world! The fact that we have allowed him to take over our country because he is a master of mendacity and tortuous rules should shame every American voter. We should write to our senators and demand that they end the filibuster, and if they don’t we should remember to vote them out. Joe Biden also needs to dangle big rewards (and big threats) in front of Joe Mansion until the West Virginia senator properly tows the party line [this essay has taken twice as long as it should since I keep writing incandescent insults about Joe Manchin and then ruefully erasing them].

All of which is to say that the United States government is not as broken as it looks. With a single rule change, we could have 21st century infrastructure, glorious innovation, comprehensible healthcare, and an economy which makes everyone prosperous! So why has that rule not been changed? Mitch McConnell has threatened Americans with scorched earth and political apocalypse if the filibuster is reformed or eliminated. Do you like being threatened? I do not.

When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.

Here is a silver diadem discovered in a recently excavated Bronze age tomb from the La Almoloya archaeological site in southern Spain. The tomb consisted of a great earthenware jar containing the remains of two elites–a man and a woman (the jar was buried under a sort of longhouse/mead hall/political assembly building). Since the Argaric people were early masters of metallurgy, both skeletons were richly arrayed in gold and silver jewelry, however the female skeleton was the one wearing the diadem. The NYTimes article which I read went to great length describing how shocking the highly polished reflective silver would be in an era when mirrors and reflective surfaces were not omnipresent (the author of that article also took pains to describe the tintinnabulation that this Bronze age chieftainess would have made with all of her bangles, plugs, earrings, and necklaces). Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that Argaric society was patriarchal, but this discovery has caused experts to reassess that conclusion (and to take note that previous graves also contained crown-wearing, high-status Argaric women). Perhaps power was shared between the genders or even apportioned in some sort of matriarchal fashion (although I think we will be left to speculate about this unless more conclusive evidence is discovered).

Argaric culture flourished from 2200 to 1550 BC. As bronzeworking warriors surrounded by less technologically advanced tribes, they were able to rapidly expand into an empire of sorts. I wonder how much they knew of the great contemporary palace civilizations of Mycenae and Knossos to the east. Alas, their technology seems to have been their undoing, since the need for timber, charcoal, and arable land resulted in widespread deforestation and agricultural collapse.

Although I published this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post yesterday (about mysterious obscene Medieval statues!), it is still technically March 17th and my need for the green holiday has not yet abated. Therefore, today we are presenting a post about the native green mushrooms of Britain and Ireland. Behold the Parrot Waxcap (Gliophorus psittacinus) a colorful yellow-green mushrooom which appears in “cropped grassland” (AKA lawns) in summer and early autumn.

Alas I am no mycologist and I cannot explain the secret hidden kingdom of the fungi, so today’s post is almost entirely visual. These mushrooms are widespread in Britain and Ireland, but they can also be found in both continental Europe and in North America. The article I read suggested that it is unclear if they are edible or if they are toxic, but added that most people are too disquieted by their sliminess to even try them (even if they were big enough to eat). To me that sounds like a verdict of “not edible”, but like i said, i am no mycologist.

In years past, Ferrebeekeeper has celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of short essays about Irish folklore. We started with leprechauns and worked our way through the doom of Oisin (who could have had eternal youth and endless love), the Sluagh (evil spirits who ride the clouds), the Leannán Sídhe, the Fear Gorta, and the great Gaelic flounder (which is not even a thing, but which should be). You should read that story about Oisin–it’s really plaintive!

Anyway, this year we are going to take a break from the disquieting beauty of Irish folklore to showcase a category of obscene Medieval sculpture, the “Sheela na gig”, a sort of stylized stone hag who is portrayed holding open her legs and her cavernous womanhood (a word which I am primly using as a euphemism for “vagina”). These grotesque female figures appear throughout Northwest Europe, but are most prevalent in Ireland. Nobody knows who carved them or why. Their name doesn’t even have a coherent meaning in Gaelic. Yet they are clearly connected to fertility and to the great mother goddess of the Earth. As you can imagine, they are the focus of furious speculation by religious and cultural mavens of all sorts. However no definitive answer about the nature of the figures has ever been found…nor is such an answer ever likely to be forthcoming.

Sheela na gigs were mostly carved between the 9th and 12th centuries (AD) and seem to be affiliated with churches, portals, and Romanesque structures. Although they are located throughout central and western Europe, the greatest number of Sheela na gig figurines are located across Ireland (101 locations) and Britain (45 locations). To the prudish Victorian mind they were regarded as symbols for warding off devils (which would be affrighted by such naked womanhood?), however more modern interpretations empower the sculptures with feminist trappings of matriarchy, self-awareness, sexual strength, and shame-free corporeality. Perhaps the stuffy Victorian misogynists were the devils who needed to be scared off! Other scholars think of the Sheela na gig figurines in the vein of the pig with the bagpipes or the “Cista Mystica“–which is to say a once widespread figure which had a well-understood meaning which has become lost in the mists of long centuries (it is easy to imagine future generations looking at Hawaiian punch man, Bazooka Joe, or the Starbucks logo with similar bafflement).

Hmmm…

Some scholars have theorized a connection with Normans–and hence with Vikings–but I see little of Freya in the images (which seem more connected to prehistoric “Venus” statues).

It is probably ill-advised to opine about such a controversial figure, but if I were forced to guess, I would suspect that the Sheela na gig is a symbol of the generative power of Mother Nature (or the godess Gaia) which is so overt as to barely be a symbol. All humans were born through bloody expulsion. We do not come into the world through a magic emerald cabbage or a portal of light. Whatever else the Sheela na gig betokens, it is a reminder of this shared heritage (which you would think would be impossible to forget…until you talk to some of the people out there).

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Today (March 3rd) is World Wildlife Day! Initially I was going to write about a charismatic mammalian species like the magnificent Siberian tiger or the mountain tapir, but then it occurred to me that I should write about a predator which is larger than the tiger and ranges farther than the tapir, yet which humankind regards with contempt (if we think about it at all). Behold the magnificent Atlantic halibut, the largest of the flatfish.

The Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a mighty predator of the North Atlantic. They range from Iceland and Greenland down to the Bay of Biscay and Virginia. These fish are capable of reaching a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh more than 320 kg (710 lb). Like other flatfish, Atlantic halibut are lurking benthic predators which snap up unwary prey animal, however, unlike many of the other flounder species (which sometimes swim awkwardly due to asymmetric bodies), Atlantic halibut are strong swimmers capable of lengthy migrations and real speed. Just look at how different their tail is from other flatfish. Although they are not absolute apex predator of their habitat (which is also inhabited by orcas, sperm whales, and great white sharks), halibut prey on some pretty substantial animals such as cod, haddock, herring, pogge, lobsters, large crabs, and various cephalopods.

Atlantic halibut larva (greatly magnified)

Although it rarely happens today, in our world of rampant overfishing, Atlantic halibut can live to be more than half a century in age. When they spawn, the female fish lay up to 4 million eggs (!) which hatch after 16 days. The tiny larvae (above) are almost transparent and they spend about a year among the zooplankton, gorging on microscopic algae, eggs, and tiny invertebrates until they are large enough to undergo the strange metamorphose into adulthood. Once they attain sufficient age and size, one of their eyes migrates across their skull to the other side of their head (they are right-facing flounder, by the way) and the back/bottom side of the fish becomes white and pale. Young halibuts are pale gray and brown with little pebble-like spots, but as they age they turn into a uniform sable color (on the upward facing part of their body, I mean). They are among the largest teleosts–although sunfish can grow much larger.

As you can see, Atlantic halibut are impressive fish. Yet, when I was growing up they were mostly known as the source of discount fish sticks or as something to fry when the cod was all out. Because they are commercially valuable (and delicious), they have been overfished to such a degree that they were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996. Commercial fishermen also used to catch these halibut with bottom trawls–an ecologically devastating method of fishing which ravages the bottom of the ocean and creates far more bycatch (“accidental bystander fish” which are thrown back into the ocean dead) than actual catch. Ecologists have compared bottom trawling to dyamiting a forest to hunt squirrels.

Regular readers know that I religiously draw flatfish after flatfish (here, check out my Instagram profile and see for yourself). I get the feeling that it greatly perplexes most people (even though I have previously tried to explain) and, even now, I suspect that there are readers who wonder why I am featuring a “food fish” for World Wildlife Day rather than a tiger, falcon, or killer whale or something. For one thing, I think there are many things which are legitimately beautiful, special, and amazing about flounder. Their hunting, and camouflage abilities impress me as much as their non-bilateral symmetry (which is unique in the vertebrate world). The flounders are taxonomically much more diverse and widespread than say, primates. They are also a great symbol of the living oceans–a sort of avatar of the primordial depths which we never really know (no matter how many frogmen, minisubs, and trawlers we send down there). Of course they are also our victims–and we kill them literally by the boatload to make money and feed and amuse ourselves.

Flounder also have a tragicomic mien which I find deeply compelling: they are both the comedy and the tragedy mask at the same time. Their sad, hungry grimace and weirdly knowing google eyes perfectly encapsulate the ambiguities of being alive (there is a reason that use of the word “floundering” leaped off of the charts during our annus horribilis in 2020). But in the end, it strikes me that life itself is floundering as humans desperately use up more and more of the planet’s resources. As much as I would love to live in a giant money shower like Wylan or Ed Hardy, somehow killer whales and tigers do not scream “victim” the same way that flounders do…and it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what the natural world is screaming right now.

Apollo and the Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

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