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Among today’s dreary and disconcerting news was one item which was almost too sad to read: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 23 species of living things which which have gone permanently extinct. The headliner of the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker which was last seen alive in 1944 and which has been reckoned lost since before I was born. Although optimistic bird lovers have been holding out hope that the magnificent creature would re-emerge from some forgotten grove of old growth giants in Arkansas or something, the woodpeckers’ demise was really a result of early 20th century forestry mismanagement and dates back to those times . The other creatures on the list, however, were doomed by today’s problems of habitat loss and climate change, and the entire funereal catalog should serve as a wakeup call that the biodiversity crisis is gaining momentum as global environmental problems worsen and elide together.

Ferrebeekeeper can’t eulogize all 23 lifeforms, however, since we have a long history of writing about mollusks, I will draw your attention to the flat pigtoe (Pleurobema marshalli), a freshwater mussel from the backwaters of rural Mississippi and Alabama (pictured above). The little mussel was sensitive to water pollution, invasive competitors, and industrial waterway development/degradation. Despite its gross joke of a name (a common theme among freshwater mussels of North America, by the way), the mussel not only filtered fresh water, and buttressed the living things around it in the ecosystem, but served as a canary in a coal mine of sorts. All of that water filtration puts mussels in peril from pollutants and toxins (indeed seven of the other species on the deathlist were freshwater mussels).

Whenever I hear about freshwater mussels I think of how fond Great Grandma Virgie was of her pet freshwater mussel which she kept in a tank filled with guppies (I doubt she had a flat pigtoe, but probably it was a rayed bean or similar analogous freshwater shellfish from the streams of West Virginia). She would sometimes rhapsodize about the enigmatic pet, decades after it had departed this watery world.

Anyway the larger point is that we are soon going to see lots of creatures following the pigtoe to the great beyond, unless we can find better ways to protect and safeguard the natural world. Humankind’s appetite grows ever more insatiable, yet our ability to build consensus and create robust solutions to complicated problems is growing worse rather than better. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soon going to be back with more entries for their permanently extinct list. We need to stamp out the corruption and political deadlock which are impairing our ability to address self-evident problems we are creating in the biosphere.

It is almost October and the last flowers of the season are blooming in my garden. I blogged earlier about my roommate’s pale beige morning glories. Here are some picture of my morning glories, which I planted in the back yard. Look at the beautiful combination of purple and white! It really is like a “Carnival of Venice” (which was the name on the package) insomuch as a tiny circular tropical flower can resemble a wintertime holiday in an Italian city state. The second variety of morning glories which I planted climbed so high up a tree that they have almost vanished from sight, but you can still see how they got their name “Scarlett O’Hara” (hint: not just from toying with the hearts of various successful merchants and landowners).

Here is the senior senator representing West Virginia, the infamous DINO, Joe Manchin. I say he represents West Virginia, but that is misstatement: Joe Manchin only represents extremely wealthy mining and energy interests (he is a multimillionaire thanks to his family coal company, which he has certainly not divested from). If everyone else in West Virginia died horribly, I doubt Manchin would notice or care, so long as his coal baron buddies continued to prosper. In slavish deference to his masters who keep pouring barrels of crude money on him, Manchin is busy destroying the infrastructure deal, the reconciliation deal, the voting protection bill, filibuster reform, DC statehood, and every other piece of Democratic legislation which requires his vote (which is all of them, thanks to the electoral advantages which Republicans have built into the system for themselves).

Why am I picking on Joe Manchin? (other than the fact that this crooked, self-satisfied oaf is about to deliver the nation into the anti-democratic hands of the fully Trumpified Republican party?) Isn’t the other West Virginia senator (some anonymous fascist) much worse? Isn’t Manchin’s bland centrist corruption, fairly normal and unremarkable in our nation? Well yes to both of those last two questions…and perhaps that is what makes me most angry of all. Corruption is becoming so rampant in our nation that it is unremarkable. After railing against the political apathy of people who say “everybody is equally corrupt”, behold, the Democrats’ last chance to pass meaningful legislation is being destroyed by someone who is indeed equally corrupt. Gah! Why not just lay back and LET the Republicans burn down the Reichstag and goosestep all over the constitution?

When I was growing up, earmarks were the big thing in Washington. Swing senators would vote for huge omnibus bills because they had expensive, bloated gifts for the constituents tacked onto the end. If faced with today’s choices, the senior senator from WV from back in those days, Robert Byrd would have demanded that the Pentagon be moved to Parkersburg (or some equivalent piece of megapork) but the legislation would pass for reasons above and beyond the personal finances of Senator Byrd. In fact that sort of thing is how WV ended up with a massive radio telescope and the Social Security Administration Center. Joe Manchin illustrates that the only things that matters in today’s politics are the needs of lobbyists and how these needs intersect with a senator’s personal portfolio. If the nation is taken over by white nationalists or destroyed by extreme climate events, it certainly doesn’t matter at all to Joe Manchin (so long as coal mine owners live lives of lavish wealth).

Vanilla Ice on 10/1/90 in Minneapolis, Mn. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Back in college I took a course on planetary and atmospheric dynamics. Although I don’t recall the course as well as I should (the class was extremely mathematical for my taste), one concept which has remained with me is is “albedo”–how well the planetary surface reflects solar radiation back into space. Albedo was a strange wild card in everyone’s computer models of planetary temperature and climate. Small changes in planetary albedo could lead to big temperature changes across the globe (as say when high-albedo ice sheets melt or when reflective white clouds form). Albedo isn’t just important in astrophysics: how well a surface reflects or absorbs radiant energy has engineering and economic implications down here at a human scale as well.


This awkward lede is an attempt to contextualize the potentially enormous importance of today’s color-themed topic. Researchers at Purdue University have invented a very, very bright shade of white paint. The color is so white that it reflects 98.1 percent of visible light. The color (which lacks a name, but should be called something like “great white”, “polar bare”, or “super dazzle”) is so radiant that surfaces painted with the compound are cooler than the ambient temperature of things around them. It is the polar opposite (snicker) of the ultra-black developed a few years ago.

The secret to this color is a molecular engineering trick. Barium sulfate is a safe and commonly used white pigment for makeup and coated papers. Engineers created a range of microscopically sized barium sulfate particles and then combined these differently sized particles into a single coating. The result was this glistening mirror white.

white glitter christmas abstract background

Now I can’t show you this color in a photo (since it wouldn’t make any sense on the luminous medium of your computer screen), but I get the sense that, like that super black, it has an unearthly look to it in the real world. Speaking of the real world there is no news yet on practical or saleable applications of the incredible ultra white (which makes me think it might prove hard to produce at scale). Yet the fact that it exists is exciting for engineers (and artists too). Let’s get to work making some more of this stuff so we can find out if is any good…and so we know whether we can solve our climate problems by painting Nevada and the Kumtag Desert shiny white!

Today, for no discernible reason, I remembered a treasure of my childhood–a Star Trek coloring book from the 1970s for the awesome (but often-overlooked) Star Trek animated series which had Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, and the rest of the original cast voicing the characters.  By its very nature, the animated series allowed for a much broader variety of strange alien lifeforms and mind-shattering outer space hijinks (which meant there were Kzinti and Phylosians and whatnot running around).

The coloring book (which my father brought home to cheer me up when I had a bad ear infection) was similarly awesome, with whole pages dedicated to crazy aliens. There was one particular 2 page spread with an entire alien ecosystem (!), which I often stared at longingly. But there was a problem: my 5 year old self did not have the fine motor control (nor the other requisite tools) to color these magnificent images in the fashion which they deserved. I tried coloring a lesser picture of some redshirts and junior officers, and it turned into a disaster of jagged mustard, orange, and puke colored wax expressionism (remember this was the 70s). There was no way I was going to deface those incredible alien worlds with such raw artistic incompetence.

“Captain, I very much fear that the ship is taking on unsustainable quantities of magenta. Also, our enlisted personnel have been bisected by a ‘goldenrod’ line”

So I didn’t color my favorite coloring book and I waited to get good enough to be worthy of it. But, alas, by the time I reckoned myself to be sufficiently talented to properly color the best pages (2009, maybe?), the book was long gone. I would like to make a joke about that janky seventies newsprint turning yellow and brittle over the decades, but I think my mom threw it away back in the day because I wasn’t using it (also, she not-very-secretly disliked Star Trek for reasons unknown & unfathomable). But even if the book had somehow survived up until now (when I finally have the French gauche and 300 sharpened Prismacolor pencils necessary for the assignment) would I color such a thing? Of course not! I can draw my own alien planets (and, cough, perhaps the illustration quality of this book does not entirely warrant the enthusiasm I had for it as a child).

But the seventies Star Trek coloring book is still my favorite coloring book and, in retrospect, its lessons might outstrip the (treasured and hard-won) lessons of the coloring books which I did color. For not only did it teach us about exploration, equality, and the boundless strength of the human (and Vulcan…and Edosian) spirit, the coloring book also taught lessons about living life NOW, not in some abstract future where everything is perfect. Would I have been happy with the job I did coloring the Phylosians or Captain Kirk holding a paring knife? No, of course not! No matter what decade it is, I am never satisfied with my artwork no matter what form it takes. But at least I would have had the pleasure of confronting the challenge and learning from it and moving on. Now it will forever be trapped in the past, uncolored (unless I somehow find the images online…or buy an adult Star Trek coloring book…or go to a website where you can color this online right this moment). Sigh…

What really worries me is whether I have actually learned this lesson or whether I am leaving the best part of life to be lived on a day which never arrives.

You could change course NOW though

There is something which I don’t understand at all. Its worldview is completely alien to me. Its language is the ancient, polysyllabic epic tongue of south Asia–high Sanskrit. Its moral philosophy is incomprehensible–weird asceticism and strict non-harm. I am speaking about Jainism–arguably the most ancient of the world’s major religions which are still practiced (although who can even say how old Jainism actually is?). Whenever I try to understand Jainism, my brain slips right off of it, like a crab trying to climb a frictionless diamond stupa.

So why am I even writing about Jainism, if I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand it? Why bring up an abstruse faith which has deflated down till it is only practiced by a thousandth of the world’s human population (if even that)? Well Jainism’s central tenant is breathtakingly sublime. Of all of the religious concepts I have come across, it is the most inhuman and numinous. This concept is known as Ahimsa (non-harm). Since everything I write about it keeps obtaining strange qualifiers and weasel words I will just steal Wikipedia’s excellent description:

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It holds that one must abandon all violent activity and that without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill or harm any being, and non-violence is the highest religious duty. Jain texts…state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action but also in speech and in thought

If you read this and thought about it, and then your brain went “BUT!!!” then congratulations, we are on the same page. I don’t see how Jains can even eat, much less stay alive in a world of ceaseless competition (although in bygone eras Jains have actually known great prosperity as successful bankers and merchants). Yet the doctrine of Ahimsa also strikes me as ineffably beautiful (and not unrelated to the religious principles of noteworthy figures like Jesus and Guan Yin).

Anyway, I am not converting to Jainism or anything, but I dislike the profound ignorance that I have concerning this important faith. I am therefore going to try to sneak in a few short studies about what Jainism is and where it comes from. We will also look at Jain mythology (although Jainism also seems to lack the creator deities and dark gods which make other faiths so narratively satisfying). Maybe if we keep working on it, we can figure out what is happening in religious art like this:

Shu Masks (ca. 1050 BC) gold mask in foreground, bronze head in back

Here is a 3000 year old gold mask discovered in the sacrificial pits of Sanxingdu (which are located in Sichuan (Szechuan)) in Southwest China. The mask was not made for humans but was meant to be worn by a bronze head which was also one of the numerous items deliberately interred in the pits by the Shu people back during the time of the Shang Dynasty. Although the Shang Dynasty is sometimes known as China’s first dynasty and is a time when the first definitive Chinese writings emerged (along with many of the typical hallmarks of Han civilization), the Shu kingdom was not part of the Shang civilization centered in Anyang (as explained by this nebulous yet informative map).

Uh, so who were the Shu people and why were they making these gorgeous stylized heads out of gold and bronze only to bury them among burnt offerings? Well that is a really good question which lacks a really good answer (although analogous instances of buried offerings and treasure in other cultures probably prove instructive). Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about the Shu society and artworks before, and this newly discovered gold mask does not add much to that previous account…except for beauty and wonder. Those will have to suffice until somebody digs up a more definitive answer!

Here is a fascinating status object from the deepest Congo. This is a ceremonial knife of the Mangbetu people, a tribe of approximately 1 million people who live in the northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mangbetu people are historically famous for metalworking prowess, beautiful art, and elongated skulls (which were artificially lengthened by skull-binding during infancy). Early visitors were struck by the sophistication of Mangbetu politics, architecture, and crafts as well as by the breadth of their agriculture (which included diverse crop cultivation and cattle herding). These early historical accounts also remark upon the Mangbetu penchant for cannibalism (but such accounts are viewed with skepticism among prevalent schools of modern cultural scholarship).

A picture of the distinctive elongated skull favored by Mangbetu elites (circa early 20th century)

The ethnological history of the Mangbetu tribe is interesting and instructive. The Mangbetu language is Central Sudanic in character (as to a greater extent is Mangbetu culture), yet the people are Bantu and live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that during the climate crisis of the little ice age, Sudanic climate refugees fleeing south met a larger Bantu community migrating north and the two groups annealed (with the Sudanic people claiming group leadership). This cultural cross-pollination explains the Mangbetu’s political and technological strength relative to the other peoples of their territory (the Mangbetu conquered their lands and displaced or otherwise dealt with the original inhabitants).

Anyway, these knives were not weapons or tools, but rather ceremonial objects denoting power and status which could be exchanged for goods and services (I guess in the modern world we call such things “money”). As greater globalization reached the Mangbetu in the 19th and 20th centuries, they realized that their valuable ceremonial status knives were valuable to other people as well, and they began to mass produce more and more of them for trade. This means that many of these knives exist but that the quality is not always consistent with the refinement and beauty of early pieces.


Here is a rare trigger fish of the Xanthichtys genus (which lives throughout the tropical reefs of the Indo-Pacific and Australia). This beauty is Xanthichtys lineopunctatus, the linespot triggerfish. Because it is mysterious and rare, I can not say much about its life and habits–although we know it is a triggerfish–a clever, omnivorous parrot of the ocean equipped with sharp eyes, a supermouth capable of biting through steel cables, and fearless temerity (and a special hunger for small invertebrates).

Anyway, like many triggers, Xanthichtys lineopunctatus is also equipped with op-art color patterns which would not look out of place on an 80s trapper keeper or 3 ring binder. Yet the real defining feature of this fish is its ridiculous anime face which features big soulful eyes and a pouty serrated mouth. It is hard to catch the winsome qualities in words, so I will defer to “reef-builders” an aquarium site whose writers actually have one of these fish as a pet (which gave them ample time to capture its Japanese cartoon good looks).

Roller Summer Sunset (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Labor Day is over. Another summer is dying away. I wanted to celebrate the summer (it is my favorite season!) without giving into the elegiac feelings of fall, so I drew this sunset drawing of merriment in Central Park. As always my muse is the incomparable Lillian Newberg, doyenne of the resurrected New York roller disco scene (would that I could participate–but I can no more dance…or walk…or stand still…on roller skates than I can fly like Superman). Around her are strange & mysterious circus folk with hotdogs and ice cream, while a rather splendid toucan preens at the treeline. The sloth is not a roller skater either, but at least he can drag himself to the party on a skateboard. A langur turns the magical disco jack-in-the-box, while various angelic folk fly around the heavens as per their wont. The scene is delightful except for the tragic sentient lemon and the rubber chicken (which has been accidentally discharged from a novelty cannon). The snake represents moral choice whereas the flounder suggests that our appetites will always be lurking in the immediate foreground of anything we do. I don’t know what is up with that fancy garter belt. Somebody probably dropped it there by accident and it has nothing to do with the larger parable…

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2021