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Something which fascinates me is when a very successful species is so successful that it evolves away from its original habitat into a new niche. Examples of this literally make up the history of life on the planet, but today I want to talk about one of my favorite families of fish, Balistidae, the triggerfish, the cunning, clever, and truculent nast5ers of the coral reef environment. Except today we are writing about a triggerfish which left the colorful, frenetic cities of the coral reef and evolved to live in the vast open ocean. This is Canthidermis maculata aka “the spotted oceanic triggerfish”, a medium-sized triggerfish which has a worldwide distribution in temperate oceans from New York to London, down around the Cape of Good Hope and then across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Thailand. It can be found in the Pacific Ocean from Japan across to Hawaii and to the California and South American coasts.

The fish are silver or gray with little pale dots of blue or white. Although they can grow to half a meter (20 inches) in length, adults are more commonly 35 centimeters (14 inches) long. Reef triggerfish are opportunistic feeders and so, it seems are spotted oceanic triggerfish which can be carnivorous or planktivorous depending on the circumstances (although they seem to specialize in hunting smaller fish).

Like many pelagic fish (but unlike most other triggerfish) these fish seem to assemble in loose schools to travel the oceans. they are preyed on by sailfish, mahi-mahi, large sea birds, and other such predators (and by rapacious humans, of course). Female triggerfish build their nests in rough proximity on ocean bottoms from 4 meters to 45 meters deep where they guard and aerate the eggs (which hatch very quickly and disseminate the little larval fish throughout the oceans.

A School of Ocean Triggerfish photographed by Klaus Stiefel

Happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully you are not tired of turkey yet (my mother said that the buff turkeys gathered under the bay window and gobbled evocatively while she and Dad had their holiday meal). Uhh…anyway, in this spirit, here is a little drawing to celebrate. As I mentioned, lately I have been working with black and white inks on autumn colored paper. This is a drawing from that series which explores the mysterious connections between various entities crossing paths in the forest at night. The main dramatic tension in the composition comes from the unknown relationship between the fashionable woman with long antennae and the blank-eyed peasant pursuing her with an adorable young larva in a wicker basket. Who knows what is up with people like that? In the foreground there are some frogs, flatfish, and spiders…and a being of some sort who has somehow gotten stuck inside a chianti bottle. Tsk tsk! An anthropomorphized cat troubadour is hopefully proffering his mandolin to the fashion-moth-woman, but, alas, she seems too distracted for night music. In the background fat white moths fly through the intertwined branches as a nightjar flies off and a great barred owl swoops in. Deep inside the forest a phantom desperately tries to share a frantic message from the world beyond.

Most importantly, there are some pretty turkeys in the middle of the square drawing. Honestly, you should probably just pay attention to them today. Oh, also, that tenacious critter pursuing the snake is a Sunda stink badger. This hardly seems like the tropical rainforest of Sunda, but, frankly, it is hard to pin down the location or the time of this enigmatic tableau with any true certainty.

I was recently back at the family farm (which is in the Ohio Valley). Since I almost never go there in late autumn it gave me a precious opportunity to see some of my favorite trees wearing their brilliant fall raiment. Unfortunately I am no photographer–and I never found the time to paint a watercolor painting of autumn’s beauty–however I wanted to share the two most magnificent trees.

Here is the bald cypress which we planted to emulate grandpa’s bald cypress in Weston (which was apparently chopped down the moment he left his house). This tree is a young bald cypress, and it would still be in middle school if it was a human (which fortunately it is not, since it would be a dull child standing beside a goose pond all day), however it is already beginning to develop the knobby swamp knees and flying buttresses characteristic of the great cathedral cypresses of the southern swamp. It is maybe 6 meters (20 feet tall) and it is growing fast. I wish I could have captured the beauty of its warm orange fronds, because in the setting sun they glowed like it was a little ember from the November sun. I wish I could explain to you how winsome the tree is. There is something about all of the Cupressaceae which makes one want to hug them like a robe wearing lunatic from Northern California.

The second tree was my parents’ first choice of trees to plant and it is beginning to reach stunning maturity. It is a pecan tree and it is starting to produce nuts. You can’t see how large it is, but it probably about 13 or 14 meters (45 plus feet) and it is also growing fast. Sadly I could not capture its size with pictures (I need a giraffe or a basketball player to go stand beside it), but when you are near it, you now get a feeling of awe–in addition to whatever appreciation you have for its graceful lines and lovely proportions. There are larger trees back in the forest, but they are forest oaks, walnuts, and hickory which grow tall and straight and do not spread like the glorious pecan. Pecan trees are capable of growing to 40 meters (130 feet) in height with a spread of 22 meters (75 feet) so we will keep hoping that none of the freakish storms which have been growing in number and strength bedevil either of these beloved trees before they reach that kind of height. I wish you could actually see these trees–they are so beautiful!

It is Thanksgiving week and Ferrebeekeeper has a couple of little appetizer articles planned to post here before the great feast, however, before we get to those, I would like to talk about something which I have only become truly thankful for of late in life. Devout readers know that I love colors and I sometimes rue America’s puritan distrust of brilliant scintillating colors (I was recently at an airport in Richmond and everyone there was wearing black, blue, white or oatmeal!). Wouldn’t life be better if it was like a tropical coral reef or a city in Tamil Nadu?

Except, for some reason this year the Thanksgiving color palette is calling to me with a greater allure than it has ever possessed. Among the holiday color palettes Thanksgiving is the odd one out. New Years is gold, silver, and jewel-tones. Valentine’s day is bright red and hot pink. Saint Patrick’s Day is Kelly green and gold. Easter is a rainbow of cheerful pastels. Summer colors are superhero colors of red, blue, white, yellow, and green. Halloween is orange, black, purple and green. Christmas is red, green, and gold. However, Thanksgiving is russet, burgundy, harvest gold, and drab. It’s like a sheet set from 1975! Except now I see that within that rainbow of brown is the stubble in the autumn fields, and the feathers of buff turkeys, and the g;owing leaves of the bald cypress before they fall away.

Throughout my life I have chafed at the earth toned hues of autumn, but suddenly they seem more beautiful than I can ever remember. It is like they are not trying to sell some god-forsaken novelty or social pretense but are are simply the colors of Mother Earth herself.

Anyway, I don’t have a bigger point–although my other posts this week are related to this and come to think of it, lately my artwork has changed to reflect the somber beauty of the autumn woodlands too. Maybe I am finally coming to except that I will never be a triggerfish or a macaw and must be content to be an olive flounder or a tawny owl…or maybe the next season will reveal a new set of colors which delight me and my tastes will keep changing like the seasons and the years.

Where did the time go? It is impossible to believe that it will be Thanksgiving next week. Speaking of Thanksgiving, I was back at the family farm during the beginning of this month (it is unusual for me to get to go home in November) and I therefore got to see how the little cream-colored turkey poults have turned into adult turkeys. For those who have forgotten my original post from back in August, my parents, who raise lovely Pilgrim geese, obtained these turkeys in a “One Kitten for Kim” type situation when a neighboring poultry farmer exchanged some poults for some goslings. Back in summer I was surprised at how tiny, slender, and delicate the turkeys were. It turns out that this was because they were young. During the intervening months they have put on some real heft (although they are still much smaller that the doughty bronze turkeys of my childhood). It is hard to take pictures of these birds, but I think I captured a bit of their personality. Look at the casual insouciance with which they strut on top of the chickenhouse and prance along the barnyard fence!

I also now believe that the turkeys–which I fancifully though looked like creamsicle or butterscotch in the summer sunsets–are actually a classic variety known as “Buff”. I suspect what is really on your mind, though, is anxiety about their fate. Does the oven call for them with Baalshamen’s hunger for the children of Phoenicia? (or perhaps I should say “with an Olmec priest’s desire to scoop out some succulent human hearts?)” Fortunately however, the answer is that these turkeys are pet turkeys rather than livestock. Provided their behavior remains righteous, they will remain free to run around prancing on the outbuildings and chasing the rooster (whose rubose head troubles them) for as long as they like. They had better not start kicking and pecking at my folks though. Biff the turkey did that back in November 1983 and he dressed out at nearly 50 pounds!

Obviously we will have some more turkey posts next week, but, in the meantime maybe also check out this Aztec turkey/plague god from the Ferrebeekeeper/Central American archives.

They are certainly elusive to photograph…

It is nearly Thanksgiving and I had believed that the flower garden was done for the year (except for the inevitable die-off…and maybe am ornamental cabbage or pansy or two to contend with winter’s frigid blast). However it turns out there was a last treat left for November. I planted tricyrtis flowers this year, hardy little woodland perennials from Korea, Japan, & China (and there are also some tropical varieties from the Philippines–but that is not what I have). In English, the flowers are known by the evocative albeit slightly grotesque name of “toad lilies”. They look a bit like little toads with bulbous white curves and little dots of woodland color. In years past I have planted toad lilies, but I usually accidentally weed them out before they bloom because the stems and leaves look very much like the invasive Asiatic dayflower (which is pretty interesting in its own right and deserve its own post…next year). This year, I did not weed the dayflowers, but the toad lilies did not show up anyway and I marked them down as a failure. However it turns out I was just impatient and the winsome blossoms didn’t appear until November! Is this what they do in their native Korea?

Anyway I am delighted by the little white flower with pinkish brown dots and stipples which showed up just prior top the frost. Now I am worried that I will unthinkingly tear it up next year when I weed the beds. I wish the photographs which I took were better, but you will have to imagine its haunting dark fairy beauty on your own–or just look at any of the innumerable pictures on the web. Be warned however, none of the photos really do justice to this demure woodland beauty.

Hello! I am back. I courteously request that you kindly forgive my two week absence from writing posts about dark gods, bottom-dwelling fish, the cold darkness of outer space, weird art, and, um, pretty flowers in the garden. The fact of the matter is that, after a long and vivid life, my grandfather passed away. Not only did the funeral take me out of town (back to the tiny mountain hamlet in Appalachia where my family comes from, and to a cemetery where I am related to pretty much everyone), but his death also spelled the definitive end of an era and left me with some pretty serious questions. (also I loved Grandpa and was mourning him, but we will leave such personal matters aside)

I will write up an appropriate obituary here at the end of the year, but to quickly summarize: Grandpa spent his working life overseas operating on behalf of the United States government, fighting and winning the nation’s great twentieth century battles. He was in German-occupied Italy when it fell to the allies. He was in Burma when the Imperial Japanese army was defeated. He was in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, and then in Somalia, then in the Belgian Congo when it became Zaire. He was in Indonesia when the pro-communist Sukarno abdicated power for Suharto. And he finished up his foreign career in Vietnam working to best assist American allies there.

Even during the chilliest parts of the cold war, Grandpa’s work of defeating Soviet puppets (or subalterning them to become useful to the United States) was not highly visible or well-understood by Americans at home. These days that lack of diplomatic (or realpolitik) perspective is hurting us. The United States seems to benefit from having a comprehensible international competitor. After the events of the late eighties and the breakup of the Soviet Block, the perspective concerning the Cold War has gone two very opposite ways.

There is a narrative on the right that we won the Cold War outright and can now turn our back on the world and focus all of our attention on making American billionaires much richer and perfecting fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Thinkers from the left seem inclined to regard the outcome of the Cold War as foreordained and spend their energy lambasting the methods which America employed to counter Russia’s dirty tricks as some sort of capitalist imperialism or neocolonialism. Like all good-hearted people, I regard the first point of view as naive garbage which is pulling us towards fascism. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned liberal line of thinking is likewise dangerous garbage which is enabling the current international crisis of democracy. Please read this chilling article from the Atlantic about what happens when there are too few people like Grandpa (hint: we still have terrible foreign enemies and they are working hard to prolong our political stalemate and deepen our internal tensions…or just end our democracy outright and put their own puppet in charge here).

Anyway, this is a short post to explain my fortnight-long absence not to contextualize the affairs of the whole world (again, that Atlantic article does that). Also, as you can probably tell, being in West Virginia disturbed me. It is one thing to see America’s political divisions on some colorful map. It is quite another to come face to face with the number of earnest Americans who honestly believe our future lies in “far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy” (to borrow a sentence straight from Wikipedia).

So Grandpa is gone and his hard work is coming undone. I will get back to writing about the garden and the oceans, but I will try to spend more time writing about the affairs of the world. The political crisis of the 21st century is well underway and America and our embattled democratic allies are quickly losing ground abroad and at home. We are all going to have to spend more time explaining why authoritarianism is bad and why we need to spend money and time influencing what happens overseas. Likewise we are going to have to keep defending fundamental liberal and democratic values here, as well. We will have to patiently do the best we can to minimize the coming disasters of 2022 and 2024. Otherwise the red spots on the map will keep spreading and there will be no United States–just another Russian puppet of the sort that Grandpa spent his life fighting.

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