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Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River. I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hill–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. But the strange thing about the whispering of the dead is how identical it is to the whispering in our own red hearts.

It has been a long time since this blog has explored the strange and evocative world of mascots, those perplexing symbolic stand-ins who (or “which”?) represent an organization or concept. This year’s Halloween theme is graveyards, and naturally the question arose (snicker) of whether there are gravestone mascots. The world contains Japan–so of COURSE there are (albeit not many). We will get to them shortly, but first let’s philosophize about this subject for a moment. After all a grave itself is already a sort of mascot–a symbolic stand-in which represents an entire life. Even when that life is gone, the idea remains (for what is a person to another person really, but a complicated arrangement of ideas). Oftentimes the idea supersedes the life itself. How many people actually knew Lenin or Colonel Sanders or whatever?

Also, as I “researched” this article I found hundreds of graves of mascots which underlined what a powerful idea both graves and mascots are. I included Colonel Sanders’ grave above because, just as Colonel Sanders was the epitome of mascots, his tomb is the epitome of mascot tombs (in fact, it might be nicer than Philip the Apostle’s tomb at Hierapolis, and the Byzantines had 600 years to spiff that up). Yet most of the bulldogs, homing pigeons, goats, and pigs had pretty nice graves too. There was something particularly moving about the granite memorials of regimental mascots from WWI and WWII–which made it seem like mascots not only bore the honor of their units but also served as much needed emotional surrogates for the soldiers. Symbols are much more powerful than people initially suppose!

We will return to these ideas. The reason I am writing about graves is not (just) because I am a morbid weirdo, but to examine the relationship we have with people of the past–who never knew us, but whose ideas, works, and institutions are the basis of our own lives. Maybe it is also a way of asking what meaning and assistance we can provide for the unknowable people (and suchlike entities) of the future other than useless hunks of rock which narcissistically yet feebly proclaim that we existed. Um…ok…anyway, here are some strange grave mascots I found online:

This Japanese grave is pretty cute actually–I wish I had found a bigger picture (or at least found out where WordPress put the danged “center” button)

More of a coffin–but he does the job
Is this a…warning? an ad?
This guy might straight-up be a sugar cube or a hunk of goat cheese
Tombliboos are tombs, right?
Aww!
The end…for this post anyway

Oh gosh, October is really flying by this year. I guess we might as well jump to this year’s spooky Halloween topic right now so that we will be able to enjoy (?) these posts as we approach Halloween. Topics in previous years have included the undead, the mother of monsters, flaying, and dark clowns. This year we are returning to the classics and writing about cemeteries (but with an eye on the future as well as the past). Arguably this is a repeat of my 2018 “necropolis” series, but I was dissatisfied by how that panned out (even if I am still astonished and troubled by Vietnam’s “City of Ghosts“) so this year we will circle back to explore the emotional, political, and philosophical (and environmental) aspect of cemeteries and take a look at some amazing graveyards as well.

We will do all of that in subsequent posts of this series, but to start with, let’s just check out an amazing ancient cemetery! The ancient city of Hierapolis is located in what is now Turkey, but its “golden age” took place during the Greco-Roman period particularly from Hellenic times to the beginning of the Byzantine era. The true apogee of Hierapolis was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The location has a famous hot spring with heated bubbling mineral water–and it is hard to imagine anything more appealing to the Roman mind than a giant natural jacuzzi (especially one right beside the Adriatic in the Hellenized heart of Asia Minor). Well-to-do Romans would retire to Hierapolis to enjoy the healing benefits of the baths and the services of doctors/quacks/healers/magicians of all sorts. The location was a sort of medical mecca of the Roman world. You should go look up the wonders of the Hieraplois baths and theater on your own. For the purposes of this article though, the other side of the medical industry is germane. When the ancient doctors could not help patients, the people who moved their seeking succor stayed permanently.

Like other Roman cities, Hierapolis was designed with the market, theater, and forum in the center of town–along with the baths and medical establishments (and a great colonnaded main street). Around the city center were shops, temples and the dwellings of the great. Farther from the center were more modest dwellings and artisan’s shops and workplaces. The city was surrounded with walls and immediately outside these walls, along each thoroughfare, were extensive cemeteries. Just imagine how creepy roman cemeteries were back in the day when all of the outcasts and footpads of town would haunt the dark mausoleums, columbariums, and tumuli! Like us, the ancient Romans also had their own extensive creepy pantheon of demons and monsters, but the Roman spooky realm was haunted by beautiful flesh-eating lamia, and grim owl-like strix (and headlined by dark gods like Dis Pater, Hecate, and Cronus).

Anyway, Hierapolis was wealthy, as were the citizens who came there to spend the remainder of their days, and thus many of the Roman tombs built there were beautiful and solidly built–and they are still there. The Roman elites commissioned lovely gardens of cypress, asphodel, and roses around their graves. Many of the stunningly beautiful carved sarcophagi which you will recognize from Latin textbooks or history articles about Rome are from Hierapolis (the best have been gathered together in a museum). Even if you are a stern, joyless Christian and find little to love about a bunch of pagan graves, Hierapolis is the also the final resting place of Philip the Apostle and it had a long successful turn as a Byzantine spa city as well.

Tomb of Philip the Apostle (or possibly Philip the Evangelical, depending on which Biblical archaeologists you believe)

After peering back through the mists of time to the mythical origin of ancient Greece’s ancient center of prophecy, Dodona (which was purportedly founded by a black, talking pigeon) I bet you are asking yourself “hey wait, do black pigeons exist in nature?” The answer is a glorious and emphatic yes! The black imperial pigeon (Ducula melanochroa) is a splendid black pigeon (with a bit of white trim along its wings) which can be found living throughout the Bismarck Archipelago.

Although I found this to be of great ornithological interest, I found it to be geographically challenging.To wit, where on earth is the Bismarck Archipelago? Does Germany have a hitherto unknown chain of black-pigeon haunted isles stretching out into the Baltic? Germans will be relieved (albeit a bit disappointed) to learn that it does not. The Bismarck Archipelago obtained its name during the desperate last phase of European colonialism, when imperialists-run-amuck stuck flags (and un-regional names) on anything that wasn’t fast enough to get away from steam powered battleships. The Bismarck Archipelago is a chain of very volcanic islands off the north east coast of Papua New Guinea with a collective area which is approximately equal to Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

The discovery of a substantial part of the world wholly unknown to me is sort of a consolation prize for the fact that I can not find out very much about these black imperial pigeons (other than the fact that they exist). I doubt they had much to do with anything that was happening in Greece long ago (or ever), but it is extraordinary to see how diverse animal life is on our home planet and to know that even in the age of the internet there are entire species–and places–which keep their mysteries.

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

It is October, the scary season of the year, and Ferrebeekeeper is working towards our annual Halloween special feature at the end of the month. Before we get there however, let’s pause to appreciate an exceedingly beautiful snake, Drepanoides anomalus, the black-collared snake of South America. The tiny but handsome snake can be found in the neotropical forests of the great Southern continent in a range stretching from French Guyana across Brazil, and from Colombia down through Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. For those of you following along on a globe, that is an epic range…and yet, so little is known about this tiny snake here in the north (or anywhere online, for that matter) that it is hard to speak sensibly about its habits and proclivities. It is a rear-fanged snake notable for a nocturnal lifestyle and for its propensity for eating eggs of he many many sorts found in its region. This genus contains only the single living species. What we can say for certain is that this is an endearingly winsome little snake with appealing eyes and a gorgeous red body. I can’t decide whether its tiny white headband looks like a clergyman’s collar or like a cartoon bandage, but it does make me think we could do better in English than “black collared snake.” If anyone out there knows anything about this mysterious creature, please let us know!

More-often-than-not, Ferrebeekeeper has featured crowns from long ago.  We try to feature crowns from antiquity or the Middle Ages (since that is where monarchs belong) but, because the development of the world is halting and uneven, we have seen quite a few crowns from the early modern era and the nineteenth century.  After saying all that, here is a contemporary crown from the quasi-present.  This is a crown made of emeralds and black gold (which is “oil” in my book, but apparently mean something else to jewelers) which was famously worn by Queen-Consort Rania of Jordan in 2003.  The piece was designed by Solange Azagury-Partridge for the French jeweler Boucheron (who, as far as I can tell) may still hold the piece.  The tiara is in the form of a twining circlet of ivy. Since Rania is both famous and infamous as a fashion icon, the modern elegance of the piece suits her quite well. I tend to prefer crowns to be medieval and symmetric with lots of cabochon gemstones and heavy YELLOW gold arches & crosses, however this piece has an elven charm about it which lifts it above the ugly abstract minimalism of most contemporary pieces.  In fact, projecting backwards, I think it is a shame that more historical crowns don’t feature leaves, animals, insects or suchlike naturalistic details and ornaments.  For example, one of the best crowns, the raven crown, has embroidered skulls and raven heads and looks as awesome as it sounds.  Maybe Queen Rania and Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King of Bhutan, should hang out more for reasons of pure bling (although the Dragon King is a reformer, whereas the jury is still out on the Hashemite Dynasty).

The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

Today we have some exciting news from out there in the solar system [checks notes] er, excuse me, I guess I mean “in there” in the solar system, since today’s news concerns from the planet closest to the sun. Yet, even though it is first, Mercury is shockingly unknown compared to the other planets of the solar system. This past Friday (October 1st 2021), the joint ESA/JAXA space mission BepiColombo (which launched back in 2018) finally made it to the innermost world. Since 2018, the transfer module has been slaloming around Earth and Venus in order to make it to Mercury. Indeed, the mission is named after the brilliant Italian astrophysicist who first proposed interplanetary gravity assist maneuvers as a mechanism for altering the velocity and trajectory of interplanetary spacecraft. BepiColombo took the picture at the top of this post, a view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere taken at a distance of about 2,420 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the world.

In 2025, the spacecraft will deploy two orbiters to truly comprehensively map Mercury and attempt to unlock the mysteries of the planet’s ancient face. Mercury’s surface seems to be made of a very dark lava which has been bombarded by meteorites for the last several billion years. Although Mercury is dinky in volume (smaller than some of the solar system’s moons) it is quite dense and presumably contains a metallic core suitable for a much larger planet. Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly, for anyone who lives here) the densest planet in the solar system is Earth!

Not since the end of the Messenger mission has Mercury been the thrilling center of attention in astronomy. I can hardly wait for subsequent discoveries about the fast, hot, tiny planet. Some of the secrets of the making of the solar system have been locked away on the little world, waiting billions of years for the right orbiter to come along.

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.

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