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Remember Ferrebeekeeper’s erstwhile roommate Jennifer? During the beginning of the pandemic she packed up her New York City life and moved off to Knoxville. With her went her youthful ward, Miloš Cat, a dashing orphaned street-tabby whom Jennifer plucked from the mean streets of East Flatbush. Living in a dinky backwater city sounds like a bit of a mixed bag–with a handful of positive aspects of urban living balanced against a lot of missing things. And there are elements of the country too! One thing I keep hearing about is the sheer mortality of little water snakes in Jennifer’s Knoxville domicile. Apparently Miloš Cat has taken a shine to the native fauna and sucks these poor guys up like spaghetti (you know, if you ate half of spaghetti and left the mutilated remaining portion on Jennifer’s pristine floor or pillow) [Editor’s note: Please DO NOT DO THIS with snakes or spaghetti].

Here is a JPEG of young Miloš, chomping on his own rather snakelike tail (photo credit: Jennifer Buffett)

Anyway, what does the story of a tabby cat eating snakes in the American South have to do with today’s post? A lot it turns out! Back at the dawn of Ferrebeekeeper, we wrote about the influx of predatory Burmese pythons which irresponsible exotic snake owners dumped in the Florida Everglades. The snakes, which grow to unnerving immensity, are apex predators of Southeast Asia (surely one of Earth’s most competitive ecosystems) and they have been wreaking havoc on the ‘glades. Florida winters have not diminished the invasive snake’s numbers and even teams of armed Florida men authorized to hunt the monsters with all of the firepower available from America’s finest gun shops have done little to stop the pythons. Apparently nothing can stand against the mighty serpents.

Or so it seemed…

Floridian biologists wanted to understand more about the pythons’ nesting behaviors so they set up a camouflaged camera to observe the nest of a 55 kilogram (120 pound) laying snake. What the camera revealed was a complete shock (sorry for the clickbait sentence here in paragraph 3). A feisty swamp bobcat showed up and harassed the mama snake on her nest. Later on, when she slithered off to do python errands (eating native wildlife I guess?), the cat returned and ate all the eggs! It was a real shock to the biologists who did not expect the native swamp denizens to stand up to the Burmese python so effectively. They are setting up a new snake camera elsewhere, however, at least a certain furry someone seems to have the python’s number. Biologists will now keep their eyes open to see whether other bobcats are wrecking snake nests and eating python eggs throughout south Florida (and how much of an impact this has on the snakes). Hopefully Miloš will take this lesson to heart too, and stop eating up the native fauna of Tennessee (lest some Appalachia hill snake strike back at the non-native).

Happy Mardi Gras! Tonight at midnight, the Lenten season of austerity begins. Today is therefor a holiday of merriment and excess in Catholic parts of the world. The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is, of course, the great Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, finally returned to full glory this year after two long years of plague and quarantine. During the corona years, however, New Orleans natives (and members of the illustrious parade krewes which put the spectacle together) did not entirely give up! They decorated certain key houses around the Big Easy in the same manner as parade floats. For tonight’s carnival delectation, here is a little gallery of some of those lovely cottages wearing their mad finery:

(Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Usually Ferrebeekeeper writes about crowns, but today, as a special treat to celebrate the end of February (which is also Black History month), we are going to write about a throne instead…and this is not just any throne! It is also my favorite visionary art installation [as an aside, I believe it would help to contextualize the problematic nature of monarchy if we called all thrones “visionary art installations”–and it wouldn’t even really be inaccurate]. Anyway, above is the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by American outsider artist James Hampton which is currently held at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Created between 1950 and 1964, the enormous work consists of 180 individual objects hand-crafted out of broken furniture and everyday found objects which were gilded with aluminum and gold foil.

Hampton’s tale is as American as possible, while somehow simultaneously as outsider as possible too. He was born in South Carolina in 1909, the son of a Baptist preacher with the same name. His father, James Hampton Senior was a traveling Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, but he was also a grifter and a ex-convict with a history of time in the chain gang. He abandoned his family and vanished away into the William Faulkner style goings-on of the south during the tumultuous decades of the teens, twenties, and thirties leaving his 4 children and wife to scrape by as well as possible.

After this hard-scrabble upbringing, young James Hampton moved to Washington D.C. where he was a short-order cook during the Depression and was then drafted into The United States Army Air Force during Word War II. He served repairing airstrips in Guam for which he received a Bronze Star. In Guam he also first began building visionary devotional shrines. After the war he moved back to Washington and obtained a job as a janitor at the General Service Administration, where he worked until his death of stomach cancer in 1964. We would probably not remember him at all, except, when he died, his landlord approached his sister about what to do with the contents of the garage which Hampton used as a workspace/devotional area. Hampton had largely kept his artwork hidden from even his tiny circle of friends and family (perhaps he did not even regard it as artwork per se). Only after his death did it come to the world’s attention, along with St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation a religious book which he mostly wrote in a private (and untranslated) tongue.

Hampton’s Christianity was non-sectarian (enough of his writing is in English to inform us that he wisely believed that the doctrinal schisms which characterize organized Christianity detract from the sacred unity of God) and highly mystical. I first saw the throne on a High School Field Trip in the nineties, when its awesome otherworldly glory and strangeness was enough to silence a whole class of 16 year olds (an achievement accomplished by few other cultural masterpieces in the nation’s capital). Its glistening cat-eyes and complex Baroque shapes are characteristic of American dime stores and carnivals of the early 20th century…and yet they also very much of Africa, Polynesia, and the Holy Land as well.

You will have to examine the shrine of your own–as with some of the finest religious art of South East Asia or the Middle Ages, its splendor and complexity initially baffle the eye. However, it is based on Saint John’s New Testament description of the silver and gold throne of God on Judgement Day (Revelations 4). This description includes mention of Christian elders wearing sacred crowns, and these crowns are very much a part of the larger installation, so even if you are lost in the material complexities of James Hampton’s personal devotion, at least there is highly recognizable iconography for the rulers of Earth…and for this blog’s readers too!

The 2022 Winter Olympics have started and Ferrebeekeeper watched the opening ceremony so that you don’t have to! The Beijing-style pageantry and pomp was omnipresent…yet markedly different than in 2008 (when covid, climate-change, and autocracy had not yet taken their toll on Earth’s beleaguered folk). My most dazzling part of the whole affair was the giant flower (above) made of huge green LED rods and a troupe of brilliant, careful dancers working seamlessly together. That was incredible! Do a sea anemone next! I also enjoyed how NBC sporadically cut-away to show Vladimir Putin sitting alone in his VIP dictator box. When the Russian athletes came out he blew kisses. When the Ukraine athletes came out he pretended to be asleep while a dream-bubble featuring him devouring the Ukraine appeared above his head. Then when the camera was not on him, he sneaked off to purloin the gold judo medals (the joke’s on you, strongman, there IS no judo in the winter Olympics). What a show!

After the giant flower made up of people, the show-makers got even more serious about hammering home their political message of Chinese unity. Like Europe, China is made up of many ethnic groups (Hui, Miao, Bai, Manchu, Kam, Yao, Uyghur, Tibetan, Gelao, etc, etc, etc…). All of these people are annealed together under Han leadership. The opening ceremony illustrated this, by presenting actors dressed up like the various ethnicities working together to conquer covid, set up the games, and carry the national flag to the seamless, goose-stepping Chinese military which marched it into place.

The most popular part of the opening is the parade of nations, when each nation’s athletes enter the stadium wearing appropriate costumes. The fashion winner was…Kazakhstan (sigh), which took a break from pogroms and crackdowns to put together these stunning outfits which look like they came out of a beautiful Central Asian version of “Return of the Jedi”.

The Kazhak Olympic flag-bearers

Americas’ outfits at least looked warm, practical, and tough for a change.

Each nation’s delegation was preceded by a gorgeous Chinese model bearing a snowflake with the country’s name. Snowflakes were the theme of the opening ceremony. After the parade of nations, these nation-snowflakes had further roles to play in the ceremony.

In the west, snowflakes represent individuality (since no two are the same). In America, the pro-totalitarian opponents of liberty have taken to calling their liberal-minded political opponents “snowflakes” to mock the idea that anything different can be special or worthwhile (and also, presumably, to show that those who support democracy are fragile and weak). The whole thing is a stupid and contrived metaphor, which China disturbingly recontextualized by featuring hundreds of identical mass-produced snowflakes (the national “nametags” from the parade of athletes) being held by heterogeneous children from around the world. Through some kind of Chinese artistry, these identical snowflakes were then annealed together into a giant super snowflake–which also looked exactly the same. All of this was against the larger backdrop of identical machine-made snow (without which the winter Olympics could not happen in drought-stricken Beijing).

NBC tried to sprinkle some Hollywood tinsel onto this very Chinese show in the form of a pre-taped segment with professional wrestler and not-exactly-master thespian Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bloviating about how great America’s Olympic athletes are. Although I fully believe that the Rock knows how challenging it is to keep to a steroid regimen, he does not have anything else to do with the Olympics and his form-fitting shirt-sleeved shirt and obvious LA backdrop made him seem even more jarringly out of place.

The real high point of the show was the appearance of China’s uncrowned emperor, Xi Jinping, in a mask and simple unadorned winter coat. He spoke a word and the sky was filled with dazzling fireworks and the games officially began! As you may be able to tell, I have some reservations about all of this (during the worldwide Democratic crisis, the IOC’s very biddable affections seem to all lie with totalitarians), but that hardly means I’m not going to enjoy the Olympics… Let me know what you think, and we will blog more about what is happening on the ice and on the piste of the world’s most populous capital city!

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.

I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hills–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. 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.

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!

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…

One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most successful and beloved posts ever was about the topic of brown flowers (and we have had a follow-up post or two along the line as well). This is why I am happy to post some lovely pale brown flowers from in front of the house. Here are some morning glories which my roommate Rennie planted and which are coming on strong as the summer begins to fade. Look at how beautiful and subtle the colors are. I never thought I would be singing the praises of beige flowers on strangler vines, but it has been a long year and they really are gorgeous. I need to take a picture of the front of the house which features other morning glories like Grandpa Ott, a bright pink morning glory, and even some picotee violet blossoms, but it is hard to get my act together in the mornings.

Flemish Flatfish (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) ink and watercolor on paper

Happy Solstice! I wanted to finish off the ocean theme and celebrate the longest day of the year by coloring one of my large flounder drawings (which I originally designed to be in a huge strange flatfish coloring book). Unfortunately, coloring the image took sooo long that the longest day of the year is now over! (and I am still not happy with the coloring–which turns out to be just as hard as I recall from childhood)

Anyway, here is a sky flounder with a Dutch still life on his/her body swimming over the flat sea by the low countries. Little Flemish details dot the composition (like the clay pipe at the bottom, the bagpiper by the beach, and Audrey Hepburn in a 17th century dress) however the endearing minutiae can not forever distract the viewer from larger themes of sacrifice and the ineluctable passage of time (both of which are fine ideas to contemplate on this druidic holiday).

As always, we will return to these ideas, but for now, happy summer!

The last few blossoms are dropping from the cherry tree and now even the late tulips are blooming. Spring has sprung and we are moving past cherry blossom season towards summer. Yet even though summer is my favorite season, I feel a melancholy pang every year when the blossoms flutter down. Time moves by so fast and nothing can arrest its inexorable passing…nothing except for the magic of art, that is! Therefore, here is my yearly blossom painting. I made this one with watercolor and ink and I was hoping to capture the transitory moment when the sun dips from the sky and the lanterns come on and yet the sky remains heavenly blue (it is an ephemeral moment of the day which mirrors the equinox moments of the year.

Kwanzan Cherry Tree in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Although the real subject of my picture is the blossoming cherry tree (the full beauty of which has, yet again, eluded me), I tried to capture some other garden delights–the crabapple tree blossoms (at far right), the dogwood blossoms (at top left), the riot of tulips, and the ornamental winter cabbage which somehow survived living under two feet of snow in January and February in order to bloom in May. One of my roommates is back there in her golden ochre coat looking at bingo on her phone and the faces of the garden statues can be glimpsed in the tulip beds. At the center of the picture is another wistful figure tinged with melancholia. My best friend is a tiny black cat with a dab of white who sneaked into the basement when she was a kitten. After the death of Sepia Cat back in March, Sumi Cat is now my only pet. She is as loving and domesticated as any cat I have met and sleeps in my arms at night (indeed she is cavorting on the keyboard this very moment, trying to type over what I am writing and command my attention). But Sumi has relatives on the outside. On the other side of the sliding door she has siblings and nieces and nephews who are not domesticated but live the short yet intense lives of feral cats. I think that is her sister’s daughter there in the garden (she looks identical to Sumi, except Sumi has a white fingerprint on her heart where Kwan Yin touched her), and I am always sad that I didn’t trap her and her brother (and their little siblings who vanished forever when they were the size of teacups) and drag them to the “Cats of Flatbush” cat rescue organization. Sigh. What are we going to do about the way of the world?

ghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghnhyhyhyhyuuuu (Sumi added that post script so I am putting in a little author picture below)

Sumi doesn’t really look like this at all..but black cats are impossible to photograph…

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