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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.

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…

It is blossom season in New York! Instead of writing blogs about mollusks, gothic art, and politics, I have been looking at flowers and trees. The cherry tree at the top of the post is down by the Manhattan Court House (as you can hopefully tell by the World Trade Center/Freedom Tower/Whatever-it-is-called-now), but the rest of the images are from my garden in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the garden is a Kwanzan flowering cherry which usually blooms for a fortnight (although, thanks to the cold snap, it seemed more like 6 days this year). I have blogged about the cherry blossoms at length in years past, yet, every year I am struck anew by the beauty and evanescence of the pink blooms.

Here are the blossoms in my back yard (my roommate added those plastic flamingos, by the way). Speaking of other gardeners who change things around in the flower garden…here is another character who lives in the neighborhood who cannot keep his paws off of the blossoms. Every day during tulip season he beheads a couple of tulips to see if they are good to eat. When he realizes they are not squirrel food, he tosses them down. Sigh…

Below is a patch of pastel pink tulips. You can see one of the beheaded stems at far left.

These white tulips are known as “Pays Bas” and I think they came out particularly lovely! This year, in addition to the cherry tree, the old ornamental crabapple also blossomed (which is a rarity). You can see the darker pink blossoms in the foreground in the picture immediately below.

I am going to see if I can draw/photograph/capture some more of the garden’s spring charms for you (it never looks right on the computer screen), but for now I am going to go back out and enjoy the showers of falling petals…

It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present
Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

One of the splashy headlines from today’s newspapers concerned an American mogul’s plans to build a second planned city in Uganda….even though he hasn’t finished his first. I did not know that American moguls were building any cities in Uganda, but strange, futuristic planned cities interest me, so I was quick to click on the headline! Apparently the mogul in question is the rap/R&B singer Akon, whose family emigrated to Missouri from Senegal. Akon’s first planned city, “Akon City” is set to be built in Senegal, not Uganda (I guess I misunderstood the Post’s somewhat misleading headline). All financial transactions which take place in Akon City will be made with “Akoins” a cryptocurrency also devised by Akon.

3D illustration of a futuristic city in sunset, with an organic architectural design and high-rise buildings, for fantasy and science fiction backgrounds.

Although urban planners and economic development experts are…skeptical…about both cities, Akon and his collaborators aver that they have raised $4 billion dollars of the required $6 billion dollars to get stage one of the city (in Senegal) started. I am going to gloss over the pointed questions which auditors and activists have raised concerning how so much real estate was pledged to these projects by cash-strapped governments and just show you some pictures (in fact, all of these pictures are designs/conceptions for how Akon City could look).

I am not going to speculate about whether Akon can build Akon City and finance it with Akoins, however I would like to propose that if he does manage to do so, he should immediately extend a sister city deal (and most-favored-trade status) to Akron, Ohio. I feel like that post-industrial rustbelt city has been desperately looking for someone with Akon’s interests. In fact, I wonder if they couldn’t raise some quick cash from the rap mogul by getting rid of their “R” (which they could make some extra money off of by selling to Pune, India or Vigo, Spain, or some similar metropolis).

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