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We knew that, if the Webb telescope could make it to the L2 Lagrange Point in one piece and deploy properly, this would be an exciting season for astronomers–but, even so, the parade of stunning new images from outer space are marvelous and demand comment. Today’s treasure is a picture of Planet Neptune and its moons as imaged by the near-infrared camera on Webb. The ice giant Neptune is made of strange cold things with a great pall of methane gas over them. Methane gas is very opaque to infrared light (which it absorbs) and so the planet looks like a frosty, haunted bowling ball with glass rings.

Ever since Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet”, Neptune is the outermost world of our solar system. Yet the great gas giants…or even the trans-Neptunian objects like Eris and Haumea get all of the attention. No space craft has even visited Neptune since Voyage II rolled by in 1989 (the first and last time a probe entered the Neptune system).

Aside from the spectral rings, the image shows some bright sparks in a line along Neptune’s Tropic of Capricorn (which is not called that, but you get the idea). These bright spots are caused by high altitude methane clouds which are made of methane ice (which reflects infrared light better than methane gas does).

The full Webb photo has a striking focal point! Pulling back we see that Neptune’s largest and strangest moon Triton outshines the giant world it orbits. This is because Triton (which is named for the Greco-Roman deity Neptune’s merman super-son) is covered in a sheet of frozen nitrogen which reflects 70% of the sunlight which strikes it–so Triton glows like an aquamarine star in this photo. Ultimately Triton might well turn out to be be more interesting than Neptune: it is the only large moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit (an orbit opposite of the planet’s rotation). Such an unusual orbit suggests that the moon was a little world captured by the ice giant long ago.

Triton is larger than Pluto and is one of five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active (the others being Io, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus). Voyager II spotted geysers of nitrogen gas venting from the moon. Clearly cryovolcanic activity is taking place below the strange patchwork of old ice (as explained in this confusing yet compelling map/diagram) and lakes of liquid water may exist below the moon’s crust.

I am going to keep staring at images of our strange far-off neighbor world, but I can’t wait to see what Webb photographs next!

My roommate Rennie is also a flower gardening enthusiast, but what he likes is morning glories. To make this work in Brooklyn, where space is limited, he gardens in the front yard (where there is lots of light and lots of things to climb on) and I plant my shade garden in the tree-filled back yard (admittedly, I plant a few morning glories to climb up onto the broken down structure behind the Haitian Church behind us).

Anyway, last year, Rennie ran around collecting all of the seeds from the morning glories he raised in the front yard (Grandpa Ott, chocolate cocoa, & flying saucers) and the ones I raised in the back (crimson rambler, Carnevale di Venezia, and Harlequin). He planted them all in big plastic planters and throughout the long hot summer of drought he has lugged out bucket after bucket of dehumidifier water straight from the dank basement for the thirst tropical flowers.

Unfortunately these pictures do not do them justice–the pure glowing colors are almost psychedelic–but even through the lens of my cellphone the beauty is still evident. His morning glory garden is such a triumph and it has been giving me a few seconds of unbridled joy each morning as I run past trying to get to my morning subway (mornings are not my best time–but the flowers help a bit).

I even unexpectedly captured a special visitor. Perhaps you remember this post from the depths of 2020 about rescuing a little carpenter bee which keeled over from exertion. Well, I noticed that a carpenter bee was rooting around in one of the cocoa-colored trumpets and took a close-up picture before rushing off to work. The picture came out far better than I would have expected (who knew my cheap phone had such a good macro function?). Admittedly, I only captured the carpenter bee’s behind (beehind?) but the lens picked out all of the individual grains of pollen caught up on the bee’s fur. Additionally, you can see the glistening luster of the cells which make up the flower.

September may be the second best garden month in Brooklyn: I will see if I can get some more pictures from the back yard and from the front one, before the magic fades. In the mean time, I will just assume that this bee is a direct descendant of that earlier one, just like these vines are all children of last year’s flowers. Also, thanks Rennie!

A fortnight ago, Ferrebeekeeper put up a review of “Requiem for a Good Machine” a science-fiction novel by friend and collaborator, Daniel Claymore. The book describes a future police officer’s attempts to solve a chain of murders (and related crimes) in Mirabilis, an ideal city built by robots to serve as a habitat for the faltering biological humans of the post-singularity age.

As of today, Claymore’s work is now on sale and you can get an e-copy (or better yet, a real copy!) of his book by going to any purveyor of fine literature. Different parts of stories stick with different people, and ever since reading Claymore’s novel, I have been thinking about the gleaming city at the heart of his work. Paradoxically, thinking about this future city is causing us to go backwards in time for the subject of this post.

Back in 2015, I built/drew the Apollo and Marsyas miniature theater, a theater for 1:18 figures (mainly the Kenner Star Wars figures…but it turns out there are lots of other little actors at this scale jockeying for position on stage too). Anyway, the fun of that project was drawing some strange background scenes (like a medieval castle, a pleasure garden, Timbuktu, a spooky cemetery, Hell, etc.). One of the backdrops I drew was a glowing city of the future filled with robots, meta-humans, droids, and transgenic chimera animals. Here it is:

Future Megalopolis (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015) ink and colored pencil on paper

My recollection of this work is that I enjoyed drawing all of the future beings (look at that quantum computer clock guy (or thing?) at the left side beneath the pink organ wall…or the purple owl woman standing above the metal dog-robot at right!) but then I got lost coloring in the asphalt and threw the whole thing aside in disgust. Looking at it afresh, however, it is better than I remember. You are getting an impossible peek into the world of the far future thanks to the one power capable of opening such a window–the imagination!

Yet, although the imagination is capable of peering through deep time, it is also fallible (just look at all of that confusing, hard-to-color future asphalt!). I was hoping to portray a city made of cities–where super-arcologies stand next to each other, rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon. I wanted an effect which was akin to the troubling urban art of George Grosz–with all of the maddened machine-people and transgenic organisms spilling out of the architecture like confetti and tainted candy pouring out of a psychedelic piñata.

The fun of painting like Grosz is creating a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics! But the peril of creating such an artwork is getting lost in a world of visual clutter (which is a less-flattering way of describing a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics). With this work I certainly experienced the fun…but I also fell prey to the peril. Even so, this glowing drawing captures some of the effect of looking into a bewilderingly complicated social ecosystem.

The dancing, crawling, and flying robots running from dome to dome in a world of strange machines may not be exactly what the future holds…but they inspire us to think about where we are going (and we need to think about that a lot harder). Maybe I need to get my fluorescent ink back out and paint some more fantastical cities glowing in the purple twilight of ages we will never get to see.

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we continue to marvel over the images from the James Webb telescope (the first such image was the subject of Monday’s post). As an ongoing homage to the new telescope (and to the team of scientists, engineers, and experts who made humankind’s marvelous super eye in space a reality) here is a short pictorial post…about a completely unrelated Caribbean filefish!

This is Cantherhines macrocerus, the American whitespotted filefish, an omnivorous filefish which lives along the southern coast of Florida and southwards through the shallow tropical waters of the Caribbean. The fish makes its living by eating algae and reef/coastal invertebrates like worms, small mollusks, sponges, soft corals, gorgonians, etc. The adult fish grows to a size of 45 centimeters (about 18 inches).

Perhaps you are wondering how this fish is related to the space telescope. Well, like many fish, the whitespotted filefish can–to a degree–alter its color depending on its mood or background. The fish’s dark coloration scheme pays homage to deep field images of the universe filled with galaxies

Obviously this is one of those aesthetic-themed posts which deals with delightful and fantastic (albeit superficial) similarities of appearance. It is the only way I know how to express my delight with cosmology and ichthyology! Indeed, even when this fish is not white-spotted (there is a yellow and olive variation) it still reminds me of the Webb scope..

Of course Ferrebeekeeper has a long track-record of seeing the forms of the universe within the patterns of fish. Humankind looks for patterns–and sometimes finds similar patterns in unrelated forms. Although maybe this particular similarity is not just an artistic conceit: humans and all vertebrate life descend from fish…and all-living things are made of atoms built in long-dead stars. The highest purpose of our new space telescope is to find out about the possibilities of life out there in the universe (since Webb can possibly peak into the atmospheres of exoplanets to let us know about any whiff of molecules associated with life). While we are looking millions of light years away we also need to keep looking at where we are. For the present, home is still the only place we know for sure to have abundant lifeforms (like, for example, the whitespotted filefish). Imagine if we found a water-dwelling, pincer-nosed alien which devoured fractal lifeforms and had a picture of deep space on its lozenge-form body. We would go crazy with delight. But we already have such a thing swimming around Turks and Caicas hoovering up gorgonians and looking cute.

Hey everybody! Sorry I went awol for a little sabbatical from writing. It is summer plus I felt burned out after the last two (or 20) years, and none of my blogging pleasure centers were registering any joy. However today there is something to be quite joyous about: the President of the United States released the first deep field image from the James Webb Space telescope, a colossal near-infrared eye in the sky, which is now unfurled, debugged, and fully operational at Earth’s second LeGrange point! Huzzah!

Courtesy NASA Webb Space Telescope

And what a picture it is. It is so good and so spectacular that it almost looks like background art from a disco album rather than a colossal galaxy-studded expanse of outer space as it existed billions of years ago. The image is a composite of multiple scans taken with the space telescope’s Near-Infrared camera over a 12.5 hour window (the world famous ultra deep field photo from Hubble which rocked the world back in 2004 required closer to 12 days of scope time and did not peer early so deeply into the universe).

The Webb image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 which is 4.6 billion light years away. Because this galaxy cluster is (or was?) so massive, it acts as a gravitational lens and much more distant galaxies can be glimpsed in the curvy fisheye at the center of this image. I am no galactic astronomy expert (here are some vague pointers about what the color means from an earlier post), but the beauty and grandeur of the image is evident to even the rankest layman…and this is the first real image. There are going to be lots and lots of additional pictures coming in of every conceivable sight out there in the universe and we are going to be blown away by what we see. I can hardly wait for more!

Ferrebeekeeper has been over-reliant on garden posts lately. Yet the last days of spring/first days of summer are such a beautiful time, that I thought I would put up some more pictures anyway. Most years I select tulips to bloom at the same time as the cherry tree, but, last autumn I apparently picked out whatever took my fancy and paid no attention to the timeline. As a result there were lots of frilly, fringed, or otherwise baroque tulips blooming in late May!

As the tulips faded, the roses, impatiens, and torenias started to bloom. The rose pictured below has the splendid name “Cherry Frost” which sounds like a sinister James Bond girl or a punk band or something. Because it was transgenically tinkered with, the little rose is surprisingly resistant to blackspot and molds. Additionally, it does well in low light and cold (at least so far). This rose was blooming back in February…but I did not post the pictures because the blossoms were not nearly as beautiful (and the rest of the garden was fallow).

Speaking of lying fallow, I recognize that I did not post a great deal for the last few weeks, and I apologize.  Sometimes it is necessary to take a little break to think of new ways to express oneself.  This in no way indicates that I have lost my enthusiasm for writing about art and science or opining about the affairs of the world!  It does however mean that I have been working on some new artistic themes (maybe the poor misunderstood flounders need to lie fallow for a little while too).  In the meantime, I have been sitting in the garden working on new ideas…and how to explain/popularize them.

We will explore this more in soon-to-follow posts, but for right now, I hope you are enjoying June too (and maybe have some lovely flowers of your own). Don’t give up on coming here for posts (nor on anything else for that matter).  Sometimes things take their own time to germinate (just like this year’s late tulips).

Hi everyone! Happy Earth Day! For now, I will spare you from the posts about the state of our planetary ecosystem and its fraught relationship with the intelligent invasive primate causing so much trouble everywhere (although you can read some past thoughts about that here), and instead show some garden photos. The gorgeous Kwanzan tree which lives in my backyard in Brooklyn is abloom and I have been sitting beneath the tree enjoying fleeting feelings of ineffable beauty instead of writing blog posts. We will return in full force at some pint next week. In the meantime I have tried to capture some of the garden beauty in the pictures below.

The cherry tree is starting to get older and most of the eye-level branches have died out, but there are still gorgeous blossoms higher up where the limbs get sun! More about the tree next week, when I hopefully have some artworks finished…

Some people regard pansies and violas as sort of tawdry flowers, but I think they are as beautiful as the most exotic Miltonia in terms of sheer prettiness. If they were more rare we would probably think they are the most gorgeous blossoms in the garden. But they are not rare…because they are super tough! I planted the little black violas back in October and they shrugged off the full force of winter’s blast with shocking indifference.

Another favorite plant which is blooming right now is the bleeding heart. I planted a white one too, but it is presently only 5 centimeters high, so you may have to wait to see its blossoms.

It looks like the tulips will bloom later, but some species tulips and volunteers have come up. Below are more pictures of tulips and Johnny-jump-ups.

There is an ornamental crabapple in the back of the garden which is as lovely as the cherry (in some respects). Unfortunately it is less photogenic, but you can see some of the pretty magenta blooms above the hellebore and the single lonely muscari.

And here is a picture of the gardener, looking peeved that everything did not bloom at once (he never seems perfectly happy, no matter how wonderfully the flowers perform). In the near future, we will return to traditional Earth Day themes of the proper path humankind must chart in order not destroy the living systems of Earth (we all need to think a lot more about that and push back against powerful interests which assert that it is not a thing to be thought about). The garden is a way to start thinking about such things (for it is a problematic artificial ecosystem), but for the moment, let’s just enjoy the blossoms.

The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

The Virgin and Child ‘The Madonna with the Iris'(Workshop of Albrecht Durer, ca. 1500) oil on panel

Today is world pigment day(!), and I would like to celebrate by showcasing kermes red, one of my favorite pigments (sometimes also known as carmine in English). Not only is it a gorgeous shade of deep crimson pink, but explaining its name and the way it was manufactured provides a sort of educational primer on pigments. Also, since this pigment dates back to antiquity, it features in some amazing historical works–particularly as women’s lips, make-up, and dresses. Additionally, the pigment is made from living creatures, so there is a certain horror aspect to it. The only sad aspect to all of this is that I have never used real kermes pigment to paint: it is too expensive and I have always settled on synthetic substitutes.

Kermes scale insects on a branch union

I am saying “kermes red”, but the pigment’s true name is “kermes lake red”. A lake pigment is distinct from a pigment made from ground minerals (like say vermilion) because the dye is precipitated with a “mordant” (a chemical which acts as a binder). Another way of saying this is that lake pigments tend to be organic and are often quite fugitive as well. Kermes are actually nasty little scale insects which parasitically suck the roots of oak trees. The brightest reds are obtained by collecting the female insects with eggs still inside their bodies. Then they are dried, crushed, and bound with mordants! Kermes based inks and paints are beautifully translucent and were perfect for delicate washes. By building up multiple layers or by painting in Kermes atop vermilion, one could obtain gorgeous luminous effects. For example, in this tiny masterpiece by Perugino, note how newly resurrected Jesus is wearing a pink robe–more properly a kermes lake himation, whereas the lesser musicians, mercenaries, and mourners have vermilion pants and hats (well, not that guy in the front right corner, but you understand what I mean). This tiny picture is one of my favorite works in the whole Metropolitan museum, by the way (when they bother to show it).

The Resurrection (Perugino, 1502), oil on panel

Kermes dyes were used in Old Testament times when it was used to produce the scarlet yarn in the curtain of the temple of Solomon as well as various other holy vestments (I probably ought to write a post about this alone to go with the sacred lost blue of Israel post). The method of using these dyes was lost for a time, but seemingly revived in the middle ages when scarlet became the super-expensive pigment of the high aristocracy (and of church cardinals, of course). It was replaced by cochineal from the new world–a similar but even more vivid scale insect (which, for a time, was the second most valuable commodity from the Spanish colonies, after silver). Kermes now is a niche pigment and it has been superseded by all sorts of chemically refined dyes (particularly the quinacridone dyes).

This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2022