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Ok…here is one more bee story.  The blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) is an ultra-specialized bee which is found only upon a particular ridge of hills in Central Florida.  Or that is the way that things used to be: the shiny metallic blue bee has not been spotted since 2016 and it was presumed extinct. Above is a sad picture of a museum specimen.  The bee’s trademark shiny blueness is fading because of, you know, impalement and death and extinction and stuff (although, in fairness, it seems like the bee’s exoskeleton is blue, but its fuzz is grayish white).

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But wait! This story turns out not to be over after all.  On March 9th, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Chase Kimmel, discovered a living blue calamintha bee.  The busy little insect was rubbing its furry head on Ashe’s calamint flower in order to collect the pollen.  Since then, additional blue bees have been spotted, so the species is hanging on. The first bee was not a Martian manhunter style “last-of-its-kind” survivor.

Unfortunately, scientists and ecologists have not been able to further study the insects due to troubles in the human world…or maybe that is fortunate. Perhaps the last blue calamintha bees just need some privacy and human free bee time to rebuild the shattered kernel of their population.  Let’s wish them well, and I will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

 

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As our civilization swiftly declines due to incompetent leadership, exploitative economic practices, and overuse of natural resources, it is worth looking back through history at some of North America’s other societies to see how they solved the problems of food, housing, and defense.  Most complex civilizations rely on a base of agriculture in order to assure a food supply for their population (and agricultural concerns then become enshrined in society’s fundamental compacts–as in feudalism or slave-based latifundias or what have you), yet some civilizations have formed in locations so rich in natural resources that urban societies can be built without agriculture. Such is the case with the Calusa civilization of southern Florida, AKA “the shell people.”

Calusa society was built upon a single animal…literally!  The fisher-folk constructed enormous artificial islands (and other aquatic structures) out of oyster shells.  These edifices were built over generations out of hundreds of millions of individual shells.  The greatest artificial islands seem to date from around 1300 and 1400 A.D.  The Spanish wrote compelling descriptions of the Calusa capital at Mound Key, where the Calusa chief (or king?) had a ceremonial palace/keep capable of holding 2000 people which was built atop a massive man-made island which loomed ten meters above sea level.

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From their capital, the warlike Calusa ranged north to what is now Tampa, east to Lake Okeechobee, and south through their heartland in the keys down to the thousand islands.  The Calusa people were impressive traders who obtained goods through vast extended trade circles and apparently they were even more noteworthy warriors (“Calusa” means fierce). Yet what is most striking to modern researchers is that they were apparently pioneers of aquiculture.  Some of the great constructions made of oyster shells seem to have been water corrals, where schools of fish were driven to be stored live for later consumption.  The largest watercourts were several times the size of an NBA basketball court and were probably used to hold schools of mullet, pinfish and herring.

The estuarine fisheries of the Calusa seem to have been robust (witness how many oysters they harvested!) and they successfully withstood Spanish hegemony for 200 years, yet disease and colonial wars took a heavy toll and the society was conquered by Creek and Yamasee raiders early in the 18th century.  Shortly afterwards the Spanish Empire ceded its Florida lands to Great Britain and the British forcibly evacuated the last remnants of the tribe to Cuba.

 

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Larval Flounder with Parasite (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and colored pencil on paper

The strictures of the world’s new routine have allowed me to finish coloring/inking an ocean-themed drawing I have been working on.  Unfortunately, no matter how I adjust the darkness and the contrast, I can’t get it to look like it does in the real world, so I am afraid that you will have to accept this frustrating digital simulacra (aka the jpeg above).

Broadly speaking, this series of flatfish artwork concern the anthropogenic crisis facing Earth life (particularly life in the oceans, which most people tend to overlook and undervalue), however they are not meant as simple political polemics.  Hopefully, these artworks reflect the ambiguous relationships within life’s innumerable intersecting webs of symbiosis, predation, and parasitism.

Humankind appears directly in this artwork–but symbolically rendered as sea creatures so that we can contemplate our nature at a level of remove.  From left to right, one of these merpeople is the host of a big arrow crab which seems to have stolen his mind (in the manner of a cunning paper octopus hijacking a jellyfish).  The larval flounder is itself being ridden (and skeletonized) by a great hungry caterpillar man thing which has sunk its claw legs deep into the bone.  A lovely merlady plucks away a parasitic frond from a cookie-cutter shark as a shrimpman hunts and a chickenman stands baffled on the ocean bottom.

As we learn more about life we learn how it melds together, works in tandem, and jumps unexpectedly from species to species, or speciates into new forms. I wish I could describe this better, since to my comprehension it seems like the closest thing to a numinous truth we are likely to encounter in a world where gods are made up.  I have abandoned essays to try to portray the sacred and profane ways that lifeforms come together with art.  Let me know what you think, and I will see if I can scan it better.

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Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ferrebeekeeper features an otherworldly creature or legend from Irish Folklore.  From lovable (?) leprechauns, to the malevolent Sluagh, to heartbreaking romances between mortal and faerie, these mythical tales from Eire are written in the indelible colors of fever dreams and ancient appetite. And, speaking of appetite, this year’s Hibernian apparition is animated entirely by hunger: the fear gorta or “man of hunger” is a famine spirit. 

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These spectral entities are said to take the form of impossibly emaciated corpses begging for alms or food.  Although seeing a fear gorta wandering around in the human world was regarded as a harbinger of famine, interacting with them on an individual level was not necessarily thought of as a bad thing (like say getting caught up with a Leannán Sídhe).  In accordance with ancient fairytale rules, treating a fear gorta respectfully or offering them food, compassion, or alms could be pathway to unexpected good fortune.

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The origins of the fear gorta were shrouded in supernatural mystery.  Although an obvious interpretation was that the specters were the ghosts of famine victims or hapless starved wretches, other sources spoke of them rising autochthonously from eldritch patches of “hungry grass.”

As you might imagine, the fear gorta has a special place in the mythology of a nation whose defining crisis was the great potato famine of 1845 to 1849 (“an Gorta Mórin Gaelic ).  The failure of the potato crops during those years was caused by the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which is an oomycete that attacks plants of the  nightshade family (oomycetes are eukaryotic microorganism which straddles the facile taxonomical divide between the great kingdoms of life).    

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Whatever the biological causes of the crop failure, the Irish blamed the resultant famine on the stern new laissez faire capitalism of the United Kingdom’s Whig masters.  “God caused the blight, but the English caused the famine!” was a popular rallying cry.  We need to talk more about blights, famines, and pestilences—both within human history and within the paleontological record of life (it is hard to understand the place that viruses, bacteria, and pathogens hold in the microhistory of living things, since they are so fugitive in the fossil record, but we have critical clues).  For the moment though, I wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  I really hope you don’t see any fear gortas out there in the plague-haunted mist (although, given our own misadministration from the top, it would hardly surprise me), but if you do, please make sure to be super friendly and offer them some of your provisions.  A big pot of gold never hurt anybody…well, except for the Rath of Armagh…but that is a story for another St. Patrick’s Day.  In the meantime, celebrate the quarantine with some beer and potatoes and take care of yourself. Sláinte! We will get through all of this and build a better world!

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Behold! This is Triodon macropterus, the majestic Threetooth puffer.  It is the only living species within in the genus Triodon and the family Triodontidae.  The Threetooth puffer grown to slightly longer than half a meter (about 20 inches) and it lives in deep pelagic waters of the Indo-Pacific from Madagascar to French Polynesia.

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The three-tooth puffer is a strange fish with a body deeper than it is long, thanks to an enormous inflatable belly flap. This flap has a giant false eye spot on each side, and, when it is inflated with seawater, the fish’s pelvis descends at an angle, giving the impression of a giant terrifying sea monster head emerging from the deeps.

Although the fish is now taxonomically isolated in its own family(!) it has a robust paleontological history and fossils of extinct genera have been found dating back the Eocene when they must have flourished in the vast warm seas which covered so much of the world in that iceless epoch.   Although they are so rare today, that it is hard to speak of their habits and biology, perhaps the three-spot puffer has a bright outlook in the warm acidic oceans which seem to lie in the world’s future. It could be that the genetic bottleneck will expand as pockets of Triodons speciate to live in yet unknown ecosystems.  Or more-likely humankind’s abuse of the oceans will destroy this last branch of a once-robust taxonomical tree.

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Holy Han Blue! It is already time for the color of the year for 2020!  How did it get to be so late?  The color of the year is obviously a Pantone publicity stunt…and yet, in a fashion-market/artworld way, it tracks larger socioeconomic factors.  During boom times the colors are all coral, gold, and claret; when the economy falls into the abyss they become asphalt, storm clouds, and lunar regolith.  This year’s color is a flashing warning signal.  The 2020 color of the year, Classic Blue, is an ancient neutral middle level cobalt blue.  It looks exactly like what a court geomancer would pick to sooth a mad emperor…just before the realm explodes into civil war. Or. in the ugly patter of finance, this color looks like an inverted yield curve just before the sell-off.  It is a deeply conservative color pretending to have some pizzazz (similar to “Blue Iris”, the color of 2008).

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This is one of the results I got trying to image search this color.

It is worthwhile though, to note how the professional flacks at Pantone talk about this depressing reactionary selection.  They speak very carefully to forestall any criticism that it is, well, a depressing reactionary selection.  Although blue has represented melancholia to artists, poets, and designers  for four centuries (or longer), Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which apparently researches and advises companies on human responses to color said, “I think that’s kind of an older generation reaction.” So Pantone wants you to know that if you dislike the ugly neutral blue which they chose for the coming recession, you are old and out of touch. They also note that this is not a subtle endorsement of the Democratic Party (apparently, like every large business in the country, they enthusiastically endorse and promote the fascist Republican party).

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But politics and economics aside, what do we make of Classic Blue? Blue is not actually the top color on my personal list, but it is good for neutral backgrounds and for blending in. Dark blues like “classic blue” don’t show dirt as badly as some colors.  Classic blue might be good for a daily table cloth or a bathroom mat or a shower curtain.  It would be lovely for a twilight sky around a pleasure garden (although Pantone isn’t marketing it for that, as far as I could tell from their blather).  The real color of 2020 should be chaotic darkness shot through with nauseating flecks of painful brightness, like somebody smashed a sorcerer’s crystal (or like a riot after the teargas).  I recognize that Pantone is hard pressed to choose a perfect color to match that, but, as always they have done as well as possible in trying circumstances.  Any bets yet for the color of the year for 2021?

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There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when all the hidden wizards are gathered together, and they start using more and more ostentatious magic to show off (thus flouting the astringent & terrifying rules of the hegemonic ruling conclave).  The senior adult wizard turns to the protagonists and observes, “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

I suspect a lot of readers are smugly noting that wizards aren’t really real, (which is true), but those books were about very real things, and I feel like Arthur Weasley hit directly upon one of humankind’s biggest issues.  Most of the things we work for don’t actually have much to do with our actual needs, but involve instead the desperate struggle for higher status. Showing off is what humans do.

This quest is woven through every human endeavor: the gardener trying to hybridize a novel color of rose, the actor trying to be even more intensely emotional, and the fashionista trying to wear ever-more extravagant get-ups are all trying to aggrandize their social standing by impressing the right people.  However not only are people part of a status game when they are doing what they themselves are good at: they are part of somebody else’s status game when they do pretty much anything.

When you spend all day working on moronic busywork at an ugly office, you are really a fractional part of a column of some CEO’s spreadsheet which is about him making more money. The great masters are hoarding all of the world’s wealth so they can buy tacky mansions, Bugattis, and super yachts, yes, but mostly so they can point to a number on a computer screen to impress other super oligarchs.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Human life is quite complicated and we need ways to quantify who the high status apes are (so that we can apportion resources and mates and what not). Isn’t it better we show off with hybridized roses and new fashions and financial acumen then with battle prowess and physical violence?

Well yes it probably is; but I worry that the oceans are filling with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon because we are not managing this mad primate howl of SELF SELF SELF very well at all. We could be having status battles over scholarship and science rather than the nakedly venal and meretricious (and consumerist!) contests which most of us seem engaged in.

Something I want to write more about is “the red queen effect”, the idea that you have to compete harder and harder and harder to maintain the same relative place.  The term comes from the realm of evolutionary biology where it betokens the concept that ptarmigans have to fly faster to avoid gyrfalcons and thus gyrfalcons have to fly faster to catch these faster ptarmigans: soon everyone is flying much faster! [an even more germane example vis a vis human status relationships might be the Irish Elk’s mighty antlers: which were apparently a sexual display]. Human society is a synthetic ecosystem of sorts.  The constant future shock we now live in doesn’t just have to do with the rapid advance of technology.  It has to do with the proliferation of new realms of status posing. Not only are you failing to keep up with the Joneses: You are failing to keep up with everyone! Quick! Buy more plastic crap!  this feedback loop impacts us in ways which are so universal they swiftly become unnoticeable [stops writing and checks site stats and posts to Instagram]. Then we wonder why we are spending all day doing things we despise and somehow using up the Earth in the process.  I want to write more about some of the ramifications of this and we can brainstorm about we can maybe channel this inextinguishable competitive status drive in more productive directions.

Also, please follow me on my Instagram account!

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An artist’s conception of Ani during the reign of King Gagik I (ca 1000 AD) at the height of its power and success

One of the unexpected things I learned about when studying Byzantine history was the existence of Ani, “the city of 1001 churches.”  At its zenith, around the the beginning of the 11th century AD, Ani was one of the largest cities in Central Asia. Ani was the capital, ecclesiastical center, and chief city of the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia.  During the long reign of the gifted King Gagik I (989–1020 AD), Ani supported a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants.   The great stone city of churches, monasteries, bridges, and shops was located on a naturally protected triangular elevation with the ravine of the Akhurian River on one side (providing abundant water) and steep valleys on the other two sides.  Some inspired artist made this astonishing map of Ani at its heyday (here is a link to a high-res image).  Not only does the image illustrate the opulent beauty and sophistication of Ani, the decorative map also shows how it was nestled beautifully in its protected location.

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The Kingdom of Armenia was likewise admirably situated between the Byzantine Empire to the west, the Abbassid Caliphate to the south, the Georgian kingdoms to the north.  To the east were riches! Ani was near the western terminus of the famed silk road which runs through Central Asia.

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Today though, Ani is known (insomuch as it is known at all) for being an uninhabited ruin. It is a disconsolate city of the dead, despised and ignored by its Turkish overlords as a hateful symbol of medieval Christian Armenia.  A few empty cathedrals and ruined churches sit in the wasteland like the sad bones of a feast devoured a thousand years ago.

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What happened to destroy this thriving city?  Well, as you might imagine, it was conquered again and again by meddling potentates and invading armies from all of those various states around it.  The most serious of these invasions was in 1064 when a Seljuk army under the command of Sultan Diya ad-Dunya wa ad-Din Adud ad-Dawlah Abu Shuja Muhammad Alp Arslan ibn Dawud (to use his full name) sacked Ani after a 25 day seige. Here is a description of the occasion from Sibṭ ibn al-Jawzi, the famous Baghdad-born scholar and historian:

Putting the Persian sword to work, [the Seljuk invaders] spared no one… One could see there the grief and calamity of every age of human kind. For children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood… The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain and [the bodies of the slain] became a road. […] The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible…

But what left the Kingdom of Armenia so weakened and unable to defend itself that the Seljuks were able to do as they pleased?  Division and ruinous factionalism! King Gagik had two sons who bitterly fought over the succession.  The favored elder son controlled Ani and its cosmopolitan wealth, while the other son controlled the countryside.   So greatly did the brothers despise each other that they set the country folk and city folk against each other and invited outsiders into Armenia hoping to secure a political advantage. The Byzantine Emperor Michael IV, claimed sovereignty over Ani in 1041. The Byzantines hollowed out Ani’s wealth and strength for their own ends leaving it defenseless against the Seljuks.  After the 1064 sack described above, the Seljuks sold the decimated city to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty, which was largely tolerant of Ani’s Christianity. Yet the Shaddadids fought with Georgians. The Georgians fought with Mongols.  Mongols fought with Persians.  By the time, the Turks took over in 1579, all that was left was a small town nestled in the rubble and even that was abandoned by 1735.

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Undoubtedly Ani’s location at the edge of the Central Asian steppe did it no favors; yet a clever historian or political theorist might be able to draw other important lessons from Ani’s fate. One wonders what other cities will look like Ani a thousand years from now…assuming there even are any cities.  These days, humankind’s mistakes are coming in whole new orders of magnitude from those of a thousand years ago when a city the size of modern-day Peoria was considered one of the largest cities in all of Eurasia.

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American Forest Before the Chestnut Blight

Once upon a time, American deciduous forests were filled with a magnificent tree, the American chestnut tree.  It is estimated that, prior to the twentieth century, a quarter of the trees in the forests of Appalachia were chestnut trees.  The trees grew to 30 metres (98 ft) in height and were prized for giving stout timber and large quantities of delicious nuts.  They were also renowned for their beauty.  But then, something bad happened.  In 1904, some Asian chestnut trees were planted in the Bronx (in what is now the Bronx zoo).  These Chinese chestnut trees had a pathogenic fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, living on them.  Chestnut tree species of Asia have evolved some defenses to this rapidly spreading fungus, but the two American species were completely unprepared.  By 1950, the blight had killed more than four billion trees and only strange isolated single specimens and sad still-living (yet undead) stumps remained.  The chestnut blight opened our eyes to the perils of invasive species in a world of almost-instant shipping (although I don’t think we have yet fully understand how pervasive and potentially dangerous fungi can be), it also marked an irreversible change to our beautiful forests…

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Evidence of the Chestnut Blight!

Except maybe not.  Molecular biologists, mycologists, and arborists have been quietly working for years to hybridize a blight-resistant modern American chestnut tree.  They failed at hybridizing a vigorous tree with the desired characteristics of the original American chestnut trees, so they turned to transgenic tinkering and this technology has yielded results.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry has utilized the same sort of technology behind genetically modified crops (like BT rapeseed and such) in order to create American chestnut trees which have a gene from wheat that helps the trees survive and tolerate Cryphonectria parasitica.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is readying an army of these genetically altered trees to go into the wild forests and reseed North America as it used to be, but their plan is not without controversy.

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Some opponents worry (understandably) that bringing back the chestnut will represent “a massive and irreversible experiment” on our living forests.  Additionally, as we know from the hysterical response to transgenic crops in Europe and even here, many people are extremely emotional and ill-informed about gene-manipulation technologies (probably because the phrase “gene-manipulation technologies” sounds so much like a 1950s horror movie tagline).   Transgenic blight-resistant American chestnut trees still need regulatory review from the Food and Drug Administration (and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency) before they can be planted and allowed to disperse pollen.  Such a process may take many years.  Yet tree lovers and concerned ecologists point out that the near-extinction level mass deaths of American chestnuts was caused by humankind’s actions and choices.  And more blights are arriving every year to destroy other cherished species of trees.  We live in a world of emerald ash borers, Dutch Elm Disease, spotted lantern flies, gypsy tent moths, and oak wilt.  If we don’t start doing something, the only tree left might be the diabolical invasive tree of heaven (I can’t believe nobody commented on that post! Am I the only person to despise that nightmarish monster?).

The regulators are starting to analyze the proper course of action, and I guess we will be hearing more from them, but, in the meantime, what do you think?

 

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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

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