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Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.

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Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.

 

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

It is Maundy Thursday–the day before Good Friday (when the Last Supper took place in the Passion of Christ).  To celebrate, I have drawn a picture in the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry with me during my workday).  Based on some comments and feedback, it is not completely clear that everybody sees the plight of my allegorical flounder in the desired light.  Perhaps this tiny spiritual drawing will clarify the symbolic meaning somewhat.

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“Take, eat: this is my body” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) colored pencil and ink on paper

Jesus was a fisherman too…as were the first four disciples–that is why his first symbol was a fish.  Anyway, Happy Easter! We will be back tomorrow with the annual Good Friday post!

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Every year for Saint Patrick’s Day, I have put up a post about Celtic mythology/folklore.  In the past these have been about magical beings like leprechauns, the Leannán Sídhe, or the horrifying Sluagh. Sometimes these posts have been complete stories like the tale of Oisín and the princess from Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young (shudder).  These myths are metaphors for the beauty and sadness of life.  they focus on the impossible paradoxes of people’s hearts.  Yet lately my personal focus has been on fish-themed art which is symbolic of humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with nature itself–our never-ending drive to consume the world of life that we are inextricably part of.  What if there were a tale that combined these elements?

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Well…in the most ancient Irish myths there was a figure known as the bradán feasa, “the salmon of knowledge.”  The salmon was an ordinary salmon who ate nine hazelnuts which fell from the tree of knowledge and tumbled into the mortal world.  The fish knew all of the wisdom of nature: it knew the reason the sun shines, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the secrets of the green forest…it even knew the hidden truths of people’s hearts and why they do what they do. 

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For years and years the great sage Finegas fished the River Boyne trying to catch the salmon so he could devour it and gain its knowledge of all things.  The salmon (obviously) already knew what Finegas was up to, and it was no easy prey, but alas, it also knew the end of the myth and so, one day, it reluctantly succumbed to Finegas’ hook.  Finegas was exultant.  Soon he would know all of the hidden secrets of the world. He gave the fish to his apprentice, Fionn, to cook along with explicit instructions not to eat a single bite of the fish. Dutifully Fionn built a great blaze and set about cooking the enormous fish, but as he repositioned the bronze cooking vessel, he burnt his thumb and he unthinkingly popped his finger into his mouth.  

Fish Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink and colored pencil

Fish Cook (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Ink and Colored Pencil

All of the salmon’s knowledge from the divine tree of knowledge flowed through one drop of fish fat into the mind of Fionn.  Awakening from his slumber to partake of his repast, Finegas looked into the eyes of his servant and he knew at once that the divine secrets of the universe were for the next generation not for the aged sage.  That servant boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, would become the greatest hero of Ireland, the eponymous figure at the center of the Fenian cycle.  His deeds and his loves were legend and his myth will never die.  Indeed, Fionn himself will never die: he sleeps…elsewhere… beyond the turnings of the world.  One day, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need he will reawaken and bring back the salmon’s knowledge to the dying world. But that is another story…   

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Imagine a colony of little shrimp frolicking on the bottom of the ocean when suddenly the earth opens up its mouth and swallows one of the shrimp: the sandy substrate was actually a lurking flatfish hunting for dinner.  In the shadowy depths even bigger predators are in turn hunting the flounder.  Glistening hooks with sparkling bait descend from unknown realms above.

The Great Flounder of Babylon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) Ink on Paper

The Great Flounder is a symbolic avatar of the worldwide ecosystem–a seemingly adversarial realm of constant cutthroat competition.  Yet closer study of ecology reveals that living things are far more dependent on each other than the predator/prey relationship makes it seem.  If a flounder eats a shrimp, the world moves on.  If all of the shrimp vanish, or if all of the flounder are fished out of the ocean, other dominoes begin to fall and the whole web of life starts to dwindle and fold inwards.

This brings us to humankind, a worldwide collective of cunning primate colonies which are in ferocious violent competition with each other.

Fluke Baby (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Mixed Media

If there were ever an aymmetrical animal, t’is surely us.  Our history and our science have given us a unique place in the world ecosphere–but we are not dealing well with our new prominence. This piscine artwork reflects our past and our present.  In the flounder’s tragicomic eyes we can perhaps glimpse our future of glory, grandeur, and doom.

Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib’d, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food,
And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

An Essay on Man: Epistle I, Alexander Pope

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Two days ago, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about Earth’s magnetic field, an underappreciated invisible force-field which keeps the planet habitable by preventing solar wind from blowing away our atmosphere and oceans (we need those!).  Long ago, Venus and Mars seemingly had liquid oceans and nice atmospheres, but something went wrong (?) with their magnetic fields a billion or so years ago, and just look at them now (tuts censoriously). But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our neighbors…Five hundred and sixty-five million years ago, the Earth underwent a magnetic crisis too.

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Geologists have been studying fragments of  plagioclase and clinopyroxene from the ancient continental shield of Canada to learn about the state of the planet’s magnetic fields in the ancient past.  As they form, these crystals trap tiny magnetized iron fragments in place like the needles of little compasses.  Scientists can thus study the deep history of the magnetosphere.  As they studied magnetic crystals that were formed 565 million years ago, they found some troubling things: half a billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was over 10 times weaker than what it is today.  Additionally the poles were rapidly fluctuating between north and south at an unexpected rate.

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A closer reading of all of this suggests that 550 million years ago the Earth’s magnetic field nearly collapsed! (for a look at what that means, just walk around Mars).  Life was saved because the solid nickel iron core of Earth nucleated from the molten core at that time.  Instead of a field collapse, our magnetic field became much stronger as the spinning solid inner core and the convection cycles of the molten outer core worked together to form a super geodynamo.  Coincidentally, 541 million years ago is familiar to paleontologists as the inception of the Cambrian explosion, when multitudinous animal life forms appeared on Earth. It is such an important point that it divides the Phanerozoic (filled with mushrooms, megafauna, liverworts, and Roman centurions) from the Proterozoic (billions of years of bacterial soup).   Just a coincidence?

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A quarter of a billion years ago a shallow sea covered what is now Hubei, China (the parts of the world that are today Manchuria, South China, and Southeast Asia were large archipelagos in this shallow sea).  The warm water was perhaps a meter or so deep–a child could stand in it, and it was filled with proliferating shrimp, worms, and mollusks. The early Triassic was a strange time for life on Earth:  the world’s greatest mass-extinction (thus far) had just swept traditional Paleozoic players off the world stage, but the famous stars of the Mesozoic–the dinosaurs–had not yet taken over the land.  Peculiar creatures were fast evolving to fill empty ecological niches once filled by now extinct animals.

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You are probably wondering what sort of creatures lived in this vanished ocean–and you are in luck, because the answer is amazing!  Paleontologists in China discovered the remains of…a marine reptile (?) with a cartilaginous beak.  The creature had a rigid body and tail and 4 stubby little flippers for steering and swimming.  It also had bony plates on its back like a stegosaurus and tiny little pinpick eyes.  Scientists named the creature Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. The most analagous creature in today’s world is the platypus, and, indeed, Eretmorhipis looked like a crazy platypus (combined with a blind penguin and a stegosaurus).  The analogy however is rather misleading since, 250 million years ago the first monotremes were probably evolving in the same addled post-apocalyptic world (monotremes are amazing and bizarre, but, sadly, we don’t have a complete fossil record of them, so we have to base some of what we think about them on genetic paleontology which provides a rough timeline).

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Eretmorhipis carrolldongi was a hupehsuchian reptile.  It was a relative (or maybe a precursor) to the ichthyosaurs which soon took over the world’s oceans and evolved unique graceful mastery of the planet’s oceans before something went terribly wrong.  I want to write more about the icythyosaurs (their story illustrates something exceedingly important about life), but before I do that I wanted to share this stubby ridiculous platypus analog creature with you so you can think about the comic reptile rooting around its ancient ocean at night with its beak hunting shrimp and invertebrates with its sensitive beak in the turbid darkness.  The world is a mad grab bag and you never know what is going to be successful.   We probably out to talk about the end-Permian mass extinction too, but it is the stuff of ultimate nightmares, so I am going to slow walk that post for now… maybe when (if?) we are feeling stronger.

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