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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that: the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017. The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand. The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers. All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).
The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015. Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans. It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path. The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically. Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.
However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade. Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over. Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts. If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.
One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society. In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era. Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.
Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items. At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.
The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm. Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.
Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops. The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society. The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros. Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…
Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things. In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.
Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful. Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?
Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much. But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!
This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
It’s April 12th, “Yuri’s Night” when humankind comes together to celebrate our achievements in space…and to brainstorm about where we will go next. Of course at this precise moment we are having some temporary setbacks in space—but we’ll post about NASA’s space telescope trouble tomorrow. Today is about the glory and magnificence of space exploration. And there are plenty of news stories about that too. SpaceX has finally “stuck the landing” on one of its reusable rockets (and the past year’s drama of watching them nearly land on a raft and then blow up was pretty thrilling in its own right). A private firm is building an inflatable module for the International Space Station. NASA is moving forwards with its plans to build a space probe to touch the sun! And that is not to mention the many man robot probes running around the Solar System.
Solar Probe Plus (NASA)
However, today is also a day when we whisper our heart’s dearest wishes to the stars. The Economist has abandoned its fusty articles about central banking to lovingly describe a feasible interstellar space craft! Visionary engineers keep grinding ahead with plans for a space elevator (the brainchild of a different Yuri— Yuri Artsutanov). Tech billionaires are working on their asteroid mining project (at least on paper)… and NASA continues to talk of a Mars mission.
Yet all of this pales beside my near-future space vision—a plan which is as simple as it is breathtaking and incomprehensible. I want us to come together and hang a new society in the distant skies over Venus. At first it will be a crude plastic bouncy city, but, as we drop energy transfer cables down into the atmosphere and skyhooks down to harvest raw materials from the surface things should start to get more elaborate fast. We can make floating farms, forests, and oceans. All we need to do is get a plastics factory over to Venus and uh, solve the pesky problem of shielding our new society from deadly solar winds (a real problem on Venus, since it has no magnetosphere to speak of).
(Artwork by Don Dixon)
With this in mind, it is time to take a much closer look at Venus. So this is my Yuri’s Night resolution. We will be revisiting our sister planet at this site and reviewing everything we know about it. Since the first humans looked up in the morning sky and saw it as the brightest star up until now Venus has always been in our hearts—but these days we know some real and meaningful things about the morning star (wisdom which did not come easily). It’s time to review that information and find out more about our closest planetary neighbor. So hang on to your (heat resistant) helmets and get ready to visit this beautiful hellish sister world!
The artiodactyls are arguably the most successful order of large land mammals (as long as we don’t mention a dominant lone species of large aggressive primates). Just perusing a list of artiodactyl names reveals how universal and important they are: goats, pigs, cows, giraffes, hippos, sheep, Protoceratidae… wait. What? Among the familiar families of artiodactyls there is an unfamiliar name—an entire vast lineage of hoofed animals completely gone forever. These were the Protoceratidae, hooved animals analogous to their cousins the deer, giraffes, and the camels. The Protoceratidae ranged across North America from the Eocene through the late Pliocene (46 million to 5 million years ago). For 41 million years great herds of these animals grazed the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, Appalachia, and Mexico (although the Laramide orogeny was still ongoing as they evolved, and the Great Plains were at first a great forest).
Protoceratidae had complex stomachs for breaking down grasses and other tough vegetation which they grazed upon. Initially the protoceratids were tiny like the smallest deer, but as time progressed some grew to the size of elk. Although the bones in their legs were somewhat different from deer and camels they would have looked similar at a distance…except for a stand-out feature. Male Protoceratidae had a rostral bone—a powerful y-shaped spar of bone jutting from their nose. It is believed that this was a sexual display, meant to impress female Protoceratidae and for sparring with other males for territory and mates (although anybody who has ever been jabbed in the face with a sharpened bone by an elk-size animal would probably testify that the rostral bone could be used defensively). The protoceratids also had a pair of more conventional horns on either side of their head like deer and cattle.
I wish I could show you more of this extinct family. They lived for a long time and took many shapes and appearances as they spread across the continent into many different niches. A species of particular note was Synthetoceras tricornatus, which was the largest of the protoceratids and which was endemic to most of the continent during the Miocene. Look at how lovely they are. I am ready to move to Texas and start a ranch for them—if they weren’t all dead.
So, what killed off the Protoceratids after 40 million years of success? It seems like they were outcompeted by other, more familiar forms of artiodactyls which developed as the Cenezoic wore on (and which were better suited to vast tracts of grassland—which came to dominate the landscape as the forests died back). The last protoceratid, the Kyptoceras, lived in semi-tropical forests of Florida during the Miocene. Perhaps it was like the Saola, an ever-dwindling wraith that lived deep in the rainforest and was seldom seen until one day it was gone completely. It is an appropriately melancholy picture of the last descendant of a once-great house.