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The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

Among today’s dreary and disconcerting news was one item which was almost too sad to read: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 23 species of living things which which have gone permanently extinct. The headliner of the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker which was last seen alive in 1944 and which has been reckoned lost since before I was born. Although optimistic bird lovers have been holding out hope that the magnificent creature would re-emerge from some forgotten grove of old growth giants in Arkansas or something, the woodpeckers’ demise was really a result of early 20th century forestry mismanagement and dates back to those times . The other creatures on the list, however, were doomed by today’s problems of habitat loss and climate change, and the entire funereal catalog should serve as a wakeup call that the biodiversity crisis is gaining momentum as global environmental problems worsen and elide together.

Ferrebeekeeper can’t eulogize all 23 lifeforms, however, since we have a long history of writing about mollusks, I will draw your attention to the flat pigtoe (Pleurobema marshalli), a freshwater mussel from the backwaters of rural Mississippi and Alabama (pictured above). The little mussel was sensitive to water pollution, invasive competitors, and industrial waterway development/degradation. Despite its gross joke of a name (a common theme among freshwater mussels of North America, by the way), the mussel not only filtered fresh water, and buttressed the living things around it in the ecosystem, but served as a canary in a coal mine of sorts. All of that water filtration puts mussels in peril from pollutants and toxins (indeed seven of the other species on the deathlist were freshwater mussels).

Whenever I hear about freshwater mussels I think of how fond Great Grandma Virgie was of her pet freshwater mussel which she kept in a tank filled with guppies (I doubt she had a flat pigtoe, but probably it was a rayed bean or similar analogous freshwater shellfish from the streams of West Virginia). She would sometimes rhapsodize about the enigmatic pet, decades after it had departed this watery world.

Anyway the larger point is that we are soon going to see lots of creatures following the pigtoe to the great beyond, unless we can find better ways to protect and safeguard the natural world. Humankind’s appetite grows ever more insatiable, yet our ability to build consensus and create robust solutions to complicated problems is growing worse rather than better. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soon going to be back with more entries for their permanently extinct list. We need to stamp out the corruption and political deadlock which are impairing our ability to address self-evident problems we are creating in the biosphere.

Perhaps the most interesting (or the only interesting) job I have had, was working as an intern at Smithsonian’s Marine Systems Laboratory in Washington DC in 1993. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum employed an ecological engineer named Walter H. Adey (?) who had built a synthetic mangrove ecosystem in a spare greenhouse amidst the national orchid collection. The fake everglades ecosystem (which I described more thoroughly in an earlier post) had been built decades earlier and it was starting to fail in some critical ways. However in a larger sense, the failures were the point of the project, since they elucidated the innumerable fragile connections which make living systems possible.

The only picture I could find of this place seems to have been kept because it featured Robert Redford not because of the synthetic ecosystem, which says a huge amount about humankind (although it has raised my esteem for Robert Redford).

All told, the terrarium world was about the size of a large suburban home and, at its heart was a miniature ocean built out of a calcium carbonate pit filled with thousands of gallons of salt water. The water was continuously filtered over algal mats which cleared out the ammonia and nitrogenous waste (and other waste products too). The ocean itself was filled with many tiny cnidarians, copepods, and suchlike micro-invertebrates, however larger animals were scarce (indeed animals larger than a small paperclip were dying out of the entire habitat). The only large fish were a pair of venerable striped sea bass who were definitely not reproducing.

It turns out that ray-finned marine fish almost all go through an extensive (and rather poorly understood) “larval” stage where the infinitesimal and quasi-transparent fish hunt the zooplankton while being hunted by innumerable ocean predators. This phase is nearly impossible to reproduce in captivity (although any ichthyologists or aquaculturists out there should feel free to jump in with additional information). Think of how depressing that is! Almost all of the 20,000 species of exquisite ocean fish are tied inextricably to the ocean! They can’t be conserved or preserved in some zoo or time capsule or artificial paradise, because we have no idea how to do that. If we broke through every sort of technological barrier and built an ark ship to blast off to Alpha Centauri, we wouldn’t have tuna or triggerfish or basking sharks with us.

Hollywood Lies from “Snowpiercer”!

The tiny fake sea (and the brackish mangrove swamp) were not empty though. There were species of small live-bearing fish which lived there and had managed to reproduce. Generations of these robust little minnows lived and died in the ersatz ocean and their delicate stripey shadows could be seen flitting about in bait balls in the depths. I should have asked what species they were–however the fascinating Wikipedia entry on Mangrove killifish should give you an idea of what sort of survivors these characters were.

I have written before about my own terrible childhood experiences keeping aquariums, and (although I still regard myself as a profoundly ineffectual failure on nearly every level), I think the sorts of problems I encountered reveal bigger issues than my jejeune fishkeeping skills. This is a long-winded way of reminding Elon Musk (or whoever else) that Earth’s oceans keep the planet alive and are the defining feature of our world. We would need such things anywhere else–but we know next to nothing about synthetic ecology. It doesn’t seem like a field where just adding more metal tubes and freaky machines actually helps all that much…

Junk Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and watercolor on pape

Ferrebeekeeper’s two week long celebrations of the world oceans continues with…what else? a flounder-themed artwork! Unlike some artists, who plan everything out meticulously, I work from my subconscious–which results in the deepest and most heartfelt works, true, but sometimes also results in the most problematic works which never quite come together thematically. For example, take today’s picture of a grumpy flounder with a Chinese junk atop it. The grimacing sandy flounder reminded me of the water monster “Sandy” (沙悟淨) and also of the preposterous Chinese efforts to claim dominance of the South China Sea by building weird little sand islands everywhere. The junk speaks to the fact that China has always dominated the South China Sea. Additionally I am reading Jin Yong’s “Legend of the Condor Heroes” which has an extended episode of crazy boat antics as the characters leave Peach Blossom Island.

The small picture is filled with stuff–tuna and other fishermen’s fish, a compassionate sea goddess floating around on a pink coelenterate, a big golden clam and a vase from my ex-girlfriend. The little water imps remind me of kappas–aquatic imps infamous for grabbing and molesting swimmers. My favorite things are the ghostly shrimp, the tiny striped goby, the sycee, and the liquescent mountains on the horizon. Oh! Also there is a pony-like water monster from one of my grandfather’s Chinese paintings (Grandpa collected Chinese art)which brings back fond memories of childhood.

But what does this weird amalgamation of East Asian myth and aquatic creatures mean? Does the uncertain allegory about greed, restraint, and coastal power politics really grant me license for appropriating the visual language of Chinese folklore? Is this maybe an illustration for a children’s story which has not been told (which is how it feels to me)?

I don’t know. Sometimes the artist gets lost along the way and can only hope to finish the work and move on. Yet I strongly feel that this painting involves a plea from the oceans (since all of my recent work is about the plight of the seas and the creatures therein in a world which becomes more absolutely human-dominated by the moment). There is also a sense that whatever petition the spirits and fish have made to the goddess, it is not working out to their favor. One of the classic tableaus of Chinese art/literature/everything is bringing a heartfelt petition to a powerful official only to have the all-important matter misconstrued and poorly adjudicated (I have explained that badly–but I think the idea comes across quite clearly in the Chinese weltanshaung). Perhaps the spirits and the sea creatures and the flounder are saying, “Please get this boat off of us!” and the goddess is saying “My hands are tied due to political concerns at a higher level”

Now there is a powerful lesson for the children…

Pacific ocean sea in planet earth, view from outer space

Today (June 8th) is celebrated as World Ocean Day. I am pleased about the existence of this new holiday because the oceans are ridiculously underrepresented in people’s estimation and concern. From outer space, it is readily apparent that we live on a water world where 70% of the surface is covered by liquid (and that number is growing by the day as we run more motors and melt more ice). Yet in the human world, you can go for weeks of listening to constant stupid human blather without ever hearing about the oceans at all (and I live in New York, which is ON the ocean–imagine what it is like in landlocked hell cities like Timbuktu, Dallas, or Ashgabat). At any rate, what is of real concern here is not the oceans themselves (which will keep on covering the planet so long as it has an atmosphere) but the vast intricate realm of life within the oceans. And make no mistake, the whole ocean ecosystem–the cradle of life from which all living things came, and upon which we are all still dependent–is in the deepest trouble possible. Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and other rampant abuse of the oceans are unchecked even in rich world countries. But most of the ocean is not even in a country. Enormous fish factories and trawlers can just show up and destroy the irreplaceable ecology at will with virtually no oversight or rules. Undoubtedly you have heard of the world ocean’s troubles before, but, unfortunately, whatever you have heard does not begin to compile the true devastation. The oceans are undergoing a mass extinction event caused by us humans. Even if we considerably mitigate the scale of the damage we are causing, we are about to lose more than we can imagine…forever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Just as the oceans are more damaged than we immediately appreciate, they are more robust as well. A handful of sensible reforms which would not even greatly change the life or lifestyle of most people could ensure the health of the blue part of the planet. Alas, there is not yet any political pathway to sensible regulations, rules, and refuge areas yet (at least at a worldwide scale). Like other intractable political or environmental problems, we can change that, but it will require knowledge, attention, and organization.

I recognize that I am writing in generalizations, however a true accounting of the troubles that the ocean ecosystems face would be beyond any single person to write and would be so painful as to be unreadable. Instead, we will celebrate an extended World Ocean Day for the next fortnight, during which time we will talk about all sorts of different aspects of the ocean world (the good, the bad, the sublime, and the weird) in digestible micro essays and artworks (instead of a single impassioned blurb of dense and depressing facts and statistics). The ocean isn’t one of several different painted backdrops to add passing interest to a light opera. It is the main home of Earth life. Every day should always be world ocean day. Even if we are unable to make people see that fact, at least for the next few weeks we will try.

It has been a disgracefully long time since this blog featured one of the deities of the underworld (which was one of the first and best topics of Ferrebeekeeper). Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the mysterious thriving civilizations of ancient America which existed prior to the 15th century. So today we feature Pitao Bezelao chief death deity of the Zapotecs, who thrived in what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero from 700 BC until Aztec (and subsequent Spanish) conquest in the 16th century (AD).

Like other Mesoamerican palace peoples, the Zapotecs reveled in death worship. They loved step pyramids and human and animal sacrifices of every sort. Pitao Bezelao was a very charismatic dark god with all sorts of strange attributes and props…yet, because we have never deciphered Zapotec glyphs, we also don’t know an enormous amount about his myths and worship. Almost all of our sources are post-conquest folklore written down centuries after the apogee of Zapotec civilization. So sadly we don’t have Pitao Bezelao death myths analogous to Orpheus or the Mayan Ball players (although undoubtedly similar stories were out there).

The ancient Zapotecs were excellent farmers, so Pitao Bezelao was not just the god of death but also also the god of masculinity, fortune, good crops, and chickens (just what chickens, old world animals originally from India, were doing in ancient America in Zapotec times is a subject which is probably more interesting than this article…or anything else on the internet). Even among the strange company of death gods, Pitao Bezelao stands out. He is portrayed as having a huge skull with gauged ears (decked out with fancy ornaments of course) and with an obsidian knife for a nose. Like the Moche Decapitator, Pitao Bezelao had giant pincers/claws for hands. He is often portrayed with a human femur in his right, um, claw and another nose…I mean knife…in his left. In religious art, Pitao Bezelao tends to be surrounded by lizards and spiders and he was often portrayed with an enormous phallus.

Speaking of which, as an extraordinarily well-endowed death deity, Pitao Bezelao had two wives. His main wife Xonaxi Quecuya, “Mother Death”, was a traditional death goddess who collected the souls of the departed and recycled their bodies with her signature insects. True to her name, she was always pregnant! Pitao Bezelao’s second spouse Coqui Bezelao is more enigmatic and s/he had both male and female attributes. Perhaps Pitao Bezelao was a deity who changed gender as culture and society changed and myths spread from one land to another (like Guanyin, my favorite deity of compassion who started out as the (masculine) bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) or maybe they were always transgender–like Lan Caihe.

This would be a great time to share some Pitao Bezelao myths, which I suspect are both horrifying and transcendent…but, thanks to the vicissitudes of history I don’t have any. Instead here is a modern artwork from Oaxaca (where worship of this death god does not seem to have quite died out). If anybody knows anything else about this dark but compelling figure please speak out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eridu, the first known city, circa present
Flounder with Kitchen Scissors [Wayne Ferrebee, 2021] Ink and watercolor on paper

It is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday today (he was born on March 30, 1853). To mark the occasion, it occurred to me that I have an appropriate humorous cartoon in the small moleskine sketchbook which I carry around everywhere.

Van Gogh is pictured in the upper left corner wearing his trademark green coat and ear bandage. Presumably he is exhorting the artists of today to work hard at their precious craft. At the center of the composition is a flounder, a ridiculous-looking fish which everyone agrees is ideal for the table. Probably that is why a hand is reaching down from the heavens with scissors to prepare the silly fish as a delicious banquet. Speaking of hands, a white marble statuary hand is pushing up through the floor of the cinereous wasteland where this tableau takes place. Sadly the hand seems to be a bit broken. A crown-of-thorns starfish restlessly roves the dust and stumps.

I wanted to practice lettering with my steel nib, however I did not want to actually write anything, so I just jotted down some nonsense words in moon language. Sorry for the gibberish! But who cares about language anyway? Some people have suggested that artists are wholly unreliable when it comes to writing about their own work, and you should concentrate on the images themselves.

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Right now the western democracies generally–and America, specifically–are caught in an agonizing cultural tar pit where we seem unable to reform or renew ourselves. The fundamental root of this problem is socioeconomic: business monopolies and corporate cartels are gobbling up more and more of society’s resources and using those resources to prevent true competition from emerging. The vast corporate cartels also use their resources to subaltern politics and prevent government from properly regulating and rectifying this unfair market dominance. As Republicans (or nationalists, or Tories, or fascists, or whatever they are called) sabotage and discredit the government at the behest of their corporate masters, the nation becomes afflicted by stalemate and gridlock. The more the pro-monopolist politicians can make things worse, the more they can claim “government is broken.” Then these corrupted politicians privatize services we all need (and destroy research and development, which are, after all, dangerous to the great monopolies). The corporate cartels become yet more powerful. The government grows more feeble. Voters grow more disillusioned and alienated. Society begins to falter and fail.

On the side of the world, our national adversaries have none of this to worry about. In Russia and China, the monopolies have won completely. This confuses many people since it happened the opposite way over there. Instead of business cartels installing a corrupt single party to cement their social control, a corrupt single party has installed business cartels. However, the net result is the same: a single cabal of autocrats makes all of the rules and controls all of the resources.

This perspicacious article from Matthew Rozsa makes this same case (albeit in a somewhat different way). The writer asks that a political and cultural coalition of Generation X, Millenials, and Zoomers rise to the political challenge of our times in the same way that the Lost Generation, the greatest Generation, and the Silent Generation managed the epic crises of the mid-twentieth century [by the way, here is a link to some long ago posts about these demographic cohorts].

I think this is a great idea…but it is going to call for more ideas. Imagination is allowed on the internet…but not anywhere else in our world! In order to out-compete the huge anti-competitive cartels we are going to need lots and lots of ideas. We will need not just new ways of doing things but new reasons for doing things. When I was younger I used to hear “Oh these ideas are great, but how will they make money” Well what is money doing for us? It is only a placeholding symbol for status and resources–like the score on a videogame, or the gilt crown on a tinpot king. It is not actually an end in and of itself. The fact that so many people think otherwise is part of the problem. The MBA-ification of our civilization has stolen our best minds and created this monopoly problem to begin with! Let’s brainstorm new solutions!

All of which is to say, Ferrebeekeeper is going to start a new series of posts about how society can better focus humankind’s dangerous primate drives and tendency towards certain terrible fallacies into more productive directions. Many of the most compelling new ideas for doing things are being suppressed–because people are afraid to even examine them or argue about them. I have no illusions that we will find the next economic paradigm to replace capitalism (like it replaced mercantilism or mercantilism replaced feudalism) but I do believe that by brainstorming, fantasizing, and looking more deeply at past societies and the world of nature we can do away with some of the reactionary thinking, corruption, and parochial obscurantism which are trapping us all in a system which is killing not just us but the whole world of life.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2021