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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

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Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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I’m sorry that my posts were a bit exiguous the last couple of weeks.  A whole host of summer events showed up all at once on the docket (and summer is the slowest season for blog readership anyway), but I didn’t mean to write so infrequently.  To get back to form, let’s present a classic topic which reappears again and again in these pages—snake deities.   Ferrebeekeeper has presented some of the great snake deities from throughout world history: Nüwa, the benevolent creator goddess of China; Apep, the awesome universe snake god of darkness from Ancient Egypt; the Rainbow Serpent who is the central figure from the Australian aborigines’ dreamtime; Angitia;  Ningishzida; and even Lucifer, the adversary from the Bible, who tempted humankind to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Today we visit Fiji, where the greatest god of the islands is Degei.  Degei is the creator of the islands, the father (of sorts) to humankind, and the all-knowing judge of the underworld (he throws most souls into a great lake where they gradually sink into a different realm, but he selects a few choice heroes to live forever in Buroto Paradise. He combines the attributes of a great many of the other snake gods we have visited into a single mighty entity.

Degei’s story is of great interest, not just because of its beauty, power, and mystery, but also because of its substantial similarity to other other world creation myths (just read it and see if you don’t lend new credence to some of the strange things that brother Carl had to say about the universality of mythical narratives).

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In the beginning, existence was nothing but endless ocean and gloaming.  Two entities dwelled within this dawn world: the female hawk Turukawa who flew continuously above the ocean, and the great serpent Degei who dwelled upon the surface.

But eventually Turukawa needed to nest.  Degei pushed up islands so that her two eggs would have a safe place for incubation and he heated the eggs with his body and protected them with a father’s love (I suppose you will have to ask questions about paternity to Degei himself since my sources are strangely mute about this key detail).  When the eggs hatched, two tiny humans emerged: the first man and the first woman.

Degei created a beautiful garden for these children, planting fruit trees and flowers all around.  He housed the two in a vesi tree, but he kept the boy separate from the girl.  As they grew up he taught them the secrets of nature and of the ocean and the sky.  They had abundant fruit from the banana trees, but he hid two sacred plants from them: the dalo (taro) and the yam.  These fruits of the gods were forbidden to the children, for they cannot be eaten without fire (and fire was a special secret of the gods).

However, eventually the children grew into adulthood and met each other and fell in love.  To provide for their livelihood they needed more than fruit and flowers, and so they petitioned Degei for the secrets of fire and agriculture.  Since they were now adults, he could not in good conscience keep these secrets from them any longer, and so the great serpent taught the children about the forbidden fruits (yams and taro) and how to safely cook them with the flame he presented to humankind.  In some respects, this giant reptile almost seems more enlightened about raising children than certain angry creators we could name, but, um, who is to judge right from wrong?

Legend says that Degei still lives in a cave near the summit of the mountain Uluda.  Since his descendants have grown so numerous and prosperous, he does not take the same interest in them which he did in the first days.  Mostly he eats and sleeps away the long eons of dotage. Yet his power remains awesome.  When he grows agitated the world shakes and tsunamis and deluges sweep Fiji.

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There is some bittersweet news from China.  Well “news” is maybe a somewhat misleading word.  This is a small sad story within a sprawling epic story…within our story, in fact.

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In the geological age previous to this one, China was covered by a stupendous forest of bamboo and deciduous trees (it seems like a lot of our familiar tree families of North America might have originated there).  It was a tree world of pandas, elephants, tapirs, panthers, tigers, orangutans… and gibbons, the exquisite gracile “lesser” apes who are the true masters of swinging through forest canopies.

The vast rich forest was a perfect world for primates…and Africa’s angriest, sharpest lineage, the hominids, showed up 1.5 million to 2 million years ago.  These first hominids were Homo erectus, a comparatively benign lot, but not far behind them came other hominids with darker tastes, and then, approximately 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens showed up,”wise man,” a tragic fire-wielding invasive species with an insatiable appetite for…well for food, actually.  Homo Sapiens brought agriculture to East Asia or perhaps developed it there.  Indeed there are suggestions that Homo sapiens might have evolved in East Asia out of the maelstrom of clever upright apes that were ambling around the place, and, though I don’t find the argument nearly as persuasive as an African genesis, a wealth of peculiar fossil finds and ancient archaeological discoveries mean it cannot be dismissed outright, either.

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Eight thousand years ago farms began spilling across what is now China.  These early Chinese farmers discovered the perfect food for humans–a delicious superlative grain which is still the staple food for most of humanity. But this is not the story of rice (I need to write about that later, because I love rice, and it might be the most important plant in the world); it is the story of what rice-farming did. Cities and kingdoms sprang up, and in 259 BC, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, truly unified China from the capital of Xi’an in the ancient land of Shaanxi.  Stories of Qin Shi Huang’s cunning and cruelty are as diverse as the stories of his unimaginable wealth and power, yet in the end all of his strength came from rice which sustained the teeming population of the Qin dynasty, and this rice came from the forest, which was cut down to provide agricultural lands and living space for what is still the world’s most populous region.

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We have excavated Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (universally known as the “Tomb of the Terracotta Soldiers”). The tomb compound was a whole necropolis city of wonders and archaeologists and scientists are still unraveling its wonders and unlocking its mysteries.  The compound included the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor of China, and, in addition to her corpse, her tomb included her pet, a gibbon. Gibbons were pets of the aristocracy in dynastic China (here is a particularly poignant and sad poem, which you should read after you read this post).  Recently a British primatologist was touring a museum of the finds from the first emperor’s tomb and the skeletal hand of Lady Xia’s pet caught his eye.  Subsequent research has revealed that the animal belonged to a gibbon species which no longer exists.  The first specimen known to science was found in the the tomb of the first Emperor’s grandmother.   The “new” gibbon is named  gibbon was named Junzi imperialis based on where and how it was found.

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There are no gibbons in the wild anywhere near Shaanxi today.  As civilization rose, the great forests fell and Junzi imperialis was surely a victim of habitat loss. The grain we must have to run our vast complicated societies cost it everything…and we didn’t even remember its loss.  In Chinese art, gibbons represent a pure and ideal existence…they are sort of emblematic of a Chinese version of Eden (that ancient allusion is one of the things that makes that poem so plaintive) yet I don’t think we realized just how appropriate is such symbolism.  Humankind has already driven a lot more primate species to extinction than we know about. It is worth remembering the cost of our previous success as we look at the future.   Our strength and knowledge grow greater, but our appetite grows too, and the world is not getting any bigger.  Think about Lady Xia’s gibbon the next time you have a bowl of nourishing rice.  People are reflected in their pets and the empty eye sockets of the little long-dead pet tells about our own greatness and our terrible failures.  What do you see in those dark windows? Is the future just more and more tyrannical emperors crushing peasants and cutting down forests to build luxurious tombs or can we learn something new about our own place in the world and maybe beyond it?

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Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

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This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

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Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

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Colorful Garden Cookies!

Today (December 4th) is national cookie day! Cookies are tiny sweet cakes which are eaten as dessert or a general treat…or with tea if you are English or Irish.  The English and Irish, coincidentally, know them as biscuits (although it is unclear if it is ‘National Biscuit Day” over there).  To celebrate, I thought about making my favorite cookies (oatmeal? snickerdoodles? chocolate crinkles?), but it is late in the day and anyway, at the end, I would just have tons of hot delicious cookies distracting me from flounder art. Plus, due to the sad limitations of the internet I cannot share baked goods with you—even though I like my readers and would love to bake a treat for you.  So instead I have decided to celebrate cookie day by featuring pictures of cookies found (stolen?) from around the internet.  I have a little gallery dedicated to several different Ferrebeekeeper topics.

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Catfish Cookies!

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Mollusc Cookies!

Serpent Cookies

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Gothic Cookies!

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Space Cookies

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Crown Cookies: there were SO many of these. Why do people love kings and queens and princesses so much?

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Mammal Cookies (barely) from Nanny’s Sugar Cookies LLC

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Underworld Goddess Cookies

Turkey Cookies

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Nightmarish Mascot Cookies

 

One of the delightful/disturbing things about this exercise is seeing how talented and creative everyone is.  Look at the beauty of these cookies!  Based on the esoteric subject matter (and the places I found the images) most of these are hand crafted, yet they look finer and more original than anything from a baker’s window. It is great to know how gifted everyone is too, but it is sad on several levels.  If we can bring the earnestness, attention to detail, raw creativity, and hard work people put into baked goods into politics, we could get out of the political decline and societal stagnation we are in.  Um, we are going to have to actually do that.

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But we can worry about that later in the week (when I will shake off my torpor and write a meaningful essay on our political deadlock (and our moral problems in general).  In the meantime, enjoy the cookies! After seeing what people have done with this medium I am thinking about making some cutters of my own so I can bring up my own cookie game. Also I still have that big project I am working on! I can’t wait to show you what it is in the New Year!

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Oracular Chinese cookies

 

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Okay!  I haven’t been writing about turkeys as much as I should and Thanksgiving is on THURSDAY!  Where did the year go?  Fortunately, I still have some pictures left over from my trip home to my parents’ farm back in September. I have written about the geese and the renegade bourbon turkeys of the past, but this year my parents were passing by the grain store and there were poults for sale.  So now there is a whole new crop of turkeys running around again (which is good because they are my favorite barnyard creatures). Here  are some turkey photos and I show up in them too (both because of the shameful personal vanity which characterizes this era and because the lens on the front of my camera is cracked after an incident with some buttery fingers and an online fruit pie recipe).

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If you are curious what breed of turkeys these guys are, they are putatively broad-breasted bronze, but they don’t really look like the broad breasted bronze turkeys of my youth.  They are all lanky and tall!  These turkeys are pretty endearing and always come over to quizzically see what people are up to, but don’t be fooled–they are not completely domesticated and they are always getting in trouble.  Lately they have taken to escaping the poultry yard by walking way back into the woods where there is no fence and then coming back around the outside of the fence so they can stand in the road.  It isn’t a completely stupid strategy since there are all sorts of fat grasshoppers and suchlike tasty bus by the road, but people drive fast and carelessly and it takes a big bird some time to get off the ground.

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I don’t think my parents have any plans to eat these noble fowl as part of annual giving-of-thanks ritual sacrifice.  These are lucky ornamental (or pet?) turkeys, but they are flagrantly transgressing against America’s love affair with motor carriages, open roadways, and unsafe speeds. So maybe the turkeys are walking up the great pyramid towards sacrifice even if they are spared from the platter.  Hopefully they can learn road safety before it is too late, because I really like them.  Look at those droll facial expressions!

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It has been a while since I posted any of my flounder drawings on this blog, but don’t worry, ever since my art show back in August I have been working as harder than ever at drawing and sculpting allegorical flatfish.  Indeed, I am working on a new show with some spectacular projects…but more about that later.  For right now here are two small fish drawings.  The first, above, is titled “Haywain Flatfish” and is meant to evoke the splendor of harvest season.  A bewhiskered yokel carries off a sack of millet as the pumpkins ripen in the golden fields.  An industrious beaver has been similarly productive and sits beaming beside his perfectly constructed dam.  Although the scene conveys bucolic tranquility, the hollow black eyes of the fulsome flounder (and the circling vulture) speak of the coming austerity and darkness of winter.

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This second image “AlienHeartSole” shows a flounder/sole with what looks like a big-hearted alien tentacle monster flying upon it in a personalized saucer.  Although the alien seems benign, the imbecilic sphinx with a javelin, the bomb, and the tattered angel throwing a dart all suggest that this is an amoral and perplexing galaxy.  Only the laid-back rooster offers a modicum of sanguine confidence…and it is unclear whether the gormless bird understands what is going on.  If you enjoy these little tragi-comic images, you should follow me on Instagram (where Ferrebeekeeper goes by the sobriquet “GreatFlounder”).  There you will find a great trove of colorful and enigmatic flatfish art.  As part of the project which I mentioned above, I am trying to bring my various digital /web content into a more tightly networked gestalt, so I would be super appreciative for any Instagram follows!

 

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Well, it’s past Halloween, but maybe there is still time for one more snake monster.  In Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  English mythology features a monster which is half-snake and half-rooster:  the fearsome cockatrice.  The cockatrice had the head and torso of a chicken, but with dragonlike wings and a long sinuous serpent tail. It is sometimes conflated with the basilisk (although I think of them as different as, no doubt, do other Harry Potter fans). Various stories describe the cockatrice as being enormously venomous.

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The cockatrice was invented at the end of the 14th century and it experienced an enormous bloom of popularity in the England of the Tudors.  Cockatrices were everywhere.  they crawled all of over heraldry and pub signs.  They were in work of Spenser and Shakespeare. They even crawled/flapped their way into the Bible as the enthusiastic King James translators put the newly-designed creature into the book of Isaiah for the Hebrew “tsepha” (which as far as contemporary scholars can tell was a very venomous fossorial creature, probably a viper).

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Why did the Elizabethans love the cockatrice so much?  Well they were very poetic and imaginative people (if we take Spenser and Shakespeare as typical Elizabethans—and they are certainly the Elizabethans whom I am most familiar with).  Additionally the style of the time was marked by proud swagger and poisonous disputes which stemmed from the great religious disputes of the time where everyone was trying to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant and whether virtue and/or political advantage lay with one or the other.  The mixed-up, chicken-brained, noisy, poisonous, beautiful, deadly cockatrice was a perfect mascot for such a time.  Indeed, it may need to become make a comeback for our own time!

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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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