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“And a Man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness. And all the animals drew near to him and said, “We do not like to see you so sad. Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.” The Man said, “I want to have good sight.” The vulture replied, “You shall have mine.” The Man said, “I want to be strong.” The jaguar said, “You shall be strong like me.” Then the Man said, “I long to know the secrets of the earth.” The serpent replied, “I will show them to you.” And so it went with all the animals. And when the Man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, “Now the Man knows much, he’ll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.” The deer said, “The Man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.” But the owl replied, “No. I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, ‘I am no more and I have nothing left to give”

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For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

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Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

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Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

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I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

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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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In the past we have looked at Chinese goose ewers: here is a lovely vessel from a very different tradition–this gander-shaped vessel was made in Northern India during the Mogul Dynasty (ca. 16th century).  Look at the elegant sinuous curve of the striding bird and the reptilian grace of the piece.  The bird has a bit of the goose’s comic personality mixed in with the striking powerful feel of the whole piece.

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After yesterday’s soul-searching, let’s take a moment to rest and renew our spirits…with a beautiful bright orange-gold dove from Fiji. This is the orange fruit dove (Ptilinopus victor) also known as the flame dove—a lovely small short-tailed dove which lives in the paradisiacal rainforests of Fiji where it eats an omnivorous diet of fruit, larvae, insects, and small arthropods and mollusks. The male birds (pictured here) have bright orange body feathers and shiny olive green heads (AND blue green legs, skin. and beaks). The females are olive colored and don’t call so much attention to themselves.
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I wonder what it would be like if, through some bizarre fluke, rock pigeons (aka pigeons) only lived on a few small islands in Fiji and the orange fruit dove was found in cities everywhere. Would we be oohing and ahing at the rock pigeons subtle grays with iridescent sheen and dismissively wave off the flame pigeons gorgeous orange as vulgar?
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Well, this week has been a good week for me socially (since I have had multiple fun events) and a bad one for me physically (since I have had a cold all week). The upshot is that I have not gotten as much blogging done as I would like. Fortunately, there will be plenty of time to relax and enjoy things in the afterlife…or at least we can enjoy anything that was buried in ceremonial symbolic form with us in our lavish tombs. Well, anyway, that is what the people of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) believed [it was a big improvement from certain early kingdoms where they dispensed with the “symbolic” part and just buried aristocrats with all of their favorite concubines and servants]. These spirit objects/grave goods are known as “Mingqi” and they make up a plurality of Han objects in museums and cultural collections. Of course, the afterlife would be empty without the most reliably delicious of all animals—so here, partway through the year of the chicken, is a Han dynasty symbolic ceremonial burial chicken which some well-heeled chicken lover took with them when they went away forever.

The chicken was made of simple baked earthenware and 2000 years of grave conditions have not altered its delicate facial features for the better, but the elegant winsome lines and perfect bold form leave no question about who the masters of ceramics have been from the time of Rome to the present. There is no news about whether the original owner is now stuck in a poultry-free afterlife since his chicken Mingqi was carried off by some ancient robber or modern archaeologist.

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Let’s celebrate spring by taking an internet trip to…south Poland?  Zalipie is an ancient village in the province of Lesser Poland Voivodeship (which has been a center of Polish culture since the early middle ages).  The village is a famous tourist attraction for an amazing reason.  People in Zalipie paint exquisite colorful flowers on everything!

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The tradition started more than a century ago, when women started painting bouquets to beautify their homes (or to distract attention from problem areas).  The original artists used handmade bristle brushes, easily obtained pigments, and fat from dumpling drippings as their medium, however as the years passed and the tradition was passed down over generations the paintings have become larger,  finer, and more colorful.

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The village has earned the epithet “the most beautiful village in Poland,” and judging by these pictures which I have purloined from around the internet that description is apt.  The omnipresent flower paintings in all different styles and colors shows that the artists of Zalipie are as innovative and inspired as they are tireless. Yet the photographs also indicate that the omnipresent floral folkart is not the only charm the village offers.  It looks like it would be a pastoral paradise even without the exquisite flower art.

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I can’t wait for spring to make Brooklyn into a natural gallery of flowers, but until then, I am glad I can go on the internet and check out the never-fading flower garden which the residents of Zalipie have made for themselves and the world.

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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize.   The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors.  To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard).  This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana.  He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!

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The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles.  The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship.  If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success.  On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all.  Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.

But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory.  He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard.  “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said.  The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware.  They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor.  Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him.  By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships.  The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana.  Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.

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Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves.  The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile.  Thus ended his political and military career.   The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world.  But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet.  I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up.  However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.

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