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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.

February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Happy Lunar New Year! In the Chinese calendar it is already year 4718, the Year of the Metal Ox. Gosh, where does the time go? Weirdly, one of New York City’s symbols is, I guess, technically a metal, ox so I put him up there for visual interest. In both the Chinese and Western culture, the metal ox is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, and success. Let us hope that 2021…er, I mean 4718…brings such things to all of us (particularly to you, dear reader).

Humankind’s association with cattle and oxen goes way back to 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East around 10,500 years ago (genetic analysis tools really have a way of clearing up some of paleohistory’s cobwebs!) Since those days, selective breeding has allowed humankind to tailor-make cattle of all sorts of shapes, colors, and characteristics, to such a degree that it is hard to believe they all descend directly from that 80 original herd of four score. Next week I promise a very special kine post to show you what I mean! Here is a little teaser picture so that you will come back for that post (and by “little”, I mean this is a little pre-taste of cattle-themed excitement: obviously there is nothing little about that bull who is pictured with a normal-sized adult human)

But this is Chinese New Year, and we are straying a bit from Chinese oxen, so let us go straight to an undiluted Chinese masterpiece which celebrates the strength, beauty, and personality of oxen in the Middle Kingdom. Here is “Five Oxen” 五牛图 arguably one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.

Five Bulls (Han Huang, mid 8th century CE) ink on silk scroll

The work was painted sometime in the middle of the 8th century AD by Han Huang, AKA Duke Zhongsu of Jin. Han Huang is now renowned as perhaps the greatest cow painter in Chinese history, but in his life he was relegated the less glamorous task of running the Chinese empire as the chancellor/prime minister for Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty. The painting was lost in 1900 after European troops put down the Boxer rebellion and occupied Beijing, but it was rediscovered in Hong Kong during the 1950s and now graces the Palace museum in Beijing. Click on that painting fast, before WordPress changes something and you are unable to look at a high-def picture of the picture. It rewards close attention with its matchless bovine beauty!

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a statesman, Han Huang was a master of building form with calligraphic linework. In this grand scroll, he has utilized that skill to perfection to capture the overwhelming physical heft of five very different oxen. Yet the painting’s true strength does not come only from the oxen’s strength. Somehow Huang has not just captured their imposing bulk and might, he has captured the gentle curiosity and almost childlike diffidence of the great animals (except maybe for that first ox on the left, who has a very stolid cast to him).

Of course this juxtaposition is the very essence of oxen (to our human perspective anyway). They are the size of houses with the strength of small armies, and yet they are biddable and gentle…or at least they can be! In the west, bulls are known for being un-gentle! I have deliberately blurred the lines between bulls, oxen, steer cattle, kine, and cows in this post because I didn’t even want to talk about gender and number, and I certainly don’t want to talk about buffalo (the Chinese word can mean “ox” or “bovine creature” so arguably I could be parsing out the differences between water buffalo, yaks, bison, and cattle). We will talk about what all of that means later (if at all), but for the purpose of this post it means that cattle stand high enough in importance to humans (or at least to cattlemen) to demand incredibly specific and complicated terminology (I get the feeling that the Duke of Jin would understand.

In the Chinese zodiac, the steadfast ox was meant to be first sign, except it was tricked by the cunning rat. This was not just because oxen are tireless and strong, it is because they are first in importance to people and have been for a long time.

Siege of Ostend (Peter Snayers, ca early 17th century) oil on canvas

The Siege of Ostend (1601-1604) was a devastating siege which lasted three years and effectively destroyed the city of Ostend in West Flanders. The defenders of Ostend were the rebel Dutch “Geuzen” (and their English allies) who stood up to the hegemonic and reactionary Spanish Crown. The siege was important to two different wars–the 80 Years’ War (a struggle for independence by the Dutch) and the Anglo-Spanish War, an undeclared and intermittent war between Spain and England for naval supremacy.

Ostend was a small coastal city of perhaps 3000 inhabitants who mostly made their living from fishing. It ended up being at the center of one of Europe’s most costly and prolonged sieges by the accidents of war since, in 1601, Ostend was the only piece of territory which the Dutch Republic held in Flanders. Spain was a towering world power during the 16th century and honor demanded that Ostend be retaken (presumably as a prelude to a grand defeat of Dutch and English forces). The Spanish side had a famous aristocratic leader, the Archduke Albert, who commanded vast armies of soldiers. The Spanish also had an Italian inventor, Pompeo Targone, who kept creating outlandish new siege devices (see illustrations below) and they had a Catholic turncoat embedded within the English garrison. None of these assets proved particularly helpful. The Spanish commander had a penchant for huge frontal assaults which cost tens of thousands of besiegers their lives. Exposed to saltwater, gunpowder, and sand, the innovative siege devices of Pompeo Targone had a way of breaking and turning into deadly rubble. The English turncoat was found out and sentenced to death (although, in a show of goodhearted English mercy he was merely stripped and whipped out of town).

What could go wrong?

On the other side, the English and Dutch had the ability to resupply from the ocean, which proved invaluable in defeating the hunger and scarcity which are the purposes of a siege. Although they could never field the endless men or martial the vast material resources of the Spanish, the defenders could hide out behind heavily fortified walls, palisades, moats, and so forth. Then, whenever the Spanish breached the fortifications through sheer heroic bravado, the Dutch could pour grapeshot onto the invaders, or collapse walls of sand onto Albert’s men, or, perhaps most devastatingly, break the levees and drown the armored soldiers.

After long years of this, the Spanish crown finally replaced Archduke Albert with Ambrogio Spinola, a Genoese general who understood that the siege could only be won by carefully building elaborate earthworks and methodically bringing up larger and larger artillery. The Spanish were victorious in September of 1604, when the Dutch commanders allowed the garrison to surrender (the Dutch had just conquered the city of Sluis and no longer needed Ostend). The terms of the surrender allowed Ostend’s defenders to depart with their weapons and their colors–and they marched right off to Sluis. the Spanish finally entered Ostend which was effectively destroyed. Only two civilian inhabitants were left. The siege had cost over 100,000 lives. The Spanish victory proved pyrrhic, since, its cost caused the Spanish crown to go bankrupt three years later, which in turn lead to the twelve years truce (and an era of Dutch ascendancy).

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luca Longhi, ca. mid 16th century)

Americans celebrate February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but the celebration is properly Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday which got mixed up with an even more ancient winter holiday of pagan Germany (which involved forecasting the weather based on the behavior of badgers and bears). We will get to the bottom of that ancient pagan badger worship thing at some later date: for now, let’s talk about Candlemas which is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays and has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The original form the ancient holiday took was as “The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” (the synoptic gospel source for all of this is the second chapter of Luke) and it celebrated the redemption of infant Jesus at the temple of Solomon (Luke has muddled this up with the purification ritual for women who have given birth, but for the sake of clarity I am going to ignore that as well and write only about infant redemption which is the critical ancient Monotheistic kernel of this holiday).

Baby Jesus required redemption from the temple because he was Jewish–more specifically, he was a firstborn Jewish male infant and thus the somewhat rare rite of pidyon haben was required. Here is what the Book of Exodus has to say concerning the subject (this is from Exodus Chapter 13–so the speaker here is, uh, God and the listener is Moses, understood to be the chosen representative of the chosen people):

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the Lord’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.

Exodus 13: 12-15

Wow! This is some old-school religion! Yet, to be honest, I am not sure I would understand any of that if it had not been carefully explained to me. Here is the best interpretation/explanation I can offer. All firstborn male mammals belong to God (in his pre-Abraham days as a god of nomadic shepherds, El was very big on sacrifice: this is frequently reflected in the Old Testament and sometimes glimmers of the truly old ways of human sacrifice can be seen–as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephthah’s daughter). God no longer wants human sacrifice, but first born males are pledged to the temple and the priestly caste as servants. This obligation, however, can be dispensed with through a business transaction: parents can trade the price of a lamb, 5 shekels of silver to the kohens to redeem their child from the Lord’s service [One of the twelve tribes of Judaism, the Levites, were the priests. Moses’ elder brother Aaron was of this tribe. Because of Aaron’s special service, God made him high priest, and all of his descendants, the kohanim are priests. Jews with the surname Levi or Cohen have special priestly duties and privileges to this day]

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Fra Angelico, 1440-1442) fresco

Jesus lived in Judea during the final days of the Temple of Solomon. His parents had to take him to the temple and pay the priests. Luke specifies that Joseph and Mary took the option given to poor people, paying the price of a pair of doves rather than of a lamb (doves, like sheep and asses, are sacred animals in Christian mythology). In the temple an ancient prophet, Simeon recognized Jesus and prophesied him to be “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. This is what is celebrated by Candlemas aka”The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” and it was of great importance to the first Christians living in ancient Israel. The original meaning of all of this, however has faded over thousands of years and it is now difficult to understand (except to very devout Jews) and so The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ has now become Groundhog Day in the country’s largest Christian nation! I wonder what will happen to February 2nd in another thousand years or so.

We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

During this pandemic we can’t really travel internationally (or domestically, even, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean we can’t mentally visit amazing places around the world. Thus, today’s post features an astonishing place which I have always wanted to visit (even if I will probably never make it there in reality). Behold the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a great Cistercian monastery located at the edge of the Great North York Moors of Yorkshire.

If you were wondering about the French name, Rievaulx Abbey was founded in AD 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvoux Abbey, the birthplace of the Cistercian order (Saint Barnard founded Clairvoux in 1115). The Cistercian order was a reform order of monasticism, meant to undo the worldly excesses which had crept into the Benedictine order (the dominant form of cloistered life throughout Europe since the 9th century). Barnard and his followers wanted to embrace a much starker asceticism so they could truly focus on divinity.

Perhaps because of this austere zeal, Rievaulx Abbey flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries. In order that they could properly concentrate on their Christian devotions, the monks created a substantial commercial empire based around mining lead and tin, producing and selling fine wool throughout Europe, and smelting iron! For a time Rievaulx Abbey was one of the greatest and most prosperous abbeys of England. Yet, inevitably, the rot set in. A sheep disease ruined the abbey’s wool trade and the diminished number of actual brothers began to live in much more comfortable and luxurious manner off of the incomes of their estate.

Like all great English monasteries, Rievaulx was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. The rapacious but far-sighted king discovered a way to purge the Catholic Church from his kingdom and his private life while also obtaining vast productive estates to grant to his most loyal supporters (or his own royal household). The buildings were stripped of valuables and “rendered uninhabitable”. However the superb stonework remains, testament to the organization which, at its height, consisted of hundreds of monks and lay brothers running thousands of acres of land (and attendant enterprises and pursuits).

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

I am sorry the new posts have been a bit exiguous here during holiday time. For some reason, I have felt a bit worn out at the end of this painful and distressing year and I was hoping to recharge a bit. This is also why today does not feature a real post about pangolins, spacefaring, or fashionable baroque colors, but is instead a short look back at 2020 (goodness help us) and a look forwards at some of the things that are next for Ferrebeekeeper and my allied creative projects in the new year.

Speaking of creativity, when I am working on big projects, I like to sometimes take breaks and work on other things for a little while. This is obviously NOT the way the great obsessive-compulsive masters of world capitalism do things (they prefer to burn people out by doing things as quickly and cheaply as possible without any breaks), and it is true that stopping work on a particular painting to work on some other drawing makes the painting take longer overall. Yet sometimes a hiatus allows the artist to return to the project with that most valuable of creative tools…a fresh eye. After a break, one can (sometimes) escape the mistakes and feedback loops that were ruining a cherished piece.

I mention all of this not just to hype my own creative projects (and explain why they are taking longer than I wanted), but also to mention that this pandemic year of fallow projects has a silver lining of sorts. As when the master comes back to a half finished allegory after a sojourn in Italy, we can now clearly see all of the flaws and virtues of the great unfinished work.

And looking at our society (after a year of not using it or working on it) obvious flaws of every sort pop out! For example, we learned that we are not ready for a pandemic! If this had been a virulently deadly contagion (or heaven help us, a disease which was hardest on children) we would be well and truly screwed. Our national healthcare system, once the paragon of effective medical research and care, currently resembles a grotesque, bloated leech! And attempts to remedy that problem (or anything else) are stymied by political paralysis. Partially because of demographic change and partly due to sabotage from one of the two parties (and from deep-pocketed special interest groups), our political machinery has stopped working properly. And speaking of giant machines which do not work right, globalized “just-in-time” supply chains do indeed allow for a paradise of cheap products, but the model is brittle and fragile. Everyone with an MBA is taught to see the world through exactly the same metrics. Those metrics do not reward creativity, elasticity, or sustainability. Our short-term business models are poisonous for our long-term goals.

But good things about this giant picture have also become evident. For one thing, the laser-fast targeted vaccines suggest that the long delayed biotech revolution we were promised in the ’80s and ’90s might finally be right around the corner. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology, AI, and materials science (and in cellular biology) mean that vast bio-medical breakthroughs are possible (if we could just evict the parasitic MBA types from making the top-decisions about what to pursue). Likewise the flaws of Reaganomics and Grover Norquist type thinking have suddenly become painfully obvious to everyone with any sort of brain or shred of honesty/decency. Political reform is very possible now too, but the whole electorate must work together to stop the Mitch McConnell (and allied corporate villains) from paralyzing and destroying our society.

Actually with a few political and economic reforms (and with a lot of ecological consciousness as well) society could be at the cusp of an all-time great decade! However we must work together to stop parasitic oligarchs, demagogues, and monopolists from leading us to more disastrous floundering of the sort which has been universally in evidence this year.

Not me though! I have plenty more floundering planned for 2021 (the good, creative sort). I will tell you about it tomorrow (since I went long complaining about MBAs and cartels). Suffice it to say, this will be a long winter at the drawing board for all of us… But we can make it work and fix everything and make all of our dreams come true. It’s just going to take [checks notes]…a lot of hard work, dedication, and organization? Argh! Maybe the outcome of the twenties is still up in the air. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow…

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2021
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