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Did you all watch Moana? That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something). The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better. That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.
There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie. Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef. Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes. Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past. Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…
Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder). “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.
Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture. I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal. We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.
There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls. The first reason is about making children behave. If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.
Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.
People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation. They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger. It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe. The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories). We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile. Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.
Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter. It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry. The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.
I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful. The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power. Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages. However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration). The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)
This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival). Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention. There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.
Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness. The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food. The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict. Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea. Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers. His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden. Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy. Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden. The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.
Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness. That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power. Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement. Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).
One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society. In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era. Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.
Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items. At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.
The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm. Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.
Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops. The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society. The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros. Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…
Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things. In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.
Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful. Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?
Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much. But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!
This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well). One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict. This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind. In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city: the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns. The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings. It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops. On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.
If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom. Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots. This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of. It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth. However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher. The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.
Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels. The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series). This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).
We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars). Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway. Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs). That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way. If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).
I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities). I want to write a lot more about cities. The Anthropocene is upon us. More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.
Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.
Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis. We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.
There is a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond is impersonating a marine biologist (with the fake name “Robert Sterling”!) in order to infiltrate the underwater lair of a sinister supervillain. Bond has brought all sorts of potentially dangerous luggage, and is dressed in high 70’s fashion…and also happens to be traveling with Barbara Bach, so the villain is a bit suspicious about this new scientist. “What fish is that?” he quizzes Bond, pointing out the huge undersea window at a magnificent fish covered in poisonous red spines.
Without hesitation, Bond correctly replies “Pterois Volitans” a red lionfish. It was a scene that delighted the 12-year old me, since I was a saltwater aquarium enthusiast and, like “Robert Sterling” I knew the Latin name for that fish too. It was hard not to imagine successfully infiltrating an underwater lair with a beautiful Soviet agent/Ringo Starr’s wife (although that never did end up happening to my 12 year old self). Also…what was this Indo-Pacific fish doing in Sardinia?
But The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be ahead of its time (indeed, in retrospect, the supervillain’s plot to save the oceans from human destruction seems far-sighted too). Lionfish are clever and aggressive predators which hunt in groups (schools?, prides?, packs?). They are covered in poisonous spines which give pause even to human fishermen with our lines, hooks, poison, and spears. And the beautiful aggressive fish are taking over. Invasive lionfish escaped from home aquariums and became, uh, feral (is any of this language correct?) and they are now a huge problem in warm seas and oceans around the world. Lionfish rapidly eat through the delicate tropical fish which form the backbone of reef ecosystems and leave the habitats dead and dying (although climate-change, acidification, and overfishing are probably exacerbating their deadly impact). As the oceans warm, the fish (which are a sort of scorpionfish) are expanding their territory into what were once temperate oceans.
However, all is not hopeless. This article began with ridiculous James Bond stuff and then got serious, but now there is a potential solution to the lionfish problem taken directly from a Bond villain’s playbook. Concerned marine biologists have teamed up with engineers to build autonomous predatory underwater robots to rid the Caribbean of invasive lionfish. These creepy robots swim through the oceans until they finds a red lionfish. The death machine then sidles up around the invader and zaps it with a mighty jolt of electricity.
Lionfish are largely unafraid of predators (although some sharks, triggerfish are able to despine them and some groupers and sharks can apparently gulp them down). I wonder if they will wise up to sinister predatory robots that appear from nowhere. Will the robots curtail the problem, or will the lionfish adapt around tehm too? Or will none of this even happen? Keep your eyes peeled to find out the rest of this story as it evolves.
Today’s post is a follow-up…a follow-up to the Viking age! (and, um, also to this Ferrebeekeeper post). On September 17th, the world’s largest Viking ship, the Draken Harald Harfagre, sailed into New York Harbor and tied up at the North Cove Marina in southern Manhattan. The ship has sailed across the Atlantic from Norway where it was made by master boatwrights in the best approximation of ancient methods. Doughty and fearless sailors have navigated the craft through horrible northern seas filled with giant whales, icebergs, volcanoes, Greenland, and other sundry hazards. When it reached Vinland…er North America, the boat sailed up the Saint Lawrence Seaway, toured the Great Lakes, and now it has come to New York City by traveling through the canals and down the Hudson.
You can see the magnificent vessel for $10.00 (or for $5.00 if you are a child) until this coming Sunday (the schedule and details are here). Don’t delay! Before you know it the Viking age will be gone forever…
So…hey…what ever happened to that attempt to repopulate Jamaica Bay with lovable good-hearted, filter-feedin’ oysters? Ummm…well…it turns out that the colony failed. The poor oysters who made it to adulthood were unable to procreate (or, at least, their offspring were not able to attach to anything in Jamaica Bay). Fortunately, the oysters’ human friends are not licked yet and have a whole new weird project afoot…but before we get to that, let’s turn back the clock and look at the bigger picture of oysters in our area!
New York was once renowned for its oysters. By some estimates, up through the 1600s every other oyster in the world lived in New York’s harbors and bays! During the early 19th century, every other oyster harvested in the world was certainly taken from these waters. The oysters filtered the entire bay of algae, microbes, and pollutants. They also prevented the harbor from eroding away—it was like the entire waterway was coated with hard calcium carbonate (in fact it was exactly like that). Not only did the tough New York oysters prevent underwater erosion, they also stabilized the coastline and bore the brunt of storm surges. What tremendous mollusks! But alas, we were too hungry and too greedy and too careless…. By the end of the 1800s the population had crashed. Attempts to revive the poor oysters have consistently failed. (just follow that link up at the top).
However ecologists, oceanographers, and oyster fanciers have not quit trying. In fact with the aid of a variety of partners they are mounting the biggest attempt yet to restore Oysters to New York City’s bays and waterways. The New York Times details the agencies which have invested in the project:
The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the United States Interior Department’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.
It is good to have money (I have heard), however, there is also a secret ingredient to this project. New York’s education department has been replacing all of the NY Public School’s bathroom fixtures with environmentally efficient toilets. The old porcelain toilets are being smashed to bits to form an artificial reef where the young oysters can get started. Five thousand public school toilets have been broken up and added to the project. These fixtures have served generations of New York’s humans in a necessary albeit lowly capacity. Let us hope they can get a couple of generations of oysters up and going in their second career (as smashed detritus on the bottom of Jamaica Bay)! We’ll report more as we know more so stay tuned.
Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)
When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees. The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia. Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood. Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.
The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood. The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.
Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse. By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range. Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.
Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height). However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.