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Remember Ferrebeekeeper’s erstwhile roommate Jennifer? During the beginning of the pandemic she packed up her New York City life and moved off to Knoxville. With her went her youthful ward, Miloš Cat, a dashing orphaned street-tabby whom Jennifer plucked from the mean streets of East Flatbush. Living in a dinky backwater city sounds like a bit of a mixed bag–with a handful of positive aspects of urban living balanced against a lot of missing things. And there are elements of the country too! One thing I keep hearing about is the sheer mortality of little water snakes in Jennifer’s Knoxville domicile. Apparently Miloš Cat has taken a shine to the native fauna and sucks these poor guys up like spaghetti (you know, if you ate half of spaghetti and left the mutilated remaining portion on Jennifer’s pristine floor or pillow) [Editor’s note: Please DO NOT DO THIS with snakes or spaghetti].

Here is a JPEG of young Miloš, chomping on his own rather snakelike tail (photo credit: Jennifer Buffett)

Anyway, what does the story of a tabby cat eating snakes in the American South have to do with today’s post? A lot it turns out! Back at the dawn of Ferrebeekeeper, we wrote about the influx of predatory Burmese pythons which irresponsible exotic snake owners dumped in the Florida Everglades. The snakes, which grow to unnerving immensity, are apex predators of Southeast Asia (surely one of Earth’s most competitive ecosystems) and they have been wreaking havoc on the ‘glades. Florida winters have not diminished the invasive snake’s numbers and even teams of armed Florida men authorized to hunt the monsters with all of the firepower available from America’s finest gun shops have done little to stop the pythons. Apparently nothing can stand against the mighty serpents.

Or so it seemed…

Floridian biologists wanted to understand more about the pythons’ nesting behaviors so they set up a camouflaged camera to observe the nest of a 55 kilogram (120 pound) laying snake. What the camera revealed was a complete shock (sorry for the clickbait sentence here in paragraph 3). A feisty swamp bobcat showed up and harassed the mama snake on her nest. Later on, when she slithered off to do python errands (eating native wildlife I guess?), the cat returned and ate all the eggs! It was a real shock to the biologists who did not expect the native swamp denizens to stand up to the Burmese python so effectively. They are setting up a new snake camera elsewhere, however, at least a certain furry someone seems to have the python’s number. Biologists will now keep their eyes open to see whether other bobcats are wrecking snake nests and eating python eggs throughout south Florida (and how much of an impact this has on the snakes). Hopefully Miloš will take this lesson to heart too, and stop eating up the native fauna of Tennessee (lest some Appalachia hill snake strike back at the non-native).

Well, there is more bad news for world democracy today, as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in what appears to be a classic expansionist landgrab (but which Putin apologists have been trying to whitewash with every color of falsehood available). It comes as a legitimate shock to the international community (and to me), even though, for weeks America’s president and intelligence community have been loudly warning about exactly this thing happening in exactly this way! I thought Putin was attempting to distract attention away from his troubles in Central Asia by shaking the Crimean tree as hard as he could (and maybe also see if the Ukrainian plum would just tumble into his lap). That was wrong: Putin has obviously brought an axe to chop the tree down. All of his actions for the past half-decade (at least) suddenly make perfect sense as a series of steps to destroy and annex Ukraine…and to prevent the nations of the world from doing anything about it. Not only does this provide Putin with a coveted breadbasket, it could mortally damage his greatest geopolitical rival, the United States of America by showing we are hopelessly weak, divided, isolated, and self-deluded.

Speaking of which, if the United States of America were properly united, this would never have happened. Unfortunately though, Republicans have devoutly simpered over Putin ever since he bankrolled their beloved leader, the criminal fraudster Donald Trump (whose supine obeisance to Vladimir Putin has been a much-remarked upon central feature of his political and business persona). Since far-right Republicans support Putin and openly back his darkest plans to crush our nation and transform it into a broken client state of Putin’s empire (with themselves installed as life rulers), we have a real problem. What is to be done?

Looking back to a bygone era, I believe poor Grandpa would have some keen insights into how to handle this international crisis. Most of them would boil down to a simple & proven formula: slather money, weapons, and support on Putin’s enemies. Russia is filled with restive provinces like Chechnya which are longing to escape and surrounded by anxious new republics like Kyrgyzstan which are terrified of the giant criminal empire next door. If everyone who hates Putin in all of these places were indulged with fancy handouts and shiny new arms, Putin’s world would be much worse. No time for Ukrainian adventures when you are fighting half-a-dozen Chechnya-type conflicts! (does anyone recall how dirty and destructive that war was?) Also, other Russian client states like Syria, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Cyprus, Egypt (sigh), and…Saudi Arabia (!) need to be isolated or courted as appropriate–even if dealing with such recidivist nations rubs American progressives the wrong way.

Putin is in a shakier position than he seems. Former Russian leaders have been rather less reliant than Putin on the absolute support of Russia’s shadowy oligarchs, who now lead lives of unimaginable opulence and international privilege. America and our allies control the world financial system. Strip the oligarchs of their ill-gotten money (squirreled away in banks and assets around the world) and take away their ability to travel the world as they please. Perhaps Putin could stand to worry about national division and traitorous back-stabbers too.

A third part of an international anti-Putin strategy involves winning the People’s Republic of China back from Putin’s malign influence. China surely recognizes that their successful, prosperous, and extremely-populated nation shares a 4133 kilometer border with a mostly-empty rogue state, which is now going around attacking its neighbors. Yet suddenly China looks like it is taking orders from Russia and acting as its toady (and it looks that way for a very good reason). In the meantime, their own markets have plunged and their vital fuel and gas supplies have become ever-so-much more expensive. Xi JinPing is an unreconstructed despot of ancient stamp and always will be. Yet he and China have ever so much more to lose than the nihilistic decaying petrostate which surrounds China. Undoubtedly Xi knows it, but hopes to lie back in the tall grass while Russia’s craziness takes America down a notch or two.

The main international strategy of Donald Trump (undoubtedly given him by his master, Putin) was to insult, belittle, and bully China in every way and to begin a series of mutually harmful trade wars. Perhaps America could undo some of that harm by buttering up China, ending the sanctions, and offering it some things it wants. This might sound unlikely, but Richard Nixon successfully did exactly that…and during a deep freeze in the cold war!

Finally, we need to clean house back at home. Republicans fell completely for a Russian counterintelligence/extortion operation. Don’t worry Republicans, it happens to everyone! Just clap the Trumps in irons and exile some self-proclaimed pro-Russian traitors like Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance, and Candace Owen from the party (you might find you are happier without them, too). All of the other Republican traitors who have supported Trump and Putin over their own country could whitewash themselves and claim to return to being the party which stands for strong defense and an American-led international order. Clever political operators could probably delude the deplorables that this whole whole “Russia taking over America by taking over the Republican Party” business was Biden’s fault all along (in fact, some of them are trying to do just that according to this AP article from today). Fine. If what is required to unite and protect the nation is pretending that Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Mitch McConnell are not the grotesque fascists, cowards, kleptocrats, and traitors which they obviously are, then I am sure we can all grit our teeth and do so. Here. I, personally will lead the way: Tom Cotton is not (always) a ghastly weasel who calls for gunning down American citizens while he lies about being an army ranger. He is a patriot and I respect his ability to stand up to Russian aggression which he demonstrates by supporting President Biden and castigating the Russian puppet Donald Trump. See how easy that was [grit griiiiiiiiiind]

If we act quickly and cleverly in a united way, Russia could be terribly wounded and Putin could be swept away, however, if Republicans keep insisting that representative democracy is the true scourge and moneyed Russian oligarchs are our proper masters, Putin could well win everything. How can we get them to see that destroying the nation for personal political aggrandizement is not the right answer?

Under the Flounder Moon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Here are two more works from the series of pen-and-ink drawings in black and white ink on colored French paper which i have been working on. I apologize that the sienna one (above) is arguably Halloween themed (although, come to think of it, it seems unfair that carved pumpkins are so profoundly seasonal). To me, the drawing also suits the time of winter darkness which we have entered. In terms of subject matter, the drawing portrays a puritan in a cemetery gasping at the appearance of a black rabbit. Various little elves fall prey to insects and spiders as a ghoul and a ghost look on. In the background a nightjar flies past; while the extreme foreground features some fallen store-bought candies. The entire scene takes place under a great glistening flounder moon which illuminates the Jacobean manor on the hill and casts a fishy light upon the entire troubling scene.

Inside the Idol’s Cave (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

This second work shows what may or may not be an Easter scene featuring sacred eggs and yet another rabbit (is that guy really a rabbit?). The snapping turtle looks like it is about to snap up that little elf (which is maybe fair since another kobald is making off with her eggs). The entire scene takes place inside a cave where worshipers pray and present offerings to a Dagon-type idol. A bright flatfish shines an otherworldly light on the proceedings and put one in mind of the famous platonic allegory. Likewise the tapir (a famous dream-beast) indicates that this image has something to do with the vantage point from which one approaches reality. The nun (center) reminds us that faith will otherwise help smooth over any deficiencies in perception for those trapped in a cave.

The drawings are meant as companion pieces and it is interesting to see how the same elements reoccur in differing forms. There are two elves (one about to be eaten) in each piece. There is a rabbit in each work. Both works focus on a central religious-type woman in plain garb, and both works are illuminated by fishlight and by the stars. More than that, they are compositionally similar, with a big white scary thing to the immediate right and a field of stone obstacles (gravestones and stalagmites). Yet at a bigger level they are opposite. One work is about reality within the unreal and the other is about the unreal within reality. One work is about life in death and the other is about death in life.

Perhaps I should make some summer and winter companion pieces to make a complete set (assuming that all of these drawings aren’t one weird set of some sort).

The Rapacious Frog Among the Wee Folk (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Happy Halloween! I’m afraid that I didn’t write all of the posts I meant to write about graveyards, tombs, and memorial gardens. We will circle back to them later (if ever), but for the present moment–as the Halloween candles burn down low–there is, indeed, a final treat for you: these ink drawings I made for the season. I have been working on building more dimensional forms and more elaborate textures by using multiple tones of ink on colored paper. Here are two of the test images. The top image, which shows a giant hungry frog rampaging through a churchyard came out especially well. The poor little elves and goblins are trying to escape the rapacious amphibian, only to discover that not all carnivores are from the animal kingdom! (The woodcock flying by in the sky is indeed a nocturnal bird, but is otherwise uninvolved with the elf carnage). Presumably these elves, goblins, and fairies are members of the aos sí–the mythical mound folk who dwell in barrows and tombs in Irish folklore.

The second image, below, is in a similar vein, however the relentless frog has been replaced by a much friendlier-looking bear. This ursine goofball scarcely seems interested in eating anyone–even the strange elf pickled in a jar by his paw. The puritan and the mummy who are with the bear likewise seem fairly friendly (all things considered). Despite all of these friendly monsters and animals, this world is not without peril. Roving extraterrestrials (or somebody with a weird spaceship) are in the picture and they are up to their old tricks of making off with bystanders.

As always, the flounders represent the ambiguities of trying to live together in an ecosystem where everyone is hungrily jockeying for resources. There were supposed to be some more pictures (on purple, brown, and moss green papers) but I did not have time to finish them all. The real horror of the churchyard is that everyone there has so much time, whereas we poor folk who are still among the living never have enough to get anything done! Kindly let me know what you think of my pictures and enjoy the rest of your Halloween!

The Puritan Elf Explains Terrestrial Morality (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

Here is a fascinating status object from the deepest Congo. This is a ceremonial knife of the Mangbetu people, a tribe of approximately 1 million people who live in the northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mangbetu people are historically famous for metalworking prowess, beautiful art, and elongated skulls (which were artificially lengthened by skull-binding during infancy). Early visitors were struck by the sophistication of Mangbetu politics, architecture, and crafts as well as by the breadth of their agriculture (which included diverse crop cultivation and cattle herding). These early historical accounts also remark upon the Mangbetu penchant for cannibalism (but such accounts are viewed with skepticism among prevalent schools of modern cultural scholarship).

A picture of the distinctive elongated skull favored by Mangbetu elites (circa early 20th century)

The ethnological history of the Mangbetu tribe is interesting and instructive. The Mangbetu language is Central Sudanic in character (as to a greater extent is Mangbetu culture), yet the people are Bantu and live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that during the climate crisis of the little ice age, Sudanic climate refugees fleeing south met a larger Bantu community migrating north and the two groups annealed (with the Sudanic people claiming group leadership). This cultural cross-pollination explains the Mangbetu’s political and technological strength relative to the other peoples of their territory (the Mangbetu conquered their lands and displaced or otherwise dealt with the original inhabitants).

Anyway, these knives were not weapons or tools, but rather ceremonial objects denoting power and status which could be exchanged for goods and services (I guess in the modern world we call such things “money”). As greater globalization reached the Mangbetu in the 19th and 20th centuries, they realized that their valuable ceremonial status knives were valuable to other people as well, and they began to mass produce more and more of them for trade. This means that many of these knives exist but that the quality is not always consistent with the refinement and beauty of early pieces.


When I am back in the big city telling tales of farm life, one barnyard character is the most popular of all. His exploits are the most renowned. His stories garner endless comments. His (or her?) mysterious pan-sexual nature elicits the most speculation. I am referring to the ever-beloved LG, a Canada goose who flew out of the sky ten years ago with an injured foot and a duck concubine. When his duck flew away, LG was left forlorn and alone–a complete outcast. But his story was not over: LG ingratiated himself to both people and geese. He taught the store-bought geese to fly and eventually he worked his way up to being a goose of high status. Ultimately he became the foremost figure in the poultry lot, romantically connected to Princess (the prettiest pilgrim goose) and able to command the most corn and the best nesting spots. Here I am hand-feeding him cracked corn.

But things have changed for LG. Early this summer, a new Canada goose appeared. This new bird has a mangled wing and can not fly at all. My parents are flummoxed at how he (or she?) made it to the farm. They are equally perplexed at why the wounded goose even knew to come there for sanctuary to begin with. Because the new Canada goose has crossed tail feathers (and a mysterious unknown provenance) my parents call him (or her) “X”. I imagine him as a sort of World War I aviator figure who suffered a wound while battling with some super predator (a goshawk? A golfer?) and then clattered down from the heavens to crash land by the pond (while making sad single stroke sputtering noises, probably).

LG in the foreground and X in the background. It looks like they are kvetching about something (but it was hot and they are actually panting)

LG has taken a liking to X and they sometimes wander around the orchard, garden, and barnyard together (I hope Princess does not get forgotten now that LG finally has a chance to hang out with a friend of his own species). But LG has not given up his high status and he gets to take first choice of farmyard prerogatives and privileges.

It was hot August weather when I was home, with temperatures over ninety and one of my favorite things was watching the geese drink out of an old drywall bucket filled with water. They would stick their heads down into the bucket and go “slurrrrrrrp” then they would point their heads straight up at the sky and go “glug glug glug” and all the water would run down from the head part into the deeper goose (this sound cartoonishly ridiculous, of course, but it was strangely compelling to watch). Above is a picture of X drinking. You will notice that LG already had his fill and was regarding me beadily, no doubt calculating whether there were further advantages to be had. I will keep you updated on their status (hopefully X will heal and regain his flying abilities, but I doubt it). Who knows what they will get up to next. It is hard to believe that our skies (and, uh, golf courses) are filled up with these delightful, charismatic, lunatics!

Here is X with some other farmyard friends

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

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

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

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

Hollywood Lies from “Snowpiercer”!

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

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

Earth’s oceans today are defined by the disasters and exigencies of the past. When you dip a net in a shallow tropical sea it does not emerge from the waves seething with conodonts…because they died out completely during the Triassic. You could fish from the beach every night from now until the sun burns out and never catch another belemnite nor see an Archelon drag her 5 meter carapace from the sea to lay her eggs. Past disasters (and the constant ebb and flow of evolution) have removed some of the core cast from the great drama. Yet the oceans are vast: sometimes we find that an organism known only from fossils and presumed long lost has been swimming around the Comoro Islands or living in an ancient grove in Hubei. Today’s post involves a “living fossil” of this sort, but this creature was presumed lost for longer than the lobe-fin fishes or the purple frog.

This is a fossil monoplacophoran, a strange ancient superclass of single shelled mollusks which thrived in the ancient oceans of the Palaeozoic (or earlier) but then was known only through fossils. I can understand if you are shrugging about some primitive snail/limpet thing–but, my friend this is no gastropod–it is an entirely different class of mollusk which was presumed to have died out 380 million years ago. A look at the (long and complicated) taxonomy of monoplacophorans on Wikipedia is like looking at a World War I cemetery (extinct taxa are noted with a funereal superscript cross).

Monoplacophoran Diagram

Yet, scientists came to discover that not every name on the list had a cross. The monoplacophorans never fully died out. They just moved to the bottom of the oceans and stayed there for the long ages as continents drifted across the world and dinosaurs came and went. As mammals scurried out of burrows and across the world, the monoplacophorans lived their ascetic lives upon the floor of the ocean. They are still there right now, as you read these words! If you look at a picture of the colorless gray ocean bottom, you will see colorless gray ovals–the monoplacophorans (their very name makes them sound like some implacable cthulu-ish monk)

Living Fossil: Tiny mollusc makes big impression on marine biology world |  Inner Space Center

It is funny to me that ancient fossils in 400 million year old rocks were more accessible to scientists than the bottom of the ocean up until about the time I was born. Yet, since then, the bottom of the ocean has become closer as humankind’s ever-grasping arms have become longer. Lately our robot probes have reported a bit of summery warmth at the cold ocean bottom. And mining cartels are eagerly pushing to vacuum of nodules of precious ore upon the distant seabed. I truly wonder if we could look 380 million years into the future whether we will still find these tough little eremites still going about their business in the crushing depths? Or will the field of taxonomical crosses finally be complete, with these ultimate living fossils turning into yet another victim of our insatiable appetite?

The Planet Venus (Luis Ricardo Falero,1882)

There is thrilling news for fans of our nearest planetary neighbor, the mysterious and beautiful hell-world, Venus. NASA has just announced two exploratory missions to Earth’s hot-mess of a twin. Long-time readers know that, in addition to dreaming of floating cities and artificial ecosystems on Venus in the future, Ferrebeekeeper is fascinated by the planet’s past.

In the early twentieth century, astronomers thought that beneath the clouds of Venus, there might be a lush jungle or tropical swamp teeming with strange sensuous lifeforms. Alas, the first probe to descend below the clouds melted on a surface hot enough to, uh, melt solidly constructed Soviet space probes. Enthusiasts of space colonization (and enthusiasts of exploring planets that a human visitor might possibly survive) quickly turned their attention elsewhere. But those sweaty palmed early twentieth century space buffs were not necessarily wrong. A billion years ago, Venus may well have had liquid oceans and temperate skies (if not necessarily lizard men and sultry Amazons), but then something went appallingly wrong and the world melted. The seas boiled away (assuming they ever existed). The sky turned into a mad scientist’s pressure cooker, and the surface turned inside out through a strange planet-wide volcanic process.

If this happened to your next-door neighbors’ place, you would probably be curious about what happened! Even if you didn’t care much about your neighbors, there would be prudent reasons of self-interest to figure out why their once comfy home was now 470 degrees Celsius with an atmospheric pressure akin to what is found a kilometer below the waves of Earth’s oceans! However what happens in a speck of light in the night sky is an abstract concern to a lot of people and Venus exploration has languished for decades…until now!

NASA has finally decided to see if Venus ever had liquid oceans or a surface akin to that of Earth. In coming years, the space agency will launch the DAVINCI and the VERITAS missions. Davinci will feature a spherical falling probe which will comprehensively assay Venus’ atmosphere as it drops through the clouds. Not only will Davinci sniff for traces of a lost ocean, it will seek other gases and volatile compounds which can tell us about the past of the planet (and whether we could build a flying cloud city there in the present). It will also photograph the perplexing “tesserae” features of Venus’ surface in high definition.

Veritas is even more concerned with the surface of Venus and will scan and observe the planet by means of next generation imaging technology. This should tell us about the surface (and deeper features) of the planet and finally answer whether the planet is still geologically active and document what it is actually made of. Answers to profound questions about our sister world are finally forthcoming! If you would like to know technical specifications about these missions, you should head over to NASA’s webpage.

We will be talking more about Venus as the missions get closer, but isn’t it thrilling to finally have some good news!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2022