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Here is an image of a wild horse made fifteen to twenty thousand years ago by a Cro-Magnon artist in the caves of Lascaux (which are now in France but were then in the hunting lands of these ancient hunter-gatherers).   The horse, which looks for all the world like a Przewalski’s horse, is painted with the carbon black of charcoal and with a swoosh of yellow umber.  This week accidentally became sponsored by the color yellow (maybe to celebrate the new Thai king–since yellow is the color of royalty in Thailand as in China).  Yellow ochre (which is a clay that derives its hue from hydrated iron hydroxide) is one of the most ancient and straightforward pigments–yet it is beautiful and lasts forever.  It is in my paintbox too, next to all sorts of strange synthetic pigments and esoteric heavy metals.

Anthropologists tell us that this horse served some unknown ritualistic purpose for the artists and their original audience (whose names…and whose very language are completely lost), but that strikes me as a bit simplistic.  No doubt I would say the same thing about any mystery artwork from an unknown culture.   What IS obvious is that the Cro-Magnon recognized how closely they lived to nature and they admired the the strength and grace of the animals they preyed on and lived next to.  It goes without saying that they recognized how important their fellow creatures were, because they knew that without these animals they would die. They would literally starve to death and freeze.

I wonder sometimes if that vital piece of knowledge has gotten lost to the artists of today who are busy contextualizing the injustice of social paradigms or examining the insider/outsider dynamics of status hierarchy.   We no longer need Equus ferus for food or clothing.  We don’t even need their domesticated descendants for milk and transportation.  But we are as inextricably a part of nature as ever.  Even if we must exploit it to live we must protect it and save it or we will die.  There is no outside of nature for us. We are nature’s progeny as surely as were the Cro-Magnon…or the wisents and aurochs which they lived off of.   Great art lives in a timeless modernity.  Look upon the round (pregnant?) yellow mare and think about what it really means.  In 20,000 years nobody will know our names or who we were.  Our language might be lost…and all of our works except for a few strange oddball things will be gone.  But the people of then (if there are any) will surely know us by what we took.  Will they admire us for what we understood and preserved or will they just curse us as vicious primitives who lost life’s most critical lesson that all living things are connected?

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A sculpture of the Yellow Emperor in the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi

The Han people claim to be descended from a mythological cultural hero known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow Emperor, or as “Huangdi.”  Chinese history is long and complicated and so is the history of Huangdi!  At times the Yellow Emperor was regarded as a real person–the first emperor of China. In other eras he was regarded as a matchless Daoist sorceror or as a great shaman or even as a god of the Earth itself.  Modern scholars argue endlessly about how the myth came into being. The Communists tried to ban the cult during the cultural revolution, but quickly realized that it was a dreadful mistake.  Different eras imagine him differently, but he is always there at the beginning. Imagine if Moses, Aeneas, George Washington, and Merlin the Magician lived five thousand years ago and were somehow one person–that would be the Yellow Emperor.

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Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise (Dai Jin, ca. mid 15th century AD) ink on silk

From time to time Ferrebeekeeper refers to the Chinese calendar (this is year 4716, the year of the Earth Pig).  That calendar was putatively started by the Yellow Emperor (which sort of puts a date stamp on him, come to think of it).  An incomplete list of the other accomplishments/inventions/innovations which have been attributed to Huangdi includes:

  • invention of houses
  • domestication of animals
  • first cultivation of grains
  • invention of carts/the wheel
  • invention and successful use of the war chariot
  • invention and popularization of clothing
  • the invention of boats and watercraft
  • discovery of astronomy
  • invention of archery
  • creation of numbers and mathematics
  • the creation of the first diadem
  • the invention of monarchy
  • The invention of writing and the creation of the oracle bone script
  • the invention of the guquin zither

Huangdi did not invent sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms): that was accomplished by his main wife, Leizu.  Yet, as you can see above, he still has a fairly impressive CV.  I haven’t even gotten into his military accomplishments or his physical prowess.  Suffice to say they were very great–like the time he defeated the bronze-headed monster, Chi You, and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers…or the time he defeated the nightmare sorcerers from the mirror dimension and imprisoned them forever in mirrors (although it is a bit disturbing to think that that figure in the bathroom every morning is a dark magician who is forced to dress like you and act like you and LOOK like you because of the Yellow Emperor’s magic).

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Because Chinese history is so long and so vast it encompasses different cosmologies and pantheons.  Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have somewhat pushed out the ancient religions of the Han Dynasty (although figures like Nüwa linger on in the background).  Huangdi sort of transcends change itself though and so he is in myths with great primordial Daoists like Guangchengzi and in stories with the now moribund goddess Xuannü, “the mystery lady” who was goddess of war, sex, magic, and longevity (we should maybe look into her backstory at some point).  Also he was maybe a yellow dragon.

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Although there are many stories about the Yellow Emperor’s life and accomplishments (and about his birth, which I will write about some other time), the stories about his death are somewhat exiguous. He met a quilin and a phoenix and moved on from this world. He has two tomb in Shaanxi (including the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, which is pictured up there at the top of the post), in addition to other tombs in in Henan, Hebei, Gansu, and other places.  Perhaps these stories are unsatisfying by design.  Like King Arthur or Durin, the Yellow Emperor might not be entirely dead, but might be lying low somewhere, waiting for a moment of crisis which requires him.

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Like a currency crisis?

To my point of view, there is no afterlife or magic, but the dead aren’t really gone–they live on in their descendants. This is a satisfying conclusion to me because it means that the Yellow Emperor IS the people of the Han.  He is China the way Uncle Sam is the US (except 4500 years longer). He never really existed yet the Yellow Emperor is 1/6 of humankind…or at least their mascot.

 

 

 

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I wanted to write about flowers for April, but, so far this April has been a cold month and there is not much going on in the garden apart from Hellebores and crocuses.  Fortunately April is also poetry month!  Therefore, I looked up “gothic flower poetry” on Google to see if I could combine literature, flowers, and the dark foreboding beauty of Gothic aesthetics.  What Google provided was a William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.  Here it is in its totality:

“The Sick Rose”

William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem is so short as to barely be a poem, and it is by William Blake so it is probably ridiculously famous (although I have never encountered it until now).  I was going to move on and write about something else, but the disturbing truth is that I can’t get this poem out of my head!

Like a worm or invisible larva this poem insinuates its way into the reader’s mind.  Also like a minuscule worm,  the poem uses its tininess to devastating effect.    Since there are only 34 words (divided into two disturbing 17 word stanzas), there is not much information to guide the brains to a satisfactory & comprehensive conclusion.  Thus we are trapped with the ambiguity of what the rose and the worm represent…beyond just a dying rose and an invisible infectious agent which is killing it (which is already unsettling).   The effect really is akin to some virulent nematode or spirochete burrowing deeper into a a maze of defenseless petals.

Symbolically, the poem is most obviously about love and the pathology of desire:  the bed of crimson joy is destroyed by dark secret love.  The fetishism, opprobrium, and shame of sexual lust undermines the more sanctified elements of romantic love.  The worm is a perverse predator and the rose an innocent naif.

Yet this poem is not merely about human love and longing.  It is about a real living thing, a rose, destroyed by another living thing, a worm.  Blake evokes the baffling gestalt of a world of tigers and sheep where predators and prey both rely on each other to continue.  Without the wolves, the sheep would eat all of the grass and die out.  Without parasites, weakness would flourish in ways which would unmake the host.  The poem does not just mirror pathologies of love (putatively our most sacred emotion), it showcases a miniature ecosystem which is a microcosm of the whole world.  Is it a broken system?  The rose is indeed dying…

 

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Happy April Fish Day!  The French manifestation of April Fool’s is much nicer than the rather horrid Anglo-Saxon version.  There is still room for farcical fun, as friends try to affix colorful paper fish to each other’s backs (although, admittedly, wearing a pretty fish is no substitute for being badly frightened or lightly injured in an American prank).

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Anyway, I was thinking about these fish, and it gave me an idea for camouflaged sculptures that blend in with the surroundings.  One of the secret strengths of the flatfish (which have become an artistic fixation of mine lately) is that they are capable of changing color to blend in with their habitat.  Unfortunately, this is usually a muddy seabed, which never really allows turbot, sole, plaice, and such like flatfish to explore their frivolous fashion side. With this in mind I set about building a flounder mold to make some “crouching turbot…hidden flounder” sculptures.  Unfortunately I only managed to craft a handful of prototypes, and I was unable to position them to maximum photographic advantage in the concrete jungles of early Anthropocene Brooklyn (yet). However we can get to that later.  Check out these streetfish I made for April Fish Day!

 

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I couldn’t find anything made of shiny steel to put that last one on top of, but fortunately my friend and erstwhile roommate Jennifer was wearing some fashionable silver footwear to help the poor fish feel at home!

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This is just the beginning of this project and we’ll see some more exotic streetflounder in the near future (as soon as I find some more disposable containers for mixing plaster) but in the meantime, happy April Fish Day!  Let us revel in the beauty of spring! Additionally, this is the ninth anniversary of the founding of Ferrebeekeeper, an event steeped in mysterious lore. Celebrate the happy occasion by dropping me a line or telling me what you would like to see more of!  I, personally would like more comments, and, to that end, I promise I will be better about responding quickly and cogently.  Thanks again for everything.  My readers are the best!

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So, I had this idea for a video game: “Dino Poacher: The Estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!”  In the game, your character would get all outfitted with special cool weapons and camouflage gear in preparation to hunt super awesome dinosaurs on the Cretaceous forest estate of Lord Humongousaurus Rex!

However, it is all a ruse, no matter what you do, as soon as you hop over the fence, Lord Humongousaurus’ bailiffs catch you and drag you into the basement of his mansion where they force you to carefully polish antique silver for hours and hours.

As soon as your polishing is done you are free:  you can re-outfit and once again try to break into the estate for ultimate dino-poaching adventures…but, as soon as you cross onto the estate, the game wardens grab you and you are back to polishing silver.  You have different brushes, rags, and polishing pastes and the sneering butler says unhelpful things like “If you miss your shot you have to buff the coffee pot!” You never do get to hunt dinosaurs (although there are lots of exciting teasers and action clips) but you do get to polish increasingly elaborate and hard-to-polish silver culminating with the Dowager Duckbill’s’ baroque spinosaurus epergne!

The game’s tag phrase hints at the bait and switch.  Lord Humogousaurus, in all of his aristocratic theropod glory says “Can YOU polish off all of the monsters?” Then he laughs derisively.  I drew a colored pencil sketch of how the game package should look in my little sketchbook today.

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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A quarter of a billion years ago a shallow sea covered what is now Hubei, China (the parts of the world that are today Manchuria, South China, and Southeast Asia were large archipelagos in this shallow sea).  The warm water was perhaps a meter or so deep–a child could stand in it, and it was filled with proliferating shrimp, worms, and mollusks. The early Triassic was a strange time for life on Earth:  the world’s greatest mass-extinction (thus far) had just swept traditional Paleozoic players off the world stage, but the famous stars of the Mesozoic–the dinosaurs–had not yet taken over the land.  Peculiar creatures were fast evolving to fill empty ecological niches once filled by now extinct animals.

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You are probably wondering what sort of creatures lived in this vanished ocean–and you are in luck, because the answer is amazing!  Paleontologists in China discovered the remains of…a marine reptile (?) with a cartilaginous beak.  The creature had a rigid body and tail and 4 stubby little flippers for steering and swimming.  It also had bony plates on its back like a stegosaurus and tiny little pinpick eyes.  Scientists named the creature Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. The most analagous creature in today’s world is the platypus, and, indeed, Eretmorhipis looked like a crazy platypus (combined with a blind penguin and a stegosaurus).  The analogy however is rather misleading since, 250 million years ago the first monotremes were probably evolving in the same addled post-apocalyptic world (monotremes are amazing and bizarre, but, sadly, we don’t have a complete fossil record of them, so we have to base some of what we think about them on genetic paleontology which provides a rough timeline).

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Eretmorhipis carrolldongi was a hupehsuchian reptile.  It was a relative (or maybe a precursor) to the ichthyosaurs which soon took over the world’s oceans and evolved unique graceful mastery of the planet’s oceans before something went terribly wrong.  I want to write more about the icythyosaurs (their story illustrates something exceedingly important about life), but before I do that I wanted to share this stubby ridiculous platypus analog creature with you so you can think about the comic reptile rooting around its ancient ocean at night with its beak hunting shrimp and invertebrates with its sensitive beak in the turbid darkness.  The world is a mad grab bag and you never know what is going to be successful.   We probably out to talk about the end-Permian mass extinction too, but it is the stuff of ultimate nightmares, so I am going to slow walk that post for now… maybe when (if?) we are feeling stronger.

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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Do you know what the biggest new trend of 2019 is? It’s QUOKKAS! Finally the ‘teens feature a popular movement that Ferrebeekeeper can get behind.

Quokkas are cat-sized marsupial herbivores of the genus Setonix, a genus which has only a single species Setonix brachyurus.   Quokkas are most closely related to kangaroos, wallabies and pademelons: together these animals make up the family known as macropods.   Quokkas weigh from 2.5 to 5 kilograms (5.5 to 11 pounds) and live up to 10 years.  They have brown grizzled fur and live on a variety of vegetation native to their little corner of southwest Australia. Wikipedia somewhat judgmentally notes that they are promiscuous.  Females usually give birth to a sole joey which lives in their pouch for 6 months and remains dependent on the mother for several months beyond that.

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Quokka populations have declined precipitously since Europeans colonized Australia.  They are outcompeted and preyed on by invasive cats, foxes, and dogs, and they have suffered extensive habitat loss to farms and homebuilding (plus they have some native predators such as snakes). The great Jerusalem for the quokka is Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth.  Rottnest means “rat’s nest” in Dutch (which I feel like I could learn!).  Apparently the 17th century Dutch explorer, Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh, spotted extensive colonies of quokkas on the island and mistook the creatures for giant rats.

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So why is this dwindling macropod suddenly so popular? Quokkas do not have a particular fear of humans (an exceedingly unwise outlook, in my humble opinion).  Additionally, because of the shape of their faces, they seem to have satisfied chilled-out smiles.  Indeed, they might actually have chilled-out smiles (they seem pretty benign and happy), but no quokkas returned my phone calls, so I can’t speak to their true emotional state.  Anyway, the combined lack of fear of humans and the endearing smiles make them perfect in “selfies” and adorable digital animal photos.  The internet is thus good to the quokkas whose popularity is soaring by the day. Perhaps they can parlay this digital fame into population growth and success in the real world (although I suspect the internet’s content-makers would caution the quokka that there is limited correlation between digital and real-world success).

Now that you have read the little essay, here are some adorable grinning quokka pictures.  I really hope these guys flourish because just look at them!

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For the last month-and-a-half, New York City has been besotted by a new sweetheart.  “Who is this gorgeous heart throb?”, you ask.  Is it some otherworldly super-model, a sexy head of state (of a different nation, obvs.), or a cultural hero with a new philosophy to recontextualize everything?  Ummm…maybe?  We don’t know as much about our new crush as we might since, um, he is a duck.

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a perching duck from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, and maybe that creepy part of Russia above China).   Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will know that it has an important place in Chinese symbolism.   Due to the strange and disquieting mirror-verse symmetry we have with China, there is a very similar North American species of duck, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) which lives in the eastern half of North America from Canada down to Mexico.  The two sorts of ducks are the only species within the genus Aix.  The East Asian duck is perhaps a bit fancier.

This particular mandarin duck, who has been christened “Mandarin Patinkin” (in an awkward homage to a noted thespian) is thus not a native, but not from a wholly dissimilar ecosystem either.  He appeared in Central Park in early October. The duck has a brown band on his leg, so presumably he escaped from such rich Westchester bird lover’s aviary or from a farm specializing in non-native waterfowl.   He is a gifted flyer and when he is not preening before adoring throngs in Central Park, he flies off for some quiet time across the Hudson in New Jersey.

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I love birds! Just witness the drama of LG (who is doing quite well, by the way, although his goose spouse was injured by a wild animal).  Also, mandarin ducks are self-evidently lovely. Yet I am a bit perplexed by the extent to which the City has gone ape over this one renegade duck.  Here is a link to Gothamist articles following the bird in minute detail with paparazzi-like stalkerish obsession.  Holy Toledo Mud Hen! If you need celebrity dirt about this duck and his big city life, it is all there!

Yet, although this duck obsession is a bit odd, I feel that is a good thing.  Contemporary society is TOO addicted to celebrities. Most of these “stars” are meddling narcissists who spend all of their time building a by-the-numbers personal mythology and then sabotaging ancient reptilian religious pathways in the human brain in order to beguile the weak-minded to obsess over them (maybe this description will bring other New York “celebrities” to mind).  Perhaps some good old-fashioned bird watching will help us deconstruct some of this dangerous idolatry, but if not, at least we have spent our time paying attention to a cool duck instead of some goofy rapper or Kardashian or Andy Warhol wannabe.

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Also I will keep you posted if the duck has any torrid flings, money troubles, or runs over a bystander.

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