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nigel-gannet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

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Earlier this week I wrote about the (alleged) crown of Montezuma.  The main element of that crown was not a gem or gold structural elements, but the exquisite iridescent emerald feathers of Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal.  These birds live in the rainforests of Central America from southern Mexico down across Guatemala and into western Panama.  They are solitary birds which generally eat fruit (which they supplement with small animals).  They are weak fliers and are preyed on by hawks, eagles, owls, and even toucanets and squirrels (it must be embarrassing to be eaten by a small mean toucan or a squirrel).

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Because of their exquisite feathers resplendent quetzals were associated with the flying snake god Quetzalcotl by various Mesoamerican civilizations.  Elite individuals of the Maya and the Aztecs did indeed wear headdresses made from quetzal feathers, and it was taboo to kill the bird.  Feathers were collected from captured birds which were set free (for quetzals do not flourish in captivity).  They were seen as symbols of divinity, freedom, and wealth (Guatemalan money is known as the quetzal).

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I wish I could tell you more about this jewel-like bird, but they quietly keep their secrets.  A myth of the conquest is that before Spaniards came to the Americas, quetzals sang beautifully and had plain breasts, but since that time their breasts have been red with blood and they have been silent.  They do indeed seem to be a stupendous visual phenomenon (like today’s post which is really about the pictures of this exquisite animal).

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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Oumuamua is an asteroid which came from beyond the solar system.  Perhaps it was ejected from a star system in the Carina–Columba association (which is not an Italian fraternal organization but rather a vast nebula by Eta Carinae about 100 parsecs) around 50 to 100 million years ago, but its age and point of origin are unknown.   It is whipping past the sun and then back into the vast darkness between the stars at a prodigious velocity (apparently it was traveling through interstellar space at something like 26 kilometers per second (58,000 miles per hour).  The object, which measures between 100 and 800 meters (300 to 2500 feet), was initially classified as a comet, but its speed, its orbital eccentricity, and its bizarre shape–which is like an icicle or a shard–caused astronomers to realize it was deeply strange interloper from beyond.

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The object has been closely observed by many of the Earth’s great observatories and it is apparently a dark red—which is caused by cosmic radiation striking it for 100s of millions of years (Kuiper belt objects have similar coloration).  It is traveling far too fast for any existing human craft too reach (although we may be able to build such crafts in the near future), however scientists are assessing it for traces of life or civilization by means of radio telescopy.  It will be out by Jupiter next year and far beyond are kin soon after that, but scientists have learned a great deal from the visit.  Additionally they speculate that other such objects come through the solar system at the rate of one or two per year (which does not seem like a lot considering how large the solar system is).  We are lucky to have spotted this shard, but its catastrophic shape makes one speculate that there is a lot about planetary formation (and destruction) which we don’t know yet.

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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!

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The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  

Haywain

It has been a while since I posted any of my flounder drawings on this blog, but don’t worry, ever since my art show back in August I have been working as harder than ever at drawing and sculpting allegorical flatfish.  Indeed, I am working on a new show with some spectacular projects…but more about that later.  For right now here are two small fish drawings.  The first, above, is titled “Haywain Flatfish” and is meant to evoke the splendor of harvest season.  A bewhiskered yokel carries off a sack of millet as the pumpkins ripen in the golden fields.  An industrious beaver has been similarly productive and sits beaming beside his perfectly constructed dam.  Although the scene conveys bucolic tranquility, the hollow black eyes of the fulsome flounder (and the circling vulture) speak of the coming austerity and darkness of winter.

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This second image “AlienHeartSole” shows a flounder/sole with what looks like a big-hearted alien tentacle monster flying upon it in a personalized saucer.  Although the alien seems benign, the imbecilic sphinx with a javelin, the bomb, and the tattered angel throwing a dart all suggest that this is an amoral and perplexing galaxy.  Only the laid-back rooster offers a modicum of sanguine confidence…and it is unclear whether the gormless bird understands what is going on.  If you enjoy these little tragi-comic images, you should follow me on Instagram (where Ferrebeekeeper goes by the sobriquet “GreatFlounder”).  There you will find a great trove of colorful and enigmatic flatfish art.  As part of the project which I mentioned above, I am trying to bring my various digital /web content into a more tightly networked gestalt, so I would be super appreciative for any Instagram follows!

 

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Here is a very beautiful painting by Pre-Raphaelite luminary Evelyn de Morgan.  This work is titled The Angel with the Serpent and it was completed between 1870 and 1875. Although the work is a religious allegory, its meaning is surprisingly elusive.  In Judeo-Christian myth, the serpent represents sexuality, subversiveness, knowledge (and evil). These meanings certainly pertain to this work, yet the angel’s tenderness for the snake seems to suggest that God has wrought these aspects of existence too.

Admittedly this painting might depict a world before the fall (the sumptuous flowering bush and the bare lands beyond hint at this possibility).  Is the handsome angel in the red robes Lucifer before he was cast down?  Even if this painting does depict the time of Eden, it still suggests that the snake was always part of God’s plan and is dear to the Divinity and his agents (a forbidden idea which raises numerous troubling questions).

I am presenting the painting not just so you ponder the metaphorical meanings of Genesis (although I hope you are doing so), but also to introduce my Halloween week theme of supernatural snakes.  Ferrebeekeeper is no stranger to snake deities and monsters at all levels, but snakes have always been part of every mythos except for those of the farthest north and so there are plenty more to get to.  Enjoy Evelyn de Morgan’s lovely painting and get used to numinous snakes–we are going to see some amazing scales and forked tongues before next Tuesday!

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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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There is nothing that Ferrebeekeeper loves more than an enormously ornate 18th century edifice—unless it is a touching story of unification and healing!  This story has all of those things—but it also drives straight through one of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history.

This is the Dresden Frauenkirche, one of the two great churches of Dresden.  The Frauenkirche is Dresden’s great Protestant church: the Catholic church–the Hofkirche of Dresden—has its own history (though it could be argued that both churches form a larger story of faith and schism in Germany especially since Dresden is part of Saxony, which was Martin Luther’s diocese).   At any rate the Frauenkirche was designed by Dresden’s city architect, George Bähr and built between 1726 and 1743.  The defining feature of the church was its 96 meter tall stone dome.  The 12,000-ton sandstone dome rested on eight slender supports, and yet was famous for its solid resilience and strength.  During the 7 Years War, Prussian cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sandstone dome like acorns bouncing off of a church bell.

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Unfortunately, the 20th century saw the advent of more terrible weapons than cannons (and more terrifying German leaders than Frederick the Great). In the final stages of World War II, the Frauenkirche was destroyed by the 1945 Allied fire bombings which burned down Dresden (and killed 25,000 of its citizens). All that was left was a pile of rubble and melancholy broken walls which looked for all the world like a Friedrich painting. The Cold War also took its toll on Germany and Soviet hegemonic aggression prevented the nation from uniting and fully rebuilding.  East Germany was unable to fulfill its potential or govern itself (on the opposite side of the Cold War, the United States was and is the dearest friend and ally of Germany…although maybe it is best not to look too closely into the circumstances of that firebombing or ask a lot of questions about our own recent embrace of the crazed strongman theory of misgovernment).

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So, for half a century the Frauenkirche was a nightmarish burnt fragment—an ever-present revenant reminding the people of Saxony of the terrible destruction of the war.   It became a locus of the German peace movement (and a site for passive resistance to the East German government). Then, in the nineties, circumstances in Germany changed very quickly.  Reunification brought forth a project to rebuild the Frauenkirche.  The original church was destroyed, but the original blueprints were not.  In 1992 construction began on the new Frauenkirche.   In an effort to recreate the church as thoroughly as possible, chemists tested burnt remnants, historians pored over ancient receipts, archivists collected endless photos and artworks, and the citizens of Dresden saved pfennigs in order to pay for the undertaking.  About 3800 stones from the original church were recovered and used.  The old stones have a patina of age…and they were darkened by the fire.

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The project was finished in 2005 (ahead of schedule) and today the Frauenkirche looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1744 or 1944, except the smattering of original stones give it a speckled appearance like a magnificent baroque toad.  Touchingly, the golden cross at the apex of the tower was funded officially by “the British people and the House of Windsor” and wrought by a British goldsmith whose father was a pilot in the bombing.

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If you have ever tried to fix or restore anything, you will recognize that this is a monumental accomplishment which indicates the proficiency and excellence of German manufacture (not that anyone had any doubts anyway). Even more importantly, the story is a reminder to everyone that reunification, rebirth, and rebuilding to Golden Age glory are entirely possible.  The full story of the church however also remains to remind us of the horror of war and the tragic history of mistakes which caused so much devastation.

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