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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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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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In my art career I have been on an enormous flatfish binge. People have asked me what on earth this means, but unfortunately, it is hard to write about one’s own art. Therefore I am “crowd sourcing” my artist’s statement to the smartest and most sympathetic crowd I can find. Please, please let me know how you think I could phrase this better (and enjoy the fish!).
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Asymmetry betokens a lack of equality or balance between the parts or aspects of a greater whole. Outwardly, the most asymmetric vertebrates are the flatfish, an order of carnivorous marine fish which are extensively fished for food and sport. In his art, Wayne Ferrebee adopts the flounder as a symbolic proxy to explore the growing asymmetry between the natural world and artifical manmade ecosystems. Simultaneously a lurking predator and a hapless victim of fishermen’s guile (and the shark’s ravenous gullet) the flounder is a tragicomic google-eyed mirror for humankind’s march towards ascendancy and disaster.

With a background in biology, history, toymaking and painting, Ferrebee utlilizes symbols and narratives to contextualize the role which organisms have in the context of larger life cycles. Thus a wheeled toy flatfish with a rotating musical painting becomes an oracular mirror for to seeing into the near future. A pleasure garden of glowing sphinxes, topiary, and musicians is revealed to be a disguised fish monster, waiting for the unwary aesthete. Beasts of the watery realm join with mythological beings from antiquity to show how our cherished aspirations contain poisonous hooks. Each of us thinks we are a heroic individual, yet we are also a tiny part of a billion-headed hydra. So too each artwork of dynamically intertwined symbols glows with hidden meaning. By represents the cycles within life, history, and paleontology, Ferrebee highlights patterns of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the perspective of a single lifetime.

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Let’s look back through the mists of time to peak at one of the most mysterious and perplexing of mammals, the desmostylians, the only extinct order of marine mammals (although in dark moments I worry that more are soon to follow). Desmostylians were large quadrupeds adapted to life in the water. They had short tails and mighty limbs. Because of this morphology, taxonomists initially thought that they were cousins of proboscideans and sirenians (elephants and manatees), but the fact that their remains have only been found far from Africa (the origin point of elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and manatees & sea cows) along with perplexingly alien traits has caused a rethink of that hypothesis.
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(Art by Ray Troll fror SMU)

Extant between the late Oligocene and late Miocene, the desmostylians had powerful tusklike cylindrical teeth and dense heavy bones. The smallest (and oldest) were peccary sized creatures whereas the largest grew to the size of medium whales. It seems like desmostylians lived in littoral parts of the ocean—near coasts and shores where they used their pillar like teeth to graze great kelp forests. They scraped or rasped up the kelp and sucked it down their voracious vacuum maws like spaghetti! It must have been an astonishing sight! My favorite marine paleoartist, Ray Troll has made exquisite pictures of these majestic creatures which help us to visualize them. I really hope they looked this funny and friendly (if they were anything like herbivorous manatees, they probably did!).
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(Art by Ray Troll, courtesy SMU)

Speaking of manatees, the gentle sirenians had a hand (or flipper?) in the demise of the poor desmostylians. The dugongs and manatees would never fight anyone or even protect themselves with force—they simply outcompeted the less nimble desmostylians for resources, although one wonders if climate-change and the continuing evolution of different coastal sea plants might also have helped do in the great desmostylians.

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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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Today we present one of the treasures of the Louvre—a duck shaped cosmetics kit from a tomb at Minet el-Beida—a Levantine city which stood beside the ancient harbor of Ugarit (which is in what is today (or was yesterday) Syria).  One of the pegs is a pivot and the other is a clip. By pulling one out, the lid can be swung opened to access the powder or ointment within.

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The duck was carved out of Hippopotamus ivory by a master craftsperson of long ago.  It was made in Ugarit in 1300 or 1200 BC—roughly contemporary with Mycenaean civilization.  There were civilizations ringing the Mediterranean in this era—Hittites, Amorites, Mycenaeans & Cretans, Ilrians, Trojans, Etruscans, and Cimmerians.  They traded with distant cultures like the Harrapans and Iberians.   To the south was the great kingdom of Egypt. Indeed, this duck is a creation made possible by the flourishing trade of this era.  It is of African ivory, but was made in Ugarit.

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Around 1200, mysterious barbarian hordes from the west swept away this entire world.  These “sea people” swamped each kingdom in turn and swept it away—until the Egyptian army commanded by the god-king Ramses III (first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty) halted their advance around 1180.  Alas, Ugarit was destroyed and burned to the ground by the uncouth barbarians who had no care for trade, however we still have this exquisite makeup duck to remember the city of traders and priests and farmers and charioteers. With its enigmatic expression and wide shocked eyes, there is something sad about the duck, but there is a comic playfulness too.

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I wonder if 3300 years from now our cities and lives will be boiled down to a single tragicomic plastic makeup kit in an unvisited room in a museum in a yet unfounded city.  It is a disturbing thought.

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