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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!

Founder/Flounder Galley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor

Here is another image from my little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. This past year I have been trying to become better at drawing an image with a nib and then coloring it with watercolors (the go-to methodology of illustrators who want beautiful diagrammatic details). I am getting better at this technique…but I am still not a master of photographing small artworks with a cellphone camera (the true signature medium of our age). Anyway, here are a bunch of hapless galley slaves rowing along in glum resignation as their captain and officers take the fragile wooden ship through a mermaid-haunted reef. Huge poisonous monsters and weird idols stand on the deck. Hungry seabirds and devilfish size up the sailors as a Chinese junk sails by out in the navigable strait and a German airship floats by like a leaf. I see no way that this small composition could represent our entire Rube Goldberg economic system of world trade. Also there is a flounder, floundering along the sand hunting for worms and copepods. Let’s hope that no larger fish or fisherman show up to hook or spear or dynamite the poor hungry fish!

Oops…better get back to rowing…

In the annals of color there are innumerable greens. There are countless shades and hues of red. There is a rainbow of yellows: ictarine, mustard, ochre, lemon, and saffron. There are mysterious purples which haunt the imagination and are as different from each other as day from night. Then there is orange. For some reason, there are not a great many different named varieties of orange. Ferrebeekeeper has blogged about safety orange (international orange) which is used for marine rescue equipment and experimental aerospace equipment. Then there is coral, vermilion, and tangerine…and after that the oranges are a bit thin on the ground.

Part of the reason for this paucity of orange vocabulary is that pale oranges tend to be seen as flesh colors, and dark oranges are styled as “brown”. However there are also some orange colors which are quite lovely which are only now getting stylish fashion names.

In a long-ago post Ferrebeekeeper has featured one such hue of orange: bittersweet, which is named for berry-producing vines of the woody vine family¬†“Celastraceae.” I said berries, because the glowing pinkish orange berries of bittersweet look like some celestial dessert fruit. Alas, the berries are toxic to people and domestic animals (although some sorts of wild animals and birds seem able to break down the eunonymin which causes such distress to dogs).

Bittersweet is grown in gardens because of the beauty of the berries. There is a native bittersweet vine in America, Celastrus scandens, however, there is an even more luminous orange pink variety of bittersweet vine from Asia named Celastrus orbiculatus. As will surprise no one, this ornamental bittersweet has escaped from the flower garden and crafting supply store and is now outcompeting the American bittersweet or hybridizing with it to make strange new wild cultivars. The story of how we have introduced a non-native vine with beautiful albeit slightly toxic berries for no reason other than their pretty color is not necessarily a story of ecological prudence or forbearance, however it does speak to the loveliness of this orange-pink.

It has been a disgracefully long time since this blog featured one of the deities of the underworld (which was one of the first and best topics of Ferrebeekeeper). Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the mysterious thriving civilizations of ancient America which existed prior to the 15th century. So today we feature Pitao Bezelao chief death deity of the Zapotecs, who thrived in what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero from 700 BC until Aztec (and subsequent Spanish) conquest in the 16th century (AD).

Like other Mesoamerican palace peoples, the Zapotecs reveled in death worship. They loved step pyramids and human and animal sacrifices of every sort. Pitao Bezelao was a very charismatic dark god with all sorts of strange attributes and props…yet, because we have never deciphered Zapotec glyphs, we also don’t know an enormous amount about his myths and worship. Almost all of our sources are post-conquest folklore written down centuries after the apogee of Zapotec civilization. So sadly we don’t have Pitao Bezelao death myths analogous to Orpheus or the Mayan Ball players (although undoubtedly similar stories were out there).

The ancient Zapotecs were excellent farmers, so Pitao Bezelao was not just the god of death but also also the god of masculinity, fortune, good crops, and chickens (just what chickens, old world animals originally from India, were doing in ancient America in Zapotec times is a subject which is probably more interesting than this article…or anything else on the internet). Even among the strange company of death gods, Pitao Bezelao stands out. He is portrayed as having a huge skull with gauged ears (decked out with fancy ornaments of course) and with an obsidian knife for a nose. Like the Moche Decapitator, Pitao Bezelao had giant pincers/claws for hands. He is often portrayed with a human femur in his right, um, claw and another nose…I mean knife…in his left. In religious art, Pitao Bezelao tends to be surrounded by lizards and spiders and he was often portrayed with an enormous phallus.

Speaking of which, as an extraordinarily well-endowed death deity, Pitao Bezelao had two wives. His main wife Xonaxi Quecuya, “Mother Death”, was a traditional death goddess who collected the souls of the departed and recycled their bodies with her signature insects. True to her name, she was always pregnant! Pitao Bezelao’s second spouse Coqui Bezelao is more enigmatic and s/he had both male and female attributes. Perhaps Pitao Bezelao was a deity who changed gender as culture and society changed and myths spread from one land to another (like Guanyin, my favorite deity of compassion who started out as the (masculine) bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) or maybe they were always transgender–like Lan Caihe.

This would be a great time to share some Pitao Bezelao myths, which I suspect are both horrifying and transcendent…but, thanks to the vicissitudes of history I don’t have any. Instead here is a modern artwork from Oaxaca (where worship of this death god does not seem to have quite died out). If anybody knows anything else about this dark but compelling figure please speak out!

Always stalking around the edges of Ferrebeekeeper we find those enigmatic horselords of the ancient steppe, the Scythians! The classical Scythians were nomadic people (or peoples) who dominated the Pontic steppe between 700 and 300 BC. Since they existed just beyond the outermost fringes of Greek civilization (and since they were charismatic yet completely un-Greek) they loomed large in the ancient Hellenic imagination–and cast their thrall over all of the subsequent scholars who have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration and explanations. Thus we have weird stories of Hercules (the ultimate Greek hero) sleeping with the ultimate monster to beget the Scythians, or tales of how the Scythians were the ancestors of the Scottish (although I guess all human beings are pretty closely related). Anyway, for the Scythians, none of this mattered–what mattered were their beloved horses, which were always at the center of their rituals, trading, fighting, and just about every other part of their lives (indeed it seems like domesticated horses might have come from the part of the world which became Scythia). Thus, today, I wanted to show you a historical recreation of how Scythian horses were arrayed for rituals or for battle (see the image at top). We have found ample Scythian equestrian gear preserved in the old cold barrows which dot the steppe. Recently some Scythian enthusiasts reconstructed how it might have looked with original colors on a steppe horse of yore. Obviously this equipage is not stupendously practical, but it truly is stupendous! I am going to have to look around to see if I can find some more artworks of Scythian horses!

Artist’s conception of Ingenuity on Mars

Congratulations to NASA for orchestrating the first flight of an aircraft on another world! Today, early in the morning (in East Coast Time, here on Earth) NASA’s miniature robotic helicopter “Ingenuity” rose three meters (ten feet) into the thin Martian air (the pressure of the Martian atmosphere is a mere 1% of what we experience here at sea level on Earth, so there was not a lot of air beneath those rotors). I will leave it to professional news sites (or NASA’s own site) to describe the exact parameters of the feat, but I would like to take a moment to look at the little aircraft as though we were Martians ourselves. One of the things which I find funny about our amazing unmanned space missions is how alien our Earth technology looks on alien worlds. The most egregious example of this effect was the flying-saucer-looking Huygens probe which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan. That particular craft combined a flying-saucer aesthetic with steampunk design such that it would look perfectly in place in a Jules Verne novel or if little green men had stopped by to watch the Monitor versus Merrimack battle.

A replica of the Huygens probe

However other probes of other worlds have also looked uncannily like pulp fiction from the 1950s as well (the hopping robots of Hayabusa2 leap into mind as does Messenger on its kamikaze final run into the surface of Mercury). Anyway, Ingenuity partakes of this tradition in that its minimalist design and utilitarian construction of make it look like an alien mosquito. Perhaps if the picture at the top of the post does not show what I mean, this picture taken by Ingenuity of its own shadow will explain better.

Doesn’t that look like a lander sent by waterbug people or by the Great Gazoo’s race? It makes you stop and take a second look at humankind as though you didn’t know us (an exercise which proves both inspirational and dreadful). Perhaps that sort of perspective shift is one of the purposes of our offworld explorations too…

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the Byzantine Empire and the long webs of connections which the Eastern Empire cast across western culture. We will talk more about this later, but, for now, let’s check out a world famous Byzantine treasure! This is the porphyry head of a Byzantine Emperor (tentatively, yet inconclusively identified as Justinian). In Venice, where the stone head has been located since the very beginning of the 13th century (as far as anyone can tell) it is known as “Carmagnola” (more about that below). Sadly, most Byzantine art objects were scattered to the four winds (or destroyed outright) when the Turks seized the city in AD 1453, however Constantinople, city of impregnable walls, had also fallen once before in AD 1203 as a part of the misbegotten Fourth Crusade (a tragicomic series of blunders and Venetian manipulation which we also need to write about). This porphyry head escaped the latter sack because it was carried off during the former!

Based on its style and construction, Carmagnola was originally manufactured by Byzantine sculptors at an unknown date sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries (AD). The diadem worn by the figure is indisputably the headdress of a late Roman Emperor who ruled a vast Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empire out of Constantinople (I guess we need to talk about the diadem of the basileus at some point too). Scholars have speculated that the original statue may have been located in the Philadelphion, a central square of old Constantinople. The figure’s nose was damaged at some point (perhaps during the iconoclasm movement or as a political statement) but has been successfully polished flat. Speaking of statue breakage, it is possible that the head goes with a large headless Byzantine trunk made of porphyry which is now located in Ravenna (although such a provenance would make it seem unlikely that the sculpture was originally located in the Philadelphion). Whatever the original location might have been, the statue was installed upon the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the all-important main location of Venice) after it came to the City of Canals. The head is arguably the most important object among the strange collection of cultural objects which the Venetians arranged along the Saint Mark’s facade over the centuries like an Italian grandmother putting important knickknacks on a mantle. The head’s nickname Carmagnola originates from a Venetian incident and is not some ancient Byzantine allusion: a certain infamous condottiero, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on 5 May 1432 on the Piazzetta in front of Saint Mark’s after the rascally mercenary tried to trifle with the Council of Ten (who had employed him to fight his former master Duke Visconti of Milan). The red imperial head perhaps resembled the severed head of the angry squash-nosed mercenary and locals began to jestingly call it by the same name. Isn’t history funny? Anyway, in case you were trying to find it on a picture of Saint Mark’s, I have marked its location on the picture below.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2021