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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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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?

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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Messier 87 (M87) Galaxy

Messier 87 is a strange and extraordinary galaxy.  For one thing it was discovered and named in 1781…even though the nature of galaxies (and the fact that there are more than one such “island universes” was not understood until 1923).  Messier 87 was discovered by the great Charles Messier who was cataloging weird celestial blobs that could confuse comet hunters.   The galaxy lies near the center of the Virgo supercluster of which our own lovely (albeit provincial) galaxy, the Milky Way, is a part. Formed by the merger of multiple galaxies, M87 is huge and contains more than a trillion stars–4 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.  Additionally M87 is surrounded by more than 12,000 globular clusters (the Milky Way has perhaps 200 of these miniature satellite galaxies).  Whereas the spiral Milky Way is “blue and new” with ample quantities of hydrogen to form new stars, the globular Messier 87 is “red and dead”: new star formation has slowed and the great elipsoid mass of stars is slowly dying (insomuch as galaxies can be said to live to begin with).  The stars visible now are mostly middle aged main sequence stars or tiny long-lived red dwarves (tiny for stars…still not something you could pick up and put in your hatchback).

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47 million year old Adapidae fossil from Germany

Messier87 is approximately 53 million light years away.  The light that we can observe from it today originated during the Eocene, when the first little primates evolved on Earth and those photons have been streaking toward us through the great emptiness at 300,000 kilometers per second since when our direct ancestors were anxious lemur-squirrel guys staring pensively up at the stars.

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A artist’s conception of such a black hole

The center of this monstrous astronomical entity is a  supermassive black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun (for reference, the sun is 333,000 times the mass of Earth–so this black hole has the mass of 2,164,500,000,000,000 Earths). A horrifying & beautiful relativistic jet of ionised matter 1.5 kiloparsecs (5000 light years) long is emerging from the black hole.

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Why do I bring this up?  Because we photographed the black hole!  This is the first time we have accomplished such a feat.  You can read about the esoteric details of how astronomers achieved such a thing by clicking on today’s Google Doodle (so I guess today’s blog post will not be a completely original/unique subject),  I suspect you have seen the picture already. Yet even the eye-of-Sauron glory of this image (which was taken by a pan-global network of radio telescopes) does not exactly capture the scale of the black hole.  My imagination is equiped for may things, but is not really much good for processing numbers bigger than a few thousand.  The diameter of this black hole is roughly approximate to the orbit of Uranus and it has the mass of a small galaxy.  So I guess keep that in mind when looking at the little orange eye. Now I am going to go lie down and hold my pet cat.

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One of the more endearing woodland creatures of the Appalachian hardwoods where I grew up is the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans).  My uncle was always fighting with one that was storing its winter nuts in the roof of the ramshackle log cabin owned by my great-great grandfather.  The nocturnal creatures have huge anime eyes which glisten in their small anxious faces.  They are extremely social and clever at stocking their winter larder.  Although we think of them as subsisting on nuts, this is really their winter provender: during the clement months they eat a wide diet of berries, buds, mushrooms, and flowers…as well as invertebrates, small animals, eggs, and even nestlings (I always imagine the original ancestors of the primates were not unlike the clever and versatile squirrels).  Coincidentally, flying squirrels do not fly, but can glide from tree to tree by stretching out their special sheetlike membrane (which is called a patagium).

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One would think that we would know all there is to know about flying squirrels–perhaps not the species in remote forests of Vietnam, but at least the three American species (there are also two closely related northern species: Glaucomys sabrinus & Glaucomys oregonensis).  Yet this turns out to be wrong.  This year (2019), Jonathan Martin, a professor of forestry in Wisconsin, was exploring the forest at night with a black light when he made a shocking discovery.  He heard some squirrels rustling in his bird feeder and turned the light on them and discovered that, under ultraviolet light they fluoresce hot pink!  The North American genus (Glaucomys) of flying squirrels have a rave-tastic secret color. Sadly most of the photos I could find of this phenomena, were pictures of sad little moth eaten flying squirrel pelts in natural history museums, but here is a black light picture which shows that it is the pale bottom half of the squirrel which glows pink under UV light.

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Hidden UV patterns are common among flowers and invertebrates (spiders and scorpions are particular masters).  Even parrots and amphibians are known to utilize splotches of fluorescent color for secret in-species communications.  Yet fluorescent coloration was unknown in mammals until present.  The discovery is so new that we don’t yet know what it is for…or even whether it is a trait shared by some off the numerous old-world flying squirrels.  More research is necessary, and Ferrebeekeeper will try to keep up with the theories (I suspect that, as with parrots and spiders, it is a way for squirrels to keep track of each other in the three dimensional maze of dark forest canopies).  Still it is good to see that this mainstay of childhood joy from 1980s skateboards and puffy stickers has a natural home in the great forests of North America.  The producers of Miami Vice would be proud…although perhaps they would be dismayed to see that the squirrels’ white light colors are normal earth tones.

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Happy Year of the Earth Pig!  Today (February 5th 2019) marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4716 in the Chinese calendar.  I really meant to write more dog-theme posts last year during the year of the dog: how did it run off so quickly? But no matter…we can always write more about man’s best friend. Today belongs to the pig and, despite a somewhat grubby nomen, the earth pig has a great deal to recommend it!

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In the Chinese zodiac, pigs are water sign animals. The easygoing and affable earth pig thus betokens a year of friendship, camaraderie, and social success.  Pigs love having fun together, so, in addition to social delights, the year will feature plenty of luxuries, treats and opulent spectacles.   Friendship and social bonding are one thing, but romance is quite another, so, although the year may be marked by new friendship and bonhomie, it is not likely to be especially happy one in terms of love and intimacy (which is fully in line with broad international trends).

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Financially speaking, the Earth Pig moves slowly yet inexorably towards abundance.  The ground is the root of all wealth and this pig has all four feet squarely upon the earth. The online oracle which I consulted states “This zodiac sign has a solid work ethic and is willing to put in the hours to get ahead. Patience and willpower are the name of the game for anyone wishing to get ahead in 2019. And don’t forget the power of building friendly alliances with colleagues.”  I suppose that sounds pretty good, but I have been to farmyards and seen how things work out for pigs.  I would probably paraphrase this: your financial year will combine a great deal of hard work with some foolish lapses due to inattention, greed, and other people’s guile.  Be careful! The rewards of your labor could be enjoyed by someone else…

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Sadly, all pig years come with an admonition not to overdo it with sweets, rich foods, and alcohol, but I hardly see how gluttony could be a problem here in [checks notes] oh…um…yeah, I guess we will also have to keep a careful eye on what we are eating.

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Speaking of gluttony, no conversation about pigs would be complete without a mention of China’s literary superstar pig, Zhu Bajie, one of the three animal heroes of “The Journey to the West” (well, actually there are four, but the horse is usually just a horse and only jumps into the game in moments of true duress).  Zhu Bajie is an immortal pig monster with enormous strength and bravery…but he is also cursed with constant hunger, laziness, and a desire for other joys of the flesh.  Zhu’s earthy passions cause substantial trouble to both him and his sharper companions (although, ironically, the monkey, who represents intellect, will, and arrogance, usually gets in even more trouble by leaping out ahead of everyone).   This is of course o remind everyone that we need the intellect in the upcoming year, but we also need the tolerance, soft-heartedness, and the optimism of the pig.  Humans are monkeys after all.  Like Sun Wukong, the monkey god, we tend to be rather cruel to pigs.  Let the Year of the Earth Pig remind you to be more gentle and compassionate to our big-bellied curly toed friends…or even to yourself if love of luxury or your hungry belly leads you astray.  The great lesson of the Chinese zodiac is that we are all animals, but animals have a celestial magic! Be wary but embrace your inner pig and have a wonderful year 4716.

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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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We could talk about my very favorite ceramics makers…but their nation is still prominent in the world (indeed they are the world’s most populous nation), so we will talk about Chinese porcelain some other day.  For now, let’s instead concentrate on my second favorite ceramics artists—the astonishing and mysterious Moche people of Peru.  Ferrebeekeeper has tried to explain the nature of Moche culture (as archaeologists currently understand it to have been) and we have also tried to put up some galleries of their exquisite waterfowl and their amazing bats (which I think are the best bat artworks extant).

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For tonight though I am going to present a gallery of Moche ceramic vessels in the shape of animals without any comment.  This is partly because I want you to experience the exquisite form of the ancient clay without any distractions and…it is partly because I got started working on Christmas projects and didn’t get around to writing this post until the middle of the night.  I think you will agree as you look at this collection of vessels, that the Moche were astonishing at conveying animals in a way which was streamlined and simple yet also brings out the beauty and the personality of the creatures.  These are not Walt Disney-esque cartoon animals of unnatural sweetness and broad comedy…and yet they are also animals which have distinctive emotional resonance and convey the distinctive character, intelligence, and temperament of these South American animals.  It is a hard balance to get right, and yet I feel that the unknown potters and sculptors of long ago have done a superb job at bringing out what was real and what was magical in these creatures.  I am not explaining this the way I wish, but just try sculpting some animals and you will soon see what I mean.

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