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Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze. The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns. However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket. The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth. They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!
I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago. Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year. I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations! As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above). This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way). Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year. For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.
I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard. Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful. I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.
Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia). Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks. Indeed, there might be another metaphor here. We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.
Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb. The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it. I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017. I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you. Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.
My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well). One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict. This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind. In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city: the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns. The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings. It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops. On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.
If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom. Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots. This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of. It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth. However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher. The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.
Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels. The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series). This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).
We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars). Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway. Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs). That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way. If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).
I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities). I want to write a lot more about cities. The Anthropocene is upon us. More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.
Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.
Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis. We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.
In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia. Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America. The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile. Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts). The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.
The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish. In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles). The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil. They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch. While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish). Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water. For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.
Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.” My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it. So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.
OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my idea for today’s blog post did not work out. I was going to write about Gothic mascots—a perfectly serviceable mashup of two favorite Ferrebeekeeper tags—but, when I got home from work and started researching gothic mascots the pickings turned out to be exceedingly slim—a Simpsons gag (the Montreal vampire), a bunch of troubling Lolita cartoons, and those godawful “Capital One” barbarians who are trying to sell you some sort of credit card (are they even Visigoths? Is “Capital One” even really a real credit card?). Apparently nobody wants any sort of gothic mascots except for predatory lenders.
Oh no!–what if Capital One destroys my credit rating for making fun of them? [collapses laughing]
So I ended up looking with increasing desperation at past mascots for anything of any interest and this line of inquiry lead me back to that Simpson’s joke about the Montreal vampire. Montreal is a francophone city—beautiful and evocative—yet prone to making choices which are different from the market-driven choices of other places. What was the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Olympics? And, Bingo! suddenly I had today’s blog post.
This is Amik the beaver. Amik means beaver in Algonquin—so this character (which looks like it was designed by somebody who just spilled an entire bottle of India ink) is really named “Beaver the beaver.” Anik appears with a red stripe with the Montreal Games logo on it or sometimes with a pre (?) pride rainbow strip.
I am making fun of poor Anik because I don’t think beavers lack faces. Nor are they the unsettling pure black of absolute oblivion. Maybe I found my Gothic mascot after all—in the most unlikely of places—Montreal, 1976! I will write a better post tomorrow. In the meantime enjoy the strange juxtaposition of nihilism and naivete which was seventies design.
Ferrebeekeeper has written about the giant otter, the largest extant mustelid (which is an alpha-predator of the world’s largest river). But what about extinct mustelids? Honey badgers, wolverines, ferrets, and, yes, giant otters, are fearsome animals: was there once a giant honey badger or a huge super-wolverine?
The Megalictis lived in North America during the Miocene. It weighed as much as a small black bear—somewhere between 50 and 90 kilograms (100—200 lbs), but it had a body (and presumably a temperament like a wolverine or a badger. Indeed, the picture I have in my “Prehistoric Mammals” coloring book (thanks, Dover!) makes it look exactly like a giant honey badger.
I wish I could tell you more about Megalictis—where exactly it lived and how. All we can say is that it was a predator…and not a lurking predator—it caught and subdued its prey by brute strength. However we do not know why it flourished (although it evolved during the Miocene “cat gap” when North America was low on the most widespread and successful mammalian predator) or what led to its extinction. Still search the internet and find some honey badger videos—then imagine if they were ten time larger! It is a formidable thought!
The year progresses and we have finally reached autumn. It’s time to get back to the Shepheardes Calender and see what Spenser has to say! For the month of September, Spenser has crafted a special (and especially hard-to-understand) treat for us. The ninth installation of the poem is written in archaic west-country dialect touched with Welsh. This eclogue is perhaps where Shepherdes Calender comes closest to Middle English. And yet the language is modern, despite the pretensions to antiquity (which coincidentally, lead urbane 17th century poets to despise Spenser…and 18th century pastoralists to imitate his ).
Here is a quick synopsis: after falling on hard times, the shepherd Diggon Davie has sojourned to foreign parts in order to seek greater fortune. However instead of finding wealth he found even greater penury among Catholic shepherds who must neglect their flocks to feed the appetites of priests and profligate lords. The satire soon devolves into a complex political metaphor about rapacious foreign wolves, dangerous domestic foxes, and much argument about what sort of stalwart dogs are needed to protect good Englishmen…er, I mean “shepherds” from the same.
I really like the September eclogue with its hillfolk making fun of fancy popery and the profligate ways of foreign folks. Even the yokel-talk seems oddly familiar (if you are having trouble with it, just read it aloud). I suspect it is not just West Virginians who will enjoy it. Here is the full eclogue:
Shepheardes Calender VIIII: September
HOBBINOL. DIGGON DAVIE.
Diggon Davie, I bid her God-day:
Or Diggon her is, or I missay.
Her was her, while it was Day-light,
But now her is a most wretched Wight.
For Day that was, is wightly past,
And now at last the dirk Night doth haste.
Diggon, areed who has thee so dight:
Never I wilt thee in so poor a plight.
Where is the fair Flock, thou west wont to lead?
Or been they chaffred? or at Mischief dead?
Ah, for love of that is to thee most leef,
Hobbinol, I pray thee gall not my old Grief:
Sike question rippeth up cause of new Woe;
For one open’d, mote unfold many mo.
Nay, but Sorrow close shrouded in Heart,
I know, to keep is a burdenous smart.
Each thing imparted, is more eath to bear:
When the Rain is fallen the Clouds waxen clear.
And now sithence I saw thy head last,
Thrice three Moons been fully spent and past;
Since when thou hast measured much Ground,
And wandred weel about the World round,
So as thou can many things relate:
But tell me first of thy flock’s Estate.
My Sheep been wasted (woe is me therefore!)
The jolly Shepherd that was of yore,
Is now nor jolly, nor Shepherd more,
In foreign Coasts Men said, was plenty;
And so there is, but all of misery.
I dempt there much to have eeked my Store,
But such eeking hath made my Heart sore.
In tho Countries where I have been,
No being for those, that truly mean;
But for such as of Guile maken gain,
No such Country as there to remain.
They setten to Sale their Shops of shame,
And maken a Market of their good Name.
The Shepherds there robben one another,
And layen Baits to beguile her brother.
Or they will buy his Sheep out of the Coat,
Or they will carven the Shepherd’s Throat.
The Shepherd’s Swain you cannot well ken
But it be by his Pride, from other Men:
They looken big as Bulls that been bate,
And bearen the Crag so stiff and so state,
As Cock on his Dunghill, crowing crank.
Diggon, I am so stiff and so stank,
That unneath may I stand any more:
And now the Western Wind bloweth sore,
That now is in his chief Sovereignty,
Beating the withered Leaf from the Tree.
Sit we down here under the Hill;
Tho may we talk and tellen our fill,
And make a Mock at the blustering Blast:
Now say on Diggon what ever thou hast.
Hobbin, ah Hobbin, I curse the Stound,
That ever I cast to have lorn this Ground.
Wele-away the while I was so fond,
To leave the Good that I had in hond,
In hope of better that was uncouth:
So lost the Dog the Flesh in his Mouth.
My seely Sheep (ah seely Sheep)
That hereby I whylom us’d to keep,
All were they lusty, as thou diddest see,
Been all starved with Pine and Penury;
Hardly my self escaped thilk pain,
Driven for Need to come home again.
Ah Fon, now by thy Loss art taught,
That seldom change the better brought.
Content who lives with tried State,
Need fear no change of frowning Fate:
But who will seek for unknown Gain,
Oft lives by Loss, and leaves with Pain.
I wote ne, Hobbin, how I was bewitcht
With vain Desire, and Hope to be enricht.
But siker so it is, as the bright Star
Seemeth a greater, when it is far:
I thought the Soil would have made me rich;
But now I wote it is nothing sich.
For either the Shepherds been idle and still,
And led of their Sheep, what way they will:
Or they been false, and full of Covetise,
And casten to compass many wrong Emprise.
But more been fraught with Fraud and Spight,
Ne in Good nor Goodness taken delight;
But kindle Coals of Conteck and Yre,
Wherewith they set all the World on fire:
Which when they thinken again to quench,
With holy Water they doen hem all drench.
They say they con to Heaven the high-way;
But by my Soul I dare underlay,
They never set Foot in that same bode,
But balk the right way, and strayen abroad.
They boast they han the Devil at commaund;
But ask hem, therefore what they han paund:
Marry that great Pan bought with great borrow,
To quite it from the black Bower of Sorrow.
But they han sold thilk same long ago:
For they would draw with hem many mo.
But let hem gang alone a God’s Name;
As they han brewed, so let them bear blame.
Diggon, I pray thee speak not so dirk:
Such myster saying me seemeth to mirk.
Then plainly to speak of Shepherds most what:
Bad is the best (this English is flat)
Their ill Haviour gars Men missay
Both of their Doctrine, and their Fay.
They say the World is much war than it wont,
All for her Shepherds is beastly and blont.
Other sain, but how truly I note,
All for they holden shame of their Cote:
Some stick not to say (hot Cole on her Tongue)
That sike mischief graseth hem emong,
All for they casten too much of World’s Care,
To deck her Dame, and enrich her Heir:
For such Encheason, if you go nie,
Few Chimneys reeken you shall espie:
The fat Oxe that woont lig in the Stall,
Is now fast stalled in her Crumenall.
Thus chatten the People in their steads,
Ylik as a Monster of many Heads.
But they that shooten nearest the prick,
Sain, other the Fat from their Beards do lick.
For big Bulls of Basan brace hem about,
That with their Horns butten the more stout:
But the lean Souls treaden under foot,
And to seek redress mought little boot;
For liker been they to pluck away more,
Than ought of the gotten good to restore.
For they been like foul Wagmoires overgrast,
That if any Galage once sticketh fast,
The more to wind it out thou dost swink,
Thou mought aye deeper and deeper sink.
Yet better leave off with a little loss,
Than by much wrestling to leefe the gross.
Now, Diggon, I see thou speakest too plain;
Better it were a little to fain
And cleanly cover that cannot be cured:
Such Ill, as is forced, mought needs be endured.
But of sike Pastors how done the Flocks creep?
Sike as the Shepherds, sike been her Sheep,
For they nill listen to the Shepherd’s Voice:
But if he call hem, at their good choice,
They wander at will, and stay at pleasure,
And to their Folds yead at their own leasure.
But they had be better come at their call:
For many han unto mischief fall,
And ben of ravenous Wolves yrent,
All for they nould be buxome and bent.
Fie on thee, Diggon, and all thy foul leasing:
Well is known that sith the Saxon King,
Never was Wolf seen, many nor some,
Nor in all Kent, nor in Christendom:
But the fewer Wolves (the sooth to sain)
The more been the Foxes that here remain.
Yes, but they gang in more secret wise,
And with Sheeps clothing doen hem disguise.
They talk not widely as they were woont,
For fear of Raungers and the great Hoont:
But privily prolling to and fro,
Enaunter they mought be inly know.
Or privy or pert if any bin,
We have great Bandogs will sear their Skin.
Indeed thy Ball is a bold big Cur,
And could make a jolly hole in their Fur.
But not good Dogs hem needeth to chase,
But heedy Shepherds to discern their face:
For all their Craft is in their Countenance,
They been so grave, and full of maintenance.
But shall I tell thee what my self know,
Chaunced to Roffin not long ygoe?
Say it out, Diggon, whatever it hight,
For not but well mought him betight.
He is so meek, wise, and merciable,
And with his word his work is convenable.
Colin Clout I ween be his self Boy,
(Ah for Colin he whylom my Joy
Shepherds sich, God mought us many send,
That doen so carefully their Flocks tend.)
Thilk same Shepherd mought I well mark,
He has a Dog to bite or to bark;
Never had Shepherd so keen a Cur,
That waketh, and if but a Leaf stur.
Whilom these wonned a wicked Wolf,
That with many a Lamb had gutted his Gulf,
And ever at night wont to repair
Unto the Flock, when the Welkin shone fair,
Yclad in clothing of seely Sheep,
When the good old Man used to sleep:
Tho at midnight he would bark and ball,
(For he had eft learned a Cur’s Call)
As if a Wolf were among the Sheep.
With that the Shepherd would break his Sleep,
And send out Lowder (for so his Dog hote)
To raunge the Fields with open throte.
Tho when as Lowder was far away,
This wolvish Sheep would catchen his Prey,
A Lamb, or a Kid, or a Weanell wast:
With that to the Wood would he speed him fast.
Long time he used this slippery prank,
Ere Roffy could for his Labour him thank.
At end, the Shepherd his practise spied,
(For Roffy is wise, and as Argus eyed)
And when at Even he came to the Flock,
Fast in their Folds he did them lock,
And took out the Woolf in his counterfeit Cote,
And let out the Sheeps-Blood at his throte.
Marry Diggon, what should him affray
To take his own where ever it lay?
For had his Weasand been a little widder,
He would have devoured both hidder and shidder.
Mischief light on him, and God’s great Curse,
Too good for him had been a great deal wurse;
For it was a perillous Beast above all,
And eke had he con’d the Shepherd’s Call;
And oft in the night came to the Sheep-Cote,
And called Lowder, with a hollow Throte,
As if the old Man’s self had been.
The Dog his Maister’s Voice did it ween,
Yet half in doubt he open’d the door,
And ran out, as he was wont of yore.
No sooner was out, but swifter than Thought,
Fast by the Hide the Wolf Lowder caught;
And had not Roffy ren to the Steven,
Lowder had been slain thilk same Even.
God shield Man, he should so ill have thrive,
All for he did his Devoir believe.
If sike been Wolves, as thou hast told,
How mought we, Diggon, hem behold?
How, but with Heed and Watchfullness,
Forstallen hem of their Wiliness.
For-thy with Shepherds fits not play,
Or sleep, as some doen, all the long day:
But ever liggen in watch and ward,
From suddain Force their Flocks for to gard.
Ah Diggon, thilk same Rule were too straight,
All the cold Season to watch and wait.
We been of Flesh, Men as other be,
Why should we be bound to such Misery?
What-ever thing lacketh changeable Rest,
Mought needs decay, when it is at best.
Ah, but Hobbinol, all this long Tale
Nought easeth the Care that doth me forhaile;
What shall I do? what way shall I wend,
My piteous plight and loss to amend?
Ah good Hobbinol, mought I thee pray,
Of Aid or Counsel in my decay.
Now by my Soul, Diggon, I lament
The hapless Mischief that has thee hent:
Netheless thou seest my lowly Sail,
That froward Fortune doth ever avail.
But were Hobbinol as God mought please,
Diggon should soon find favour and ease.
But if to my Cottage thou wilt resort,
So as I can, I will thee comfort;
There maist thou lig in a vetchy Bed,
Till fairer Fortune shew forth his head.
Ah Hobbinol, God mought it thee requite,
Diggon on few such Friends did ever lite.
Inopem me copia fecit.
This is Wagner’s mustached bat (Pteronotus personatus), a somewhat ridiculously named bat which is a master of echolocation. The little flying insect hunter is tiny: bats have a body length of 6 to 6.7 centimetres (2.4 to 2.6 in). They are strictly nocturnal insectivores. They fly over rivers at night feeding on moths and mosquitoes. Wagner’s mustached bat is notable as one of only a handful of Doppler-shift compensating bats in the new world: the little animals. To quote Michael Smotherman’s article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America , Wagner’s mustached bats “adjust the frequency of their [Constant Frequency] component to compensate for flight-speed induced Doppler shifts in the frequency of the returning echoes.” This is no mean feat for an animal without any onboard computers or slide rules.
Wagner’s mustached bat ranges from southern Mexico, down through Central America to the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It is found in a broad swatch of South America in a band through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and across central Brazil to the Atlantic. Not only does the bat intuitively understand Doppler shift effects, it also exhibits an interesting coloration feature. The species has two color phases: some bats are sable colored with grey underparts; others are reddish-orange with cinnamon colored underparts. Ferrebeekeeper needs to talk about polymorphism (maybe later this week) and this little mustached creature is a good start on explaining the concept.