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It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present

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!

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

This may be the world’s oldest known representational artwork– a red ochre painting of a warty pig recently discovered in the Leang Tedongnge cave of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The full work is actually three pigs–two pigs fighting (?) while one pig watches from a distance, but the fighting pigs have been effaced by scores of millennia, whereas the bystander pig has somehow avoided the elements as well as the fray.

Archaeologists believe the painting is 45,000 years old, an extraordinary age in dealing with human artifacts. They arrived at that number by means of measuring the decay of infinitesimal amounts of uranium in mineral deposits formed on top of the image (this methodology is not without drawbacks and controversies, but remains the go-to mechanism of dating for 45,000 year old non-carboniferous artworks). Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh largest island. Because it is located at the nexus of three small and two giant tectonic plates it resembles a squashed asterisk. Homo Erectus found a home in Indonesia as early as 2 million years ago, but Homo Sapiens reached the island, around the time this painting was made, 45,000 years ago. Modern Austronesian people (who make up the majority of Indonesia’s living population) only arrived 2000 years ago.

The pig portrayed here is interesting as well! It is a Celebes Warty pig (Sus celebensis), a medium sized pig which was originally native solely to Sulawesi. The warty pig is the only pig species to be domesticated other than Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild pig, which probably makes up 99 percent (or more) or the world pig population. Clearly such pigs were of enormous importance to the first homo sapiens of Indonesia–a nearby cave painting from 43.900 years ago (previously the world’s oldest known representative artwork) shows spear-wielding humans approaching pigs and small buffalo. Yet, as with all art, the full reasons behind the creation of the work remain elusive. What is certain is that it is rather good! In addition to an expressive sense of lively movement, the pig has true character and personality. Just look at its hungry face!

Outside Knoxville, (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and watercolor

Now that the holidays have passed, it has occurred to me that I should post some of the India ink and watercolor illustrations which I have been making lately for fun (or, more accurately, because my subconscious torments me unless I draw them). The first (above) is a little illustration which I made as a gift for my erstwhile roommate, Jennifer. Sadly, Jennifer gave up on the germinal chaos of Brooklyn and fled away forever to live in the bosky dells of Knoxville (or whatever it is they have down there). But she used the epistolary arts to request a drawing of a magical elf desporting among many varieties of fungi just outside of her new home city.

Here is the picture I drew. I have envisioned the magical elf in the style of the Nats, the joyous syncretic deities of Burmese Buddhism. Various seeds, spores, and small creatures lurk beneath the mushrooms, wood ears, and coral fungus. In the background, modern Knoxville spreads through the wooded hills watched by a vulture, an ermine, and a whitetail deer (as a mysterious being of pure creativity fruits into fungoid darkness). Above it all looms the mighty “Sun Sphere”, a dazzling feat of 80 architecture which is uh, eighty meters tall.

As a historical aside, I encountered that very tower myself, in 1982, when my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, my sister, and I traveled to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair for which it was built. Although I was only eight, I was struck by how crummy and chaotic the World’s Fair was and how the Sun Sphere looked like off-brand deodorant rather than a mighty futuristic skyscraper. For her birthday, my little sister (who was five or six) had asked for a fine suitcase so she could be a world traveler. My parents (or grandparents?) bought her a beautiful new fuchsia case of finest sampsonite, which was the nicest piece of luggage among our entourage. Alas, a would-be larcenist broke into our hotel room and rifled through the nicest suitcase (which was all full of crayons, dolls, and little girl’s clothing). The fair was too crowded to see anything, although, come to think of it, I am not sure there were any actual attractions other than an endless field of bumpkins and insurance-salesman-looking characters. Then a bird pooped on my grandmother’s head. Good times in Knoxville!

A Dab for Breakfast (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and Watercolor

Here is a similar drawing which I made in my little sketch book. I guess this picture portrays…breakfast? Since I am not a morning person, I refuse to acknowledge the International Morning Person (IMP) propaganda that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This tableau helps to deconstruct that tenacious myth. In the foreground a pelican enjoys a live flounder and some froot loops–even though this is properly a cereal for toucans! A sentient pineapple throws up his arms in consternation at the proceedings as a masked ghost (or possibly some very very runny scrambled eggs) shrugs indifferently. On the picture’s left side, a featureless pink humanoid…or maybe an embryonic ghost…or a representation of how the artist/author feels in the morning is likewise overwhelmed by breakfast. The entity drinks copious amounts of coffee, possibly going so far as to pour the stimulant directly into the grotesque organ-like aperture in its center. No wonder the little guy is so anxious! Frankly, only the ravenous pelican seems happy to be there.

Even if flatfish are not the sole protagonists of these small drawings, they are still there, lurking beneath (or becoming part of the food chain). Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to again advertise the all-knowing digital flounder which my friends and I built to delight and perplex you (or maybe as a disguised lure to beguile you into my digital realm). Let me know what you think and we will keep on floundering through this winter!

Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

Again and again I ask myself why people are afraid of bats. Adult humans weigh a hundred times more than the largest fruit bats. In fact of the fourteen hundred species of bat, the only bat known to deliberately harm people is the (highly social & altruistic) vampire bat (and, despite all of the hype, such incidents don’t seem to be particularly common).

Bats legitimately do harbor more sorts of viruses than other mammals and many of these viruses have proven to be zoonotic, yet as to whether they spread disease (or even are really the ultimate source of Ebola or Covid 19), the evidence is more exiguous. There are plenty of experts who push back against these claims. My whole article from the other day might have been contributing to anti-bat hysteria (which would truly sadden me since I love bats for their own sake…and for the many valuable roles they play in ecosystems across the entire world).

For what it is worth I don’t think that we fear bats out of some instinctual virus phobia (the way we instinctively recoil from snakes or spiders). The most cursory look at our culture reveals that Americans are not afraid of sugary foods or bad driving, yet these things are stupendous killers, wiping out more lives in a year than bat borne diseases have in all of history. But as Halloween rolls around we will see people shuddering at batfaces and then they trundle their kids out onto the street to collect candy!

Hmmm…

My opinion is that bats are frightening because they are so closely adjacent to multiple things that people do fear. Bats are nocturnal (except for the Azores noctule, which we will exempt from this essay), and our fear of the dark is a primal part of all of us. Bats live in caves, treacherous landscapes of jagged rock, unseen chasms, and deep dark pools. When not at home in caves, bats are up in the night sky, another place where humans have only recently been able to go (and even with all of our technology it is still dangerous and problematic). Perhaps most damning of all, bats are close relatives to us primates and so many of our familiar features are right there in chiropteran physiology, but weirdly distorted in unsettling ways. Bats fall into the uncanny valley: they are sufficiently human to activate some of our social instincts, but then they are patently not human.

This is all speculation. Today’s entire post is an opinion about why people are afraid of bats and fear is hard to properly understand. We have no definitive answers and perhaps such answers are never forthcoming (particularly if fear of bats is based on a grab bag of adjacent fears with a soupcon of germophobia dusted on top)

The bigger point to all of this is that our fear of bats hurts bats..and it hurts us too. As I was writing this little essay, I found example after example of people overreacting to covid/rabies/ebola/SARS and killing bats in exaggerated wanton fashion. I will spare you the grisly details, but suffice to say, it was NOT the bats who came off as terrifying cruel monsters in these stories. People destroy bat habitats and root out bat colonies and kill the poor animals with poison, fire, and brute force, and why? The missing bats leave swarms of dangerous insects, orchards of unpollinated plants, and non-forests of unplanted seeds.

(This is to say nothing of the even greater–yet unintentional–killing of bats caused by habitat loss, climate change, and introduction of terrible invasive diseases which do kill bats such as white nose syndrome, a dreadful fungal scourge).

Batman decided to become BATman because he was afraid of bats. By becoming a bat he mastered that fear and turned it to productive ends (in the movies and comicbooks I mean, if we saw an actual billionaire dressing all dramatically and behaving crazy we would…uh…probably elect him as president). I wish we could learn a lesson from the Dark Knight and look into our hearts and see that bats are not the problem: fear and ignorance are the problems. If we can conquer those things, we can understand & defeat the diseases, fix the world, save ourselves and save the bats and be true heroes, not some made-up comic book nonsense. But I also worry that we are not currently doing well in our battles against fear and ignorance.

Although spring is the season associated with kite flying, the winds of autumn have always struck me as more suited to the activity. Speaking of which, here is a gallery of lovely bat kites from around the web. I am sure I had that black triangle one with crazy eyes when I was a kid! I am sorry for the visual post, but an old friend called and we talked too long. I didn’t want to leave you without any Halloween bats though! Enjoy the struts and ears and almond eyes and we will get back to talking about bats tomorrow!

Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween special feature concerning bats! If you like you can check out last week’s posts concerning bat mascots, Honduran white bats, and the Chinese good luck symbol Wu Fu. Bats are exceedingly wonderful and I love them…but where is the chilling Halloween horror?

Well, bats do have a dark side (at least to humans, when we eat them or intrude too far into their world). They are an infamous vector for zoonotic viruses which jump easily to closely related mammalian species. Although we are most attuned to this year’s worldwide pandemic, covid 19 (which seems not to have come from snakes, but from horseshoe bats) both the SARS and MERS epidemics were caused by bat-borne coronaviruses. Less memorably, bat coronavirues also jumped into the farmyard and caused a serious viral epidemic in China’s pigs. Bats are the natural reservoir for Ebola, Hendra virus, Nipah virus. A single bat can host many different viruses without getting sick. Because they live in close proximity in (sometimes enormous) colonies, viruses readily infect huge numbers of bats. Additionally bats are unlike other small mammals such as rodents and shrews in that they have long lifespans. Most bats can live 20 to 40 years (although, sadly, most do not because, as any World War I aviator could tell you (if any were alive), flying presents certain dangers).

All of this begs the question of why bats are so prone to viruses and yet also so resistant to their effects. Zoologists and Cell biologists are only beginning to unravel this puzzle, but what they have found presents a fascinating picture of the interplay between cellular biology and the physical characteristics of animals.

In the course of metabolizing, reproducing, fighting diseases and so forth, cells are sometimes destroyed in novel ways which release free DNA into places it should not be. This is potentially a big problem and animals cope with it through a mechanism known, sensibly, as DNA-sensing. Alas, this is about as far as I can reasonably describe this process, but you can check out a diagram which explains cytosolic DNA sensing machinery in humans below.

Perhaps this diagram also explains why molecular biologists sometimes find it difficult to characterize what they do in pithy buzzwords

Uhhh…at any rate, among mammals bats have uniquely rigorous physiological demands due to the energy requirements of flight. The high-impact demands of flying lead to substantial cellular damage, but also preclude the solution other mammals adapt (which, as you can see above, is inflammation). If bats were prone to inflammation to the same degree as other placental mammals, they would lose their ability to fly. Instead they have lost various genes and have a more muted response to miscellaneous DNA. This diminished ability to clean up random intracellular DNA makes our fluttery friends more prone to all sorts viruses, yet they have found some other way to endure viruses without over-responding.

As you can probably tell, the cytological processes we are talking about seem to play huge and important roles in cancer, autoimmune disorders, and a host of chronic metabolic disorders like heart disease & diabetes. Not only would it be immensely beneficial to understand bats’ seemingly unique DNA sensing apparatus (and response) in terms of virology and epidemiology, it might bear fruit in many other branches of medical inquiry.

Horseshoe Bat

Alas, this sort of blue skies research (or should we call it dark skies research in honor of our nocturnal subjects?) is exactly the sort of thing which enormous companies are disinterested in and which the Federal government has turned its back upon. Fortunately (?), the Chinese government is extremely interested in finding out more about but-human zoonoses and has been diligently working to figure out more about DNA sensing and concomitant immune response in chiroptera. In fact, if the grotesque bowdlerization of the subject which I have presented in this post does not satisfy your curiosity, you can read a rather fine (albeit technical) Chinese article from 2018 about the subject.

Qianlong marked blue white peach bat flower vase (ca. late 18th century)

The Chinese word for bat, “fu” (蝠) is the same as the Chinese word “fu” (福) for good fortune. Because the words are homonyms (indeed the characters are rather similar as well), Chinese art is absolutely filled with bats which nearly always represent best wishes for good fortune (although Zhang Guo Lao, the oldest and most eccentric of the 8 immortals, was said to have begun his existence as a primordial white bat of chaos).

At any rate, once you know what to look for, you start seeing bats everywhere in Chinese art and ornament. A particularly common motif is the wu fu, which features five bats representative of the five blessings: health, wealth, longevity, love of virtue, and a peaceful death. Various famous rebuses pair the wu fu with other geometric good luck symbols, and so we have the rebus of “Wu Fu Peng Shou” (five bats surrounding the symbol for longevity) or the Rebus of Wu Fu He He, which involves yet another complicated homonym (“he” means little round box, but “He He” was a goddess/fairy of nuptial felicity). When you see five bats surrounding a round geometric device (and now that you are looking for it, you WILL see it) you have chanced upon a rebus of Wu Fu He He.

Dear reader, I hope all of these fu symbols heap blessings upon you. May you know vigor, prosperity, old age, the love of virtue, and abundant benisons of all sorts! But I also hope that some of this fu transfers over to real bats. They are close cousins to us grasping, cunning primates, but the world we are making is bringing the chiroptera all sorts of problems! We will talk about that more in subsequent posts, but to finish this post, here is a peach fu vase of surpassing summery loveliness.

Qing Dynasty Porcelain Doucai Vase.

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