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Bluebirds (Sialia) are a traditional symbol of happiness and optimism in American society. Ethnographers tell us that this association existed prior to European colonization: in Iroquois mythology, the call of the bluebird could ward off the cold, dark power of Sawiskera, the cruel deity of winter (we need to write more about that character some other winter day!). Members of the thrush family, bluebirds are insectivores which raise two broods of fledglings a year in nests which they build in small elevated cavities in trees or old fence posts (or, these days, in bluebird houses helpfully put up by enthusiasts). Bluebirds live on insects and small arthropods which they supplement with berries and they are preyed on by more or less everything (skunks, owls, kestrels, snakes, cats, cars, chipmunks, foxes, flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, etc…etc). There are three closely related species of bluebirds living in North America, although each of the pictures here shows the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) which I grew up with and which was a sort of totemic creature of the family farm where the handsome birds flourished.

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!

It really is impossible to tell what direction a soul will take in this world of crossroads and unexpected pathways. Back in 2018, Ferrebeekeeper featured a short flippant essay about Gritty, the hirsute maniacal entity who (which?) is the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, a gang of icebound stick fighters. How were any of us to know what Gritty would become?

I have very mixed memories concerning my time in the Philadelphia suburbs (my family lived there from when I was 13 to 15). Moving from a very rural part of America to a toffee-nosed suburb during the 1980s felt like being trapped in a John Hughes movie. Perhaps I have always subconsciously held the awkwardness of that time against Philadelphia and the bedraggled ball of psych(opathic)adelic fur which they have chosen as their mascot. But it turns out I was wrong about Gritty…

Back in 2018, when I wrote my essay, Gritty was the object of much good-natured derision and mockery. It can be hard to write comic pieces, but Gritty’s deranged countenance & straggly fluorescent orange fur (and his weird backstory) seemed sure to get a cheap laugh. Frankly I assumed the mascot would quickly be retired. But Gritty was not who I thought and he (it?) has made good!

First of all Gritty quickly beat all the charges against him (In January he was accused of punching a little boy at a photo shoot, however the authorities were unimpressed by the accusations and Gritty walked away scot-free). Then Gritty became a beloved figure representing the casual insouciance and low grade threat of violence which pervade Philadelphia. Finally he became ubiquitous as a left-wing political symbol and a dull-fledged symbol of what Philadelphia really is.

When soon-to-be ex President Trump disrespected Philadelphia by making them the subject of the only honest declaration he has been known to utter (“Bad things happen in Philadelphia”), Gritty leapt into action. Countless Philadelphia themed memes depicted the strange orange miscreant taking revenge or bringing down the president. Then the memes became true when Philadelphia’s slowly tallied mail-in votes put Joe Biden over the top in the national electoral college tally.

Now Gritty has risen high in the world of mascots. Papers around the world are analyzing him with perplexed respect. The French daily newspaper Le Monde even proclaimed him to be “la coqueluche du mouvement antifasciste” the face of the antifascist movement! Apparently Gritty now represents the world’s disgust with the malevolent demagogues who have been proliferating around the globe!

This will be a hard act to follow. Hopefully citizens will soon regain their political sense and vote out the treacherous far right-wing legislators who have enabled Trump and suchlike despicable demogogues to flourish. However until then we will need Gritty. Go forward in glory, Gritty, you are now America’s foremost crazy-haired orange nightmare!

For our special annual Halloween theme, Ferrebeekeeper usually features a subject which is scary or disquieting. However, since this year has featured an unprecedented amount of scary and disquieting content on its own, we are instead featuring a heartwarming subject which many people tragically misidentify as scary. I am talking about bats, one of my very favorite mammalian orders (and that is really saying something, considering that mammals are a class which includes all-time great orders like Proboscidea and Cetacea).

In subsequent posts we will talk about what bats are (they are near relatives of primates but their close taxonomical relationship to humans is obscured by their alien appearance and by the fact that cladists keep changing their understanding of the precise way we share ancestors). We will also talk about why people are scared of bats and about why bats are wonderful and useful. Additionally, due to this year’s tragic events we will highlight how bats need to be be treated with respect and carefully safeguarded (unless you would like a future with even MORE coronaviruses).

For right now though, let’s start out with a gallery of bat mascots (batscots?). Unfortunately, the fact that bats are a taboo animal to Christians means that, in the west, Batman and Bacardi are practically the only entities that chose the bat as a logo (well, them and the Louisville Bats, a minor league baseball team with a penchant for wordplay).

Buddy the Bat!

However there are a whole flock of lesser known (or completely unknown) bat mascots just waiting in the wings 9as it were). Check them out below

Good heavens! now that I look at all the wings and cartoon fangs, I wonder if I should have written about chiropteran biology before venturing out into popular culture. But whatever. There are some pretty endearing bats in all of that (particularly considering our culture’s unhappy relationship with bats as symbols). We will take the bat mascot as a starting point and explore the wonderful world of these amazing and precious animals in subsequent posts. Even if we can’t flit around the neighborhood we will make this a good Halloween… and hopefully we can save some bats too.

Scuta (Roman Infantry Shield, ca. mid 3rd century AD) painted rawhide and wood

Here is a particularly fascinating historical object: an original Roman semi-cylindrical legionary shield (scutum) from Dura-Europos (a very strange Roman border city which requires its own post). Although pieces of other ancient Roman shields have been found, this is by far the finest and most complete example. Yet even this stunning shield has some deficiencies–it was found in thirteen flattened pieces which had to be reassembled, and it is missing its iron boss (a hardened round dome in the center used for ramming and for deflecting swords, spears, cavalry lances, and javelins). 

Even if the most important piece is gone, this shield demonstrates the construction of such protective devices. These large curved shields were made of steam curved layers of wood annealed together on top of each other in cross-grained patterns to be light yet resistant to the sharpest and hardest stabbing weapons. The edges were lined with metal to strengthen the against hacking attacks or shattering. Plus, in lieu of a boss (of which we have other examples) this shield still has the original legionary artwork in extremely fine condition. Shields were painted with different emblems so that men could swiftly recognize their units in the chaos of battle, however these designs always reflected the Roman iconography of victory. This example features an eagle with a laurel wreath, winged Victories, and a lion. Gorgons, bulls, boars, winged horses, and above all Zeus’ lightning bolts seem to have also been popular.

Probably a military historian would write at length about Roman armor, swords, ironwork, fortresses, roads, organization, ballistae, and goodness knows what else. Yet, to my eyes, this is the definitive piece of Roman military hardware. In order to be useful, a shield of this sort requires endless drilling with lots of other soldiers with the same sort of shield. Imagine going into a battle in the Roman-age world. There would be direct visceral carnage everywhere. Your opponents have war chariots, huge axes, enormous pikes and goodness knows what else and you would have…a curved piece of plywood and a very long iron knife? And yet with training, nerve, and discipline, each shield became an impervious scale of a giant armored monster made of men.

Even back in the world that used to be, we all knew that 2020 would be a bitter pill to swallow because of the horrible election (not that elections are usually horrible–this one is unusual because of the super polarized citizenry and because one of the participants is such a shameful cheater). At least we had the Summer Olympics to look forward to though! Alas, the year has swept away the great international contest of sport, and we will have to wait until 2021 to learn if we will have any Olympics at all this cycle.

This leaves sports-crazed Americans with football, a proxy war game which allows us to illustrate our fierce devotion to Mars, God of War, by means of low-grade human sacrifices. I only started watching football late in life (as a way to bond with a sports-crazy business partner) and, having no team affiliation, I jokingly swore to root for the team with a flower for an emblem. It actually turned out that there was and is such a team–the New Orleans Saints, and, for a variety of improbable reasons I root for them.

This year though, an even more fascinatingly improbable team brand has emerged. After long decades of willfully ignoring the issue, the Washington Redskins finally gave up on their shamefully racist name. The “Redskins” are now no more (which is good…even typing that name out makes me imagine a tribal elder stoically shedding a single tear at the callous brutality of franchise nomenclature). Instead of immediately rebranding, the football team which represents the nation’s capital has embraced emptiness and they are now called “The Washington Football Team”.

I for one salute the monastic new direction the team is going in. It is dangerous for sports franchises to trifle too much with their brand (since it might be revealed that teams are just big collections of burly mercenaries supported by various lawyers and agents), yet the Washington Football Team has come by its generic new name through a comprehensible set of circumstances. I feel like they should travel further towards ego-death by giving the players long hard-to-read numbers, choosing a less flashy team color like gray, beige or umber, and, best of all, choosing an appropriate mascot like a blob of tofu, a block of bleachers, or a concrete block.

Perhaps the fate of the Washington Football Team will hinge on what happens to them during what is sure to be a strange (or possibly curtailed) season. Let us hope they either have a super boring season and remain the only team without a symbolic name, or they go on some incomprehensible vision quest and become something really weird and interesting (or would that offend native Americans…again)? In the mean time maybe you should propose some possible mascots below (in the spirit of Wenlock and Mandeville). I would propose “Washington Flounders” but we are trying to re-enthuse people about the government (come to think of it, our eagle might need a makeover after 2020 too). Let me know what you think in the comments below!

These are troubled times for the nation as we sort out what portions of archaic, outworn, or unethical philosophy have brought us to this ghastly low point.  Our national leaders have conducted some focus groups, examined some metrics, and taken a great deal of money from interested private parties.  This has allowed America’s leaders to comprehensively conclude that they are certainly in no way to blame for mass death, unemployment, and nationwide unrest.  We still need a scapegoat though, and one prominent group has been singled out for particular moral censure.  This time next year a great many of these familiar figures may be missing–gently lead out to pasture, forcibly retired, or worse.

I am speaking about mascots of course! Not only has Gritty been accused of punching children in the back (so far he has, surprisingly, been cleared of all charges) but Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and, almost certainly, the Washington Redskins are on their way out too. Yet this is the great thing about mascots. They are designed to reflect our values by selling us corn syrup, wood pulp, and brain damage.  When it is obviously time for them to go we can just take them out and put them by the curb (unlike say Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, or Ted Cruz who have decided to take the country straight down into hell along with them).

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Is this who we are…or who we were?

We all know about what happened to Aunt Jemima, but an equally famous frontman mascot is also being surreptitiously mothballed (although, looking at him, it seems quite possible that he will fight his way back from the basement). I am talking about “Big Boy” an iconic brand of the bygone automobile age.  Big Boy began in Glendale California in the 1930s and quickly became the name, logo, and emblem of a chain of diner-type restaurants across the country.  During the ’50s and ’60s when American life was conducted entirely from cars (as far as I can tell based on anecdotes) the oversized statues of the shiny anime-eyed be-pompadoured lad in checked suspenders were everywhere.  I have my own fond memories of hamburgers and sundaes with grandparents during the 1970s and 80s.  Indeed I even took the winsome Lorraine Hahn to a Big Boy in Falls Church when I was a junior in high school (an all-time apogee for the brand…and for my young dating life).

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However tastes change and Big Boy has really been losing steam in the last few decades.  Even though he isn’t exactly a problematic mascot as such, his cisgender (?) Warner Brother cartoon masculinity and his eagerness to serve don’t seem to quite fit our times.  Therefor, Big Boy is being given emeritus mascot status and the job of shilling new food offerings at Big Boy franchise locations will be handed over to…

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Dolly! Dolly has been an obscure supporting character from “Big Boy” comic books of the 1950s, but now 70 years later she is getting her chance to helm the franchise.  It has been a confusing year and Dolly looks comforting and nice, maybe she will breath some fresh vitality into a restaurant chain that I really do have a surprising number of fond memories about.  I hadn’t thought about Big Boy restaurants for years until writing this post, and then suddenly long vanished vacations and special meetings with family members have come flooding back and now I am blinking away tears thinking about how all of those fudge cake sundaes really meant that Grandma loved me.

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Anyway best wishes to Dolly.  She has some big shoes to fill (snicker) but I feel she is up to it.  Big Boy himself will still remain enshrined in the name. Additionally, I suspect that a number of franchise locations will look at the cost of tearing down a 14 foot concrete statue during a pandemic and discover new appreciation for old boys.  In the meantime I wish everyone in the restaurant and hospitality industry the very best. That is always such hard work…and frankly it seems impossible right now.  I promise I will come buy a hamburger from you all as soon as I can (you are invited too Lorraine, if you are somewhere out there).  This post was supposed to be funny and snarky, but it has made me reflect on the real sentimental power of silly shared kitsch.  I wonder if people 70 years from now will be misting up over memories of diner food with loved ones under the familiar shadow of Dolly…

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Ok! We (finally) had our 2000th post yesterday, and the great Ferrebeekeeper jubilee continues apace. I promised give-aways, special posts, contests, and…pageantry.  Now I have plenty of weird art and cool toys to give away (provided I can think up a contest), but what do we do for Gothic pageantry (it’s Gothic because, well, what other sort would we feature?)?

Alas, my plans to hire great troops of pipers, marchers, ornate festival birds, and dancers have come undone because of coronavirus concerns (although hopefully you are all enjoying the very special fireworks displays which I orchestrated throughout the nation).  Thus, due to, uh, the constraints of this era, our pageant will have to come together in our imagination rather than in the real world.  We can list out the elements here though and fantasize them coming together as a sort of parade!

When I thought about what sort of Gothic pageant we would want, my first question was whether those splendid glistening white peacocks are available in Gothic black.  It turns out that they very much are (although such peafowl are quite rare)

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Next I wanted pipers, and when I looked up “gothic pipers” I was taken straight to Ferrebeekeeper’s own long forgotten post concerning pig bagpipers (which were a popular medieval ornament for reasons which are now subject to debate).  Obviously these musical pigs are perfect, so after the sable peacocks lets have some of them.

Following the peacocks, pigs, and pipers, it would be good to have some soldiers (who esteem pageantry on a supreme level that only the most flamboyant showfolks can ever hope to match).  I have taken a page from the pope’s book here: my favorite soldiers (for decorative novelty use only, of course) are late medieval/early Renaissance billmen with ridiculous heraldic garb.  The pope’s own Swiss Guard are instructive here, although of course pipers in our procession would be wearing magenta, vermilion, and  icterine.

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I think a legion of such characters would be extremely impressive (especially coming immediately after the black peacocks and the musical pigs).

Next we would need fashion mavens dressed in resplendent gowns covered with lace appliques and dark ribbons.  I couldn’t find the right picture on line (and I started to get scared/alarmed by how many dress pictures there are), but this sort of thing should do.

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Finally, we would need a parade float to serve as centerpiece.  My favorite underrated artist, the matchless Piero di Cosimo, was famous in his time for designing parade spectacles and, although the actual originals are, of course, long gone,  I imagine that his floats would be much like the monster in his masterpiece, Perseus Rescuing Andromeda.  I would have a similar float to Perseus and the monster, except it would be Cronus mounted upon an enormous flounder.

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Sadly, this is how my brain works and I could go on and on like this forever…creating ridiculous fantastical processions which the world will never see, but I think we had better wrap up by putting the entire extravaganza in a great pleasure garden with a Gothic folly tower in the middle.

st-_annes_church_exterior_3_vilnius_lithuania_-_diliffThe The real world example which best suits my taste is St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania (pictured above) which I think is the prettiest building ever, however the master illuminators of Belgium also loved such structures and they drew them without any real world constraints which bedevil architects.

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Imagine all of those strange magical animals and people and frogfish passing in front of this, and I think you have imagined the Ferrebeekeeper parade we would have staged…if only we could fully assemble outside right now (and if I were an impossibly rich archduke of fairyland).

The fun of this exercise is really imagining what sort of procession you would craft if you were a grand parade master and could do anything.  Tell me your ideas below! Maybe we can incorporate some of your plans into my next parade…as soon as I finish teaching these pigs to play the pipes and sewing all of these orange and purple striped tights for mercenaries.

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There are many mythological creatures which give color to American regional folklore.  Champy the lake monster is said to haunt Lake Champlain.   Mothman (or a colony of mothpeople) are always reputedly flying over the accursed town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia (a very nice river town with a history of horrible occurrences which would make Stephen King add some episodes to Derry’s history). Bigfoot skulks around the American West and, despite not being real, he is so omnipresent that apparently he (or possibly an 8 foot tall man in a ratty fur coat) threw a hunk of opal ore at my uncle back in 1979!  This doesn’t even get into the legends of the Native Americans, who made up truly chilling monsters like the cold hungry wendigo [shudder].

And then we have Florida…

Although a folklorist who looked social media in contemporary America might initially conclude that the Sunshine state’s supernatural monster is the horrifyingly maladroit & depraved “Florida Man”, alas it seems that that particular troglodyte is all too real.  Apparently the made-up cryptozooiod man-beast native to Florida is a hairy simian creature known as the “skunk-ape” (a.k.a. the “swamp cabbage man”, the “stink ape”, or the “myakka ape”). The skunk ape descends from a magnificent monster of Seminole legend called the “Esti Capcaki(which apparently means something like giant cannibal man).  The Esti Capcaki was huge, hirsute and ate human beings, but was also known for an overpowering stench.  The skunk ape is a diminutive version of the same, who is alleged to hide out in dense swamps and nasty exurbs.

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Anyway, to point this post towards contemporary relevance, the skunk ape has acquired a new role in the age of coronavirus! The Florida theme park “Gatorland” has introduced a skunk ape mascot in order to promote proper social distancing during the pandemic.  The hairy monster man lurks in underbrush or waste places until he spots park goers who are failing to remain 6 feet apart, whereupon he leaps into the limelight and berates them with feral grunts and unhappy simian body language.  Skunk ape’s female spokesperson also appears and reminds visitors to keep their distance in plain and somewhat lawyerly English.

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At this juncture, it is unclear what Skunk Ape thinks of masks (I suppose I could reach out to his spokesperson and inquire, but frankly I am not going to do any actual journalism unless it involves actual remuneration).  Likewise it is a bit unclear whether skunk ape’s public sanitation drive will work in any way whatsoever. What is clear is that our monsters and our mummers are always lurking around in the psychological shrubs waiting to leap out in moments of turmoil or duress.  This is definitely such a time and I hope you are taking precautions to keep yourself safe from the all-too-real troubles which are currently stalking our land.  Be safe out there! Don’t make me call in the skunk ape!

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