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Happy Winter Solstice! I am sorry about 2022. I meant to blog more, and answer everyone’s comments, and write a consolidated treatise defending liberalism against the neo-fascists who are everywhere, and post my new monastic orchid illuminations, etc., etc., etc. Alas, not everything got done the way I wanted and now it is the darkest night of the year (the real end of the year, in my book, although I guess there is a week or so of Saturnalia before 2023 truly gets here according to the calendar).

We will work on all of this next year (and much more besides) but before sending the year off, I wanted to share some pictures of my sacred tree of life (an annual tradition). Look! it has even more cephalopods, turkeys, waterfowl, and ancient mammals (plus all of the animals I could get my hands on from every other branch of the great zoological family tree too).

My flounder art (sigh) was about trying to reposition the natural world at the center of what humans find sacred: the religions of Abraham treat the natural world as contemptible–and we are all suffering because of it. Sadly, the fish gods I made did not grab people’s attentions despite their portentous deep-sea secrets. However a few holiday guests have stared at the holiday tree of life for a looooong time before brushing away some tears–so perhaps it actually does get the point across to some degree.

And of course, I saved the best thing for last! My late feline life companion, Sepia (wipes away a few tears of my own) did not enjoy the public eye and so I did not put her in my blog. My present housecat, Sumi Cat, feels much differently and likes to be the constant center of attention. Here are some pictures of her loving little face to help you stave off the primordial darkness (although, ironically, black cats are always hard to photograph and doubly so on the darkest night of the year). Sumi and I hope that you are safe and warm and happy this holiday season! May your dreams come true and may the great tree of life always bloom with fulsome new growth!

We will talk again before 2023, but for now, season’s greetings and good (longest) night!

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Cuttlefish and Merman (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Last week I finished up the AtlasObscura course on cephalopods, a Zoom mini-survey of this astonishing class of mollusks.  The course was a delightful romp through morphology, taxonomy, paleontology, and ecology and featured some virtuous side lessons about how to protect Earth’s ecosphere (and ourselves). 

The incredible diversity, beauty, and wonder of cephalopods reminded me that I have not blogged about them…or any molluscs…or anything else for far too long. Ergo, as a promise of more posts to come, here are two little cephalopod drawings I made to share with the class.

The first picture (top) is an Indo-Pacific cuttlefish enjoying the reef and trying to overlook the whimsical Thai/Malay merman who has appeared out of the realm of fantasy (note also the reef shark, giant clam, and mantis shrimp).  The second image (as per “homework” instructions) is a cooperoceras flashing iridophores which it may or may not have had as various lower Permian sea creatures (most notably Helicoprian) look on in dazzled envy.

Cooperoceras and Permian animals (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

We will talk more about these creatures in weeks to come (and maybe more about the Permian too, since I keep thinking about how the Paleozoic ended), but for now just enjoy the little tentacled faces! Also, it is “inktober” and I have been obsessed with classic pen and ink, so maybe get ready for more drawings as well (to say nothing of our traditional Halloween theme week, which will be coming up quite soon).

The Cauldron in the Columbarium (Wayne Ferrebee, December 21, 2021) Ink on French paper

Here is a somewhat dark drawing for the longest and darkest night of the year (here in the northern hemisphere, anyway–if you are in the southern hemisphere or the tropics, happy summer!). I am not sure what is going on here (as with much of my art, this tableau came to me in a perplexing nightmare), but the various mummies, revenants, and human remnants certainly don’t seem encouraging. Also, I don’t place much faith in that nun or the insectoid bishop at far right. Frankly, the figure with the mystery light seems pretty suspect as well. Unless you trust the larvae with the insect faces (and who really does?) the only source of hope here is the gleaming woman above the cauldron. Unfortunately we don’t have quite enough visual information to say with certainty what is going on with her. Is she an allegory of the sun, momentarily inconvenienced by the solstice, but always ready to shine forth? Is she an apparition summoned forth by necromancers or some kind of Yule sacrifice? Or is she a goddess, a hero, or a sorceress? It is all unclear, which makes me think she might have something to do with the mysterious year to come. It doesn’t look exactly propitious, but you never know–sometimes naked allegorical people who spring out of cauldrons in columbariums turn out to be the best people of all [citation needed]. Let me know what you think and happy winter solstice. Oh, also, you better get out your worry beads–the biggest (and most audacious) space launch of the past two decades is coming up on Christmas Eve, so we are going to need a Christmas miracle to make sure we get our all-seeing cosmic eye in place! We will be back on Christmas Eve to talk about it. In the meantime, happy Yule…and best wishes for a happy winter (giant human cockroaches notwithstanding)!

Among today’s dreary and disconcerting news was one item which was almost too sad to read: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 23 species of living things which which have gone permanently extinct. The headliner of the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker which was last seen alive in 1944 and which has been reckoned lost since before I was born. Although optimistic bird lovers have been holding out hope that the magnificent creature would re-emerge from some forgotten grove of old growth giants in Arkansas or something, the woodpeckers’ demise was really a result of early 20th century forestry mismanagement and dates back to those times . The other creatures on the list, however, were doomed by today’s problems of habitat loss and climate change, and the entire funereal catalog should serve as a wakeup call that the biodiversity crisis is gaining momentum as global environmental problems worsen and elide together.

Ferrebeekeeper can’t eulogize all 23 lifeforms, however, since we have a long history of writing about mollusks, I will draw your attention to the flat pigtoe (Pleurobema marshalli), a freshwater mussel from the backwaters of rural Mississippi and Alabama (pictured above). The little mussel was sensitive to water pollution, invasive competitors, and industrial waterway development/degradation. Despite its gross joke of a name (a common theme among freshwater mussels of North America, by the way), the mussel not only filtered fresh water, and buttressed the living things around it in the ecosystem, but served as a canary in a coal mine of sorts. All of that water filtration puts mussels in peril from pollutants and toxins (indeed seven of the other species on the deathlist were freshwater mussels).

Whenever I hear about freshwater mussels I think of how fond Great Grandma Virgie was of her pet freshwater mussel which she kept in a tank filled with guppies (I doubt she had a flat pigtoe, but probably it was a rayed bean or similar analogous freshwater shellfish from the streams of West Virginia). She would sometimes rhapsodize about the enigmatic pet, decades after it had departed this watery world.

Anyway the larger point is that we are soon going to see lots of creatures following the pigtoe to the great beyond, unless we can find better ways to protect and safeguard the natural world. Humankind’s appetite grows ever more insatiable, yet our ability to build consensus and create robust solutions to complicated problems is growing worse rather than better. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soon going to be back with more entries for their permanently extinct list. We need to stamp out the corruption and political deadlock which are impairing our ability to address self-evident problems we are creating in the biosphere.

Roller Summer Sunset (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Labor Day is over. Another summer is dying away. I wanted to celebrate the summer (it is my favorite season!) without giving into the elegiac feelings of fall, so I drew this sunset drawing of merriment in Central Park. As always my muse is the incomparable Lillian Newberg, doyenne of the resurrected New York roller disco scene (would that I could participate–but I can no more dance…or walk…or stand still…on roller skates than I can fly like Superman). Around her are strange & mysterious circus folk with hotdogs and ice cream, while a rather splendid toucan preens at the treeline. The sloth is not a roller skater either, but at least he can drag himself to the party on a skateboard. A langur turns the magical disco jack-in-the-box, while various angelic folk fly around the heavens as per their wont. The scene is delightful except for the tragic sentient lemon and the rubber chicken (which has been accidentally discharged from a novelty cannon). The snake represents moral choice whereas the flounder suggests that our appetites will always be lurking in the immediate foreground of anything we do. I don’t know what is up with that fancy garter belt. Somebody probably dropped it there by accident and it has nothing to do with the larger parable…

Dirona albolineata (photographed by http://www.naturediver.com)

It has been far too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured any miraculous molluscs! Therefore, today we are going to return to a timeless favorite topic and feature a predatory nudibranch sea slug that looks like a rogue lace jabot. This is Dirona albolineata (a.k.a the alabaster nudibranch) a predatory slug which lives in the cold rich waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska down to San Diego. The translucent slug grows to a length of 18 centimeters (7 inches) and hunts tiny invertebrates of the coastal zone such as bryozoans, little arthropods, hydroids, ascidians, and, um, lesser mollusks.

The beautiful little milky slug is generally whitish but specimens have been found which were pale pink, peach, or lavender. As a simultaneous hermaphrodite, the slug has an unusual mating ritual where he/she/it meets another alabaster mollusk and both parties copulate both as male and female (they each fire a reproductive dart into the other’s body and both parties leave the union fertilized). The leaf like appendages upon the slug’s body are known as ceratae. These scales are protective and serve as armor or as a diversion (under extreme duress, the snail can jettison the twitching scales in hopes of diverting a predator), however they also greatly increase the snail’s body area and help respiration/gas exchange. Or to be more plain, the ceratae are like a cross between gills and plate mail for this translucent hermaphroditic mollusc.

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!

Ferrebeekeeper has presented catfish which live beneath the water table, chickens which look like they have no head, 600 pound turtles, clams which have been alive since the 17th century, and turkeys which give virgin birth…not to mention the “King of Herring” the world’s longest bony fish. We are no strangers to strange creatures! But today we come face to face (?) with what might be the strangest creature of them all! Steel yourselves for a creature which is literally made of metal! [crazy metal guitar solo]

And here it is! Behold the scaly foot gastopod (Chrysomallon squamiferum) a tiny snail [5 cm] which lives in the Indian Ocean!

Um, maybe I need to add some context to help explain why this small drab mollusk is so exceedingly strange. First of all, the scaly foot snail is a creature of the deeps: the snails live on (in? around?) deep sea ocean vents which are at least 2,400 meters beneath the ocean surface. Specimens have been discovered as deep as 2,900 meters below sea level. In British Imperial measurement that is 1.5 to 2 miles underwater! And these snails live on/in/around hydrothermal vents where water temperature can reach 400° Celsius (about 750° Fahrenheit) and where oxygen is scarce and yet hydrogen sulfide is abundant. In case all of this was not unusual enough for you, the snails are all simultaneous hermaphrodites (meaning they have complete functioning sets of reproductive organs of both genders and frequently self-fertilize).

Yet the strangest thing about the scaly foot snail is what it eats: nothing! Or to be more specific the adult creatures are obligate symbiotrophs–the snails live on the secretions of gammaproteobacteria which live within their oesophageal glands. The bacteria are extremophiles which metabolize the chemical rich waters of the vents. These snails do not live directly or indirectly from photosynthesis!

The snail’s signature feature may be its armor. The shell is a three level composite of iron sulfide on the outside, protein in the middle, and calcium carbonate on the inside. Like wise the snails’ sensitive feet are covered in composite nodules of iron sulfide and protein. All of this armor keeps the little snails safe from the predators of the vent ecosystem–strange crustaceans which look like furry white lobsters and larger predatory snails. I wrote briefly about this snail about a decade ago, when I concentrated more on the uniqueness of its armor. Back in those days we thought that nothing could possibly harm the scaly-foot snail, a creature which I imagined to be perfectly safe in its own little alien world at the bottom of the ocean (except for occasional predation by those larger snail, of course). But Earth’s greediest animal has a habit of getting everywhere and lately the scaly foot snail has been endangered by deep sea mining operations which aim to harvest the rare and valuable minerals around deep sea vents. It is hard to believe that our arms have grown long enough to harass these poor little weirdos in their little suits of armor a mile and a half beneath the waves, but, frankly I may have misspoke about which animal is really the weirdest

An artist’s conception Jurassic ammonites

I have always been fascinated by cephalopods. One of my favorite parts of natural history museums is seeing the reconstructions of ancient oceans where the big gray spirals are re-imagined with the colors and textures (and tentacles) of real life. Those stunning reconstructions and thrilling artworks are based on the appearance and anatomy of modern cephalopods…and pretty much nothing else. The soft tissue of orthocones, ammonites, and belemnites is not preserved in the fossil record. Invertebrate paleontologists (and artists) have been forced to flesh in those fabulous shells with information gleaned from octopuses squids, and nautiluses.

Until now! Scientists looking at limestone “pages” from the the extraordinary Solnhofen-Eichstätt deposits southern Germany were perplexed by a weird ancient blob (above). I hope you will take a moment to look at these seemingly meaningless pink and yellow smudges and smears. Such an examination provides testament to the gifts of paleontologist Christian Klug of the University of Zurich who was able to decipher what this truly is: the body of a 150 million year old ammonite somehow removed from its shell and preserved in an anoxic lagoon.

Through Klug’s reconstructive prowess we are able to gift the anatomy of this ancient creature. Ammonoids were common in Earth’s oceans from the Ordovician until the end of the Cretaceous (a 400 million year run) and they are invaluable to geologists as index fossils, but, in some ways we don’t know much about them. Although this fossil helps us to understand their anatomy, it also engenders new questions. For example, how did this particular mollusk die? It is possible it was ripped from its shell by some Jurassic monster which then lost hold of the morsel. After watching the decaying creatures drifting in the tides of the Chesapeake, however, I am more inclined to think that the interstitial tissues which held the ammonite in its shell decayed and the dead animal slid out. This hypothesis is somewhat supported by what is still missing from this extraordinary find: the arms! Ammonite scientists would dearly love to know about the arms of these creatures. Were they numerous and weak like the arms of nautiluses? Were they long and strong like the grabbing arms of cuttlefish? Did ammonites have different sorts of arms for different purposes? (based on modern cephalopods, this would be my guess). We still don’t know, but the very existence of this fossil shows that with luck, infinite patience, and Professor Klug’s sharp eyes, it is possible to discover things lost for hundreds of millions of years. Maybe there are other finds waiting out there in the ancient rock!

The Republican Convention of 1880

In ages past, national political conventions lay at the heart of how American political parties selected candidates.  This made for strange and fascinating stories, such as the tale of the Republican convention of 1880 when the delegates met in gilded age Chicago and cast their ballots 36 times before finally settling on a presidential candidate, James Garfield, who wasn’t even running for the presidency!  Yet, during the progressive era, the right to select candidates was wrestled out of the hands of shadowy party grandees and handed over to rank-and-file party voters.  In turn, the political conventions stopped being real political contests and became vast kabuki-style infomercials (albeit meaningful ones, where the parties try out new messages and launch the careers of aspirant national leaders).  For viewers at home, the net result of all of this was dreadful tv!  All of the political conventions I watched during the eighties, nineties, aughts, and teens were turgid set-pieces with lots of talking heads shouting soundbites to enormous halls filled with screaming followers.  It makes my head hurt to just think about these things, and I am sure if you start reminiscing about Joe Paterno, “swiftboating,” Gary Hart, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Astros being thrown out of their own stadium (snicker),  Governor Ann Richards, etc…etc…ad nauseum, you too will start to be overcome by despair at the benighted human condition.

This year, however, the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced some much needed changes on America’s worn-out political conventions!  What I have seen so far from the Republican convention has not been encouraging (unless you are a cannibal lizard person or a devout believer in the same), but last week’s Democratic convention had a wholesome charm which was a tonic in this fragmented and frightened era.  Structural differences in the two parties generally do not favor the Democratic convention.  Because of their big tent , it is easy for endless smaller issues to drag the event in too many directions to easily comprehend a larger theme. This year though, all individual grievances were subsumed into an overarching theme of grief and of how the nation can overcome and allay the disasters and follies of the past few years.  This involved hearing from more actual workaday Americans than in any convention I can recall.   There were small farmers talking about losing their livelihoods, children mourning their plague-stricken parents, and victims of gun violence. George Floyd’s brother spoke with steady eloquence about his dead brother’s gentle spirit.

There were also pointless celebrities like the annoying Julia Louis-Dreyfus Hall, but there is no need to dwell on them.  Celebrities have ruined enough things in America.  If we can drive them away from politics, it will be a huge relief (although I doubt it will happen).

The best part of the convention, unexpectedly, was the role call of delegates pledging their votes to the candidates.  This involved little clips of lots of local figures and local, um, locations, and it was a delight to see so much of the country and its inhabitants for a change (as opposed to the red, white, & blue bunting, confetti, makeup and lies which are the fabric of most conventions).

Among the 2020 delegates, Khizr Khan was back–older and with one drooping eye–but with the same fierce pride in the United States of America, and radiating the same righteous anger at those who would threaten or abuse our beloved Constitution.

kz

Also compelling was the Rhode Island delegation.  There was a standard leader of some sort pledging his support to Biden, but next to him was a masked calamari chef!  The culinary ninja just stood there silently with a huge glistening tray of fried squid. His physical presence radiated power, and his golden brown seafood banquet certainly won my heart (did you know Rhode island was famous for squid?) Ferrebeekeeper has fantasized about mollusks being the highlight of a political convention, but I never thought it would really happen…

rhode-island-dnc-roll-call-DNC

I am not sure if the convention was satisfying to hardcore political junkies. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the Obamas all made fine presentations (Bernie talked to us from the woodshed where he maybe wants to take some obtuse Americans), however none of these speeches were really about the granular details of policy or political competition.  That is fine with me.  I think the Democrats were wise to try to make emotional inroads into the unsettled hearts of Americans who are seeking a better life for themselves and their family.  We already know that Biden and his allies have ample experience of public policy and legislating.  We need to see that they care about the whole nation (as opposed to one particular group).

At the end of the event, Joe Biden gave his best speech so far: a homespun but competent and compelling oration which made him seem like what he is: a lifelong public servant who cares about Americans of all sorts.  He said he was willing to work with opponents to get things done for the nation as a whole. I believed him.  There was no balloon drop, but even the awkward final moment of the convention had a certain earnest charm: Biden and Harris clearly wanted to hug each other, but were constrained by social distancing guidelines. Instead of embracing and mingling with their families, they put on masks and stood there awkwardly before heading out into the parking lot to watch some fireworks.   We all know exactly how they feel.

All of which is to say, I liked the Democratic Convention more than any convention I have seen so far.  Although it did not address lots of points of policy with exacting detail, it did not need to.  There is time for such things during the campaign, and anyway, let’s face it, the fact that Joe Biden will not flout the law or sell out our national interest to Vladimir Putin or some murderous Saudi Prince has already won my vote (although I believe there are many actual policy choices which Biden pursues which will be beneficial to all Americans). Plus he will actually show up and do the job!  Although there were plenty of less-than-polished moments in terms of the new format, the convention radiated decency, competence, and compassion.  Obviously we will talk more about the election this autumn, but the Democratic Convention has already surpassed my expectations. It made me feel better.  When was the last time you could say that about a political event?

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