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An ibis and a ring-neck pheasant!

Happy New Year! And happy National Bird Day (which Americans apparently observe on January 5th)!

Now most birds (like most animals) are having quite a hard time of it out there in a world which is relentlessly shaped by humanity’s boundless appetites. This is a problem which we need to work on every day for the rest of our lives (because the world without its exquisite animals would be a terrible world not even worth bothering with). However, I also understand that constantly writing about how we are making the world into a ghastly necropolis is dispiriting. Also it is still the Christmas season (at least until Three Kings Day tomorrow).

Therefore, to celebrate bird day and to celebrate Christmastime and the hopes for the new year (which aren’t quite ruined yet) I am posting pictures of some of my favorite bird ornaments from my holiday tree of life. This serves a double purpose since my mother complained that the ornaments were not visible in the previous pictures of the tree (this tree is not an easy thing to take pictures of!)

A peacock and a kingfisher
A toucan and a spoonbill (with a non-bird pterosaur above them)

Admittedly, this is not as good as writing about these incredible birds and how they live. But once again we encounter a problem: the only bird whom I currently know well (LG the Canada goose) did not have a very good holiday. We will explain his sadness and discomfiture later, but for right now, why not enjoy this anhinga.

Anhinga, rooster, and hummingbird

…and just for fun, here is one more picture of the whole tree. Happy Three Kings Day! We will get back to the serious business of writing about ecology, politics and the underworld as we get deeper into 2023, but for now kiss a bird (like the despondent LG, for example) and have a wonderful end to your holiday.

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So it is the end of another year, and it is time to write the post which I always put off again and again…right up until the last day of the year–which is to say I still need to write the year-end obituaries. Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall that the obituaries here are obituaries for those departed who meant a lot to me–so if you want to know about queens, popes, soccer guys, rappers, or whatever, you will probably have to look elsewhere. For example, last year, I only wrote about my grandfather, an international master operative who battled against Soviet and Chinese dirty tricks in Africa and Southeast Asia throughout the middle of the 20th century. These days, everyone rolls their eyes about the worldwide cloak-and-dagger proxy wars by means of which the Cold War was fought, but, please note that as soon as grandpa was dead (and his ilk out of power), Russia formed an alliance with China and attacked Europe, so I tend to think it all WAS pretty necessary, no matter what the anti-American apologists say.

Grandpa taught me how to take stock of the world and look at art (which he avidly collected), but for more specific lessons in world history and painting, I turned to a generation of teachers and masters who are now also passing away. And so it is with great sadness that I write about two of my illustrious teachers who died in 2022.

Walter Kaegi Abroad (a professor unafraid of travel)

Walter Emil Kaegi, (1937 – 2022) was one of my favorite history professors from college (along with the late, great Emmet Larkin). Kaegi was a professor of Byzantine history, a broad subject which he approached with polymath intensity from all sides. In some respects, Byzantine history is regarded as the story of one thousand years of precipitous and ineluctable decline. Kaegi, however, remembered that history does not seem inevitable to those leading it. His multi-faceted view of the Byzantines was indeed filled with trademark battles, religious controversies, and palace intrigue, but he also added the trade, farming, technology, music, poetry, and ecology missing from the work of great Byzantinists of yore. Kaegi was a scholar’s scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Aramaic just as well as English, but also learned French, German, and Russian so he could read the works of other scholars. Speaking of Russian, the professor always wore a hilarious heavy Russian hat which we bare-headed undergrads laughed at in the bitter Chicago winters (which illustrates that comedy, like history affords multiple vantage points on what is actually the truth).

Although history scholars like to speak of him like he was Gibbon, Kaegi was definitely not Gibbon. He instead synthesized some insights into the long fall of the Roman Empire from new resources–particularly archaeological/geological ones. Whereas most historians fixate solely on the doings of emperors, courtiers, bishops, and generals, Kaegi came to the conclusion that a combination of climate change, agricultural collapse, and religious change was driving events to a heretofore unappreciated extent (an insight worth remembering when eyeing the events of the present).

Of course he didn’t paint a self portrait, so here is a photograph of Ron Sherr

My other teacher who passed away last year will probably not be remembered foremost as a teacher–since he was actually an artist first. Ronald Sherr (1952-2022) was a brilliant portrait-painter who studied with Daniel E. Greene, Harvey Dinnerstein, and Burton Silverman before going on to paint America’s leading politicians, soldiers, and business leaders (and win all sorts or awards and accolades chronicled elsewhere). Since he rubbed shoulders with the mighty (or at least painted those mighty shoulders) he is liable to be incorporated as part of this era’s political zeitgeist. Indeed, in the recent headlines about former house-speaker Boehner crying when Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait was unveiled, CNN and the NYTimes neglected to dwell on the fact that Ron had painted the official portrait of both speakers!

Portrait of General Colin Powell (Ronald Sherr, 2012) Oil on canvas

Yet world-renowned clients was not what made Ron important as an artist. Ron was an artistic anachronism of sorts–he painted beautiful realistic portraits which looked like they had some piece of the living subject inside of them. His real method for obtaining these incredible results was not some trick or secret tool, but constant practice and stringent self-criticism. Ron’s artistic hero was Jon Singer Sargent who combined the unparalleled draftmanship of the Old Masters with the realistic color and focus of the impressionists. Ron likewise used this combination and it is what he tried to teach his students. We all remember that during our first year painting he would mostly ask seemingly obvious questions like “Is the head you have painted bigger or smaller than the model’s actual head? Is the torso you have painted more yellow or less yellow than the model’s actual torso?”

Our utter inability to answer these questions (at first) reveals part of why it is hard to teach painting. A great teacher must teach looking and comparing first….and then second and then last. Unless you can look at a subject with fresh eyes and regard your own efforts honestly, true realism will forever remain out of your reach.

Speaking of which I have not been painting realistically! Nor have I been applying the lessons of Byzantine history to the Byzantine circus factions of today. I worry that I have dishonored my amazing teachers by not making use of what they worked so hard to teach me. Now, thanks to time’s one way arrow and the nature of mortal existence, we no longer have the real masters. All that is left is the hazy memory of their teachings…although, come to think of it, here I am on a Saturday night (on New Year’s Eve no less) trying still to understand their teachings and make use of such learning to explain the world to others. Keep asking questions! Keep comparing. Keep striving for greater honesty. This is what I hear in my head as I set down the obituarist’s pen and reach again for the artist’s brush.

There is colorful news from the world of fashion and lifestyle!

Every December, Ferrebeekeeper (and everyone else on the planet who writes about color) gets to comment on the Pantone “Color of the Year”, a well-publicized hue which is chosen by a group of fashion mavens and marketing experts to embody our cultural zeitgeist. The Color of the Year welds together the fashionable palette of the day with whatever events happen to be in the news. Thereafter companies, designers, and brands plan the colors for their clothes and goods based around this standard (which is how stores work together to craft lucrative aesthetic trends). You should click this link to see Ferrebeekeeper’s commentary on past colors of past years!

It is a powerful idea…however, this year’s color does not technically exist?

Well, cough…at least it doesn’t exist according to classic Newtonian physics… Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will already recognize that this weaselly sort of language applies to the beautiful rich pink color of magenta. And, indeed, the 2023 Color of the Year is “Viva Magenta” (see above). Magenta famously drove Sir Isaac Newton (further) into madness, since it was his favorite color but he could not find it within the prismatic spectrum of visible colors. Only when the great Sir Isaac set up multiple overlapping prismatic rainbows did he realize that magenta is an illusion our mind makes when it sees bright pink and blue at the same place and same time.

Beyond the pure realm of the electromagnetic spectrum, the color of the year embodies other confusing modalities. For example it has long been posited that there is a strong correlation between the economy and the color of the year. Self-important/self-deluded economists no doubt theorize that the former entirely influences the latter and never vice-versa: I am less sure. But even if bear years really do yield subdued colors, this would make “Viva Magenta” an outlier–since 2023 is projected to be a glum year of economic recession (in contrast with the beautiful, joyous, and bright magenta). Once again, the Pantone executives have carefully hedged their prognostications. If you proceed to Pantone’s site to take in this year’s entire palette, you will see that Viva Magenta is surrounded by a disheartening smear of lifeless beige and gray colors.

Back in the nineties I worked in an office with a colleague who dated a Pantone insider from wayyyyy back in the ’80s (when Pantone produced its consumer product palette advice without all of the color-of-the-year hoopla). My colleague’s beau was doing quite well choosing colors…until he chose a brilliant hot pink cerise (do you remember the year when it was everywhere? 1986 maybe?). Unfortunately, the great masters of capitalism regarded that ’80s electric magenta as too bohemian/artistic (and as a possible cause of the 1987 crash). Thereafter Pantone started pushing drab conservative colors for a while (and they chose other people to choose the Pantone colors).

Abstract Painting in Magenta and Red (Frida Kaas) Digital

Will this year’s magenta similarly be the last drop of dramatic color before a new drab era? The cultural critics of the New York Times do not seem to care for “Viva Magenta” much (they seem like the sort of people who would prefer ecru or pearl gray…or just black). Personally, I rather like “Viva Magenta” (which looks like something a 19th century opera-enthusiast would wear). Additionally, I have high hopes that the economy will not sputter out and that society will finally embrace colors (other than monotones, red, blue, and brown). We will see during 2023. At the very least, Viva Magenta is dramatic…in that respect it certainly catches hold of what we already know about the year to come…

One hundred and forty years ago, ornithologists discovered a very rare and mysterious bird on an obscure island named Fergusson (which is part of the D’Entrecasteaux Archipelago just northeast of Papua New Guinea)…uh…then they sort of lost track of it for the next 14 decades. The bird was the black-naped pheasant-pigeon (Otidiphaps insularis) a lovely–albeit reclusive–ground dwelling pigeon with a black body and orange/red wings (and glittering blood red eyes). Very little is known about the bird because it has not been officially documented nor studied by scientists since it was discovered in 1884. Indeed, researchers who returned to Fergusson in 2019 were hard pressed to find anyone there who has seen the bird since the 1990s. The black-naped pigeon seemed to have quietly receded into extinction–if it ever even existed.

But the black-naped pigeon did exist! It still does! After talking to Augustin Gregory, a hunter who had seen the “auwo” (the local Papuan name for the pigeon) the ornithologists put hidden cameras on Fergusson’s highest peak, the 6,801 feet (2,073 meter) tall Mt. Kilkerran. This year, just as the expedition was wrapping up, the cameras took a picture of one of the furtive pigeons! These lovely birds have not yet flown away from Earth to join the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the lordly crested Choiseul pigeon, and the pink pigeon of Réunion (some famous extinct pigeons).

Of course, who knows how much longer the black-naped pigeon will continue to be with us? Researchers found a single bird (and it was located in a part of the forest scheduled to be timbered). It is unclear how large the remaining population is or whether the birds will be able to survive the changes coming to Fergusson (and the larger changes coming to the entire planetary atmosphere). But for now, this shy yet lovely bird is still here! Most of the beautiful and amazing animals of the Holocene still are (admittedly in greatly reduced numbers). If only humankind could find a way to show off for each other which did not involve super-use of earth’s resources maybe we could keep not just the black-naped pigeon, but also the black rhino, the panda, the Asian elephant and so many other endangered creatures. Maybe instead of clothes which we wear once and then throw out, or cars which are too fast to drive, we could impress potential mates with a beautiful fan of svelte black tail feathers! (although, to be honest, human females have been unenthused about my beautiful ruddy sweater vest–so maybe we are stuck with over-the-top materialism (or some even-harder-to-obtain status signifier) for the foreseeable future).

Well, we have reached the Midterms. Thus far, I haven’t blogged so much about this important election for reasons of emotional health: which is to say that watching America’s political crisis grind the nation’s progress to a standstill and turn us all against each other is both alarming and depressing!  However, the election takes place tomorrow and it is now necessary to endorse candidates. Obviously, you should vote for the Democratic Party and its candidates for all elections on all tickets

It is unfortunate to issue such a blanket endorsement. In better times, when the affairs of the nation were more ordered (and one of the two parties hadn’t gone completely rotten), it was necessary to assess candidates by their individual merits and positions. Hopefully that time will come again! Alas, right now, the GOP consists of anti-American fascists who are working as hard as possible to neuter and dismantle the United States of America and steal all of its assets to distribute to crooked kleptocrats and oligarchs. Their reasons any voter would want this outcome may be worth exploring later (I believe rich Republicans want to destroy the nation so they can loot it, whereas religious Republicans are unable to see that truth and instead think that treating people cruelly and badly is what Jesus would want).  Yet the net result is the same—Democracy destroyed; the country rendered subordinate to Russia and hollowed out.

Americans like to pretend to be smart and cynical, so a lot of voters say “All politicians are crooked” Then these voters don’t vote…or they vote for grandstanding populists who mask graft with home-spun hucksterism. Such a fundamental mistake is understandable (since elucidating what is going on right now involves looking past the clicks-at-any-cost misdirection favored by large media-conglomerates). Also, in recent times, when the parties were very similar, pretending to be cynical so that one could be lazy and not vote was not a particularly grave sin. Yet this election demands voters’ full attention. We are nearing a point of no-return in the Republicans’ long planned doom loop (the mechanism they have used to ratchet a permanent hold of control despite commanding only a minority of votes). Read about the anti-government doom loop here!

The Republican party has not published a political platform. They believe that lies, coercion, rigged districts, and infinite dark money (from unknown payers) will be sufficient to win enough state-houses and gerrymandered house seats to permanently end representative government.  They might be right! But before we just believe what they say and give up on self-governance, let’s take a closer look at what they actually want.

The real Republican Platform is horrifying. When you listen to what Republican politicians say, bear in mind that these are their true aims. In the absence of a published list of their agenda, here is an unvarnished list of their objectives and principles based on their words and actions:

  • Russia is always right. Vladimir Putin is Emperor of the World and must be obeyed accordingly
  • Government by self-determination should be destroyed. Monopolists, oligarchs, and foreign governments should make all of Americans’ choices for us.
  • You and your family should be silent indentured servants to these same moneyed interests
  • Hypocritical religious extremists should be allowed to dictate what you read, whom you love, and, above all, deny medical treatment to those they disfavor.   
  • Social Security and Medicare should be abolished and seniors should die in the street

It is not a surprise that the Republicans did not codify this totalitarian evil into a platform (although Greg Abbot tried). What is a surprise is that Republicans have sold anyone on any of these ideas! These corrupt and evil positions run directly counter to the universal ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice which our system was founded on. Once the Christian nationalists realize that banning abortion does not prevent abortion and that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are very interested in replacing the safety net with tax tax breaks for billionaires (but care very little for the false pieties of evangelical Christianity), then perhaps the great masses of illiterates who dully stand by as these con-artists destroy the Constitution will be jolted out of their pretend cynicism, but by then it will be too late to retrieve the nation from “Big Lie” adherents who believe that only their party should be legally allowed to win.

It has probably not escaped your attention that I have said a great deal against the Republican/Fascist party and not said as much for the Democrats.   

I was underwhelmed by President Obama. His inability to craft political consensus and break the nation out of this political deadlock struck me as being a result of his own political inexperience. I now see that this was exactly how his Republican political enemies wanted things to look. Also President Obama cared about the hostage–I mean nation–and gave up on some of his political aims for the greater good of the country. Obviously it does not matter to Republicans if the nation is destroyed, since that is their intention anyway (after all, it’s much easier to steal from a nation where everything has been ruined and the only remaining law-enforcement agents are proudboys and hollowed-out rent-a-cops). The rule of Solomon the Wise stands against Republicans. They are happy to kill the child just so that they can have control of it (BTW you should click on that link to a previous endorsement which says what I am saying now, but with greater Biblical eloquence and better examples). Nobody should vote for any Republican this year for that alone.

The Democratic Party has an unfortunate tendency to see problems in the world as being entirely America’s fault.  They are eager to coddle foreign enemies while censoriously blaming our own diplomats, military, and intelligence agents (and straight middle aged white guys) for all of the world’s troubles. Yet for all of their wonkish idealism and dogmatic identity politics, they keep coming up with policy ideas, and they keep earnestly believing in the rules of democracy. They keep fighting the Russians and Chinese (and all of their downstream villains). They keep trying to make sure that people have enough to eat asnd can go to the doctor and can look after their kids. Most importantly, they want America…and you and your family to succeed. Republicans want you to die so that a billionaire can have all of your stuff. Then they want the world to die from climate change and habitat loss ( I don’t think the Republicans have fully thought this through but have merely embraced mass extinction because it fits with their other choices)

(Also I actually think Biden has done a decent job considering all of the interlocking crises we face…AND considering that the previous guy stacked the deck so that things would be impossible for him, but political operators say not to talk about how well Biden has done, so I guess I won’t).

But you should take Biden’s integrity into consideration and you should take the wholesale moral abomination of the cowardly, lying, traitorous criminal Republican Party into consideration as well when you go to cast what they undoubtedly hope will be the last (or next-to-last) vote you are ever allowed to cast. Republicans hate democracy, they hate nature, they hate your family, and above all, they hate YOU with all of their malice and malignancy. Vote accordingly.

Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

Today’s news contained an astonishing (albeit rather sad) piece of news concerning the Tetraodontiforme order of fish.

In December 2021, a dead giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) was discovered in the ocean off Faial Island (which is part of the Azores–a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic). “Giant sunfish” is the common name for this sort of sunfish–but this time it was more than a name. The dead fish was enormous. When scientists dragged it to shore and weighed it with a special forklift, they discovered it had a mass of 2,744 kilograms (6,050 pounds), which means it is the largest teleost (bony fish) ever recorded (although, obviously, some long extinct fossil species were much larger). The fish was 3.59 meters long and had a huge blunt contusion on its head which was clearly caused by a boat collision (as evinced by the fact that there were fragments of boat paint on the affected area).

Scientists are still studying the specimen (indeed, they only just released word of it to the world) and a full necropsy has not yet been performed to determine the cause of death. Perhaps a boat hit the fish after it was dead. Still, it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to start connecting the dots (which is to say, I have a feeling the fish was killed by a fast moving boat–a fate which is all to common among the larger and faster rorquals). The death of this giant is a tragedy in its own right. Yet it is stunning to me that we only just found the largest specimen of bony fish on record. The ocean still abounds with life and miraculous secrets. It could recover… if only humankind would allow such a thing!

A few years ago, I wrote about Mola alexandrini’s close relative Mola mola, the ocean sunfish (which I misidentified as the world’s largest bony fish). Obviously I was mistaken! However that post summarizes what we know about the way both these pelagic giants live. It also addresses baby sunfish–for both species go through a larval stage when the 2 millimeter long babies (!) drift around as part of the plankton. Weighing less than a gram, the li’l baby sunfish are spherical and covered with translucent triangular spikes to deter predators. The sunfish got its name because it likes to sunbathe near the ocean’s surface (another piece of evidence in determining how the Azores giant specimen met its end), however, I think the little ones actually look like the suns drawn in Renaissance woodcuts.

I will keep you updated when (or if) we learn more, but in the meantime I hope you are struck with wonder by these magnificent denizens of the ocean (and, if you are a boater or mariner, I hope you drive your vessel with care and consideration).

The Dart Impactor (gold) being loaded into the faring of the launch vehicle at Vandenberg Launch Facility

Wow! Have you been following NASA’s DART mission? “DART” is one of those Ghastly-Acronyms-which-Spell-out-the-Project (GASP!) which stands for “Double Asteroid Reflection Test”. Scientists are always discouraged that their jaw-dropping projects conducted in outer space can never garner the same level of attention as inane sports and celebrity folderol–so they give missions these names with futile hopes of grasping the popular imagination. Speaking of whipping up attention, you should immediately google “DART” to see Google’s unprecedented graphic/animation (uh, and all of the information and scientific details about this project, of course).

Anyway, the project’s name aside, DART is a smashing success and something which humankind should have been working on since the dawn of the space age. Ever since we finally understood what caused those craters on the moon (which took longer than you might expect) and the Alvarez hypothesis explained what caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, scientists and engineers have realized that humankind needs a proper planetary defense system to protect us from meteors, bolides, comets, space shards, and whatever cosmic flotsam and jetsam has been drifting around out there waiting to wreck us the same way the poor dinosaurs got creamed.

“Grawwwwwr! Why did we spend so much on stock buybacks and so little on basic science?”

Although some previous asteroid and comet exploration missions have edged towards testing the behaviors of space objects subjected to manmade impacts and forces, the DART mission was designed specifically for the purpose of finding out about such things. Back in November of 2021 NASA launched a 610 kilogram impactor spacecraft to crash into Dimorphos (a tiny asteroid which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos). On September 26 (2022) the impactor crashed into Dimorphos as the Italian mini-satellite LICIACube looked on (as did many of our best telescopes).

Here is a NASA schematic which explains the mission (and its hypothesized outcome) far better than I could.

Of course in the grand scheme of things 610 kilograms is not very much mass–although a 610 kilogram (1340 lb) linebacker smashing into you would probably wreck your day–especially if he was running 6.6 kilometers per second (15,000 miles per hour) which was the closing velocity of the projectile and Dimorphos. Indeed, the Hubble and Webb space observatories were both keeping an eye on the collision and the results were pretty explosive.

We will await the exact numbers (scientists speculate that such an impact should release 20-30 gigajoules of energy–approximately equivalent to detonating 6 or 7 tons of TNT). Also, an EU spaceship named Hera is being dispatched to survey the results in 2026 (so more to follow). For now though, I am already breathing easier knowing that someone is finally working on this problem. Now we just need to work on the 8 billion other problems which are affecting Earth and casting a pall over humankind’s glorious future,

The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

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