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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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Happy April Fish Day!  Usually the internet is awash with heart-stopping pranks and false information on April 1st (and every other day, come to think of it…but April Fool’s Day is especially bad), however this year, I am hoping that the pandemic and the quarantine will cause people to tone down their practical jokes a little, especially since we have seen what false information can do!

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Joking aside, April Fool’s Day is certainly a very special day here at Ferrebeekeeper!  The blog started on this day in 2010.  This is the 10th anniversary of posts about snakes, crowns, underworld gods, art, mollusks, and Gothic things.  And we have sure had a lot of snake gods and dark squid!  Today’s post is post #1959. Pretty soon we will have to have another special anniversary when we get to #2000.

For that 2000th post I will really do things up with guests, pageantry, special events, and prizes!  The 10th year anniversary is a bit more solemn though.  When I started, everyone was a blogger: great herds of us roamed the internet, bloviating about everything.  Yet now I am one of the last of our kind.  I feel like a Peter Beagle novel or a CGI dragon voiced by Sean Connery…

I guess everyone else left because they weren’t getting famous or making money with their writing or something, but blogs are not about remuneration! A blog is an obeisance to Athena.  Like life, it is a search for meaning, truth, and fellowship.

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And writing certainly helps the writer struggle with truth and meaning (although it might not always help the poor reader, and for this I apologize).  Even among people who love ideas, thinking is hard.  If you had to remember a list of phrases or items you would write them down so that your brain could concentrate on understanding and contextualizing the thing which you were immediately working on.  Writing about ideas is like that but in a much larger and more open-ended way.  It helps you realize the quest which you didn’t realize you were on.  I will write more about this in the weeks to come, because thinking about my favorite things for a decade really has led me to some realizations about the subjects which I care about most…but we will get back to this in subsequent posts!

Additionally, my blog has also led me to fellowship.  Over the years, so many people have posted such lucid and fascinating comments and questions.  Forgive me if I didn’t respond correctly (or at all–for everyone asking to use images which I don’t own) but I appreciated every comment and I appreciate every reader.  It is crazy to think I have friends I know and yet don’t know in Augsburg, Australia, and Alabama.  From the streets of Brooklyn to the Drakensberg to the foothills of the Himalayas to Matsumoto there are people all over Earth who are curious about the same things I am!  What a gift it is to know that!  Likewise, thank you for the priceless gift of your precious time and attention.  Thank you all so much.

I don’t have a real post for today, but when we got to a thousand posts I posted a list of the ten most popular posts from among those thousand.  For this occasion I am going to selfishly post a list of my favorite posts from the last decade.  To be honest I don’t really love hierarchy or numbers, so this isn’t a listicle.  In no order, here is a glob of the posts I liked best (perhaps you will notice a hidden theme lurking in them like a hungry flounder hiding among the pebbles and sand dollars…or maybe not).

Anyway…Here is a list of my personal favorite posts

 

Thank you again for everything.  Please let me know if you have any complaints, suggestions or [shy blush] compliments for the things you like.  We will be back soon with the 2000 post jubilee and, of course, we will be back tomorrow talking about the affairs of the world.

Sincerely,

Wayne

 

 

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Cellular Flounder goes Viral (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood and Polymer

Pursuant to the international coronavirus pandemic and the strange world of quarantine we find ourselves living in, here is an artwork I have just finished.  I made the cell/flounder sculpture last year to explore the nature of cells (which are underappreciated by everyone except for biologists…and biologists now basically only study cells, since they have recognized that they are all important).  I am always shocked at how much the diagrams of cells look like diagrams of big crazy cities.  I think there may be instructive reasons for that similarity, however it is unclear how to articulate these abstruse concepts except through the symbolic language of art.  I made the cell a flounder because that animal is my current avatar of Earth life, and since the flat oblong shape is ideal for art presentation (and because of the sad, anxious, comic eyes of course).

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I finished the cell/flounder part of the sculpture last year, but it has never struck me as complete.  The present crisis sharpened my thinking and so I added a little army of viruses which were enormously fun to make and which are cuter than they have any right to be. Admittedly these are phages rather than coronaviruses, but I find icosahedrons and spider legs more visually interesting than spheres.  It is all part of the magic of art.  As always, kindly let me know what you think and stay safe out there!  Things look a bit bleak and odd, but I wonder if we are not doing better than we recognize!  We are all trying at any rate, and we will know more soon.  Also spring will be here tomorrow (and with it, a bunch of flower posts, so there is that to look forward to).

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Original form (before the invasion)

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Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, Ferrebeekeeper features an otherworldly creature or legend from Irish Folklore.  From lovable (?) leprechauns, to the malevolent Sluagh, to heartbreaking romances between mortal and faerie, these mythical tales from Eire are written in the indelible colors of fever dreams and ancient appetite. And, speaking of appetite, this year’s Hibernian apparition is animated entirely by hunger: the fear gorta or “man of hunger” is a famine spirit. 

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These spectral entities are said to take the form of impossibly emaciated corpses begging for alms or food.  Although seeing a fear gorta wandering around in the human world was regarded as a harbinger of famine, interacting with them on an individual level was not necessarily thought of as a bad thing (like say getting caught up with a Leannán Sídhe).  In accordance with ancient fairytale rules, treating a fear gorta respectfully or offering them food, compassion, or alms could be pathway to unexpected good fortune.

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The origins of the fear gorta were shrouded in supernatural mystery.  Although an obvious interpretation was that the specters were the ghosts of famine victims or hapless starved wretches, other sources spoke of them rising autochthonously from eldritch patches of “hungry grass.”

As you might imagine, the fear gorta has a special place in the mythology of a nation whose defining crisis was the great potato famine of 1845 to 1849 (“an Gorta Mórin Gaelic ).  The failure of the potato crops during those years was caused by the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which is an oomycete that attacks plants of the  nightshade family (oomycetes are eukaryotic microorganism which straddles the facile taxonomical divide between the great kingdoms of life).    

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Whatever the biological causes of the crop failure, the Irish blamed the resultant famine on the stern new laissez faire capitalism of the United Kingdom’s Whig masters.  “God caused the blight, but the English caused the famine!” was a popular rallying cry.  We need to talk more about blights, famines, and pestilences—both within human history and within the paleontological record of life (it is hard to understand the place that viruses, bacteria, and pathogens hold in the microhistory of living things, since they are so fugitive in the fossil record, but we have critical clues).  For the moment though, I wish you a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.  I really hope you don’t see any fear gortas out there in the plague-haunted mist (although, given our own misadministration from the top, it would hardly surprise me), but if you do, please make sure to be super friendly and offer them some of your provisions.  A big pot of gold never hurt anybody…well, except for the Rath of Armagh…but that is a story for another St. Patrick’s Day.  In the meantime, celebrate the quarantine with some beer and potatoes and take care of yourself. Sláinte! We will get through all of this and build a better world!

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Greetings from New York City in this, the year of the plague, 2020.  I wanted to write about something today other than coronavirus, since we don’t seem to have actually learned much new information about the virus itself (or if we have, it is information in peer-to-peer medical journals about immunoglobulins, virology statistics, lipid membranes and whatnot). However, whenever I try to write anything else, I keep getting distracted and looking at frothy coronavirus articles, which are really opinion pieces about political or business concerns. Clearly the only subject anyone cares about is novel coronavirus, so why force myself to write a piece about sidewinders or limpets? But what do we write about?

We already explored the hypothesized snake/bat zoonotic leap (concerning which matters I have never heard any further news) and we have talked about the “crown” (corona) embedded in the very name of this virus. I suppose we could write about the President’s stunning incompetence, but we already know that this authoritarian dolt is at best a conman, and, more likely, likely an outright traitor who owes billions of dollars to Russian mobster (of course, if that isn’t the case, he can easily prove this hypothesis wrong by releasing comprehensive financial records).

But our horrible president is not my real target here. I want toget back to talking about an enormous issue that our nation has been failing to deal with: the disastrous trope that “government is the problem”.  This concept was cooked up by libertarian plutocrats as a tool for embezzling, defrauding, and plundering the country and it continues to undermine our collective well-being.  It is insidious because it is self-fulfilling.  As  government is defunded and abused, it keeps getting worse.  The plutocrats (or their mouthpieces) then say: “See: government doesn’t work! Only private industry produces results!” (although when the economy crashes they demand bailouts for their too-big-to-fail cartels).

Not many people love heeding rules (even good ones). As the government is captured by the people it is meant to regulate, the rules become even more onerous and complicated…and yet they don’t seem to address root problems (does this sound familiar?)  This isn’t because of the nature of government! It is because moneyed interests are taking advantage of society!

If this continues, within a few years we will all be sitting in cardboard boxes in the toxic runoff of dead factories talking about how America is the world’s greatest country as other places sale past us.  In fact, that sort of sounds like now, doesn’t it?

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We have been on the wrong path for forty years and yet we knowingly continue to walk down it.  Coronavirus offers us a chance to get off this evil road to serfdom and ignorance. The goal of society is not making a bunch of cartoonish monopoly men much richer.  The goal of society is to learn more about existence.  That knowledge can be further utilized for saving the world’s ecosystems, and making ark-ships, immortality potions, and all-powerful robot servants.  It could be used to keep you and your family healthy and prevent you from dying from zoonotic viruses, Or it could be used for other aims, or for nothing at all!  Knowledge stands beyond mere utility. It is not merely a means to an ends, but arguably the most precious of ends already, just in its own right.

Private enterprise is incurious about learning things unless there is a way to immediately use that knowledge to make money.  Since this is almost never the way that knowledge works, private enterprise shirks away from from learning things. It revels in ignorance.  This is why humankind’s forward technological progress has halted except for very slight incremental progress in consumer-side fields like robotics and computer science.

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Whether the doomsayers are proven right and coronavirus kills hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people, or whether quarantines and restrictions succeed in mitigating casualties, this crisis has already reminded us of something critical.  Government is not the enemy.  Government is us.  We need to de-monetize politics to whatever extent we can (and throw quite a lot of white-collar criminals in jail) and we need to get back to research and development.  We can once again be a nation that makes astonishing discoveries and builds incredible things and helps people.  Right now we are not headed that direction.  Do you really want to keep going this way?  Think about it as you weather this crisis.  Also, best wishes to you and your families!  As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

 

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Whether he acknowledges it or not, tonight marks the end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the presidency.  This year’s primaries have been a white-hot crucible, and many of the assertions upon which Sanders based his hopes were assayed away in the flames.  Young voters did not show up in record droves.  There was no great untapped seam of voters at the left (or if there is, they still didn’t vote).  The Democratic party has been surprisingly effective, disciplined, & solid (who ever thought we would be writing those words?) and has come together to support the candidate who has the best shot at beating Trump and delivering the Senate to blue control.  Key portions of the Democratic coalition–African American voters and older working class voters–seem to actually like the affable gaffe-meister (as do all-important suburban swing voters).  College educated white voters preferred Warren, but will no doubt flock to Biden to beat the loathed Trump.  Unhappy outsiders, such as Latino voters, idealists,  actual socialists, and fired-up “Bernie bros” will have to come into the fold or else risk four more years of Trump’s mendacity, incompetence and criminality.  If Traitor Trump does somehow win despite his monstrous acts, I frankly doubt the constitution or the democracy will survive (indeed we citizens probably won’t survive either: Trump’s hideously bungled response to 2019-nCoV is already casting doubt upon our continued existence).

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I never got to write out the presidential endorsement which was in my heart, but that’s ok.  Even at its best (which we are very far away from) politics is a sloppy business. I assure you I WILL find lots of things to love and praise about good ol’ Joe Biden.  Before we get into that in earnest though and start the Biden V. Trump slugfest, I would like to ask Joe Biden to reexamine a mistake from the dawn of his national political career. I want to go back in time to 1974 and ask everyone to rethink some choices which were made during that politically explosive year.

Before 1974, the Democratic Party busted up monopolies and trusts.  The old guard left in the party from FDR’s days (!) made it a point to do so because their youth had been dominated by fighting the terrible political hegemony of oligarchs and anti-competitive-corporations. Because of Nixon’s criminal misbehavior, a whole new crop of junior senators was swept into power in 1974 and the ancient trust-busters were turfed out of their last leadership positions.  The Democrats who I have lived with my whole life (like Joe Biden) come from that era.  Anti-trust does not seem to be a priority to them, either because they also suffer from a degree of monetary capture, or because other issues of social justice and cultural warfare seemed more important to them.  This was a terrible mistake!

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Elizabeth Warren knows that the virtues of capitalism cease to be virtues and become terrible chains if there is no actual competition in the marketplace.  That is the reason her highly educated supporters like her so much! Bernie Sanders had all sorts of regulatory plans ready for today’s cartels and oligopolies (the forms of trust have become more subtle since the 20s and 30s) but it doesn’t seem like we will see his revolutionary zeal come to flower. Bloomberg’s sixty billion dollar personal fortune came directly from his monopolistic business practices (so perhaps he would not have pushed for necessary reforms).  What about Joe Biden?

Trust busting is not going to be easy.  Price-fixing, regulatory capture, lobbyist written legislation, monopsony labor markets and lots of new game-changing anti-competitive tricks and tools have given the trusts a huge advantage (just look at your cable bill or at our nightmarish health care cartel). Yet these trusts are destroying our culture and indeed our very ability to survive! They must be fought and vanquished.  It will take enormous effort from all people of good conscience (and it is going to take a lot of patient explaining, because this all-important issue doesn’t fit easily into moronic soundbites).

I am going to be supporting Joe Biden as much as I can.  But Joe, please look at this issue and think about how you can save capitalism from itself and give us all an America worth working for! This all went wrong in 2016 (just look at this post from back then).  In 2020 we need to master our passions and use all of our strength to get things right.

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Plague Doctor Turbot (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019), Ink and Colored Pencil

To celebrate this day of pestilence, world economic collapse, and political discord, here is a plague doctor meticulously sewing a poor maimed flounder back together.  In the background a stitched together heart glows red with life above a lady’s slipper orchid (although a cold frozen heart and a fly also hint that other outcomes are possible, if we don’t get our act together).

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The Heavenly Corn Bounty (2018) Wood with Mixed Media

I got sucked into the affairs of the nation and failed to write a blog post, so here is a classic flounder sculpture I made back in 2018.  The piece is a reflection on the heavenly golden staple crop maize which fuels and feeds our nation…but it also reflects on how strange, alien, and disconcerting corn is.  The post is a way to highlight a sculpture which I made, but is also a reminder that I need to write more about maize here in the upcoming year!  For good and for ill it really is a golden staple which holds the nation together.

Also, I chose that title back in 2018, and now I can’t remember why.  Does anybody have any better suggestions? “Maize Place” maybe?

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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

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Wildlife Quilt (Patricia Ferrebee, 2019), mixed cotton textiles

By accident, this week ended up being parti-color snake week.  I am very much ok with this outcome–especially since the brilliant reptiles brighten up a dull and depressing part of the year while at the same time they are still safely in brumation and we don’t have to worry about accidentally stepping on them (at least here in Brooklyn). Anyway, to wrap up the week, I thought I would show you this exceedingly lovely quilt which my mother made for me.  It is a wildlife quilt which features penguins, lions, bears, prairie dogs, orangutans, ostriches, llamas, and so many snakes.  The creatures are pieced together out of little carefully cut pieces of cloth which are lovingly embroidered onto the larger quilt.

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Alas, my photography skills are indifferent and I cannot show you the gorgeous glistening colors of the quilt.  Because my parents have a quilt/knitting store (which you should visit if you are in Parkersburg, West Virginia), mom has a huge variety of magnificent new cotton print fabrics. I like the way all  of the animals came out, but I am especially fond of the snakes which truly capture the brilliantly colored scales.

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Something that always strikes me at the zoo is how a brightly colored snake (which is a shape humans instinctively recognize and react to!) lying on a bed of completely differently colored twigs and leaves is difficult to see.  This quilt conveys something of that real-world effect (although my photographs do not capture the subtle scintillating colors of the fabrics and thus do not fully duplicate the verisimilitude).

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It is lovely to lie on this quilt and read.  It is like being on the veld or in the northwoods…yet without harsh temperature extremes or biting insects (or, you know, lions).

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Mom’s quilts become more beguiling by the year (I will have to show you some of her nighttime garden quilts someday), but this animal quilt is a particular winner because it has animals!  I think we can all agree that, one way or another, animals are pretty much the best aspect of life (even if not everyone is quite as fond of snakes and fish as I am). Look at the decorative stitching on that little snake in the early autumn forest!

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These amazing quilted reptiles (including this purse lizard from an earlier post) are a reminder that imagination, artistry, and craft can endow our lives with some of the beauty and meaning of the natural world if we work at it.  This is an important theme, which we need to return to, because it seems like the way we live and work in the industrialized automated world is not working as well for everyone as philosophers, economists, and social theorists of the late twentieth century envisioned.  The beauty of the snakes are also a reminder that I need to collaborate with my mother to make another animal quilt at some point–perhaps the Australian outback or the deep sea!

Thanks again mom, for this magical blanket (which is as warm and functional as it is lovely). Right now though I had better go throw a lesser blanket over it. There are some real (domestic) animals clambering up onto my wild animal quilt and although I love them with all of my heart but I don’t trust them for a moment with my cherished quilt.

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