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It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet. I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things. We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything. It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.
Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures. They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking. When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens. The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked. The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores. She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).
It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them. People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard. After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.
To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?). I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended. Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.
My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat). Why am I picking on her? For status of course! To push my political agendas and ideologies!
Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.
In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church. Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.
I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.
Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other. Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens. Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves. Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive. Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.
This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone. Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me. But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.
“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize. But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start. So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism. Happy Earth Day! We’ll keep working on this. There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.
Time sort of escaped me today, so here is a strange and intricate painting to think about. This is “Martian Gothic” by James Beoddy. It is an exciting retro-future tapestry of techno-humans piecing together a patchwork future. The networked world of the painting looks alien but also strangely familiar—as though today’s political and consumerist trends just moved a bit further down the road. The dark glittering society is not as dark as some visions of tomorrow—but it does seem to have lots of sharp edges.
Wild geese are an important symbolic motif in Chinese art and literature. According to this weird old dictionary of symbols I am looking at, the wild goose was regarded as symbolic of “yang” virtues of “light and masculinity in nature” (whatever that means). Wild geese were thought to mate for life and were thus regarded as emblematic of marital fidelity and bliss. Alternately, lone geese were seen as a symbol of powerful longing—as between lovers separated by great distances (or, even more sadly, by death). Additionally, the annual migrations of the wild geese were important markers of seasonal change (and thus became representative of the overall passage of time throughout life).
In the hands of a master, this was a heady mixture of themes, and so goose paintings often represent fundamental questions about one’s journey through life. Here is a scroll painting from the Ching dynasty painter-poet, Bian Shoumin (1684–1752), who also went by the evocative and slightly dirty-sounding sobriquet “Old Man Among the Reeds.” He was one of the renowned “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and he was particularly famous for painting…geese (so maybe he was “among the reeds” simply because that is where he needed to hang out in order to best render his favored subjects).
Bian painted this painting in his mid-forties, and there is a middle-aged wistfulness and melancholy to it. The calligraphy poem at the top left reads as follows:
Just now wild geese came into the sky,
As I waved my brush before the master of the qin [zither];
Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts
As I stand beside I know not who.
Based on his poem, he sounds like a bit of a lonely goose himself. The painting indeed shows a single goose staring off at the sky while a happy pair preen nearby. It would be a sad subject, but, like an auspicious peach falling from heaven, a suitable companion goose making a beeline for the autumnal-hearted fowl beneath the poem. Perhaps all is not lost, even for aging scholar-artists…
LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement. Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….
My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it). He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you. If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons. Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous. Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry). Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day. He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.
I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen. When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us? We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet). I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.
I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating. They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous). Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?
Today’s goose post features shocking questions about the truthfulness of a respected and beloved blog—Ferrebeekeeper! That’s right; this very site, an esteemed font of knowledge which you regularly tell all your friends to read (right?), has been caught in the midst of a scandal which spans the centuries…the millennia even! This mysterious controversy encompasses the greatest family of pharaohs ever, an enigmatic nineteenth-century archaeologist, and the fundamental meaning of art and objects. At the center of the swirling allegations lies the enigma behind the identity of a pair of geese.
It all began with this post about an ancient Egyptian masterpiece, the famous goose frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (Nefermaat being a nobleman of Egypt’s renowned Fourth dynasty). The geese in that ancient picture are gorgeous, they look like real birds which might hop down from the forty-six-hundred year old artwork and open up their beaks begging for corn (a fact appreciated by aesthetes among Ferrebeekeeper readers—as you can see in the original comments). However after I posted the article, cracks also began to appear in the story. Sharp-eyed readers wrote in with questions about my ornithology. There are three pairs of geese in the painting: a pair to the left, a pair to the right, and a split pair grazing, like bookends, on each side. With unwarranted ambiguity, I identified the birds as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), based on the bird identification in an essay I had read concerning the paintings (and also based on the fact I wanted to write about a certain breed of domesticated geese). I was wrong to be so blithesome, for it is extremely clear that the two center pairs are very different species. The split pair may or may not be the same species as the pair on the left.
Ferrebeekeeper readers vigorously noted the problems with both my essay and with the supposedly ancient painting. Dave Dunford wrote:
The birds are not Egyptian Geese, which are distinctive birds. The central pair facing left appear to be White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), and the central pair facing right are indisputably Red-breasted Geese (Brant ruficollis). Interestingly, the latter is a rare vagrant in modern-day Egypt. The outer birds are somewhat trickier – they could also be White-fronted (which don’t always have the white face markings) but they could be Greylag Geese (Anser anser, also not found regularly in modern Egypt).
It turns out my readers were not the only people to notice and question this discrepancy. The painting (which is more popularly known as “Meidum Geese” since it was allegedly discovered in 1871 in a tomb beside the Meidum Pyramid), is one of the most famous in the Cairo museum—a masterpiece of the ancient world–but now, in 2015, experts are questioning its validity. This post from livescience.com by Owen Jarus describes how the painting is probably a fake, or, at least a doctored original. These charges are being leveled by Francesco Tiradritti, a professor at the Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt. Tiradritti came up with yet another species designation for the left-facing geese as bean geese (Anser fabalis) a tundra goose, which certainly don’t belong in Egypt (even if the ancient climate were somewhat different).
Now sometimes when I draw or paint (particularly when my subject is self-willed, like geese) I replace or invent some of the details with the magic of art (i.e. I make stuff up). Egyptian artists seemingly did the same thing—unless there were a lot of personified deities with animal heads actually roaming the Nile Valley. However the question of what sort of goddamn geese these really are caused Tiradritti to reexamine the whole painting with a fresh eye, and suddenly innumerable problems sprang to light.
The naturalistic perspective/size of the geese in the painting is unusual for Egyptian art (although common in modern western painting). Also the colors are off. To quote Francesco Tiradritti, “Some of the hues (especially beige and marc) are unique in the Egyptian art. Even the shades of more common colors, like orange and red, are not even comparable with the same colors used in other fragments of painting coming from Atet’s chapel.” Perhaps most damningly, the fresco does not have the sort of cracks one would expect from a 4.5 thousand year old painting cut from a wall.
This painting was discovered in 1871 by a colorful Italian archaeologist named Luigi Vassalli. Vasalli’s history is fascinating in its own right: he spent his youth as a revolutionary and as a portrait painter before being captured and sentenced to death for his attempts to unify Italy. His sentence was commuted to exile, and he traveled Europe before finding his way to Egypt where he became an Egyptologist. He rose to be Egypt’s interim Director of Antiquities, but he ultimately died by his own hand.
Vasalli was a great self-promoter and he exhaustively wrote/bragged about everything he found and did. Yet somehow he never wrote about (or apparently talked about) how he discovered “Meidum Geese”. Tiradetti reasonably posits that Vasalli painted “Meidum Gees” himself. Whether he did so as a joke, or for glory, or to restore a botched excavation is anyone’s guess.
The allegations spawn sinister questions regarding the fundamental nature of art. If the geese were painted by Luigi Vassalli—who apparently also defaced an actual work to do so–we take away the designation “masterpiece” and instead label the work as a forgery. It is fair and right to strip it the painting of its accolades and to erase all the effusive words of praise written for it (of course I mean this figuratively: I am leaving up my old blog post so that you can see what I am talking about—but how empty my words ring, now). Yet what happened? The painting still looks the same. Does the fact that it was painted by a nineteenth century artist/revolutionary/con-man/scholar instead of an Old Kingdom artisan take all of its meaning and beauty away? Do the geese no longer look like they might hop out of the frieze? Do they now look oddly flat and childlike? Was the provenance all that made this work worthwhile? We live in an age when the appearance of authenticity means everything—in our art, our leaders, even ourselves. But what is left when the illusion of authenticity is taken away?
Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.
The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.
The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).
The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.
The 2016 Rio Olympics are on their way and already the mascots for the 2016 games have been presented and named! Ferrebeekeeper has been falling down at monitoring mascot news—the winning candidates were chosen back in November of 2014 (whipping up PR stories for a sports competition which is years away is a long & delicate art).
The 2012 Olympics in London featured stupid avant-garde alien blobs Wenlock and Mandeville who were rightly pilloried by everyone (including this blog). The 2014 Russian Olympics featured a mascot election which Vladimir Putin may have tampered with! So what did Brazil come up with for the big game? The nation is beloved for its beaches, beautiful mixed-race populace, and, above all, for the unrivaled biodiversity of the Amazon Basin—where the world’s largest river runs through the planet’s greatest rainforest. Less admirable features of Brazil include deeply corrupt demagogues, insane crime, irrational love of soccer (which is a sort of agonizingly slow version of hockey), and an underperforming economic sector which has always been 20 years away from greatness. What cartoon figure appropriately represents these dramatic juxtapositions?
This blog wanted a tropical armored catfish to win. Barring that, we were hoping for a beautiful Amazon riverine creature of some sort—maybe a river dolphin, a giant otter, or even a pretty toucan. However, the committee which came up with the mascots did not want anything quite so tangible. Instead they chose two magical animal beings which respectively represent the fauna and flora of Brazil. Fortunately, the mascots are pretty cute (and they are both painted with a bewitching array of tropical colors).
The Olympic mascot represents the multitudinous animals of the rainforest and his name is “Vinicius.” Vinicius is some sort of flying monkey-cat with rainbow colored fur and a prehensile tail. The Paralympic mascot is a sort of artichoke-looking sentient vegetable named Tom (so I guess he is male too—although, names aside, it is sometimes hard to tell with plants).
Vinicius’ long sinuous limbs and tail make him admirably suited for illustrating the many different Olympics sports—and I really like pictures of him shooting archery, running, and lifting weights. Tom seems a bit less suited for athletics, but his winning smile and endearing fronds are appealing in their own right. I guess I am happy with the choice of Olympics mascots. They do a fine job representing the world’s fifth most populous country (in so much as cartoon nature spirits can represent a place so large and diverse). I’m looking forward to seeing more of them (even if I might dream sometimes of what could have been instead).
Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.
OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.
After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.
The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.
So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).
Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.
Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.
Here is an elegant paint color with an interesting historical backstory. Charleston green is a shade of green so dark that it seems black. Indeed, Wikipedia just straight-out lists it under black instead of green, so perhaps Charleston Green really is black. The story goes that, after the American Civil War, mass quantities of black paint were provided by the Federal government for reconstruction. The proud (albeit economically ruined) aesthetes of Charleston could not bear to paint their lovely vintage houses black–so they mixed in small quantities of yellow in order to create an exceedingly dark green.
Whether this story is true or not, the color is very dramatic and pretty, although admittedly subtle. In the modern post-post-Civil War period, Charleston Green seems to mostly be used for shutters, doors, and accents where it looks especially good against white, cream, bricks, or pale green. Maybe it is not necessarily so much a response to northern aggression as a solid aesthetic choice. I feel like I’ve seen a whole house or two painted this color in my own neighborhood in New York, and weren’t the carpetbaggers supposed to have come from here?