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After peering back through the mists of time to the mythical origin of ancient Greece’s ancient center of prophecy, Dodona (which was purportedly founded by a black, talking pigeon) I bet you are asking yourself “hey wait, do black pigeons exist in nature?” The answer is a glorious and emphatic yes! The black imperial pigeon (Ducula melanochroa) is a splendid black pigeon (with a bit of white trim along its wings) which can be found living throughout the Bismarck Archipelago.

Although I found this to be of great ornithological interest, I found it to be geographically challenging.To wit, where on earth is the Bismarck Archipelago? Does Germany have a hitherto unknown chain of black-pigeon haunted isles stretching out into the Baltic? Germans will be relieved (albeit a bit disappointed) to learn that it does not. The Bismarck Archipelago obtained its name during the desperate last phase of European colonialism, when imperialists-run-amuck stuck flags (and un-regional names) on anything that wasn’t fast enough to get away from steam powered battleships. The Bismarck Archipelago is a chain of very volcanic islands off the north east coast of Papua New Guinea with a collective area which is approximately equal to Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

The discovery of a substantial part of the world wholly unknown to me is sort of a consolation prize for the fact that I can not find out very much about these black imperial pigeons (other than the fact that they exist). I doubt they had much to do with anything that was happening in Greece long ago (or ever), but it is extraordinary to see how diverse animal life is on our home planet and to know that even in the age of the internet there are entire species–and places–which keep their mysteries.

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

I guess we have been in society-wide quarantine lockdown for an entire year (at least here in New York City). The grim anniversary at least provides the opportunity to show you the artwork which I made during the spring of 2020 as nature burst into glorious life while humankind cowered at home in the shadow of the crowned plague.

I like to draw in little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch moleskine sketchbooks (which i fill up pretty regularly). Last spring, due to an ordering error, I purchased a Japanese album (which folds out into one long accordion strip of paper) instead of my usual folio book. Since the pandemic left me stuck in my little Brooklyn garden, I began drawing a Coronavirus journey along a continuous garden path running from my backyard, through the stricken city, to the cemetery and then out to the sea. As spring turned into summer I rode my bike over to Greenwood to work on it. Usually works of this sort are destroyed by giant ink blots, spills, or catastrophic drawing failures (since I drew this freehand with a Hiro Leonardt 41 steel nib), and although there are lots of flaws (sigh), none of them destroyed the drawing outright.

Pandemic Album (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) pen and ink on paper

as you can see, the one factor which made the isolation and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic bearable to me was the one thing which makes existence bearable–the unlimited power of imagination to go anywhere and make anything happen! Thus we see a Byzantine/Gothic Brooklyn as suited to the plague of Justinian as to Covid 19.

I effectively finished the drawing in June, but I kept frittering at the edges. Plus there was an empty space in the path beneath the fountain (just before the musical garden filled with lyrebirds, siamangs, singing sphinxes, and aulos players). That space stayed blank until November, when I realized that the blank spot in the middle was where the vaccine belonged (you can see it there now just below the fountain).

Unfortunately, I am a better draftsman than a photographer, and it is hard to make out the small details of the little garden plants and bugs which were my original inspiration. Anyway, hopefully you can click on the panels and look at the musicians (C-minor), the plague doctor, the manticore, and the covid party filled with Bushwick Bohemians and sinners! If not, let me know and we will see if I can repost the drawing somehow. Maybe I will post some of the details later on anyway, since the virus pathway is filled with serpents, bats, dark gods, pigeons, bees, trees, and flounder (and other ferrebeekeeper subjects which are always close to my heart).

Speaking of things close to my heart, thanks again for reading this and for being here with me (at least in my writings and thoughts if not in the real world). Dear Reader, you are the absolute best. If the Fates are willing, we are nearing the end of this horrid covid chapter (just as the dark path from the drawing ultimately runs out into the great ocean and vanishes in the waves). I am sorry it took so long to post this little book, but it seems appropriate somehow. As always, let me know what you think, and for my part I will think about what delights to put in the spring album for 2021!

Health and peace to you and your loved ones! We are nearly through this!

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luca Longhi, ca. mid 16th century)

Americans celebrate February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but the celebration is properly Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday which got mixed up with an even more ancient winter holiday of pagan Germany (which involved forecasting the weather based on the behavior of badgers and bears). We will get to the bottom of that ancient pagan badger worship thing at some later date: for now, let’s talk about Candlemas which is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays and has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The original form the ancient holiday took was as “The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” (the synoptic gospel source for all of this is the second chapter of Luke) and it celebrated the redemption of infant Jesus at the temple of Solomon (Luke has muddled this up with the purification ritual for women who have given birth, but for the sake of clarity I am going to ignore that as well and write only about infant redemption which is the critical ancient Monotheistic kernel of this holiday).

Baby Jesus required redemption from the temple because he was Jewish–more specifically, he was a firstborn Jewish male infant and thus the somewhat rare rite of pidyon haben was required. Here is what the Book of Exodus has to say concerning the subject (this is from Exodus Chapter 13–so the speaker here is, uh, God and the listener is Moses, understood to be the chosen representative of the chosen people):

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the Lord’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.

Exodus 13: 12-15

Wow! This is some old-school religion! Yet, to be honest, I am not sure I would understand any of that if it had not been carefully explained to me. Here is the best interpretation/explanation I can offer. All firstborn male mammals belong to God (in his pre-Abraham days as a god of nomadic shepherds, El was very big on sacrifice: this is frequently reflected in the Old Testament and sometimes glimmers of the truly old ways of human sacrifice can be seen–as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephthah’s daughter). God no longer wants human sacrifice, but first born males are pledged to the temple and the priestly caste as servants. This obligation, however, can be dispensed with through a business transaction: parents can trade the price of a lamb, 5 shekels of silver to the kohens to redeem their child from the Lord’s service [One of the twelve tribes of Judaism, the Levites, were the priests. Moses’ elder brother Aaron was of this tribe. Because of Aaron’s special service, God made him high priest, and all of his descendants, the kohanim are priests. Jews with the surname Levi or Cohen have special priestly duties and privileges to this day]

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Fra Angelico, 1440-1442) fresco

Jesus lived in Judea during the final days of the Temple of Solomon. His parents had to take him to the temple and pay the priests. Luke specifies that Joseph and Mary took the option given to poor people, paying the price of a pair of doves rather than of a lamb (doves, like sheep and asses, are sacred animals in Christian mythology). In the temple an ancient prophet, Simeon recognized Jesus and prophesied him to be “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. This is what is celebrated by Candlemas aka”The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” and it was of great importance to the first Christians living in ancient Israel. The original meaning of all of this, however has faded over thousands of years and it is now difficult to understand (except to very devout Jews) and so The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ has now become Groundhog Day in the country’s largest Christian nation! I wonder what will happen to February 2nd in another thousand years or so.

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

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Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!

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Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.

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Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).

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Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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