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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

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I am back from the bosky hills and verdant dells of West Virginia and SE Ohio and I have a lot of new ideas and stories to share.  Thanks Mom and Dad for the lovely visit and all of your kindness. Also, I want to thank Dan Claymore who did a superb job in my absence.  Dan understood the purpose of Ferrebeekeeper and matched the tone beautifully (although that Japanese fishmarket made me anxious for the oceans and our flatfish friends). Because of his excellent work, I realize I should take more vacations.  Dan also confided in me that he found the project intimidating because of the perspicacity of the polymath readers…so, as always, thank YOU!

When I travel, I carry a little book and a tin of pens and colored pencils (my tin is shaped like a sarcophagus and is interesting in its own right, but more about that later).  I like to quickly draw little colored sketches of what pops into my head or what is in front of me. Sometimes there are realistic. Sometimes they are utterly fanciful.  They are sometimes silly and occasionally sad.  I have dozens of volumes of New York drawings, but I figured I should share all the little sketches I made on my trip (unfortunately nobody posed for me–so there are no portraits). Keep in mind that these are sketches–so they are quick and imperfect.  For example, I drew the one at the top in the car as my family and I went to a wedding in the central mountains of West Virginia, and half way through I realized I didn’t have a dark gray pencil.  Roads are hard for me too (as are straight lines in the moving car).  Maybe this says something about the unnatural yet astonishing nature of our highway infrastructure.

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In the car, I also drew this humorous drawing of a gnome kingdom.  My mother was describing a nuclear weapons facility somewhere which she visited during her Pentagon career, and I apparently misheard the name.  This delightful misunderstanding engendered a whole didactic gnome world. Fribble Fribble!

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This drawing is the corner of the yard at home with autumn cornfields beyond.  Vinnie the barncat is sneaking onto the right corner, catty-corner from the old Amish farmstead.  I wish I could have captured Vinnie better, but Rory the obstreperous adolescent poodle chased him off, before I could catch a better likeness.

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No Ferrebeekeeper sketch collection would be complete without a magical flounder.  This one apparently has a direct connection to the underworld.  More about that in later posts.

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Speaking of the underworld, here is a little drawing of the world beneath the topsoil.  There is a lungfish, a brumating turtle, a mole, a mummy, and an ant colony, but beneath these ordinary items is a whole gnome kingdom.  Don’t worry! I don’t believe in gnomes. Their tireless tiny civilization really represents bacteria to me…oh and humans civilization too (artistic allegory is more of an art than a science).  This macro/micro dichotomy is captured by the shoes of a full sized (albeit anachronistic) human at the top left.

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This is a quick impression of a sunset which was SO beautiful.  If only I could truly have captured more of its sublime luminescent color….

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This is my parents’ pond, which I love more than I can tell you.  Unfortunately a big drip came out of my dip pen and made the ducks look monstrous.  There is a hint of autumn orange in the trees.  This is another one that frustrates me, because reality was so pretty.

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I watched the second half of a documentary about the circus on PBS.  It seems like the circus was more important and central to our nation than I knew (although I should have guessed based on current politics).  I represented the performers as abstract shapes, but the overall composition bears a debt to Cimabue and his Byzantine predecessors.

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Finally here is a picture from the tarmac of John Glenn airport in Columbus.  Naturally the plane moved away as soon as things began to get good. By the way I really enjoyed my flight and I am always surprised that people are so angry about flying.  For the price of a moderately fancy dinner, we can rocket across the continent above the clouds at hundred miles an hour.  We travel like the gods of Greek mythology except people serve us coffee and ginger cookies and, best of all we can truly see the earth from a towering perspective–which is the subject of my last picture which I scrawled as we looped back across Long island west to LaGuardia (I’m glad I am not an air traffic controller).  Sadly this picture did not capture the beauty and complexity of Long Island Sound, and Queens (nor even the lovely billowing cumulus clouds) but at least it made me stare raptly out the window at the ineffable but disturbing beauty of the strange concrete ecosystem we are building.

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Let me know what you think of my little sketches and, now that summer vacation is out of the way, get ready for some October horror and Halloween fun! Oh! Also get ready for Dan Claymore’s book about a human gumshoe in the dark robot future.  It will be out before you know it, and it is going to be amazing!

 

Earth. The blue planet, home of gentle water and thriving life. A rare jewel hurtling through a cold, ancient explosion of dust and gas. Our home. But what the heck does it look like? Satellite imagery has gifted us with an objective view of our planet, and it truly is beautiful. We are indeed unique among the stars. Thank you, science (and, ahem, the cold war space race).

But I’m speaking about our mental understanding of where we live. The shape of the Earth within us. How continents and countries, oceans and seas, exist in our mind’s eye, influencing our affections and prejudices. Our identities depend very much on how we imagine our literal place on Earth. Who we are is where our feet touch.

Try as we might, we’re not great at doing this. The good news, as usual, is we’ve made some extraordinary art in the attempt to know our place.

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The above is a world map created by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri in the year 1193. Not much is known about Al-Istakhri apart from this map and a book with the Tolkienesque title Kitab al-masalik wa-al-mamalik (Book of Routes and Realms). But Al-Istakhri was hardly alone. The 10th century was full of ambitious Islamic mapmakers and world-definers, curious people unafraid of the wider world; a sad contrast to the cringing tribalism so common across the globe today. While I can’t make heads or tails of this map as a piece of cartography, I would be proud to have it painted on the hull of my spaceship. If I had one.

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No, this isn’t a wrinkled stretch of petrified rhino hide. It is actually a 14,000 year old map! Discovered in a cave in Abuantz, Spain, the stone engraving has mountains, streams, large rivers, and shows choice spots for hunting and foraging.  There are even ibex herds marked in the stone, their 14,000 year old grazing habits recorded for all time.

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This is the world as seen by the medieval Christians living in the 1300s. It figures then, that it was drawn using biblical time as its guiding geological principal, instead of the more typical concept of physical space. This more of a spiritual map than an Earthly one. Beginning at the top with Christ looking down upon the Earth, the viewer takes a descending journey from the Garden of Eden all the way down to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules. In the center: Jerusalem. To the right: Africa. Note (if you can on these tiny images) the hideous beasts and frightening monsters lurking along the coasts and at the margins, ready to devour any pilgrim foolhardy enough to venture beyond the watchful eye of the Christian God.

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Lastly, the most “accurate map in the world”. I don’t understand the science of how this was achieved, but you can find it here: http://www.authagraph.com/projects/description.

If you’re anything like me, this map is almost as alien and confusing as the others. My eye doesn’t know where to go! My brain rejects what it sees! My red-blooded American heart is shocked and offended! Look at Africa. Now look at Europe. King Leopold would’ve had an aneurism looking at this map. Shame he didn’t, the bastard. How can we be decent––or merely responsible––tenants when we don’t understand the rooms of the house?

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Today’s post is solely an infographic from the web–but it is a powerful infographic that bears a great deal of attention.  Above are the current nations of the Earth represented by population rather than landmass.  This population cartogram  was created by Max Roser to make people think more clearly about the real nature of the world’s human population.  Each little block represents half a million people.  Countries which loom large in world attention effectively vanish (like Russia, where mismanagement and grief are causing the population to shrink) yet countries which don’t appear in the shrill daily newscasts–places like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia–are revealed as titans.  You can find the original in this article (which is fortunate, since WordPress will undoubtedly make reading the version above effectively impossible), along with a number of additional fascinating graphics.   We will talk more about the meaning of some of this later on, but for now it is worth just scrutinizing the cartogram and marveling at a world where Madagascar is bigger than Australia.

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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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I am glad I had some time off for Labor Day, but the horrendously sad fire at Brazil’s national museum (which destroyed the irreplaceable treasures of that enormous nation) and the continued dumpster fire of incompetence and corruption in Washington sort of make me feel like I shouldn’t write about a happy subject.  Therefore, I am going to link to a very profound article in The Atlantic by Annie Lowrey…about the business and economics of small chicken farms!

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When I say small…I mean “small business”: these are the nightmarish factory farms you read about with tens (or hundreds of?) thousands of chickens stuffed into tiny spaces.  Although the factory farms are locally owned by individual farmers with small staffs they receive the chicks from enormous international poultry companies and sell them back ready for market.  These chicken contractors receive subsidies meant for small farmers, but they are really appendages of huge monopolistic food cartels which are generally the only buyer the chicken rancher can count on.   The small farmer assumes the financial (and legal) risk for running a dangerously skinflint and ethically dubious operation.  He is constrained at every turn by binding contracts, extensive rules, and the threat that the giant business will not buy from him or will otherwise dump him.  Then he sells at slim, slim margins to a single customer (single payer systems can seriously curtail prices, as any WalMart supplier could tell you).

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You can read the article to get all of the details, but the picture which emerges is of a world where huge corporate cartels collude to fix prices for their buyers and then likewise collude to make sure their suppliers take all of the risks.     The article also presents a counter-statement from the monolithic food cartels.  Needless to say, the big corporations do not present themselves as terrifying monopolies which are fixing prices and asphyxiating all competitors as they torture and pollute. Yet the mealymouthed platitudes of their corporate mouthpieces do not much convince the reader that the poultry titans (Purdue, Tysons, et al.)  are anything other than rent-seeking cartels operating beyond the law.  The article also suggests that this situation is quickly becoming the norm beyond chickens…in every other walk of economic life.

The take-away from this troubling story of America’s chattel chicken farmers is the same take-away from a deep dive into almost any large industry: this nation’s big businesses are completely out of control.  We need the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt to come back and lop off some heads and cut some of these fat strutting capons into quarters.

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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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Every night, in my dreams, I watch the world die.  After a long absence, I have returned to find that the life-giving systems which recycle waste back into useable nutrients have failed. My friends are dead, reduced to grotesque rotting skeletons and mouldering lumps, except for a few last survivors who are barely hanging on to an attenuated half-life of hunger and shallow comatose breaths.  I desperately rush to help: I turn on machines to clean away the toxic miasma.  I ply the dying victims with food and oxygen… but the microbial ecosystems upon which everything depend are mortally degraded.  My last friends are too far gone, and they expire painfully while I watch powerless.  What is left is dead world of complete desolation.  The precious seed of life has failed and I know that I am the author of this annihilation.

This is all true. I have such dreams all the time and they torment me more than you can know.  My art and writing—my entire life quest flows from these nightly horrors.  Worst of all, these dreams are based on true experiences from my childhood which color every news article I read.  Every opinion I hear about humankind, the world, and the fate of all living things is overshadowed by these prophetic nightmares. However, before you call the men with big white nets, there is a critical twist which I must share with you. In these dreams, everyone is a fish and the world is an aquarium.

Here is what happened. When I was a child, I wanted to be an ichthyologist.  I took all of my allowance money and holiday presents and saved to build miniature worlds of wonder like the ones I saw in hobbyist magazines.  I read up on each fish species—what they ate and how they lived and what their natural habitat was like.  I learned about nematodes and frozen brine shrimp and undergravel filters to help nitrifying bacteria flourish.

Back then I had a tropical South America tank of beautiful fish from the Amazon—little tetras like colored gems, adorable armored catfish with big kindly cartoon eyes, angelfish with fins like a bride’s veil, a knife fish named Ripley who was like a black electrical ghost.  I had a tank of Tanganyika cichlids from East Africa (near humankind’s first home).  They lurked in volcanic rocks and I could see their huge mouths (for safely rearing their young) frowning from the crevices.  At the apex of my involvement with the hobby, I even had a marine tank filled with fluorescent damselfish, shrimp like rainbows, and a clever triggerfish which was busy excavating a private lair into a hunk of red tube coral.  It was magical! The miniature worlds I built were incredible.  I even had a classical tank of google-eyed goldfish with multicolored pebbles and a porcelain mermaid in the center.

But each of these little glass paradises failed and died.  Sometimes they were destroyed slowly by unknown bacterial mishaps which caused the ammonia or nitrogen cycle to shift off-kilter.  Sometimes a heater would go out or get flipped to maximum setting and thermal shock would kill my poor pets. The Tanganyika cichlids got stressed out over territory and ate each other whole with their big mouths (just like NY real-estate developers!).  Other times the apocalypse was swift: algal blooms or invasive fungi or diseases which I unknowingly brought from the pet store would ravage the tank.  Once, the glass of my Amazon-basin aquarium shattered while we were out shopping.  My family returned to find the ceilings dripping water.  The dying angelfish were lying gasping on the wet pebbles at the bottom of the empty tank. It was horrible. Even the goldfish ultimately died.  A weird dropsy caused their gleaming orange bodies to bulge out and pop apart.  I love animals and some of the fish had real personality and emotions (in addition to being beautiful) but, despite tremendous heartfelt effort, my stewardship killed them all.

And these experiences haunt me at night. My dreams used to involve a few aquariums which I would try to save…but as I have grown up, the dreams have grown up too.  Now sometimes the setting will be a sere coastline which seems uninhabited at first, until I realize the landscape itself is made of giant earth colored fish which are slowly dying.  Lately the dreams have moved into the forest where the trees are made of deadwood and the boulders are the hulks of once-living things.  As adulthood corrodes away my figurative dreams of success, strength, love, and meaning, my literal nighttime dreams grow bigger and worse.  In dreams, I have walked through cities of contagion, plague, and starvation.  At night I have sailed a junk across an ink black ocean with nothing in it but slips of charred paper and plastic bags floating like ghosts.

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This is why zoos and aquariums (the big public ones) fascinate me. Surely teams of professionals with hundred million dollar endowments can surely keep our animal friends alive!  Except…they can’t always.  Even with all of the best veterinarians, ecologists, and biologists, working night and day, things still go wrong in weird unexpected ways (by the way, this somewhat pitiless assessment doesn’t mean I stand against zoos: I see them as a combination of ambassador, laboratory, and Noah’s ark).  My first job was as an intern at a synthetic ecosystem designed by the world’s foremost designer of synthetic ecosystems…and it was a beautiful study in gradual failure and unexpected interactions.  Ecology is complicated and we don’t understand it very well

We are living through one of the great meltdowns which periodically occur throughout Life’s 4.5 billion year history [eds. note: if religious people can capitalize genitive pronouns for God, then Ferrebeekeeper can capitalize a word which we are using to betoken all of the living things from Earth throughout all of time].  It doesn’t take a geologist’s comprehension of the End-Permian mass extinction to imagine ourselves as a toxic black smear in a rock column of the future.  I know from reading eschatology that I am not the only person who is tormented by dreams of Armageddon.

At the same time humankind is ballooning in number and appetite, we are also learning at an exponential rate.  My experiences with little terrariums and fishtanks does not need to foreshadow the fate of orcas, vinegar scorpions, honeybees, banana trees…and humans. We can use our hard-won knowledge to keep the world’s precious living things alive!  We can even carry the sacred seed of life into the heavens.  Space would be a better place for us anyway—a place where we can truly spread our wings and grow exponentially towards godhood.  It is what we have always wanted…and it is tantalizingly close.

One of my favorite poems has what might be my favorite quotation in English “Learn from your dreams what you lack.” I HAVE learned that…and now I am telling you too. We lack a comprehensive understanding of ecology and the life sciences.  We lack the political cohesion and organizational skills to make effective use of what we already know.  Those things are not outside of our grasp.   Most of the smartest and hardest-working people here spend their lives ripping people off with complicated financial products and elaborate tech products (which are really only online rolodexes or digital catalogs or what-have-you).  What a waste! The bankers could throw away their nasty spreadsheets, the doctors could stop filling out pointless insurance forms, the engineers could stop making wireless blenders and cryptocurrency. We could all start building space cities NOW..this very day (although the first generation of those cities are going to have some troubles with the synthetic oceans).  The possibilities are endless!  Our knowledge and imagination can take us to where we have always dreamed of being.  Our failure to be smart, brave, and creative will take us all to one of my dead festering nightmares.

Those fish should not have died in vain. We should not die in vain either. Let’s build a future worth having.

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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle, httppasserelles.bnf.fr

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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