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Here is an image of a wild horse made fifteen to twenty thousand years ago by a Cro-Magnon artist in the caves of Lascaux (which are now in France but were then in the hunting lands of these ancient hunter-gatherers).   The horse, which looks for all the world like a Przewalski’s horse, is painted with the carbon black of charcoal and with a swoosh of yellow umber.  This week accidentally became sponsored by the color yellow (maybe to celebrate the new Thai king–since yellow is the color of royalty in Thailand as in China).  Yellow ochre (which is a clay that derives its hue from hydrated iron hydroxide) is one of the most ancient and straightforward pigments–yet it is beautiful and lasts forever.  It is in my paintbox too, next to all sorts of strange synthetic pigments and esoteric heavy metals.

Anthropologists tell us that this horse served some unknown ritualistic purpose for the artists and their original audience (whose names…and whose very language are completely lost), but that strikes me as a bit simplistic.  No doubt I would say the same thing about any mystery artwork from an unknown culture.   What IS obvious is that the Cro-Magnon recognized how closely they lived to nature and they admired the the strength and grace of the animals they preyed on and lived next to.  It goes without saying that they recognized how important their fellow creatures were, because they knew that without these animals they would die. They would literally starve to death and freeze.

I wonder sometimes if that vital piece of knowledge has gotten lost to the artists of today who are busy contextualizing the injustice of social paradigms or examining the insider/outsider dynamics of status hierarchy.   We no longer need Equus ferus for food or clothing.  We don’t even need their domesticated descendants for milk and transportation.  But we are as inextricably a part of nature as ever.  Even if we must exploit it to live we must protect it and save it or we will die.  There is no outside of nature for us. We are nature’s progeny as surely as were the Cro-Magnon…or the wisents and aurochs which they lived off of.   Great art lives in a timeless modernity.  Look upon the round (pregnant?) yellow mare and think about what it really means.  In 20,000 years nobody will know our names or who we were.  Our language might be lost…and all of our works except for a few strange oddball things will be gone.  But the people of then (if there are any) will surely know us by what we took.  Will they admire us for what we understood and preserved or will they just curse us as vicious primitives who lost life’s most critical lesson that all living things are connected?

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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Maha Vajiralongkorn

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

It is Maundy Thursday–the day before Good Friday (when the Last Supper took place in the Passion of Christ).  To celebrate, I have drawn a picture in the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry with me during my workday).  Based on some comments and feedback, it is not completely clear that everybody sees the plight of my allegorical flounder in the desired light.  Perhaps this tiny spiritual drawing will clarify the symbolic meaning somewhat.

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“Take, eat: this is my body” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) colored pencil and ink on paper

Jesus was a fisherman too…as were the first four disciples–that is why his first symbol was a fish.  Anyway, Happy Easter! We will be back tomorrow with the annual Good Friday post!

I keep thinking about yesterday’s post and worrying about how I could have expressed my concepts concerning future space settlement better.  I also want to vehemently state that I don’t want for humankind to use up the world and then move on:  whatever happens, there is only one earth. We need to stop abusing it and using it up with our follies and treat it like the sacred blue jewel it is.  We will come back to this with better explanations and more cogent ideas, but right now the haunting thoughts of ecocide and possible roads to salvation won’t leave me alone.  I am going to take refuge from visions of a ruined world with one of my favorite things: Flemish religious art!

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Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v (Noah’s ark). St Augustine, De civitate dei. Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Except, of course, there is no escaping this concept (especially in art of the Low Countries from an era of constant warfare and plague).  The idea of humans ruining the world with wickedness and then escaping from the devastation they caused while carrying the seeds of future life is found in the first known work of literature, “Gilgamesh,” (a story which more nakedly addresses environmental concerns than almost anything from the twentieth century), and, likewise, the story of Noah and the great flood takes a star turn in The Pentateuch/Bible. The above picture is actually an illustration from “The City of God” (a work which we may need to circle back to as we look at cities, morality, and humankind’s relationship with the larger universe), yet it is instantly familiar as chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.   Here is the relevant passage (Genesis 7) with all of the rolling thunder & sublime beauty of the King James Bible:

15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.

16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.

17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.

18 And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.

19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.

Even in this brief passage, the Bible contradicts itself!  But, even if you do not think The Good Book is the only source of worthwhile knowledge, it is certainly a peerless work of literature.  The illuminated picture perfectly captures the spirit of the poetry.  All of the remaining humans and the last animals are packed together in the ark, silent and solemn staring out at the dying world.  All animosity between predator and prey is forgotten as their frightened eyes take in the divine flood, which is captured with all of the ghastly verisimilitude that the artists could muster.  Forests and drowning creatures drift by the tallest church steeples of a city as rich and poor alike perish in the inundation.

For at least as long as we have been able to set down our ideas in words and images, we have looked upon the changes we are making to the world with troubled eyes and we have wondered what it means.  I am not sure that our anxiety or our heavy hearts will alter the ultimate destiny of humanity, but I think the fact that we are always worrying about whether we have corrupted the way of righteousness might be a point in our favor.

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Every year for Saint Patrick’s Day, I have put up a post about Celtic mythology/folklore.  In the past these have been about magical beings like leprechauns, the Leannán Sídhe, or the horrifying Sluagh. Sometimes these posts have been complete stories like the tale of Oisín and the princess from Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young (shudder).  These myths are metaphors for the beauty and sadness of life.  they focus on the impossible paradoxes of people’s hearts.  Yet lately my personal focus has been on fish-themed art which is symbolic of humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with nature itself–our never-ending drive to consume the world of life that we are inextricably part of.  What if there were a tale that combined these elements?

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Well…in the most ancient Irish myths there was a figure known as the bradán feasa, “the salmon of knowledge.”  The salmon was an ordinary salmon who ate nine hazelnuts which fell from the tree of knowledge and tumbled into the mortal world.  The fish knew all of the wisdom of nature: it knew the reason the sun shines, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the secrets of the green forest…it even knew the hidden truths of people’s hearts and why they do what they do. 

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For years and years the great sage Finegas fished the River Boyne trying to catch the salmon so he could devour it and gain its knowledge of all things.  The salmon (obviously) already knew what Finegas was up to, and it was no easy prey, but alas, it also knew the end of the myth and so, one day, it reluctantly succumbed to Finegas’ hook.  Finegas was exultant.  Soon he would know all of the hidden secrets of the world. He gave the fish to his apprentice, Fionn, to cook along with explicit instructions not to eat a single bite of the fish. Dutifully Fionn built a great blaze and set about cooking the enormous fish, but as he repositioned the bronze cooking vessel, he burnt his thumb and he unthinkingly popped his finger into his mouth.  

Fish Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink and colored pencil

Fish Cook (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Ink and Colored Pencil

All of the salmon’s knowledge from the divine tree of knowledge flowed through one drop of fish fat into the mind of Fionn.  Awakening from his slumber to partake of his repast, Finegas looked into the eyes of his servant and he knew at once that the divine secrets of the universe were for the next generation not for the aged sage.  That servant boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, would become the greatest hero of Ireland, the eponymous figure at the center of the Fenian cycle.  His deeds and his loves were legend and his myth will never die.  Indeed, Fionn himself will never die: he sleeps…elsewhere… beyond the turnings of the world.  One day, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need he will reawaken and bring back the salmon’s knowledge to the dying world. But that is another story…   

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I haven’t written very much about the current state of politics lately, not just because President Trump makes me angry & unhappy, but also because the deadlock in Washington (and precipitous national decline) make me sad and anxious.  I would like to continue this precedent:  paying breathless attention to all of Trump’s stunts and bullying just make him stronger (although I do think it is worth noting that he has been signing Bibles as though he were the author–and his devout Christian followers absolutely love it!). However, the latest enormities fall in the realm of policy and planning, so let’s take a look at the proposed 2020 Discretionary budget which was released by the White House yesterday. Predictably, this budget delivers slight funding increases to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, while stripping safety net and environmental programs fairly drastically.  I suppose this is not unexpected under any Republican president, even one such as this one, (although it raises eyebrows after the colossal tax giveaway to the rich).  However, what truly raises eyebrows in the budget are the appalling cuts to scientific and medical research.  Here are the actual numbers:

Proposed Discretionary Budget Changes

All dollar amounts are in billions.

Department Or Agency
2019 Budget (Estimate)
2020 Request
$ change
% change
Defense1 $685.0 $718.3 $33.4 +5%
Veterans Affairs $86.6 $93.1 $6.5 +8%
Health and Human Services $101.7 $89.6 -$12.1 -12%
Education $70.5 $62.0 -$8.5 -12%
Homeland Security $48.1 $51.7 $3.6 +7%
Housing and Urban Development
HUD gross total (excluding receipts) $52.7 $44.1 -$8.6 -16%
HUD receipts -$9.3 -$6.5 $2.8 -30%
State Department and other international programs2 $55.8 $42.8 -$13.0 -23%
Energy $35.5 $31.7 -$3.8 -11%
National Nuclear Security Administration $15.1 $16.5 $1.3 9%
Other Energy $20.4 $15.2 -$5.2 -25%
NASA $20.7 $21.0 $0.3 +1%
Justice $29.9 $29.2 -$0.7 -2%
Agriculture $24.4 $20.8 -$3.6 -15%
Interior $14.0 $12.5 -$1.5 -11%
Commerce3 $12.3 $12.3 * <1%
Labor $12.1 $10.9 -$1.2 -10%
Transportation $27.3 $21.4 -$5.9 -22%
Treasury $12.9 $13.1 $0.2 +2%
National Science Foundation $7.8 $7.1 -$0.7 -9%
Environmental Protection Agency $8.8 $6.1 -$2.8 -31%
Army Corps of Engineers $7.0 $4.8 -$2.2 -31%
Small Business Administration $0.7 $0.7 * -5%
Other agencies $21.3 $19.1 -$2.1 -10%

Notes

* $50 million or less
1. Includes $9.2 billion for emergency border security and hurricane recovery funding
2. Includes funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury international programs and 12 international agencies
3. Appropriations for 2019 are incomplete.

Imagine a colony of little shrimp frolicking on the bottom of the ocean when suddenly the earth opens up its mouth and swallows one of the shrimp: the sandy substrate was actually a lurking flatfish hunting for dinner.  In the shadowy depths even bigger predators are in turn hunting the flounder.  Glistening hooks with sparkling bait descend from unknown realms above.

The Great Flounder of Babylon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) Ink on Paper

The Great Flounder is a symbolic avatar of the worldwide ecosystem–a seemingly adversarial realm of constant cutthroat competition.  Yet closer study of ecology reveals that living things are far more dependent on each other than the predator/prey relationship makes it seem.  If a flounder eats a shrimp, the world moves on.  If all of the shrimp vanish, or if all of the flounder are fished out of the ocean, other dominoes begin to fall and the whole web of life starts to dwindle and fold inwards.

This brings us to humankind, a worldwide collective of cunning primate colonies which are in ferocious violent competition with each other.

Fluke Baby (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Mixed Media

If there were ever an aymmetrical animal, t’is surely us.  Our history and our science have given us a unique place in the world ecosphere–but we are not dealing well with our new prominence. This piscine artwork reflects our past and our present.  In the flounder’s tragicomic eyes we can perhaps glimpse our future of glory, grandeur, and doom.

Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib’d, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food,
And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

An Essay on Man: Epistle I, Alexander Pope

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

Well…it is the middle of the dreariest month.  There is nothing but gray cold outside and there are no prospects for romance or success anywhere on the horizon.  Spring will probably never come and civilization seems to be sinking…all of which means it is time once again for Valentine’s Day! [jazz hands] This frustrating winter pseudo-holiday is a sad vestigial leftover of Lupercalia, a once-great Roman holiday of ritual cleansing and savage fertility.  Yet in the modern world  seems to have become an affair for Hallmark and Brach’s (and maybe, somehow, the martyred Saint Valentine?).  Nothing about this holiday makes much sense (aside from the ancient human need for romance and affection) so I have prepared a somewhat nonsensical GIF to celebrate!

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Behold! It is the Great Flounder himself (or herself?) looking a bit like a cross between an anatomical diagram and a puff pastry.  Hopefully this rudimentary animation will help you enjoy Valentine’s Day, but, if not, you can always betake yourself to the online oracle and ask the all-knowing fish your questions about love, life, and the mysteries of what is in your sweetheart’s innermost heart.  Don’t take the answers too seriously though, since rumor has it that Great Flounder 2.0 is about to roll out with vastly enhanced psychic abilities!  Let me know if you have any questions or comments and rest assured that you are certainly MY favorite valentine (and will continue to be so for as long as you come here to read these posts).  Ferrebeekeeper adores you and believes that you can make this day special just by being yourself!

 

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