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It is October, the scary season of the year, and Ferrebeekeeper is working towards our annual Halloween special feature at the end of the month. Before we get there however, let’s pause to appreciate an exceedingly beautiful snake, Drepanoides anomalus, the black-collared snake of South America. The tiny but handsome snake can be found in the neotropical forests of the great Southern continent in a range stretching from French Guyana across Brazil, and from Colombia down through Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. For those of you following along on a globe, that is an epic range…and yet, so little is known about this tiny snake here in the north (or anywhere online, for that matter) that it is hard to speak sensibly about its habits and proclivities. It is a rear-fanged snake notable for a nocturnal lifestyle and for its propensity for eating eggs of he many many sorts found in its region. This genus contains only the single living species. What we can say for certain is that this is an endearingly winsome little snake with appealing eyes and a gorgeous red body. I can’t decide whether its tiny white headband looks like a clergyman’s collar or like a cartoon bandage, but it does make me think we could do better in English than “black collared snake.” If anyone out there knows anything about this mysterious creature, please let us know!

Roller Summer Sunset (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Labor Day is over. Another summer is dying away. I wanted to celebrate the summer (it is my favorite season!) without giving into the elegiac feelings of fall, so I drew this sunset drawing of merriment in Central Park. As always my muse is the incomparable Lillian Newberg, doyenne of the resurrected New York roller disco scene (would that I could participate–but I can no more dance…or walk…or stand still…on roller skates than I can fly like Superman). Around her are strange & mysterious circus folk with hotdogs and ice cream, while a rather splendid toucan preens at the treeline. The sloth is not a roller skater either, but at least he can drag himself to the party on a skateboard. A langur turns the magical disco jack-in-the-box, while various angelic folk fly around the heavens as per their wont. The scene is delightful except for the tragic sentient lemon and the rubber chicken (which has been accidentally discharged from a novelty cannon). The snake represents moral choice whereas the flounder suggests that our appetites will always be lurking in the immediate foreground of anything we do. I don’t know what is up with that fancy garter belt. Somebody probably dropped it there by accident and it has nothing to do with the larger parable…

Hi everyone! Kindly forgive me for the terrible paucity of posts during the last week. I am back home, visiting my family in the rural fastnesses of old Appalachia/the post-industrial hinterlands of the Ohio Valley. It is so beautiful out here in August, when great cumulus clouds blow up over the soybean fields and oakwoods. Anyway, expect some pictures and posts about country living when I get back to my workstation in Brooklyn. In the meantime here is a drawing from my little moleskine sketchbook to tide you over.

Naumachia (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) watercolor and ink on paper

This is my vision of the fearsome naumachia, the naval gladiatorial combat of the ancient Greco-Roman world. In order to sate the Roman audience’s lust for novelty (and, um, blood, of course), the masters of the ancient games would sometimes flood the amphitheaters and host miniature ship battles on these tiny lakes. In my version there are some sea monsters thrown into the mix (and a saucy sea goddess sitting on the proscenium arch with a eurypterid in one arm and a merbabe in the other). In the upper left a port city carries on the commerce of the time, while the ruins of the even more ancient world can be seen in the upper right. In the lower right corner of the painting, citizens stumble around a peculiar lichyard with a tall mausoleum. Prdictably the pleasure garden in the lower left corner is quite empty. Perhaps it is for exclusive use of the nobles (or maybe I forgot to draw anyone in there). Why didn’t I at least include a peacock or some other ornamental garden beast? Last of all, a group of celebrity heralds, ringmasters, and spokespeople direct the attention of the audience from center stage. They could almost be mistaken for the game masters…and yet there is something curiously pupeetlike about them too, isn’t there? Who is really directing this theater of maritime carnage and for what purpose?

Fortunately this is a fantasy of the ancient world and the maritime devastation, pointless posturing, and savage competition have nothing to do with the way we live now…or DO they? [sinister chord]

On an unrelated note, I will be on vacation a bit longer. I truly apologize for how few blog posts I have posted lately and I solemnly vow to do better when I return from the countryside rested and refreshed. For now, check out my Instagram page, and I will see if I can find a fresh act to throw into the amphitheater for your delectation while I am gone. Perhaps the great science-fiction author, Dan Claymore, can once again tear his vision away from the dark world of the near future and take the helm. Or maybe I can find a skipper…er… author with entirely fresh perspectives (and a different moral compass) to sail Ferrebeekeeper to uncharted realms. So prepare yourself for anything…or for nothing at all.

“Pythia – the priestess at Delphi – making oracles at the new moon” (Emile Bayard, 1886) engraving

Here is a beautiful nineteenth century engraving which illustrates how Second Empire French artists imagined the pythia of Apollo. This image is particularly dramatic since the pythia is not only hopped up on divination fumes but is also wrestling with some rather alarming serpents (they don’t quite seem to be pythons, but I suppose when giant hissing snakes are wrapped around you, it is pointless to quibble about herpetology). Although the light falling on the pythia makes her pop out from the rest of the work to such an extent that, at first, she almost seems alone, my favorite part of the print are the interpreters/querents in the shadowy background who are pursing their lips and furrowing their brows as they try to parse out the divine meaning of the oracle’s presentation. This print was created by the master illustrator Émile Bayard who is still famous for his heart-wrenching image of Cosette from “Les Miserables.” Additionally, Bayard was one of the first-ever science fiction artists: he attempted to portray Jules Verne’s space travel novels based on scientific and natural sources (as opposed to basing heavenly imagery on myth and religion–as had been the norm up until the end of the 19th century).

Today is tax day here in America, so perhaps some readers may also feel as though they are wrestling with wrathful serpents of unnatural creation. Alternately some readers may feel that they need to ask a mystical oracle for special clarification (ed’s note: Don’t do any such thing! If you have tax-based questions, please consult a tax professional or contact the IRS). Although it has been a while since I refreshed the answers, you can always head over to The Great Flounder, to ask the piscine sage for secrets of the dark underwater depths! Good luck!

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!

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

One of the things about humans which troubles me greatly is how anthropocentric our worldview is.  Even among close friends and clever scientists, I am shocked at how many people regard animals as, I don’t know..soulless machines made of meat.  This haughty view breaks down somewhat when it comes to talking about mammals, who are, after all, our immediate family and self-evidently share our preferences and our dangerous cunning (and our limbic system), but it is still disturbingly widespread in reference to reptiles or fish, to say nothing of poor invertebrates.

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A group of eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) hanging out together

That is why I cherish the subject of today’s post.  Scientists at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada recently conducted a clever study which established that snakes have friends.  To be more explicit, the study demonstrated that eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) have social preferences for particular eastern garter snakes.  The young serpents seek out the company of these preferred associates (apart from any mating or hunting needs).  After obtaining snakes from heterogeneous sources and carefully marking them, the researchers established their sociability by carefully filming their behavior in a large terrarium.habitat.  You can check out their methodology and conclusions over at National Geographic, but their work seems to have definitely established the existence of snake social preferences.

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Speaking of preferences, eastern garter snakes are a lifelong favorite of mine, ever since childhood when the colorful little snakes would bask in a climbing rosebush beside a stone wall in our front yard in Cape Cod.  It is particularly gratifying (albeit somewhat unsurprising) to hear that they are in the vanguard of studies concerning reptilian emotions and social niceties.  I am looking forward to learning more about the behaviors and feelings of reptiles.  After all, humankind shares kinship with them too (since today’s reptiles share distant reptilian ancestors with us). I wonder what people will make of this garter snake friendship study.  Nobody has commented on my post about rat compassion (a subject which I found very moving and troubling), so perhaps the sociability of particular snakes will not move people’s hearts much either.  Yet as more and more of these studies emerge, scientists are shedding some of their own cold aloofness and acknowledging how prevalent fellowship, compassion, and complex emotions are among our fellow living beings.  What we fire-wielding apes, selfish, angry, and tragic, will make of such wisdom remains anybody’s guess… Friendship implies ethical choices and didn’t somebody say knowledge of right and wrong was a sole province of humankind?  Clearly that was a self-aggrandizing lie.

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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tonight is the last night of Carnival…tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which begins the ritual austerities of Lent (which means spring is now truly on the way).  I grew up reading eye-popping tales set in Venice during Carnival (or in Medieval France, or New Orleans, or Rio de Janeiro), yet somehow I always miss out on carnival’s over-the-top pageantry and mad frolics.  I blame this on my Methodist upbringing: Protestants conceive of Lent very differently than Catholics! (even fallen Methodists) but maybe I should blame the weird schedule. I am sure there are carnival festivities going on somewhere in Brooklyn right now, but, come on, it is Tuesday night.  I just got home from work: there is no time to put on 50,000 beads and learn a samba routine.

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\Anyway, to capture this strange mixture of temptation, wariness, sin, redemption, and multi-color ultra-spectacle (and as a call-back to yesterday’s rainbow serpent post), I have decided to post pictures of some snake themed carnival floats from around the world/internet.

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The snake is obviously an important carnival animal, and I can see no other interpretation of the reptile other than in its Biblical role as a representative of temptation and sin (which are obviously themselves major components of carnival).  Perhaps the snake’s ribbon morphology is a secondary component (since this is a great shape for floats).  It is worth noting though the the West African religions which syncretized with Christianity to create the vodou faiths of the New World are very snake oriented.  One of the most august Vodou loas is the great fertility/father figure Dumballah, who is represented as a great serene river serpent.  I wonder if  he might be an influence on some of these displays.

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PuppetsUp Parade 2013

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Hopefully these ARE carnival snakes.  As I was looking for them, I kept finding Chinese “Year of the Snake” floats and Saint Patrick’s Day “Get these snakes out of Ireland” snakes (to say nothing of Hindu cobras and Australian snakes of some unknown provenance).  Maybe parade-goers simply love snakes because all parades kind of are snakes at some level.  Or perhaps there is a deeper cultural connection which eludes me on Tuesday night and must be looked into further in snake-themed posts of the future.  In the meantime Happy Shrove Tuesday!  Go eat some colorful cake and start getting ready for a new season!

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