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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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Usually news from Florida is pretty weird or disturbing, so it is nice to have a feel-good story for a change!  Recently a camper hiking in Ocala National Forest spotted something which hasn’t been seen in Marion County since 1969–a beautiful rainbow…snake. The rainbow snake (Farancia erytrogramma) is a secretive Colubrid snake which is rarely seen since it lives most of its life underwater or underground.  The snakes live on eels, minnows, tadpoles, and amphibians which are eaten live.  Not only are rainbow snakes fossorial/aquatic creatures of the underworld, they also tend to live in the most remote portions of densely forested swamps (which may explain why it has been so long since anyone has seen one in this region just north of  Orlando).  The snakes grow to a maximum size of 90 to 165 centimeters (2.5 to 5.5 feet) and are non-venomous.

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The rainbow snake sounds like a Disney creation (or a primordial deity) but its common name is really just an acknowledgement of its beautiful coloration.  The rainbow snake is black, but it has gorgeous bands of brightest yellow and scarlet running vertically down the entire length of its body.  Additionally some specimens has bright white/cream rings running horizontally across these stripes (or buttermilk outlines around scales).  the whole creature looks like a fancy trapper keeper from 1989!

I’m not the only one who remembers these things, right?

Because they live in blackwater creeks, cypress swamps, or deep inside mud flats, it is difficult to assess the population health of rainbow snakes and whether they are being out-competed  (or straight-up eaten!) by competitors like invasive constrictors and pythons. However the fact that they are being spotted in old habitats seems like fairly encouraging news–particularly in a news cycle where the stories of furtive wild creatures grows increasingly bleak.

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The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!

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A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).

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Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

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This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.

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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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After last week, you are probably thinking one thing: “what about these gobies?”

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Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a post on the invasive round gobies from the Black Sea which have showed up in the Great Lakes.  The blobtastic little fish sneaked into the lakes by means of ballast water carried across the great oceans in international freighters and now they are wrecking up the place.   The gobies are outcompeting larger fish for resources.  They are devouring native mussels.  To quote the USGS website, “This species has been found to prey on darters, other small fish, and Lake Trout eggs and fry in laboratory experiments. They also may feed on eggs and fry of sculpins, darters, and Logperch (Marsden and Jude, 1995) and have also been found to have a significant overlap in diet preference with many native fish species.” Particularly hard hit are mottled sculpins, little round pebble-looking native fish which occupy(ied?) the ecological niche which the gobies are now taking over.  the fish horror stories contain some rather sad anecdotes of gobies biting sculpins and chasing them away and taking their lunch money and otherwise bullying them on the lake bed.  It is a rough world out there.

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This mottled sculpin looks disgruntled

So are we just fated to dwell in a gobified dystopia from now on?  Well, actually, there are some positive things which the gobies are accomplishing and not everybody is sad they are here.  I was joking about gobies eating zebra mussels, the horrible invasive freshwater mussels which are filling up the Great Lakes and causing havoc to power plant and shipping infrastructure, however, it turns out the gobies do happily eat zebra mussels.  Additionally the gobies are not just eating other animals: they are also being eaten by them.  Because of the proliferation of round gobies, the previously endangered Lake Erie water snakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum) have become more prolific in number and the snakes are much fatter and happier (insomuch as we have records for these reptilian parameters).  The water snakes have been so successful at hunting gobies that they have been removed from the endangered species list (back before the act was watered down). 

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Why, here’s a great writing mass of ’em! The world is getting better!

Larger gamefish like walleye, yellow perch, and bass and are eating the gobies, as are piscivorous birds like gulls, cormorants, plovers, and bald eagles(!).  Unfortunately there is downside to this as well.  Zebra mussels filter decaying cladophora algae out of the water.  This algae contains C. botulinum, a bacteria which contains the infamously dangerous botulism toxin.  If the predatory birds eat too many gobies they can be killed by the botulism and several mass die-offs have occurred.

What is the point of all of this (other, than, you know, the fact that it is happening in the world)?  I suppose this article is really about ecosystems–the complex webs of life we depend upon.  they are fragile in unexpected ways and resilient in unexpected ways.  We need to think about them more and learn more about them (witness what happened in all of my aquariums).  Thanks for the mindfulness lesson, ugly invasive goby!

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One of life’s lesser disappointments is how boring everything here in America looks.  I am not sure if this is a result of banal & puritanical tastes of home buyers or if the regulatory capture which is such an aspect of life here has allowed developers and zoning boards to prevent everything but prefab ranches and ugly co-ops.  Probably it is a result of a combination of these things (along with a real desire by builders to keep people safe and an equal desire to make things that appeal to everyone). Anyway I am looking forward to a future of wilder and more eclectic buildings and we can already see inklings of such possibilities by looking abroad.

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For example this is “Quetzalcoatl’s Nest” a complex of ten different apartments built by renowned Mexican architect Javier Senosiain in Naucalpan, Mexico.  Senosiain is an advocate of organic architecture, which takes its inspiration from a combination of preexisting landscape features and natural forms.  Quetzalcoatl’s Nest is built in a hilly landscape of natural caverns, serpentine ridges and old oak groves.   looking at this landscape, Senosiain saw the shape of a colossal mythological serpent.  He incorporated a large cave into the building as the snake’s head and then set out to build other textures of snake ribs and scales and serpentine patterns into the compound.

 

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The fantastical lair includes water gardens, strange modern hideaways, and fantastic stained glass show spaces in a hard-to-describe architectural tour-de-force which spreads over 16,500 square feet.   I have included a selection of pictures here, but you should really find a video somewhere so you can get a better sense of what is going on.  Why couldn’t the Barclay’s Center people hire this guy so that their rattlesnake could look awesome instead of sinister and corporate.

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