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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

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God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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I’m sorry that my posts were a bit exiguous the last couple of weeks.  A whole host of summer events showed up all at once on the docket (and summer is the slowest season for blog readership anyway), but I didn’t mean to write so infrequently.  To get back to form, let’s present a classic topic which reappears again and again in these pages—snake deities.   Ferrebeekeeper has presented some of the great snake deities from throughout world history: Nüwa, the benevolent creator goddess of China; Apep, the awesome universe snake god of darkness from Ancient Egypt; the Rainbow Serpent who is the central figure from the Australian aborigines’ dreamtime; Angitia;  Ningishzida; and even Lucifer, the adversary from the Bible, who tempted humankind to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Today we visit Fiji, where the greatest god of the islands is Degei.  Degei is the creator of the islands, the father (of sorts) to humankind, and the all-knowing judge of the underworld (he throws most souls into a great lake where they gradually sink into a different realm, but he selects a few choice heroes to live forever in Buroto Paradise. He combines the attributes of a great many of the other snake gods we have visited into a single mighty entity.

Degei’s story is of great interest, not just because of its beauty, power, and mystery, but also because of its substantial similarity to other other world creation myths (just read it and see if you don’t lend new credence to some of the strange things that brother Carl had to say about the universality of mythical narratives).

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In the beginning, existence was nothing but endless ocean and gloaming.  Two entities dwelled within this dawn world: the female hawk Turukawa who flew continuously above the ocean, and the great serpent Degei who dwelled upon the surface.

But eventually Turukawa needed to nest.  Degei pushed up islands so that her two eggs would have a safe place for incubation and he heated the eggs with his body and protected them with a father’s love (I suppose you will have to ask questions about paternity to Degei himself since my sources are strangely mute about this key detail).  When the eggs hatched, two tiny humans emerged: the first man and the first woman.

Degei created a beautiful garden for these children, planting fruit trees and flowers all around.  He housed the two in a vesi tree, but he kept the boy separate from the girl.  As they grew up he taught them the secrets of nature and of the ocean and the sky.  They had abundant fruit from the banana trees, but he hid two sacred plants from them: the dalo (taro) and the yam.  These fruits of the gods were forbidden to the children, for they cannot be eaten without fire (and fire was a special secret of the gods).

However, eventually the children grew into adulthood and met each other and fell in love.  To provide for their livelihood they needed more than fruit and flowers, and so they petitioned Degei for the secrets of fire and agriculture.  Since they were now adults, he could not in good conscience keep these secrets from them any longer, and so the great serpent taught the children about the forbidden fruits (yams and taro) and how to safely cook them with the flame he presented to humankind.  In some respects, this giant reptile almost seems more enlightened about raising children than certain angry creators we could name, but, um, who is to judge right from wrong?

Legend says that Degei still lives in a cave near the summit of the mountain Uluda.  Since his descendants have grown so numerous and prosperous, he does not take the same interest in them which he did in the first days.  Mostly he eats and sleeps away the long eons of dotage. Yet his power remains awesome.  When he grows agitated the world shakes and tsunamis and deluges sweep Fiji.

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It has been a while since I wrote about flowering trees for the garden.  April and May have passed (and the garden’s most extravagant flower show), but are there trees which flower in June.  Allow me to present the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) a lovely small tree from Southeast Asia and Japan which blooms with a proliferation of one inch long white bells along its graceful branches all throughout June. The tree is small, growing only to 5 meters (15 feet) in height and width.  The tree is known for asymmetry and has the appearance of a large bonsai tree covered in white blossoms.  As the summer gets hotter these blossoms give way to rock-hard seeds which look like pearl pendants.

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I don’t have a Japanese snowbell, but one can always dream…and we have these lovely pictures to look at until the opportunity arises to plant one.

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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Here in America, we don’t hear a great deal about the Sahel, the great arid scrubland which stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coast to coast to the Red Sea coast just south of the Sahara Desert (I think the only time I have mentioned it, in thousands of blog posts, is when I mentioned the world’s most deadly snakes).  The Sahel is vast: it stretches for 5,400 km (3,360 mi).  It crosses some of the poorest and most sparsely inhabited countries of Earth.  Great droughts have hit the Sahel bringing starvation and horror to the semi-nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers who make up most of its population.  It is the scene of sectarian fighting, terrorism, instability and violence.  Most ominously, the desert is coming.  The world’s largest desert is expanding, pushing southwards into the Sahel (which in turn pushes further into the Sudanean grassland which lies south of the scrublands).  Imagine if half the United States was scrubland like the California chaparral (but with lions and Boko Haram); now imagine if turned to insane deadly emptiness like Death Valley or the Rub’ al Khali [shudders].

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The people of the Sahel are tough people.  Their ancestors survived the great drought from 1450 to 1700.  They have conceived a crazy titanic super project to prevent the Sahel from becoming the Sahara.  It is a beautiful and stupendous concept—one of the great endeavors which is being attempted right now, but since it is not being undertaken by the great democracies or by mega-corporations or by the Chinese (who are experiencing one of their periodic scary resurgences under a ruthless and driven Emperor), it has not been much in the news.

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The project is to create a great green wall to keep the desert out.  This wall will stretch across the entire continent and it will be alive, made up of millions upon millions of trees.  The green wall will stretch though 11 countries (but 9 neighboring countries will also contribute). It is envisioned as a living wonder of the world: a vibrant forest where once there was wasteland.  The hard lessons of China’s Green Wall and the Algerian Green Dam have allegedly been integrated into the ecological planning for Africa’s Green Wall.  The project launched in earnest in 2012 and already 3 million trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Ethiopia are said to be making real progress on their forest planting projects too.  If this project succeeds I will have respect for the African Union.

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Of course, I can barely plant an azalea in rich loam in temperate Brooklyn without it croaking: how are nomadic warlords going to plant thriving forests across a vast sun-baked badland and end up with a living forest?  The green wall may well fail or it might cause strange unanticipated problems, but it is wise not to write it off.  Over generations, humans remade the forests and savannahs of the world before we even had our vaunted technology.  Anthropologists and ecologists are coming to realize how much of what we though of as natural forest (or rainforest) was actually the result of thousands of years of human nurture and cultivation.  The Amazon and the Congo rainforests may owe much of their makeup to human activity over countless generations (I need to explain these further in additional blogposts…but one mind-blowing concept at a time!).  If the people of the Sahel are steadfast, determined, and clever, there might someday be a forest like the one the dreamers have been describing.  Wouldn’t that be something—just imagine one of the world’s greatest forests in Sudan and Chad and Mali…

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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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I have been excited to start blogging about my spring garden as it awakens from the uncharacteristically frigid Brooklyn winter of ’17/18…and although the tulips are starting to sprout up, we have had a nor’easter “bomb cyclone” EVERY week for as long as I can remember (admittedly, winter is robbing me of memories of warmth, light, and joy).  Anyway here is a picture of my garden on March 21st…the second day of spring.  Hmmm…it is pretty (surprisingly so: my point-and-click photos don’t do it justice), but it is not especially springlike yet.  We will revisit this vista soon, I hope, as the world comes back to life.  In the mean time I hope you at least enjoy the snow photos.

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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

 

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

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Merry Christmas!  I decorated the house up all beautifully with my tree of life and with all sorts of seasonal lights…but then I couldn’t find my digital camera.  I’m afraid you will have to get through Saturnalia/Yule/Christmas with these somewhat blurry images.  I hope Santa brings you what you want (or Hanukkah Harry…or Saturn…or Mithras).  We’ll do some year-end wrap-up next week, but for right now I am going to drink some egg-nog and draw some festive flatfish!  Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

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