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The world’s fifth largest river (by volume of water discharged into the sea) is the mighty Yangtze River of China. Unfortunately, like most of the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze is currently drying up because of global climate change. While this has some pretty negative ecological implications (and, likewise, bodes ill for the future of human habitation on the planet), it is a boon to archaeologists who get to see sites which have been inundated for centuries by the once mighty watercourse.

Chongqing China

Particularly striking are these three Buddhist statues from Chongqing, a “second-tier” city in China with a municipal area which is home to 32 million people (although admittedly, through some sort of administrative foible, Chongqing’s municipal area is about the size of Austria). Chinese archaeologists speculate that the statues date back to the Ming Dynasty (the various stories about this subject which I found online almost all dated the statues as being “600 years old” but then add contradictory details which muddy the date–so a reliable date for the statues is still pending). Irrespective of when they were made, the works are located within alcoves carved into the stone of Foyeliang Island Reef–a submerged hazard in the river for as long as anyone can remember.

A once submerged Buddhist statue sits on top of Foyeliang island reef in the Yangtze river, which appeared after water levels fell due to a regional drought in Chongqing, China, August 20, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The real purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder that, even if the International Union of Geological Sciences is dithering on approving the name, the Anthropocene is real and that environmental conditions which we took for granted back during the Holocene (the last geological age, which apparently ended around the time of “Howdy Doody”) do not necessarily apply. There is also something splendid and unnerving about the figures themselves. The brown water-smoothed rock gives the ancient monks and bodhisattvas a forboding cast–as though they were lurking river monsters–and yet the serenity and delicacy of the figures clearly identify them as East Asian votive art (which is not traditionally found underwater). To be blunt, they look as eerie and ominous as the circumstances which brought them back to sight. I will fill you in on any updates about these statues, but for right now, maybe we should all pray for sweet rain.

A fortnight ago, Ferrebeekeeper put up a review of “Requiem for a Good Machine” a science-fiction novel by friend and collaborator, Daniel Claymore. The book describes a future police officer’s attempts to solve a chain of murders (and related crimes) in Mirabilis, an ideal city built by robots to serve as a habitat for the faltering biological humans of the post-singularity age.

As of today, Claymore’s work is now on sale and you can get an e-copy (or better yet, a real copy!) of his book by going to any purveyor of fine literature. Different parts of stories stick with different people, and ever since reading Claymore’s novel, I have been thinking about the gleaming city at the heart of his work. Paradoxically, thinking about this future city is causing us to go backwards in time for the subject of this post.

Back in 2015, I built/drew the Apollo and Marsyas miniature theater, a theater for 1:18 figures (mainly the Kenner Star Wars figures…but it turns out there are lots of other little actors at this scale jockeying for position on stage too). Anyway, the fun of that project was drawing some strange background scenes (like a medieval castle, a pleasure garden, Timbuktu, a spooky cemetery, Hell, etc.). One of the backdrops I drew was a glowing city of the future filled with robots, meta-humans, droids, and transgenic chimera animals. Here it is:

Future Megalopolis (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015) ink and colored pencil on paper

My recollection of this work is that I enjoyed drawing all of the future beings (look at that quantum computer clock guy (or thing?) at the left side beneath the pink organ wall…or the purple owl woman standing above the metal dog-robot at right!) but then I got lost coloring in the asphalt and threw the whole thing aside in disgust. Looking at it afresh, however, it is better than I remember. You are getting an impossible peek into the world of the far future thanks to the one power capable of opening such a window–the imagination!

Yet, although the imagination is capable of peering through deep time, it is also fallible (just look at all of that confusing, hard-to-color future asphalt!). I was hoping to portray a city made of cities–where super-arcologies stand next to each other, rank upon rank, stretching to the horizon. I wanted an effect which was akin to the troubling urban art of George Grosz–with all of the maddened machine-people and transgenic organisms spilling out of the architecture like confetti and tainted candy pouring out of a psychedelic piñata.

The fun of painting like Grosz is creating a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics! But the peril of creating such an artwork is getting lost in a world of visual clutter (which is a less-flattering way of describing a river of chaotic heterogeneous lunatics). With this work I certainly experienced the fun…but I also fell prey to the peril. Even so, this glowing drawing captures some of the effect of looking into a bewilderingly complicated social ecosystem.

The dancing, crawling, and flying robots running from dome to dome in a world of strange machines may not be exactly what the future holds…but they inspire us to think about where we are going (and we need to think about that a lot harder). Maybe I need to get my fluorescent ink back out and paint some more fantastical cities glowing in the purple twilight of ages we will never get to see.

Artist’s conception of a general Arcology

All of this talk about Mirabilis, the fictional future city of marvels which is dying from within (the setting of Daniel Claymore’s new science fiction/mystery novel) has gotten Ferrebeekeeper thinking about arcologies.  At present, an arcology is only a concept for the future–a super dense human city engineered to contain a self-sustaining ecology.  However, for a long time, architects, futurists, and urban planners have been working on buildings and communities which partake of the grand ideas behind arcologies.  Maybe that idea—building a mutualistic gestalt between lots of people, all their stuff, and humankind’s favorite living things—is really at the heart of urbanism.

We will talk about the implications of arcologies a lot more in the future.  To my eyes, the synthesis of ecology, evolution, and engineering has only happened in rudimentary ways thus far, but humankind will need a much greater grasp of this technology (and whatever sciences lie beneath the catchall field of ecology) to proceed any farther down the road we wish to be on.  For today’s post, however, we are only going to talk about contemporary news—since one of the world’s richest states has broken ground to build what is pretty definitively an arcology.  The planned city will consist of two 500 meter (1640 foot) tall glass skyscrapers standing 200 meters apart (from the outer wall of one to the outer wall of the other).  Between the two buildings will be an internal courtyard filled with delights.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this–the buildings’ length will be 170 kilometers (110 miles).

Artist’s conception of “The Line” (ending point at the Red Sea)

This complex is part of “Neom” a strange futuristic city which will be built in the desert beside the Red Sea. The particular linear arcology/double skyscraper is named ذا لاين (which, appropriately means “The Line” in Arabic). The whole community is being planned and financed by that great utopian visionary entity–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!??? Sorry about those extra quotation marks, but if you were around in the late twentieth century/early twenty first century, you might be more likely to think of Saudi Arabia as an ossified petrostate more famous for a Faustian bargain between kleptocrats and Wahabi religious extremists than for futurist thinking (although, come to think of it, the Sauds arguably did have a major hand in engineering our current dystopia of global warming, religious extremism, and vast inequality).

The Saudi Prince may be noble, but he is said to consort with insurrectionists and other low characters

Anyway, setting aside all political and ethical concerns, the plans for the Line were announced on January 10, 2021 by that notorious cut-up, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a fiend–er–friend to a cross-section of journalists). When it is finished, “The Line” is expected to have nine million residents (a million more people than New York City). The Line will be powered entirely by renewable energy, and inhabitants will be able to walk anywhere they want within 5 minutes. If their, uh…in-Line, destination is not 5 minutes away, they will be able to take a subterranean bullet train to any place within the arcology. Deadly motor vehicles (which killed 43,000 people in the United States alone last year) will be banned!

This actually doesn’t sound half bad and I might sign up–at least if I weren’t now on record making fun of the wife-beating, murderous, & conniving (yet reform-minded) Prince Salman. Estimated costs for building The Line run between $200 billion and one trillion American dollars (which is probably less than the Second Avenue subway line ended up costing). The Saudi government estimates it will create 380,000 skilled jobs.

Futurists, political theorists, and real estate mavens debate the merits of The Line. Humorously, the last group object that it falls down somewhat when it comes to their core mantra of “location, location, location” (located, as it is, in a barren sweltering desert with no attractions or neighbors of any sort). The real estate people also assert that it is otherwise a laundry list of development cliches and problems waiting to happen. For my part though, I am uncertain but intrigued. Even with slave labor and all of the wealth of the world’s foremost petrostate, I wonder if Saudi Arabia can build this thing according to the schematics. But imagine if they did! I admire this kind of crazy out-of-the-box thinking–and I kind of like the concepts behind both Neom and The Line. Since the United States has given up entirely on thinking about the future (and since the Germans are completely practical and the Chinese think only about subjugating Asia and Africa) somebody has to think big and attempt enormous impossible projects. I have mixed feelings about the vicious autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia, but I wish them good fortune in building their audacious science-fiction city. If it doesn’t work we will know a lot more about potential problems with insane mega engineering (on someone else’s dime). And it is does work, well we can build something like it within a canyon on the moon, or the shadow line of Mercury.

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper presented a post about augury. Who could have foreseen this?

A wise equestrian reads the future from birds on a lack and red wine vessel from mid 5th century Greece

Seriously though, today’s post is a quick clarification about the real meaning of the term augury (particularly in relation to how we use the word here on this blog). In ancient Rome, “predicting” the future by means of charismatic quackery was a pastime of astonishing popularity. In fact the word “pastime” might not even be comprehensive enough, since serious, society-wide decisions involving battle, agriculture, politics, statecraft, and commerce were regularly made by soothsaying consultation (naturally all sorts of frivolous personal matters were decided by such means too, just as they are now). Since the Romans were so profoundly hooked on magical prediction of the future, they had a lot of different divination methodologies. The famous sibyls, like the ones at Cumae, Dodona, and Delos, were closely entwined with pantheistic cosmology and thus critical to state power. However, the internationally famous seers and oracles were hardly the only channel for divination. The classical word also featured a breathtaking suffusion of fortune-telling methodologies such as:

  • cleromancy–fortune-telling through casting of lots, stones, or dice
  • hydromancy–predicting the future based on the movement of water
  • necromancy–consulting the dead about hidden matters
  • haruspicy–divination through examination of entrails
  • geomancy–interpreting omens within rocks, mountains, or sand
  • pyromancy–seeing events to come within fire
  • stikhomanteia–reading the future through writings or books (opened at random or by number)
  • numeromancy–using numbers to predict the future
  • augury–scrying by watching the acts or appearances of birds

In contemporary English, this last word (which once was its own specialized practice) has come to mean trying to tell the future through any and all means. Most likely the future is opaque to all forms of meaningful prediction other than logical projection (if a person steps into the ocean they will soon be wet). And, despite my facile parenthetical example, reason itself is a limited tool for understanding the future (which is filled with unknowable unknowns).

Yet I have a special place for augury in my heart because, like all goodhearted people, I love birds…but also because birds base their movements and actions on meaningful stimuli in the hopes of certain outcomes. Birds have senses and sensibilities which are different than our own. Of course, in my book, such matters are best explored by the ornithologist rather than Zeus (although, according to myth, the latter explored the avian mind through direct experience and found that birds have desires similar to our own).

Most importantly, birds can teach us what the future holds, not via magic or divine influence, but by more corporeal means. Modern people do not base their decisions on whether a dove escaped a falcon or a swan attacked an eagle not because we have learned to throw off the yoke of superstitious thinking, but because we don’t often see doves, falcons, eagles, and swans. The birds are very much predicting the future–by vanishing! Unless we want to follow them to oblivion, we need to help them stay alive by curtailing our abuse of the planet.

There’s an augury for you.

Here are three different fluted ewers from medieval China which exemplify Longquan-type celadon. This style of porcelain (or stoneware, if you ascribe to a purely western methodology of ceramics terminology) was abundantly produced in the kilns of Zhejian and Fujian from about 950 AD to 1550 AD. The characteristic blue-green and gray-green colors are the result of iron oxide glazes fired at temperatures around 1250C in a reducing atmosphere (which is to say the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the dragon kilns where they were made).

Longquan Fluted Ewer with Lid, late Southern Song Dynasty

Of course the real point of this post is to appreciate the beauty of these ancient ewers. I particularly like fluted pieces because the elegant vertical lines go so very well with the simple round melon/pumpkin shapes. Likewise, the understated green glaze color (along with the fleabites and brown patches of irregular glaze) are particularly suited to this sort of pot. They look like they grew on a magical vine in some immortal’s secret garden! Even the texture–which is perfectly smooth and glossy, yet also has appealing pits, bumps, and micropatterns–seems strangely alive.

These three ewers are arranged from oldest (top) to most recently produced (bottom). The top piece is from the Northern Song Dynasty when the Song emperor controlled both the north and south of China. The middle piece is from the southern Song (when the imperial capital moved to Hangzhou a city not so far from Longquan which was the center of these sorts of crafts).

The last piece is a Yuan piece from the era of Mongol hegemony and seems to have a different feel from the other pieces (so much so, that it is the most questionable of all of the pieces). Yet its gorgeous shape and color mean I must include it. As a final note, it is worth mentioning that part of the beauty of these works is in their utility and strength. They were all built robustly enough that they are here in pristine shape after a thousand tumultuous years of Chinese history. All of them have highly functional and thermodynamically efficient designs which, in the end, are not so different from the modern machine-made English teapot which I use every day. Indeed, considering where tea and porcelain originated, they are all ancestors of my teapot

Longquan Pumpkin Shaped Ewere Yuan Dynasty

Ferrebeekeeper has been over-reliant on garden posts lately. Yet the last days of spring/first days of summer are such a beautiful time, that I thought I would put up some more pictures anyway. Most years I select tulips to bloom at the same time as the cherry tree, but, last autumn I apparently picked out whatever took my fancy and paid no attention to the timeline. As a result there were lots of frilly, fringed, or otherwise baroque tulips blooming in late May!

As the tulips faded, the roses, impatiens, and torenias started to bloom. The rose pictured below has the splendid name “Cherry Frost” which sounds like a sinister James Bond girl or a punk band or something. Because it was transgenically tinkered with, the little rose is surprisingly resistant to blackspot and molds. Additionally, it does well in low light and cold (at least so far). This rose was blooming back in February…but I did not post the pictures because the blossoms were not nearly as beautiful (and the rest of the garden was fallow).

Speaking of lying fallow, I recognize that I did not post a great deal for the last few weeks, and I apologize.  Sometimes it is necessary to take a little break to think of new ways to express oneself.  This in no way indicates that I have lost my enthusiasm for writing about art and science or opining about the affairs of the world!  It does however mean that I have been working on some new artistic themes (maybe the poor misunderstood flounders need to lie fallow for a little while too).  In the meantime, I have been sitting in the garden working on new ideas…and how to explain/popularize them.

We will explore this more in soon-to-follow posts, but for right now, I hope you are enjoying June too (and maybe have some lovely flowers of your own). Don’t give up on coming here for posts (nor on anything else for that matter).  Sometimes things take their own time to germinate (just like this year’s late tulips).

Every year Ferrebeekeeper features posts about the voluminous cherry blossoms from the splendid Kwanzan cherry tree which grows in the back garden. For a week or two the garden becomes an unearthly place of lambent beauty which resembles the western paradise of Amitabha Buddha. But what about the week after?

Well, the answer is all too clear from these photos. The blossoms fall. In the week after they bloom there is a crazy shag carpet of princess pink all across the garden and in the neighbor’s lawn. Also this carpet is far stickier and wetter than it looks. After I took these pictures, I went inside to get something and then came downstairs to see that great pathways of pink blossoms were cast upon the hardwood floors and carpets. The first stunned thought I had was that someone had let a Roman emperor (and his blossom-throwing votaries) into the house. Only after a moment did it occur to me that the distinctly-non-imperial petal-treader was actually this author (and then I went for the even-more-non-imperial dustpan).

Despite the fact that it is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny moist decals waiting to adhere to everything, the blossom carpet has its own sort of beauty. The real letdown comes in the days afterwards–when it all turns to taupe goo. Fortunately we should have some May flowers by then to distract our attention to elsewhere in the garden! Maybe the Brooklyn weather will finally become May-like as well. In the meantime I will continue to pretend I am in the court of Elagabalus (a fiction which grows easier by the minute as our republic descends into political incoherence) and hope that my roommates are not too incensed by the petals which the dustpan missed.

he Roses of Heliogabalus (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888), oil on canvas

Every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, I like to draw and paint pictures of the garden. Although I am never satisfied with the pictures when I am working on them (since they only capture the tiniest fraction of the garden’s beauty), I am often pleased later in the year. It is almost like canning fruit: fresh fruit is obviously much better, but at least you have a little preserved portion of the heavenly taste later on. Additionally, painting the same subject year after year also provides a sort of benchmark to assess the media and techniques I am using. At any rate here are two of the pictures I painted. Above is a full watercolor sketch of the yard and below is a little drawing in pink, gray, and black ink which I made in my pocket sketchbook. Let me know what you think!

I have more pictures and thoughts about the spring garden…but they will have to wait. Today, alas, we must talk about politics. Since you are looking at the internet, you almost undoubtedly know by now that somebody at the Supreme Court leaked the draft of Samuel Alito’s high-handed opinion striking down Roe vs. Wade. It is a real document. Perhaps the final language will change somewhat, but unless everything changes immediately in some crazy way, abortions will be illegal or effectively illegal in red states by the end of June. It is surprising, but it is also unsurprising (since progressives and moderates have been watching Republicans strategically building towards this outcome for decades).

So far, I have read all sorts of opinions about what this means to the nation, to women, to Republicans, to Democrats, to the legitimacy our worthless kangaroo Supreme Court, to our terrible health-care system, etc. None of these writings have satisfied me, because none of them said what I wanted to hear. Therefore I guess I am stuck writing the essay which I keep looking everywhere for. You will have to judge whether it is true or not. Perhaps you will have to judge whether to make it true, since, in the end of things, that is how politics works.

Ok, here is my thesis: obtaining what they have claimed to want will be a much bigger problem for Republicans than they care to let on. They are like the proverbial dog chasing a van who finally catches it. If abortions are illegal in red states, it will quickly threaten the GOP’s already tenuous political coalition through several ways. First of all, the same religious fundamentalists, scolds, and absolutists who have obsessively made this a single-focus issue will want abortion outlawed everywhere in the nation. Republicans will now have to work towards that goal, unless they want all of those single-issue voters to harumph and stay home. Yet, as women start dying left and right, politics in those same red states will change more quickly and in more unnerving ways than Republicans are ready for.

I suspect that strategy-minded Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never really wanted to see Roe end for exactly this reason. The pro-life zealots were already maximally engaged. This will not create more of them or cause them to show up at the polls in greater numbers. After an odious victory lap, they will either tune out of politics or demand that Republicans do stuff which is even more unpopular. And ending Roe (and its reproductive freedoms)–especially in this draconian way–is quite unpopular with 55-70 percentage of the electorate (depending on how the questions are asked). That number is likely to get much larger as snoozing Democrats and progressives wake up and notice that the United States is quickly becoming a farcical fascist dystopia .

So Republicans are back to their true play. Either they must comprehensively end representative democracy once and for all and replace it with an autocracy masquerading as a democracy (like Hungary or Turkey) or they will have to eventually face voters, a majority of whom do not like their policies. Republicans have become so wily at avoiding voters and at painting Democrats’ attempts to govern the nation as extremism, that we have lost sight of how deceptively weak and unpopular their fundamental positions are. Now they are running on a platform of raising taxes for working people, destroying Social Security, making healthcare more expensive, AND abolishing reproductive choice for all Americans. The fact that they are doing as well as they are is testament to their astonishing ability to lie and prevaricate, but the truth is slowly creeping up behind them and dawning even on the most misinformed voters.

So the next two elections of 2022 and 2024 will be the GOP’s best chance to use structural advantages to finish off the democracy as a functioning entity. That was already the case, but perhaps today’s leak will remind confused people who had tuned out of politics (dully repeating the Republican line that “all politicians are equally bad“) that they need to turn back in and fight off these ghastly autocrats and religious zealots. Otherwise today’s assault on freedom, dignity, and privacy will neither be the last nor the most jarring.

Hi everyone! Happy Earth Day! For now, I will spare you from the posts about the state of our planetary ecosystem and its fraught relationship with the intelligent invasive primate causing so much trouble everywhere (although you can read some past thoughts about that here), and instead show some garden photos. The gorgeous Kwanzan tree which lives in my backyard in Brooklyn is abloom and I have been sitting beneath the tree enjoying fleeting feelings of ineffable beauty instead of writing blog posts. We will return in full force at some pint next week. In the meantime I have tried to capture some of the garden beauty in the pictures below.

The cherry tree is starting to get older and most of the eye-level branches have died out, but there are still gorgeous blossoms higher up where the limbs get sun! More about the tree next week, when I hopefully have some artworks finished…

Some people regard pansies and violas as sort of tawdry flowers, but I think they are as beautiful as the most exotic Miltonia in terms of sheer prettiness. If they were more rare we would probably think they are the most gorgeous blossoms in the garden. But they are not rare…because they are super tough! I planted the little black violas back in October and they shrugged off the full force of winter’s blast with shocking indifference.

Another favorite plant which is blooming right now is the bleeding heart. I planted a white one too, but it is presently only 5 centimeters high, so you may have to wait to see its blossoms.

It looks like the tulips will bloom later, but some species tulips and volunteers have come up. Below are more pictures of tulips and Johnny-jump-ups.

There is an ornamental crabapple in the back of the garden which is as lovely as the cherry (in some respects). Unfortunately it is less photogenic, but you can see some of the pretty magenta blooms above the hellebore and the single lonely muscari.

And here is a picture of the gardener, looking peeved that everything did not bloom at once (he never seems perfectly happy, no matter how wonderfully the flowers perform). In the near future, we will return to traditional Earth Day themes of the proper path humankind must chart in order not destroy the living systems of Earth (we all need to think a lot more about that and push back against powerful interests which assert that it is not a thing to be thought about). The garden is a way to start thinking about such things (for it is a problematic artificial ecosystem), but for the moment, let’s just enjoy the blossoms.

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September 2022