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We could talk about my very favorite ceramics makers…but their nation is still prominent in the world (indeed they are the world’s most populous nation), so we will talk about Chinese porcelain some other day.  For now, let’s instead concentrate on my second favorite ceramics artists—the astonishing and mysterious Moche people of Peru.  Ferrebeekeeper has tried to explain the nature of Moche culture (as archaeologists currently understand it to have been) and we have also tried to put up some galleries of their exquisite waterfowl and their amazing bats (which I think are the best bat artworks extant).

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For tonight though I am going to present a gallery of Moche ceramic vessels in the shape of animals without any comment.  This is partly because I want you to experience the exquisite form of the ancient clay without any distractions and…it is partly because I got started working on Christmas projects and didn’t get around to writing this post until the middle of the night.  I think you will agree as you look at this collection of vessels, that the Moche were astonishing at conveying animals in a way which was streamlined and simple yet also brings out the beauty and the personality of the creatures.  These are not Walt Disney-esque cartoon animals of unnatural sweetness and broad comedy…and yet they are also animals which have distinctive emotional resonance and convey the distinctive character, intelligence, and temperament of these South American animals.  It is a hard balance to get right, and yet I feel that the unknown potters and sculptors of long ago have done a superb job at bringing out what was real and what was magical in these creatures.  I am not explaining this the way I wish, but just try sculpting some animals and you will soon see what I mean.

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Tonight’s post is a special tribute to the extraordinary heroism of firefighters…and a heartwarming seasonal post about some pets which were saved from a fire (and I suppose also a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving your Christmas lights on all the time).  Firefighters in Conroe, Texas, a suburb to the north of Houston, arrived at a housefire and entered the premise to see if there were any lives which needed to be saved.  There certainly were!  The firefighters were stunned to find hundreds of snakes in large glass terrariums and vivariums.  Unwilling to let the reptiles perish, they heroically carried the writhing serpents to safety.  Some of the non-toxic constrictor snakes were quite large—but apparently, they were not bigger than the hearts of these brave first responders.

The Conroe fire chief summarized the strange and alarming situation by saying, “Not sure how many lizards we found, but the snakes were large enough to give anyone crawling through a smoke-filled house a heart attack…”

Good grief! What were these homeowners up to, anyway?

Unfortunately, some of these smaller lizards were beyond the grasp of even the most selfless firemen and an unknown number of small reptiles perished in the blaze, but the crew still rescued a large number of snakes. The Conroe Fire Crew’s deed stands as a reminder of the fundamental bravery, care, and respect which are still a staple of public service.  It is also a reminder to be careful with your seasonal lights, to replace your smoke detector batteries, and, um, if necessary, to put a sprinkler system in your vast herpetological home collection.

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I think we have all learned a little something.  Merry Christmas to the firefighters of Conroe and best wishes to these poor homeless constrictors to find fine lodgings.

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To celebrate the season, here is a special Christmastime Sunday space post! Discovered in 1948 Comet 46P/Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 Earth years.   The comet’s apoapsis (the point of its orbit farthest from the Sun) is out in the vicinity of Jupiter’s orbit, but the closest point in its orbit brings it to Earth’s orbit.  Unfortunately, because of the dance of the planets it only in relative proximity to Earth every 11 years, and even then, it is generally barely visible except to hardened astronomers.  The comet is also known as the Christmas comet because its periapsis (when it is closest to the sun—and thus, sometimes to Earth) is in December and because the comet has a distinct viridian tinge!

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This year, 46P/Wirtanen’s periapsis is unusually close to Earth.  Tonight, the comet will be a mere 11.4 million kilometers (7.1 million miles) from Earth.  That sounds like a fairly large distance but it is quite close, astronomically speaking:  only 10 comets have come in such near proximity to our home planet in the past 70 years!  Filled with excitement, I glanced out my window only to see that it is raining in Brooklyn and the sky is filled with clouds.  But don’t worry, the comet will nearly as visible for another week.   If you have an internet connection (and if you don’t, how are you reading this?) you can go to this link and find the comet in the sky from your location (that link is an amazing resource, so maybe hold onto it).

 

So why is this comet such a delightful color?  Comet 46P/Wirtanen is mostly melted—it consists of a solid kernel approximately a kilometer in diameter trailing a cloud of gases hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.  The majority of these gases reflect light in green wavelengths. Additionally, the comet is hyperactive—which, in this case, does not mean that overpaid physicians will prescribe it unnecessary medications so it can learn rote facts. In an astronomical context, hyperactive bodies are emitting more water than expected.

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Unless you are avidly examining the comet with a gas spectrograph, its color is likely to be a source of awe and reflection. Does the comet’s color reflect the seasonal green of Yuletide or is it an ironic reprimand for the envy and jealously which grip all of human society?  Is it the eye of a great sky panther or a kindly celestial sea turtle (hint: actually more of a ball of gas with an icy nucleus).  Whatever your conclusions, I hope you enjoy this close-up view of “the Christmas Comet” before it zips back towards Jupiter’s orbit. Season’s greetings to all of my readers.  I will try to find some special posts for this solstice week, before we all take a much-needed Christmas break.

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I have a confession to make: I have always though the classical Russian aesthetic of teardrops, ogee shapes, onion domes, and filigree was matchlessly beautiful.  If I had the money to commission a manor house, people would probably think it was a Russian orthodox church or Putin’s dacha because of all of the onion domes, candy-colored towers, and gingerbread fretwork. Unfortunately, such eastern majesty is a bit outside of my budget until we sell a few more flounder artworks, and so for now I must content myself with a seasonal gallery post of Christmastime Russian crowns and headdresses.

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Fortunately, crown-style headdresses are so much a part of Russian culture that there are all sorts of beautiful examples which fit the season perfectly. The high ornate headdresses miter-like traditional headdresses for women (kokoshniks/povyazkas depending on whether women are respectively wed or unwed).  There are numerous regional variants which are sadly beyond me (has anyone noticed has enormous Russia is?) however this article isn’t really about actual headdresses or history…or really about anything.  It is just a Christmas picture gallery.  So enjoy these amazing Russian Christmas hats.

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Of course, real crown aficianados are probably cursing me now for not really including any real crowns.  I have no intention of doing so (we will explore the crowns of the Romanovs at some other point) however I will include some of the astonishing headdresses of Russian patriarchs.  These archbishop’s caps look like they came from the Byzantine empire—and in a cultural sense, I suppose they did.  They aren’t actually hats for kings and princes, but they are hats for princes of the Orthodox church, and just look how magnificent they are!

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All of this winter headwear reminds me that we are quickly coming up on Christmas and the end of the year.  Prepare yourself for the some Ferrebeekeeper winter’s fun and Happy holidays (sorry I already missed Hanukkah).

I better wrap up before you realize I am pointing these things out because I think they are pretty but I have no real understanding about this at all.  I will have to see if I can find a real Russian expert to explain some of the finer points of exquisite headdresses.

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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

We have a lot to talk about this week, but, as a Monday treat in the December darkness, there is a lot of news (and, yes, inflammatory pseudonews) from outer space.  Let’s get down to it and proceed through this grab bag of tidbits.

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The big headliner is something which has been in the offing since 1977.  According to NASA, the Voyager 2 space probe has left the heliosphere, the protective “bubble” of radiation and charged particles which surrounds the entire solar system, and the craft is now proceeding through interstellar space.  The spacecraft is only the second probe with any working instruments to accomplish this feat (the first was Voyager 1).  Based on telemetry, it seems that Voyager 2 crossed the Heliopause on November 5th (2018).  This occasion gives us reason to look back at the stupendous accomplishments made by the probe during the main stage of its mission. As it traveled through the Solar System, the craft visited all four gas giant planets and discovered 16 moons in addition to mysterious phenomena like Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, previously unknown rings around Neptune and Uranus, and cracks within the ice of Europa.  Perhaps it will provide a few more momentous discoveries as it heads into the great darkness between stars.

A second astonishing space headline is the existence of a recording of the wind on Mars.  NASA’s InSight lander (which we have been following here on this blog) captured the audio a few days ago and the space agency released the clip to the world this past weekend. This is the first recording of sound from a different planet.  You can listen to it here if you want to know what another world sounds like.

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OK…those were great stories, but by now you are probably asking where is the pseudonews which was promised in the opening sentence.  Pseudonews is news-like material designed to evoke a strong emotional response. The stories are actually revealed to be conjecture, opinion, propaganda/public relations material, or just straight-up celebrity dreck. A cursory scan of the top media sights reveals that many—or maybe most–of the most visited and commented upon pieces are exactly this sort of fatuous puffery, so I thought I better throw some into Ferrebeekeeper to see what happens.  For some reason the world can’t get enough of this folderol so let me know what you think!

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The first of these newslike stories is actually pretty interesting…if it is true, and I can’t find much confirmation of that.  Apparently the Southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has plans to launch an artificial moon in 2020 to obviate the need for streetlights in the metropolis.  This plan is theoretically feasible, in the 1990s the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, which showed that satellites could be used for reflected illumination.  Yet the Znamya experiment didn’t produce much illumination…and the costs (bot known and unknown) of such a solution as Chengdu proposes would be outrageous.  The idea is worthwhile as a fantasy concept about planetary scale engineering, but until we hear more details I am dubious.

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Speaking of dubious, let’s end this article which started with such promise on a truly leaden note.  Professional athletes in America are often famous dullards—these are, after all, adults who are paid astronomical sums for running around playing children’s ball games.  The ignorant, misleading, and inflammatory declarations of athletes are a constant source of amazement and disgust. Which brings us to the story.  Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (a contemporary basketball team) has announced that humans never visited the moon.  This conspiracy theory is common enough around the country, which is filled with people who lack the inclination or aptitude to assess whether fundamental truths are true or not, but it still makes me angry.  Do big media companies print this stuff so that “Steph” Curry fans will turn their back on the great accomplishments of the space program during the 1960s or does CNN just want people to believe less in science in general?

Of course not, major news sites are reporting this “news” merely for clicks.  I guess technically I am too, although I would be stunned if any Stephen Curry fans read this blog (if you do, please go elsewhere), yet I also have a more noble purpose in talking about this stupid Curry story.  In our age of information saturation, it is becoming more difficult to evaluate news sources.  Educational failures in public schools and political dysfunction have combined with the information revolution to cause ridiculous drivel to proliferate.  The closest analogy I can think of is the era after the printing press became widespread in Europe and crazy tracts appeared everywhere causing wars, confusion, and mayhem (although this previous information breakthrough ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment as well).  Society is working through another unruly adolescent growth spurt where we try to figure out how to build society-wide consensus out of all of the new tools and discoveries we have made.  The process is working out pretty unevenly so maybe we should stop publicizing the rantings of willfully ignorant and malevolent actors like Curry as “news stories”, even if they garner ratings. What’s next, a president who doesn’t believe that vaccines help people?  We will revisit these dark fruits of the information era soon, but first there is enormous news from right here on Earth.  Tune in tomorrow when we talk about discoveries made right under our feet.

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Oh wow!  It is that time again: the time that Pantone announces the color of the year for 2019.  As you will recall from years past, Pantone is a corporation taste-makers and of fashion insiders which crafts palates that allow all the world’s different corporate concerns to align their offerings with each other. That way consumers can buy matching outfits and housewares in a given season, but can’t find anything that remotely matches any of it the next.  Pantone’s offering last year (which is to say the 2018 color of the year) was ultraviolet, a lovely mid-range purple with some blue notes.

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Purple is one of my favorite colors…but it seems like the colors are just getting better, because this year features a real winner–“living coral”, a beautiful pinkish red which looks like it is alive.  Not only do I love this color…I might actually BE this color (at least if I get out of a very hot shower, or spill allergens on my delicate flesh).

Pantone usually includes lifestyle blather with its color selections, and this year is no different.  According to their press kit, the pinkish orange is a “reaction to the onslaught of digital technology and social media,” which represents our collective “need for optimism and joyful pursuits [and] authentic and immersive experiences that enable connection and intimacy.”

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That is a lot to load onto a color, but Living Coral fits the bill if any color does.  Looking at it just makes me feel happy…like I really did get out of a hot bath and then found some money lying on the ground (although that scenario sounds less good as I look at it on the page).  You can read what else Pantone has to say about their selection elsewhere, but in addition to being a near-flesh color, “Living Coral” makes me think of axolotls, sunsets, summer melons, and roses.

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This last choice probably makes you scratch your head, but my favorite hybrid tea roses were created by a mad German nurseryman in the mid-sixties and both of his timeless greatest hybrids were this same extraordinary orange pink. One was named “Tropicana” (above) and it was a large showy rose which was (and is) unequaled in looks.  The other (pictured below) was smaller and more delicate but it had the most heavenly aroma, which is why it was known as “Fragrant Cloud.”  It was my grandmother’s favorite rose and I remember it growing all around her house (and appearing in vases within) during the halcyon summers of my youth.

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I poke some fun at Pantone for their florid language and their misfires like “Sand Dollar” (a lifeless ecru from 2006 which did not even have the visual interest of a dead echinoderm), however I think they actually do a good job.  Thanks Pantone for the memories of summers past.  Maybe 2019 will have some of the rosy happiness of “Living Coral) and if anyone sees a shirt that color, I definitely want one (although I think I might have once had one during those same summers of yore.

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And see! I really am kind of that color too, although I am also apparently a sad confused doofus being stalked by a youth pastor with a camera

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The day has escaped me today, but there is still time for a short and visually potent post which I have been saving up.  This is a model of the Royal Crown of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the Ryukyu Islands and unified Okinawa (and, sporadically, some other islands in the East China Sea).  Located between China and Japan, the little kingdom began as a tributary state to China (which is why the crown has the characteristic shape of a Ming royal headdress. During its 400 year history, Ryukyu was generally a tributary of China, Japan, or both, until it was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1879.  After the annexation the former King of Ryuku moved to Tokyo and became a Japanese noble.  He brought one crown with him (this is an exact  model of the original which is at the Naha City Museum of History and is only shown on special occasions).  Confusingly, a second historical crown was kept on Okinawa until the island  fell to United States forces near the end of World War II and the royal treasures were hidden in a drainage ditch.  An American intelligence officer “found” some of these treasures and carried them off to Boston, however they were returned during the 1950s as the friendship between Japan and the United States solidified.  The Okinawa crown however was never discovered…so if you find a thing like this in a Boston yard sale you should buy it up (although you may also be sucked into strange diplomatic games with the United States and Japan).  In addition to a large gold hairpin, the Naha crown has 288 ornaments made of gold, silver, crystal, and coral.

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Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.

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If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.

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She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.

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Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.

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Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

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For the last month-and-a-half, New York City has been besotted by a new sweetheart.  “Who is this gorgeous heart throb?”, you ask.  Is it some otherworldly super-model, a sexy head of state (of a different nation, obvs.), or a cultural hero with a new philosophy to recontextualize everything?  Ummm…maybe?  We don’t know as much about our new crush as we might since, um, he is a duck.

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a perching duck from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, and maybe that creepy part of Russia above China).   Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will know that it has an important place in Chinese symbolism.   Due to the strange and disquieting mirror-verse symmetry we have with China, there is a very similar North American species of duck, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) which lives in the eastern half of North America from Canada down to Mexico.  The two sorts of ducks are the only species within the genus Aix.  The East Asian duck is perhaps a bit fancier.

This particular mandarin duck, who has been christened “Mandarin Patinkin” (in an awkward homage to a noted thespian) is thus not a native, but not from a wholly dissimilar ecosystem either.  He appeared in Central Park in early October. The duck has a brown band on his leg, so presumably he escaped from such rich Westchester bird lover’s aviary or from a farm specializing in non-native waterfowl.   He is a gifted flyer and when he is not preening before adoring throngs in Central Park, he flies off for some quiet time across the Hudson in New Jersey.

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I love birds! Just witness the drama of LG (who is doing quite well, by the way, although his goose spouse was injured by a wild animal).  Also, mandarin ducks are self-evidently lovely. Yet I am a bit perplexed by the extent to which the City has gone ape over this one renegade duck.  Here is a link to Gothamist articles following the bird in minute detail with paparazzi-like stalkerish obsession.  Holy Toledo Mud Hen! If you need celebrity dirt about this duck and his big city life, it is all there!

Yet, although this duck obsession is a bit odd, I feel that is a good thing.  Contemporary society is TOO addicted to celebrities. Most of these “stars” are meddling narcissists who spend all of their time building a by-the-numbers personal mythology and then sabotaging ancient reptilian religious pathways in the human brain in order to beguile the weak-minded to obsess over them (maybe this description will bring other New York “celebrities” to mind).  Perhaps some good old-fashioned bird watching will help us deconstruct some of this dangerous idolatry, but if not, at least we have spent our time paying attention to a cool duck instead of some goofy rapper or Kardashian or Andy Warhol wannabe.

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Also I will keep you posted if the duck has any torrid flings, money troubles, or runs over a bystander.

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