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Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River. I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hill–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. But the strange thing about the whispering of the dead is how identical it is to the whispering in our own red hearts.

The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

There is something which I don’t understand at all. Its worldview is completely alien to me. Its language is the ancient, polysyllabic epic tongue of south Asia–high Sanskrit. Its moral philosophy is incomprehensible–weird asceticism and strict non-harm. I am speaking about Jainism–arguably the most ancient of the world’s major religions which are still practiced (although who can even say how old Jainism actually is?). Whenever I try to understand Jainism, my brain slips right off of it, like a crab trying to climb a frictionless diamond stupa.

So why am I even writing about Jainism, if I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand it? Why bring up an abstruse faith which has deflated down till it is only practiced by a thousandth of the world’s human population (if even that)? Well Jainism’s central tenant is breathtakingly sublime. Of all of the religious concepts I have come across, it is the most inhuman and numinous. This concept is known as Ahimsa (non-harm). Since everything I write about it keeps obtaining strange qualifiers and weasel words I will just steal Wikipedia’s excellent description:

The principle of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) is a fundamental tenet of Jainism. It holds that one must abandon all violent activity and that without such a commitment to non-violence all religious behavior is worthless. In Jain theology, it does not matter how correct or defensible the violence may be, one must not kill or harm any being, and non-violence is the highest religious duty. Jain texts…state that one must renounce all killing of living beings, whether tiny or large, movable or immovable. Its theology teaches that one must neither kill another living being, nor cause another to kill, nor consent to any killing directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Jainism emphasizes non-violence against all beings not only in action but also in speech and in thought

If you read this and thought about it, and then your brain went “BUT!!!” then congratulations, we are on the same page. I don’t see how Jains can even eat, much less stay alive in a world of ceaseless competition (although in bygone eras Jains have actually known great prosperity as successful bankers and merchants). Yet the doctrine of Ahimsa also strikes me as ineffably beautiful (and not unrelated to the religious principles of noteworthy figures like Jesus and Guan Yin).

Anyway, I am not converting to Jainism or anything, but I dislike the profound ignorance that I have concerning this important faith. I amhttps://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/tag/kwan-yin/ therefore going to try to sneak in a few short studies about what Jainism is and where it comes from. We will also look at Jain mythology (although Jainism also seems to lack the creator deities and dark gods which make other faiths so narratively satisfying). Maybe if we keep working on it, we can figure out what is happening in religious art like this:

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

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

Dirona albolineata (photographed by http://www.naturediver.com)

It has been far too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured any miraculous molluscs! Therefore, today we are going to return to a timeless favorite topic and feature a predatory nudibranch sea slug that looks like a rogue lace jabot. This is Dirona albolineata (a.k.a the alabaster nudibranch) a predatory slug which lives in the cold rich waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska down to San Diego. The translucent slug grows to a length of 18 centimeters (7 inches) and hunts tiny invertebrates of the coastal zone such as bryozoans, little arthropods, hydroids, ascidians, and, um, lesser mollusks.

The beautiful little milky slug is generally whitish but specimens have been found which were pale pink, peach, or lavender. As a simultaneous hermaphrodite, the slug has an unusual mating ritual where he/she/it meets another alabaster mollusk and both parties copulate both as male and female (they each fire a reproductive dart into the other’s body and both parties leave the union fertilized). The leaf like appendages upon the slug’s body are known as ceratae. These scales are protective and serve as armor or as a diversion (under extreme duress, the snail can jettison the twitching scales in hopes of diverting a predator), however they also greatly increase the snail’s body area and help respiration/gas exchange. Or to be more plain, the ceratae are like a cross between gills and plate mail for this translucent hermaphroditic mollusc.

Here is a tiny watercolor painting from the little moleskine book which I always carry around. After my trip back to the family farm, I was flying back to New York City through Charlotte airport when a great summer thunderstorm swept through the Piedmont with walls of water and bullwhips of lightning. This is what I painted as I shuffled around different gates and tried to comprehend the various announcements. The image, of course, has nothing to do with these circumstances: I would interpret it as a pair of elves in festive pink and purple outfits visiting the honkytonk district of Bugtown (while a 1960s spider in red pajamas and a black cape capers on the roof of an inn). Although the image is unrelated to being trapped in an airport, it does seem to have some of the anxious energy and strange unknowable characters which one encounters in such a scenario. I wonder what that ferret/civet in the lower left corner is doing with that long jar of while liquid?

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

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

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

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

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

Here at Ferrebeekeeper we pay far too little attention to cartilaginous fish such as sharks, rays, skates, sawfish, and chimaeras. This is partly because I know and love bony fish better (that is a weird sentence to fling out to the world), but, to a larger degree it is because sharks already have people–there are whole networks, hit movies, and even weeks dedicated to them (in fact, my friend’s first book was about a “Shark Detective“). So when longtime reader, K Hindall asked about my favorite angelshark, I was tempted to respond only in the comments and get back to bloviating about pufferfish. But how could I respond to such a clever and thought-provoking question in a short blurb. Clearly a full post is required, even if I have to pull myself away from blogging about the Olympics.

For symbolic (and complex personal) reasons I have been making artworks about flatfish–a taxonomical order which is vastly larger, more diverse, and more widespread than say the familiar order of Primates (particularly when you remove one particular over-represented species of hominid from the mix). Boy you would never know it from artworld pushback I receive about why I concentrate my art on “a single obscure sort of fish”. Sigh…Anyway, K Himdall correctly notes that angelsharks are not flatfish…but are very much flat fish. She then asks what my favorite angelshark is.

There is probably a bearded wobbegong shark in there somewhere, assuming I didn’t mislabel the picture file

She knows me too well! But my my favorite sort of flat sharks are carpet sharks of the family Orectolobidae–which is to say wobbegong sharks! Not only are these are the most beautiful sharks (assuming you can see them at all), they also have the best name of any shark…or pretty much any other creature* They are also flat as pancakes (i.e. not perfectly flat but pretty flat) and exquisitely ornamented with chaotic ocean camouflage and sharkskin gillysuits which help them blend into their habitat.

Angelsharks are similar flattened lurking benthic predators, but they live on open sea floors as well as among rocks and reefs. In our world of habitat loss and rampant overfishing, angelsharks are not doing as well as carpetsharks, because fisheries have been overharvesting the former and selling them as “monkfish”. The angelsharks family Squatinidae has two dozen known species, most of which are endangered or threatened. During the day they bury themselves in the sand and wait for prey and predators both to unknowingly pass over them (although at night they swim about hunting for crustaceans, fish, and mollusks.

It is hard to chose a favorite angelshark because they have amazing names like “sand devil” and “ornate angelshark”. The easy choice for artists Squantinidae gugenheim is, ironically, too cubist for my aesthetic taste. Thus, my favorite angelshark is Squatina nebulosa, “the clouded angelshark”. Not only does its pattern of spots and stipples remind me of wobbegong sharks, but the clouded angelshark lives in the waters around Japan and Taiwan (so maybe I can claim this as an Olympics post after all). I also like how the large “eyespots” of the clouded angelshark make it look like it has a whole bunch of big milky eyes.

Hopefully this answers the question of my favorite angelsharks while also popularizing the noble squantinidae and their ilk. At very least, this first shark post reminds me that I am going to have to write a post about wobbegong sharks at some point…

Do I even have any wobbegong pictures at all, or is this all just gunk sitting on the ocean floor?

*although they might have some competition from nightjars, numbats, quokkas, woolly mammoths, and the humahumanukanukaapuaa (which also needs its own post)

Since I was a child, I have loved the Olympics, but a lot has changed in the world since the black-and-white moral conflict of the cold war (and a lot has changed for me since I was a child living in blood-red rural America). As one of the few venues where the nations of the Earth convene, the Olympics gives us a god’s eye view of the international order (albeit through the darkened lens of corporate sponsorship and whatever NBC thinks will appeal to the most American viewers). As the games proceed we can talk about some of what we are viewing. For example, I think the Tokyo Olympics will illustrate how America’s ongoing political crisis is leading to precipitous national decline even more starkly than say the manifold failures of our navy or the savage buffoonery of our national legislature. But we will see! The games have yet to be played and there are always surprises. First let’s talk about the opening ceremony.

One of the ways the Olympics outshine quotidian sports contests is by throwing little tidbits to other disciplines like fashion, music, technology, art, and dance. The original Olympics had medals for music, literature, and the arts, and, although such cultural contests have been subsumed by the dictates of modern broadcasting, elements remain within the pageantry and protocol of the games. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening ceremony–which certainly showcased Japan’s continuing expertise at robotics (and also featured some delightfully preposterous dance routines). However the real spectacle worth watching is the parade of nations! We get to see almost all of the other nations of Earth and a sample of how they dress for fancy occasions, not to mention a prime lineup of extremely fit human beings of all shapes and varieties.

Ghana’s flag bearer, Nadia Eke

It was wonderful, like it always is. Also, after a year or more of watching anxious and sick people on TV, the athletes looked particularly happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but my heart soared with delight seeing that flag holder from Ghana dance into the stadium with such graceful & proud bearing.

And there was so much more! There were Bermudans in Bermuda shorts! There were magnificent gleaming Hercules chests (these days, Tonga is not the only nation headlined by a magnificent oiled muscleman!)

Who wore it butter?

There were jewels and gold from the Persian Gulf.

I really liked the style of the bejeweled Bahraini athletes!
The Hungarians themselves look great, though

Of course there were also fashion choices which failed to “stick the landing” too. Hungary is an amazing country but their outfits made them look like the title sequence of the gory film I watched in driver’s ed! Maybe let’s try to avoid red spatters in future costumes.

Sartorial magnificence of every flavor was on display. However to my eyes, the most beautiful costumes belonged to the athletes from…Benin? Their regal embroidered tunics and dresses of royal blue featured fluorescent pink and aqua floral icons. These matched their magnificent satin hats (of name unknown to me). I wasn’t expecting the word’s 163rd wealthiest nation to win the international fashion contest (in fact half of my favorite things from my notes are from nations on the Gulf of Guinea!), but like I said, half of the delight of the Olympics comes from joyful surprises.

America’s outfits were fine, I suppose, but the dark navy blue on top of dark denim read as almost black. Also, I always worry that our nation mistakes casual comfort for elegance, which is to say I thought we maybe looked a bit like lazy villains (which suits the past four years, I guess).

Anyway, the opening parade is over and we can get back showing off in venue which primatologists (or bio-scientists of any stripe) will instantly recognize: physical competition. But before we get too competitive I hope we hold onto a bit of the international amity and open delight in the appearance and actions of foreigners which characterized the opening ceremony. Something tells me we are going to need to love each other a lot more if we are going to survive what is coming (much less make it through to a glowing future of thriving forests, healthy oceans, joyful children, and giant space arks). But somewhere in that Olympics parade there are always things that make me think that such a world is at least possible.

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

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