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February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.

Ferrebeekeeper has presented catfish which live beneath the water table, chickens which look like they have no head, 600 pound turtles, clams which have been alive since the 17th century, and turkeys which give virgin birth…not to mention the “King of Herring” the world’s longest bony fish. We are no strangers to strange creatures! But today we come face to face (?) with what might be the strangest creature of them all! Steel yourselves for a creature which is literally made of metal! [crazy metal guitar solo]

And here it is! Behold the scaly foot gastopod (Chrysomallon squamiferum) a tiny snail [5 cm] which lives in the Indian Ocean!

Um, maybe I need to add some context to help explain why this small drab mollusk is so exceedingly strange. First of all, the scaly foot snail is a creature of the deeps: the snails live on (in? around?) deep sea ocean vents which are at least 2,400 meters beneath the ocean surface. Specimens have been discovered as deep as 2,900 meters below sea level. In British Imperial measurement that is 1.5 to 2 miles underwater! And these snails live on/in/around hydrothermal vents where water temperature can reach 400° Celsius (about 750° Fahrenheit) and where oxygen is scarce and yet hydrogen sulfide is abundant. In case all of this was not unusual enough for you, the snails are all simultaneous hermaphrodites (meaning they have complete functioning sets of reproductive organs of both genders and frequently self-fertilize).

Yet the strangest thing about the scaly foot snail is what it eats: nothing! Or to be more specific the adult creatures are obligate symbiotrophs–the snails live on the secretions of gammaproteobacteria which live within their oesophageal glands. The bacteria are extremophiles which metabolize the chemical rich waters of the vents. These snails do not live directly or indirectly from photosynthesis!

The snail’s signature feature may be its armor. The shell is a three level composite of iron sulfide on the outside, protein in the middle, and calcium carbonate on the inside. Like wise the snails’ sensitive feet are covered in composite nodules of iron sulfide and protein. All of this armor keeps the little snails safe from the predators of the vent ecosystem–strange crustaceans which look like furry white lobsters and larger predatory snails. I wrote briefly about this snail about a decade ago, when I concentrated more on the uniqueness of its armor. Back in those days we thought that nothing could possibly harm the scaly-foot snail, a creature which I imagined to be perfectly safe in its own little alien world at the bottom of the ocean (except for occasional predation by those larger snail, of course). But Earth’s greediest animal has a habit of getting everywhere and lately the scaly foot snail has been endangered by deep sea mining operations which aim to harvest the rare and valuable minerals around deep sea vents. It is hard to believe that our arms have grown long enough to harass these poor little weirdos in their little suits of armor a mile and a half beneath the waves, but, frankly I may have misspoke about which animal is really the weirdest

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luca Longhi, ca. mid 16th century)

Americans celebrate February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but the celebration is properly Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday which got mixed up with an even more ancient winter holiday of pagan Germany (which involved forecasting the weather based on the behavior of badgers and bears). We will get to the bottom of that ancient pagan badger worship thing at some later date: for now, let’s talk about Candlemas which is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays and has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The original form the ancient holiday took was as “The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” (the synoptic gospel source for all of this is the second chapter of Luke) and it celebrated the redemption of infant Jesus at the temple of Solomon (Luke has muddled this up with the purification ritual for women who have given birth, but for the sake of clarity I am going to ignore that as well and write only about infant redemption which is the critical ancient Monotheistic kernel of this holiday).

Baby Jesus required redemption from the temple because he was Jewish–more specifically, he was a firstborn Jewish male infant and thus the somewhat rare rite of pidyon haben was required. Here is what the Book of Exodus has to say concerning the subject (this is from Exodus Chapter 13–so the speaker here is, uh, God and the listener is Moses, understood to be the chosen representative of the chosen people):

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the Lord’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.

Exodus 13: 12-15

Wow! This is some old-school religion! Yet, to be honest, I am not sure I would understand any of that if it had not been carefully explained to me. Here is the best interpretation/explanation I can offer. All firstborn male mammals belong to God (in his pre-Abraham days as a god of nomadic shepherds, El was very big on sacrifice: this is frequently reflected in the Old Testament and sometimes glimmers of the truly old ways of human sacrifice can be seen–as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephthah’s daughter). God no longer wants human sacrifice, but first born males are pledged to the temple and the priestly caste as servants. This obligation, however, can be dispensed with through a business transaction: parents can trade the price of a lamb, 5 shekels of silver to the kohens to redeem their child from the Lord’s service [One of the twelve tribes of Judaism, the Levites, were the priests. Moses’ elder brother Aaron was of this tribe. Because of Aaron’s special service, God made him high priest, and all of his descendants, the kohanim are priests. Jews with the surname Levi or Cohen have special priestly duties and privileges to this day]

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Fra Angelico, 1440-1442) fresco

Jesus lived in Judea during the final days of the Temple of Solomon. His parents had to take him to the temple and pay the priests. Luke specifies that Joseph and Mary took the option given to poor people, paying the price of a pair of doves rather than of a lamb (doves, like sheep and asses, are sacred animals in Christian mythology). In the temple an ancient prophet, Simeon recognized Jesus and prophesied him to be “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. This is what is celebrated by Candlemas aka”The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” and it was of great importance to the first Christians living in ancient Israel. The original meaning of all of this, however has faded over thousands of years and it is now difficult to understand (except to very devout Jews) and so The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ has now become Groundhog Day in the country’s largest Christian nation! I wonder what will happen to February 2nd in another thousand years or so.

Outside Knoxville, (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and watercolor

Now that the holidays have passed, it has occurred to me that I should post some of the India ink and watercolor illustrations which I have been making lately for fun (or, more accurately, because my subconscious torments me unless I draw them). The first (above) is a little illustration which I made as a gift for my erstwhile roommate, Jennifer. Sadly, Jennifer gave up on the germinal chaos of Brooklyn and fled away forever to live in the bosky dells of Knoxville (or whatever it is they have down there). But she used the epistolary arts to request a drawing of a magical elf desporting among many varieties of fungi just outside of her new home city.

Here is the picture I drew. I have envisioned the magical elf in the style of the Nats, the joyous syncretic deities of Burmese Buddhism. Various seeds, spores, and small creatures lurk beneath the mushrooms, wood ears, and coral fungus. In the background, modern Knoxville spreads through the wooded hills watched by a vulture, an ermine, and a whitetail deer (as a mysterious being of pure creativity fruits into fungoid darkness). Above it all looms the mighty “Sun Sphere”, a dazzling feat of 80 architecture which is uh, eighty meters tall.

As a historical aside, I encountered that very tower myself, in 1982, when my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, my sister, and I traveled to Knoxville to attend the World’s Fair for which it was built. Although I was only eight, I was struck by how crummy and chaotic the World’s Fair was and how the Sun Sphere looked like off-brand deodorant rather than a mighty futuristic skyscraper. For her birthday, my little sister (who was five or six) had asked for a fine suitcase so she could be a world traveler. My parents (or grandparents?) bought her a beautiful new fuchsia case of finest sampsonite, which was the nicest piece of luggage among our entourage. Alas, a would-be larcenist broke into our hotel room and rifled through the nicest suitcase (which was all full of crayons, dolls, and little girl’s clothing). The fair was too crowded to see anything, although, come to think of it, I am not sure there were any actual attractions other than an endless field of bumpkins and insurance-salesman-looking characters. Then a bird pooped on my grandmother’s head. Good times in Knoxville!

A Dab for Breakfast (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Ink and Watercolor

Here is a similar drawing which I made in my little sketch book. I guess this picture portrays…breakfast? Since I am not a morning person, I refuse to acknowledge the International Morning Person (IMP) propaganda that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This tableau helps to deconstruct that tenacious myth. In the foreground a pelican enjoys a live flounder and some froot loops–even though this is properly a cereal for toucans! A sentient pineapple throws up his arms in consternation at the proceedings as a masked ghost (or possibly some very very runny scrambled eggs) shrugs indifferently. On the picture’s left side, a featureless pink humanoid…or maybe an embryonic ghost…or a representation of how the artist/author feels in the morning is likewise overwhelmed by breakfast. The entity drinks copious amounts of coffee, possibly going so far as to pour the stimulant directly into the grotesque organ-like aperture in its center. No wonder the little guy is so anxious! Frankly, only the ravenous pelican seems happy to be there.

Even if flatfish are not the sole protagonists of these small drawings, they are still there, lurking beneath (or becoming part of the food chain). Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to again advertise the all-knowing digital flounder which my friends and I built to delight and perplex you (or maybe as a disguised lure to beguile you into my digital realm). Let me know what you think and we will keep on floundering through this winter!

The Republican senators and congresspeople who support Trump’s attempt to annul our election and destroy the United States government are each traitors. In order that the country can heal from wounds and stay united, the United States has a long history of grimacing and allowing suchlike seditionists to carry on with their lives unmolested (the eras after the Civil War ended or World War II started both jump to mind). Indeed, Joe Biden has already openly stated his preference to move on and not waste time or resources with vendettas against Trump’s supporting cast of cowards, liars, toadies, enablers, and suchlike stooges. Pending the results of tomorrow’s Georgia senatorial race (at present, the two cartoonishly greedy Republicans are polling in a dead heat against the earnest Democratic challengers), Biden may well be forced to curry favor with these sycophants himself. Sigh…

Yet this is a real coup attempt, and these grotesque people really are attacking our beloved democracy out of cynical opportunism. When history gives us more perspective on this debased & criminal era in Washington, I have a feeling that a lot of these grandstanding Republicans will try to act like this was some sort of joke or performance or “statement” [that is assuming this is not the dress rehearsal for a more effectively staged coup which gives First Consul Cruz or Emperor Tommy Tuberville or a similar nightmare]. As this fine article in the Atlantic explicates, we should never allow the “Dirty Dozen” to normalize what they have done (it might be a “baker’s dozen” with Kelly Loeffler thrown in, but that evil, crooked woman is so mercurial that I can no longer tell what she is up to).

The fact that all ten living former Secretaries of Defense came together and signed a letter admonishing military personnel to obey no illegal orders and stay aloof from the presidential transition, makes me think that Trump’s disgraceful call to the Georgia Secretary of State was not the only illegal or extortionist call which he made. Our senators swore an oath to protect the country and our constitution. These twelve are doing the opposite. Even if they stay in office thanks to moronic voters back in their home states, let us always remember the following senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Steve Daines of Montana, John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana and Roger Marshall of Kansas. Right now there is nothing we can do to punish them for their attempt to pull down the American experiment in self-government, but the worm has a way of turning. Perhaps someday you can block their appointment to a board, prevent them from becoming a university president, or simply remind a fellow voter who they really are. You never know what will happen, and I think society should ALWAYS recall that these criminals tried to give us Trump as a life dictator.

I, for one, will never forget that when the Republic stood in terrible peril, these caitiffs said “maybe I can use this opportunity to become a hero to Trump’s base and advance my career!” SHAME! A pox upon these villains.

I wanted to post a follow-up picture from that last post of the full Christmas tree with my elderly housecat Sepia under it (and one of Grandpa’s wayang dolls hanging by the side). No matter how I photograph this tree the picture never looks right (and, of course, my photos are filled with tool boxes and chaotic art supplies which are everywhere when your studio is your house), but at least you get to see Sepia Cat emerging from her big puffy cat bed to look at the tree of life!

Also, below is a picture which is important to my big 2020 wrap up post (a special treat coming later this week). I drew a pandemic journal this summer as I sat in my walled garden and rode my bike around the strange plague-addled New York City, however it hasn’t quite been ready to post on the blog until just now. I will show you what I mean later this week (and also my digital flounder oracle is nearly ready for a relaunch). So many holiday treats! Enjoy the season and thanks again for reading and commenting!

The Pandemic Journal, middle panel (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) India ink on paper

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

Unfortunately, before we can get back to bats and artwork, we must deal with the misbegotten election of 2020, a dark tempest which has been blackening the national offing ever since it became evident that Republicans have no interest in laws, public well-being, or representative democracy but are instead trying to use underhanded means to ensure permanent authoritarian one-party rule in the United States of America.

For the election of 2016 I wrote a thoughtful and fair-spoken endorsement which stands the test of time…and yet is also clearly from the halcyon era before Trump pulled us all onto the road to hell which we are now walking together as a nation. You should go back and check it out! I used to write so prettily before it became evident that nobody cares about that sort of thing!

The outrageous acrimony of the 2020 election however calls for a different approach. When disputes devolve to pure emotional terms of screaming, fighting, and breathless accusations of lies & criminality, it becomes hard for conscientious arbiters to figure out who is lying. There is a story from the Bible about this(confused Evangelical Christians might recognize this unknown text as the mysterious black rectangular prop which their lord and savior, Donald Trump, was holding in his June 1st photo op).

“How does this thing go in the VCR?”

Solomon the Wise, the heir of King David of Israel, was renowned for his probity, honor, and good sense in adjudicating other people’s disputes (sadly his wisdom abandoned him in his own family affairs, which were a mess, but we can talk about that later if at all). Anyway, two women came to King Solomon with a seemingly insoluble dispute about an infant. Here is the relevant passage from the King James Bible (Kings, Chapter 3, Verses 16 to 28):

Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house. And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it. And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear. And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.

Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living. And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

The real mother was the woman who actually cared about the child and would rather see him given to a lying stranger than be destroyed. Again and again this year, similar choices have been put before America’s two different parties and their answers have revealed exactly which party is concerned with the national well-being and which party does not care if the nation is destroyed so long as they can cling to power and appoint incompetent judges (no matter how little of a national mandate they have).

The most telling of these incidents involved the second round of stimulus money, which is necessary to forestall a ruinous recession on Main Street. The Democratic House passed a generous second stimulus bill back at the end of spring. The Republican senate keeps tearing it to pieces and filling it with poisonous pills so that it cannot pass. Even if the stimulus money would help the entire nation (and help Donald Trump get re-elected) it is unacceptable to Mitch McConnell if it gives anything to needy Americans or gives the Democrats the appearance of a win. A truly cynical (but probably correct) interpretation is that McConnell has decided that Biden will win the election and he wants the nation to fail as precipitously and absolutely as possible during a Biden administration. (McConnell, one of American history’s greatest villains, is like the harlot who does not care if the child is killed…if that harlot were 300 million times more vindictive, spiteful, & murderous and somehow also looked like a melted turtle).

Other similar “Go ahead and cut him in half” moments include the Trumpist stance in the national argument over face masks & lockdowns, the acquittal of Donald Trump in the Senate despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the grotesque mischaracterization of the Muller report, the abandonment of longstanding national allies, the jettisoning of the emoluments clause etc etc etc…

So, to be nakedly blunt about my political endorsements, every Republican other than Mitt Romney should be voted out of office as quickly as possible (if you are in Utah, Massachusetts, Michigan, or France…or wherever it is the plutocratic-yet-honest Romney calls home these days, you can judge him on his own merits). The GOP is now a party of Quislings, liars, extortionists, criminals, and outright white supremacists who are not worthy of holding public office. When Solomon said “cut the United States of America in half” Republicans happily got out their saws, scalpels, lasers, calipers, and scales to ensure that they have exactly enough of the corpse to claim complete control in accordance with the rigged anti-Democratic rules they have been foisting upon us. The health of the child in this endeavor has never entered GOP calculations at all.

I have traditionally been in sympathy with Republican’s stated platform of strong national defense and sufficient R&D to keep the nation competitive in the future (and you know…solve problems and make life better). Their actions have revealed that their true motivation is naked love of power and all other items are pretexts which will be swiftly abandoned in pursuit of their true goal.

Of course intelligent people will recognize there is a problem for all of us within the parameters of my metaphor. The Republicans do not care in any way about the nation but are happy to threaten our collective well-being in order to take what they and their billionaire masters want. Our current crisis arguably stems from past episodes where Democrats sighed heavily and let the Republicans walk away with the living child instead of cutting him in half (the controversial Bush/Gore election of 2000, the terms of the financial bailout of 2008, and the Obama administration’s capitulation to government shutdown theatrics all spring to mind). What if there were no Solomon? What if the loud and aggressive bad harlot had walked off with the baby because its true mother was afraid of hurting it by fighting? How can we save a hostage which the Republican party is perfectly happy to kill?

In days to come, we will find out if there is an answer. But fellow citizens, remember: you are not merely the threatened child in this scenario, you are Solomon too. The power to find a good solution belongs to you, dear voter…and nobody can take that decision from you. Well…they can’t take our capacity to make decisions about our lives unless we vote for Trump to become King of America (and, appallingly, that horrible scenario happens to be on the ballot tomorrow).

[P.S. Coincidentally, Joe Biden is a very decent person and a gifted leader who might actually have it in him to be a great president. However the shocking malfeasance of Republicans during the last four years has made writing about Biden unnecessary. Biden is a patriot and he is not a criminal. Sadly that is all we are required to know about him until Donald Trump is out of the White House]

Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween special feature concerning bats! If you like you can check out last week’s posts concerning bat mascots, Honduran white bats, and the Chinese good luck symbol Wu Fu. Bats are exceedingly wonderful and I love them…but where is the chilling Halloween horror?

Well, bats do have a dark side (at least to humans, when we eat them or intrude too far into their world). They are an infamous vector for zoonotic viruses which jump easily to closely related mammalian species. Although we are most attuned to this year’s worldwide pandemic, covid 19 (which seems not to have come from snakes, but from horseshoe bats) both the SARS and MERS epidemics were caused by bat-borne coronaviruses. Less memorably, bat coronavirues also jumped into the farmyard and caused a serious viral epidemic in China’s pigs. Bats are the natural reservoir for Ebola, Hendra virus, Nipah virus. A single bat can host many different viruses without getting sick. Because they live in close proximity in (sometimes enormous) colonies, viruses readily infect huge numbers of bats. Additionally bats are unlike other small mammals such as rodents and shrews in that they have long lifespans. Most bats can live 20 to 40 years (although, sadly, most do not because, as any World War I aviator could tell you (if any were alive), flying presents certain dangers).

All of this begs the question of why bats are so prone to viruses and yet also so resistant to their effects. Zoologists and Cell biologists are only beginning to unravel this puzzle, but what they have found presents a fascinating picture of the interplay between cellular biology and the physical characteristics of animals.

In the course of metabolizing, reproducing, fighting diseases and so forth, cells are sometimes destroyed in novel ways which release free DNA into places it should not be. This is potentially a big problem and animals cope with it through a mechanism known, sensibly, as DNA-sensing. Alas, this is about as far as I can reasonably describe this process, but you can check out a diagram which explains cytosolic DNA sensing machinery in humans below.

Perhaps this diagram also explains why molecular biologists sometimes find it difficult to characterize what they do in pithy buzzwords

Uhhh…at any rate, among mammals bats have uniquely rigorous physiological demands due to the energy requirements of flight. The high-impact demands of flying lead to substantial cellular damage, but also preclude the solution other mammals adapt (which, as you can see above, is inflammation). If bats were prone to inflammation to the same degree as other placental mammals, they would lose their ability to fly. Instead they have lost various genes and have a more muted response to miscellaneous DNA. This diminished ability to clean up random intracellular DNA makes our fluttery friends more prone to all sorts viruses, yet they have found some other way to endure viruses without over-responding.

As you can probably tell, the cytological processes we are talking about seem to play huge and important roles in cancer, autoimmune disorders, and a host of chronic metabolic disorders like heart disease & diabetes. Not only would it be immensely beneficial to understand bats’ seemingly unique DNA sensing apparatus (and response) in terms of virology and epidemiology, it might bear fruit in many other branches of medical inquiry.

Horseshoe Bat

Alas, this sort of blue skies research (or should we call it dark skies research in honor of our nocturnal subjects?) is exactly the sort of thing which enormous companies are disinterested in and which the Federal government has turned its back upon. Fortunately (?), the Chinese government is extremely interested in finding out more about but-human zoonoses and has been diligently working to figure out more about DNA sensing and concomitant immune response in chiroptera. In fact, if the grotesque bowdlerization of the subject which I have presented in this post does not satisfy your curiosity, you can read a rather fine (albeit technical) Chinese article from 2018 about the subject.

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