You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘American’ tag.

Ferrebeekeeper used to address American politics sometimes, but I got so disgusted by the deadlock and regulatory capture in the current iteration that I stopped. However it’s already 2016 and it’s going to be a looooooong year (it’s already been long, and we are not even out of January). I am going to have to go back to writing about politics, not because I have stopped being disgusted, but because I am now also afraid and angry.

trump
The big new topic of politics in this cycle, of course, is Trump. Although Donald Trump is a narcissistic plutocrat with fascist tendencies who wishes to steer America (and maybe humanity) towards disaster, he is a godsend for writers, because anything written about him garners views. In the 50s horror film “The Blob” everything that people do to fight the all-consuming blob from outer space just makes it stronger and bigger. So too is the media’s relationship with Trump. When people write polemics against him or describe his appalling views or ridiculous history it just makes him stronger. More people click on it, which means more people must keep writing about it…and so on. Plus, every writer or producer wants the hits associated with Trump articles, even if focusing on him gives him more of the attention he craves.
I have solved this moral quandary by not writing about Trump…so far. I care about views a lot, but, in the end, this site is not about making money or garnering fame. Yet, the Blob has started to cover the horizon for me too. I assumed that the Trump feedback bubble would break before the primaries started in earnest. That has not happened.
It is a real problem, Cruz, while fully as despicable as Trump, is unable to pivot to the middle the same way (Trump has no shame: if he wins the Republican primary, he will just start saying whatever he thinks the greatest number of all voters want to hear). I think it is time to stop thinking of the Donald as a joke and to treat him as the dark manipulative artist he is.

donald-trump
Behind all of this is a bigger social problem: the idea that shock, bluster, and naked attention-seeking outweigh meaning, hard-work, and thoughtful analysis is not new. The art world fell prey to Trumps decades ago and has never escaped (although we call such men Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons). Once a culture enters a realm where shock and celebrity are the only currency, it becomes perilously difficult to return to meaningful themes. The feedback loop means that only a bigger shock or a more flagrant celebrity will be picked up by the media (they are already half-bankrupt and cannot afford to concentrate on anything else).

andy-warhol-donald-trump-1983

The Celebrity Apprentice

Art and politics are not so very far apart. They are both about manipulating groups of people with symbols. The crowds of people who sniff at the empty ugly game which art has become need to wake up. Contemporary art is not irrelevant: it is still a dark mirror for what is happening in society as a whole…and if the art world is nothing but vast sums of money, and shock-value pieces with no beauty, it should be seen as a warning that the Trumps are coming everywhere else.

41XVQeVVvfL._QL70_

Donald Trump – Pop Art Print (Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara Style) 60 x 50 x 1.8 cm Deep Box Canvas by Paintedicons

Of course, I don’t really think that Trump will actually win anything…not this time. But just being forced to contend with his style is going to usher in a new era unless we stop it. And the only way to prevent this is to ignore him. So don’t read this post—and don’t read any other essays about Trump or his ilk either (stop reading about stupid Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons for that matter). Viewers (and voters) can only win if we stop paying attention to these frauds. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, not the hand of the artist. Meaning comes from the crowd’s attention not the mouth of the demagogue. So let’s all just look elsewhere before things get spoiled….although if we fail at that maybe I’ll at least get a bunch of hits for finally writing about goddamned Trump…

Kelly Green

Hey, so Ferrebeekeeper has written about all sorts of esoteric and oddball colors, but what is up with Kelly green, a color so famous and prominent that it gets its own month? Actually, I have been avoiding writing about Kelly green because the truth is Kelly green is a pretender–a modern American color masquerading as an ancient Irish one!

A male model in a Three-piece Kelly Green suit

A male model presenting a conservative  three-piece Kelly green suit

As you probably know by now, Kelly green is a bright mid-tone green which inclines toward yellow rather than blue. It looks like newly sprouted grass and it stands out to our primate eyes/brains–probably because of ancient dietary issues of our monkey-like forbears (although all sorts of respectable people and institutions constantly appear on the news exhorting us to eat more salad). Different sources give different dates for the first known references to Kelly Green as either 1917 or 1927, so the color does not even reach back as far as the great waves of Irish immigration, but is a wholly modern invention. Indeed it seems like someone chose the brightest grass green color and named it after a short punchy Irish surname (which sounds like the modus-operandi of Madison Avenue, political operators, Hollywood, or some other enclave of sharkish American marketers).

Saint Patrick's Day Noisemakers

Saint Patrick’s Day Noisemakers

Throughout the twentieth century the color was further popularized by representing all sorts of professional and semi-professional sports teams, but it has found its greatest hold on our collective attention as the heraldic color of Saint Patrick’s Day and the month of March in general. In my head, the name instantly evokes puking teenagers with wigs, cheap clothes, and plastic spangles all of the brightest Kelly green.

Saint Patrick's Day in Chicago Illinois

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago Illinois

Yet the history of Kelly green (or lack thereof) needs not interfere with the appreciation of the color! I have never been to Ireland, but I have laid eyes on it from a plane and it was indeed a rainbow of brilliant yellow-greens. In the populous northern hemisphere, March is the month when the new grasses–and all sorts of other plants–begin to return from winter dormancy so the marketers hit upon a deeper truth of the biosphere. Also, I have been that greensick teenager with a plastic derby and it was horrible and glorious. The color is a perfect representation of early springtime in one’s life as well as in the broader ecosystems of the temperate region!

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

pecan-pie-sml-slider

This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

PecanGrove

Voting-e1319575174177

I wanted a clear break from the previous week’s posts about dreams and nightmares…but here in the United States of America today is the 2014 midterm election—so we haven’t escaped nightmares yet. With the adroitness of a deer frozen in the headlights, Ferrebeekeeper has refrained from endorsing any candidates until the last minute. Since Americans are now headed to the polls (or have already voted) it may now be too late to make a meaningful difference–which sounds like the essence of American democracy right now anyway.

Before I suggest how citizens should vote, let’s quickly examine the two national parties.

article-2421993-1BD9C9E8000005DC-39_964x613

With their abject obeisance to big business and (pretend?) love for the most inane and inhuman strictures of religious fundamentalism, Republicans are deeply troubling. It does not help that they are unapologetically hostile to minorities, women, immigrants, atheists, polytheists, Muslims, young people, spotted owls, South Americans, sick people, children, scientists, non-scientists, science fiction enthusiasts, artists, Asians, unemployed people, employed people, homosexuals, van owners, poor people, people with unruly hair, city dwellers, intellectuals, small business people, circus clowns, florists, manatees, et cetera. Despite these problems, I have usually swallowed my gorge and voted for the inhumane Republicans in general elections. I do so because they stand for robust national defense and for funding science & technology R&D. These two issues constitute 90% of what matters to me in politics—and, if you studied history at all, you would feel the same way. However contemporary Republicans have abandoned these values. In their rush to defund government and hand power to big business cartels, they are slashing research funding—a huge and inexcusable error. Republicans assert that the market will take care of science research. Anyone who has any experience of today’s market knows that it will only provide costly service contracts, addictive medicines, plastic rubbish, and consumer debt. Government is necessary for the truly important things.

This-donkey-was-stuck-in-a-hole-in-the-ground

Although they pretend otherwise, the Democrats are similarly in the pocket of special interest groups. They enjoy passing endless hard-to-follow laws which curtail productivity and destroy small businesses (and therefore favor big business). In their haste to pander to individual rights and interests the Democrats abandon the all-important larger good. Although the Democrats claim the mantle of environmentalism, a close examination of their policies reveal little that would really help the environment—or anybody other than their cronies. Democrats do not currently stand for scientific innovation at any cost, nor for muscular intervention in the wider world, but rather favor an attitude of “let’s solve our problems at home first.” This attitude is dangerous, since our problems at home are never going to be solved (particularly by nanny-like moralizing laws). Without continuous scientific innovation, the vast problems which humankind is creating will destroy us. Without a large scary military, the Pax Americana will founder and today’s globalized world will fall to chaos (or become thrall to Chinese exploitation schemes). The minutiae of identity politics will matter little in such a scenario.

The obvious alternative to these two unappealing choices would be to vote in some third party candidates, but, because America’s political duopoly holds such vast power, this is more-or-less impossible. Additionally, although it seems unlikely, the third party candidates are even less impressive than the lickspittles, hypocrites, and malingerers fronted by the GOP and the Democrats. Argh!

If all choices are problematic (or outright awful) what is a good-hearted voter supposed to do?

My proposal is completely impossible (which is why I have not bandied it about until 2:00 PM on Election Day)—but it has the benefit of being extremely appealing to everyone other than incumbents and professional politicians.

6a00d83454714d69e201676009d1a5970b-800wi

Red America and Blue America are too deeply entrenched. It is an artificial distinction built by professional politicians. Let’s upend that. Everywhere with a Bible-thumping Republican basking like a lizard in a gerrymandered safe district should elect the place-holder Democrat. Likewise, here in the blue heart of Brooklyn we could throw out the crooked machine Democrat and vote in the unknown Republican. My congresswoman is an anti-defense Democrat who has no knowledge of history or science. Her only position is that the government should lavish more money on entitlements for lazy unemployed people like me. The Republicans haven’t even bothered to contest this district: her only opposition is some unknown mouth-breather from the “conservative” party. Let’s elect that guy! My parents in rural Ohio have a lunatic tea-party congressman who told my mother “women’s opinions don’t matter.” They should elect the anti-establishment Democrat. Working together, we could reverse the red and blue polarity of the country!

What!?

What!?

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most of the sacrificial Democrats in red districts or Republicans in blue districts (who have no electoral chance whatsoever) are not actually that far from the core values of their district. We would have legislative houses filled with socially liberal Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. Many would be political outsiders and all would owe their seats to a mass joke by the voting populace. If Idaho was represented by traditionally minded Democrats and New York City was represented by minority Republicans (cough, I mean “conservatives) perhaps these new legislators could work together and pass some much-needed political reforms before K street bought them up too.

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests...like always

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests…like always

earthcrust01

Have you ever wondered about how deep humankind is capable of digging into the planet? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to answer this question with vast drilling projects. These two drilling operations were opposite but strangely complimentary. The United States tried to drill through the oceanic crust to reach the Earth’s mantle through an oceanic tectonic plate (which are much thinner than continental plates, but made of dense basalt). The Soviets attempted to drill through a continental plate–which are massively thick but not nearly as dense as oceanic plates (and not underneath thousands of feet of water!). Each operation failed due to the nature of geophysical reality and to the particular weaknesses of the respective nations. In the United States, the project was abandoned because of a lack of funding caused by congressional intransigence and general scientific apathy. The Soviet project was set aside because society collapsed and the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The American project was an outright attempt to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the line which separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle. The discontinuity is named after a Croatian geophysicist—and the project took its name from him as well when it came to be known as “the Mohole”. Various boreholes were sunk into the oceanic crust off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The deepest drill hole reached 183 m (600 feet) below the sea floor—which was already beneath 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) of seawater. Yet the oceanic crust is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) thick, so the project was still far from achieving its goal. The Mohole project was plagued by mismanagement, underfunding, and incongruities between the government, scientific, and private institutions which were working together. Yet it was the first time dynamic positioning technology was used for deep sea drilling—today this technology is critical to offshore oil projects. Additionally scientist learned more about the composition of oceanic plates. Unfortunately the project was canceled in 1967.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Soviet team began drilling began on 24 May, 1970. They chose to drill on the Kola Peninsula, which juts into the Arctic Circle between the Barents Sea and the White Sea (and is a sort of sinister eastern mirror to the great Scandinavian nations). The Soviet scientists and technicians were trying to drill through the Baltic continental crust which is estimated to be 35 kilometers (22 miles) in thickness. For decades, they worked on this project, sinking new holes as extant drillings became broken, collapsed, or unviable. The deepest they managed to drill was 12,262 metres (40,230 ft)—about a third of the distance through the continental plate. This remains the deepest drill hole in human history–although today there are a few boreholes which are longer than this (however they are not deeper–such super-long drillings are generally horizontal or diagonal for the specialized purposes of oil drilling). The Kola borehole project also produced useful and unexpected results. At the maximum depths which the drill bore reached, temperatures were much higher than expected and there was a great deal more water in the continental rock. The core samples from the drilling reached all the way through Earth’s geological history back to rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) although these were distorted by heat and pressure. Additionally the mud which came from the hole was described as boiling with hydrogen. As we dig into the underworld things get stranger and stranger! Sadly, the project was abandoned and the works are now a deserted ruin in the grim chaos of Putin’s Russia.

 

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

A perspicacious reader will note that we never actually got anywhere close to the Earth’s mantle with either of these projects. Geologists, geophysicists, and drilling engineers learned much from the attempts, but the fundamental questions about the Earth’s crust and mantle which lead to the two missions remain unanswered. All we know about the Earth’s mantle comes from the reading of various sorts of waves which pass through the Earth—not from direct observation. The only rocks we have seen from the mantle are strange xenoliths which became caught up in esoteric igneous events and traveled as tiny crystals from the mantle to the surface through volcanoes or basaltic flows. Fortunately the world’s scientists are putting together a new mission–the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to try again to reach the Earth’s mantle by penetrating the oceanic crust. This mission is being organized and funded mostly by the Japanese and the NSF (although there are a number of other contributing members and associate members). The Japanese in particular regard it as their premier scientific mission. Hopefully they can use today’s greatly advanced drilling technology to improve on the abortive attempts of the Americans and Soviets to pierce the crust of the planet.

IODP_Logo_NEW_web

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart is a military award given to United State soldiers who are injured or killed in combat.  Since April 1917 the medal has been awarded in the name of the President of the United States to men and women of the armed forces (and, for a brief period, to civilians who were injured in meritorious action with the enemy).  The Purple Heart medal is indeed a purple heart with a profile relief statue of George Washington.  Above his head is the coat of arms of the Washington family (who were descended from British nobles) which consists of red and white bars beneath three red stars with holes in them.  The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with silver-white edges—which is also what the service ribbon for the Purple Heart looks like.

The Purple Heart Service Medal

The Purple Heart Service Medal

In 1945, the United States military was planning an all-out amphibious assault on Japan.  Military planners reckoned that this campaign would lead to an unprecedented number of casualties, so the Pentagon ordered 500,000 purple hearts to give to the troops injured or killed. However, thanks to hard-working scientists, the physical nature of the universe, and President Truman’s uncompromising orders, the assault on Japan became unnecessary.  In all succeeding years (and throughout all subsequent wars), total American casualties have never approached this number, so Purple Heart awards given out today are practically antiques.

The Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit

The Purple Heart is an incredibly distinctive looking award with a unique name and a powerful, unusual color.  What is the meaning behind the color of the medal?  The color and shape of the medal were conceived by no less a person than George Washington himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  Washington wanted to award common soldiers who had committed deeds of unusual merit and he commanded that such soldiers be honored with the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart shaped patch sewn onto their uniform.  The Badge of Military Merit is generally viewed as the first military award of the United States Armed Services, but, most unfortunately we do not know what exactly the enigmatic Washington was thinking when he chose the color (although the meaning of the shape, at least, seems obvious).  Perhaps the general associated purple with the noble qualities of sacrifice, valor, and courage which the badge was meant to embody.  Whatever the case, Purple Hearts bear a unique personal connection to George Washington, the foremost of the fathers of the nation.

An artist's interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

An artist’s interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

 

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Tylosaurus and the 108 Outlaws (Mu Pan, 2013)

Here is a large painting by contemporary Brooklyn artist Mu Pan.  Pan mixes Chinese and western styles to tell allegorical stories about the fight against authoritarian hegemony.  His complex pictures are filled with characters and objects from wildly different cultures and eras.

The 108 outlaws shown in the painting are the outlaws from Liangshan Marsh—the main characters of “Water Margins” a Ming dynasty era epic which is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.  The outlaws of “Water Margin” are reincarnated versions of heavenly spirits who as humans are unfairly persecuted by the corrupt officials of an incompetent emperor.  Together they form an unbeatable army of martial artists which opposes the crooked government (although due to their leader Song Jiang’s loyal feelings for the throne of heaven, they never overthrow the system).

Detail

Detail

In this painting the outlaws have joined forces with sharks, rays, mermen, kalpas, porpoises, and other water creatures to fight with an immense deathless tylosaurus (a sort of giant mosasaur which lived during the Cretaceous). The writhing dinosaur clearly represents the great leviathan of Chinese central authority. The painting is alive with fantastic details and martial energy, but its title and subject also indicate that it is an unmistakable allusion to China’s most famous book about fighting against an inhumane and broken system. You can check out Mu Pan’s other amazing works (and buy prints) at his online gallery.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, the great political philosopher and revolutionary, was born in England but he emigrated to Great Britain’s American colonies (thanks partly to encouragement from Ben Franklin).  In America, Paine was an immensely important figure in the American Revolution.  His best-selling book Common Sense was the voice of the revolution to such an extent that John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

Paine is revered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, but his revolutionary thinking and nonconformity prevented him from fitting into American society after the revolution. Paine was an Enlightenment deist who rejected organized religion and the Bible (which he regarded as “fabulous inventions”).  Additionally, the new country (with its slaveholders, capitalist merchants, feuding states, and theocratic undertones) did not live up to his ideal of a utopian republic.   Paine became involved in a feud involving the revolution’s funding with Robert Morris Junior a wealthy merchant & political insider who had set up the fledgling American economy (although Morris himself later went spectacularly bankrupt from injudicious land speculation and ended up in debtor’s prison).  Forced out of American politics by feud and scandal, Paine went back to England in 1787.  Then, as his writings became the subject of political and legal controversy, Paine moved again to revolutionary France, thus narrowly escaping being hanged for sedition.

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1890s)

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1790s)

Initially Paine was regarded as a hero by the French Revolution.  He was granted honorary French citizenship and elected to the National Convention (despite an inability to speak French).  However, once again Paine’s liberal and humanitarian ideals caused him trouble: he objected to capital punishment and argued that Louis XVI should be exiled to the United States rather than executed.  Paine also was an instrumental member of the Convention’s Constitutional Committee which drafted a highly principled Constitution.  The Constitution Committee was a moderate (Girondin) group and as the radical Montagnards took over, they regarded Paine as a political enemy.

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

In 1793, during the reign of terror, Thomas Paine was arrested by the Jacobins (who were acting under orders from Robespierre).  Paine languished in jail as his fellow prisoners were mercilessly slaughtered by the terror.  Paine pleaded for help from America’s minister to France, the wily Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with writing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution), but Morris offered no diplomatic support.  In summer of 1794 Paine’s execution was ordered.  A guard marked Paine’s cell with the chalk mark which indicated that the philosopher was to be taken to the guillotine the next day.  Paine had been feeling feverish and, as a mark of respect to him, his door was left open so a breeze could blow through the cell at night.  The guard accidentally wrote the fatal mark on the inside of the door–which was then closed in the morning.  The sickly Paine slept through the morning he should have been beheaded and woke to find the fatal mark inside the cell with him, unread by the executioner’s goons.  The Montagnards lost power a few days later and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine instead of Paine.  James Monroe, the new U.S. minister to France lost no time in securing Paine’s freedom.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

For decades Paine had mingled as an equal with the most influential politicians and thinkers of France, Britain, and the U.S., however his timing was always somehow tragically off.  He left France in 1802 or 1803 just as the Second Great Awakening was bringing old-fashioned religious intolerance sweeping across the United States. When Paine died in Greenwich Village in 1809 he was almost universally despised as an atheist.  Only 6 people attended his funeral when he was unceremoniously buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Jersey.   Yet Paine has lived on through his books.  Many of the great figures who overshadowed Paine have faded from the public memory as their political battles were forgotten, but Paine’s books still appeal to revolutionaries, nonconformists, and idealists across the ages.

the Rod of Asclepius

the Rod of Asclepius

The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine.  Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).

Asclepius

Asclepius

There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine.  In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier).  Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance.  Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort.  The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.

Logo of the British Medical Association

Logo of the British Medical Association

However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.

Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged.  The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters.  Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.

Hermes holding the Caduceus

Hermes holding the Caduceus

In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps).  Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses.  Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).

The Caduceus

The Caduceus

To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States.  Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system.  HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.

hmo2

The First Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler.  It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness.   They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them).  It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less.  Where did he learn that?  It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.

Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography).   Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614.  It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain.  Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618.   The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).

Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner.  Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet.  But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise.  The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead.  Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters.   Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.

As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations.  Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).

Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags, and his warriors

Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil.  He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels.  He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags.  Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community.  Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place.  They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands.    By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home.  During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags).   Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020
M T W T F S S
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031