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Cave Flounder.jpg

Regular visitors know that my alter-ego/spirit animal is the flounder (or, at any rate, the flatfish is definitely the leitmotif of this period of my ecology/history themed art).  During lunchbreak or on the train I work on little “lesser” flounder drawings.  In the near future I plan to put them all on a little internet store…along with some of the prints of the intricate flounder I have been drawing.  Also there will be an interactive online flounder…it will all be the glorious artistic unveiling I have been hinting at for a while.  You are going to love it!…erm…hopefully. In the mean time though, here are three of the most recent small flounder drawings I do during my busy Midtown days to keep from going crazy.  The one at the top is some sort or oracle emerging from the underworld depths of the flounder itself.  I don’t know what secrets this augur has…or even what gender they are, but they have brought unfathomable mysteries to light from the cave depths. A vile chef-beast lurks to the right roaring of appetites which can never be sated, while, at left a young mother nurses an infant: the next generation arises to take a place within the great weal, yet always there is appetite.

Magic Lamp Flounder.jpg

Speaking of which, this second flounder is meant to evoke the ifrits which always pop out of of ancient middle eastern oil lamps. A mysterious world of gauzy spirits, mystery beasts, and apparitions swirl around the lit lamp, but whether any of these blue spirits offer helpful advice or magical munificence is unclear.

Cell Flounder.jpg

Finally, I made a flounder which represents the bloodstream (my very first readers will recall that I had a childhood epiphany about the nature of living things based on blood).  The cells stream forth to build the organism and carry out needed maintenance, but strange viruses swirl within the plasma.  most ominously a parasitic tapeworm stares in hunger at the feast of little lives.  It is unclear whether the aristocratic woman is a parasite or whether she is the host.  This is a whole little ecosystem with the long-suffering flounder in the middle.

I will add all of these flounder to my Instagram feed (which you should follow), but you can see them here first, and read the perplexing explanations I have offered.

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year's Mid-Autumn festival

2015 year of the goat: Blood red goats desport in front of the full moon as a symbol of this year’s Mid-Autumn festival

Today is a special day! Not only is it the Autumn Festival (Mooncake Day), a lunar harvest (and moon-viewing) festival celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese.  It is also the last “supermoon” full lunar eclipse for the next 18 years.  A “supermoon” happens when the moon is at the closest point in its orbit around Earth. From Earth’s surface (where most of my readers live) the moon thus appears 14% larger and 33% brighter than other full moons. When such a supermoon is eclipsed by the shadow of Earth, the event is known as a “blood moon” by imaginative neopagans and by fundamentalist Christians who hope the world will end soon (and by bloggers desperate for hits).  The blood moon designation comes not just because of cultists’ violent fantasy, but because the moon takes on a red tinge during the event.

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist's interpretation)

Blood Moon of 1493 (artist’s interpretation)

Bloodmoon eclipses are rare and there have been none for 33 years—then suddenly four in short succession: tonight’s eclipse will be the final of the batch.  I missed the last bloodmoons thanks to clouds and scheduling mishaps…and who knows what I will be doing 18 years from now (hopefully showing beautiful paintings in a fancy gallery or directing cyborgs on a floating city above Venus…but probably decomposing or still working as a lackey in title insurance).  Tonight’s event begins at 9:07 PM EST and maximum umbra (“shadow”) occurs at 10:48 PM.

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I baked a turkey and made an almond pie for the celestial event (although dark clouds are already swirling on the horizon).  Hopefully some of you will join me on rooftops, observatory turrets, and in special moon-viewing pavilions to watch the celestial show!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof...it's really hard to draw in the dark!

Update: Here is my drawing from the roof…it’s really hard to draw in the dark!

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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According to astronomers, on Tuesday April 15th 2014 the heavens over North America will feature a rare and magnificent spectacle—a blood moon! The term “blood moon” refers to a full lunar eclipse in which the earth’s umbral shadow completely covers the surface of the full moon. The lunar surface will actually look red because of refracted light from around the earth’s edges. I’m not sure how the term “blood moon” has come to eclipse the more scientific sounding “full lunar eclipse” (probably through internet click-baiting, like everything else) but you have to admit it sounds cool and scary. The phenomena will be visible from the western hemisphere from 1:58 AM EST into the wee hours (peaking between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM) .

Blood-Moon

This is a pretty time of year and I am looking forward to sitting in the garden with some plum wine and honey cakes during the eclipse (assuming spring clouds do not intervene). Unfortunately some people have really gotten riled up by the “blood moon’s” dramatic Steven King rebranding. Pastor John Hagee of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas has written a book about how tonight’s lunar eclipse (the first of a series of consecutive total lunar eclipses known as a “tetrad) will usher in the biblical end times. Dragons and apocalyptic horsemen will roam the world’s strip malls and Jesus will run around biting people and gouging out eyes…or something like that (I might have sort have glossed over the Book of Revelations after slogging through all those tedious Paul chapters of the New Testament).

John Hagee...well, he certainly looks trustworthy...

John Hagee…well, he certainly looks trustworthy…

Some things get old and wear away, but charlatans trying to scare people with bargain basement eschatology never go out of style. However if you still want some mythology to go along your astronomy (but you aren’t quite ready for the last judgment) there is a Mayan heroine whose name was Xquic, which means “Blood Moon”.  She was the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, which was filled with tenebrous monsters and cannibal gods. Xquic fell in love with the severed head of a human hero and gave birth to the hero twins whose exploits changed the nature of the Mayan cosmos. Perhaps you could spare lovely Xquic a thought as you watch the moon darken and turn incarnadine—but maybe you’ll be to busy eating honey cakes… or fighting with the mounted incarnation of pestilence!

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day...

Oh man, Tuesday is going to be a long day…

Puce flea on pale puce background

Puce flea on pale puce background

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce.  The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown.  Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).

A Puce Sari

A Puce Sari

The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin.  The French word for a flea is “une puce”.  Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas:  so puce has its origin in bloodstains.  I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”.  Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity.  Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it).  The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.

French puce suede oxfords (from "Pointer" if you must have them)

French puce suede oxfords (from “Pointer” if you must have them)

Dragon's Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

The Socotra archipelago (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى‎ Suquṭra), is a group of four islands which lie just off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean.  The islands are politically part of Yemen but their long isolation from any continental landmass has made them ecologically distinct.  Of the many species of plants and animals which are endemic only to Socotra, one species is particularly emblematic: the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari).  This monocot tree has an extremely unusual shape which allows it to survive on minimal amounts of soil and water.  The crown is dense with foliage to reduce evaporation (and to maximize cooling shade).

The oozing red sap of the dragon's blood tree

The oozing red sap of the dragon’s blood tree

The dragon’s blood tree takes its distinctive name from the blood red resin it produces when cut or scraped.  The dried sap was a prized commodity in the ancient world when it was used as a dye, a medicine, a magic ingredient, and an adhesive.  Even today the sap is still used in traditional medicine (it is said to be a coagulant and a stimulant but also an abortifacient) and as violin varnish!

Dragon's Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

Some things are easy to write about.  For example, the world’s largest catfish was an effortless topic—what a great fish!  There is plenty of information about the animal and its giant size makes it instantly fun and interesting (although the specie’s widespread decline does bring a sense of mounting unease).  For a wide variety of reasons, other subjects are considerably more difficult to address.  Sometimes the information is unavailable or the data is lurid and upsetting.  In a poignant incongruity, one of these troubling topics happens to be the world’s smallest catfish, the candiru, which hails from the Amazon basin of Brazil.

Vandellia cirrhosa

The term itself “candiru” can mean either the species Vandellia cirrhosa, or it can refer to several genera of similar small catfishes. There is apparently even a genus “Candiru”.  To put it bluntly the candiru is a vampire catfish.  It enters the gills of larger fishes and sucks their blood–well actually, it doesn’t suck the blood as such. To quote “fishbase” an online fish resource, “[The candiru] bites mostly at the ventral or dorsal aorta arteries, and the blood is pumped into its gut by the host’s blood pressure. It does not need any special sucking or pumping mechanism to quickly engorge itself with blood, but simply uses its needle-like teeth to make an incision in an artery.”  The candiru is small.  Vandellia cirrhosa rarely exceeds lengths of 1-2.5 in (2.5-6 cm) with a width of 3.5 mm (although much larger specimens are known).

The junction of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, (near Manaus, Brazil) is the principal haunting ground of the candiru.  The catfish hides in the sand or mud.  When prey swims by—either in the day or at night—the candiru uses its tremendous sense of smell and powerful eyesight to hone in on the other fish’s gills for a blood meal.  The Candiru has backwards pointing spines behind its gill covers.  It can lock itself into a victim’s flesh with these razor sharp rays.

The…um…Lovely Beach at Manaus, Brazil

The candiru is not picky about its blood source and this has made it one of the most feared fish in the Amazon.  It has been known to enter swimming humans through various orifices or through open wounds.  Lurid ethnological reports from as far back as the 19th century detail this fish’s intimate depredations of human hosts.

Argh! Drop those in bleach and go wash your hands with holy water!

It is entirely whimsical—even childish—to speculate about whether the catfish is averse to garlic, possesses immortality, has become a hero to preteen girls, speaks with a strong Baltic accent, etc.

One of the most intense epiphanies of my life came from reading a school textbook in third grade.  The book revealed that blood is not really a homogenous liquid but a mixture of different sorts of individual living cells suspended in plasma.  The ramifications of this were stunning: I am not really an “I” at all but a collection of many, many infinitesimal living things.  Perhaps that doesn’t strike you as a particular revelation (not after a few college bio classes anyway) but really think about it.  Your heart could be removed and given to someone else—after all it’s just a big collection of living muscle cells.  Your memories and thoughts actually exist as chemical slurry somewhere within individual brain cells–each of which is stretching out all sorts of different ganglia to its neighbors like a desperate socialite trying to climb into the beau monde through networking.

The majority of the cells in our body are not even our own cells but symbiotic bacteria (without which we would be unable to digest things and would die) or outright invaders.  Even within the cells which are our own there exist mitochondria—alien outsider cells which moved (or were captured) into some remote unicellular ancestor in the fathomless depths of time.

I remember staring out the window of the elementary school in shock that I was made up of tiny living beings. The idea is familiar but it still sends a frisson of alienation through me.  Each of us is like a swarm of army ants or a siphonophore or a Renaissance city state:  we are units made up of many smaller living things.

White Blood Cells, Platelets (stained purple), a T-Lymphocyte white cell (stained green), and a Monocyte white cell (stained gold) as seen through a scanning electron microscope. ©2000 Dennis Kunkel, Ph.D.

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