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Sepia Cat (2004-2021)

Today is National Pet Day. Well, actually, if you are fortunate enough to have a pet, every day is National Pet Day! Even if pets are sometimes messy or obstreperous, I have gotten more joy from my animal friends then from all of the status-seeking human pursuits, endeavors, pastimes, and professions combined (and that includes the things that I love like art and literature, not just the pointless busy work of finance or real estate which are designed for no other purpose than making other people rich). Anyway, suffice to say that pets are the people we love without all of the infuriating dominance/hierarchy games of other humans (although pack/herd animals like dogs and horses understand hierarchical relationships very well indeed and will readily participate in such hijinks if you let them). There is only truly bad part of life with pets, but it is exraordinarily bad: they are mortal and, unless you have a pet ocean quahog, their lifespans are much shorter than ours.

This is a long way of saying that my beloved feline best friend Sepia died last March (2021). I did not write about her then because I was sad and depressed. I was going to properly memorialize her in the year-end obituaries column, but Grandpa’s obituary took all of my bandwidth. Sepia was a very private cat, so I did not blog about her during her life, but I miss her terribly and it does not strike me as fair that she has no obituary. Plus as time passes, I am forgetting all of her adorable tricks and amazing traits and she was so beautiful and so loving that I have to try to hold onto those moments, even if they are slipping away already.

I love pets with all of my heart, but back in my twenties when I was starting my adult life I did not want my own pet because my living circumstances were so cramped and chaotic (with roommates and 4th floor flats and 24 hour days out and suchlike). However, even if a pet could not find their way into my apartment back then, the mice did. They showed up to the old bachelor digs with endless voracity and started multiplying. At first I thought I could stop them by cleaning house and putting all dried goods in tight containers, but the mice scoffed at such efforts and my roommates thought I was trying to dominate the space with rules. So I bought a live trap and trapped some of the rodents…but I think they ran up the walls back up into the apartment before I could even get back up the stairs. Then I got snap traps and killed off some of the littlest and most naive mice by means of sinister guile and human mechanical contrivance–but by winnowing the population I only pushed the remaining mice to become smarter and craftier. At night I could hear them scampering around snickering, and maybe even reading my books (or at least nibbling on them). It was intolerable, and the only solutions left were glue traps (and if you have ever seen a mouse pulling off his own feet and dying of dehydration in one of those, perhaps you will concur that they are unacceptable) or a cat. A friend of mine in Manhattan wanted a single male cat for her apartment, but the rescue organization would not give her only one rescue cat, so I agreed to take the spare female rescue cat.

Thus, after a long day of grueling busy work, my friend passed off a cardboard carton with holes in it to me when I headed home. My grandfather got too into cats as he entered his dotage, and so I told the carton that I would take care of it, but it would be a strictly professional relationship–like a lord with his hired mercenaries. I was thinking I had a professional assassin a box, but it would not be like with Pawsie cat or Lily Cat (beloved cats from youth whose early exit left big holes in my heart). Then I got home and opened the box and Sepia Cat popped out. She was about 9 or 10 months old with big ears and huge green anime eyes. She had all of the beauty of an adult cat, but with most of the playful winsomeness of a kitten too. Actually, her rescue name was “Sally” but I rechristened her because her tabby stripes, white bib, and long, swift grabber paws reminded me of the Mediterranean cuttlefish which artists have used for ink since time immemorial. She looked at me and said “purrr” and jumped up in my lap and I said “Whose got beautiful whiskers?” and all talk of mercenaries and hirelings was forgotten forevermore. I loved Sepia with my whole heart as soon as I saw her. Oh, and also she committed terrible war crimes against the mice. We found one of two which had all of their bones broken into splinters (she liked to hurl them against the wall again and again and again) and after that the mice wrote “a dark entity of dwells here: do not enter!” in their hobo script and we never saw them again.

Despite her prowess as a hunter, Sepia was perfectly happy living in the apartment with bachelors. She did not mind the strange hours, or even care unduly if her kitty cat dinner was not on time. Her feline curiosity only got her in trouble twice, once when she accidentally slipped into my roommate’s closet (we were all running around the apartment shouting her name when we started hearing muffled meows from the behind the closed doors) and once when she got out of the apartment entirely. That time I discovered her down on the second floor hiding in an alcove with desperate panic in her eyes and she literally jumped up into my arms.

Sepia moved with me as I moved from place to place in Park Slope and finally out to Flatbush. She has some roommate cats whom she hated (Simba) and some roommate cats whom she loved (Luster and Sumi). Her favorite foods were turkey and any sort of cheese. In fact, she almost knocked over a bookcase once trying to get some blue cheese which I thought I had hidden from her by placing up on the very top shelf, but not on the top.

When Sepia was young she had a North African desert cat’s preternatural agility and she could jump up on top of the kitchen cabinets from a flat-footed start. She enjoyed cat toys made of real rabbit fur, but her favorite game was “boxy cat” where she would shadow box with the shadow of my paintbrush. Speaking of painting, our most disastrous incident was when she unexpectedly jumped up onto my palette, which I was holding on my lap and which was covered in toxic oil paints. Because of the dangerous pigments she had to have a bath and she shrank from her normal elegant self (Sepia normally looked like a street tabby crossed with Lady Aster’s Somalian cat) into a sad little wet gollum-type creature. After the palette incident, she was much more circumspect about leaping!

Even when she was an older cat she could move with shocking speed and dexterity (yet also with silent ballet-like grace). Only once the cancer got into her head did she start to truly slow down.

Sepia’s true favorite thing was to curl up on my legs or next to me when I was reading science fiction space operas or epic literature. We would read for hours and hours and hours lying together as she purred softly. Sometimes I would just stare into her gorgeous green eyes as she blinked slowly. Oh also she enjoyed being combed! But only her stripey bits, she would only uncurl her white ruff and belly if she was very relaxed.

Sepia was always hungry (a legacy from her mysterious street era, when she was a stray kitten), but when she was about 16 she got ravenously hungry and would eat can after can of food (if allowed), but then throw it all up. The vet thought it might be a thyroid disorder, but poor Sepia became more and more desperately hungry and her poor face started to distort and ooze. I tried palliate her cancer with prednisolone, which worked for a little while but then started hurting her. On her last day, she woke up in bed with me with a look of absolute suffering on her face and with no interests in drinking or eating or anything. I took her to the vet and held her while she died and now I have her ashes in a little plastic funerary box with a silly label which I am meant to fill out (though I never have).

I suppose these details strike you as banal or perhaps as approximately familiar to all cats, yet thinking of them has me wiping away tears. She was so beautiful and she was a great hunter, a great athlete, and great at hiding (it took me so long to find her secure undisclosed location) but Sepia’s greatest strength was her sweet heart. I can still almost feel her curled in my lap as I type away at the computer…but that is not Sepia, it is Sumi Cat, Sepia’s little black sister (by adoption). Sumi is sitting my lap bathing her ears with her paws as I write this, and now she is looking at me curiously as emotionally I hug her and kiss the top of her head.

“Pet Day” hardly explains that our animal friends are one of the few transcendent things in life. Neither does this incomplete essay about my best friend during all of those years. Undoubtedly if someone asks me about the period between 2004 and 2021 I will talk about art, or the great recession, or urbanism, or Trumpism or something. But I should talk about a little white bib and moustache and big green eyes. That was the best part.

tree-of-life-04

Today, when I was looking at the comments, I noticed that a perspicacious reader asked  the question which is most important to me! Wow, I guess I had better answer that, but it is going to take more than a few sentences, so I might as well make it into a whole blog post.

Before we get to this question and answer, let’s provide a brief high-level overview of Ferrebeekeeper’s weltanschauung.

My philosophy of life is premised on a single transcendent belief.  Earth life must evolve and move into the cosmos like the hundreds of millions of fertilized eggs of a great sunfish disseminating through an ocean of stars.

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Humankind needs to put aside tinpot dictators, idiotic religious wars, disposable plastic consumer goods, luxury vehicles, and all of our other (horrible) favorite things and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to this task or else, before you know it, everything is going to look like the opening scene of “Wall-E” and our chance will be gone.  In fact the opportunity is passing us by right now as you read this and everybody talks about 5G phones, Nipsey Hussle, and Jared Kushner.

Yet one of my stubborn readers looked at this premise and asked “why?”.   To be exact they said “Can you explain your viewpoint that humans must become space travelers for redemption? To me, it seems that would be a kind of interplanetary metastasis…”

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If you had an adult bull elephant stuffed in your Manhattan studio apartment it would seem like a nightmarish monster, but out on the veld, the elephant’s habits would make sense, and its beauty, strength, and noble nature would become apparent. Humankind has become like the elephant in that scenario (I really think we are more like 7.5 billion giant smart termites, but bear with me). We are meant to explore and build at a stupendous scale, but we can’t because we have used all available resources to the point that we are unmaking the complicated webs of life which all eukaryotic Earth life relies on (and maybe because we are hijacked by our own primate nature, too). We can’t keep doing what we are doing. We will destroy ourselves and countless other living things. Our hideous fall might even reset life back to a point from which it could never properly attain its complexity and beauty (I am speaking of all known Earth life here–for I think it is all one thing).

We can’t let go and turn back either.  The ultra-competitive world we have made does not work that way. Even if America collectively says, “we chose to not compete, we will close our borders, dream of past greatness, and eat our young” China or India will come sprinting up with new dreams of global empire.  Even if we all became organic free-range hunter-gatherers it wouldn’t work.

Yet the things we truly need in order to flourish–space, energy, and freedom from the dreadful hegemony of other people’s idiocy–are super abundant in the larger universe. Imagine a future where Earth is a protected park and we hover above it like dark angels carrying out crazy cosmic wars and far-flung projects and warped super experiments and doing whatever we want…with the stipulation that anyone or anything which threatens Earth is instantly subject to our collective wrath.

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I am not sure any of this is possible.  In fact it seems like getting back to the moon may be beyond us to say nothing of building flying cities in the atmosphere of Venus or torus colonies orbiting around Jupiter.  Yet those things are at least theoretically in the realm of possibility.  Traveling beyond the solar system may truly be impossible, even if we built worthy superhuman thinking machines as our offspring and successors (coincidentally I never promised the answer to this question would be easy or even sane).

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But I think the reader’s fundamental moral question remains unanswered.  If humankind is so savage and dark, would we not bring our rapacity and carelessness with us no matter where we go?  Inventing tools and language never made us better.  Sailing across the great oceans never taught us compassion.  We are the same tragic fire-wielding apes as always.  It takes real imagination to conceive of a human starship  decelerating into Fomalhaut or orbiting Wolf 1061C, yet it takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine the political appointee in charge of such a craft looking at his “S.M.A.R.T.” terraforming spreadsheet, shrugging, and pushing a button to wipe out the cowering Fomalhautians or the little adorable Wolflings.  “Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely”...that Fomalhault branch of Goldman Sachs won’t build itself if we wait around to determine whether the natives are delicious or not! (let me know if I have captured your thinking, hooftales).

My initial answer was that it is necessary to move beyond Earth…because we are so violent and disorganized that we are dangerous to ourselves and others–a cancer, like hooftales said.  But, although in moments of duress, I sometimes think of humans as baboons with motor cars, I don’t think of us a cancer.  We are not outside of the web of nature: we are part of it.  An elephant in a tiny coop would be a travesty, but elephants are magnificent and sympathetic.  Humankind is having an awkward adolescence to be sure, but I don’t think we have fully manifested as ourselves yet.

Let me answer a different way. Bamboos form clonal colonies. These giant grasses are intrusive, fast-growing and aggressive plants. Sometimes a single bamboo will take over a whole region–almost the entire forest is one connected living thing.  These bamboo can live for a long period–40 to 130 years–but when they flower, the whole clonal colony flowers.  In some species, the whole species flowers…no matter where they are in the entire  world.  Then they produce seeds/fruit called bamboo rice.

And then they die.

Whole forests die in a short time, sometimes causing starvation and mayhem to other living things that rely on the bamboo. Sometimes a whole bamboo species will die off and all of its offspring are so different that they aren’t even the same thing.  But then they grow anew–bigger and better and more competitive and they create whole new forests.

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A bamboo flower rat

This is not a perfect analogy, since humankind is even more competitive and aggressive and heterogeneous than bamboo, yet there is an appropriate metaphor here. We are taking and taking and taking from Earth.  We are pruning down other branches of the tree of life.  We are undermining the roots of the tree we are part of.  I feel like our destiny is like the bamboo or some colossal ant colony or fungi—but with even bigger ramifications and higher stakes.  We can’t stop or turn back–we must spend everything in a great flowering.  That is why life has created us.  Only a species as reckless, greedy, cunning, and ruthless could marshal the resources necessary to make the tree of life flower beyond the tallest mountains or highest clouds. We are not just tragic apes, we are a space flower for the whole planet.

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Not all flowers bloom (just ask the beheaded crocuses in my back yard) but we must try with all of our might to carry the precious seed of life into the heavens.  If we can’t do that–if, perhaps, it can’t be done–at least our striving will not have been for nothing.  And if we succeed…well… to live in the boundless abyss of emptiness all together in great fragile terrariums that could die if we get a wire crossed, we will have to truly change.   I for one am heartily sick of what we have been doing lately and I relish the challenge. What about you?  Do you want to go on a colossal multigenerational adventure to the stars themselves, or do you just want to sit here eating snack packs while we use up the planet?

 

Shebbear_Devon_gravestone

Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year.  Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset.  We will not see their like again.  All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues.  Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.

Illustration from Frederick Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees"

Illustration from Frederick Back’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”

Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013.  He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment.  ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) right up until her death on December 17, 2013.

Peter O'Toole in "Stardust"

Peter O’Toole in “Stardust”

Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013.  The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest.  I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence.  He finished the segment by reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).

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Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013.  I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).

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Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept across African nations after independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer==he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer–he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.

Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.

Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013.  He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Young Roger Ebert

Young Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic.  I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).

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Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).

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Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, with the sign of Cancer (by Baldassare Peruzzi, 1481-1536)

According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna.  The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath.  When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place.  The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.

Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster.  After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.

Attic Black Figure on White Ground from Funeral Lekythos (Attributed to the Diosphos Painter, ca 500 - 480 BC)

But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics.  First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club.  Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout.  With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast.  But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either:  Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature.  Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head.  With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius.  Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal  things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall.  Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.

Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists.  Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially.  The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations.  Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving.  Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father).  In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team.  In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:

Hydra (Sculpture by Elford Bradley Cox)

A performance art troop, Fluid Movement, presents "The Dance of the Hydra"

Figure 24.3: Hydra (by Richard Oden)Hydra (Installation piece made from muslin and transistor radios by Kelley Bell, 2002)

Hydra 1 (ironwood sculpture by Cody Powell & Ben Carpenter)

A hydra drawn on a styrofoam cup with marker by Cheeming Boey aka Boy Obsolete

Hydra (painting by Travis Lampe for "Beasts 2)

The Hydra of Madison Avenue, (by Todd Schorr, 2001): a vivid nightmare of corporate mascots run amok

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