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The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Lystrosaurus as drawn by willemsvdmerwe on Deviant Art

Let’s escape today’s world and visit an endearing little friend from down under! This sausage-shaped creature was neither a reptile nor a mammal and it lived in what is now Antarctica. The creature’s name is Lystrosaurus, and it has been in the news recently because scientists analyzed its banded tusks and realized that it most likely hibernated during the dark times of winter.

This information is remarkable because Lystrosaurus lived in the Triassic Period–about 250 million years ago. As you might imagine, the world of a quarter of a billion years ago was very different than that of today. Not only had life just experienced the most catastrophic mass die-off in planetary history (the poorly understood end Permian mass-extinction, which ushered in the age of the dinosaurs), but the continents were all annealed together in one huge super continent, Pangea. Even though the contnents were in different places, the land which is now Antarctica was still by the South Pole.

During the time of Pangea, the world was much hotter than now, yet the axis of the Earth was not terribly different–so South Pole winters grew dark. This was a problem for Lystrosaurus, since its dentition indicates it lived on tubers, roots, and vegetation (and other things) which it grubbed up with its cute little tusks. When the world darkened every year, it became hard for lystrosaurus to find food, and so it slumbered.

Despite its dinosaur-like name, Lystrosaurus was a dicynodont therapsid, a sort of proto-mammal which flourished in the late Paleozoic and the early Mesozoic (before dinosaurs monopolized the scene).

To my eyes there is something appealing about the portly dog-sized lystrosaurus, and it amuses me to imagine it dozing through a dark foggy Pangea winter before awakening to run around gobbling up tree fern roots and weird amphibians with tombstone heads. Life has showed up in some strange and remarkable forms over the long years but certain habits and behaviors reappear again and again!

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The Moabites, ancient antagonists of Israel, have showed up in the last couple of posts about ancient magic, pestilence, and idols.  You are probably wondering if the Moabites, who controlled the territory on the East of the Sea of the Dead Sea (in what is now Jordan), had their own angry deity.  Oh boy did they ever!  The Moabite God was named Chemosh,  a name which seems to mean “destroyer,” “subduer,” or, more intriguingly, “fish god.”  

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The Mesha Stela (now in the Louvre)

Frustratingly though, we don’t know much about Chemosh.  The only good sources we have are the Hebrew Bible and the Mesha Stela which was erected in 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab.  The black basalt stela explains how the faithlessness of the Moabites caused Chemosh to become angry and turn away from his people which allowed the Israelites to take advantage of Moab (before King Mesha came along and put things back in good order).   The Bible tells this story from the Israelite perspective (Numbers 22 and 23) and then there is subsequent angry mention of Chemosh in the 2nd Book of Kings in the context of some of Solomon’s wives (Solomon allowed worship of Chemosh in order to keep his Moabite wives happy).

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The God of Israel, of course, made it big and went global.  Because of this, some of his early small-time adversaries are now portrayed as demons or dark gods.   Whereas the Chemosh of the Moabites was a serene and powerful old man who was perhaps not unlike Ptah (or Yweh!), the Chemosh portrayed by Christians is a hellish monster of darkness, cruelty, and disease (you can see him up there at the very top in an illustration which looks like it could have come from a Sunday School book from Palmer Methodist).  Also, I seem to recall that some of the Dungeons & Dragons books which I read while growing up featured a God named Chemosh who was the deity of plague!  So it goes for history’s losers, I guess.  Maybe Balaam needed to try harder (although, in fairness, the D&D plague-themed Chemosh does look pretty metal)!

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As I was researching medieval Gothic shoes the other day, I kept stumbling across modern Goth shoes for young people who enjoy black clothes and heavy metal flair.  It is worth contrasting these remarkable examples of footwear with the Gothic shoes of yesteryear and enjoying the boundless creativity and energy which humans pour into fashion and self-expression!

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In addition to black leather and studs/spikes, the Goth shoes are noteworthy for their incredibly thick soles and high heels.  Looking at the pointed Crakow shoes of yesteryear, I marveled that anyone could walk with such long shoes.  Looking at the contemporary Gothic shoes I marvel that anyone could even lift up their feet while wearing them.  As the years go by, styles change enormously, yet it seems that some things never change–like our tendency to take fashion statements to ridiculous extremes in order to score status points (are “crocs” ever actually fashionable though?).

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I did however find this one pair of shoes that combines the Medieval AND Modern Gothic sensibilities! Check out these puppies:

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What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

igardenflounderHere are two more little flounder doodles which I make during the spare moments of the day.  The one at the top is a garden flounder which makes me think of spring…but with some sort of automated gardening machine that looks like a bug sitting atop of it.  Below is a post-apocalyptic fluke in the middle of the desert badlands of the grim future.  I have no idea what it means.  Maybe these have something to do with that perplexing German flounder fable about what we really want.

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Lady on the Horse (Alfred Kubin, 1938, Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper)

Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction.  As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops.  His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein.  His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims.  These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed.  Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.

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After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958.  In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).

 

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The North Pole (Alfred Kubin 1902)

Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again.  Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead.  Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.

 

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The Pond (Alfred kubin, ca. 1905)

My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon.  The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.

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The Egg (Alfred Kubin, 1902)

Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism.  He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).

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The Government (Alfred Kubin)

Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity.  I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below.  In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder.  Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers.  There is plenty more dark art coming

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Snakes in the City (Alfred Kubin,1911, pen and ink)

 

 

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Ordovician(by mirelai from Deviant Art)

In a long-ago post, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about the Ordovician–the age of mollusks–when big predatory cephalopods and gastropods overtopped nascent vertebrates as the apex predators of the world oceans.  Cephalopods are fiercely intelligent, incredibly fast, and astonishing at camouflage.  They can be infinitesimally small or remarkably large.  They can even be transparent.  However they don’t last well—they are squishy and even if they aren’t eaten they have very short lives.  One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence was watching cuttlefish hover and change colors and feed with bullet-fast grabber arms at the National Zoo.  The memory comes with a dark post-script.  I returned a few months later with friends, only to find that the cuttlefish had entered a bizarre unnatural senescence and were literally falling apart at the seams.  They do not die of old age in the ocean; something always eats them.

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But this is no longer the lovely Holocene with its oceans full of fish and skies full of birds.  We have entered the Anthropocene—an age of hot acid oceans filled with Japanese trawlers bent on catching every last fish in the sea by means of nets the size of Rhode Island.  Suddenly it is not so beneficial to be a big bony ancient fish with hard scales and sharp teeth.  The teleosts and the cartilaginous fish are being physically pulled out of the ocean by humans.  It takes them too long to reproduce and rebuild their numbers (even as national governments subsidize fishermen to build more and larger fishing boats).  The age of fish—which has lasted from the Devonian (420 million years ago) until now—is ending.  So a new scramble to exploit the great open niches in the seas is beginning.

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Unexpected life forms are flourishing.  The sea floors are filling up with lobsters, which have not been so prevalent in a long time.  Giant jellyfish are appearing in never-before-seen numbers.  However it is beginning to seem like the greatest beneficiaries may be the cephalopods. Mollusks with shells are having their own troubles–as the carbonic acid oceans eat at their calcium shells, but the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish have no such problems.  Not only are they well suited for tropical waters, they rcan also reproduce so fast that they can keep ahead of human’s bottomless appetite.  A single squid egg cluster can have millions of eggs inside.

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Cephalopods tend to be generalists—they eat all sorts of things including booming micro-invertebrates and jellyfish. They are clever enough and malleable enough to slip out of all sorts of hazards.  Their swift lives are a boon. Because they reproduce so quickly and prolifically, they evolve quickly too—a necessity in our 24 hour world (as all sorts of out-of-work journalists, lamp lighters, factory workers, and saddlemakers could tell you).  I wonder if in a few million years the waters will glow with great shoals of exotic tentacle beasts we have scarcely imagined.  Will there be fast marlin-type squids with rapiers on their mantles and huge whale-shark type octopuses skimming the phytoplankton with their own giant nets? Will the skies darken with flying squids and the sea floor change colors as tens of thousands of cuttlefish take the roles of reef fish and reef alike?

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Hawaiian bobtail squid (image from forums.furcadia.com)

It is possible.  The world is changing faster than we would like to admit—becoming something brand new—becoming something very old.

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