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Ancient-city-of-Djado

These pictures show the ancient and mysterious ruins of Djado, an abandoned African city which exists in current day Niger.  The ruined city is found on the Djado Plateau in the Sahara Desert, a portion of the world’s greatest desert in Northeastern Niger, which is famous for truly ancient cave art of massive animals long gone from the region (and often from Earth).  It seems the region was once a forest, and then a lush grassland, but now it is a desert (which is worth thinking about). Djado does not seem to be the actual original name of this abandoned fortress town, but is rather a description: “the abandoned city of Djado” (like calling Detroit “the abandoned City of the Great Lakes”), however since I don’t have access to the actual name, I will call the ruins “Djado” so that this post isn’t unreadable. The adobe ruins date to 800 to 1000 years ago, when the community was an important trading center for salt and slaves between kingdoms in Niger and Libya.

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The city’s most recent inhabitants, the Kanuri people, abandoned it–perhaps because the water supply grew brackish, the desert grew too fierce, or the original economic reason which lead the city to flourish had long since vanished.  The Kanuri may or may not have been the original inhabitants–the Djado plateau seems to have been a disputed region between greater kingdoms and empires, but the real history is uncertain.   The photos are certainly evocative however, and they provide troubling food for thought as Ferrebeekeeper begins to delve more deeply into the history and meaning of cities.  I would also like to think about the future direction that cities can go, since ever more of humankind lives in these habitats we have made for ourselves.  Yet we barely seem to have thought about the possibilities of what we could truly create and instead we have utilitarian follies which reflect our obsession with status and our relentless competition among ourselves.

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter.  It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary).  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry.  The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.

I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful.  The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power.  Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages.  However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration).  The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.

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Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)

This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival).  Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention.  There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.

Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness.  The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food.  The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict.  Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea.  Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers.  His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden.  Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy.  Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden.  The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.

Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness.  That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power.  Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement.  Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).

Namorodos

Namorodo Spirit (Mick Kubaku, 1971, earth pigments on eucalyptus bark)

Ferrebeekeeper has not written about the undead for quite a while…so here is a terrifying monster from Australian aboriginal folklore. Namorodos (Namorroddos) are a type of evil nocturnal monsters from the mythology of Western and Northern Arnhem Land. Namorodos come from broken lands of rocks and sharp cliff faces. Made of dried skin, gristle, and bones, they fly through the night on howling desert winds. They are desiccated and thin and horrible—desert corpses brought to savage hungry life by supernatural force.

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Mimi Spirits and Namorodo Spirits (Bobby Barrdjaray Nganjmira, ca. mid to late twentieth century, ochre on bark)

Like vampires and other undead, namorodos seek to suck the moist insides out of living humans (and thus transform the living into fellow namorodos). As with the horrible Alpine Krampus monster, namorodos seem especially fond of preying on willful children who become lost because they fail to listen. They seem like the savagery of the arid lands personified as a villain: a lesson written in horror.

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Namorodo Flying in the Sky (Wesley Ngainmijra, 1988, Chalk on paper)

Namorodos are also illustrated in the beautiful art of Arnhem land. Look at these disquieting yet elegant pictures of the arid monsters.

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

This endearing little desert snake is Psammophis namibensis, the Namib sand snake. As you may have intuited based on the name, the snake is endemic to the Namib Desert where it lives in the vast sand seas which stretch from the Atlantic coast deep into the African continent. The snake is little—the largest males are slightly more than a meter (three feet) in length and most are even smaller than that. It is whipcord thin with delicate dust-colored stripes running horizontally along the top of its body.

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

The snake looks rather spindly and delicate, but don’t let its looks fool you. It lives in a god-forsaken desert and it can move across the treacherous shifting sand with blazing speed.

Aww...poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Aww…poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Speaking of which, how does this animal live in such lifeless devastation? Even in the dry dunes of the Namib, life thrives on our glorious planet! Like Grant’s golden mole, the sand racer eats tiny arthropods, lizards, and rodents which make their home in the sparse scrublands along the rim of the dunes or even upon the dunes themselves (the snake clearly manages to traverse this dry sea). The snake is mildly venomous (to us—the venom works better on small prey).

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.

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The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Opuntia is a genus of cactus which produces a sweet studded fruit–the prickly pear. Like all true cacti, the Opuntia genus comes from the Americas. Opuntia plants are naturally occurring from Connecticut and Long Island west to Chicago and southern Canada! More and more species can be found growing in the American southwest down into Mexico (where the greatest diversity of Opuntia species are found). Varieties of the plants also grow naturally throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and down into South America (although “naturally” might be the wrong word—the peoples of the Americas have been instrumental in the spread of these plants for a long time).

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

Opuntia plants consist of large flat green pads which have two sorts of spine. There are long sharp hard spines capable of drawing blood & causing serious injury, but also, more insidiously, there are infinitesimal hairlike prickles called glochids. If touched, these glochids feel like fur but the microscopic ends break off and penetrate the skin where they prickle agonizingly. Argh! Just writing about them is making me itch.

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Prickly pears are incredibly hardy plants which are resistant to drought, disease, and animals. They easily grow into great clonal colonies which people sometimes use as a sort of natural fence. In the sixties, Cuba planted a prickly pear wall all around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay so that fleeing dissidents would be unable to seek shelter there.

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

However it is not for its spines, its toughness, or its prodigious ability to grow that the prickly pear is principally known, but for its sweet colorful fruit. These cactus fruits are colloquially (but wrongly) known as “pears” or “figs” in English (and endless other names in many, many other languages). The fruit are filled with delicious juice, tasty flesh, and hard but edible seeds. The fruits have only modest amounts of essential nutrients (particularly fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium), but they are filled with phytochemicals–a catch-all term for molecules made by plants which may have biological/medical significance. Scientists believe prickly pear fruit may be beneficial for mitigating the negative health consequences of diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity (and hangovers too). Additionally, certain prickly pear phytochemicals may have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. There were lots of ambiguous words and conditional phrases in there. I don’t know what to tell you…Medical science is working on it, but they have a lot on their plate.

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Whatever the health benefits, prickly pear is delicious and it grows in places where other things do not. This means the plant has been imported to Australia, Asia, Africa, the middle east, and many other places. It is easy to grow, and hard to kill, so prickly pear is (quietly) one of the great invasive species of the time. Since it has mostly established itself in forsaken deserts where nothing was growing anyway, nobody is particularly worried…for the moment. Did I mention forsaken deserts? The prickly pear is particularly at home in Israel and Palestine where it has become an integral part of both cultures. I was first shown how to cut open and eat prickly pears by a Jew who said that hardened native-born Israeli Jews who farm the desert call themselves “sabras” (the modern Hebrew term for the fruits) because they are spiny and tough on the outside but sweet and generous in their hearts.

I really like prickly pears and I have been wanting to make a bunch of prickly pear ice cream custard. I will let you know how this project goes…I have the feeling it is going to turn into a big hilarious magenta mess, so stay tuned for that!

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Are you ready for a deeply strange and problematic painting of tremendous beauty?  This is “The Thebaid” a masterpiece from Florence in the very early 13th century (it was probably completed in 1410 AD).   For centuries, art historians have argued over who painted this epic monastic landscape.  For a long time it was believed the painting was by the enigmatic Jacopo Starnina.  Then, for many years, art experts thought the painting was by Lorenzo Monaco, a gothic painter who moved to Florence from Sienna and excelled at painting brilliantly colored saints (although he eschewed the great artistic innovations of his time—such as perspective and painting from life).  Finally, historical consensus has settled on none other than the matchless Fra Angelico as the painter–which seems fitting since this work is so thoroughly a celebration of monastic life (Fra Angelico was a friar…although so was Lorenzo Monaco).  Fra Angelico is famous for bridging the styles of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  With its angular mountains, stylized churches, and gilded sailing ships, “The Thebaid” is appropriately gothic and old fashioned to be one of his early works.  Yet it also has the first flowering of the flowing rhythm and deliquescent grace which have made Fra Angelico such a famous name in art.

Detail

Detail

Whoever painted it, the painting is a mythological depiction of the Egyptian desert in the Fifth Century AD—a time and place synonymous with hermits and monasticism.  The story goes that Saint Horus, an early Christian ascetic, wandered into the desert outside of Thebes to live as a hermit.  Although initially illiterate, Horus learned the Holy scriptures on his own (or through divine intervention).  So many devout men were inspired by his life of solitude, renunciation, and piety that they too moved into the empty desert.  Thus a thriving community of monastics gathered around the famous anchorite.  The one became many and the once barren desert became a verdant model for monasticism.

Detail

Detail

The picture is certainly a celebration of the cloistered life which a Florentine monk would have known.  The architecture, dress, and agricultural equipment is of the same era as the painter.  Yet the painting also has a timelessness befitting the subject. Within the narrative flow of a community of monks assembling, one can discern beautiful humanizing details such as the infirm elderly monk being carried on a dais by his brothers or the monk in the center preaching to a black dog.  Indeed animals abound within this work and one of the monks seems to be riding a deer while another rides a chariot pulled by lions.  There is a lot going on in this magic gathering of holy men communing with nature!

 

Map of Namibia

Map of Namibia

Our imaginary fantasy trip across Africa has taken us to some amazing places as we proceeded west along the map starting out from the micro-continent of Madagascar. Exploring the continent on the internet has really made me want to visit someday! Through photos and descriptive writing we have seen the great lakes of Malawi and Tanzania. We have lingered in the terrifying yet astonishing rainforests of the Congo. We have marveled at the unprecedented ugliness of the flags of Mozambique and Angola (sorry, flagmakers). At last we come to the ancient Namib Desert. Beyond it lie the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean filled with nutrients thrown off from the mighty Antarctic circumpolar current. It is one of the most jarring juxtapositions on Earth—the rich freezing waters of the sea pound against the burning arid dunes.

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As you can tell, I have a fascination with the Namib. If I ever win the lottery or suddenly find a bag of gold or gain a million internet followers [crickets chirping], I will make it my business to go there at once. The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. As the continents dance all around the globe and their landscapes change from forest to ocean to plains to mountains to glaciers, the Namib has somehow stayed a wallflower and kept its dry desert climate. Its climate has been largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, which is why it is home to oddities like the welwitschia and the sandswimming golden mole.

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

Namibia’s human history recedes into the remote mists of prehistory (humankind is after all from Africa). Various groups of people arrived in the desert in waves. The San, Damara, and Namaqua—hunter-gatherers, then herdsmen—arrived. Then the farmers of the great Bantu expansion showed up in the 14th century. Contemporary Namibian history is more tragic—since the desert land was caught between mighty colonial powers of Germany and Great Britain. Great Britain took the most useful natural harbor and Germany took the rest of Namibia—although the native Namaqua and Herero tribes rose against the nascent colonialists. From 1904 to 1907 the Germans wiped out approximately 10,000 Nama 65,000 Hereros in one of the twentieth century’s first genocides. The surviving tribespeople were relegated to concentration camps and unlivable ghettos.

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

When the Germans lost World War I, Namibia passed to de-facto South African control. South Africa administered the territory somewhat informally (and brutally and badly) until a variety of incomprehensible UN mandates, international pressure, and a scrappy (though morally gray) guerilla independence movement forced the apartheid government of South Africa to grant the nation independence in 1990. Contemporary Namibia has abundant natural resources (which are managed with greater fairness than in neighboring states), but it has suffered greatly from the scourge of HIV. Additionally the single political party SWAPO (which evolved from the aforementioned scrappy independence fighters) is run by a somewhat opaque politburo.

 

Flag of Namibia

Flag of Namibia

The flag of Namibia is based on the flag of the national liberation movement. It was chosen by the chairman of the subcommittee for flag creation who reviewed over 800 designs before choosing the current flag. The colors have symbolism not dissimilar to other African national liberation flags. Red represents the people of Namibia and the blood they have shed to make a nation together. White is the color of unification and peace. Green represents farms, agriculture, and ecology. Blue represents the ocean and the life-giving freshwater which is so rare in the desert. The sun represents…well, the sun…the source of all energy and life (although political junkies might speculate that it also is a homage to the sun of the Kuomintang).

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