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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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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?

 

 

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque.  He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings.  His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals.  In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers.  The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.

Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

I can’t believe how quickly the year has flown past.  It is already November. Although that means the coldest darkest part of the year is quickly approaching, there is one bright side to the turn of the season–namely the fact that this month is dedicated to my favorite domestic bird, the magnificent turkey!  I have been trying to think of how to reintroduce the long absent turkeys back to ferrebeekeeper. Although it would be good to write more about the birds’ astonishing capacity for virgin birth, or to recount more personal anecdotes concerning pet turkeys, I have decided to start with a picture of the turkey’s native environment—the mixed deciduous forests of the east coast.  To provide such a picture, it is necessary to turn once again to the astonishing artist John Dawson, who painted an idealized picture of New York forest which was mass-produced as a sheet of US Postal Service stamps (released March 3, 2005).

Northeast Deciduous Forest (Artwork by John D. Dawson for the USPS "Nature of America" Stamp Series)

The sequence of stamp sheets is called the Nature of America—a series of twelve stamp sheets detailing the different ecosystems from around the nation.  When I first started this blog, I wrote about Dawson’s second painting for this series–which showed a pacific Northwest Rainforest. The above picture of hardwood forests is even more exciting to me since I grew up in this eco-region. Unfortunately I could not find a picture of the original work before it was formatted as a sheet of stamps, however (despite the little stamp cut-outs) the viewer can still become lost in the artist’s sweeping landscape of deciduous trees and familiar forest creatures. If you carefully cast your eyes around the picture you will perceive many small details such as fungi, wild flowers, birds, salamanders, and bats.  A beaver is just barely visible swimming out to her lodge (which takes up the center right), while a lovely white-tailed deer anxiously eyes a foraging black bear.  Despite the many wonders visible in the composition, Dawson has wisely centered the composition on the wild turkey strutting proudly through the paper birch trees.  It is a fitting image with which to commence the Thanksgiving season and a magnificent piece of bravura wildlife art.

Detail

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

Pursuant to yesterday’s post about the many-eyed giant Argus, here are some animals which have “argus” in their names (I have counted both common names and proper binomial scientific names).  What a magnificent gallery of variegated creatures!  I guess biologists and taxonomists also find the story of argus compelling (or maybe they get tired of describing lovely stippled and variegated creatures with the pedestrian word “spotted”).
Bodhadschia argus is a sea cucumber. When threatened or irritated it ejects sticky toxic threads called Cuvierian tubules from…the rear orifice of its digestive system.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)

The chocolate argus (Junonia hedonia) a butterfly of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia.

The Argus moray (Muraena argus) is apparently covered with white spots, but this charismatic facial portrait by Scott McGee was the best I could find.

A handsome Argus monitor (Varanus panoptes). It looks like he is ready for bathtime!

The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) aka "the Frankenfish" is a vicious and succesful fish from China, Siberia, and the Koreas. I should probably feature it as an invasive animal which is "on-the-make" around the world.

I mentioned the great argus (Argusianus argus) yesterday. Here a female bird checks out a male's display.

Cyprae argus is a beautiful member of the cowry family from the waters of southeast Africa.The Blue-spotted Grouper (Cephalopholis argus) is a splendid lurking fish from coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The spotted scat (Scatophagus argus) is a pugnacious little fish from brackish waters of Japan, New Guinea and Southeastern Australia. Don't pet them! Those spines are toxic!

Paphiopedilum argus is a lovely lady-slipper orchid from high limestone ridges of the Philippines.

The Brown argus butterfly (Aricia agestis) is gradually moving its habitat northwards in Great Britain.

The list keeps going!  There are too many arguses in nature.  I’m going to call it quits and enjoy my weekend….

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