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Sad news mars this bleak wintry day.  The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away.  Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air.  Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”.  His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed.   In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!

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With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold.   At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world.  Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933.  After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.

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A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”

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Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him.  Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures.  Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).

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Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer.  The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old.  Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians).  After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish.  Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.

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For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates?   It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna!  Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium.  Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish.  Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat  quite carefully.  With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million.  Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!

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Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Normally I write up all of my obituaries at the end of the year, but today I wanted to say a special farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett in thanks for his opus of delightful fantasy novels. Born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, the successful author died today (March 12, 2014) of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors diagnosed Pratchett with the debilitating neurological disease in 2007.  He subsequently donated a substantial sum of money to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, saying that he had spoken to several survivors of brain cancer, but no survivors of Alzheimer’s disease. This is an extremely worthwhile charity, as is Pratchett’s other great cause—saving the world’s last remaining orangutans. If you have lots of extra money, you should give some to Alzheimer’s researchers and orangutan conservationists. Additionally Sir Terry owned a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants and had a fossil sea turtle from the Eocene named after him. However, none of these details of his life are what make him important to his readers.

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Since 1983, Sir Terry spent his years churning out Discworld novels. Discworld was a multi-racial world of beefy barbarians, doughty dwarves, incompetent wizards, operatic vampires, and naked avarice. The stories spanned across many fantastic yet strangely familiar continents, but the narrative always returned to the sprawling twin metropolis of Ankh-Morpork (which, though putatively a medieval city state, will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has set foot in London or New York).

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Like Don Quixote, the Discworld novels started out making fun of fantasy and the endless follies of life before falling deeply in love with fantasy and even more deeply in love with humankind. In the Discworld books, people are presented as benighted and greedy: their unspeakably stupid schemes to defraud each other generally drive the action (in the very first scene, Ankh-Morpork burns down moments after fire insurance is introduced). Yet the defining characteristic of the novels was the humor and humanity within the the personality of the characters, many of whom were not even technically humans. Beyond the petty scheming endemic to society, individuals were revealed to be ultimately curious and compassionate: even very unlikely figures had heroic and sympathetic natures.

Discworld characters by yenefer

Discworld characters by yenefer

As I write this I realize I am saying farewell not to Terry Pratchett, a rich balding English guy whom I did not know, but to Nanny Ogg, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Gaspode the Wonder Dog, Sergeant Detritus (a hulking but kindly troll), Tiffany Aching, cruel Greebo, Ponder Stibbons, the Luggage, and stalwart Carrot of the Watch.  It’s like a whole group of my friends died (along with a carnivorous sentient trunk).

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Discworld was a toy theater where Pratchett presented his ideas of what makes life beautiful and worthwhile in delightfully adroit symbols. The ultimate figure in this little macrocosm was finally revealed not to be Lord Veteneri, the philosopher-king who despotically yet benignly rules Ankh-Morpork; nor Granny Weatherwax, the flinty sorceress who protects Discworld from alien incursion; nor even Samuel Vimes, a recovering alcoholic who rose from the depths of poverty to reshape the social contract. Instead Discworld was ruled by the symbolic personification of Death, forever watching the strutting, lying, primping figures below him with bemused yet avuncular affection. After spending time with this imposing seven foot tall skeleton with glowing eyes, the reader came to learn that metaphysical mystery, supernatural solemnity, and the terrors of oblivion were no match for friendship, humor, kindness, and an egg fry-up with miscellaneous crunchy bits.

Good bye Sir Terry, your world meant the world to us and we will miss you a lot.

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Candlelight Cottage (Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” died Friday (April 6, 2012) in Los Gatos, California at the age of 54.  Kinkade was one of the world’s most successful artists with a business empire said to generate over 100 million dollars a year (at least back in the boom days before the recession).  In order to produce his vast cannon of work, he painted swiftly with a somewhat cartoony impressionist shorthand style, and then reproduced his work through a wide range of technologies.  Copies of his paintings were available in every price grade: if one was unable to buy original artworks, there were (and are) an endless choice of hand-signed lithographs, high-tech canvas prints, posters, printed materials (calendars, cards, books, etc.), as well as plates, sculptures, clocks, and on and on.  All of this was available through multiple sales channels including the internet, catalogs, galleries, and a line of brick-and-mortar stores.  Kinkade was a uniquely American artist who took William Turner’s famous sobriquet “Painter of Light” and literally trademarked it as his own.

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Although he frequently suffered the scorn of art critics, Kinkade was upbeat about his work, which he regarded as a means to create a pleasant emotional experience for the widest possible audience.  The subjects of his paintings include idealized cottages, gardens, small towns, and churches–all of which are bathed in a fluorescent haze.  The tiny cottages glow with nostalgic perfection and the June gardens are forever soaked in the hues of sunset.  Joan Didion, an essayist who explores the interplay between aesthetics and morality in contemporary American society did not seem to regard Kinkade very highly, yet she wrote the most evocative description of his art:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Thomas Kinkade did not usually paint people in his works.  The majority of his canvases display obvious hints of life, but the inhabitants themselves are missing.  Religious iconography however is much in evidence and Kinkade frequently talked about his oeuvres in context of his Christianity.

Stepping beyond Kinkade’s obvious and remarkable business genius, his work does seem to directly touch the nostalgic, religious, avaricious wellspring of American sentiment.  It is not for Ferrebeekeeper to judge the quality of his art [ good, we would have to fend off a libel suit from his estate–ed.];  instead, as is traditional on this blog, we judge his work solely on the gothic elements therein—and these are plentiful!  Underneath the colorful candy-floss veneer there is a gothic heart.  The little bungalows and miniature mansions sitting in the deserted suburbs share architectural kinship with the glowering ruins painted by Caper David Friedrich.  The treacle gardens and empty town squares betray a similarity with churchyards and standing stones of German romanticism.  Didion is fundamentally right with her Hansel and Gretel metaphor—there is a fairy tale lurking in Kincaid’s work (and under his highly successful life).  What happens to Hansel and Gretel in our world of melting mortgages, outsourced jobs, and ecological havoc is far from clear, but it is worth pausing a moment to remember Thomas Kinkade, the warlock who stole Turner’s epithet and ruined Monet’s style in order to spin a river of gold from candy houses.

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