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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

mantis1As mentioned in previous posts, my parents have a majestic flock of pilgrim geese (and one peculiar Canada goose).  They have more giant beautiful bright white eggs than they know what to do with…so, when I was home for Easter, I worked in the ancient Ukrainian medium of pysanky.  This involves writing on eggs with a heated wax stylus and then dipping the eggs in progressive layers of batik dyes.  The end results have a beautiful color unlike any other art works, and the eggs are lovely in their own right—both as a curvilinear art medium and as symbols of existence (see yesterday’s post).

Most of my works here feature donuts (which is my personal symbol for the universe) and or flounder.  There are some strange alien-looking mollusks too and some stars.  However I like the radish and the mantis shrimp best.  Those arthropods are amazing creatures (although they are hard to draw with hot wax).  I need to blog about them in the near future.  In the meantime, hopefully the great serpent of the pagan Ukrainian underworld will be satisfied with this batch of eggs.

 

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting of a lesser underworld deity by a lesser Spanish master.  In the Greek pantheon, Charon was the ferryman of the dead– he carried departed spirits across the river Styx a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Charon was a self-interested deity who acted only for money (which, in retrospect, makes him one of the more comprehensible Greek deities from a contemporary American perspective).  If a dead Greek person was properly buried/burned, he/she had a small coin for Charon to pole him/her across the dark river to the grim underworld.  If, however, souls died alone or nameless and were not given a funeral, they then had no way to pay the ferryman and were forced to wander for centuries o millennia at the border of death’s realm.  There is no mention of what Charon did with all of his spirit wealth: he certainly seems unhappy, unkempt, and ill-groomed in this painting.  Maybe he hoarded it all or invested it in unwise joint-stock schemes (or had some other perverse vice which we never heard about). José Benlliure y Gil has certainly done a splendid job at portraying the greedy gaunt boatman and his deceased charges.  Perhaps the painting has a particular strength because the First World War and the Spanish flu were such recent memories when the work was finished.  I especially like the dark owl perched on the despairing spirit in the little boat’s stern and the phantasmagoric figures swirling within the stygian haze.

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