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When I was a child, I had a shell collection. Some of my shells were ordinary things which I picked up on the beach. Others were handsome store-bought shells which were given to me as presents. The most beautiful shells which I had were gifts from my grandparents–world-travelers who had lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia as the cold war played out and colonialism ended. They gave me my favorite shell, a beautiful red spiny oyster shell which I kept on my desk wherever I moved (until it was destroyed, out of spite, by my first lover). Humankind’s fascination with the spiny oyster goes back a long way. To add to the Ferrebeekeeper mollusk thread, here are some pictures and facts about the Spondylidae family (aka the thorny oysters or spiny oysters). These bivalve mollusks are relatives to the scallops, but, like the oysters, they cement themselves to one location. Filter feeders of the reef, all of the various species of Spondylus have ball and socket hinges (whereas most bivalves have toothed hinges). Live Spondylus shellfish are like tiny reefs in their own right supporting a rich community of algaes, hydroids, tubeworms, and other invertebrates on their spiny shells.
To quote CoralMorphologic which films amazing close-up videos of invertebrates and is the source of the thorny oyster eyes photo below, “Unlike most shallow-water oyster species, the thorny oyster is a solitary creature that lives permanently cemented to the deeper coral reef. Its fleshy mantle is adorned with sepia-toned psychedelic camouflage that can vary widely from one individual to the next. The rim of the mantle is lined with dozens of eyes that stare out into the depths. These eyes are quite simple, only detecting changes in light that might suggest an incoming predator. If a threat is detected, the oyster will quickly snap its two shells together, sealing the animal inside with its two powerful adductor muscles.”
The desire to collect spiny oysters is much older than civilization. Bangles made of the shells and were found in Mediterranean archaeological excavations dating from the Mesolithic period. Ornaments made from the shells were found in the Varna necropolis, the burial ground of the the Eneolithic Varna culture located in what is today Bulgaria. Almost 7000 years ago the people of central Europe were trading something for Spondylus shells from the Aegean. That was before Eridu raised up from the mud and civilization got rolling in earnest. Apparently one could trade spiny oyster shells for goods and services before you could buy a beer!
The Moche society which flourished in Ecuador and Northern Peru from 100 AD – 800 AD, made the most extensive ritual use of Spondylus shells in their ceremonies and art. Spondylus shells (and vessels shaped like them) were believed to have held the blood obtained from ritual human sacrifice and torture. Not only did the Moche worship the sea and the creatures therein, one of their principal deities was a spider/crab who thrived on blood sacrifice. The shape and color of the spiny oyster shell seem to have made the shells a favorite material for votive offerings and grave goods for that formidable people.
At the end of the year it is common to list the important people who died during that year along with a list of their honors and accomplishments. Looking at some of these lists for 2010 frustrated me because most of the obituaries were for actors, musicians, hyper-rich maniacs, and politicians rather than for people whom I actually admire. I have therefore compiled the obituaries of various eminent people whose deaths did not necessarily make a big splash on CNN or similar mass media news outlets. You may never have heard of some of these people until now, but their lives and works were moving to me (and in some cases, such as those of Mandelbrot, Nirenberg, and Black—truly important to a great many people). I only wrote a very brief biography for each but I included Wikipedia links if you want more information.
Farewell to the following souls. May they rest in peace and may their ideas live on:
January 11 – Éric Rohmer was the last French new wave director. His flirtatious movies combined knowledge of our secret longings with everyday cheerfulness (always expressed in a very Gallic fashion). His last work Romance of Astree and Celadon was a screen adaptation of 17th century pastoral play by Honoré d’Urfé.
January 15 – Marshall Warren Nirenberg was a biologist who won the Nobel Prize (and many other scientific prizes) for ascertaining how genetic instructions are translated from nucleic acids into protein synthesis.
March 22 – Sir James Whyte Black was a Scottish doctor and pharmacologist who developed a beta blocker used for the treatment of heart disease. The Texas Journal of Cardiology described this innovation as “one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.”
May 10 – Frank Frazetta was a groundbreaking commercial illustrator whose work has influenced the genres of fantasy and science fiction.
June 18 – José Saramago was a Portuguese novelist. A communist, atheist, and pessimist Saramago wrote metaphorical novels about the human condition in an increasingly crowded & mechanized world. His most successful work is Blindness a novel about a plague of blindness sweeping through modern society. The novel is simultaneously a soaring literary allegory and a harrowing horror story.
August 23 – Satoshi Kon was a director of visionary animated movies. Although his films didn’t always soar to the emotional heights reached by his countryman Miazaki, they were awesomely innovative and greatly forwarded the medium (which in Japan has been moving from children’s entertainment towards literature and art).
October 14 – Benoît Mandelbrot was a Franco-American mathematician (born in Poland) who is best known as the father of fractal geometry. His intuition and imagination allowed him to perceive self-similar mathematical underpinnings behind all manner of natural structures. From galaxies, to coastlines, to blood vessals , to biorhythms–the entire universe is increasingly recognizable as interlocking fractals thanks to his insights.
October 28 – Akiko Hoshino was a gifted pastel artist who I knew from the Art Students’ League. She was just beginning to make progress in the art world with her luminous realistic pastel drawings when she was struck and killed by a careless driver who was driving backwards.
November 28 – Leslie Nielsen was a hilarious comic straight man whose deadpan acting carried the great parody films Airplane and The Naked Gun (as well as innumerable derivative spoofs). As an enduring testament to his greatness, my friends are still stealing his jokes. Surely he was one of a kind.
Welcome back from the Saturnalia…er…Christmas break. This year is winding down fast. Later on this week we’ll do some 2010 wrap-up, but for right now let’s concentrate on what everyone else is concentrating on—the crazy weather.
Yesterday and last night New York City was socked by the worst blizzard I have ever seen here. Around 9:00 PM last night I walked out along 7th avenue in Park Slope to be confronted with a snowscape straight out of a Jack London story (I braved this fearsome weather to return Despicable Me to the video store on time). Evil winds whipped great sheets of snow into my face and reduced visibility down to 10 meters or less. Huge snow drifts blocked the roads and made travel impossible. The BMWs and Audis of Park Slope’s worthy burghers were rendered useless. A great dim shape looming in the white waste was revealed to be an abandoned city bus trapped in a drift with its emergency blinkers turned on–a restlessly dozing behemoth. This morning there was a snow drift in my room formed by snow blowing through the crack under the garden door.
I made my way to work this morning walking down the middle of the road—no vehicles were operating. I had to hike through the drifts and ice to a distant train since the F was not operating (and probably still isn’t). Even Rockefeller Center seemed empty. Sitting in a plaza amidst impassible streets the great Christmas tree is half covered in snow and hoarfrost.
All told, New York received 20 inches of snow (more in some places) with winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour. According to the US National Weather Service the blizzard was the result of a low pressure system which originated off North Carolina which means Georgia and South Carolina have had their first white Christmas in over a century. Holiday travelers are stuck where they are–since airports all along the coast are closed. I shudder to think of people returning to New York from Europe–which was hit by its own blizzards last week.
So what is up with this weather? Park Slope Brooklyn has been hit with a tornado, a hailstorm (which I didn’t blog about but which flattened the autumn remnants of my garden with gumball sized hail), and this blizzard. We had some fearsomely hot days this summer as well—which I didn’t think to mention since I kind of like them. Since global climate scientists have no definitive answers, neither do I–however it bears remembering that 2010 was a year of greater than average volcanic activity. Not only did Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland disrupt Europe’s air traffic for weeks by erupting directly in the Jet stream. It was joined by Mount Merapi erupting in Indonesia and various Siberian and Chilean volcanic events (you can review dramatic photos of the year in eruptions on NASA’s website). These eruptions come in a time of extremely strange solar weather and, in the bigger picture, a great ice age is still ending (not to mention whatever climate change we have caused with our love of fossil fuels and our stubborn refusal to move forward researching and funding nuclear power options).
Of course this is anecdotal speculation on my part. I am certainly not an atmospheric scientist, but merely a hapless office drone with extremely cold wet feet. Even so, I hope you will buzz back to Ferrebeekeeper this week so we can look back over the year and think about what is coming. In the mean time stay warm out there!
Today is the Feast of Saturn! In Ancient Rome this holiday was officially celebrated on December 17 (XVI Kal. Jan.) and it initiated the multiple day festival of Saturnalia—the biggest holiday of the Roman Year. The Roman god Saturn was based on the Greek deity Cronus. Although the Romans recognized that Saturn was a deposed ruler, a murderer, and a cannibal, Saturn was worshiped in Rome as an agricultural deity whose reign had been a golden age of abundance and innocence. Saturn’s time had been one of gold–an age when people were naked, free, and kind. Jupiter’s age was one of iron when all men struggled greedily against one another–an age of wars, lawyers, oppression, and struggle.
Saturnalia was therefore a time to return to the imagined happiness of the past. The cult statue of Saturn was freed from the shackles with which he was bound during the rest of the year and filled with olive oil (for the figure was hollow). Schools and offices were closed so that special sacrifices could be made. Great feasts were held and small presents were exchanged–particularly earthenware figurines called sigillaria and candles (which were a sort of symbol of the holiday and represented the return of light after the short dark days of the solstice). There was a special seasonal market, the sigillaria. People decorated their houses and themselves with greenery and garlands. Best of all, Rome’s famously rigid discipline was set aside during Saturnalia. To quote the online Encyclopedia Romana:
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”
Various cults celebrated their mysteries during this time of year. People from all walks of life lost themselves in uninhibited drinking, merrymaking, and fertility rituals. Many Romans were born 9 months after Saturnalia (which would be approximately August 22nd on our calendar).
Saturnalia had started in Rome in 217 BCE after Rome had suffered a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Carthaginians (and the citizens needed a morale booster), but the deep roots of the holiday stretch back to prehistory. Additionally the various people whom Rome had conquered all had solstice rituals of their own–which became incorporated into Saturnalia. The year-end ceremonies of the Gauls and Celts focused on evergreen trees particularly the yew. In Roman Egypt, the ancient deities were still worshiped (indeed, worship of Isis spread through the Roman world). During the solstice time Egyptians celebrated how their greatest god, Osiris, had returned to life after being murdered by Set. Strangely the Egyptians too focused their resurrection rituals around a tree–albeit the palm tree. Rome’s mightiest neighbor, the Persian Empire, burnt great fires for Mithras, a deathless god born in a cave on December 25th. The Mithraic mysteries were particularly popular in the Roman military (although many of the details about the cult are unknown to us). Across the complicated cosmopolitan Roman world, people of all classes and faiths dedicated themselves to pleasure and to getting through the cold darkness to a new year. Catullus called the time of Saturnalia, “optimo dierum” (the best of days) and that was definitely true in an empire which was otherwise beset by political unrest, war, agricultural failure, greed, injustice, and decline.
On an unrelated note, I will be away for a week to celebrate Christmas. I might post some things here or I might be too busy eating, relaxing, and exchanging small presents with loved ones. In the mean time I wish the very happiest of holidays to all of my family, friends, readers, and, in fact, everyone.
I used to be a tenant in a Brooklyn apartment with a concrete patio in the back (in fact I still am, but I’m describing a different place). I spent a lot of time back there grilling, talking with my friends, or just pacing around. Sometimes my roommates and I threw parties and we had huge groups of people over: naturally the largest groups of guests were usually packed on the patio. One day I was on the patio, quietly appreciating the garden plants, when I noticed that there was a crack in the concrete right next to the barbecue grill. Growing in this unfavorable environment was a flattened-out dark green plant. It was spidery and sprawling with tiny leaves and wiry stems, but it was thriving right where everyone walked on it constantly. In fact it was next to the grill! I think I probably spent the whole summer standing on it and cooking without even noticing.
This plant was Polygonum arenastrum, more commonly called the common knotweed. It has a prosaic name and it is not exactly a giant redwood in terms of magnificence, but perhaps the giant redwoods should look up to it. Although it was originally from Europe, it is now on all of the continents except for Antarctica, and it can be easily found in most temperate locations. It has made a living being underfoot. A summer annual, the knotweed is a bicot with a long taproot. A member of the buckwheat family and a cousin to the smartweeds, it grows on footpaths, dirt roads, and in barnyards–anywhere it can find packed ground. The foot traffic which is inimical to other plants is actually helpful to it. The tiny plant has a great many common names. To quote Edwin Rollin Spencer’s folk-lore treatise, All About Weeds, ”Like most of the weeds that came from the Old World this one has many English names: Ninety-knot, Centinode, Ninejoints, Allseed, Bird’s Tongue, Swynell grass, Swine’s grass, Redrobin, Armstrong, Cow-grass, Hog-weed and Pig rush.” Spencer further underscored this point by calling the plant “knotgrass” throughout his little essay.
Most of the literature I have found concerning the knotweed/knotgrass is about how one can eradicate it (to summarize this accumulated body of wisdom: pull it up), however the lowly weed has found its way into some lofty places. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Athenian nobleman Lysander tells off his lover Hermia (when, thanks to the magical power of fairy herbs and plot contrivances, he has conceived a dislike for her):
Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.
This is an allusion to the folk belief that eating knotweed would retard a person’s growth. It was also reckoned by herbalists to be a astringent, coagulant, diuretic and expectorant, but I am not going to make any attempt to assess whether those things are true–I’m only reporting lore. Small birds certainly enjoy the seeds as do some larger animals (hence some of the common names). The Vietnamese make use of a closely related species Polygonum aviculare as rau đắng, an ingredient in hotpot.
If you are feeling a bit trampled down you might pause to think of the knotweed. It lives underfoot, but it lives everywhere. Because of its humble appearance and lowly aspect (not to mention our haughty human tastes and perspectives) we call it a weed. Looked at from a more expansive vantage (or maybe from the knotweed’s own perspective), we might call it a winner.
In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream. Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem. Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.
Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros. Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones. Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle. He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces. Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus. Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans, Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.
Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children. Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole. The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea. Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child. Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser. The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning. Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus. Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus). This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious. Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment). Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.
Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….
What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die. In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings. Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx. In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.
Above is the emerald and diamond tiara of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, the Duchess of Angoulême. Through several peculiar quirks of fate it is one of the few crown jewels of France to remain unaltered after the rest were sold or stolen. It can be found today in the Louvre surrounded by various crowns which are made of paste or missing their valuable jewels.
Marie-Thérèse was a strange figure in history. She was the only child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to survive the French Revolution. During the Reign of Terror, her royal relatives in the Temple prison were carried away and beheaded one by one until she alone was left. On May 11th 1794, two days after sending her aunt to the guillotine, Robespierre visited Marie-Thérèse. The details of their discussion are unknown to history but whatever she said seems to have saved her life since the Terror ended 2 months later.
In 1799, she married a powerful nobleman Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême who was also her father’s brother’s son (her first cousin). When her uncle Louis XVIII died in1824, her father-in-law became King Charles X and her husband became heir to the throne. She was the Queen of France for 20 minutes during the time between when her father-in-law signed a document of abdication and when her husband was reluctantly forced to sign one himself.
To quote InternetStones.com, “The tiara which was designed and executed by the French Royal Jewelers Evrard and Frederic Bapst in 1819, was a masterpiece of the French jewelry craftsmanship of the early 19th century. The design of the tiara was a symmetrical design of scrolling foliage, mounted with over a thousand diamonds set in silver, and 40 emeralds set in gold.” The piece was technically part of the crown jewels because it was assembled from the royal jewel collection for a noble directly in line for the throne.
When Marie-Thérèse abdicated she returned the tiara to the French treasury. During theSecond Empire it was the favorite crown of Empress Eugenie. However she too returned it to the treasury when Napoleon III abdicated in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. The tiara was auctioned off by the National Assembly during the third republic. It passed through private hands until it was purchased by the Louvre in 2002 thereby falling into the hands of the fifth republic (the current government of France).
Today we celebrate the world’s largest bivalve mollusk, the magnificent and world-famous giant clam (Tridacna gigas). Native to shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, giant clams can weigh up to 500 lbs and measure 50 inches across. Huge specimens can be very ancient and some have lived for more than a century. Giant clams are hermaphrodites: every individual possesses both male and female sex organs–however a clam is incapable of mating with itself. They are broadcast spawners producing vast numbers of gametes which they release in response to certain chemical transmitter substances. During these spawning events (which usually occur in conjunction with certain lunar phases) a single clam can release over 500 million eggs in one evening. Giant clam larvae then swim free among the plankton. They pass through several mobile transition phases before settling down in one favorite home (as can be seen in the comprehensive life cycle drawing below).
As usual for sea creatures, the giant clam has a troubled relation with humankind. Fabulists have asserted that the great bivalves chomp down on divers for food or out of spite (the clams do slowly shut when harassed, but the movement is a defense mechanism and happens gradually). They are considered delicacies on many South Pacific islands and naturally the insatiable Japanese pay a premium to eat them as “Himejako”. Their shells also command a premium from collectors. Across the South Pacific, giant clams are dwindling away thanks to overfishing, reef destruction, and environmental factors.
It is sad that the gentle and lovely giant clam is suffering such a fate (although aquaculture is now bringing a measure of stability to some populations). In addition to being beautiful and useful to ecosystems, they are remarkable symbiotic creatures. A unique species of algae flourishes in the mantle of the giant clam and the clam gains much of its energy and sustenance from these photosynthetic partners. The clam possesses iridophores (light sensitive circles) on its flesh which allow it to gauge whether its symbiotic algae is getting enough sunlight–and perhaps watch for predators. It can then alter the transparency of its mantle flesh accordingly. According to J. H. Norton, giant clams have a special circulatory system to keep their symbionts alive and happy. The happy and beneficial relationship between a clam and its algae allows the former to attain great size and the latter to remain alive in the ever-more competitive oceans. I have concentrated on writing about T. Gigas, but there are many other members of the Tridacninae subfamily which lead similar lives (although they do not attain the same great size). To my eye they are all remarkable for their loveliness.
As part of my continuing effort to write and think more about good contemporary art, here are two paintings from one of the masters of contemporary realism, Jacob Collins. Like me, Collins studied at the Art Students’ League of New York and, also like me, he has a BA degree in history rather than fine art (although his degree is from Columbia). I feel his unusual academic background is apparent in his works which, despite portraying the same subjects which are always the focus of realistic paintings, have an extremely thoughtful and somber quality. The quiet pensiveness of the nude Christian model at the top suggests a deeper truth about the meaning and brevity of life than the average studio nude. The jagged tumult of red and green brushstrokes below is revealed to be a perfect realist still life of freshly dug beets. Swift precise strokes of complementary color swirl together to suddenly become a mundane item. Through the magic of Collins’ brush, making borscht becomes an experience of beauty. One is reminded of Chardin, about whom Proust wrote “Until I saw Chardin’s painting, I never realized how much beauty lay around me in my parents’ house, in the half-cleared table, in the corner of a tablecloth left awry, in the knife beside the empty oyster shell.”
Collins was born in 1964 in New York City. It seems he quickly learned the city’s lessons of social networking and constant hard work because he has a remarkable artistic resume (which can be found at his website along with galleries of his lovely still lifes, landscapes, and portraits) and he is married to a very successful writer. Perhaps I should learn not just from his bravura impasto but from his obvious diligence and organization. It’s time to get back to painting and putting up my own art website!