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Happy Earth Day! Today, to celebrate our lovely planet, we write about the largest tree (by canopy area) on Earth, Thimmamma Marrimanu, a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) which lives in Andhra Pradesh, India. Banyan trees are fig trees which propagate from aerial dispersal—birds eat the fig seeds and (in due course) drop them on trees, rocks, or buildings. The roots grow downward as aerial roots and then become tree trunks–so the tree is known to cover buildings or strangle other trees. Banyans also reproduce by vegetative, “branching” propagation. A whole twisted interwoven grove of banyan trees is often actually one tree.
Such is the case with Thimmamma Marrimanu which has spread out over eight acres and is at least 200 years old (though, as with clonal colonies like Pando, it can be difficult to ascertain the true age of Banyan trees). Thimmamma Marrimanu is named after a devoted wife who was married to a Bala Veerayya (whatever that is). When her husband died in 1434, Thimmamma committed sati and immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. A temple to the grieving (but misguided!) widow was built on the spot—then the tree sprouted from the temple.
Banyan trees are the national tree of India and they have become worked into the religions of South Asia. In Hinduism it is said that the leaf of the banyan tree is the resting place for the avatar Krishna. The fact that the Banyan tree forms a huge group of trunks and branches which seem heterogeneous but are actually a single entity is believed to have spiritual significance and underline greater truths about the interconnected nature of all living things.
What a long week! What with mad bombers and North Korea and taxes and sexy exes and goodness knows what else, I am totally ready to phone in today’s blog post. Fortunately I have the ideal solution for a quick but fun post! This year I forgot to celebrate Ferrebeekeeper’s 3rd anniversary. For our first year celebration I published a group of doodles. These are little drawings which I do at the Monday morning staff meeting at the beginning of every work week. This might sound well…sketchy, but I assure you doodling keeps me alert and allows me to remember what was said at each meeting. As you can see from the strange eclectic subjects, I think the whimsy and freedom of the weekend hasn’t quite worn off when I draw these. Sometimes, during my lunch break I color my little doodles in with highlighters or crayons. So here are 21 weeks’ worth of Monday morning staff meeting doodles. These little throw-away doodles open up a world into the subconscious where our true feelings about the universe can be found. Strangely these doodles reveal that I really like melting Middle Eastern cities of arabesques and angels (?). Less surprisingly I love fantasy beasts, gardens, fish, and mammals. I’m not sure why I love paisleys so much—maybe the sixties had a greater influence on me than I know (though I certainly wasn’t around back then).
My favorite is the little purple pleasure garden where a flamingo watches a phoenix fly away from the ruins of an alien robot (below), but I also like the bat and the geometric widget beast relaxing by a tree at sunset, as well as the underwater city of sharks and biomechanical walking buildings. Which ones do you like? Please leave a comment–I promise I’ll respond next week!
On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.
This requires some explaining.
On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula. Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth). Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.
In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another. North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once. On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree. Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight. The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct. In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs. The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack. With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.
Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation. Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force. Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group. The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining. They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.
Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected: Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever). In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.
The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting. Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life. Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life. Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree. For more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.
These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu. He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death. The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces. The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back. This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope). Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.
By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns. Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.” This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up. What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?
Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid. Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest. This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter. Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree. A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden. Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…
Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland. It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan. After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them). In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized. Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see). Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale. While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand). Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish. As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation. He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park. Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.
Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers). In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park. The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.
True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping 60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana). Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).
Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies. If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws). The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals. Tamanduas can live up to nine years. They are widespread but comparatively scarce.
The Socotra archipelago (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى Suquṭra), is a group of four islands which lie just off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The islands are politically part of Yemen but their long isolation from any continental landmass has made them ecologically distinct. Of the many species of plants and animals which are endemic only to Socotra, one species is particularly emblematic: the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). This monocot tree has an extremely unusual shape which allows it to survive on minimal amounts of soil and water. The crown is dense with foliage to reduce evaporation (and to maximize cooling shade).
The dragon’s blood tree takes its distinctive name from the blood red resin it produces when cut or scraped. The dried sap was a prized commodity in the ancient world when it was used as a dye, a medicine, a magic ingredient, and an adhesive. Even today the sap is still used in traditional medicine (it is said to be a coagulant and a stimulant but also an abortifacient) and as violin varnish!
The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn. The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.
The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting. Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.