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It’s been a while since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic post–so here is one of my favorite sculptural details from world famous Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of Paris. An intense bearded man with a hand axe is pursuing a cockatrice (a poisonous two-legged rooster-dragon) along the top of a wall. The cockatrice was reputed to have the ability to turn people to stone so the particular realism of the axeman takes on an added dimension–but the monster is frozen as well (as it has been for the long centuries).
It has been a long time since we had a garden post here. In order to make the time pass more quickly until spring arrives and we have real flower gardening, here are some pictures of various beautiful sculpture gardens scattered across North America and Europe. They make we want to add some sculptures to my own backyard garden (which has a sphinx and a fu dog). Does anybody know where I could get a Janus statue and maybe some lamassus? Perhaps it’s time I broke out of this torpor and just carved a bunch of crazy mystical animals! Anyway enjoy the sculpture gardens…
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.
The magnificent timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a venomous pit viper which lives throughout the populated northeastern portion of the United States of America from Texas to New England. Ferrebeekeeper has considerable affection for the dangerous reptile (at an appropriate distance, of course!) and has already referenced the timber rattler as a metaphor for national liberty and, strangely, as a point of comparison for a large sports venue. But timber rattlesnakes are so much more. They were one of the first new world animals to utterly fascinate and horrify European colonizers. In the colonial period a serious rattlesnake bite was a death sentence (although we now have anti-venom) but the original natural scientists did not appreciate how complicated and remarkable the snakes were in other aspects.
As I write this, it is November and the rattlesnakes are all abed for the winter. Because they live in areas with harsh winters, timber rattlesnakes spend more than 7 months a year in hibernation. Large numbers will nest together in a community den—sometimes together with other snakes such as blacksnakes and copperheads. The den is usually a rocky chasm which extends deep beneath the frost line, and rattlesnakes may travel many miles to reach their hibernation den (a bi-annual journey which puts the snakes at great risk from predators and from cars).
Because of their large and diverse territory, timber rattlesnakes come in different sizes, colorations, and even have different venom types. The average timber rattlesnake grows to 100 cm (39 in) long and weighs between a half kilo and a kilogram (1 to 2 pounds). Much larger specimens are known (although there is considerable ridiculous dispute about the upper ranges of rattlesnake size). Female timer rattlesnakes are viviparous although, unlike mammals, rattelsankes protect their eggs within their bodies until they hatch. Rattlesnakes give birth to litters of 6-10 fully formed, fully poisonous little baby snakes, but they can only reproduce every few years since the experience is very hard on them.
Like catfishes, timber rattlesnakes have senses which we do not possess. Pit vipers are so named because they have nostril like spots (pits!) on the side of the head which they use to perceive infrared electromagnetic radiation. These pits are quite sensitive and act as third eyes. Snakes (and many other animals) also have special auxiliary olfactory sense organs called Jacobson’s organs which are extremely sensitive to various smells/tastes. Snakes characteristically pick up chemical traces with their tongues and waft these smells before their Jacobson’s organs in the characteristic tongue-flicking which is such a trademark.
Of course rattlesnakes are not just sensitive—they are also expressive. Among all other snakes they are distinctive in that they have a specialized structure at the end of their tail for making a warning noise. Rattlesnake rattles consists of hollow button-like segments which produce a distinctive buzzing when the snakes vibrate their tails. As a rattlesnake sheds her skin (every few months), she adds a new button to her tail. Rattles however are not perfect records of how many times snakes have shed their skin—sometimes buttons get knocked off, or just become brittle and fall away. The rattle has a high frequency and varies in loudness between 60-80 decibels from a distance of one meter (which falls somewhere between the noise level of an animated conversation and a garbage disposal). Ironically, the rattlesnakes themselves are deaf.
The venom of timber rattlesnakes varies in toxicity depending on the subspecies, but the most toxic rattlesnakes are extremely venomous. Type A venom is a neurotoxin whereas type B venom is hemorrhagic and proteolytic (which is to say it causes bleeding and breaks down fundamental body proteins). Type C venom is largely harmless. In Arkansas and Louisiana, timeber rattlesnakes are particularly dangerous because cross-breeding has resulted in snakes which have type AB venom (yikes!). To a lesser extent rattlesnake venom also contains esoteric myotoxins which rapidly kill muscle tissues. This deadly cocktail of different venoms is of great interest to pharmacologists who continue to study the various toxic proteins to tease out potential medicines.
Fortunately timber rattlesnakes are good-natured and do not generally bite without much posturing, rattling, hissing, and feinting. They keep their retractable fangs folded up in a mouth sheath when not in use and they are capable of varying the amount of venom they inject based on how they are feeling. It is best not to antagonize rattlesnakes lest they abandon their amiable disposition.
Timber rattlesnakes are gifted ambush predators which particularly prey on small mammals such as squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other rodents, but they also eat amphibians and birds. In turn rattlesnakes are preyed on by owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, crows, skunks, and even turkeys! Rattlesnakes are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, but they face serious threats from habitat loss and traffic (cars being indifferent to the protective poison of snakes).
Not only are many rattlesnakes killed by traffic, they must also face persecution. Many are killed by angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks. Gawping Texans take this to a particular extreme and organize great “rattlesnake round-ups” where huge numbers of rattlesnakes are wantonly tormented and killed for no particular reason (except perhaps to demonstrate a hatred of the world and its creatures). This is particularly sad since rattlesnakes, like whales, or elephants (or ourselves) are k-selected animals. They live long but reproduce slowly, which makes them especially vulnerable to population crashes.
If, by some appalling circumstance, you have read this far while a timber rattlesnake sits nearby buzzing its tail, you should run away from the snake! Do not attempt to molest it. If you feel threatened, call animal control. The timber rattlesnake is already vanishing from great expanses of its territory. It would be a shame if this beautiful and fearsome serpent were to slip away from the earth.
Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street. The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo. This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses. The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.
For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.” I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores. Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives. The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.
The trees really are beautiful. Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes. The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.
Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city. Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.
The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace. The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds. The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree. I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).
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.
In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies. These elegant beings are known as apsaras. They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds. In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).
In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters. They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths. Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity. One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father! In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful). They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.
Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes. Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems. Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water. Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.
Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art. These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits. Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes. Ascetics beware!
A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco. The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit. When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees. I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be. I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out. The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile. “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.
That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art. In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains). It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.
There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree. Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens. The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god. Poseidon presented his gift first. He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised. The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean. Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance. The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive. Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking. The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things. The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water. As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.
Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years. It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents). Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains. As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives). The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself. Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year. Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.
The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals). In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos). Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment. In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace. Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.
In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica. Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously). In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot. Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds. Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old. Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age. Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.
Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480). Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works. Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).
In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor. With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details. At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head. The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen. Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.
The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth. Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime). The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms. The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past. Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.