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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.
Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes. During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo. Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans. The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation. For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.
The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies. Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers. Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death. The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.
Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs. The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh. These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story. If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo. After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold. No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up). Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.
It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled. In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders. Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions. Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos. The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.
If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream. A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature. What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?
Winter is a season when it is best to be reading a book beside a hot stove. Not only are stoves appealing because they are hot–most wood stoves and fire places are also designed to look good. Wood-burning stoves made of cast-iron are among the last devices regularly manufactured in classic gothic-revival shapes (perhaps because the industry is small and specialized enough to charge premium prices for elegance). Many of these stoves appear as though they loaded fuel into themselves and then walked out of the nineteenth century on little cast-iron legs.
To get through the winter (while simultaneously adding to Ferrebeekeeper’s “Gothic” category), here is a gallery of attractive gothic stoves. Some of these are classic stoves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a surprising number are on sale now.
There is something surprisingly comforting about these stoves. Just looking at them makes one think of warmth, shelter, and relaxation. But, with their stern arches, angular faces, and red flames, they also seem hungry, sinister, and hot. This odd juxtaposition must go back a long way for humans who have bedded down beside wood fires for thousands of generations as we crept further into lands too cold for our tropical blood.
These pictures are good for showing the sculptural/architectural beauty of these various stoves, but they are not quite as good at evoking the proper feeling of warmth and security. To get that sense you should imagine a dark shadowy study with the warm orange glow of embers cast across the room. Outside the wind howls over frozen forests and fields of ice but you don’t have to go out there.
Of course you might be reading this from some southern clime, in which case you don’t need to worry about winter’s chill at all. Have a big tropical drink and go to the beach. You can sit in the sun and reflect on how much I envy you.
In the Northern Hemisphere today is the first day of winter. As always, this change of season occurs on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Last night was actually the longest evening of the year—so I suppose we can now look forward to the gradual return of the sun bit by bit (even as the weather worsens for the true cold of January and February).
To celebrate winter (admittedly my least favorite season), here is a gallery of winter personifications. Each wears an icy crown and most of them look cold, haughty, indifferent, or cruel. I am including these ice kings and queens under Ferrebeekeeper’s mascot category even though they are not really cheering for a team or a product. “Personification” seems close enough to the definition of mascot to ensure that I won’t get in trouble from WordPress (although, as ever, I invite any comments or aeguments below).
I would hang around and make some funny comments about all of the monarchs of winter but all of the white hair and piercing eyes are starting to weird me out a little (to say nothing of Katy Perry’s vacuous stare). Have you ever noticed how summer, spring, and fall are not represented as maniacal tyrants with wicked crowns? I’m looking forward to getting back to those other seasons. In the mean time have a wonderful winter!
Out of all the hymenoterans, Ferrebeekeeper has been looking forward to writing about honey bees. Not only is honey delicious (and the striped workaholic insects strangely endearing), but honey bees have one of the most successful colony systems extant. As noted in a previous post, a hive of honey bees is a conundrum—is it 50,000 souls working together in a city state or is it one living organism? Unfortunately, as one reads through the writings by beekeepers, one realizes that it is not easy to answer this question—or even to write a short essay concerning honey bees. Their societies are too complex to be readily summarized. Writing about a hive of honey bees really is like writing about the myriad affairs of a city-state. The bees forage in different locations, store their produce in different forms, build structures, establish castes, fights wars, and undergo succession crises.
All of that is true during the warm part of the year. As temperatures drop to around 20° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), things change a great deal within the hive. Honey bees do not hibernate like bears (or like bumblebees which also snuggle down in a little lined den) instead they use honey stores and teamwork to stay warm. Honey bees do not have internal warming mechanisms like mammals, but they have each other and they have powerful wing muscles. The bees cluster together into a ball with the queen at the middle. Worker bees close to the queen shiver their wing muscles and thereby generate heat. Workers at the outside of the ball act as insulation (and benefit from transferred heat). If the ball becomes too hot it expands outward and the space between bees allows heat to escape. If it becomes too cold the bees press inward. Tired workers move towards the outside of the ball where they can be inert whereas cold workers on the outside move towards the inside. You might notice I am only writing about female bees—the workers and the queen—this is because all of the male drone bees are regarded as expendable and are thrown out of the hive to die in the cold as soon as temperatures drop.
In the beginning of the cold season the queen is not laying eggs (broodless) and the temperature within the cluster is about 27 °C (81 °F), however as spring nears a new brood of workers is needed and the interior temperature of the cluster rises to 34 °C (93 °F) in order to make egg-laying possible. Hives with too few bees can not stay warm this way and they perish in cold winters, however adequately large hives with ample honey reserves can survive temperatures which dip deep deep below freezing. Even in large well-provisioned hives there are winter dangers though. Moisture can build up in heavily insulated hives and form icicles which subsequently drip down on the bees in non-freezing weather and chill them (or burden them with fungi). And prolonged deep cold can prove disastrous. The bees congregate around a single honey store when the temperatures are extremely cold and then they spread out and move to another honey deposit when the weather is better. If the weather stays too cold for too long they deplete all of the honey and freeze—inches from abundant supplies of life-giving honey.
In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture). Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.
Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes. Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether). By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence. He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War. Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch. Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.
Friedrich came back to this theme again and again. Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald. The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees. The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation. Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness. Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.
Happy Groundhog Day! Preliminary reports coming in seem to indicate that the nation’s most eminent groundhog oracles are not seeing their shadows today (what with the continent bestriding blizzard and all). Oddly, this is interpreted as a sign that spring will arrive early this year. However I tend to think those groundhogs on TV are media personalities who have forgotten their rural roots. When I lived on a farm, the concept behind the holiday was more straightforward: if you saw an actual groundhog on Groundhog Day, then winter might indeed end early, but if you didn’t (and I never did) winter would not be over for six more weeks. Today most non-celebrity groundhogs did not stir from their deep hibernation chambers. We probably still have plenty of winter left.
Groundhog Day is observed on or around Candelmas, which ostensibly celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple: Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Kohens & Levites to perform the redemption of the firstborn and ceremonially purchase their firstborn son’s life back from the priests (I’m not sure Jesus ever really escaped the priesthood or the temple of Solomon so maybe his parents should have gotten their money back–but that’s a different story). Candelmas was elided with pre-Christian holidays involving the prediction of the weather by animal augury. The holiday’s roots in America are from the Pennsylvania Germans. Apparently in pagan Germany, the original animal weather prophets were badgers or bears. Imagine how exciting this holiday would be if we stuffed our pompous civic officials together with a disgruntled bear who had just been prodded awake from hibernation so people could take flash photographs!
At any rate we have gotten rather far afield of the day’s celebrated weather oracle, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is actually a rodent of the marmot family, Sciuridae. Marmots are large solitary ground squirrels which, like pikas, generally live in the mountains of Asia, Europe, and North America. The groundhog is an exception among the marmots since it prefers to live on open ground or at the edge of woodlands. The deforestation of North America for farms and subdivisions has caused groundhog population to rise. Although groundhogs are omnivores, the bulk of their diet is vegetation such as grasses, berries, and crops. They are gifted diggers who construct a deep burrow with multiple exits. This burrow serves as their chief living quarters and refuge from predators. Since groundhogs enter true hibernation, they usually also maintain a separate winter burrow (with a chamber beneath the frost line) for the sole purpose of their months-long suspended animation.
Groundhogs, however, have a deeper utility to modern humankind than as primitive weather gods. Devoted readers will know my fascination with liver research, and groundhogs are the principal research animal used in studies of Hepatitis B and liver cancer. Since groundhogs are prone to a similar virus in the wild, they always develop liver cancer when infected with hepatitis B. Laboratory groundhogs have thus been responsible for many advances in understanding liver disease and pathology–including the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B and the realization that immunizing against hepatitis B virus can prevent liver cancer. Currently 350 million people around the world are suspected to have hepatitis B. Forty percent of those infected will develop chronic liver damage or cancer. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600,000 people die every year from complications related to the infection (which is more than the total number of United States citizens killed in World War I and World War II combined). Perhaps the Groundhog should be thought of as a profound benefactor to humankind thanks to its utility as a laboratory animal.
In this time of blizzards and tornadoes, yet another winter storm passed over the East Coast yesterday and last night. Here is a picture of my garden this morning, followed by a photo of the neighbor’s angry Norway Maple bare of leaves and subdued under a coat of snow. It’s hard to believe that all of the crocuses, tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are sleeping beneath the drifts. Since I’m leaving before Spring and won’t get to appreciate the bulbs I planted, maybe it’s best not to think about them and to picture the garden this way from now on. I can just imagine it as forever free from aphids and leaf rot and imperfection–permanently suspended under a pristine coat of white…
Argh no, it’s still a frustrating picture. What is the point of gardening or painting or toymaking or starting anything? It’s all just going to get ruined by the ineluctible forces of entropy.