It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate. To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) . Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness. In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art. There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.
Yesterday’s post was about the ancient Greek myth of how mint came into being. In the gardens and glades of the real world, there are all sorts of mints. This genus of asterid herbs is known as “Mentha” (linguists believe the name came into Greek from an extinct pre-literate Indo-European tongue). There is peppermint, catnip, and apple mint. There are spearmints, different pennyroyals, horse mint, and even something ominously called gray mint. However botanists cannot agree on how many species of mints there actually are. The different varieties hybridize so frequently (and produce such fecund offspring), that it is unclear where the species lines are.
Mints live around the world in temperate regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. They can reproduce asexually or through aggressive fast-growing runners. Mint flowers are white and purple “false” whorls. Every gardener is aware that mint can swiftly spread from a little pot into a nightmarish tangle of junglelike weeds. The plant is aggressive and invasive and perennial. Humankind’s ancient fondness for different mints also have further ensured that it is distributed everywhere.
Peppermint get its peppery flavor from menthol. The spiciness of pennyroyal comes from a compound called pulegone, and spearmints get their flavor from a turpenoid known as L–carvone (which is why spearmint oils can be used as solvents). These compounds are non-toxic to humans (although there are people who are allergic to mint) but they tend to powerfully effect insects. Mints can be effective insect repellants or even downright insecticidal.
I said that mint is non-toxic to people (in reasonable amounts) but that doesn’t mean the herb is not psychoactive. Increasingly it seems likely that mints are effective anti-nauseants and they might also contain potent stimulants. I hedged that sentence somewhat: despite humankind’s long love affair with this ancient herb, it has not been fully studied by science. Maybe there is a reason mint tea and candy is so popular!
Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story. The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course. Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought. There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.
One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament. Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case, Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention). Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene. The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!
Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created. The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay. The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients. Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought. Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!
I’m sorry I didn’t write a post last Thursday or Friday: I was away from Brooklyn on a whirlwind family trip to see the farmstead and visit my parents and grandparents. Now I love Brooklyn with all of my heart, but it was a great relief to be away from it for a little while. It was lovely to feed the thousand gentle farm creatures, to assess the growth of the plums, apples & nut trees in the orchard, and to walk back through the soybean fields into the true forest.
Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of writing time (and there isn’t much internet access in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio anyway). However I have a few little drawings which I doodled while I was home. My favorite is at the top of the page—it is a view of the soybean fields as the viewer emerges from the forest and is struck by the dazzling deep green of the plants. Soybeans are a critical crop in numerous ways, but I never really noticed them as a child–perhaps because I didn’t yet love edamame, or maybe because I hadn’t become used to living in a world of asphalt and bricks. Anyway, I will write a post about soybeans, but I wanted to share a quick impression of their overwhelming glowing greenness. The second picture is a drawing from the road of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The town is actually both much prettier and much uglier than the sketch—there are numerous picturesque Romanesque and “Jacobethan” churches and buildings, but there also some truly dispiriting strip malls along the outskirts (which I represented with a Kia dealership). Still the town has been improving incrementally for decades—perhaps thanks to my parents’ lovely yarn shop and quilting shop (which you should totally visit if you are ever in the Midwest/Appalachian region).
Speaking of quilting, I also drew a purely abstract picture of paisleys after I became fascinated by the printed patterns of the bolts of quilting cloth. Ever since the age of the Mughals, paisley has regularly come into fashion and then fallen out of it. Yet the concept seems to be much more ancient than the Scottish textile makers of the early industrial revolution or the Mughals. Paisley is another subject I need to blog about—because I think it is tremendously beautiful.
Finally there is a little drawing of the goose pond. I sketched it quickly (and from a distance) just before we drove off to the airport, but you can still see a few little pilgrim geese swimming about on it. My parents’ flock of these creatures has succeeded beyond all measure and now it is like their farm is infested with miniature dinosaurs. Everywhere you look there are geese busily gnawing on grass, biting each other’s tails, or jumping sadly (with expectant open beaks) beneath tantalizing green apples. I am sorry I didn’t do a sketch that really does justice to the lovable avine miscreants, however I am afraid that if I had stood among them long enough to draw them, they would have begun to nibble on me like a big ear of corn (which is their affectionate way of gently reminding visitors that geese get hungry for corn and lovely for attention). Thanks for looking at my drawings—now that I am back from my trip and my mind is refreshed I will try to blog about some of these new subjects!
A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.
I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.
So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?
Well, as it happens there is such a story!
In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.
Whatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!
Canna is the only genus in the family Cannaceae. The genus consists of 19 species of flowering plants from the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. Although sometimes called “lilies” they are not true lilies at all–their closest relatives are the bananas and the arrowroots.
Canna flowers are notable for huge colorful stamens—the highly modified structures of which are mistaken for petals (cannas actually have tiny easily overlooked petals). Although cannas are a rich source of starches, they are predominantly known as ornamental flowers and they are grown as annuals far outside of their native tropics. They are popular around the world, and indeed they have become invasive in Old World tropical regions of Asia and Africa.
My roommate and I went to the flower nursery and she insisted on buying a canna (which I then thought looked vulgar and tacky) for our shared garden. Yet the canna has proved itself a worthy garden plant many times over. Not only are its pretty flowers an unrivaled shade of fire-engine red, it is also vigorous in the sweltering July heat and it beautifully matches the giant green elephant ears which I have planted. The garden looks strangely tropical and magnificent with these exotic yet hardy plants. Maybe next year I will be looking for cannas of additional colors. It is a really lovely flower. I am sorry I initially dismissed it because of its unusual shape! There’s probably some sort of lesson there…
Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth. Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous. Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppedius. Steatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”
Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese. It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).
Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered. Perhaps it will have the last laugh. It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture. This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal). I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!
I didn’t get home until late on Friday night–so I guess this week’s final post is once more going to be drawings from the little book I carry around. The first is a surreal tropical underwater landscape. I wish i had included more jellyfish–but I am happy about the jelly duck and the orange artichoke/balloon thing. I am also fond of the underwater ghoul and the lurking crocodile monster. For some reason, now that I work of Wall Street i have been drawing all sorts of predators and floating ghosts. Speaking of which…
Here are some monsters at a convivial party of some sort. It’s a bit unclear what is going on, but I feel like the hobgoblin in the purple and teal robes might well be the designated honoree. Look at how proud and happy he looks. Another ghoul is there looking super excited too–although the green vegetable guy with gills looks as though he might have a bit of social anxiety. I need to draw more furnaces and fireplaces. They are really dramatic.
Finally here is a summer picture of Prospect Park. All of the parkgoers were bland and ill-dressed so I just drew verdant trees and creamy clouds. Just as I finished a teenager in a hijab walked by and a blackbird flew across the sky. It was too late to put them in the picture, but they are walking through the empty page towards it!
Have a lovely weekend! I am looking forward to next week’s posts.
Who doesn’t love cobras? These beautiful and dangerous snakes have fascinated humankind since prehistory. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about a lovely red spitting cobra from East Africa: today we cast our eyes to sub-Saharan Africa to learn about the black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) another spitting cobra which lives across the great continent.
The black-necked spitting cobra lives across a huge swath of Africa—from Northern Namibia to southern Mauritania in the west and from the Somali coast down to Tanzania in the east. The adaptable snakes can be found everywhere throughout this vast range except for the jungle fastnesses of the Congo rainforest. Except in dense rainforests, the snakes do well in all sorts of ecoregions and they are famous for thriving in scrublands, forests, grasslands, and deserts (as well as in new habitats like farms and cities). Although the snakes largely prey on small rodents, they are gifted hunters and can also live on virtually any small creatures (including arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians) and even on eggs. Its own predators include a variety of fierce raptors and certain other snakes. I find it alarming that Africa contains snakes capable of catching and eating a 2.3 meter (seven foot long) cobra which sprays venom!
The black-necked spitting cobra comes in an assortment of colors from yellowish copper to olive to reddish to gray. Many have distinct bands of red, white or gray on their necks (although some individuals are missing these bandings entirely). The most dramatic specimens are glossy black with red or white necks—like death metal priests! Female snake usually lay clutches of 10-15 eggs, but they can lay up to 22 eggs at a time. The snakes can be diurnal or nocturnal to suit circumstances (and their mood). Unlike the genteel red spitting cobra, black-necked spitting cobras love to spit venom and will do so at the slightest provocation (or for no reason at all—like Kid Rock).
In comparison with some of their relatives, the black-necked spitting cobras are not especially poisonous. Only five to ten percent of untreated human bites prove fatal. Their venom primarily consists of cytotoxins—compounds which damage cells instead of attacking organs or neuro-connections. Although fatalities from bites is low, bites can be accompanied with substantial tissue necrosis.
In conclusion, the black-necked spitting cobra is a very interesting and visually striking snake (not to mention a born survivor) but I feel it would make an extremely poor housepet.
This is the Cameo Tiara, a delicate and lovely miniature crown of pearls and feminine cameos which is owned by…King Carl Gustaf of Sweden! However the Swedish king doesn’t wear it, but rather lends it out to women in his family when they are being married. The cameos were carved separately and gathered into a crown in the first decade of the nineteenth century when cameos were all the rage. The crown was a gift from Napoleon to Josephine (or at least it is assumed that that is how she obtained it). Since the fall of the First French Empire, the little crown passed through surprisingly few hands. Orders of Splendor, a blog dedicated to such things describes its history succinctly:
Josephine left it to her daughter Princess Eugénie, who left it to her nephew Prince Eugén. Eugen loaned it to his niece by marriage, Crown Princess Margaret, and eventually gave it to Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when she married Prince Gustaf Adolf in 1932. Sibylla lent it to her sister-in-law, the future Queen Ingrid of Denmark, for a costume ball and ultimately left it to her son, King Carl Gustaf.
The pretty crown seems ideally suited to weddings because of the central cameo—but that cameo is itself the subject of minor controversy. To me it appears to be Venus teasing her son Cupid by holding some cherished object just out of his reach (archery equipment maybe…or a girdle or even a crown). Others. However, see it as a Psyche and Cupid—although frankly I enjoy Psyche and Cupid art when the two are more evenly matched in age (and when Psyche is not unwisely tormenting her spouse). Maybe the question adds charm and interest to the piece.
Whatever the case it is a beautiful little crown. I just wish we could see what is on the other four cameos on the back! The next time a Swedish princess invites me to her wedding I will be sure to ask (in a polite and cautious manner of course, the last thing I need is to be stabbed by some rich beefy Scandinavian nobleman).