The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

Every year Ferrebeekeeper features posts about the voluminous cherry blossoms from the splendid Kwanzan cherry tree which grows in the back garden. For a week or two the garden becomes an unearthly place of lambent beauty which resembles the western paradise of Amitabha Buddha. But what about the week after?

Well, the answer is all too clear from these photos. The blossoms fall. In the week after they bloom there is a crazy shag carpet of princess pink all across the garden and in the neighbor’s lawn. Also this carpet is far stickier and wetter than it looks. After I took these pictures, I went inside to get something and then came downstairs to see that great pathways of pink blossoms were cast upon the hardwood floors and carpets. The first stunned thought I had was that someone had let a Roman emperor (and his blossom-throwing votaries) into the house. Only after a moment did it occur to me that the distinctly-non-imperial petal-treader was actually this author (and then I went for the even-more-non-imperial dustpan).

Despite the fact that it is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny moist decals waiting to adhere to everything, the blossom carpet has its own sort of beauty. The real letdown comes in the days afterwards–when it all turns to taupe goo. Fortunately we should have some May flowers by then to distract our attention to elsewhere in the garden! Maybe the Brooklyn weather will finally become May-like as well. In the meantime I will continue to pretend I am in the court of Elagabalus (a fiction which grows easier by the minute as our republic descends into political incoherence) and hope that my roommates are not too incensed by the petals which the dustpan missed.

he Roses of Heliogabalus (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888), oil on canvas

Every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, I like to draw and paint pictures of the garden. Although I am never satisfied with the pictures when I am working on them (since they only capture the tiniest fraction of the garden’s beauty), I am often pleased later in the year. It is almost like canning fruit: fresh fruit is obviously much better, but at least you have a little preserved portion of the heavenly taste later on. Additionally, painting the same subject year after year also provides a sort of benchmark to assess the media and techniques I am using. At any rate here are two of the pictures I painted. Above is a full watercolor sketch of the yard and below is a little drawing in pink, gray, and black ink which I made in my pocket sketchbook. Let me know what you think!

I have more pictures and thoughts about the spring garden…but they will have to wait. Today, alas, we must talk about politics. Since you are looking at the internet, you almost undoubtedly know by now that somebody at the Supreme Court leaked the draft of Samuel Alito’s high-handed opinion striking down Roe vs. Wade. It is a real document. Perhaps the final language will change somewhat, but unless everything changes immediately in some crazy way, abortions will be illegal or effectively illegal in red states by the end of June. It is surprising, but it is also unsurprising (since progressives and moderates have been watching Republicans strategically building towards this outcome for decades).

So far, I have read all sorts of opinions about what this means to the nation, to women, to Republicans, to Democrats, to the legitimacy our worthless kangaroo Supreme Court, to our terrible health-care system, etc. None of these writings have satisfied me, because none of them said what I wanted to hear. Therefore I guess I am stuck writing the essay which I keep looking everywhere for. You will have to judge whether it is true or not. Perhaps you will have to judge whether to make it true, since, in the end of things, that is how politics works.

Ok, here is my thesis: obtaining what they have claimed to want will be a much bigger problem for Republicans than they care to let on. They are like the proverbial dog chasing a van who finally catches it. If abortions are illegal in red states, it will quickly threaten the GOP’s already tenuous political coalition through several ways. First of all, the same religious fundamentalists, scolds, and absolutists who have obsessively made this a single-focus issue will want abortion outlawed everywhere in the nation. Republicans will now have to work towards that goal, unless they want all of those single-issue voters to harumph and stay home. Yet, as women start dying left and right, politics in those same red states will change more quickly and in more unnerving ways than Republicans are ready for.

I suspect that strategy-minded Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never really wanted to see Roe end for exactly this reason. The pro-life zealots were already maximally engaged. This will not create more of them or cause them to show up at the polls in greater numbers. After an odious victory lap, they will either tune out of politics or demand that Republicans do stuff which is even more unpopular. And ending Roe (and its reproductive freedoms)–especially in this draconian way–is quite unpopular with 55-70 percentage of the electorate (depending on how the questions are asked). That number is likely to get much larger as snoozing Democrats and progressives wake up and notice that the United States is quickly becoming a farcical fascist dystopia .

So Republicans are back to their true play. Either they must comprehensively end representative democracy once and for all and replace it with an autocracy masquerading as a democracy (like Hungary or Turkey) or they will have to eventually face voters, a majority of whom do not like their policies. Republicans have become so wily at avoiding voters and at painting Democrats’ attempts to govern the nation as extremism, that we have lost sight of how deceptively weak and unpopular their fundamental positions are. Now they are running on a platform of raising taxes for working people, destroying Social Security, making healthcare more expensive, AND abolishing reproductive choice for all Americans. The fact that they are doing as well as they are is testament to their astonishing ability to lie and prevaricate, but the truth is slowly creeping up behind them and dawning even on the most misinformed voters.

So the next two elections of 2022 and 2024 will be the GOP’s best chance to use structural advantages to finish off the democracy as a functioning entity. That was already the case, but perhaps today’s leak will remind confused people who had tuned out of politics (dully repeating the Republican line that “all politicians are equally bad“) that they need to turn back in and fight off these ghastly autocrats and religious zealots. Otherwise today’s assault on freedom, dignity, and privacy will neither be the last nor the most jarring.

I apologize for not writing any posts last week. I got upset hearing about how blogging is dead and only podcasts and video content matter (also I was seduced away from the stupid, worthless internet by the evanescent beauty of the cherry tree). But, even if writing is worthless and doesn’t matter and the only people of any importance are rich blathersome celebrities, it hardly seems right to leave all opinion-making to them. So I will try to make up for last week’s absence by posting more this week!

Pursuant these matters, April is poetry month, and I failed to write a post about poetry! So, in a spirit of year-round poetry appreciation, here is a quiet poem which seems to fit with this year’s cold spring and various worldwide crises. The poem was written by the largely-forgotten poet, Charlotte Mew (an unhappy spinster whose large family was destroyed by mental illness and bankruptcy). Although Charlotte Mew died in 1928, she saw the ways of the world clearly and her poem feels like it could be about the present. Likewise, although the poem is about what it is about (large beautiful trees being cut up and carried off), it is also clearly about bankruptcy, downfall, ruin, and defeat. Finally, somehow there is a lowly (yet pitiable) dead rat in the poem which makes me think of posts about the despised (yet morally righteous) rats. But enough talk, here is Charlotte Mew’s lovely poem about sycamore trees:

The Trees are Down

By Charlotte Mew

and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees

(Revelation)

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.

For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,

The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,

With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas,’ the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring

Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.

I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,

But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one bough

   On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,

             Green and high

             And lonely against the sky.

                   (Down now!—)

             And but for that,   

             If an old dead rat

Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,   

             In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

             There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

             They must have heard the sparrows flying,   

And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying—

             But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:

             ‘Hurt not the trees.’

Hi everyone! Happy Earth Day! For now, I will spare you from the posts about the state of our planetary ecosystem and its fraught relationship with the intelligent invasive primate causing so much trouble everywhere (although you can read some past thoughts about that here), and instead show some garden photos. The gorgeous Kwanzan tree which lives in my backyard in Brooklyn is abloom and I have been sitting beneath the tree enjoying fleeting feelings of ineffable beauty instead of writing blog posts. We will return in full force at some pint next week. In the meantime I have tried to capture some of the garden beauty in the pictures below.

The cherry tree is starting to get older and most of the eye-level branches have died out, but there are still gorgeous blossoms higher up where the limbs get sun! More about the tree next week, when I hopefully have some artworks finished…

Some people regard pansies and violas as sort of tawdry flowers, but I think they are as beautiful as the most exotic Miltonia in terms of sheer prettiness. If they were more rare we would probably think they are the most gorgeous blossoms in the garden. But they are not rare…because they are super tough! I planted the little black violas back in October and they shrugged off the full force of winter’s blast with shocking indifference.

Another favorite plant which is blooming right now is the bleeding heart. I planted a white one too, but it is presently only 5 centimeters high, so you may have to wait to see its blossoms.

It looks like the tulips will bloom later, but some species tulips and volunteers have come up. Below are more pictures of tulips and Johnny-jump-ups.

There is an ornamental crabapple in the back of the garden which is as lovely as the cherry (in some respects). Unfortunately it is less photogenic, but you can see some of the pretty magenta blooms above the hellebore and the single lonely muscari.

And here is a picture of the gardener, looking peeved that everything did not bloom at once (he never seems perfectly happy, no matter how wonderfully the flowers perform). In the near future, we will return to traditional Earth Day themes of the proper path humankind must chart in order not destroy the living systems of Earth (we all need to think a lot more about that and push back against powerful interests which assert that it is not a thing to be thought about). The garden is a way to start thinking about such things (for it is a problematic artificial ecosystem), but for the moment, let’s just enjoy the blossoms.

The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

Sepia Cat (2004-2021)

Today is National Pet Day. Well, actually, if you are fortunate enough to have a pet, every day is National Pet Day! Even if pets are sometimes messy or obstreperous, I have gotten more joy from my animal friends then from all of the status-seeking human pursuits, endeavors, pastimes, and professions combined (and that includes the things that I love like art and literature, not just the pointless busy work of finance or real estate which are designed for no other purpose than making other people rich). Anyway, suffice to say that pets are the people we love without all of the infuriating dominance/hierarchy games of other humans (although pack/herd animals like dogs and horses understand hierarchical relationships very well indeed and will readily participate in such hijinks if you let them). There is only truly bad part of life with pets, but it is exraordinarily bad: they are mortal and, unless you have a pet ocean quahog, their lifespans are much shorter than ours.

This is a long way of saying that my beloved feline best friend Sepia died last March (2021). I did not write about her then because I was sad and depressed. I was going to properly memorialize her in the year-end obituaries column, but Grandpa’s obituary took all of my bandwidth. Sepia was a very private cat, so I did not blog about her during her life, but I miss her terribly and it does not strike me as fair that she has no obituary. Plus as time passes, I am forgetting all of her adorable tricks and amazing traits and she was so beautiful and so loving that I have to try to hold onto those moments, even if they are slipping away already.

I love pets with all of my heart, but back in my twenties when I was starting my adult life I did not want my own pet because my living circumstances were so cramped and chaotic (with roommates and 4th floor flats and 24 hour days out and suchlike). However, even if a pet could not find their way into my apartment back then, the mice did. They showed up to the old bachelor digs with endless voracity and started multiplying. At first I thought I could stop them by cleaning house and putting all dried goods in tight containers, but the mice scoffed at such efforts and my roommates thought I was trying to dominate the space with rules. So I bought a live trap and trapped some of the rodents…but I think they ran up the walls back up into the apartment before I could even get back up the stairs. Then I got snap traps and killed off some of the littlest and most naive mice by means of sinister guile and human mechanical contrivance–but by winnowing the population I only pushed the remaining mice to become smarter and craftier. At night I could hear them scampering around snickering, and maybe even reading my books (or at least nibbling on them). It was intolerable, and the only solutions left were glue traps (and if you have ever seen a mouse pulling off his own feet and dying of dehydration in one of those, perhaps you will concur that they are unacceptable) or a cat. A friend of mine in Manhattan wanted a single male cat for her apartment, but the rescue organization would not give her only one rescue cat, so I agreed to take the spare female rescue cat.

Thus, after a long day of grueling busy work, my friend passed off a cardboard carton with holes in it to me when I headed home. My grandfather got too into cats as he entered his dotage, and so I told the carton that I would take care of it, but it would be a strictly professional relationship–like a lord with his hired mercenaries. I was thinking I had a professional assassin a box, but it would not be like with Pawsie cat or Lily Cat (beloved cats from youth whose early exit left big holes in my heart). Then I got home and opened the box and Sepia Cat popped out. She was about 9 or 10 months old with big ears and huge green anime eyes. She had all of the beauty of an adult cat, but with most of the playful winsomeness of a kitten too. Actually, her rescue name was “Sally” but I rechristened her because her tabby stripes, white bib, and long, swift grabber paws reminded me of the Mediterranean cuttlefish which artists have used for ink since time immemorial. She looked at me and said “purrr” and jumped up in my lap and I said “Whose got beautiful whiskers?” and all talk of mercenaries and hirelings was forgotten forevermore. I loved Sepia with my whole heart as soon as I saw her. Oh, and also she committed terrible war crimes against the mice. We found one of two which had all of their bones broken into splinters (she liked to hurl them against the wall again and again and again) and after that the mice wrote “a dark entity of dwells here: do not enter!” in their hobo script and we never saw them again.

Despite her prowess as a hunter, Sepia was perfectly happy living in the apartment with bachelors. She did not mind the strange hours, or even care unduly if her kitty cat dinner was not on time. Her feline curiosity only got her in trouble twice, once when she accidentally slipped into my roommate’s closet (we were all running around the apartment shouting her name when we started hearing muffled meows from the behind the closed doors) and once when she got out of the apartment entirely. That time I discovered her down on the second floor hiding in an alcove with desperate panic in her eyes and she literally jumped up into my arms.

Sepia moved with me as I moved from place to place in Park Slope and finally out to Flatbush. She has some roommate cats whom she hated (Simba) and some roommate cats whom she loved (Luster and Sumi). Her favorite foods were turkey and any sort of cheese. In fact, she almost knocked over a bookcase once trying to get some blue cheese which I thought I had hidden from her by placing up on the very top shelf, but not on the top.

When Sepia was young she had a North African desert cat’s preternatural agility and she could jump up on top of the kitchen cabinets from a flat-footed start. She enjoyed cat toys made of real rabbit fur, but her favorite game was “boxy cat” where she would shadow box with the shadow of my paintbrush. Speaking of painting, our most disastrous incident was when she unexpectedly jumped up onto my palette, which I was holding on my lap and which was covered in toxic oil paints. Because of the dangerous pigments she had to have a bath and she shrank from her normal elegant self (Sepia normally looked like a street tabby crossed with Lady Aster’s Somalian cat) into a sad little wet gollum-type creature. After the palette incident, she was much more circumspect about leaping!

Even when she was an older cat she could move with shocking speed and dexterity (yet also with silent ballet-like grace). Only once the cancer got into her head did she start to truly slow down.

Sepia’s true favorite thing was to curl up on my legs or next to me when I was reading science fiction space operas or epic literature. We would read for hours and hours and hours lying together as she purred softly. Sometimes I would just stare into her gorgeous green eyes as she blinked slowly. Oh also she enjoyed being combed! But only her stripey bits, she would only uncurl her white ruff and belly if she was very relaxed.

Sepia was always hungry (a legacy from her mysterious street era, when she was a stray kitten), but when she was about 16 she got ravenously hungry and would eat can after can of food (if allowed), but then throw it all up. The vet thought it might be a thyroid disorder, but poor Sepia became more and more desperately hungry and her poor face started to distort and ooze. I tried palliate her cancer with prednisolone, which worked for a little while but then started hurting her. On her last day, she woke up in bed with me with a look of absolute suffering on her face and with no interests in drinking or eating or anything. I took her to the vet and held her while she died and now I have her ashes in a little plastic funerary box with a silly label which I am meant to fill out (though I never have).

I suppose these details strike you as banal or perhaps as approximately familiar to all cats, yet thinking of them has me wiping away tears. She was so beautiful and she was a great hunter, a great athlete, and great at hiding (it took me so long to find her secure undisclosed location) but Sepia’s greatest strength was her sweet heart. I can still almost feel her curled in my lap as I type away at the computer…but that is not Sepia, it is Sumi Cat, Sepia’s little black sister (by adoption). Sumi is sitting my lap bathing her ears with her paws as I write this, and now she is looking at me curiously as emotionally I hug her and kiss the top of her head.

“Pet Day” hardly explains that our animal friends are one of the few transcendent things in life. Neither does this incomplete essay about my best friend during all of those years. Undoubtedly if someone asks me about the period between 2004 and 2021 I will talk about art, or the great recession, or urbanism, or Trumpism or something. But I should talk about a little white bib and moustache and big green eyes. That was the best part.

Although the news of world affairs and politics has been rather bad lately, there is some more good news from the laboratory. Yesterday, an Oxford-based company, First Light Fusion, successfully tested a novel strategy to creating safe, sustainable nuclear fusion power (which is to say their test was a success–we have yet to see whether the larger concept fulfills its premise). Unlike the National Ignition Facility in California, which uses an enormous laser array to heat the hydrogen target to solar temperatures, or the ITER project (which uses a tokamak, a torus of plasma held in place by powerful magnetic fields), the British strategy is shockingly primitive–a gun shoots a super-high velocity projectile at a little cube containing two tiny spheres of deuterium. This cube is the secret ingredient for the company’s fusion plans (literally, since they hope to sell the proprietary fuel packets to everyone and make money that way).

Reading between the lines of the article announcing this information in “The Financial Times” it seems like this method does not produce as much energy as the tokamak or the laser array, however it is simpler and more scalable then those designs–if it can be made effective. So far none of the designs have produced more energy than they required, so that is quite a big if.

Coincidentally, although First Light Fusion is a British company, their main financial backer is an enormous shadowy Chinese capital company. Perhaps America’s legislators could spare some time from their busy schedule of performative white supremacy interrogations of Supreme Court candidates and suchlike culture wars gibberish to, you know, fund research into the technologies which will define the future.

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