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This past April, I announced with some fanfare (or at least with bold letters) that Ferrebeekeeper was going to expand to feature a digital gallery of my paintings and other artworks.  In retrospect, perhaps I should not have made that statement on April Fool’s Day (although that is the day I started blogging).  Circumstances have indeed made a fool of me, and my projected site expansion has been delayed again and again. More than a season has gone by and still there is no art gallery.  Fortunately, I am now confident that my gallery launch really is just around the corner! To give you a little teaser until the final version is launched, here are two of my miniature allegorical paintings from a series which I started more than a year ago.

Donut Universe with Centaur and Mummy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2010, oil on panel)

 

Torus with Spearman, Bagpipes and Barnacle (Wayne Ferrebee, 2011, oil on panel)

Here’s the story behind the genesis of these works: when I was cleaning my pockets before doing a load of laundry I found a sketch of a centaur, a clock, and a snail trapped in a miniature torus-shaped universe.  Although I’m not sure what prompted that initial sketch, I have since made several tiny paintings based around toruses which, as explained here are elegant metaphors for insular universes.  Indeed some cosmologists and topologists feel that the actual universe might well be torus-shaped (or more precisely, shaped like a triple torus) an idea which appeals to my inner gourmand. The paintings are obviously echoes of each other.  Both feature huge predatory animals lurking under pastries floating in outer space.  The splendid toadfish (Sanopus splendidus) in the first painting and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) in the second are even facing the same way as if both waiting in ambush. Each panel also has an invertebrate, a galactic backdrop, and ancient beings brandishing hand weapons.  However the cast and the props are quite different–a bold Assyrian warrior takes the place of the desiccated mummy while the gothic clock sunk in icing is replaced by a mournful bagpipe floating in space.  A yellow lipped sea krait seems intent on escaping the entire scene.

What does all of this mean?  Well, as Socrates surmised, artists don’t know what their works mean. Like everyone else we have to guess, but the reoccurrence of similar roles in the two paintings—even as the setting and the circumstances change–suggest to me the circular nature of interaction between living things.  This theme is highlighted by the circular nature of the main subject, the torus. And of course there is something obviously and purposefully missing from both paintings, a physical and metaphysical emptiness exemplified by the famous hole in the donut, and the void of the universe. Whether this additionally reflects the hunger of the animals, the soundlessness of the bagpipe, the lifelessness of the mummy, and the timelessness of the stopped clock is an open question.

It has been a long time since Ferrebeekeeper added a new post to the gothic category.  In order to remedy that deficit (and perhaps to focus somewhat on the strange & troubling nature of time itself) here is a gallery of gothic clocks.  Something about the ornate yet solemn gothic style seems particularly suited to instruments which measure the passing of time.  Until recently, clocks were precious and expensive items and it was very appropriate to dress them up in stylish little reliquary-style cases.  Additionally, like churches or crypts (which were frequently constructed in the same style), clocks betoken a world which transcends human understanding or control.  Nineteenth century clockmakers particularly relished the gothic aesthetic so most of the clocks below are gothic-revival era objects from England, France, or Germany. However clock makers from before the 19th century also looked to medieval sacred conventions when crafting their timepieces (as can be seen in the ancient sconce clock from 16th century Germany).  Perhaps even more strangely, modern clock-makers also frequently refer back to the gothic tradition.  At the bottom of my gallery I have included some startling resin clocks made by contemporary manufacturers. The modern timepieces might have jumped from “gothic” to “goth” but they still resemble little shrines to the omnipresent and ineluctable force of time.

Gothic Clock (Germany, 16th century AD)

Antique French Gilt Brass Boudoir Clock (Jarrot Freres)

Oak Case Gothic Revival Bracket Clock, Barraud & Lunds, Cornhill, London, c. 1838-1842

Vienna Regulator. Gothic style, probably from around 1865

Japy Freres Brass Mantel Clock (Gothic Griffons Nouveau)

Libert Gothic Cathedral Clock (French, 19th Century)

Antique Waterbury Steeple Gothic Clock (19th century)

Mahogany Gothic Double Fusee Bracket Clock by Webster Cornhill (English, 1890)

Neo-Gothic Style Partial Gilt Clock (French, 19th Century)

Oak Fussee Gothic Bracket Clock (Tiffany & Co.)

Antique Bronze Gothic Mantle Clock (Austrian, late 19th Century)

Walter Durfree 9-tube clock with Hersbhepe works and Gothic mahogany carved case.

Bielefeld Clock (the pattern is available at http://www.finescrollsaw.com)

Contemporary Resin Gothic Dragon Clock (from Dragon Artwork)

Grim Reaper Gothic Wall Clock (Contemporary, resin)

On Borrowed Time Gothic Clock (Contemporary, resin)

Contemporary Gothic Resin Clock

Contemporary Wall Clock

An artist's conception of the earthlike world, HD 85512 b (CREDIT: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Today it was reported that HARPS, (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) a device operated from the European Southern Observatory’s station atop Mount la Silla in the Andes, has discovered 50 new exoplanets (planets which orbit stars other than the sun).  Sixteen of these new planets are “super-earths” rocky planets with a mass from 1 to 10 times that of our planet. One of these newly-discovered planets, HD 85512 b, is estimated to be only three-and-a-half times the mass of the Earth and it seems like it is located at the edge of the habitable zone, the orbital belt around a star where water can exist in liquid form.  This is only the second exoplanet discovered within the habitable zone, the first being Gliese 581 d.  Interestingly HARPS has disproved the existence of Gliese 581 g (which I wrote about last year) as a mathematical phantasm–so um, you might want to take that post with a grain of salt. The planet HD 85512 b orbits a star which is is approximately 35 light years from Earth.

In the eight years since the program has started, HARPS has discovered more than 150 exoplanets. HARPS discovers new planets by means of a mind-boggling technology: a spectrograph of stupendous precision is mounted on a 3.6 meter telescope in order to take painstaking observations of numerous nearby stars over a prolonged period of time.  A computer program then compares the tiny variances in the light emitted by these stars.  Stars with planets orbiting them undergo slight changes of radial velocity as the planets’ gravity tugs lightly at the stellar bodies. These shifts can be measured via Doppler shift and compared against the expected spectrographic signature caused by the stars relative drift toward or away from the observatory. Over many years the computer can thereby model the mass and approximate orbit of planets around stars (considering the math and the precise observations required for such calculations makes my hair stand on end).

Kepler, the NASA exoplanet discovery project uses an entirely different technology which involves measuring changes in brightness caused by the transit of a planet across a star’s glowing face.

Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War (Carl Nebel, 1851)

September 13th is celebrated in Mexico as Día de los Niños Héroes, “the day of the boy heroes”, a holiday dedicated to the Battle of Chapultepec which occurred near the end of the Mexican–American War of 1847.  This is peculiar because the Battle of Chapultepec was not an overwhelming success for the Mexican army.  During the course of the battle, several companies of American infantry troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, a fort which guarded the western entrance to Mexico City and served as the Mexican military academy. As the Americans occupied the castle, (which was defended by cadets from the military academy as well as Mexican regulars), six young Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when the Mexican commander ordered retreat. They fought to the death and, according to legend, the last cadet left alive, Juan Escutia, grabbed the flag and lept from the castle (so that the colors would not fall into enemy hands).  The castle’s fall permitted the subsequent occupation of Mexico City and hastened Santa Anna’s end (his last battle came less than a month later at Huamantla).

Despite the battle’s outcome, the cadet martyrs of Chapultepec suited the Mexican national consciousness and were lionized as heroes.  One of the socio-political tensions which had dogged the Mexican army throughout the conflict was the distance between senior officers, who tended to be Spanish royalists at heart, and junior officers who embraced fiery republican principles.  The boy heroes were seen as a newer braver generation of Mexican officers inspired by the egalitarian and romantic ideals of the French Revolution.

The grave of the 6 cadets was the scene of an unexpected foreign policy twist when President Henry Truman stopped there on his 1947 Mexico trip in order to plant a wreath. The Mexican public interpreted the gesture as one of apology and bathed Truman in adulation. When queried by American reporters, Truman, with typical brevity simply stated that “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.” Of course a cynical historian might imagine Truman was trying to ensure Mexico stayed in the American fold during the Cold War—and accomplished his aim with a ten dollar wreath and a well-turned phrase.

Monumento a los Ninos Heroes

The boy heroes are still celebrated with a popular (albeit unofficial) holiday.  In 1952 their remains were moved to a large and somewhat florid public monument crafted of white marble by sculptor Ernesto Tamaríz in Chapultepec Park. Looking at the soaring columns dedicated to 6 cadets whose inability to obey orders cost them their lives it is difficult to conclude that the ancient Mesoamericans admiration for human sacrifice does not still live on.

Pomelos and Mooncakes

Once again it is the mid-autumn festival (also known as the mooncake festival), one of the most important festivals of the Chinese calendar.   I hope you and your friends get together to drink rice wine while looking at the jade rabbit who mixes magic herbs on the moon!

Last year Ferrebeekeeper explored the mid-autumn festival through poetry but this year we will concentrate instead on food. The quintessential foodstuff of the mooncake festival is the mooncake, a cake which is crafted to look like the moon [Ed. this is some fine work you’re doing here], however an equally lunar-looking foodstuff is nearly as important for celebrating the holiday.  The pomelo is a beloved citrus fruit which has come to be integrally associated with the mid-autumn festival. The fruit is like a giant green or chartreuse grapefruit with a yellow-white or pinkish-red interior (depending on the variety).  Pomelos can be quite large with a diameter that runs between 15 and 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) and they can weigh up to 2 kilograms (about 4 and a half pounds). The fruit is segmented like that of an orange (albeit with a great deal more pith) and tastes like a mild sweet grapefruit.  In some varieties of southern Chinese cooking, the pomelo skin is used as an ingredient in its own right.

Pomelo

Because of its shape, its harvesting schedule, and its delightful taste, the pomelo is a mainstay of the mid-autumn moon festival. To quote gochengdoo.com, a Chines culture blog:

In Mandarin, pomelos are called 柚子 (you zi), a homophone for words that mean “prayer for a son.” Therefore, eating pomelos and putting their rinds on the head signify a prayer for the youth in the family. In addition, the Chinese believe that by placing pomelo rinds on their heads, the moon goddess Chang’e will see them and respond to their prayers when she looks down from the moon.

Aww!

The pomelo has long been cultivated in China: the first allusions to the fruit date to 100 BC, but cultivation may go back further.  Many of the citrus fruits we are most familiar with, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, are the end result of centuries—or even millennia–of hybridization and selective breeding. Pomelos are an exception. Native to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, the pomelo is one of the ancestral citrus fruit and the pretty trees grow wild in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the first sweet oranges were probably a hybridization of pomelos and mandarins. Grapefruits are probably a descendant (it is hard to tell what the exact relations are since citrus trees hybridize so readily). What is certain is that the pomelo fruit is lovely and sweet and will enhance your ability to appreciate the moon tonight!

Pomelos on the Tree

Happy lunar viewing!

Swan of Tuonela (Gabriel de Jongh)

It will probably not surprise you to know that much of the mythology of Finland and Lapland is concerned with impossible quests which ineluctably lead to destruction. Louhi was queen of the bleak realm of Pohjola as well as being a sorceress, a shapeshifter, and possibly a demigoddess.  She possessed several daughters of ineffable loveliness. In order to win the hand of one of these beauties, a hero had to pass a test stipulated by Louhi.  These tasks were always impossible or very nearly so. Additionally if a hero somehow seemed to be on the brink of accomplishing his quest, Louhi would use her sorcery to ensure that he failed.

My favorite of these myths concerns the hero Lemminkäinen, a warrior and shaman who fell in love with one of Louhi’s daughters. Louhi promised the maiden’s hand to Lemminkäinen only if the hero could bring back the lifeless body of the swan of Tuonela.  Tuonela was the Finnish underworld, a magic haunted island ruled over by the dark god Tuoni.  Getting there was no easy task and returning was much harder (several other stories about suitors seeking the daughters of Louhi involve Tuonela and its dreadful snares).  The swan was a transcendent being which swam around the island of the dead singing.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011)

After great travails Lemminkäinen made it to the underworld and he found the magic swan, but as he drew his arms to kill the bird, Louhi’s cruel guile became apparent.  The swan began to sing a haunting song of divine beauty. The golden notes described life’s splendor and its heartache—the wordless music summarizing everything that people long for and care about in their journey from the cradle to the grave. The impossible sadness and magnificence of the song moved Lemminkäinen’s heart and he realized he could not kill the great bird. As Lemminkäinen faltered, he was spotted by the gods of the underworld.  Infuriated that anyone should threaten the great swan, Tuoni’s blind son sent a poisonous watersnake to bite the suitor.  Lemminkäinen tried to sing away the venom with a shaman spell but he knew no words of magic against watersnakes.  The whirlpool of the river of death caught him and his body was ripped into pieces which sank among the underwater boulders.

Lemminkäinen did not return home and his aged mother began to worry about him.  She went through the world seeking him in the dark forests of the south and in the lichen-shrouded wastes of the north.  She spoke to bird and bear and deer and fish looking for her son. She questioned the yellow moon and the silver stars but they were indifferent.  Finally she prostrated herself before the red sun as it set in the west and the sun god gave her the terrible answer that Lemminkäinen was lifeless, cut to bits in the black river of Tuonela. Broken with grief she went to the smith god Ilmarinen and begged him to make a huge dragging rake for her with a copper handle and steel tines. Then she went to the river and laboriously found the many waterlogged fragments of Lemminkäinen’s corpse.   She pieced the shattered bones and torn sinews together and sang the most powerful songs of healing magic to reassemble the body, but still her son remained lifeless.  All of her prayers and supplications and lamentations went unheeded by all gods and creatures save for one.  A little bee landed in front of her and promised to help.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897, tempera on canvas)

Furiously buzzing her wings, the tiny insect flew away up into the sky and then farther up to the vault of heaven.  She crossed Orion’s shoulder and flew across the great bear’s tail.  Finally she reached the heavenly abode of of Jumala, the Creator God, where he had crafted the universe.  The bee flew through the immense palace until she found a golden vessel filled with healing honey.  Then the little bee took a drop of the honey and flew down through the stars back to Lemminkäinen’s mother.  Together they placed the honey on his tongue and color came back to his lifeless form.  He struggled and shuddered and then gasped for air, waking from the world of death with its whirlpools and dark waters. But the swan’s haunting song was with him all of his days as was knowledge of what waits in the death’s dream isle at the end of the world.

And that’s how Lemminkäinen learned that Louhi’s daughter was an unsuitable bride.

Today’s post is about a dreadful strangling monster!  This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods.  When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete.  This abomination comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere.  It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!

Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven (photo by Cheryl Moorehead)

Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven.  This is one of the most successful invasive species out there.  People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild curses.  The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed.  Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome hellspawn which they are.  When chopped down, the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees).  The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.

So Many Seeds!

The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under a faddish spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks.  They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended.  In formal gardens Ailanthus trees’ tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means “malodorous tree” or “stink tree”). The tree’s prettiness, though undeniable, is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).

Samia cynthia–the Ailanthus Moth (note the lack of a mouth–saturniid moths do not feed in their final adult stage)

Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree.  Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth  (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right.  Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.

The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven.  Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and domestic abuse in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, after having said all of that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form.  It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees.  Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows.  It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.

Ailanthus Trees Growing in a City

Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run).  The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering.  Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years.  However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many.  Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use.  Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.

A photo from my nearest train station in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)

 

I had a post all planned for today but the difference between reality and fancy has forced me to scrap my original idea.  First, and by way of overall explanation, allow me to apologize for not writing a post last Friday.  I was attending a stamp convention in Baltimore over Labor Day weekend in order to fulfill a social obligation.  The stamp convention is where my idea for today’s post came from and, of course it’s also where my idea went wrong.

I had initially (optimistically) planned on selecting a variety of stamps representing categories from my blog.  What could be better than a bunch of tiny beautiful pictures of snakes, underworld gods, furry mammals, planetary probes, gothic cathedrals, and so forth? But, alas, my concept was flawed.  The international postal industry is vast beyond the telling, and, undoubtedly, some nation on Earth has issued stamps featuring each of those subjects, however stamp collectors do not categorize their collections by subject. Instead they organize their precious stamps by pure obsession (usually but not always centered around a particular historical milieu).  Apparently there are also subject stamp collectors out there…but real stamp collectors think of them the way that champion yachtsmen regard oafs on jet skis.

True philatelists are more interested in finding oddities which grow out of historical happenstance.  Their great delights are the last stamps issued by an occupied country just before regime change, or the few stamps issued with the sultan’s head upside down, or a stamp canceled by a Turkmenistan post office which was destroyed a week after it was built.  The nuances associated with such a subtle field quickly overwhelmed me. Additionally, I was unable to approach gray-haired gentlemen in waistcoats who were shivering in delight from looking at what appeared to be identical stamps with identical potentates and ask if there were any stamps with cuttlefish. It seemed blasphemous. I ended up leaving the stamp show without any stamps at all!

But don’t be afraid. There is an entity which is even more obsessive than the stamp dealers: the internet!  To add to my previous post on catfish stamps here is a gallery of mollusk stamps which I found online.  The beautiful swirls and dots and stripes of this handful of snails, octopuses, slugs, and bivalves should quickly convince you that even the world’s post offices have nothing on nature when it comes to turning out endless different designs.


Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

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