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Servicing Hubble (John Solie, 1995, oil)

Servicing Hubble (John Solie, 1995, oil)

For the past 50 years NASA has had an art program.  The space agency recently created an amazing Flickrstream showing 2,000 amazing pieces of space art created by artists of all levels of fame.  It is a rare example of our government working very successfully with artists and an amazing example of collaboration between science, technology, and art.  Here is the story at Hyperallergic (a contemporary art blog) and here is a link to the amazing images.

 

stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

The appetizer for the first dinner I ate in New York City was an artichoke baked with Parmesan, crumbs, and olive oil.  It was the first time I remember eating an artichoke (although I must surely have eaten some anonymous slimy dip in the 80s).  It was delicious!  Artichokes are still one of my favorite foods and they still remind me of how exciting it was to be in New York for the first time. But personal recollections aside, what is an artichoke?  The answer is as amazing and unexpected as the vegetable itself.

A field of artichokes

A field of artichokes

The first time I tried to cook an artichoke, I bought a couple of likely specimens and included them with my grocery purchase:  the poor teenage grocery clerk grabbed them from the conveyor belt like they were tomatoes and then screamed. It turns out that artichokes are a sort of thistle: they have sharpened spikes on the edges of their leaves (I’m really sorry the clerk hurt her hands:  I would have warned her if I had only known she was unfamiliar with artichokes).  Domestic artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are a variety of cardoons–wild thistle flowers which are native to Italy, Spain, and North Africa.  Cardoons are part of the aster family (along with daisies, scottish thistles, and sunflowers) and were eaten by humans in prehistory.  It is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans domesticated the spiky plants (although they certainly knew of cardoons), however by the middle ages Muslim farmers were breeding the vegetables to be bigger and tastier.

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

Cardoons are hardy perennial flowers which grow up to 1.5 meters (60 inches) in height and produce purple flowers from a large spiky capitulum.  The capitulum is the portion of the artichoke which we eat.  If it is allowed to sprout into a flower, it becomes dry, leathery, and inedible unless you are a ruminant (in which case, why are you reading this?).  The world’s farmers currently grow about 1.4 million tons of artichokes a year–the vast majority of which still come from Italy.  There is even a delicious artichoke bitter liquor made of artichokes!

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In the Iliad, the great Greek epic of ferocity, loyalty, and war, the Myrmidons were the most ferocious and loyal of all of the various Achaean warriors.  The myth of how the Myrmidons came into existence reveals the source of their bravery, strength, and discipline as infantry troops.   The story combines literature, invaders (for the Myrmidons were ever attacking), and…hymenopterans.

Creation of the Myrmidons (artist unknown)

Creation of the Myrmidons (artist unknown)

As with so many other Greek myths, the story starts with the philandering of Zeus, who fell in love with Aegina, who was the eponymous nymph/goddess of Aegina—an island which is located in the Saronic gulf between Attica and Argolis.  According to the writer Hesiod (and later Ovid) Zeus appeared to the nymph as an eagle and loved her.  From their union came the demi-god, Aeacus, born as king over the island.  Hera, jealous as ever, punished the inhabitants of the island for Zeus’ affairs by sending a plague (or possibly a dragon) to destroy them all except for the immortal Aeacus.  Devastated by the deaths of his subjects, the lonely Aecus prayed to Zeus to repopulate the island.  The king of the gods heard the prayer and responded by transforming a colony of ants in an oak tree into men and women.  These new people were tough, warlike, and hive-minded—just like the ants they originated from.  Aeacus eventually wearied of kingship and turned the throne over to his son Peleus (one of the heroes of the ill-fated Caledonian boar hunt) who eventually wed the sea-nymph Thetis.

The creation of the Myrmidons

The creation of the Myrmidons

There is another (possibly older) myth which is more troubling.  In this alternate story, Zeus transformed himself into an ant in order to seduce Eurymedusa, the daughter of a river god.  She bore a son, Myrmidon, and the antlike Myrmidons all descended from him. I think I prefer Ovid & Hesiod’s version of the story!

Myrmidons  (Tristan Schane, oil on illustration board)

Myrmidons (Tristan Schane, oil on illustration board)

Of course, in accordance with the universal law of disparity between intention and result, the Myrmidons (who enjoyed war more than the other Greek armies) ended up sitting out most of the battles mentioned in the Iliad due to the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon—but their ferocity was well-documented in Greek letters.  A passage from the end of the Iliad describes how excited the Myrmidons became when Achilles finally freed them to join the battle after holding them back while other men fought:

Meanwhile Achilles made his round of the huts and called all the Myrmidons to arms. They gathered like a pack of ravening wolves filled with indescribable fury, like mountain wolves that have brought down a stag with full antlers, and rend it with blood-stained jaws then go in a mass to drink, lapping the dark water with slender tongues, dripping blood and gore, the hearts in their chests beating strong and their bellies gorged. (Iliad, Book XVI, translated by A. S. Kline)

The popularity of the Iliad has meant that the Myrmidons were not forgotten: the word has become part of the English lexicon where it means a completely devoted warrior-minion.

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Miscellaneous Yuru Kyara

Miscellaneous Yuru Kyara

Japan is the land of the mascot (as noted in passing in the first ferrebeekeeper post about mascots). Not only do sports teams and companies and public safety campaigns all have mascots, in recent year the country has been gripped by a mania for Yuru-kyara (AKA yuru characters or “gentle characters”) little animated figures which represent every single city, municipality, prefecture, and village in Japan.  The yuru characters are meant to represent some aspect of the culture of the place which they hail from: so a district famous for manufacturing aviation equipment might have a cute little jet mascot, whereas a farming village might be represented by a happy turnip.  Some of the meanings are rather obscure (like the little berry boy which represents the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office).

Maybe the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office just really like berries...

Maybe the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office just really like berries…

The most famous yuru-kyara become hugely popular and can be quite lucrative—for example Kumamoto, the beloved yuru-kyara of Kumamon brought in hundreds of millions of yen for the prefecture (and sold huge piles of Kumamoto figures and merchandise).  Many of the others labor in obscurity (or are replaced by more likable mascots).  Sometimes two figures will be in conflict: Funabashi City is unofficially represented by Funassyi a frolicsome “pear fairy” however the official Funabashi City yuru-kyara is Funaemon, who looks like an anxious and fussy bureaucrat.

Funassyi, the pear spirit

Funassyi, the pear spirit

Funaemon hopes you have filled out your forms correctly

Funaemon hopes you have filled out your forms correctly

You can check out all sorts of amazing Yuru-kyara on this website (thanks to my roommate Steven Sho Sugita-Becraft for the link!), but, unless you read Japanese, you might be hard pressed to figure out who they are and what they represent.  I wonder if all the money-grubbing attention-hungry municipalities of America will ever adapt a similar scheme of crazy mascots (or are we just stuck with MacGruff and Mr. Yuck)?

I guess they could come over on their pirate ship?

I guess they could come over on their pirate ship?

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)
Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Today we have a special treat: a painting of six geese from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum.  Nefermaat was the eldest son of the first wife of the pharaoh Sneferu (who founded the fourth dynasty– the greatest dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom).  As the pharaoh’s oldest son, Nefermaat acted as vizier of Egypt, the prophet of the goddess Bastet, and the bearer of the royal seal.  Nefermaat’s own son Hemiunu was the architect of the great pyramids of Egypt!

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

canvasThis extremely beautiful painting was crafted somewhere between 2600 and 2550 BC by an unknown artist or team of artists who carved out the shapes of the geese in a wall and then filled in the hollow outlines with colored paste.  For four and a half thousand years, the group of geese has kept its lifelike vibrancy. Discovered by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1871, the masterpiece is now in the Cairo museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a reproduction of the painting and their website explains the original context of the piece:

The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.

The geese in the painting are commonly known as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) which are members of the Tadorninae–the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily (which means they are not exactly geese, taxonomically speaking).  Egyptian Geese are 63–73 cm long (25-29 inches) and they range through most of sub-Saharan Africa and up the Nile valley.  Domesticated by the ancient Egyptians in the depths of antiquity, the birds were also kept by the Greeks and Romans.  There are feral populations in England and the United States (where Egyptophiles keep the fowl as ornamental birds!).

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

Orchis italica

Orchis italica

Today we showcase a humorous-looking orchid–Orchis italica, which (for self-evident reasons) is also known as the naked man orchid, the Italian orchid, or the naked fairy orchid. The orchid grows in the Mediterranean along the coast of Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.  Sometimes it is even found as far west as Portugal.  The plant favors poor soil and mixed shade.  In the summer it produces a remarkable array of blooms which resemble tiny nude lavender men wearing crazy turban-crowns.

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

During the middle ages, a certain school of natural-history held that the creator had put clues about the pharmacological utility of flora in the very shape of the plants themselves.  This so-called “doctrine of signatures” asserted that plants which looked like the liver were good for the liver and flowers that resembled the skin were good for the skin.   Orchis italica was sought out and crushed down as a virility aid.  The naked fairy orchid was not alone in becoming a part of such decoctions:  other Mediterranean orchids (like Orchis mascula) were also dug up.  The tubers of these plants (which tend to come in pairs and also resemble male anatomy) were crushed into a heavy flour which was used to make salep or salop–a dense sugary beverage which had extensive popularity in Europe and the Ottoman world during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was sold in coffee houses everywhere and is still sold in Turkey.

Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula

 

Carn Brea Castle in Cornwall

Carn Brea Castle in Cornwall

Carn Brea is a granite hilltop in Cornwall England which was inhabited by Neolithic gatherers and farmers from 3700 to 3400 BC.  A huge number of flint arrowheads and a suffusion of ancient timbers turned to charcoal suggest that the hill was the site of an ancient battle. Later, during the iron age, the hilltop was the site of a mine and an imposing stone hill fort which contained various pits for storing metals. In fact, in the eighteenth century a hoard of gold coins minted by the Cantiaci—a Kentish tribe–was discovered hidden in one of the pits.

Carn Brea Castle by Tristan Barratt

Carn Brea Castle by Tristan Barratt

In 1379, a Gothic chapel was erected at the site and dedicated to Saint Michael.  The small chapel was substantially rebuilt and repurposed as a hunting lodge by the Basset family (local nobles who were heavily involved in mining and politics).  The tininess of the little castle/lodge gives special emphasis to its unique folly construction: the masonry is integrated with huge natural granite erratic boulders which make up the building’s foundation.  The effect is that the castle is growing out of the ground like something from a fairytale—an impression which is augmented by the Gothic architectural style.  During the golden age of sail, the castle was used as a navigation beacon and a light was always kept lit in a room visible from the coasts.

Carn Brea Castle by Mr Tickle - Wachoo Wachoo Tribe Congressman

Carn Brea Castle by Mr Tickle – Wachoo Wachoo Tribe Congressman

The pictures I have used so far give a strong impression of the solitude and wildness of the lovely Cornish landscape, however, these final images forcefully reveal that the castle now sits in the middle of gentle suburban England.  Since contemporary Cornish folk have little need for light houses and hunting lodges and chapels to Saint Michael, the gothic keep has been repurposed once again—as a middle eastern restaurant!

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In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral.  In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway).  Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system.   The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life).  His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers).  After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe.  Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams).  He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.

For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium.  He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus.  Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother.  Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi.  In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity).  Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion.  He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets.  The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury.  Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere.  The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China.  Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas.  Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers.  In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late.  The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander.  The rebellion had begun in earnest:  on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”.  He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history.  At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects.  As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted.  Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.

The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration.  He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines).   For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers).  Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision).  Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley.  Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history.  By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.

A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

A Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) beside a road in Ireland

Rowan trees are beautiful little trees which are part of the rose family.  The tree is are also known as the sorbus trees (the genus is named Sorbus” from a Latin word meaning red brown), the quickbeam,  or the mountain ash–although they are not closely related to the true ash trees.  Because of their delicate beauty and great hardiness, rowan trees are a great favorite of landscape gardeners.  The trees are covered with pretty five-petaled flowers in May and the flowers mature into large bunches of beautiful red or white berries in late summer.  Rowan berries are too tart for human tastes when uncooked (plus the raw berries can be dangerous if eaten in huge quantities) however they can be cooked to make jams, jellies, chutneys, and teas.  Birds are particularly drawn to the berries (which is the primary way that rowan trees distribute their seeds).  Rowan trees have alternating pinnate leaves of a handsome medium green.

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan tree in bloom

Rowan trees of different species have spread through the northern hemisphere, however they seem to have originated in the mountains of west China (which is where the greatest genetic diversity of Rowan species is found).  The berries of some of these Chinese species can be orange, pink, cream, or white.

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In addition being loved by landscapers for their prettiness, Rowan trees have a special place in European folklore. Rowan trees were connected with the pre-Christian Scandinavian/Germanic goddess Sif, a golden haired beauty who was goddess of fertility, family, wedlock, grain, and beer (and basically everything worthwhile).  Even after northern Europeans stopped worshipping Sif, the rowan tree kept its magical associations.  Throughout the middle ages it was believed to prevent witches, bad luck and lightning.  Sailors wore rowan charms and travelers invoked it for luck.

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The Goddess Sif with a Rowan Bough and a Beer

The first house my parents bought when I was three was built by an Irish builder/developer who planted a rowan tree in the front yard.  That tree featured vividly in my childhood (the berries were perfect for playing and throwing) and I still dream about it sometimes.  It stands beautiful red and green near the center of the garden of my imagination.

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