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In dynastic China, the color yellow was considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious color. Yellow was symbolically linked with the land itself and the turning of tao: thus yellow became associated with the mandate of heaven–the emperor’s divine prerogative over the middle kingdom. Huang Di, the mythical first emperor of China (who was worshiped as a culture hero and a powerful magician/sage) was more commonly known as “the yellow emperor”. Yellow was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the royal personage. During the Ming dynasty, when a yellow glaze was discovered for porcelain, it was initially the exclusive provenance of the imperial household.

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

Here is a stem-cup in imperial yellow from the Ming dynasty. It bears the mark of the Hongzhi period (Hongzhi reigned from 1487-1505). A five clawed dragon, the symbol of the emperor crawls along the side of the piece. The cup perfectly exemplifies the elegant lines and perfect calligraphic grace of middle Ming aesthetic ideas. Additionally the age of the hardworking and morally upstanding Hongzhi was an era of peace and happiness. Alone among all Chinese emperors in history, Hongzhi elected to marry a single wife and keep no concubines. Palace intrigues were thus kept to an all-time low (although the plan backfired somewhat when his sole heir took up a life of prodigal indulgence).

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

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Rodhocetus (by Pavel Riha)

Rodhocetus (by Pavel Riha)

This endearing beasty is Rodhocetus, a long extinct proto-whale which lived during the mid-Eocene (approximately 40 to 50 million years ago). Rhodhocetus fossils are found in contemporary Pakistan, but the world has changed greatly since the warm Eocene: the creatures did not live on the tops of mountains, but rather in estuaries and shallow seas.

Rodhocetus

Rodhocetus

The early cetaceans shared ancestors with the artiodactyls (cows, pigs, hippos, goats, and suchlike even-toed ungulates) and indeed the first cetaceans, from the beginning of the Eocene, look somewhat like weird squashed hippos or water cows. By the middle of the epoch, however the familial similarities were beginning to fade.

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Rodhocetus specimens have elongated hands and feet–which were almost certainly webbed. Their hipbones were not fused to their backbones, which gave them additional speed and maneuverability in the water, where they hunted for fish and squids. Although the creatures were adapted for an aquatic predatory lifestyle, they could still drag themselves up on land, unlike their descendents the modern whales and dolphins. Additionally they still retained fur, and double-pulley heelbones (the latter of which convinced paleontologists that whales and cows are relatives who share an ancestor).

A ramshackle Russian dacha

A ramshackle Russian dacha

This week the G8 shrank down to the G7. The other powerful nations threw Russia out of the club due to its extremely naughty behavior. This was a good choice: you would never see, say, Canada behaving in such a fashion. In fact, if Canada found Crimea just lying around–on a park bench or in a bathroom lavatory or something—Canada would probably take the wayward peninsula to lost and found (I won’t speak about France, Great Britain, or the United States: we can have sticky fingers sometimes). Anyway, now that Russia is no longer in the club, I have been reminiscing about all the Russian things which we will miss: ineffable literature, banyas, the unsafe (but vibrant) space program, and Russian architecture—particularly dachas, which are among the prettiest of all the world’s cottages.

An ornate dacha

An ornate dacha

A dacha is a country vacation house. They are usually located in the exurbs just outside of towns and major cities on tiny 600 square meter [0.15 acre] land plots, where the Russian middle class plants little gardens and enjoys playing at country simplicity. Originally dachas were gifts from the tsars to loyal or interesting Russian subjects. In fact the word dacha (да́ча) meant “something given”. These tsarist-era dachas were country estates which could be princely chalets or manor houses. After the civil war, the era of landed country estates was over and having a dacha could get a person sent to Siberia or killed (although, of course party luminaries had magnificent dachas, like Stalin’s great green hall). During the later Soviet era, however, dachas made a comeback among urban professionals. The concept was changed though: the little vacation houses could only have a tiny amount of living space and plot sizes were similarly regulated by central authority. This meant that clever dacha-owners had to push the boundaries with mansard roofs, architectural flourishes, and elegance (as opposed to sheer size).

Stalin's Dacha at Kuntsevo (by Gordon Abben)

Stalin’s Dacha at Kuntsevo (by Gordon Abben)

After the fall of communism, the rules all went in the scrap bin. Oligarchs began to build huge whimsical monstrosities (below is a contemporary dacha with one of the oligarch’s toys parked beside it).

General Dacha 1

Dachas have actually come to New York with the recent wave of Russian immigration. A number of Russian-born Brooklynites have pretty Russian-style dachas in the forests and mountains upstate. Although I am not Russian, I love ornate little cottages in the forest and I have been enviously looking over these fretwork masterpieces. Unfortunately I do not currently have a Soviet level of personal prosperity, so my project to build a dacha back in my native mountains may have to be put on hold until I learn to manipulate the system and ruthlessly crush my enemies.

dacha full face

In the mean time here is a gallery of lovely dachas for you to enjoy. Maybe it will inspire you to put some onion domes and scrollwork on your own vacation cottage. It has been a long rough winter and we could use some fru-fru ornamentation, some bright colors, and some time out of the city…

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Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Time lapse photo of the movement of 2012 VP113 (color digitally added)

Astronomers today announced the discovery of a new dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system. Until the appropriate nomenclatural bodies settle on a snappier name, the tiny body will be known by the unwieldy moniker of 2012 VP113. The little planetoid is estimated to measure about 450 kilometers in diameter (so it is much smaller than other plutoids like Haumea (which is approximately 2,000 km x 1,500 km x 1,000 km). Speaking of Haumea, which has a mysterious pink spot, the new object (which I’ll call VP113, for short) is also suspected to be light pink because radiation causes the frozen gases to decay to that color.

Even when it is closest to the sun, the little planetoid is still 12 billion kilometers (7.4 billion miles) distant from our home star–but at the farthest extent of its orbit 2012 VP113 is a whopping 70 billion kilometers (44 billion miles) from Sol. That’s almost a thousandth of a light year! The irregular orbit takes 44,000 Earth years to complete—which means one year there is a very long time!

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You might be wondering why I am taxing your brain with obscure snowballs, but, astronomers are very interested in VP113 because of what it might reveal about the origins of the solar system. In 1951, the Dutch-born astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, predicted the existence of a vast cloud of icy objects at the remote edge of the solar system. The Kuiper belt has indeed been discovered—it is a belt of dust and icy objects approximately between Neptune and Pluto. In 1950, a Dutch astronomer, Jan Hendrik Oort revived an idea from the 1930s (from Estonian Ernst Öpik) that there was a huge spherical cloud of comets, vapor, and icy planetoids at the edge of the solar system—beyond even the orbits of miniature planets Eris, Sedna, and VP113. [I don’t know why all the scientists who theorized about the solar system’s icy edges were northern Europeans].

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The discovery of VP113 proves the existence of the inner Oort cloud and provides astronomers with a source of information about the objects in the Oort cloud. Additionally the extremely strange orbits of VP113 and Sedna begin to suggest that an alien star disturbed the Oort cloud in the past—or that there may still be an Earth sized planet at the true edge of the solar system.

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

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Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam?  It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest).  The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs.  After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.

"You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

“You’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”

Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it?  Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them.  Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson.       Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel.  The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).

folly

Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background.  The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.

The Flag of Nepal

The Flag of Nepal

Folly is actually one of my favorite colors.  I am not praising it ironically.  I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name.  Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place?  Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Today, March 20th 2014, is the first day of spring.  To celebrate, here is an allegorical painting of spring by the baroque master Bartolomeo Guidobono, who spent most of his career painting in northern Italy.  Spring is here personified as a lovely young woman in a simple but elegant gown. A curly-headed nude infant sprawls across her lap and wildflowers spring up at her feet.  Behind the maiden a grove of budding trees recedes into the green distance.  It is a simple and refreshing painting about the relief and happiness of living things as winter fades and the world begins to grow again.  Hooray for spring!

Honey Bundt Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, oil on panel)

Honey Bundt Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2013, oil on panel)

I’m sorry we have been stuck on the lugubrious story of Oisín and Niamh for so long.  To make up for it, here is one of my own paintings…and it isn’t just any painting: in fact it is a special painting which symbolically represents this blog.  If you let your eye wonder through the composition, you will recognize many of the familiar themes and topics of ferrebeekeeper.  Space is represented by a golden planet with Saturn-like rings, and by a rocket.  Additionally, the entire composition takes place in outer space (as does everything–if you think about it).  Against a backdrop of nebulae and swirling galaxies a domestic turkey takes wing and a school of belemnites (long vanished mollusks which are related to squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish) use their own jet propulsion to swim among the stars. A blue Chinese ewer made of porcelain floats in the bottom left corner beneath a swarm of eusocial bees which are issuing from a gothic beehive on the back of a great green river catfish.  The goddess Hecate, the strangest and most evocative chthonic deity of ancient Rome brandished torches and a venomous serpent.  Growing in the nothingness beside the witch goddess, a poisonous monkshood represents gardens (and poisons). In the center of the composition is a fearsome Andrewsarchus—the largest mammalian land predator.  The mighty (albeit extinct) beast bears an ornate cobalt cake plate with a great glistening honey bundt cake.  The wheat in the cake represents agriculture (as do the turkey and the bees), but beyond that, the cake’s toroid shape hints at larger cosmological mysteries. Taking a step back, the painting is composed of colors and it is itself visual art, the symbolic representation of humankind’s enduring search for meaning.

I have left politics out of the composition as a matter of good taste.  Also trees did not make it into the painting because who’s ever heard of a tree in space?

embroidered_celtic_knot_tote_bag_irish_green_circular_motif_b4c3af34The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns.  Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era.  The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.

Wicklow Countryside Powerscourt Castle, IrelandOnce there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles.  Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife.  To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).

green-harp-irish-flagOne day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh.  Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess.  Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland.   When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage.  Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?

oisin_niamhNiamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on.  She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.

Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young.  There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…

vivid-blaskett-sunset_mg_6881-resizedExcept that Oisín was not perfectly happy.  His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family.  For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home.  In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind.  He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.

Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín.  As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse.  One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh.  Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses.  His town was alien and he knew no one.  Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm.  Everyone he knew was dead and gone.  In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse.  As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years.  The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them.  As they watched,  Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.

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Sumerian Farmers

Sumerian Farmers

What is the world’s most important occupation?  There are so many contenders: the brave soldiers who lay down their lives to fight oppression, the bankers who take all of the world’s money for themselves, the doctors who keep us healthy, the workers in the energy sector who keep society from falling into darkness and horror…even our leaders who bravely ensure that nothing gets done (so that society does not suddenly lurch in some scary direction).  Yet all of these professions are only possible once there is enough food.  Without farmers we would still all be hunter gatherers–and by “all” I mean the tiny handful of us who would exist.  Pre-agricultural society was terrifying because of its lack of certainty.  Humankind foraged hither and yon in hungry desperate bands.  Everyone was involved in long-running internecine wars with local tribes.  After the dawn of agriculture we were stuck with all sorts of oppressive megalithic forces: social hierarchy, ownership, organized religion—but in recompense humankind found literacy and science, the twin touchstones of wisdom and progress.

 

Thanks, farmer!

Thanks, farmer!

As spring begins the farmers are busy getting ready for the growing season.  They are out there harvesting winter crops, fixing seed injectors, tilling fields, and doing other critical things that we soft urban dwellers don’t even know about. To celebrate the importance of agriculture and give the farmer his (or her) due, here is a gallery of farmer mascots from around the internet.

Old Farmer Mascot (mascotdesigngallery.com)

Old Farmer Mascot (mascotdesigngallery.com)

Fat Cat Farmer: mascot of Stilwell High, Stilwell, OK

Fat Cat Farmer: mascot of Stilwell High, Stilwell, OK

I really hope this guy doesn't raise pigs

I really hope this guy doesn’t raise pigs

Angry Farmer (Joe Apel)

Angry Farmer (Joe Apel)

 

Corn Cob Bob should probably be the national animal

Corn Cob Bob should probably be the national animal

Does a creepy cowgirl count?

Does a creepy cowgirl count?

Travis the Tractor

Travis the Tractor

You could own the Farmer Duane costume for a mere $979.00 (facemakersincorporated.com)

You could own the Farmer Duane costume for a mere $979.00 (facemakersincorporated.com)

Of course looking over these images raises some troubling questions.  What is the difference between farmers and hillbillies?  Do farmers still wear straw hats? To what extent is farming now controlled by a handful of quasi-monopolistic corporations?  If farming is so important, why are so many of these mascots so primitive looking?

 

Farmer Mascot?

Farmer Mascot?

These questions will have to wait (or remain forever unanswered).  For now let us celebrate the ancient profession of farming and each of us prepare for the spring planting in our own lives.

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