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April is poetry month and poetry month is coming to an end.  What better way to celebrate than with a modern poem about flowers…and what blossom could be more renowned in poetry and art than the rose?  I was worried that nobody enjoyed the previous poetry month entry (four interconnected erotic poems by Elizabethan luminary Edmund Spenser) so I asked my roommate, the gifted poet Katie Fowley to name the first poem about flowers she could think of.  Her answer was “The Rose is Obsolete” a poem by William Carlos Williams from his 1923 book Spring and All.  The poem does not utilize the rose in the obvious metaphorical contexts which are familiar from the dawn of writing (perhaps Mr. Williams saw such symbolism as obsolete).  Instead it is a poem about universal thresholds–the liminal transition between the rose and the rest of the universe.   The poem thus has a mathematical sensibility to it–as though it transcends contemplation of things which exist in order to concentrate on higher categories of being.  The reader is thus rapidly transported from the rose–real, sensual, and mundane–to abstract realms of calculus and ontology.  Cosmological truths beckon from the rose’s fractal edge as the physical rose is left behind. I think however you will agree that the poem strikes a wistful note for the obsolete rose.  The reader must decide for themselves what has been left behind–and just where humankind’s new sophistication at cosmological apprehension is leading.

[The poem does not have a title in the original printing so it just starts after the picture]

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air–The edge
cuts without cutting
meets–nothing–renews
itself in metal or porcelain–

whither? It ends–

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry–

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica–
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses–

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end–of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness–fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

What

The place between the petal’s
edge and the

From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact–lifting
from it–neither hanging
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Behind the Screen at a Wayang Performance

Wayang theatre—Indonesian shadow puppet theatre–is the traditional art form by which epic drama is presented in Indonesia. Years ago I had the immense fortune to watch a wayang drama presented by a master puppeteer at the University of Chicago and the experience was quite extraordinary. In wayang theatre there are many layers of verisimilitude built into the varying levels of theatrical artifice (and into the elaborate & hypnotic music). The shadow puppet stage can be approached from both sides. On the shadow side (which faces the audience) is the cinematic drama of nations, heroes, monsters, maidens, and wise-cracking dwarves. On the other side, behind the screen is the puppeteer himself moving sticks, pulling strings, voicing dozens of characters, and directly animating the whole enterprise. Viewers are encouraged to view both sides since the shifting perspective enhances the enjoyment of the drama. Not only are the puppets beautifully painted and the gamelan orchestra instruments (and musicians) ornate, but thinking about the machinations behind the art provides larger lesson about politics, human affairs, and life.

 

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

A Niwatakawaca Shadow puppet

The master puppeteer was a wizened Javanese sage. He took one look at the audience of American lay-people who were unfamiliar with the George R. R. Martin-esque backstories behind Indonesian epics (to say nothing of 6 syllable Sanskrit names) and his face fell. Nonetheless with a flourish of cymbals and gongs he leapt to his craft. In a mere 5 hours he had explained an incredibly elaborate story, cracked a number of hilarious topical jokes, staged a vast battle, and wrapped everything up in a happy ending (traditional performances can go on for days). Unfortunately he had to take some shortcuts so that we didn’t become hopelessly lost. One of these was the name of the main antagonist. In the Arjunawiwāha, the principle antagonist is an asura (demon) named Niwatakawaca. This nomenclature was clearly not going to fly with the Chicago audience, so the puppeteer made Niwatakawaca into “the flower ogre”.

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca harasses Apsaras in his pleasure garden

Niwatakawaca (aka the flower ogre) is a powerful wicked spirit who disturbs the cosmic harmony and shamefully harasses the pulchritudinous apsaras. As you can see from the above pictures he is a very hedonistic demon (although not without his own love of refinement and aesthetics). I particularly like the picture above which makes him seem exactly like an ogre who loves flowers and beautiful gardens. I suspect the flower ogre represents a lack of self-discipline–but since that is my personal demon as well, I am going to pretend he is just a supernatural monster. In the end of the epic Arjuna, the archer hero must fight the flower ogre in a great epic battle. When I saw the Arjunawiwāha performed, the battle was extraordinary (particularly considering it was all deft puppetry by one man). Flights of arrows were launched. Forests burned and great hosts were slain. Finally Arjuna gained the upper hand. The hero bodily grabbed the recalcitrant demon and hurled him out of the universe. Since this was puppet theatre, it meant that the ogre wayang flew completely out from behind the screen and flipped end over end into the lap of a startled Asian civilization professor. It was one of the best finales I have ever seen in anything anywhere and provided a very fitting end to the flower ogre.

Gamelan Orchestra

Gamelan Orchestra

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Besotted with the beauty of spring, I am dedicating this week of Ferrebeekeeper to flowers and floral-themed posts (in retrospect I should have saved last week’s aquilegia post for this week—but consider that a teaser). To start this week’s flower celebration, we are returning to the Dutch Golden Age of painting to look at the life and works of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). Bosschaert was one of the artists whose work initiated the Dutch mania for still life paintings and for fancy flowers (he lived through the tulip mania and may have helped precipitate that economic bubble). He also founded a family dynasty of artists which endured throughout the 17th century—which is why he is styled “Bosschaert the Elder” (though I am just going to call him Bosschaert).

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was born in Antwerp, but to avoid religious persecution, he moved to Middleburg where he spent most of his life painting with his equally famous and important brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast. Bosschaert favored symmetrical bouquets of April-May flowers (mainly roses and extragent tulips) which he painted on copper—a surface which allows artists to paint in exacting detail. Unlike van der Ast, Bosschaert did not obsess over multitudinous insects, mollusks, and other crawly animals with symbolic meanings (although are usually a few dragonflies, cone snail shells, or moths at the edges of his paintings). Instead he concentrated on the pure formal beauty of flowers. Bosschaert concentrated on the lambent translucent beauty of an unfurling rose or the perfectly harmonized stripes of newly hybridized tulips. There are irises, poppies, and ranunculuses in supporting roles with their own elegance, but tulips and roses nearly always take a starring role.

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was extremely popular and his works commanded top dollar…er guilder, but there are fewer than collectors and museums would like since he also worked as an art dealer. The paintings we have from him, however are magnificent. Even after all of the intervening centuries of decorative art, Bosschaert’s work has an unrivaled power to call attention to the pure mesmerizing beauty of flowers in carefully organized bouquets.

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

One of my favorite spring flowers suffers unjustly from a tainted name. When visitors to my garden see the beautiful dark colors and delicate fairy shapes of this plant and ask its name, I am always loathe to say “columbine” because people then want to talk about the infamous high school shooting which took place in Colorado in 1999 at Columbine High School (columbines grow naturally in Colorado and are the state flower there). Indeed when I googled the name of the flower to search for pretty floral pictures I got all sorts of insane teen gunmen, digital tributes to victims, and soppy made-for-tv movies. This is a shame, since columbines are not just lovely, but hardy (all the way to the frigid depths of Zone 3) and easy to grow. Columbines are flowers of the genus Aquilegia which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. They hybridize prolifically, so it is hard to pin down the exact wild species. In addition to their hardiness they easily germinate from seeds.

Columbines (Aquilegias)

Columbines (Aquilegias)

The flower’s common and scientific names are also weirdly at odds. Aquilegia is the Latin name for eagle. The flowers received this fearsome name because the long flower spurs were thought to resemble eagle’s claws. Columbine is Latin for dove—since it was thought the inverted flower looked like five doves nestled together. It is strange that gardeners use a (tainted) Latin name at the expense of a different yet equally euphonic Latin name. I think we should henceforth call columbines aquilegias and put the columbine name behind us. Indeed, forgetting the Columbine massacre itself might be for the best, since greater media attention may lead to copycat attacks. [I realize that I am now guilty of writing about Columbine too–so I earnestly entreat any teenagers who are somehow reading this blog post about flowers not to shoot up their high schools. Stay in school, kids, and grow up to write eclectic blogs about winsome spring flowers: that’ll really teach the bullies!]

columbine flower

With their elongated petal spurs and delicate shades of pink, blue, purple, and yellow, aquilegias are extremely pretty. Yet their prettiness belies their poisonous nature. Like many shade plants, aquilegias have poisonous seeds and roots. Indeed they are related to the infamous aconitums—which are also a part of the treacherous buttercup family. Hopefully other gardeners will follow my lead in calling columbines aquilegias—but more importantly, you should follow good example by growing them—they are really magical.

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

 

Wipp Ottenbach Coat Of Arms

Wipp Ottenbach Coat Of Arms

Roosters are well known for being vain, arrogant, aggressive, greedy, and loud. They are also famous for being brave and for leading their flocks. Those are also the universally acknowledged traits of noblemen–so it is unsurprising that the rooster/cock is a popular device on shields, coats of arms, and heraldic standards. Ancient vases indicate that the rooster was a device of nobles and warriors at least as far back as the classical Greek age. Here is a little gallery of rooster heraldry both historical and fantastical which I found on line (actually I slipped a few hens in to the mix to make it more fun). Enjoy the escutcheons and the poultry!

Official Coat of Arms of the Kurów Commune

Official Coat of Arms of the Kurów Commune

The Hahn Coat of Arms

The Hahn Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms of Štúrovo, Slovakia

Coat of Arms of Štúrovo, Slovakia

The Great mathematician Pierre Deligne was ennobled to viscount by the Belgian throne in 2006 and he chose this coat of arms

The Great mathematician Pierre Deligne was ennobled to viscount by the Belgian throne in 2006 and he chose this coat of arms

The Coat of Arms of Mosjöen, Norway

The Coat of Arms of Mosjöen, Norway

House Swyft of Cornfield (from George. R. R. Martin's vast fictional realm)

House Swyft of Cornfield (from George. R. R. Martin’s vast fictional realm)

A Replica of an Ancient Greek Hoplite Shield

A Replica of an Ancient Greek Hoplite Shield

A Viscount's Coronet (from a book binding)

A Viscount’s Coronet (from a book binding)

The Shield of Dorking in the Mole River Valley (with bonus swan)

The Shield of Dorking in the Mole River Valley (with bonus swan)

The Four-toed Chicken of Dorking's Judo Club

Also the Four-toed Chicken of Dorking’s Judo Club

A Fantasy Crest from California

A Fantasy Crest from California

The arms of George Alcock of Roxbury, Massachusetts (ca. 1630)

The arms of George Alcock of Roxbury, Massachusetts (ca. 1630)

earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

all_animals_and_earth_350

People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

flickr-467128837-small

All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

No Future World

The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

Map_Mozambique-1456121148A few weeks ago, we wrote about the flag of Madagascar. Madagascar is a microcontinent off the coast of Africa which is famous for its unique ecosystem and for being inhabited by successive waves of human migration from around the Indian Ocean. The closest large country to Madagascar is Mozambique which lies across the um, Mozambique Channel (the narrowest portion of the channel is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) across). Since I wrote about Madagascar’s flag, it seems appropriate to also write about the flag of Mozambique—a flag which is uniquely garish and outlandish even among the often gaudy panoply of the 200-plus flags of the world’s nations.

Flag of Mozambique

Flag of Mozambique

Mozambique’s flag features three horizontal layers of teal, black, and gold. A red triangle is inset into the fields at the left of the flag. On the triangle is the golden star of Marxism with a book of dogma lying open upon it. A farmer’s hoe and an AK-47 machine-gun with a bayonet are crossed on top of the book.

"This represents our lofty ideals perfectly."

“This represents our lofty ideals perfectly.”

If you think that this flag looks like a design travesty from the 1980s you are completely right. The Mozambique flag became official in 1983. It is busy and colorful because it was adapted from the flag of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) a Marxist liberation movement which formed in 1962 to free Mozambique from Portuguese colonialism. The flag’s elements are symbolic. The Soviet made AK-47 stands for rebellion and coercion. The hoe stands for poor agrarian workers. The book is for reeducation and the star is the international star of Marxism. The three colors—green, black, and yellow respectively represent agriculture, Africa, and mineral wealth. Naturally, the red is for blood.

Flag of Mozambique (1975-1983)

Flag of Mozambique (1975-1983)

Mozambique actually gained independence from Portugal in 1975 due to a regime change in Lisbon, but between 1975 and 1992 the impoverished nation was wracked by a bitter civil war as FRELIMO attempted to purge away portions of society which were felt to be undesirable. The flag changed a couple of times during this period according to the whim of the dictator. The civil war came to an end in the nineties when the collapse of communism brought an end to Cuban and Soviet backing for the internecine internal war. Since then, Mozambique has had a multi-party government—although it is still dominated by FRELIMO. The parliamentary opposition would dearly love to change the flag—or at least remove the Kalashnikov rifle so that the flag is less of a laughing stock—but FRELIMO has prevented any such changes.

Venetian painting owes an immense debt to Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516 AD).  Not only was he the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, Bellini’s sensuous and atmospheric painting style colored the work of all the subsequent Venetian masters of the 16th century. Bellini’s figures have a grace and dignity lacking in earlier Venetian art: their emotions seem real and profound. He was also one of my favorite painter of mysterious and evocative backgrounds.

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Here is an exquisite Pietà by Bellini which highlights his artistic mastery. Fields of exquisite flowers (of many species and types) lead the eye back to winding roads and sinuous city walls. Looming across the entire background is Jerusalem, mysterious and lovely (and looking suspiciously like a Renaissance Italian city-state). Beyond the holy city, great mountains and cliffs march off into the horizon. Yet all of the beauty of the background is still. The roads are empty. Jerusalem seems deserted. In the foreground, Mary stares at the dead body of her son with desolate eyes. The savior is dead and the whole world has literally stopped.

Carnelian

Carnelian

Carnelian is a deep reddish brown semi-precious stone.  It is a variety of chalcedony (which is itself an intermixture of the silicaceous minerals quartz and morganite—with a dash of iron compounds for color).  Carnelian has been popular since the dawn of civilization for jewelry and for manufacturing objects such as beads, seals and signet rings.  Here is a headdress from the tomb of the three queens–a grave which held three foreign born Semitic princesses simultaneously married to Pharaoh Thutmose III (c.1475-1425BC).  The red slivers on the rosettes are made of carnelian (as were many beads and inlays from ancient Egypt).

Diadem with two gazelle heads and carnelian, turquoise, and glass (from the tomb of three queens ca. c.1475-1425 BC)

Diadem with two gazelle heads and carnelian, turquoise, and glass (from the tomb of three queens ca. c.1475-1425 BC)

Carnelian is widely available and popular in all sorts of ornamental objects up to the present day.  Carnelian is also the name of a deep brownish red color.  Today the color carnelian is also known as Cornell red, since it is the official color of Cornell University.

Carnelian--the color!

Carnelian–the color!

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Here are four stirrup spout bottles in the shape of ducks from my favorite sculptors of Pre-Columbian South America, the Moche. The Moche lived in what is now northern Peru in a lose alliance of culturally affiliated tribes. Their civilization flourished between 100 AD and 800 AD. It is believed that the Moche worshipped dark and horrible monster gods and practiced extreme forms of human sacrifice. It is also believed that they kept cute ducks as pets!

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

The excellent workmanship and loving detail of these vessels tends to support the theory that the Moche were duck keepers. Look at the graceful composition, the harmonic colors, and the sheer personality expressed in the bird’s faces.

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche society was built around sophisticated irrigation methods and anthropologists speculate that their artwork expresses the central importance of fluids to their life. Aside from certain religious works which show terrible sea gods, most surviving Moche artifacts are water vessels. The filling/pouring nature of the works is central to understanding them. Some works depict sacrifice victims or dying warriors where the fluid gushes from the mouth or from wounds. Other Moche vessels depict fertility and life directly by portraying figures during intercourse or other erotic acts. The duck vessels however are unwounded, self-contained, and healthy. It seems the fearsome Moche really did care for their fowl…

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

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