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Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Today we are featuring a small painting by a contemporary painter, Mark Ryden (whose work has showed up on this blog before). This is “Queen Bee” a portrait which stands somewhat in contrast with Ryden’s usual style: although the painting does have the jewel-like illustration quality which constitutes half of his trademark; it notably lacks the dark narrative extravagance of earlier works. The best of Ryden’s oeuvre has the feel of a fairytale which has fallen through a dark hole in the world. “Queen Bee” is more elegiac. The emotionally empty pouting expression on the figure’s doll-like face works as a receptacle for whatever emotion the viewer wishes to project into it.

The glorious golden bee who is desperately assembling a hive from hair, grass, and leaves is the true subject of the work. Of course a single honey bee is an anomaly and a failure—honey bees are social organisms which can only survive and flourish as a hive. So the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions about the thematic meaning of the piece.

Although Ryden paints his own paintings (unlike many artworld superstars who leave lowly creative tasks to underpaid interns, apprentices, and assistants), he does hire Asian artisans to build the remarkable frames to spec. Look at how lovely the gilded hive is! Are these bees in the frame the real workers for the bee in the painting? There might be a subtle sting for the entire concept of fine art buried in that question.

Detail

Detail

This particular painting was made for charity. Ryden auctioned the piece off in the spring of last year and donated the proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. While the piece did not fetch the princely multi-million dollar price associated with works by annointed art world insiders, you could certainly buy several houses in West Virginia with the proceeds. It is very good of Ryden to give to such a meaningful cause. One of these days, I’ll have to host a charity auction of my own paintings for the world’s endangered animals (sometime on down the road when I am not one of them).

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

We live on the threshold of an era of stupendous nanomaterials! In the near future, molecules will be engineered to be harder than diamonds or stronger than steel…yet these miracle materials will also be workable and light.

Artist's Conception of a Space Elevator--one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Artist’s Conception of a Space Elevator–one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Well, at least that’s what they keep telling us. In practice our best nano-materials do not seem capable of besting nature in the truly important categories—like hardness, tensile strength, or elasticity (or, if our synthetic materials are superior, they prove difficult to build into structures which fully exploit their strengths). A case in point comes from the lowly yet resilient limpet. Limpets are marine gastropods (snails) which have shells without visible coils. Actually, the name “limpet” is an informal common name—scientists have a very different way of characterizing these mollusks.

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Limpets cling tenaciously to rocks at the tidal line by means of a muscular foot designed to create suction. They also produce an adhesive mucus which helps the foot adhere to whatever surface the limpet wishes to cling to. They carefully scour their ocean rocks for nutritious algae with a radula—a tongue-like rasping organ covered with teeth. Limpets have been of note to humans principally as a metaphor for resilience…or as a nuisance. Yet scientists experimenting on a common limpet, Patella vulgata, found that the little snail’s teeth had greater tensile strength than spider silk. Indeed, limpet teeth are the strongest known material in the natural world and approach the tensile strength of our strongest carbon fibers. With these teeth the little snail can (and does!) chew through rocks.

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet's teeth

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet’s teeth

The secret to the limpet’s mighty teeth is a miracle of molecular design in its own right. The cutting portion of the teeth are composed of fibers of goethite (a sort of iron hydroxide named after the great German poet). These fibers are under 60 nanometers in diameter—a size which allows them to be tremendously strong. The teeth are technically a composite–since the tiny goethite fibers are held together by chitin, a natural polymer (which the exoskeletons of insects are made of).

This evil henchman was the best character.

This evil henchman was the best character.

Technically there are human-created carbon fibers stronger than the astonishing teeth of the limpet, but these fibers can only be utilized in certain configurations and fashions–so the limpets’ teeth are of very real practical interest to materials scientists. Engineers are already working on duplicating the little snail’s teeth for mining and cutting equipment…and for human dental uses. Perhaps we really could someday have some of the powers of Jaws, the lovable hulking henchman from seventies James Bond movies. With our synthetic chompers we could bite through rocks and steel cables. Uh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

A commercially available lamb costume

A commercially available lamb costume

Last week was sheep week on Ferrebeekeeper. I was surprised by the extent to which sheep farming and wool production have been woven into humankind’s language, religion, and culture since time immemorial. Unfortunately, I became so impressed with these ancient ties, that I forgot to include my special bonus post—a gallery of silly sheep mascots just for fun…

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Hopefully you are still celebrating Chinese New Year, because here, a week late, are the sheep mascots. There are so many, and they represent so many different crazy organizations!

Rameses, a live Dorset ram, is the mascot of the North Carolina Tar Heels.  look how magnificently his horns are painted!

Rameses, a live Dorset ram, is the mascot of the North Carolina Tar Heels. look how magnificently his horns are painted!

Lance Corporal William Windsor (a regimental mascot in the armies of the Queen of England)

Lance Corporal William Windsor (a regimental mascot in the armies of the Queen of England)

A black sheep costume

A black sheep costume

"Shaun the sheep" at a mall looking skeezy

“Shaun the sheep” at a mall looking skeezy

"High Quality Angry Sheep Mascot Costumes"

“High Quality Angry Sheep Mascot Costumes”

s4

Oh dear...

Oh dear…

Cam the Ram--Colorado State Mascot

Cam the Ram–Colorado State Mascot

Dodge Ram Logo

Dodge Ram Logo

Fast-custom-new-Ram-Mascot-Adult-Costume-cosplay-cartoon-free-size-by-express-free-shipping

Stock Ram Logo...

Stock Ram Logo…

There are ever so many more, in every shape and with every expression… i sort of gave up on making a comprehensive list. I am struck anew by how much people love sheep–even as the symbol of an organization or a product (although maybe its subconsciously appropriate for organizations trying to gain followers?)

There's even a professional football team. Look how angry his face is!

There’s even a professional football team. Look how angry his face is!

 

Crater Lake

Crater Lake

Mount Mazama was a giant volcano located in the Cascades. Around 7700 years ago the volcano erupted so violently that the top mile of the mountain exploded and the remaining cone collapsed. The vast caldera became a deep empty hole—which soon filled up with water and became a beautiful lake—Crater Lake in Oregon.

Crater Lake is indeed very lovely, but it is also disquieting. There are no rivers or streams which empty into it (after all it is located atop what remains of a vast mountain) but the snowfall in the region is so high that the lake easily fills up with extremely clear melt water. The clear water combines with the lake’s great depth to absorb all hues of light other than indigo—so the lake is dark blue. The deepest point is 1,943 feet (592 m) below the surface, which makes it the deepest lake in the United States and the seventh deepest lake (by average) in the world—deeper even than the otherworldly depths of Lake Baikal. Originally the lake had no fish (although they were added by humans in the twentieth century). Its waters are extremely cold and items which fall into it decay slowly.

An antique photo of a Klamath chief

An antique photo of a Klamath chief

The Klamath people, a Native American tribe who have long lived in the region, have a sacred myth which tells about the formation of the lake. Long ago, there were two great spirits, Skell, spirit of the sky, and Llao, the spirit of the underworld. Llao lived beneath Mount Mazama and sometimes he would leave the underworld and venture to the top of the mountain, where he could almost reach Skell’s dwelling. One day, as he was watching the world from the mountain top, Llao saw the beautiful daughter of the chief of the Klamath people. He eagerly paid suit to the lovely maiden, but he was hideous and she spurned his advances.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

In anger Llao began to hurl fire and stones onto the Klamath people, and they begged their greatest benefactor, Skell to help them. Skell came down to the very lowest point of his kingdom–the top of Mount Shasta–and began to battle Llao, who stood at the highest point of his realm—the top of Mount Mazama.   Soon the spirit battle became more tumultuous as other spirits of the sky, the land, and the underworld joined in. The two greatest medicine men of the Klamath saw that the war of so many spirits was destroying the world so they hurled themselves down into the volcano’s caldera as a sacrifice to appease the angry spirits. The lesser spirits of the underworld were indeed appeased and ceased their fighting, but Llao’s wrath at his rejection was not sated. He continued to battle Skell but he was overwhelmed and defeated. Skell hurled vast magic at Llao and the entire mountain exploded.

Mount Mazama at the Height of Its Glory (Paul Rockwood)

Mount Mazama at the Height of Its Glory
(Paul Rockwood)

Llao fled down into the huge hole which was created. Some say he died there from Skell’s magic, whereas other’s believe he lurks somewhere in the underworld (with Gong Gong maybe?) waiting for the right moment to make his return. Whatever the case, Skel disliked the site of the vast pit in the world and he made sure to fill it with water and keep it filled. Looking at aerial pictures of Crater Lake, it is hard not to respect the narrative wisdom of the Klamath story tellers. Few things on Earth look more like an entrance to the underworld, and even the most literal volcanologist would have to concede that volcanic calderas are a place where the world below comes most directly to Earth’s surface.

NASA's Landsat 5 satellite captured this true-color image of Crater Lake National Park in South-Central Oregon last September

NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite captured this true-color image of Crater Lake National Park in South-Central Oregon last September

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This is the time of year when winter has long outstayed its welcome, but no traces of spring are anywhere to be found.   My garden is covered in a sheet of filthy ice and seems likely to stay that way for the conceivable future. The few spots not buried in snow or slush reveal only grim frozen mud. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain cheerful or find any beauty whatsoever in the winter, so instead of writing an actual meaningful post about real things, I have found a bunch of crazy pictures of fantasy winter gardens which do not (and probably could never) exist.

South Side of the Sky (James McCarthy)

South Side of the Sky
(James McCarthy)

Although admittedly these paintings portray gardens wholly in the grip of winter, the picture gardens are clearly make-believe (a reassuring contrast with the actual all-too real winter just outside). These images are also pretty (which is also in contrast with the actual world).

 

Winter Garden (Bill Franklin, 2005)

Winter Garden (Bill Franklin, 2005)

Wait, is this a photograph?

Wait, is this a photograph?

wintergarden

Let your mind wonder through the whimsical topiary, frozen palaces, and strange icicle bridges of these paintings and be of good cheer. March is nearly here and spring will probably come again, even if that seems utterly impossible at present. In the meantime, I am going to get under the covers and read a book about heroes slaying frost giants and breaking the power of evil ice wizards.

Winter Spirits (James McCarthy, 2015, Oil on Canvas)

Winter Spirits (James McCarthy, 2015, Oil on Canvas)

Ram-headed-amun-pharaoh

Ancient Egyptian mythology can seem like a baffling tangle of multi-faceted gods who subsume each others’ identities, roles, and symbols. Perhaps the best way to understand the mutable nature of Egyptian deities is to recognize that the pantheon reflected the changing political realities of Ancient Egyptian culture. The drawback with this methodology is that the culture of Ancient Egypt lasted for approximately 3000 years (!), so it is still not easy to summarize Egyptian mythology.

Statues of Amun rams from the great forecourt of the Temple of Karnak

Statues of Amun rams from the great forecourt of the Temple of Karnak

Consider the deity Amun Ra. Amun Ra ended up as the king of the gods of Egypt—the emperor of heaven who created all things. There were times in the New Kingdom, when worship of Amun Ra bordered on monotheism and the other gods were regarded as flickering extensions of Amun Ra. However it did not start this way. Originally Amun and Ra were separate. In the Old Kingdom Amun was a mysterious god of hidden magical breath. The Old Kingdom ended in 2181 BC in a dark age of war and strife which lasted for a century (a time now known as “the First Intermediate Period”). At the end of this period, Amun had grown in importance and become the god of the winds and the patron god of Thebes. The Middle Kingdom was a glorious age for Egyptian civilization, but it too came to an end in stagnation, civil war, and invasion—”the Second Intermediate Period”–which lasted from 1786 BC to 1550 BC. During this Second Intermediate Period, a mysterious group of heterogeneous invaders—the Hyksos—took over Egypt and created their own dynasties. The Hyksos were finally driven from Egypt by nobles from Thebes who founded the 17th dynasty (the first of the New Kingdom). Since Thebes was politically ascendant, the Theban patron god Amun merged with Ra and became ruler of the gods. Before being combined with Amun, the deity Ra had long been worshiped as the sun god.

Ra on the the Mesektet with Apophis below (from the Tomb of Ramses I, ca. 1290 BC)

Ra on the the Mesektet with Apophis below (from the Tomb of Ramses I, ca. 1290 BC)

Ra traveled through the firmament on two solar boats. By day he traveled through the sky on the Mandjet (the Boat of Millions of Years). At night he took on his form as a great ram and traveled through the underworld on the Mesektet (the evening boat). Ferrebeekeeper has touched on the Mesektet before, but we were concentrating on giant evil snake deities back in those days, so ram-headed Ra didn’t really get his due in the earlier post.

Amun Ra in his splendid towering crown

Amun Ra in his splendid towering crown

Amun Ra had several forms which reflected his diverse origin, but he was most often portrayed as a mighty ram or as a pharaoh with a distinctive towering headdress…or sometimes as a falcon with the sun on his head. When I started writing this article I had hoped for some explanation of why Ra was called “Ram of the Underworld” or why the ram came to prominence over other animals to wind up as the favored animal head for the king of the gods, but if such explanations exist, they have eluded me. You’ll have to be content with the fact that the king of the gods of Egypt was most often a ram. I’m not even sure if I said that right: but I guess I don’t need to worry about literalistic ancient Egyptian priests and worshipers showing up in the comments to berate me (a consideration which crossed my mind when I decided to write about Amun Ra as opposed to other supreme sheep gods whom I could name).

Amun-Ra_relief,_Temple_of_Amun,_Kawa,_Ancient_Nubia_(Sudan)_-_20071210

Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

year-of-sheep-2015_1423917847.jpg
The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

Did I mention that my parents operate a yarn shop? Its name is Market Street Yarn and Craft and it is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  Drop by when you are in the Mid-Atlantic? South? Midwest? whatever region of the nation West Virginia is in. I don’t crochet, knit, or weave, but I love going into the store anyway because there are so many colors of yarn!  From floor to ceiling there are innumerable balls, skeins, spools, and coils of every sort of fiber in every conceivable color.  There are exquisite colors which I have never seen before: greens the color of uncategorized tropical plants, pinks that resemble inconceivable candies from a mad confectioner, midnight violets out of formless dreams… I’m a painter, and I am used to the pigments of my trade: iron oxide, cadmium, cobalt, lead bicarbonate, phthalocyanine, and so forth.  However, dyers have an entirely different palate made of weird organic compounds (well, there are synthetic dyes too, but a lot of them have the same industrial look as everything).  It means that many of the colors have a unique glowing beauty and a strangeness which draws the eye.

wool_colors

There are many different animal fibers—llama, camel, goat, rabbit, muskox, and silk—but of course the vast majority of the yarns are wool, which is sheep hair. Dying wool is an ancient craft which predates writing or money!  Maybe chemistry isn’t the only reason some of those colors are so unique.  Some dyes naturally permeate wool fiber and then stain it permanently, but other dyes require a mordant in order to remain permanently colorfast.

Well, this certainly looks fun...

Well, this certainly looks fun…

Dyeing really is an ancient artisanal craft so, like cheesemaking, carpentry, pickling, or bellcasting, it has its own unique demands which are stated in a specialized language.  There are dyeing words which descend directly from Old English and Latin.  This is a stylish way of saying I am not going to be able to comprehensively write about dyeing wool.  Instead I am going to present a crude little picture gallery of the colors produced by commonly used natural dyestuffs.

woad-crewel-l2d

Woad is a flowering plant from the steppes of Central Asia which is also known (horrifically) as “Asp of Jerusalem.”  Because it has been used for so long as a dyestuff it naturalized to Europe in classical and medieval times and now even lives in the Americas.

Wool dyed with Queen Anne's Lace

Wool dyed with Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s lace is a member of the carrot family. Native to Europe, it was naturalized to North America by European settlers for unknown reasons—maybe because it can be used to dye fabric off-white (?).

Wools dyed with lichens

Wools dyed with lichens

A bizarre hybrid organism consisting of algae and fungi living in complete symbiosis, lichen comes in many species and varieties.  It can be used to make some of the most colorful and stunning dye colors.

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Cochineal is a name for ground up insects which live parasitically on the carmine plant.  They make a beautiful deep red dye which was once very expensive and denoted royalty or wealth (like murex dye).

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Turmeric is a healthy yellow spice which also dyes animal fibers bright yellow.  An Indian pathologist once confided in me that everyone he had dissected from the subcontinent had yellow viscera because of turmeric (a Ferrebeekeeper fun fact!).

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

Onionskin is, um, the skin of onions and produces the earth color seen above.

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

Elderberry is a childhood favorite because there was always a patch behind the garage…and next to the goathouse…and over the hill.  The berries can be cooked to make a tasty syrup or jelly.  They also produce a darkened color when used as a dye. Never confuse goodly elderberries with the next plant, poke, which is a toxic weed…

Wool dyed with poke (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

Wool dyed with poke (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

Pokeberries are inedible berries of an exquisite deep purple.  They look so tantalizingly delicious and juicy, but beware, they are poisonous (and used to cause a fair number of deaths back in hungrier times).  Get back at them by boiling them into a dye and making the surprisingly pretty hues above.

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Nettles are stinging plants which are fascinating in their own right (and which humankind has put to sundry uses for a long time).  When boiled and used as dye they produce a very pretty color of fabric.

Of course this is just a random list of interesting colors which I liked (although it does provide a rudimentary rainbow).  Some of these materials are rare or expensive… and may not perform as advertised without substantial tinkering.  However sheep week would not be complete without a cursory mention of the dyer’s art (which is so necessary for the aesthetic appreciation of wool).  It’s strange to imagine that the most beautiful Persian rugs are really bits of wool carefully dyed with plants which have been woven together!

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890's (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890’s (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

 

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

It’s day two of sheep week! Yesterday’s post got pretty involved with practical and useful aspects of sheep, so today we are veering wildly to the opposite extreme—sheep in art. There are lots and lots of sheep in art from cave paintings of ancient prehistory to Babylonian murals, right up to wild abstract rams by Andrew Wyeth and elegant empty sheep skulls by Georgia O’Keefe. It’s hard to choose from so many beautiful works, so we are going to concentrate on a founding legend from the history of art itself. In art history, there is a point when the anonymous artisans of the middle ages give way to the great named masters of the Renaissance. It is the point where the history of western painting usually starts (although obviously, in reality, there were all sorts of ancient Roman, medieval, and Byzantine antecedents). The point when art becomes the discipline we think of today (with genius masters struggling in their Brooklyn garrets when they are not posting little blog articles about sheep) is usually considered to be the career of Giotto. Giotto lived from 1266 (?) to 1337 and popularized many of the bedrock principals and tropes underlying artistic painting from the early Renaissance right up until the First World War (when painting, like humanity, got all messed up). I put one of his nativity murals at the top of this story to show his use of perspective and shaded forms—innovations often attributed to Giotto. The great art historian Vasari grandiloquently summed up the view that painting originates with Giotto by writing, “In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce.” Gosh.

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

So where did Giotto come from? Vasari provides that story too. One day the great artisan, Cimabue was passing through the farmland of Tuscany when he saw a lively little shepherd boy surrounded by his flock. The child was scratching pictures of the sheep on a rock with the earth, charcoal, and sticks at hand. The pictures were so beautiful and lifelike that Cimabue was stunned. He went immediately to the shepherd’s master and begged for the privilege of taking the boy as apprentice and teaching him painting (which the astonished yokel immediately granted). Giotto’s genius flowered in Cimabue’s shop with the proper materials and subjects at hand.

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

The story is dramatic and beautiful. It is like a classical myth or miracle from a saint’s life. Sadly, like classical myths and medieval hagiographies, the story of Giotto’s origin is almost certainly false. Most contemporary art historians don’t even think he studied with Cimabue!   But who cares? This is a myth about the founding of painting. It doesn’t have to be real.

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Not surprisingly many painters have painted renditions of this subject. Aside from Giotto’s actual painting of sheep, I have used these works from throughout art history to illustrate this strange little tale (I’m sorry if you were fooled into thinking this post was going to be about Giotto’s, you know, art—I guess we’ll have to address that some other time).

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

So according to Vasari, western painting grew organically from the Tuscan land and sprang fully grown from the Giotto’s raw genius. That it was a shepherd who had this revelation and that his first (known) subjects were sheep also seems to have symbolic significance. Does this equate artists with Jesus (something Vasari clearly felt) or is it a deeper metaphor about humankind transitioning from farming to skilled work? I wonder what this story really says about artists, truth, and innovation. I wonder even more what it says about the tormented relationship between artists and the whims of the herd…

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

sheepgraduating

 

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February 2015
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