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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle, httppasserelles.bnf.fr

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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I’m sorry that my posts were a bit exiguous the last couple of weeks.  A whole host of summer events showed up all at once on the docket (and summer is the slowest season for blog readership anyway), but I didn’t mean to write so infrequently.  To get back to form, let’s present a classic topic which reappears again and again in these pages—snake deities.   Ferrebeekeeper has presented some of the great snake deities from throughout world history: Nüwa, the benevolent creator goddess of China; Apep, the awesome universe snake god of darkness from Ancient Egypt; the Rainbow Serpent who is the central figure from the Australian aborigines’ dreamtime; Angitia;  Ningishzida; and even Lucifer, the adversary from the Bible, who tempted humankind to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Today we visit Fiji, where the greatest god of the islands is Degei.  Degei is the creator of the islands, the father (of sorts) to humankind, and the all-knowing judge of the underworld (he throws most souls into a great lake where they gradually sink into a different realm, but he selects a few choice heroes to live forever in Buroto Paradise. He combines the attributes of a great many of the other snake gods we have visited into a single mighty entity.

Degei’s story is of great interest, not just because of its beauty, power, and mystery, but also because of its substantial similarity to other other world creation myths (just read it and see if you don’t lend new credence to some of the strange things that brother Carl had to say about the universality of mythical narratives).

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In the beginning, existence was nothing but endless ocean and gloaming.  Two entities dwelled within this dawn world: the female hawk Turukawa who flew continuously above the ocean, and the great serpent Degei who dwelled upon the surface.

But eventually Turukawa needed to nest.  Degei pushed up islands so that her two eggs would have a safe place for incubation and he heated the eggs with his body and protected them with a father’s love (I suppose you will have to ask questions about paternity to Degei himself since my sources are strangely mute about this key detail).  When the eggs hatched, two tiny humans emerged: the first man and the first woman.

Degei created a beautiful garden for these children, planting fruit trees and flowers all around.  He housed the two in a vesi tree, but he kept the boy separate from the girl.  As they grew up he taught them the secrets of nature and of the ocean and the sky.  They had abundant fruit from the banana trees, but he hid two sacred plants from them: the dalo (taro) and the yam.  These fruits of the gods were forbidden to the children, for they cannot be eaten without fire (and fire was a special secret of the gods).

However, eventually the children grew into adulthood and met each other and fell in love.  To provide for their livelihood they needed more than fruit and flowers, and so they petitioned Degei for the secrets of fire and agriculture.  Since they were now adults, he could not in good conscience keep these secrets from them any longer, and so the great serpent taught the children about the forbidden fruits (yams and taro) and how to safely cook them with the flame he presented to humankind.  In some respects, this giant reptile almost seems more enlightened about raising children than certain angry creators we could name, but, um, who is to judge right from wrong?

Legend says that Degei still lives in a cave near the summit of the mountain Uluda.  Since his descendants have grown so numerous and prosperous, he does not take the same interest in them which he did in the first days.  Mostly he eats and sleeps away the long eons of dotage. Yet his power remains awesome.  When he grows agitated the world shakes and tsunamis and deluges sweep Fiji.

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I am still working away at my flatfish project.  Here are four recent drawings/mixed media works which I made.  The flounder above is a cosmic flounder and represents humankind’s aspirations for the stars.  The mathematicians and engineers (here represented as ancient Egyptians) do their best with the tools and calculations they have available, but the universe is so vast.  The flounder represents all Earth life waiting to be lifted to the heavens.  As they struggle, insouciant aliens fly by waving.  The combination of ancient and modern elements make one think of the biblical ark (which is represented in the next picture. The flounder is, of course, a watery beast and is unmoved by divine wrath, although it does look a bit appalled at the inundation.

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Next is a picture of a crude and vigorous flatfish made out of thick lines.  The fish swims by a Viking long hall as seabirds wheel about in the sky, but thanks to some trick of the world (or perhaps the artist’s whimsy) a coati is raiding the pumpkins and fruiting vines. Is this scene unfolding in the old world or the new?

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Finally, there is a scene of a medieval styleeremitic  brother who has forgotten his scriptures and is now contemplating the life-giving sun.   A saintly duck and a far-flying swallow look kindly on his devotions, but the monk’s cat seems unmoved by his devotion.  Crystals hint that religious fervor is becoming convoluted by the vagaries and appetites of the modern world, which can be witnessed all around the verdant turbot.  Yet the fish and its inhabitants maintain a solemn and studious otherworldliness.  Whatever this mysterious devotion is, it is represented in each of these 4 fish, but the viewer will have to devote some time and thought of their own in order to elucidate the subject of this devout zeal. 

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I’m sorry I missed blogging about Earth Day this weekend (it was yesterday).  The day always strikes me as a dark combination of scolding and corporate greenwashing (to say nothing of the abusive narcissistic murderer who started it, but, alas, the concerns it focuses on are all too real. I need to get back to writing about humankind’s ever-growing burden on the planet in earnest.

But for right now I am going to back away from these huge unsettling issues and feature some springtime images from my garden and neighborhood.  I am a flower gardener, and while I have some doubts about the flower gardener’s ecological niche, I know it keeps me sane.  The flowers also remind me to love nature and esteem the natural world (not that I would ever feel otherwise). Also, it is a discipline which necessitates patience and the ability to change course when faced with problems.  Anyway, enough sententious thoughts: it has been a long winter, let’s see some spring flowers!  The magnolia at the top of the post is across the street from my house. It is hard to tell from the picture, but the house behind it is slightly pink, and seeing the tree in full flower in front of the house during the violet hour of dusk is breathtaking in a way which the image (and these words) completely fail to explicate.

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Now, here is a picture from the back garden—this is the hellebore and the bleeding heart with a couple of volunteer Don Quichotte tulips from years ago next to them and a little viola in the foreground. Years ago I planted this hellebore which has barely survived for 5 years before suddenly flourishing into this magnificent specimen plant.  There is a peony to the right, but it is too early for it to be more than just some tender fronds poking up.  The hellebore, the magnolia, and the primrose are really just the garden overture.  The big acts are soon to follow, but, after a long gray winter even these flowers have me giddy with delight.  I will feature more plants as they bloom—especially the splendid cherry tree, but for now let’s just enjoy the lovely blossoms.  We will also keep working on a way to preserve their home (the ecosystem of the planet) so that the springs of the future will be equally verdant.

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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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I have been excited to start blogging about my spring garden as it awakens from the uncharacteristically frigid Brooklyn winter of ’17/18…and although the tulips are starting to sprout up, we have had a nor’easter “bomb cyclone” EVERY week for as long as I can remember (admittedly, winter is robbing me of memories of warmth, light, and joy).  Anyway here is a picture of my garden on March 21st…the second day of spring.  Hmmm…it is pretty (surprisingly so: my point-and-click photos don’t do it justice), but it is not especially springlike yet.  We will revisit this vista soon, I hope, as the world comes back to life.  In the mean time I hope you at least enjoy the snow photos.

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igardenflounderHere are two more little flounder doodles which I make during the spare moments of the day.  The one at the top is a garden flounder which makes me think of spring…but with some sort of automated gardening machine that looks like a bug sitting atop of it.  Below is a post-apocalyptic fluke in the middle of the desert badlands of the grim future.  I have no idea what it means.  Maybe these have something to do with that perplexing German flounder fable about what we really want.

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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

 

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

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