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In all of our explorations of crowns and crown jewels, we have barely addressed the most famous crown jewels of all–those of the United Kingdom. Ferrebeekeeper posted about the giant dark spinel in the imperial state crown (aka “the black prince’s ruby“) and about the crown of the Tudor kings–which was destroyed back in the 17th century–and that is about all we have said about the most famous royal regalia. The reason for the paucity of posts is that the crown jewels of the United Kingdom were themselves destroyed in 1649 at the order of Oliver Cromwell, a puritan anti-monarchist who seized control of England and had no use for such things. Interestingly, this was (at least) the second time that all of the crown jewels were lost: in 1216 Bad King John somehow sank all of the previous crown jewels (and most of the treasury) in the Wash River (we will explore that humorous catastrophe in a future post).

Anyway, the real point of all of this is that although Cromwell destroyed all of the golden crowns, jeweled scepters, ancient magic swords and whatnot, he did not quite destroy all of the crown jewels. A single metal item from the ancient medieval royal collection of England survived the meltdown and is now the oldest item in the crown jewels (although the Black Prince’s ruby (which was sold and later returned) is pretty ancient too). The sacred coronation spoon of the ancient kings of England survived the Commonwealth. As the crown jewels were being torn apart and melted by stern religious zealots, there was apparently a spoon enthusiast (?) in the crowd. This Mr. Kynnersley bought the ancient coronation spoon for 16 shillings.

The first mention of the coronation spoon was in 1349, but even then it was said to be “of ancient form” so the true age and origin of the spoon are lost in history (although experts surmise that it is from the 12th century). The coronation spoon is decorated with monster’s heads and ornate medieval scrollwork. It was probably originally used to mix water and wine (a critical component of drinking in ancient times which ensured that the imbiber neither died of dysentery nor blacked out from alcohol poisoning). If you squint a bit, the spoon has quite a lot of resemblance to a modern bartender’s mixing spoon.

As far as I can tell, the spoon is too famous and special to be photographed, but there are many high quality drawings and reproductions of it. I wonder how this spoon will fare during the next 800 years of royal history, or will it fall victim to a new King John or another Cromwell somewhere down the line?

The last few blossoms are dropping from the cherry tree and now even the late tulips are blooming. Spring has sprung and we are moving past cherry blossom season towards summer. Yet even though summer is my favorite season, I feel a melancholy pang every year when the blossoms flutter down. Time moves by so fast and nothing can arrest its inexorable passing…nothing except for the magic of art, that is! Therefore, here is my yearly blossom painting. I made this one with watercolor and ink and I was hoping to capture the transitory moment when the sun dips from the sky and the lanterns come on and yet the sky remains heavenly blue (it is an ephemeral moment of the day which mirrors the equinox moments of the year.

Kwanzan Cherry Tree in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Although the real subject of my picture is the blossoming cherry tree (the full beauty of which has, yet again, eluded me), I tried to capture some other garden delights–the crabapple tree blossoms (at far right), the dogwood blossoms (at top left), the riot of tulips, and the ornamental winter cabbage which somehow survived living under two feet of snow in January and February in order to bloom in May. One of my roommates is back there in her golden ochre coat looking at bingo on her phone and the faces of the garden statues can be glimpsed in the tulip beds. At the center of the picture is another wistful figure tinged with melancholia. My best friend is a tiny black cat with a dab of white who sneaked into the basement when she was a kitten. After the death of Sepia Cat back in March, Sumi Cat is now my only pet. She is as loving and domesticated as any cat I have met and sleeps in my arms at night (indeed she is cavorting on the keyboard this very moment, trying to type over what I am writing and command my attention). But Sumi has relatives on the outside. On the other side of the sliding door she has siblings and nieces and nephews who are not domesticated but live the short yet intense lives of feral cats. I think that is her sister’s daughter there in the garden (she looks identical to Sumi, except Sumi has a white fingerprint on her heart where Kwan Yin touched her), and I am always sad that I didn’t trap her and her brother (and their little siblings who vanished forever when they were the size of teacups) and drag them to the “Cats of Flatbush” cat rescue organization. Sigh. What are we going to do about the way of the world?

ghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghghnhyhyhyhyuuuu (Sumi added that post script so I am putting in a little author picture below)

Sumi doesn’t really look like this at all..but black cats are impossible to photograph…

April is Poetry Month!  To celebrate the occasion, I decided to take to the internet and repost the first flounder theme poem I could find.  Without thinking about it, I assumed that the flounderists of the poetry world would share my (zoology/ecology) perspective on flatfish.  How mistaken I was! The first poem I discovered was “Flounder” by Natasha Trethewey, the story of a mixed-race girl going fishing with her aunt. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the secrets of the deep, the worldwide ecological crisis, or the way that the taxonomical diversity of the pleuronectiformes represents the interrelated family structure of all life (or does it?).  The poem does not even have to with floundering, camouflaging oneself, or being baited (or does it?). What we have instead is a poem about racial identity and the way the facile categories of the world permeate our self-identity and all other aspects of existence to a granular level (we don’t even see the poor dual-natured flatfish taken off to the frying pan…although it is somewhat implied).

The lovely poem does however illustrate what is wonderful about poetry—how black and white words become a doorway which allows us to slip into another person’s skin and take an unfiltered sip of their weltanschauung.  The evanescent phenomena of a fishing trip become a search for something deeper.  Yet successfully catching a flounder only provides additional muddled categories.  Hooking the juxtaposed fish leads to more beautiful ambiguity…

Flounder

BY NATASHA TRETHEWEY

Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,

circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.

This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.

She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.

The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.

Always stalking around the edges of Ferrebeekeeper we find those enigmatic horselords of the ancient steppe, the Scythians! The classical Scythians were nomadic people (or peoples) who dominated the Pontic steppe between 700 and 300 BC. Since they existed just beyond the outermost fringes of Greek civilization (and since they were charismatic yet completely un-Greek) they loomed large in the ancient Hellenic imagination–and cast their thrall over all of the subsequent scholars who have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration and explanations. Thus we have weird stories of Hercules (the ultimate Greek hero) sleeping with the ultimate monster to beget the Scythians, or tales of how the Scythians were the ancestors of the Scottish (although I guess all human beings are pretty closely related). Anyway, for the Scythians, none of this mattered–what mattered were their beloved horses, which were always at the center of their rituals, trading, fighting, and just about every other part of their lives (indeed it seems like domesticated horses might have come from the part of the world which became Scythia). Thus, today, I wanted to show you a historical recreation of how Scythian horses were arrayed for rituals or for battle (see the image at top). We have found ample Scythian equestrian gear preserved in the old cold barrows which dot the steppe. Recently some Scythian enthusiasts reconstructed how it might have looked with original colors on a steppe horse of yore. Obviously this equipage is not stupendously practical, but it truly is stupendous! I am going to have to look around to see if I can find some more artworks of Scythian horses!

It is blossom season in New York! Instead of writing blogs about mollusks, gothic art, and politics, I have been looking at flowers and trees. The cherry tree at the top of the post is down by the Manhattan Court House (as you can hopefully tell by the World Trade Center/Freedom Tower/Whatever-it-is-called-now), but the rest of the images are from my garden in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the garden is a Kwanzan flowering cherry which usually blooms for a fortnight (although, thanks to the cold snap, it seemed more like 6 days this year). I have blogged about the cherry blossoms at length in years past, yet, every year I am struck anew by the beauty and evanescence of the pink blooms.

Here are the blossoms in my back yard (my roommate added those plastic flamingos, by the way). Speaking of other gardeners who change things around in the flower garden…here is another character who lives in the neighborhood who cannot keep his paws off of the blossoms. Every day during tulip season he beheads a couple of tulips to see if they are good to eat. When he realizes they are not squirrel food, he tosses them down. Sigh…

Below is a patch of pastel pink tulips. You can see one of the beheaded stems at far left.

These white tulips are known as “Pays Bas” and I think they came out particularly lovely! This year, in addition to the cherry tree, the old ornamental crabapple also blossomed (which is a rarity). You can see the darker pink blossoms in the foreground in the picture immediately below.

I am going to see if I can draw/photograph/capture some more of the garden’s spring charms for you (it never looks right on the computer screen), but for now I am going to go back out and enjoy the showers of falling petals…

It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present
Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

In the United States, April 12th is celebrated (or maybe “observed”?) as National Licorice Day! Happy Licorice Day! [Ed’s note: in British English, licorice is spelled “liquorice” but I guess since this piece celebrates America’s national licorice day, we will stick with American spelling]

For a while some of the people at my dayjob had an informal “candy club” on Friday, and I quickly learned that no candy (and precious few foodstuffs of any sort) evokes more passionate reactions than licorice. There are people out there who haaaaaate licorice. They just hate it! They hate licorice like it personally wronged them. Possibly it did. Although I am actually a partisan of licorice in small amounts, real licorice (as opposed to anise candy or those plastic/strawberry whip things) is uncanny stuff and the active ingredient is perfectly capable of killing people (and has been known to do so).

Real licorice (which, like real anything, is increasingly rare and expensive) is made from the roots of Glycyrrhiza glabra, a plant from the bean family which grows native in southern Europe and Western Asia. There are a host of of complex organic compounds in licorice (including several natural phenols which effectively mimic various hormones in the human body) however, so that this essay does not sound (quite as much) like a chemistry treatise I am going to concentrate on glycyrrhizin which gives licorice its strange sweetness. Glycyrrhizin is uncanny stuff–as you can see from the molecular diagram below which is glittering with hydroxyls and carboxylic groups. Glycyrrhizin is thirty to fifty times sweeter than pure sucrose (!), however the flavor is also quite distinct from sucrose being less tart and instant (but instead lasting longer and conveying more complicated nuances of flavor). This is why true licorice has such a complicated bouquet of strange and esoteric flavors both beautiful and dreadful.

Glycyrrhizin also has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, however it is also cortical steroid (and gut bacteria can metabolize it into other cortical steroids). To quote the abstract from an endocrinology journal article, “Glycyrrhetic acid, the active metabolite in licorice, inhibits the enzyme 11-ß-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzyme type 2 with a resultant cortisol-induced mineralocorticoid effect and the tendency towards the elevation of sodium and reduction of potassium levels.” On October of 2017, the FDA issued a statement that consuming the glycyrrhizin found in licorice may prompt potassium levels in the body to decline, which may lead to issues including abnormal heart rate, high blood pressure, edema, lethargy and even congestive heart failure. Glycyrrhizin is not recommended for anyone who is taking the following:

  • blood pressure medications
  • blood thinners
  • cholesterol lowering medications, including statins
  • diuretics
  • estrogen-based contraceptives
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Glycyrrhizin has also been linked with fairly sever birth defects and should not be consumed in large quantities by pregnant women.

Gosh I set out to write about how great licorice is, but instead I have written a post which more-or-less makes it sound like a poison. Obviously, licorice is perfectly safe if taken in small doses (and provided the user is not also taking any of the drugs mentioned above). Indeed, as far as I can tell, nobody has actually outright died of licorice abuse since [checks notes] uh, September of 2020, when a Massachussetts resident died of heart complications after eating a bag of licorice every day for several weeks (apparently the man ate little else). All of which is to say that licorice is mostly fine and you should enjoy its strange complicated flavor in a responsible manner. Happy Licorice Day!

At its best, Chinese calligraphy is ineffably beautiful and seems to come from some transcendent celestial realm. Of course, in reality, such art doesn’t come from heaven at all. Instead it comes from distracted scholarly human beings carefully writing with bristle brushes sopping with India ink which, trust me, will not wash out of any textile. Indeed India ink stains most things other than the most impervious vitreous surfaces [sadly looks at black stipples, spots, and spatters on desk]. The Chinese attempted to coral this problem by manufacturing a class of small porcelain objects for the literati–exquisite brush rests! My favorite of these were made during the Ming Dynasty when handicraft cobalt glazed porcelain reached its aesthetic zenith.

Brush-rest with Arabic Script in Underglaze Blue, China-Ming Zhengde Period (1506–21)

Here is a little gallery of little Ming brush rests. I have great confidence in the authenticity of the first five of these rests which follow a familiar silk-road pattern (note the Persian and Arabic characters, which, I am told, say things like “brush stand” and “pen rest”). It is exciting to see how individual artisans take different directions with very similar designs and elements. Indeed, in the first two examples at the top, you can see how different glaze painters literally followed the same pattern (slavishly copying from a template was very common in the great Ming porcelain production centers–but the results strike our industrialized sensibilities as being quite markedly different).

The brush holders also exemplify how the glories of Ming ornamental design come from a mishmash of Chinese, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern sources. Even if the little stylized blue vines and flowers are clearly cobalt they still look realistic and seem as though they might wither if not watered or sprout additional buds.

1973.7-26.366 Blue-and-white brushrest OA

Although these last two brush rests are different than the rest, the one above is pretty obviously a real Ming piece. The brush holder which seems out of place (and is not in the collection of the Met or the British Museum or the Liang Yi Museum) is the final one. I am of two minds about it. Although the super glossy porcelain has the look of real dynastic porcelain (along with some of the little brown spots and flea bites which are invariably found in actual handmade goods from Medieval China), there is something fishy about those ribbon-y scholars. I love the overall shape though and the the expressiveness of those escarpment rocks on the first and fourth peaks. I guess you will have to be the judge about the last one on your own.

Crucifixion Diptych (Rogier van der Weyden, 1460), oil on panel

I failed to post a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday this year…but don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the tradition, and I was thinking about the right painting over Easter weekend. Here is Crucifixion Diptych, a late work by Rogier van der Weyden which shows Saint John and Mary on the left panel lamenting Christ’s death which takes place on the right panel. Although the figures are beautifully painted, the colors and composition are unusually stark and the background elements–Golgotha, a stone wall, the night sky–are flattened and simplified. The painting does not suffer from this, but rather the jagged abstract shapes of vivid white, red, and green make it pop out among the other works of its era. I saw it back in the 1980s before a “reverse restoration” returned the sky to night blue (a restoration artist of the 1940s decided the sky should be gold), but even with the colors wrong it demanded attention. The work was painted in 1460, a few years before van der Weyden’s death and the profound stillness of the figures has led some art historians to speculate it was his last painting. Van der Weyden’s son joined the Carthusian monastery (which received gifts of cash and devotional paintings from van der Weyden), and it is possible that the red and white painting may also have been a private Carthusian devotional piece.

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